LOVE IN A DARK TIME by Colm Tibn (McClelland & Stewart), 272 pages, $24.99 paper. Rating: NNN
Colm Tóibín's love in a dark time is as fascinating as it is frustrating.The Irish writer best known for his novels The Story Of The Night and the Booker-nominated The Blackwater Lightship looks at the lives and works of nine gay or lesbian artists, ranging from Oscar Wilde to Pedro Almodóvar.
Most of the essays were previously published as extended book reviews of biographies or collections of letters. In them, Tóibín summarizes the artist's entire life while using the book's discoveries -- there are many direct quotes -- to bolster his argument.
As he writes in the moving personal introduction to the book, it took Tóibín a while to feel comfortable writing about his own homosexuality. He was "uneasy, timid and melancholy," feelings he brings to these essays, along with his preoccupations with sexual secrecy, Catholicism and Ireland.
When he's given ample space -- in the title piece on Wilde, for instance -- Tóibín is deeply insightful. He points out the subtle homophobia of Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann and the moralism of English critics writing about Roger Casement, the Irish humanitarian and diarist who unearthed exploitation in the Amazon and may or may not have had sex with the natives. Tóibín also proves an excellent critic of the painter Francis Bacon.
Throughout, he's sensitive to the way queer artists have been set up as tragic figures even though, if you read between the lines, their lives have been anything but.
The book lacks a thematic and stylistic focus. Some pieces, like the slight Almodóvar article written for Vanity Fair, feel out of place. An essay on James Baldwin, though thoughtful, sprawls, and Tóibín fails to get a firm grasp on Thomas Mann's confusing life.
The good thing about these essays is that they get us digging up those primary sources -- the writers' works and the artists' canvases.
Tóibín appears at the International Festival Of Authors on Saturday (November 2). See listings, this page.
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