Nell Freudenberger The Guardian, Friday 29 March 2013
Photograph by Kim Stallknecht
I don't think Alice Munro would care to be called my hero, or anyone's. And yet she is the writer whose female characters I feel the most kinship with. Whether she is a feminist writer or not, Munro has said: "I never think about being a feminist writer, but of course I wouldn't know. I don't see things all put together that way."
No fiction writer sees things "all put together", and a fiction that intended to do something in the world, such as raise consciousness, wouldn't in one sense be fiction at all. A story begins as a blind groping in the dark – for something, anything, both resonant and concrete. And so in Munro's fiction you find a feminism of objects. When Rose in The Beggar Maid brings her fiance home to meet her father and stepfather, she discovers with a sinking heart a new centrepiece, "especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in colour, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins." The myriad inequalities between Rose and her fiance – in sex, wealth, education, speech and manners – and in class, a thing we pretend not to understand in North America – inheres in that napkin holder.
But there's a difference between admiring a great writer's artistry and calling her your hero. I recently reread Munro's work in order to write about her new book, Dear Life, and for the first time I recognised what makes me feel so much at home in her world. Munro's mother, as she appears in the author's work, escapes a desperately poor and unhappy childhood; she is bright and bookish, but often an embarrassment to her daughter, especially in the way she calls attention to herself. In the brilliant title story, Munro remembers a time "when I was at the stage of hating a good many things she said". Everyone must go through this stage with their parents, but the final, unflinching revelation ofDear Life, which I won't spoil, shows the everlasting regret that can follow a failure of empathy inside a family. Which is, of course, one thing that fiction can do in the world.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given Christianity a good name. None of the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred have attached to her. She has been free for centuries of the “blame Mom” syndrome, representing endless patience, loving kindness, mercy, succor, recourse.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
By Colm Toibin
81 pp. Scribner. $19.99.
The problem with all this is that it has led to centuries of sentimentality — blue and white Madonnas with folded hands and upturned eyes, a stick with which to beat independent women. In my youth, stores sold items called “Mary-like gowns,” which meant you could go to your senior prom looking as undesirable as possible in the name of the Virgin.
Colm Toibin’s novella “The Testament of Mary” never even approaches the swampy terrain of sentimentality. Consider, for example, the elderly Mary’s wish in relation to the Evangelists who persecute her with their insistent visits: “When I look back at them I hope they see contempt.” Traveling by ship after the death of her son, she realizes that she longs for a wreck, a drowning. “I had developed a hunger for catastrophe.” Contempt. A hunger for catastrophe. She’s a lot closer to Medea than to June Cleaver.
The writer who assumes the task of making a fictional character of someone whose life took place in history faces particular challenges. When the character’s life is a part of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the ante goes way up. His awareness of these complications leads Toibin to make a deft strategic move at the very beginning of his book by weaving the creation of a text into the structure of his tale. It is, after all, entitled “The Testament of Mary,” and the word “testament,” which we might be tempted to slide over in our association with its biblical meaning, in fact suggests both the act of witnessing and the preparation of a legacy — usually composed near death.
Throughout the novella, Mary is involved in questions of writing. She sees herself as a victim, trapped by men determined to make a story of what she knows is not a story but her life. The making of the Gospels is portrayed not as an act of sacred remembrance but as an invasion and a theft. The Evangelists — which are they? . . . Luke, perhaps, or John? — are portrayed as menacing intruders, with the lurking shadowy presence of Stalin’s secret police. They have an agenda: They know what they want to write and, almost faute de mieux, they have to interview the mother. They need to lay down the foundation for a future understanding of Jesus, and this must include the conviction that he is the Son of God, and that his death saved the world. But Mary will have none of it.
“I stood up from the chair and moved away from them, assaulted by their words.
“ ‘He died to redeem the world. . . . His death has freed mankind from darkness and from sin. . . . His suffering was necessary. . . . It was how mankind would be saved.’
“ ‘Saved?’ I asked and raised my voice. ‘Who has been saved?’
“ ‘Those who came before him and those who live now and those who are not yet born. . . . ’
“ ‘Saved from death?’ I asked.
“ ‘Saved for eternal life,’ he said. ‘Everyone in the world will know eternal life.’
“ ‘Oh, eternal life!’ I replied. ‘Oh, everyone in the world.’ ”
The use and repetition of the word “oh” is masterly. Its casual diminishment of the larger words “eternal” and “everyone” is a perfect marker of the enormous gap between the mother and the writers.
And Toibin the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed. Her fear and desire for self-protection drowned her grief and sympathy for her son’s fate. “The pain,” she says, “was his and not mine.” So much for the Pietà. So much for the “Stabat Mater.”
Unlike other writers who, in rendering the historical past, leave their poetic and image-making gifts at the door, Toibin is at his lyrical best in “The Testament of Mary.” When she is remembering the crucifixion, at the insistence of her inquisitional Evangelists, what she wants to talk about is a man with a hawk in a cage and rabbits in a sack. The cage is too small for the hawk; the bird is angry and frustrated, and the man keeps feeding it rabbits, although “the bird did not seem to be hungry. . . . The cage became full of half-dead wholly uneaten rabbits. . . . Twitching with old bursts of life.”
Atmosphere is powerfully created; we share the bodily realities of events that, through repetition, have become almost generic and so, abstract. Fleeing the violence she fears, Mary sees stars as “leftover things confined to their place, their shining nothing more than a sort of pleading.” As the guests wait for Jesus’ appearance at the wedding at Cana there is “a hushed holding in of things.” The tension preceding the crucifixion is chillingly evoked: “I knew that I was facing into something ferocious and exact.”
We learn the psychological implications of events through the precise evocation of their physical manifestations: “There was a dark vacancy in the faces of some, and they wanted this vacancy filled with cruelty, with pain and with the sound of someone crying out.” “Everybody’s blood was filled with venom, a venom which came in the guise of energy, activity, shouting, laughing, roaring instructions as they paved the way for a grim procession to a hill beyond.” With a poet’s gift for imagery, Toibin describes the scene of the crucifixion: “It was like a marketplace, but more intense somehow, the act that was about to take place was going to make a profit for both seller and buyer.”
Very occasionally, an anachronistic slip-up can distract. Mary complains twice about ill-fitting “shoes” and speaks of someone seeing to her “bills.” Now, it’s certainly possible that people wore shoes and paid bills in first-century Roman Palestine, but it almost doesn’t matter. This is a place where our associations — sandals and piles of coins versus shoes and bills — create doubts that hang in the air, like an annoying buzz. Or like a tiny pimple on an otherwise beautiful face.
For “The Testament of Mary” is a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother’s grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son. Her prayers are directed not to Yahweh but to Artemis, Greek not Jewish, chaste goddess of the hunt and of fertility, but no one’s mother. Mary’s final word on her son’s life and death is the bleak declaration: “It was not worth it.”
Mary Gordon’s most recent novel is “The Love of My Youth.”
Steven A. Cohen, whose SAC Capital just settled two insider-trading lawsuits with the government for $616 million, has bought himself a gift — Picasso’s “Le Rêve” for $155 million, Page Six has exclusively learned.
Billionaire Cohen secretly bought the masterpiece from Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, who famously put his elbow through the 1932 painting of Picasso’s mistress, creating a six-inch tear.
The price is estimated to be the highest ever paid for an artwork by a US collector — and it’s even more impressive because Wynn had previously agreed to sell the masterpiece to Cohen for $139 million in 2006, but accidentally tore the painting the following day.
A source told Page Six, “Steve bought ‘Le Rêve’ as a gift to himself. This was supposed to be a top- secret sale because of the government investigation and settlement.”
It reaped a hefty profit for Wynn, who also got a $45 million insurance payout after he elbowed the painting while showing it off to friends including Nora Ephron at his Las Vegas office.
Wynn, who suffers from vision problems, agreed at the time to release Cohen from the sale and repair it. Now he has sold it to Cohen for $16 million more than the pre-damage price.
Another source told us, “Steve has wanted that painting for a long time. The timing of the sale is just a coincidence.”
In what officials are calling the largest-ever settlement of an insider-trading action, SAC Capital Advisors LP agreed March 15 to pay securities regulators more than $600 million to resolve a civil lawsuit related to improper trading.
Despite reports that Cohen, worth about $9.3 billion, was feeling the pinch after investors in SAC asked to withdraw $1.68 billion — sparking speculation he might sell his art — it seems he’s building his collection, which includes works by van Gogh, Manet, de Kooning, Cezanne, Warhol, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst.
Cohen’s longtime spokesman Jonathan Gasthalter declined to comment, and reps for Wynn didn’t get back to us.
Marie Mullen in the Dublin Theatre Festival production of Testament, 2011. Photograph: Patrick Redmond
Colm Tóibín's mothers don't always behave as they should; they are often unpredictable, occasionally downright troublesome, prone to gusts of passion or rage or – worse – unnatural indifference. Rarely are they uncomplicated figures of placid, nurturing devotion; but they do make for fantastically involving fiction. In his 2006 short-story collection, Mothers and Sons, Tóibín brought us relationships that were often characterised by the way they inverted traditional roles. An entrepreneurial widow plots to escape to the anonymity of the big city, clashing with her son's determination to hold fast to their small-town life; another man slinks away from a crowded pub rather than be spotted by the celebrated mother who has absented herself from his life; in "A Long Winter", a magnificent extended piece set in rural Spain, a young man is forced to keep house ineptly for his father after his alcoholic mother walks out into a snowstorm rather than be deprived of drink.
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
It's not just made up mothers, either. A Guest at the Feast, the short memoir that Tóibín released as a Penguin Special ebook at the end of last year, contains tremendously tender, poignant portraits of his mother, father and other family members. But one memorable passage also depicts his mother on the warpath, as the young Tóibín runs into trouble at school:
Now she went and got her hair done and put on her best high heels and set out for the monastery. For days afterwards, she gave anyone who called a vivid account of her interview with Brother Carbery. She told him she had no interest in anything he had to say, she was here to talk and not to listen. And she was here to tell him that if I didn't get a scholarship, declensions or no declensions, she would blame him personally and write to the head of the Christian Brothers in Ireland about him.
It was deliciously unfair.
It is no surprise, then, to discover more than a hint of that determination to face down authority and to have one's opinion heard in Tóibín's depiction of the most famous mother of all. The Testament of Mary, a novella that first manifested itself as the stage-play Testament, is bereft of high heels, or new hairdos, or mothers laying down the law; it is pitched in a far quieter and less dramatic register. But we are left in little doubt that its narrator, a woman mourning the death of her son and called upon to give an account of his life to two unnamed visitors, is more angry than she is accepting.
The mother of Jesus – she cannot bring herself to utter his name, referring to him only as "my son", or "the one who was here" or, to her interlocutors, "the one you are interested in" – is living in a small house in Ephesus; after the crucifixion, when all those close to him came under surveillance and suspicion, she was spirited away by "the Beloved Disciple", whom we may fairly assume is John, the author of the fourth gospel. Now, some years later, he has returned with another man to question her. Again, we assume that he is in the act of writing his account of the times; what she says, therefore, will not only be part of the founding of a new religion, but also ensure the posterity of its author.
What her visitors want is someone pliable, on-side, part of the project, someone who will satisfy their "vast and insatiable needs"; what they get is low-key resistance. "Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another," Mary tells us, "or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say."
Instead, she tells the reader her story: the ambivalence, bordering on dislike, she feels for her son's followers, whom she describes as misfits, "fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers"; the estrangement she feels when he sheds his boyhood identity and becomes someone else, "his voice all false, and his tone all stilted". That estrangement reaches its height when, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus appears not to recognise his mother; he has become, she realises without rancour or self-pity, filled with "unthinking energy". Leaving the wedding, she almost turns back, but does not.
Tóibín recounts a handful of these familiar stories, on each occasion making them subtly disturbing. The wedding, for example, includes an almost jocular aside about the lavishness of the gifts and the bride's clothes that first calls to mind the excess of contemporary weddings and then prompts a reflection on Mary and the cult of virginity. The resurrection of Lazarus is used as a way of thinking about the desirability – or otherwise – of immortality, the profound impact it might have on what it means to be human.
The book's climax comes, of course, with the crucifixion. Here, Mary gives full rein not only to her love for her son but to her understanding of the limits of their bond; "the pain was his and not mine", she says, unburdening herself of a final moment of weakness that her visitors would rather not hear. "The truth should be spoken at least once in the world."
That truth, as Tóibín imagines it in this fearsomely strange, deeply thoughtful book, is far more subversive than it might at first seem. It runs counter to much Marian doctrine and many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, not least the power of Mary to intercede on our behalf. The Mary who sits in her darkened house in Ephesus would not, I think, willingly take on the prayers of the world; all that she wishes for, she tells us at the book's close, is to confine dreams to the night-time and living to the daytime, and to live "in full recognition of the difference between the two".