Frank Wilson spends an evening with John Banville, Sebastian Barry and Colm Toibin (yes), and recounts his experience. I have not read The Sea, but have read seminal works by the other two writers. Readers of this blog will attest to my admiration for Toibin's The Master. Coincidentally, the scene that I refer to in my review and which hit me with a subtle precision is the one Toibin chose to read out at the gathering:
Toibin read, in a formal, stately voice, the passage from The Master where Henry James consigns the clothes of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, who has committed suicide, to the waters of Venice's lagoon.
Toibin also made a comment that points to a view I have recently begun agreeing with:
Toibin pointed out that if, while writing a novel, you try to give voice to a grand idea or theme, you're in deep trouble and should really write a pamphlet.
This is certainly true for his work. Toibin desists from making Henry James's life queer propaganda, something gay writers have been accused of in the past. He presents a true picture of Henry's life, complete with his longing for intimacy with men such as sculptor Henrik Anderson.
I think, Toibin means more than what he states in that line. He is not against a grand idea per se, but perhaps he is suggesting that novelists need to pick up characters and stories that amalgamate their vision of the world with everyday life. It then becomes a lesson in morality, at the same time not pedantic. The fabric of the story carries within it the embers of the grand vision that writer is imbued with. Fiction then is subversive not because it propels us to revolution but because it gives us a sense of what was and what might be. By that parameter, it earns the respect of a fence-sitter, a respect that can come only when the writer is not being desperate with his vision. That which fuses gently into the conscious until it captures your being with its impact is more life-affirming that a "come, savour this burden" story.
This argument can be extended to question what is a moral tale. Is it one in which characters spout dogma in the writer's hope that (s)he might convert some, or is it one in which they are forced to live the consequences of their actions?