I started my year of reading with The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. I confess, I picked this novel out of the Booker short list because it’s short. Really it’s a novella. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. Not that I have anything against the novella, I’m very fond of the form in fact but only famous people get to publish books this short as novels, everyone else gets stuck with the novella label and is met with endless recommendations to expand it or include it in a collection of short stories (another potential non-starter as short story collections are just as hard to publish). However, I like stories that know when to end and I’m glad this didn’t extrapolate further.
I did enjoy the book, I did enjoy the writing. It is a well written book. But, and it is a big but, I did not find what I was looking for from a book re-telling Jesus’ story from his mother’s perspective. When I read I want not only to be pleased by the turn of phrase, not only to believe in the voice that speaks to me, not only to be inspired to think about certain things more deeply than I might otherwise, I also want to be moved. I don’t know if this is common, but for me the whole reason I’m interested in literature as an intellectual pursuit is that it is the only discipline which can truly represent the human experience. It can muddle the physical with the intellectual and the emotional. It can talk about philosophy whilst remembering the bowel or the distraction of the rain on the windowpane.
Perhaps I’m being mean. The Testament of Mary does not lack this multifaceted ability, it just doesn’t hit me in the gut. It doesn’t go far enough. When we eventually get to the crucifixion (skip this bit if you haven’t read it) I’m not surprised to read that Mary didn’t really stick by the body to the end, that she was afraid for her own life and ran off, that the meeting with a resurrected Jesus was in a dream and finally, that her testament to his disciples about his death redeeming the world was that ‘it was not worth it’. If you are going to retell one of the founding stories of our culture, this moment of whimpering, rather than banging, should have impact, portent, but we’ve heard it before. Where is the new significance for our time? Why haven’t we moved beyond all that the modernists were saying over a hundred years ago? We’ve heard it shouted better by another short listed author Jim Crace, whose Quanrantine (Whitbread Novel of the Year and short listed for the Booker in 1997) was a much more challenging exploration of biblical times. In fact, I just want to read it again to feel better about all of this.
I am of course being biased. I prefer books that meet the hunger for meaning with or without religion and really grapple with it, don’t just nod to it. We haven’t gone beyond something Paul Auster said in his essay ‘The Art of Hunger’ about Hamsun’s novel, Hunger (written in 1890):
In the end, the art of hunger can be described as an existential art. It is a way of looking death in the face, and by death I mean death as we live it today: without God, without hope of salvation. Death as the abrupt and absurd end of life.
I do not believe that we have come any farther than this. It is even possible that we have been here much longer than we are willing to admit. In all of this time, however, only a few artists have been able to recognize it. It takes courage, and not many of us would be willing to risk everything for nothing. But that is what happens in Hunger, a novel written in 1890. Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.
We aren’t even in the twentieth century anymore. Come on. Let’s reach higher.
I’m hoping for more from the next novel on the list, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, whose title at least suggests more of what I’m looking for in a prize-winning novel.