Colm Tóibín takes Henry James for a ride
In a detour from all the genres and topics that we review on this page, this monthly column on short stories is a little treat to ourselves—a short and delicious reminder of what the simple act of storytelling can accomplish. There once lived a person, there once lived a place, and the smallest anecdote of their interaction can inspire wonder, grief, and happiness in the people listening to the tale; it can help them find sleep and enter a land of dreams.
Through his 20 published novels and 112 short stories, and all through his worldly travels across London, Paris, Geneva, and more, it was this simple impulse for telling stories that shaped the life of Henry James, one of the most revered litterateurs of the 19th century. In his notebooks he jotted down "germs" that were meant to be nurtured into stories, and these ideas were inspired by things that he witnessed, experienced, or imagined, things he was told. James once wrote in his notebook, "The short story should be a gem of bright, quick, vivid form".
True to this advice, Colm Tóibín's short story "Silence" is inspired by one of James's unfinished ideas—on January 23, 1894, James wrote in his diary about a "plot" suggested to him by one Lady G: the anecdote of a husband who sends his bride back home upon discovering a letter from her former lover. In his rendition of this prompt, Tóibín takes us inside the mind of the widowed Lady Gregory. She lives in James's own time, in a society in which "it did not matter who she was as long as she arrived on time and [...] did not talk too loudly". To reveal the device she employs to feel heard would give away the most delightful twist in Tóibín's story, but what the Irish writer accomplishes, with one clever leap of plot point, is the forging of a bridge between a silenced woman of the 19th century and the innumerable pairs of eyes and ears from then to now.
But like all good stories, "Silence" works with more than its central concerns—it offers discerning commentary on marriage, on the various iterations of silence in gendered circumstances, and on the basic human need for communication.
And like all good Henry James stories, all of the above is filtered through the muddying lens of memories and their ability to render people into ghosts. "No one seemed to mind that she haunted the spaces they inhabited", the narrator reflects on the living, breathing Lady Gregory, "because no one noticed her". But whereas the men in her life have the privilege of using their voices—employing by turns volume, rage, nonchalance, and the written word—Lady Gregory tempers her silences to communicate, listening intelligently and silently orchestrating the conversations around her like a skilled marionette. "Thus she forced herself to pay attention to [...] every word Lady Anne said, [...] hoping that soon Lady Anne would be calmed and [...] would not notice when Lady Gregory turned to the poet and ate him up with her eyes". It is Tóibín's use of language that adds subtlety to this narrator's nostalgia and mischief—his writing is smooth, slow, sultry with an occasional bite.
Tóibín, currently a professor at Columbia University and the chancellor of Liverpool University, famously based his novel The Master (2004) on the life of Henry James. With "Silence", he joins the likes of Amit Chaudhari, Paul Theroux, Rose Tremain, and six others in Philip Hornes's Tales from a Master's Notebook (Vintage, 2018), as they riff off of James's unpublished diary ideas. All of their contributions take impressive imaginative liberties with Henry James's literary legacy, but Tóibín's is the only one in the collection set in James' own time, and the one that made me want to cry and cheer aloud.
Sarah Anjum Bari is editor of Daily Star Books. You can reach her at email@example.com and @wordsinteal on Instagram and Twitter.