Love in a Dark Time: gay lives from Wilde to Almodóvar, by Colm Tóibín

Cries and whispers from an age of concealment
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Colm Tóibín's book Love in a Dark Time collects his substantial journalism on figures whose homosexuality has proven veiled or unclear, or else of secondary importance to the artist's understanding of his or her work. Tóibín starts with Oscar Wilde, and takes in 20th-century figures as various as Roger Casement, Thomas Mann and James Baldwin. Two still-productive poets, Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, are included. Any volume this heterodox must strain to offer a single thesis.

In lieu of a single idea, we are offered a singular method. Tóibín like Wilde, is attracted to the darker arts – specifically, those deployed by the many gay men and women in the last century who were necessarily taciturn about their sexuality. His views benefit from senses sharply attuned to such deceit and duplicity.

In one memorable section, he compares FO Matthiessen's confessional letters to his public persona as literary critic. Matthiessen comments on Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "In the passivity of the poet's body, there is a quality vaguely pathological and homosexual." Tóibín notes that this sentence, "50 years or more after it was written, burns on the page". The indirection of Matthiessen's magisterial study, American Renaissance, troubled the writer. Aged 28, he wrote to his boyfriend: "My sexuality bothers me, feller, when it makes me aware of the falseness of my position in the world... I hate to hide when what I thrive on is absolute directness." Some 20 years later, prior to a scheduled appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Matthiessen jumped out of a hotel window, killing himself.

Tóibín invariably identifies the poignant anecdote. Take the brief meeting between Degas and Wilde in Paris in 1895. "So much taste," asserted the artist, "will lead to prison."

Tóibín's sympathetic handling of Roger Casement reads aptly, and his verdict on the authenticity of the Black Diaries is unembarrassed by the recent scholarly study. Also rewarding is a chapter on Francis Bacon (Tóibín admits a fascination with Irish Protestants). It is characteristically erudite and refreshingly wayward. The piece on Pedro Almodóvar, however, is not shaped by the need to consider a book. Commissioned by Vanity Fair and basically a lifestyle piece, it has a very different flavour. This may be exacerbated by the director's diffidence concerning his homosexuality – jarring in this context.

Tóibín asks rhetorically, "Why can't gay writers give gay men happy endings, as Jane Austen gave heterosexuals?" Of course they can. One knows this from 25 years of more liberated gay writing here, in the US, and in Ireland too. Indeed, Tóibín acknowledges that rewarding same-sex relations may always have been possible: "For straight people, the eventual matching of the two is part of the deal... But if this occurs for gay people, it is capable of taking on an extraordinarily powerful emotional force".

He cites the enduring bonds experienced by the poets Auden and James Merrill. Neither is otherwise discussed. If there's a criticism of Love in a Dark Time, it is simply that one wishes Tóibín had been prepared to illuminate the period further, offering his views on other among the huge number of possible subjects.

The writer is working on a life of Ronald Firbank