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Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary fails for me because Tóibín fails to give Mary a voice. Instead of letting her speak for herself, as first person narrator of his novella, he puts words into her mouth. The poor woman sinks under the weight of heavy symbolism and poeticism. ‘They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world,’ she says right at the start. ‘There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.’
Our first acquaintance with Mary reveals her, not as a Jewish woman living in Palestine two thousand years ago, but as a British woman halfway through an MA in Creative Writing. The first sentence is straight out of the creative writing text book: start with a pronoun referring to unnamed and vaguely threatening characters, hinting at the events which are to follow so as to capture the reader’s attention. I can imagine the second being read out to the class as one student’s response to an exercise in descriptive writing: notice her use of alliteration in the second clause, repetition in the third and the simile at the end. But I can’t imagine the real Mary saying it.
On every page, she speaks to us as an articulate, educated woman, our contemporary. ‘I will come down this passageway as the dawn breaks,’ she says, ‘as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room.’ She is out to impress. She knows how to end a paragraph with the right note of foreboding. ‘Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.’ When she lapses into cliché, as she does all too often, it can be a relief: at least she’s human, which is what Tóibín wants us to feel. Actually, it’s just him being lazy, using phrases like ‘grim satisfaction’, ‘heightened atmosphere’, ‘the centre of power’, ‘despite my initial alarm’. Barrabas, she tells us, as if reporting the event for the local newspaper, ‘was set free to roars of approval from the crowd.’
Tóibín’s idea is that the real Mary has to be kept quiet, somewhat implausibly, by ‘minders’, so that the Christian myth they are intent on creating will not be undermined. He makes the real Mary run away after the crucifixion, but the official story, the one we read in the bible, is that she and the other women take Jesus down from the cross, wash his body and wrap it in clean linen, ready for burial, so that he can rise from the dead after three days, in line with the prophecy. Did it escape his notice that the ‘true’ story he tells is a fiction too?
The only incidents he allows Mary to talk about come from the Christian gospels, notably the wedding feast at Cana and the raising of Lazarus. The real Mary might or might not have told us about these, but she would surely have told us about others too, things that were new to us, things that a Jewish woman of that era would have been interested in because they formed part of her daily life, stories about Jesus and his brothers. (She never mentions them, her other sons, but talks only about ‘my son’, as if he were the only one.) Perhaps she might even have said something about his birth. The real story of his birth, as well as, if not more than, his death, is surely something that the real Mary would want to talk about.
Tóibín should not have made Mary the narrator if he was not willing or able to give her a voice. He could and perhaps should have told the story in a different way, as Jim Crace did in Quarantine. Crace tells the story of Jesus’s forty days in the desert with a credibility, subtlety and complexity that allows him to depart from the biblical version more substantially than Tóibín and to greater effect. What, after all, is Tóibín trying to say that has not already been said about Marilyn Monroe, Joan of Arc and Boadicea? The life lived and the myth that came after are two different things. The attempt failed because, in his enthusiasm for dispelling the myth, he didn’t tell us enough about the life or give Mary a voice of her own to tell it with.
Next week I’ll be writing about D.H.Lawrence, the poet.
Then it will be back to my Reader’s Diary on 9 April.