In one of the essays in A Guest at the Feast, Colm Tóibín declares: “God represents a real problem for the novelist. The novel is happier in a secular space.” He is writing about Marilynne Robinson, a writer skilled, as he says, at “making religious thought easy” – easy for the reader, however unbelieving, to accept. It is a skill he admires. Yet his own novels hardly inhabit a “secular space”. Catholicism is a live presence in all the ones set in Ireland, while his interest in Christian myth even led him, in The Testament of Mary, to create the first-person narrative of Jesus’s mother as she nears death.
These essays, published over the course of more than 25 years, confirm his interest in religion and religiosity. “Religiosity” because he restlessly documents the hypocrisies and misdeeds of the Roman Catholic clergy. Yet he does so with the mingled perplexity and outrage of one who is steeped in Catholicism. “I was born in Ireland and brought up a Catholic.” Almost every one of these essays is shaped by one of these two facts, sometimes by both.
The earliest essay in the book, from 1995, closely observes the character of Pope John Paul II, as entranced by his charisma as it is exasperated by his determination “to push back the tide of equality and modernity”. Another piece, The Bergoglio Smile, contrasts the apparent humility of Pope Francis with what can be discovered about his behaviour as a priest during the rule of the junta in Argentina. Tóibín’s indignation at his failure to challenge a vicious dictatorship coexists with his attraction to the pope’s flourishes of tolerance and modesty.
An account of the Ferns report on clerical sexual abuse in the diocese that includes County Wexford begins with Tóibín’s memories of congenial priests whom he knew and admired as a teenager, who were later convicted of sexual abuse of minors. He has anecdotal memories of one of these men’s “dim view of homosexuality”, part of his performance of intolerant rectitude. Tóibín argues that both sexual abuse and its concealment by Roman Catholic authorities became “an almost intrinsic part of the church’s search for power”.
There are plenty of memories of repressiveness in these essays. Tóibín once lived in an Ireland where novels were readily banned. In the title essay, he recalls, as a child, finding “three forbidden books” on the top of his mother’s wardrobe: novels by Edna O’Brien and John McGahern, plus John Updike’s Couples (what a thrilling read that must have been in 1960s County Wexford!). There is separate piece on McGahern, whom Tóibín knew well, which is much taken up with the banning or near-banning of his novels in his homeland.
All that is now done away with, though liberalisation is not in every way friendly to writers. Tóibín’s two superb novels set largely in his home town of Enniscorthy – Brooklyn and Nora Webster – are pushed back into the 1950s and 60s in order to conjure enough repression to satisfy the novelist. In the longest piece in this collection, Tóibín wanders around Enniscorthy noting the locations he has used in his fiction. Describing the housing estate on the edge of town where he grew up, he recites the names of the other families who lived in the street, “from number one to number twenty-two”. He claims to remember them all, half a century later. This is rootedness, with a vengeance.
These essays speak in the first person, but are not introspective. It is only in the opening piece, an account of his treatment for testicular cancer, that you get much self-revelation (I was arrested by Tóibín’s disclosure, en passant, that he does not own a washing machine). This essay brilliantly describes the trance states induced by his enforced dependence on pharmaceuticals, through intensive chemotherapy and steroid treatment. Here, as throughout the collection, it is the droll, melancholy elegance of the prose that guarantees the reader’s enjoyment.
• A Guest at the Feast is published by Viking (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.