Colm Tóibín: the literature of grief

by Rachel Baker on October 5, 2014

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, is due out this week. The book is about a widow’s struggle to come to terms with her life after the death of her husband. Over at the Guardian, Tóibín has written a wonderful article about the literature of grief. He looks at the tradition of writing about loss, including all the way back to Euripedes’ plays, Sophocles’ Elektra, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and authors up through CS Lewis, Julian Barnes, and Joyce Carol Oates, amongst many others. Then, he walks through his writing process and the realization that the original story he set out to write was not his, but his mother’s.

Read More: Colm Tóibín: the literature of grief.

Novelists make things up, but the things, or the feelings surrounding them, come from the world; they have a shape like the world’s shape, or the shape, indeed, of experience, including the writer’s experience or the writer’s pressing concerns. Thus the experience of grief for a novelist makes its way into the work in the same way as the waters from the flood may be channelled into a living stream. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, the books about losing her husband and her daughter, and Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, his book about the death of his wife, use with skill and subtlety the very gift for narrative which distinguishes the authors as novelists.

The novelists have become characters in their own books. By the urgency of the tone, they make clear, however, that, in the aftermath of loss, nothing they can invent compares to it. And that, since they are writers, what happened needs to be written down so that it can be known and shared and understood, so that it can lose its incoherence. And so that they, in their powerlessness and helplessness, can at least still do this, can at least write down what it was like.

This article was written by: Rachel Baker – Click to Become a Patron or to follow on Twitter.

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