Sunday, January 02, 2022

Reading group: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Another universally praised book, suggested by Jenny, (by the author of Brooklyn, which we discussed here), but which I'm afraid didn't get universal acclaim from our group. Another novel set in the author's home town of Enniscorthy , it is the story of a widow's struggle in the late sixties-early seventies to carry on as a mother in the aftermath of the untimely death of her schoolteacher husband. Jenny, who had been attracted to the book by the scenario of a grieving widow, was its champion, identifying strongly with Nora's situation, and it seemed that those most favourable to the book in our group were bringing personal experience to its reading, although John, whose father died when he was fifteen, was one of those who were least favourable.

One complaint was that for much of this pretty lengthy novel nothing actually seems to happen. Things do in fact happen: necessity forces Nora to sell the family holiday home and to be railroaded by her own relatives into returning to work in the office from which she was freed by her marriage. Here she must suffer the vengeful management of a woman whom the young Nora and her friend once despised and laughed at. She visits and is visited by relatives and friends who pressure her with their expectations. Eventually, taken under another woman's wing, and through the intercessions of a nun, she begins to find new ways of relating to the world: she helps out at a distant pub quiz night, she joins the local music society and is taught to sing, she decides to redecorate the house. She goes abroad on holiday with an aunt, and finds the courage to get herself a separate room when the aunt's snores keep her awake. She manages to make a stand when her younger son is unfairly moved to a lower class in school, and to get the decision reversed. Towards the end of the novel, Nora's university-student daughter becomes involved in Bloody Sunday, and finally Nora experiences being visited by her dead husband Maurice. While much of this might seem inconsequentially minor and domestic, there is potential for plot here, but Toibin is famed for eschewing plot, and also for his restrained prose, and his way of representing this series of events is indeed undramatic. On several occasions a situation promised a drama or crisis but ended without either. When Nora and her new friend run the quiz night, there is a strange rising confrontational hostility on the part of some male locals, but no confrontation ever happens. The potential for drama when Nora's daughter goes missing after Bloody Sunday is quickly dissipated when in no time at all - as far as the space and attention the novel gives to it goes - she is discovered to be fine, and the whole subject is summarily dropped from both the novel, and, it seems, from Nora's preoccupation. Textually, the episode is given not much more weight than her decision to redecorate the house. This lack of plotting or shaping resulted for us readers in a sense of a lack of forward motion, and almost all of us said that we were shocked to suddenly realise towards the end of the novel that three years had passed. 

Toibin is also routinely praised for his empathic portraits of women, but a more major problem for some of us was that, as, with the character of Eilish in Brooklyn - in fact even more so - we found it very hard to get to grips with the character of Nora. The whole novel purports to be located in Nora's viewpoint, but is written in an objective third person that allows for withdrawal from direct - or even indirect - portrayal of Nora's emotions or even thoughts, and once again we found that too much is consequently left unsaid, unillustrated or unaddressed, or is even glossed over, so that it was difficult to assess Nora's precise emotions and motivations at too many given moments. For instance: Donal, the elder of the two children she still has at home (two boys) has a stammer that he developed during an extended stay at an aunt's while his mother attended to his dying father. Wondering what must have happened to occasion it, she visits the aunt only to be roundly told that the stammer was the effect of Nora never having visited or contacted the boys the whole time they were there. Nora's emotional reaction to this is neither spelled out nor illustrated with indications of her demeanour, nor implied symbolically (eg via her perceptions of her surroundings). (Did she feel it was unfair? Did she feel guilty?) Several reviewers, seeing the novel as a woman's struggle for autonomy in a repressive society, have chosen to interpret this as an example of the unfair pressures on Nora, but the fact is that it is very hard with a close reading to know her precise emotional reaction, and the possibility arises that she was simply unaffected, and that therefore her lack of attention to the boys at the time of their stay had indeed amounted to inexcusable neglect. For much of the novel it seemed to me that it was indeed intended as a sympathetic portrayal of a woman struggling heroically against societal pressure, but there were moments when I felt that this couldn't be the case. In particular, there is a moment, late in the novel, when it strikes Nora that she has not so far considered the happiness or unhappiness of the boys in the aftermath of their father's death. I have read reviews that have called this moment 'moving' and an example of the complexity of Toibin's character portrayal, and Doug, who didn't attend the meeting, wrote too that he found it moving, an illustration of the difficulty of dealing with enormous grief, Toibin's portrayal of which he found 'very real'. Jenny also defended this moment of Nora's revelation as realistic, saying that the grief of a widow can be so overwhelming that there is just no room emotionally for others, even children. However, because by then I was still feeling outside of Nora's whole emotional experience, I was simply alienated. I had a similar reaction to her response once her politically involved daughter Aine is discovered to be safe: having bothered to travel to Dublin with her elder daughter Fiona and Fiona's boyfriend to look for Aine, on hearing from another party that Aine is safe, Nora simply announces that she will now go back home and promptly does so without even seeing or speaking to Aine. There is no indication of her feelings or motivations in the moment she makes this decision, (and from this point on we hear no more of the matter), and so for me my own feelings about such a situation came to the fore (I wouldn't have just rushed back home so coolly and promptly!) and I was once again alienated from Nora. There are other hints from other characters that Nora is recognised in her family as a difficult, prickly or perhaps cold character, and my experience of all this in the reading (and that of others in the group) was of cognitive dissonance rather than character complexity. (It was interesting, we thought, that this novel more or less begins with an appearance by the mother of Eilish, the protagonist of Brooklyn, in which, seemingly out of the blue, she explains to Nora her motives in the episode at the end of that earlier novel, motives about which our group was unsure and divided, and which we couldn't solve by reference to the text of Brooklyn.) 

It is well recognised that Toibin is an autobiographical writer and that this novel in particular relates to his own childhood experience. His own schoolteacher father died when he was twelve and like the boys in this novel he was sent elsewhere to be cared for while his father was dying. Like Donal he emerged with a stammer. Crucially, his mother was distant, and his writings are consequently full of cold and neglectful mothers. This novel is clearly intended to redress the balance and present the mother's point of view. Looking at it from a writer's perspective, it seems to me that the project, though admirable, is not entirely successful, not simply because we are kept at such a distance from Nora's emotions, but also because  in those moments that I experience as dissonant the author's feelings of hurt come to the fore, disrupting the empathic intention.

The novel has been seen as a magnificent portrait of grief, and Doug wrote that 'the pain and dignity of loss, and the need to persevere, but not really succeeding, are really well conveyed in the early section of the book.' However, both Ann and I found it hard to share Nora's grief, since, as Ann pointed out, there was no real sense of what had been lost. Grief surely is characterised by a preoccupation with what has been lost, and since we are taking Nora's viewpoint we could expect some more vivid sense of Maurice as a person and Nora's relationship with him than is provided. We are told that Nora had always agreed with him politically, and it is implied that this was simply a result of her being subsumed by him.  People in our group had come away with different impressions of him as a person, some feeling, because of this, that he was somewhat stiffly patriarchal, others noting that at one point Nora thinks to herself how amusing and charming he was, while Nora is constantly presented by the members of the community with eulogies about his worth and kindness as a teacher. Although we are constantly with Nora throughout the book, we are not party to her surely inevitable dramatised memories of Maurice to corroborate any of this. It is stated that a deep pain for her is having to move from the status 'we' to that of 'I', and Doug found this 'brilliantly portrayed', but Ann and I would have liked a more visceral sense of this than the brief moment when Nora wonders if she is going to have to say more now in political discussions. It seemed to us too that the potential implication that what Nora was really grieving was the status that marriage had given her made her rather shallow, but Jenny robustly defended this as a real matter of concern and unhappiness for many widows.

Mark and John were the strongest in their criticisms. John found the prose - which others have found careful and judicious - bland (rendering the whole situation bland) (although he did admit that there was something about the prose that to his surprise kept him reading). Both he and Mark criticised the lack of a story arc and the dogged linearity, with unconnected events appearing one after the other. They found especially tedious the many longeurs describing, for instance, the totting up exercise Nora has to undertake on the first day of her employment, or the nights she has to suffer the aunt's snoring on holiday. Ann commented that this last - the holiday - seemed somehow extraneous, and said that she had very much got the impression that Toibin had been compelled to write down everything that his own mother had experienced, at the expense of a story arc (always a potential danger in autobiographical writing).

Doug too, in spite of his praise, had some criticisms: he also found the office episodes unsatisfactory, lacking in tension and, although drawn out, seemingly there merely as a device to illustrate Nora's return to the world. On the whole he was less enamoured with the second half of the book - 'Lots of minor characters flitting in and out without much purpose. The moment on the beach with the nun just seemed corny' - and he found the later stages of Nora's recovery 'a bit saccharine and contrived.' Jenny had an opposite reaction: she liked the second half better, as that was when the book started to 'gallop'Clare, arriving late, said she had enjoyed the book, but she did see what we meant about not being able to get to grips with Nora's character. Mark ended the evening by saying that if it hadn't been for two of us women expressing the same opinion he wouldn't have dared to say what he felt, which was that that this novel doesn't really display a deep understanding of women.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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