Fiona Green at the Times Literary Supplement:
“What must it be to be someone else?” Gerard Manley Hopkins wondered. It is a question that has occupied Colm Tóibín before, whether the someone else was Henry James, or the mother of Christ. What must it be to be someone else in a book that is not a novel, and in which the someone else is a poet who specialized in solitariness, who could be “chilly” in person, and who did not hesitate to turn away uninvited guests. When Mary McCarthy threatened to visit Elizabeth Bishop, she replied: “I’d be grateful if you didn’t come over”.
Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop introduces the poet in new company – he likens her to James Joyce, and more persuasively to Thom Gunn – and alongside old acquaintances (Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore). Mostly, Tóibín recognizes in Bishop aspects of himself. Both writers are drawn to grey, muted coastlines; both invest feeling in “things withheld”. Like Bishop, Tóibín found himself returned to childhood by the experience of “elsewhere”: Bishop’s fifteen-year sojourn in Brazil prompted her to recall and reimagine Nova Scotia; having “escaped Ireland” to write his first novel in Southern Europe, Tóibín found his proper “melancholy tone” in memories of Wexford. These childhood haunts were, for both writers, places of profound loss. Tóibín is particularly good on estrangement, and puts his finger right on it when he says that Bishop’s life in Brazil – at least as retold in her letters and poems – seemed “a parody of ‘normal life’”, “a comedy she had invented”.