Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pride Month Profile: Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin (1955-  )
Author, critic, educator

At sixty- an imposing man who looks to be carved from granite- Colm Toibin is at the top of his game: author of critically praised and best-selling novels; holder of top academic appointments; ranked a leading UK intellectual; his work turned into movies and plays

Half a century ago, it seemed an unlikely future. Grandson of a 1916 Rebellionist, son of a schoolmaster who died when Toibin was twelve, the boy made a slow start:

I could not read until I was 9, by which time I had developed a serious stammer. Although my mother once warned me that being a dimwit was likely to have dire consequences, my parents were sweet enough not to mention my stammer or my non-reading much and were smart enough not to seek professional help. They left me to myself. Thus I have no childhood books or authors, but I had plenty of time to think and also to study things and people. I did then learn to read, and I think I disturbed the folks more when I became addicted to poetry and, as a teenager, learned Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” by heart. It took me a bit longer to get rid of the stammer. Even still, in leading a mystery of the rosary, I have no problem with “Our Father” since it begins with a vowel, or “Hail Mary” since it starts with a soft H, but I have to do a hell of a lot of light and heavy breathing as I approach the hard consonant start of “Glory be to the Father."

Out of high school, he developed a passion for Hemingway working as a bartender in an Irish resort. He graduated University College, Dublin, then spent three years in Barcelona working on his writing. In the 1980s he enjoyed success as a journalist and magazine editor, then began publishing essays and travel books, moving into novels and short stories in the ‘90s.

Tóibín's work explores several main lines: the depiction of Irish society, living abroad, the process of creativity, and the preservation of a personal identity, focusing on homosexual identities in a rapidly evolving Irish culture, but also on identity when confronted with loss.  

A number of his books are set around, or involve characters from, his childhood home in County Wexford. Nora Webster, suddenly widowed in 1969, feels a cold, hard, grief-free sense of release from her roles of wife and mother as she re-enters the workforce. Brooklyn- made into a film- to good reviews- is the story of an Irish girl who migrated to America.

Toibin’s novel of the last years of the writer Henry James, The Master, was hailed as a triumph for Toibin's ability to convey the manner and style of that obsessively mannered writer, but to avoid in the doing both parody and second-rate copying. One reviewer praised the books for its portrayal of James (rather like the butler in The Remains of the Day), of a man who was at the center of everything and missed out on being part of it:

The pillars of the narrative are failure, avoidance, renunciation and withdrawal. Unpromising quartet, but appropriate to a life without obvious eventfulness, and a work with a strong, negative dynamic, structured round the missed opportunity, the faulty choice, the golden bowl with its latent crack, the 'beast in the jungle' whose annihilating leap is delayed and delayed.

A few years later, his shorter book, The Gospel of Mary, won praise for telling the story of Jesus from the perspective of his elderly mother- a bewildered, angry woman under virtual house arrest by disciples in whose evolving control of his narrative she is a prize totem.

A widely read man, Toibin has described his ideal literary dinner guests as James Baldwin, Kit Marlowe and Robert Louis Stevenson:

After dinner we would do a spliced reading of Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Marlowe’s “Edward II.” We would also have fun, I hope, making sly and suggestive comments to Stevenson about his sexuality. I would also enjoy listening to Marlowe reading aloud his poem “Hero and Leander,” which is one of my favorite poems. And I bet Baldwin would enjoy the reading too, not to speak of Stevenson.

He’s also a fan of the great 19th century British-Irish schools:

At Columbia, I teach books that I care about, and always reread them in the week before the class. This means that every year I get to revisit 19th-century novels such as “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Middlemarch,” and then Irish classics such as “The Tain,” “Dubliners,” Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Last September,” Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds” and Beckett’s “Molloy.”

Before joining the Columbia faculty, Toibin held appointments at Stanford, Princeton, The University of Texas-Austin, and the University of Manchester.

Toibin’s eight novels have seen him into the Booker Prize lists four times; the INPAC Dublin Literary Awards three; winner of the Lambda Literary, Stonewall and Costa Prizes. A slow writer, he works at a clean desk, seating in an uncomfortable chair. He doesn't watch TV, and never uses a work processor until his writing is completed in longhand.

In the 2015 Irish marriage equality referendum Toibin became a front-page influence on debate with a lecture at his alma mater, 'The Embrace of Love: Being Gay in Ireland Now', focused on same-sex relationships and literature among Irish literary figures.

"We should be able to ritualise and copper-fasten our love,” he said.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.