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Turning Back the Century with Colm Tóibín

It's a rare and beautiful thing when all of the critics fall in love with the same book at the same time. Such a phenomenon has visited Colm Tóibín's The Master, and the superlatives are quickly running out: "a small tour de force of a novel" (The Times Literary Supplement); "marvelously intelligent and engaging" (Booklist); "audacious, profound, and wonderfully intelligent" (The Guardian).

Colm Toibin At the start of the 1900s, Henry James produced three masterpieces in as many years: first The Wings of the Dove, then The Ambassadors, and next The Golden Bowl. The Master introduces James six years prior, in January 1895, on the eve of his great public failure, as "Guy Domville" premieres on the London stage and wholly, horribly, flops.

"Nothing had prepared him for this," Tóibín writes. "For his friends, this night would be entered into the annals of the unmentionable, pages in which he had so studiously avoided having his name appear."

Nothing could be worse than that, to be exposed.

The Master is provocative, nuanced portraiture; Tóibín is a master himself at masking and unmasking, at revealing exactly what he must and nothing more. Luxuriously rendered, his fiction shares with that of James a wealth of piercing, precise observation; loaded, subtle gestures; and "exhilarating duplicities." Recently at Powell's author Robert Sullivan (Rats) marveled over an earlier Tóibín novel, The Heather Blazing: "It's pyrotechnical, almost, in its lack of pyrotechnics. It's like still water, so beautiful."

Dave: How were you drawn to Henry James? What made you want to write about him?

Colm Tóibín: At university, I was interested in poetry and literature, and in the summer holidays of my second year I found myself reading The Portrait of a Lady. It wasn't on a course. I must have just picked it up and started it. And I don't know why the book hit me emotionally so hard or why I was so excited by it. I have nothing in common with Henry James. I was born in a provincial town in the southeast of Ireland. My father was a teacher. The world the novel described wasn't my world. It was the opposite of my world. But I found not only the writing and the characterization, but the level of duplicity described in the book, absolutely exhilarating.

I read it every year for a while, and I read all the rest of James's novels, but I really had no interest in his life, and I knew nothing about him other than that he had transferred himself from the United States to England, where he lived; he was very industrious; and was a bachelor; and had settled down to work at a certain age and stayed working. I knew he was William James's brother, but I didn't really know any more about him when I was reading the novels.

What happened then was that an Irish radio station asked me to contribute to a series called "The Giant at My Shoulder," and I decided to do mine on James. In order to do my piece, I looked up things about James personally.

I became terribly interested. I found myself describing James as though he were a character in a novel. Then the London Review of Books asked me to write a long piece about what constitutes gay literature and what doesn't and what are the complexities and ironies within that. A lot of this was dealing with James and his peculiar position as somebody who may have been homosexual, though he certainly never wrote about it and may not have acted on it, and produced a large body of work that dealt with other matters. It's all complicated, but I started to read about James again.

Finally, when I was finishing my last novel, The Blackwater Lightship, I was in Yaddo, and I needed a book to read that wouldn't interfere with my work but would keep me occupied. I found Leon Edel's five-volume biography of James in the library. I just presumed it would be the most boring book. It sounds like the most boring book you can imagine...

Dave: Just saying the words five-volume biography...

Tóibín: Five-volume biography. And they get longer! The last two are longer than the first three.

I read them, and I was utterly fascinated. I found them riveting. So by the time I had finished The Blackwater Lightship I was immersing myself in anything about James, from the letters to biographies of William or his father or his sister Alice. I realized, I have a character here, like you could have a character in a novel. This is not an investigative biography I could write; I'm not interested in that as much as I'm interested in the interior life, the contradictory life, the emotional life, the sort of spirit within.

Dave: So it was somewhat of a natural transition, from your earlier work into this novel.

Tóibín: I'd just written a painful novel about an Irish family tearing itself asunder in various ways, and I decided, actually, I'll never go there again. This was the most different thing I could imagine doing. It was actually glamorous for me, describing palaces in Rome and Venice. And Americans... even Americans in New England for me is glamorous, if you know what I mean.

I began to enjoy the book. I had a lot of time. I had no pressures. I would have lovely days where I would write a few pages and read a few stories by James, read a few letters by James, and work every day very consistently on the book. I was surprised by it. I was expecting to write a very small, short, literary book about writing, but I found I was writing about a much larger character and a much more interesting world than when I started.

I think, at least in retrospect, I enjoyed it. Maybe at the time I was miserable.

Dave: Why did you choose to use these years, 1895-1899, as the frame?

Tóibín: I was always going to open with that failure in the theater. It was public and dramatic. There's no other event in his life that was done in the full glare of publicity. It was deeply affecting for him in that it was a public humiliation. He was so adept at dealing with private humiliation, but this was new.

It had to stop in about 1900 because in the three years following, 1901, 1902, 1903, he produces one masterpiece each year. He writes The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, one year each for those three books.

Those later years are not interesting for me because they're years where he simply worked. He worked all day, and when he was finished working he worked more. He slept, then he worked. You can't really do much with those years. So it's the years of failure, what Leon Edel calls "the treacherous years," leading up to triumph.

Henry James said, "Two great words of advice to any novelist: Dramatize, dramatize." And the drama is in the failure. The drama is in the build-up to the triumph.

Dave: It's interesting to hear you talk about dramatization. James, himself, is so detached, so careful about appearances, always observing the others around him. There's a passage early on:

[He] liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss almost everything. He himself learned never to disclose anything, and never even to acknowledge the moment when some new information was imparted, to act as though a mere pleasantry had been exchanged. The men and women in the salons of literary Paris moved like players in a game of knowing and not knowing, pretense and disguise. He had learned everything from them.

You could argue that the book is almost alarmingly free of traditional drama because the action is so quiet. It's so much pretense and disguise.

Tóibín: If it was Joseph Conrad, you could have a marvelous time putting him on ships, sending him to Malaysia, having him learn English. James Joyce runs off to Trieste with this servant girl, Nora Barnacle. Ezra Pound was a fascist. T. S. Eliot... All of them have this great dramatic outward life.

This life of James is a completely interior one, and some of it is remembered. But the memory any of us would have if we had a golden cousin whom we loved, if she was an absolutely fascinating woman and you'd known her in her twenties at the very height of her beauty one golden summer at a resort where you were with her, and she died....That belongs to all of us. It needn't have happened to us, but it's something that I think would be immensely important in all our lives.

All you have to do is take the smallest thing like that, the death of a cousin remembered thirty years later, and you can actually play with it forever as an essential human drama without having to put him on a ship or have him eloping. Also, the business of your father not wanting you to go to college and you wanting to go somewhere, having to convince them, your mother...All of us have been through that in some way or other. Getting them at the right moment to ask a fundamental question. "Can I go?"

You take things that belong to the common experience in James, such as his buying his first house. Anyone who's ever seen a house they adored and wanted to buy it immediately knows that feeling. Oh, God, I'm going to lose this.

Dave: And then to hear from your brother that you shouldn't have bought it.

Tóibín: Oh, yes. Anyone who's got an older brother knows exactly what I'm talking about. So while the issues are not large dramatically he's not Robert Louis Stevenson nonetheless, the things that happen to him belong to a much more common experience, and you can work with those as though they're happening to you.

Dave: James's life won't be familiar to many contemporary readers. The five-volume biography isn't sitting on too many bookshelves these days. What kind of challenges does that present, both in terms of style and also in terms of the variety of biographical information the average reader will bring to the story?

Tóibín: First of all, you can't parody his style. His style changes a lot it's a fluid style, becoming very elaborate and decorative in the last novels but you can't parody anyone's style for a whole novel and expect the reader to take it seriously. Nonetheless, you do have to find a style that isn't Hemingway, that's slightly more elaborate, slightly more up, slightly more Victorian in tone, without losing the reader in it. And you have to do it naturally so the sentences read like natural sentences.

The second thing is that the book has to be for somebody who's never read a word of James and knows nothing about him. You establish him as a character and let the reader follow you. There's no point in saying this book is only for someone who has read the five most important novels or a biography; it's precisely the opposite. In my ambition, someone should be able to pick it up from scratch and read it without knowing anything about its context or background.

When I was revising the book, I had in mind to stop it from being like a biography. I took out quite a lot of things that were just there for fact, just to show I'm the brightest boy in this house, I know more about this. I cut things. But I also added things to make sure this was a novel before it was anything.

Dave: People are going to want to read Henry James's own work after they finish The Master. Where would you recommend starting?

Tóibín: I think, very emphatically, begin with The Portrait of a Lady. And in terms of stories, begin with The Turn of the Screw. The Portrait of a Lady is the most accessible and the richest. There are other novels, like The Europeans and Daisy Miller, but in my view, they're slighter. The Portrait of a Lady should really make you concentrate and get you totally involved. I think it's a marvelous story.

Incidentally, I was reading The Turn of the Screw again recently. It really does turn your blood cold. When she starts hearing the voices and seeing the figure at the window, you really go, "Oh, my God."

Dave: I thought it fitting that you studied history and literature in college. Is it possible for someone to write serious fiction about Ireland is it possible for someone to write about Ireland at all and to keep those worlds distinct? I've noticed, for instance, that whenever someone writes about you, and even sometimes when you're writing about yourself, there's endless categorization: revisionist, nationalist, North, South...

Tóibín: Oh, yes.

Dave: Is there a way to keep politics out of Irish fiction? Is there Irish fiction that isn't political?

Tóibín: I've been involved in a number of controversies in Ireland over the past twenty years, and I hope to be involved in some more before I die. This involves writing polemic, and it involves taking sides. It also involves, on a number of occasions, writing very long pieces which relate to history.

All this happens in between the novels, or it happens despite the novels. The novels are much purer and holier a space. It's like having a room painted white, the novels, that you go into, with soft light and beautiful music. Whereas the other room would be so untidy and I would throw things at the wall and I would have the TV blaring and the radio on. In other words, there is an utter and complete difference between going to write the novels and getting involved in everything else to do with essays, journalism, and polemics.

The novel space is a pure space. I'm nobody once I go into that room. I'm not gay, I'm not bald, I'm not Irish. I'm not anybody. I'm nobody. I'm the guy telling the story, and the only person that matters is the person reading that story, the target. It's to get that person to feel what I'm trying to dramatize.

I've set one novel in Argentina [The Story of the Night], one is Henry James, one is half-Spain and half-Ireland [The South], and two are completely set in contemporary Ireland with all the drama going on in public and private worlds in the country. The Blackwater Lightship has been translated into twenty-two languages, including Icelandic and Latvian that business of an Irish family involved in tearing itself asunder is not unusual. It happens to families in Brazil. All you have to do is make sure that you're not putting in flavor just to get Irish stuff into it, having people saying the rosary and priests coming in and out of the house, having bombs going off.

I've never put Northern Ireland into a novel because it's not my territory. I come from the South, so my imaginative territory is very much the Republic of Ireland rather than the North. Even though if I wrote a novel about the North it might sell more.

Dave: You've published various nonfictions, though, including Bad Blood and The Sign of the Cross, which perhaps fall under the umbrella of New Journalism. They're very much reportage, but with an I at the center of the narrative.

Tóibín: In between novels I have to do something. Those projects came. You have to keep writing. It's almost like practice almost like tennis that actually after a few days of not writing, first of all it makes you slightly depressed and uneasy, but it also affects the style when you start up again. You need to get the show on the road.

Unlike Henry James, who really could write a novel immediately on finishing one, I can't do that. Nobody much nowadays can. You need a year in which you wash the last novel out of yourself. It's funny.

Dave: Growing up in Ireland, growing up just about anywhere, probably, one's conception of religion is likely more rigidly defined than the reality. You'd never imagine, for example, that there might be any number of different practices within Catholicism that are still considered Catholicism. Then you go out and you find that that's not the case.

Tóibín: Catholicism fits into each country in a very different sort of way. I found all that really interesting, and it was a good way of getting away from myself, to try to write about Lithuanians.

It was an interesting project [The Sign of the Cross], but I found that traveling, in the end, is too lonely. I haven't done a travel book for a while. I don't plan to do one. I just found the work too lonely, so I've been writing essays and stuff instead.

Dave: One of the central characters in The Blackwater Lightship is dying of AIDS, but in fact his story is relegated somewhat to the background. I'd be more inclined to say that it's a book about family, and in particular about a mother and a daughter and a granddaughter.

Tóibín: Yes, two things going on beside each other, the death bringing up the other. I thought if I didn't do that, I was going to miss the drama. The drama was in the other side of the family.

I didn't plan it like that. As I started working, I saw that it must be told from the sister's point of view. It's a sort of version of Electra, where the girl can't forgive her mother for almost the murder of her father, and there's a brother who's gone away who comes back. It's an enactment of that, almost.

Dave: The novel relies very much on dialogue.

Tóibín: It's almost all dialogue, yes.

Dave: Did you imagine it that way from the beginning?

Tóibín: I did. The previous book had been set in Argentina. It was told in the first person with almost no dialogue, and I wanted to write a book of voices, almost, and try and work on the voices so each one would sound different.

It's a very small canvas. It's a tiny world, a tiny number of people, just a few days. I had to put a great deal of intensity into it. It's like a piece of chamber music, I hope.

Dave: What piece of recorded music are you listening to most often these days?

Tóibín: At the moment, since before Christmas, I've been listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing the two Bach cantatas. It's a new CD. She's a Mezzo-soprano, an American. She's technically extraordinary, and she's put a range of feeling into those two cantatas that's new.

She's absolutely astonishing, I promise you. Everyone I've given it to... Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Bach cantatas. I've been listening to that all the time. I have it with me.

Dave: Do you listen to music when you're writing?

Tóibín: No, no, no, God no. I couldn't do anything.

Dave: You just need quiet?

Tóibín: It doesn't matter if there's noise around, but I couldn't put the music deliberately on. In between, all the time.

Dave: Would you say that your writing is directly influenced by other forms of art?

Tóibín: I'm sort of locked into a number of films I saw in my teens, like all the Bergman films. Fellini films. Those European films that were so powerful in those years. Nothing much since, really. I don't go to films very much anymore.

I'm slightly influenced by sport in that I like the idea of trying, like an athlete, to keep absolutely ready. That's an emotional thing, almost. I don't mean physically, although I play tennis. But you try to keep yourself ready.

Dave: The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction is more than a thousand pages long. How did you approach that project? Where did you even start to create a representative selection?

Tóibín: I started by thinking that I would be able to put the whole of Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth in, the whole of Gulliver in Lilliput, and work my way around.

I had trouble with what to leave out of it. It was longer at one point and Penguin went crazy. I had to take about three hundred pages out of it, which broke my heart because there were wonderful little things, strange pieces that wouldn't have been the first choice but would have looked lovely with the others.

Obviously, the serious thing was to include the best of Joyce, the best of Beckett; for the twentieth century, that would be vital, to have both of them really well represented. It's not an eccentric anthology. I tried to make it as representative and as serious as possible, therefore it had to be very big.

I'm very happy with it. I think it's a useful book. I think it can be used very easily to set a complete course of Irish reading around. It has the full text of The Dead. It has the full text of two Beckett short pieces. There's the full text of quite a lot in the book. You can work from that.

Dave: What have you been reading lately?

Tóibín: I'm giving a lecture on Yeats and his father, so I've been doing a lot of work on the Yeats family. There's a marvelous man called Professor William Murphy who has done a lot of original work on them, so I've been reading his work and his books. I'm going up to Union College in Schenectady to look at some papers next week.

Dave: Any fiction alongside that?

Tóibín: I've just read Patrick McGrath's novel, Port Mungo, which I adored. It's a really good book. It's voluptuous, and full of excitement and obsession. Really great.

Dave: You have a play coming out soon, is that right?

Tóibín: In Dublin on the sixteenth of August. It better be good!

Dave: At least if you get panned now, you'll have some idea what to expect.

Tóibín: I won't be foolish enough to go up on the stage and bow. I'll run home.

Dave: How did you become involved in a project for the theater?

Tóibín: The National Theater commissioned us, and I agreed to do it. I hadn't written a play before, so when they asked me I said I would.

I had a go at it and they accepted the first draft as a first draft, paid me for it. Then I worked to make it as perfect as I could and worked with the director and actors further. The text they have now has been really worked over. We can't do any more to it. Cut it more, maybe, but not much I don't think.

The first draft was actually quite easy. The subsequent work was hard.

Dave: We've been wondering here in the office what it's like going through life with two accents in your name.

Tóibín: My first novel, the Brits left it off. They had my name on the top of the left hand of every page, and they left the accents off the proof.

I had to ring them and say, "Look, you know, I have these two things on my name..."

And they said, "Do you really need them?" In an English accent: "Do you really need them? I mean, are you sure? It costs quite a lot of money."

I said, "We fought you for seven hundred years for the right to spell our names properly. You put them back on!" The poor guy presumed I was serious. "I'm so sorry," he said. "Yes, of course, we'll put them back on."

It's quite common in Ireland but the Brits have real trouble with it. The Yanks, in general, just ignore it.

Colm Tóibín spoke by phone from Simon and Schuster's Manhattan offices on the afternoon of June 2, 2004. Props to Amy King-Schoppert and Erin Cox for making the interview (and the signed first editions) happen.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post


  1. The Portrait of a Lady (Modern... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Love in a Dark Time: And Other... Sale Trade Paper $7.98

  3. The Blackwater Lightship Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. The Master
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  5. The Master Used Hardcover $5.50
  6. The Wings of the Dove (Modern... Used Trade Paper $6.00
  7. The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics) Used Trade Paper $4.95
  8. The Heather Blazing Used Trade Paper $8.00
  9. The Portrait of a Lady (Modern... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  10. The Blackwater Lightship Used Trade Paper $8.00
  11. Dubliners (Penguin Twentieth-Century... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  12. Port Mungo
    Used Hardcover $4.95


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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