Colm Toibin’s memoir A Guest at the Feast has been published as part of the Penguin Shorts ebook only series. This series comprises both fiction and non-fiction, and are only available in digital formats, and are all priced at £1.99. They are, as the name suggests, short, being either short-stories or extended essays on a range of subjects.
In A Guest at the Feast Toibin looks back on his childhood growing up in Enniscorthy, a small town in County Wexford in South-West Ireland, and also discusses aspects of his writing today. Toibin was at school during the 1960s and discusses the social changes that came about at that time. In particular the Irish censorship laws that existed which meant that many books were only available illicitly smuggled between people, and the sudden relaxation of that system.
In five or six years we had moved in Ireland from the censoring of serious books for adults to the wide availability of paperbacks. Reading, suddenly, was to be encouraged for all. The law was changed in 1968, but the attitudes seemed to change overnight. My mother and her friends were brought up in a conservative, insecure state; in their forties they found themselves living in another place altogether, a world where everything once held dear was questioned and undermined, where Irish television and the Irish newspapers and even elements within the Irish Catholic Church encouraged the open discussion of things which had been closed when they were growing up.
Much of the memoir focuses on Colm Toibin’s mother, who was born into the socially conservative world of rural Ireland but explored the new world available to her through literature and poetry. Toibin considered her to be “the ordinary reader, curious and intelligent and demanding, ready to be moved and changed”.
The writing style throughout is Colm Toibin’s usual gentle prose with typically beautiful descriptions of things such as sunlight on the sea. There is a real sense of the past and of change through the years. This brief autobiography is both genuinely interesting and wonderfully literary at the same time, and in this new publishing format Penguin could be on to something.
Some things look exactly the same as they did fifty years ago. But I know that this is an illusion, something deceptive. The grass is not the same grass; it is merely similar; it is merely like the grass that was there before; so, too, the air, and the view as you turn down the lane which leads to the cliff.