Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 300 pages; 2022.
A Guest at the Feast brings together Colm Tóibín’s previously published non-fiction work in one volume. There are 11 essays in total, which were written between 1995 and 2022, and mostly published in the London Review of Books. They are unified by some common themes, including art (specifically literature and poetry) and religion (specifically Catholicism).
The volume is divided into three parts: the first focuses on personal, autobiographical-type essays; the second focuses on the Catholic Church and its various scandals; and the third is largely about writers — Marilynne Robinson, Francis Stuart, John McGahern and Thomas Mann — and the influences on their work.
Admittedly, this collection wasn’t quite what I expected. Its overriding theme is religion and now, having read the book, I feel like I know more about the inner-most workings of the Catholic Church than I ever wanted to know. Its saving grace is the eloquence of the prose, which makes for an effortless read, and the seamless weaving of facts with personal insights.
A brush with cancer
My favourite essay is the opening one — Cancer: My Part in its Downfall — a deeply personal and self-deprecating account of Tóibín’s testicular cancer diagnosis and treatment. I had previously read it online and recalled its startling opening line:
It all started with my balls.
But I also loved the little insights he provides into hospital life, the side effects of chemotherapy — he loses his sense of taste but constantly dreams of food — and the things that annoy him about spending so much time at home, where he is forced to listen to the “ghastly cries” of Dublin’s seagull population and the incessant sound of their claws on his roof.
They made their irritating little noises against the slate of the roof through the night until I came to believe that they and their parents had been sent by some force of darkness to mock me.
The humour, mixed with pathos, makes the essay memorable and moving.
The magic of McGahern
I also enjoyed his short essay Snail Slow: John McGahern, which is essentially a review of the book The Letters of John McGahern (Faber, 2021) but reads like a mini biography and examination of McGahern’s influences.
McGahern, who died in 2006, is one of my favourite writers (see my reviews here) and is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Tóibín knew him personally and imbues his review with personal insights. He makes no bones about the fact that he wasn’t always a fan.
I found too much Irish misery in it [his work], too much fear and violence and repressed sexuality, too much rural life and Catholicism. Perhaps my aversion was made more intense by the fact that I recognised this world. I have been brought up in it; I was still living in it.
(Interestingly, it is these very factors that make me so interested in McGahern’s work — it probably helps that I am not Catholic and did not grow up in Ireland.)
Tóibín later comes to appreciate — and love — McGahern’s writing, and when he develops a friendship with him learns that he’s a man of contradictions and not without malice; he could make harsh judgments but he could also “have wondrous responses to anything that appealed to him”.
Charting the Church’s downfall
The middle section of the book is concerned wholly with the Roman Catholic Church and comprises long-form reviews of books about the institution:
- The Paradoxical Pope, first published in The New Yorker in 1995, is a portrait of John Paul II and the tensions between American Catholics and the Vatican, specifically around birth control, abortion, homosexuality and celibacy;
- Among the Flutterers, first published in 2010, looks at the ways in which the Church has lost its power in Ireland and posits a theory that it provides a good cover for gay men who will never have to explain why they have never married;
- The Bergoglio Smile examines the dark side of Pope Francis; and
- The Ferns Report reviews an official Irish government inquiry into the allegations of clerical sexual abuse in Tóibín’s home county of Wexford.
Each essay in this “Catholic set” is incredibly well-written, detailed and fact-filled, but reading them one after the other (I read this book in the space of a weekend) was a bit heavy going. The personal insights do lighten the load slightly — but only slightly.
The benefit of reading them together, however, is seeing how the Church’s power diminishes over time as popes change and scandals slowly emerge. At the time the first essay was written, for instance, abortion and contraception were the main controversies. Ten years later, at the time of the last essay, pedophilia was being exposed through official inquiries.
Easy to read
On the whole, I enjoyed A Guest at the Feast but if I had known I could read most of the content online for free I might have thought twice about buying it.
That said, it’s easy to read, full of droll moments, carefully considered observations and deeply personal reflections and anecdotes that bring his subjects to life. It’s a masterclass in non-fiction writing.