3 min

Tóibín when he’s close to home

With Love In A Dark Time writer Colm Tóibín presents the lives and work of nine sexual suspects from Oscar Wilde to Pedro Almodóvar, setting himself the task of “tracing the tension between the fearless imagination and the fearful self.” That tension can be seen in everything from Wilde’s gothic moral potboiler The Picture Of Dorian Gray to Almodóvar’s giddy-campy films of the last 15 years.

Fifty pages on Oscar Wilde offer a whirlwind telling of his glittering rise in the London literary firmament, then a more detailed account of his fateful love for the vain and heartless Lord Alfred Douglas and the scandalous “indecency” charges that landed Wilde in prison, making him the whipping-boy for Victorian England’s secret vices.

Alas, there’s little here that’s fresh for anyone who’s read even a basic account of Wilde’s fame and downfall. After Tóibín’s introduction, offering canon-busting insights on Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Kafka, Henry James and others, the Wilde saga seems to inspire in him only a compiling of events and quotations, and a few faint stabs at interpretation.

His chapter on Roger Casement will likely offer more intriguing revelations to the average reader. Casement was an Irish nationalist whose exposure of atrocities against native peoples in Africa and the Amazon was deliberately discounted by British officials intent on smearing his reputation.

Casement’s Congo and Amazon diaries of 1900-1911 are still hotly disputed. The so-called White Diaries are careful records of abuse against Congo and Putomayo natives who were enslaved by rubber barons and other commercial interests. Next to these were placed alleged records of Casement’s sexual romps with native boys, texts that allowed British justice to disallow an appeal of Casement’s treason conviction, and hang him as a traitorous Irish rebel.

These exhaustively repetitive “Black Diaries” are a litany of penis lengths, fucking techniques and the ages and beauty ratings of an endless stream of dark-skinned boys. Public outrage was the inevitable response to them.

There has been speculation for decades that the Black Diaries were forged. Tóibín shows that the question can’t be resolved, and has sadly eclipsed the groundbreaking work Casement did on behalf of tribal peoples. The lesson? Sex, then as now, has more power to outrage our moral guardians than even murder and torture.

Other chapters offer commentary on the subverted desires of Death In Venice author Thomas Mann, a tour of the aesthetic convictions and “gilded gutter life” of British painter Francis Bacon (dubbed “simply sick” by Time magazine), and snapshots of the queer muse at work in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn.

Tóibín notes that black writer James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room (his first to deal with gay characters) was rejected by Knopf, his New York publisher. His agent advised him to burn the manuscript. The book was brought out by a British press, and later in the US with Dial Press in 1956.

The chapter on filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is queer only in a disconcerting sense – there is not a single mention of anything gay in this artist’s life. Not one hint of boyhood crushes, teenage sex games or adult trysts; no reference to boyfriends or to any homophobic episodes (in Spain!), and no evidence of a queer social circle.

We’re left to infer Almodóvar’s gayness from brief mention of his “flamboyant self” and his one-time friendship with a man who liked to dress up as a Seville senorita. It’s as if Tóibín is reporting from the dark times that oppressed Baldwin. Oddly, this chapter illustrates better than any other Tóibín’s idea of a tension in queer artists between “the fearless imagination and the fearful self.”

Tóibín closes with a personalized mini-history of the Catholic church’s stranglehold on the Irish national psyche. It’s packed with statistics revealing incredibly archaic attitudes, and ends with a listing of queer Irish writers who bucked the system. Tóibín is by far at his best when he’s on home turf, pulling no punches about the prejudice he’s managed to escape.

*Jim Bartley writes on books in every other issue.


By Colm Tóibín.

McClelland & Stewart.

272 pages. $24.99.