Colm Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst are currently the two most successful writers of gay novels living in the British Isles. Born within a year of each other, they have both made substantial reputations with the same three categories of public - gays, academics and, more recently, the general reader. Both have won important literary prizes, Hollinghurst the Man Booker in 2004 with The Line of Beauty and Toibin the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2006 with The Master.
Not long ago Toibin expressed his opinion that Hollinghurst was perhaps too eager to comply with the novel's traditional requirements - presumably an exciting plot, dramatically contrasting characters, suspense, and a comprehensive resolution. The implication was that Hollinghurst should resist such populist temptations and concentrate on showing life as he perceived it to be, whatever the cost in terms of reader-satisfaction.
In his new collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons, Toibin puts these principles into practice and disproves his case for responsible fiction beyond any reasonable doubt. The book is at the same time interesting and infuriatingly frustrating.
Toibin's now-characteristic method is displayed unambiguously in the collection's most substantial item, an 83-page novella entitled A Long Winter. This describes the disappearance of a wife from a Spanish farm in the foothills of the snow-clad Pyrenees, and her husband and elder son's attempts to find her.
This tale is extremely compelling. The atmosphere of the wind-swept landscape, the sparsely-furnished farmhouse in the bright light and dry cold of a Spanish mid-winter, and the tensions between the characters as the hunt gathers pace provide a memorable fictional experience. The wife has taken to drink after the departure of her younger son for the army, but her husband contemptuously pours her store of sharp local wine down the drain. The next morning she walks out of the house in the direction of her family home in the hills many hours' walk away, but never arrives.
Toibin manipulates many of the formulas of suspense writing. What became of the mother? What were her real motives for leaving home, and for taking to drink in the first place? What were the father's motives in bringing an adolescent orphan, whom he describes as being like a woman, into the farm to do the housework? How would the older son's attraction to both a young policeman and, eventually, the orphan develop?
I couldn't put this story down, reading it even while cooking dinner. Imagine my annoyance, when at the end none of these questions were answered. What a waste of a magnificent scenario. I even imagined that this was perhaps a full-length novel Toibin had embarked on in early life (he lived in Barcelona, close to where the story is set, in his 20s) but had never been able to complete. Now, perhaps, he was offering an unresolved plot as some kind of "artistic" virtue.
Every reader will feel the same disappointment. The questions Toibin so carefully plants in our minds here demand to be answered. He can't have it both ways, gripping his public with suspense, and then ostentatiously failing to give them the satisfactions they expect.
Literary historians, and maybe Toibin himself, might argue that such expectations are hangovers from the era of 19th-century realistic fiction, albeit living on in the popular novel. But to argue like this is to have too short a perspective. Virtually all writers, from Homer onwards, have felt the need to resolve their plots, provide conclusions however bleak, and to explain, at least to some degree, what lay behind their characters' actions. To fail to do this isn't some kind of superior sleight-of-hand. It's an abandonment of an age-old requirement of storytellers worldwide.