A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín review – words never fail him

Publishers are very naughty. Even as many of them seem increasingly to disdain journalism, they’re often perfectly happy to repackage the stray bits and pieces of their luckiest writers as “essays” before sticking them opportunistically between hard covers. In the case of the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, I’ll give Viking a semi-pass for doing precisely this. He is a beloved and celebrated novelist. But I should also say that subscribers to the London Review of Books may feel a bit miffed should they cough up for A Guest at the Feast, for the simple reason that the majority of its contents appeared first there.

Luckily, I’m not a subscriber. This work was all new to me, with the exception of Cancer: My Part in its Downfall, the essay with which the book opens (I read it first online). An account of Tóibín’s treatment for testicular cancer, it doesn’t really set the tone for those that follow it; their focus is mostly on the old Ireland, its sins strung out here like beads on a rosary. But it does whet the appetite. Like many other writers on the same subject, Tóibín begins by being determinedly straightforward, even deadpan, about his illness. “It all started with my balls,” he writes, as blithe as if they were for ping-pong.

As the essay goes on, however, there is a subtle shift. He moves beyond pain and fear of death to a condition far harder to describe and one perhaps rarely so well-remembered, either. “The effect of the drug darkened my mind or filled it with something hard and severe and relentless,” he explains, feeling his way along the memory. “It was like pain or a sort of anguish, but those words don’t really cover it. Everything that normally kept the day going, and the mind, was reduced almost to zero. I couldn’t think.” What might be boring on the page – a kind of zombie state – Tóibín makes so vivid. It made me think of the satin trim on a rough woollen blanket.

As Tóibín roams art galleries and churches that are blessedly free of tourists, illness crowds in

Cancer: My Part in its Downfall finds its natural partner in the well-placed narrative with which the book closes, an account of an empty Venice during the pandemic. As Tóibín roams art galleries and churches that are blessedly free of tourists, illness crowds in. A plague is abroad, after all, and he is thinking about both Thomas Mann’s cholera story (Death in Venice) and Titian’s plague painting (the Pietà that hangs in the Galleria dell’Accademia). But Tóibín himself is profoundly alive, recovered in the fullest sense of that word. Hearing the sound of a vaporetto on the grand canal, he thinks of it as a “dutiful, useful ghost” taking masked Venetians from place to place while the hordes cower at home. His kind of being alive involves noticing things like this, and finding the right words for them, and it is a blessing – for him, as for us.

Elsewhere, he considers the death throes of the Ireland in which he grew up and its long legacy. There is a portrait of his mother, a passionate reader, which stands, I think, as a beautiful pendant to his novel Nora Webster (“she did, as James Merrill said about Elizabeth Bishop, a lifelong impersonation of an ordinary woman”), and he writes about the several priests at his school who were later found guilty of abusing children (“Father Collins… always had a box of sweets”). At one point, he gives Pope Francis, whose visit to Ireland he missed when he was ill, the full beam of his attention (“despite his eminent humility, he looks like a prince of the church”). At another, it is the novelist John McGahern who’s in the spotlight (“all the malice that is in the letters was also in the conversation… so many men of his generation in Ireland were cautious and circumspect and tremendously boring. It was a relief to be in McGahern’s company”).

It’s all very meticulous, even his horror, which is considerable when it comes to the way the bishops covered up for their paedophile priests. On every subject, Tóibín’s writing is what people these days inevitably describe as nuanced, a word that has become a kind of shorthand for expressing a person’s rare ability to understand – or to try to understand – the foibles of others (how sad that this should be thought unusual). But he can be gripping, too. This country that censored the hell out of people’s hearts is so much his territory. If the speed with which the power of the church in Ireland has been undermined is still astonishing, it’s nevertheless important to consider the hold it may continue to have over those citizens – Tóibín is one – who remember when its authority was ironclad. In the end, this is a book of shadows: tumours in testicles, fog in Venice, expensively clad cardinals who may be up to no good.

  • A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín is published by Viking (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply