Testament of Mary (Toibin)

The Testament of Mary
Colm Toibin, 2012
Scribner
386 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451692389



Summary
Colm Toibin’s portrait of Mary presents her as a solitary older woman still seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament and the foundation of Christianity.

In the ancient town of Ephesus, Mary lives alone, years after her son’s crucifixion. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospel. They are her keepers, providing her with food and shelter and visiting her regularly. She does not agree that her son is the Son of God; nor that his death was “worth it”; nor that the “group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye,” were holy disciples.

Mary judges herself ruthlessly (she did not stay at the foot of the Cross until her son died—she fled, to save herself), and her judgment of others is equally harsh. This woman whom we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone. Toibin’s tour de force of imagination and language is a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—May 30, 1955
Where—Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, UK
Education—B.A. University College, Dublin
Awards—Costa Award
Currently—lives in Dublin, Ireland


Colm Toibin is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and, most recently, poet.

Toibin is currently Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and succeeded Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester. He was hailed as a champion of minorities as he collected the 2011 Irish PEN Award. In 2011, he was named one of Britain's Top 300 Intellectuals by The Observer, despite being Irish.

Early Life
Toibin's parents were Bríd and Michael Toibin. He was born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. He is the second youngest of five children. His grandfather, Patrick Tobin, was a member of the IRA, as was his grand-uncle Michael Tobin. Patrick Tobin took part in the 1916 Rebellion in Enniscorthy and was subsequently interned in Frongoch in Wales. Colm's father was a teacher who was involved in the Fianna Fail party in Enniscorthy. He received his secondary education at St Peter's College, Wexford, where he was a boarder between 1970 and 1972. He later spoke of finding some of the priests attractive.

In July 1972, aged 17, he had a summer job as a barman in the Grand Hotel in Tramore, County Waterford, working from six in the evening to two in the morning. He spent his days on the beach, reading The Essential Hemingway, the copy of which he still professes to have, "pages stained with seawater." It developed in him a fascination with Spain, led to a wish to visit that country, gave him "an idea of prose as something glamorous, smart and shaped, and the idea of character in fiction as something oddly mysterious, worthy of sympathy and admiration, but also elusive. And more than anything, the sheer pleasure of the sentences and their rhythms, and the amount of emotion living in what was not said, what was between the words and the sentences."

He progressed to University College Dublin, graduating in 1975. Immediately after graduation, he left for Barcelona. His first novel, 1990's The South, was partly inspired by his time in Barcelona; as was, more directly, his non-fiction Homage to Barcelona (1990). Having returned to Ireland in 1978, he began to study for a masters degree. However, he did not submit his thesis and left academia, at least partly, for a career in journalism.

The early 1980s were an especially bright period in Irish journalism, and the heyday for the monthly news magazine Magill. He became the magazine's editor in 1982, and remained in the position until 1985. He left due to a dispute with Vincent Browne, Magill's managing director.

Toibin is a member of Aosdana and has been visiting professor at Stanford University, The University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University. He has also lectured at several other universities, including Boston College, New York University, Loyola University Maryland, and The College of the Holy Cross. He is professor of creative writing at The University of Manchester succeeding Martin Amis and currently teaches at Columbia University.

Work


The Heather Blazing (1992), his second novel, was followed by The Story of the Night (1996) and The Blackwater Lightship (1999). His fifth novel, The Master (2004), is a fictional account of portions in the life of author Henry James. He is the author of other non-fiction books: Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border (1994), (reprinted from the 1987 original edition) and The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994).

Toibin has written two short story collections. His first Mothers and Sons which, as the name suggests, explores the relationship between mothers and their sons, was published in 2006 and was reviewed favourably (including by Pico Iyer in The New York Times). His second, broader collection The Empty Family was published in 2010.

Toibin wrote a play, titled Beauty in a Broken Place: this was staged in Dublin in August 2004. He has continued to work as a journalist, both in Ireland and abroad, writing for the London Review of Books among others. He has also achieved a reputation as a literary critic: he has edited a book on Paul Durcan, The Kilfenora Teaboy (1997); The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999); and has written The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 (1999), with Carmen Callil; a collection of essays, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (2002); and a study on Lady Gregory, Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (2002).

He sent a photograph of Borges to Don DeLillo who described it as "the face of Borges against a dark background—Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture." DeLillo often seeks inspiration from it.

During Desmond Hogan's sexual assault case he defended him in court as "a writer of immense power and importance who dealt with human isolation."

In 2011, The Times Literary Supplement published his poem "Cush Gap, 2007".

Toibín works in the most extreme, severe, austere conditions. He sits on a hard, uncomfortable chair which causes him pain. When working on a first draft he covers the right-hand side only of the page; later he carries out some rewriting on the left-hand side of the page. He keeps a word processor in another room on which to transfer writing at a later time.

Themes

Toibin's work explores several main lines: the depiction of Irish society, living abroad, the process of creativity and the preservation of a personal identity, focusing especially on homosexual identities — Toibín is openly gay — but also on identity when confronted with loss. The "Wexford" novels, The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, use Enniscorthy, the town of Toibín's birth, as narrative material, together with the history of Ireland and the death of his father. An autobiographical account and reflection on this episode can be found in the non-fiction book, The Sign of the Cross. In 2009, he published Brooklyn, a tale of a woman emigrating to Brooklyn from Enniscorthy.

Two other novels, The Story of the Night and The Master revolve around characters who have to deal with a homosexual identity and take place outside Ireland for the most part, with a character having to cope with living abroad. His first novel, The South, seems to have ingredients of both lines of work. It can be read together with The Heather Blazing as a diptych of Protestant and Catholic heritages in County Wexford, or it can be grouped with the "living abroad" novels. A third topic that links The South and The Heather Blazing is that of creation. Of painting in the first case and of the careful wording of a judge's verdict in the second. This third thematic line culminated in The Master, a study on identity, preceded by a non-fiction book in the same subject, Love in a Dark Time. The book of short stories "Mothers and Sons" deal with family themes, both in Ireland and Catalonia, and homosexuality.

Toibín has written about gay sex in several novels, though Brooklyn contains a heterosexual sex scene in which the heroine loses her virginity. In his 2012 essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families he studies the biographies of James Baldwin, J. M. Synge and W. B. Yeats, among others.

His personal notes and work books reside at the National Library of Ireland. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Unlike other writers who, in rendering the historical past, leave their poetic and image-making gifts at the door, Toibin is at his lyrical best in The Testament of Mary.... A beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother's grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son.
Mary Gordon - New York Times Book Review


This novel is the Virgin's version of the life of Christ. After a lifetime listening to everyone else's versions of that life, she is angry and frustrated because they are all questionable.
John Spain - Irish Independent


The Testament of Mary is an important and persuasive book: Toibin's weary Mary, sceptical and grudging, reads as far more true and real than the saintly perpetual virgin of legend. And Toibin is a wonderful writer: as ever, his lyrical and moving prose is the real miracle.”
Naomi Alderman - Observer


With this masterly novella, Toibin has finally tackled the subject of Christianity—and he has done so with a vengeance.... Nowhere in this beguiling and deeply intelligent, moving work is Mary’s attention to detail more instrumental (and more like a novelist’s) than in her account of her son’s death.... In a single passage—and in a rendition, furthermore, of one of the most famous passages of western literature—Toibin shows how the telling and the details are all-important.
Robert Collins - Sunday Times (UK)


Toibin (Brooklyn) has chosen Jesus’ mother as the narrator of his poignant reimagining of the last days of Christ. Mary doesn’t think her son is the son of God; in fact, she’s convinced that he’s simply running with the wrong crowd, “Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me... the sense that there was something missing in each one of them.” But when she recounts the story of Lazarus’s return from the grave, she presents no other explanation than that of his sisters, that Jesus was the one who brought him back. At the wedding at Cana, she sees Lazarus for herself and finds that “he was in possession of a knowledge that seemed to me to have unnerved him; he had tasted something or seen or heard something which had filled him with the purest pain....” This beautiful novella turns on who or what Mary should believe about her son’s life and death—and on a mother’s grief: “I saw that once again he was trying to remove the thorns that were cutting into his forehead and the back of his head and, failing to do anything to help himself, he lifted his head for a moment and his eyes caught mine.” .
Publishers Weekly


Toibin's Mary is nothing like you'd expect, especially if your religious views run to the traditional. She doesn't think Jesus was the Son of God, that his death had any significance, and that the motley men surrounding him (her "keepers" now) are holy disciples. She also blames herself for abandoning her son on the Cross to save her own life. Tóibín is one of the few authors I can imagine shaking Mary loose of two millennia of prayer, chant, and painting so that we can see her afresh
Library Journal


A stunning interpretation that is as beautiful in its presentation as it is provocative in its intention.
Booklist


A novella that builds to a provocative climax, one that is as spiritually profound as its prose is plainspoken. At the outset, the latest from the esteemed Irish author (Brooklyn, 2009, etc.) seems like a "high concept" breather from his longer, more complex fiction.... What follows the crucifixion gives a whole new dimension to the testament, for Mary and the reader alike. A work suffused with mystery and wonder.
Kirkus Reviews



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