“In a short story, everything can only happen once...there is something that you cannot name in the story, and will have no consequences...[it’s] something that you can’t quite fathom, and you put the book down for a moment and wonder.”
So spoke acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín on the art of the short story at Wednesday night’s Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Lecture in Kresge Auditorium.
Tóibín, who currently teaches at Columbia University, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel “The Master” (2004), which he followed with “Brooklyn” (2009), “Mothers and Sons” (2006), and “New Ways to Kill Your Mother” (2012), a collection of nonfiction essays. His most recent novel, “The Testament of Mary,” was released this November.
Wednesday was a snowy night, so Tóibín said he would begin with an excerpt from the most famous short story on the snow, James Joyce’s “The Dead.” He offered the story as a representation of the age old Irish tradition of hospitality, of sharing music and breaking bread with friends and family, but also as a narrative of conflicting national allegiances in Dublin at the turn of the century.
Tóibín recited the much-celebrated final paragraph of Joyce’s story, in which the narrator, Gabriel, looks out upon the snow slowly blanketing the city: “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves...His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
The scene’s silence is absolute, and it is because of Joyce’s ability to narrate that silence that Tóibín called “The Dead” “the invention of the modern story,” praising its insistence on “finding the end, a way out of the story that is not dramatic ostensibly, but is made dramatic by the shift of tone and by the texture of the language.”
Tóibín likened the fleeting nature of the short story to music when he remarked, “In a short story, everything can only happen once...its closer to that moment in, say, a big Bruce Springsteen ballad where he lets the voice go up and soar, and everyone goes ‘wow, ahhhh’—that second of pure emotion that you get in opera as well. The reason why it’s so pure is that it does not have a consequence.”
Talk of music makes up much of “The Dead,” in which partygoers at the Misses Morkan’s annual dance join in rounds of traditional Irish ballads like “The Lass of Aughrim.”
“If you’re Irish, the song means something--it’s one of those very haunting songs that we have,” Tóibín remarked, before breaking into a faint rendition of the chorus.
For Tóibín, the ephemerality of the short story is the source of its magic, and the punctuated silences of his works tell of heartbreaking love and loss. Fittingly, Tóibín concluded his talk by reading the conclusion of his heartbreaking short story “A Song,” which he said emerged from an unexpected encounter at an Irish music festival in the ’80s. The story’s final lines evoke the lilting silence that typifies Tóibín’s work:
“He shrugged and made his way past the drinkers at the front door of the pub, making sure not to look at anybody. Outside, as the first car of the evening with full headlights switched on approached, he was shaking. He knew he would have to be careful to say nothing more, to pretend that it had been an ordinary evening. It would all be forgotten; they would play and sing until the small hours. He turned the car and waited in the darkness for the others to come.”
With that, a sonorous applause filled Kresge Auditorium, and the crowd filtered out onto the snowy, silent Quad.