Issue 114 |
Spring 2011

About Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is a gentleman. A very witty, charming, lively, and sometimes deliciously louche gentleman, but a gentleman all the same, though one senses that he might not wish for that to be said too loudly. He has the beauty of a boxer—strong chest, light on his feet, precise in his movements and in his dress, and with a large, expressive face, gentle eyes. He keeps his elbows in. When I first met him a few years ago, I was surprised at how much he laughed, how graceful he was in conversation, how good he
clearly was at putting others at ease. He’s one of those people who are experts at getting you to talk about yourself and come away feeling that you’ve had a fascinating exchange. I was surprised because his work is so exquisitely built, so melancholy, so subtle and so spare. I might have expected a wallflower; he is anything but that. He has a great eye for style, knows his way around Yohji Yamamoto. At the same time, something is held in reserve. There is a zone of privacy around him that is less specifically personal than it is existential, ontological. “My influences,” he says, “are Hemingway and Henry James”—two writers who couldn’t seem more different stylistically and as men, but who share, in their work and in their lives, a core of silence, of a great deal left unsaid. That silence is resonant, abundant, like a room just after the orchestra has stopped playing. It is anything but empty.

Born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, in 1955, the grandson of a member of the IRA and participant in the 1916 Enniscorthy uprising, son of a teacher and a part-time office worker, he says succinctly that his ambition when he was young was “to get away from them all.” Get away he did, first to University College Dublin and then farther afield, living in Barcelona from 1975 to 1978, where he taught English. He went back to Ireland and worked as a journalist, travel writer, and editor in the ’80s, venturing to Africa and South America; in 1987, he published Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border, a nonfiction account of walking the tense border of Ireland in the summer after the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The fiction writer in him emerged slowly. He can’t recall any mentors, but, he says, “My mother had written and published poetry before she married, and my father’s brother, who died in his twenties, had also written poetry. When I was twelve, I began writing poetry. I started writing fiction about twenty-four, twenty-five.” His father also died when he was twelve, a conjunction of loss and art-making that he has noted, somewhat reluctantly, in interviews. In fact, he adds to his primary influences of Hemingway and James, “the death of my father” along with “going to Spain; my homosexuality.” He published his first novel, The South, the story of an Irish woman who leaves Ireland for Spain in the ’50s to become an artist, in 1990, when he was thirty-five. Publication didn’t come easily. “My poems,” he recalls, “were no good and no one would publish them. My short stories were no good and no one would publish them. My first novel was good, but everyone turned it down. Then a small publisher in London did it.”

From there, however, Tóibín rapidly came into his own. The South was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. It was followed in 1992 by The Heather Blazing, winner of the Encore Award; The Story of the Night, 1996, winner of the Ferro-Grumley Prize; The Blackwater Lightship, 1999, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize and the Booker Prize; The Master, 2004, winner of the IMPAC, the Prix du Meilleur Livre, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and shortlisted for the Booker; and Brooklyn, 2009, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year. Along the way, he also published the short story collection Mothers and Sons, 2006; The Modern Library: the 200 Best Novels Since 1950 (with Carmen Callil), 1999; the biography Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, 2002; Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar, 2002; and edited The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, 2001. His two most recent works are the collection of stories The Empty Family, 2011; and a collection of essays on Henry James, All a Novelist Needs, 2010. He crisscrossed the Atlantic—twice the Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford University; visiting writer at the Michener Center in Austin, Texas; currently the Leonard Milberg Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. In 2004, he curated an exhibit at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin entirely composed of blue objects from their collection. He lectures, reads, and travels widely.

However, for all the impressive and wide-ranging cosmopolitanism of Tóibín’s career, four of his six novels take place in or near Enniscorthy. Some begin there, some end there, some take place entirely there. Hearts and minds in struggle with themselves is a frequent theme of Tóibín’s, perhaps most gorgeously realized in his novel The Master, which concerns the unfathomable loneliness of Henry James, but which also threads through the roiled psyches of the ambitious, flinty woman artist of The South; the conscientious but isolated middle-aged judge of The Heather Blazing; and the semi-closeted, British gay man living in Argentina during the time of the generals in The Story of the Night; among others. Mind moves on mind, broods, goes to war with itself, connects, or, with devastating self-consciousness, fails to connect. The loneliness of the main character is always far larger than any name one might wish to put to it. Identity, national or sexual or even as an artist, is never quite the whole point. Something unsaid always remains, giving shadow and dimension, a counterlife, to his quiet, terse, crystalline sentences. If one were to score his novels, one might use Satie or Philip Glass. The world rages, visibly and pungently, in his work, but his heroes and heroines are always walking near the edge of the crowd, looking at the sky or the sea, holding what love they get close. Tóibín himself has built a house that overlooks the sea in County Wexford, not far from where he grew up. He speaks of it with pleasure and pride. “When I’m away,” he has said, “it fills my dreams.”

The most recent time I saw Colm was at a crowded book party he was throwing for another writer in New York. The room was full of wonderful, exceptionally smart people. It was spring; he was circulating with aplomb, pouring wine, laughing, welcoming, flirting, creating an atmosphere of delight. The crowd got bigger, and the night went on for some time. It was terrifically fun, and yet I couldn’t help but feel that its intensity was also due to the complexity and depth of the mind of our host, who wrote, in the catalog for the exhibition of blue objects, “The imagination at work is always alone, no matter how strong a tradition or sense of community. The mind making images does so singly, in moments of fierce concentration, suddenly, as though this had never been done before, as though the task of now were the only task there ever would be.” It was that, as well, that he brought to the party, and we were all somehow glad of it, though perhaps we wouldn’t have credited an innate solitude, or a house in Ireland by the sea, for our worldly pleasure.