In his preface to “Love in a Dark Time:gay lives from Wilde to Aldomovar”, Toibin says that the deepest reason, within himself, that he could not write about homosexual/gay writers was :”My sexuality…was something about which part of me remained uneasy, timid and melancholy”(this was in 2002). He had previously written “Story of the Night”(reviewed recently in this blog) and “The Blackwater Lightship”(1999). I do not have any later(than 2002) comments by Toibin on the matter, but certainly in his books which include the theme of homosexuality, or gay or same sex related themes/love stories, written in the 1990s(being “The Story of the Night” and “The Blackwater Lightship”), there is ALSO, in the TEXTS THEMSELVES , a prevailing tone of melancholy and elegy. Whatever one’s thoughts on the how much an author’s personal life influenced, consciously or subconsciously, their works(and mine strongly turn towards the belief that it is very difficult for a writer’s personal pre-occupations, or emotional/psychological life-journey, or sometimes their actual EXPERIENCES, to NOT be apparent in the writing), this tone is there in most of Toibin’s writing concerning same sex relations/relationships. One can only speculate on whether this reflects(upto 2002 anyaway) some level of internalised(self) oppression on his part; which is certainly NOT a judgement on Toibin or his characters but often comes with the territory(for reasons i have written about, in regard to some Victorian authors, on this blog). Richard and Pablo(in the earlier, “Story of the Night”) both have HIV, and Declan, in “The Blackwater Lightship” is actually dying of full AIDS; though, having said that, Richard and Pablo, despite the massive odds against them, decide to re-awaken their relationship, and, in some ways, the book ends positively, though there is the leap in to the unknown, but even so, as whole, the book has an elegiac and melancholy tone.
Firstly, I LIKE the way Toibin tells it how it was:in the early 1990s, when the Blackwater story is set, people were still dying of AIDS in large numbers, including gay men: there was no effective treatment. He does not feel any “duty” to impose upbeat images of gay men in his books.
Secondly, the melancholy, decay and elegy pervade the central symbols of the later book. There is one lighthouse remaining, but there used to be a second, the Blackwater Lightship(how beautiful and luminescently sad is that name!): we are not told exactly why it was “taken out of commission” but it was “weaker than Tuskar”(the extant lighthouse). And there is a more extended, expansive passage, where the sea is described as gradually eroding the land(“the landscape being slowly eaten away”); and “everything dissolving, slowly disappearing, the dead being washed out of their graves, houses crumbling and falling… until there was nothing anymore but this vast chaos”. Obviously, its a metaphor for mortality and decay, which reinforces the inexorability of Declan’s decline into more and more opportunistic infections; but it also reminded me of Sebald’s description of the Suffolk coast around what used to be Dunwich, the UK’s SECOND largest city,many centuries ago, a great seaport, which literally fell into the sea, and where, but now gone totally, a church stood, tilted, which had fallen off the edge of the decaying cliff onto the strand below(“Rings of Saturn”). Of course, there are not the master’s great melismas of extended, self-reflecting metaphors and images about decay and the human condition, but Toibin, it seems to me after reading these two threnodic(in tone and, sometimes, in content)novels is a very different kind of writer: his style is pared down to the ultimate degree, it is anti-florid and he will make a poignant observation through one simple sentence or word(this extended metaphor is unusual).
I am told there are same sex/gay (related) themes in the volume of short stories “Mothers and Sons”, so that will be interesting for a later perusal