Talking to Colm Toibin

Interview with COLM TOIBIN, published in The Independent, September 1999

I first met Colm Toibin when he was singing a ferocious song in Catalan. It was the Glens of Antrim; we were all drunk. He was with a woman, a night-club owner from Trieste, and radiated foreignness. Today, the river-light of the Embankment streaming over the Aroma Café’s melanine in the Festival Hall, neither of us are drunk but he still looks Spanish. I’ve been re-reading his non-fiction – like Bad Blood: Walking Along the Border, for which he walked the North-South Irish frontier at the height of the Troubles, staying in villages where every house had lost somebody, talking to British soldiers slapping camouflage onto smooth chins, dogtraining Orangemen, balaclavad IRA. The cover shows him walking through a dangerously empty countryside. Wherever he is, Spain, Antrim, London’s concrete cultural heart, he is at home with that risky observing of other people which being foreign brings.

He comes from Enniscorthy, a small town outside Wexford. His father, a schoolteacher, wrote local history (the Risings of 1798 took place in the town), founded the Museum there, and died when Colm was twelve. That loss, as well as a profound sense that history explains the present but should never be be allowed to boss it around, informs his work. Reading became a way of making up for it. “Sartre, Camus, Hemingway – all three had an enormous effect on me. So did Bergman films. The impact of stumbling into Cries and Whispers as a young student was devastating. Bergman is in everything I do.” He finished his degree at University College Dublin (“Joyces’s university”, he says in that airy Irish way which reminds English writers how Joyce and Beckett are theirs, not ours) and got out. “Henry James’s father took his family to Europe: he didn’t feel they’d get a sensuous education in America. If I’d only known there was such a thing, I’d have got out as a baby – away from clouds, Catholicism, caution.” He taught English in Barcelona. “I learned two languages badly, Spanish and Catalan, read, got drunk every night I could. It was great – drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll only I was never good at drugs and didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll. After three years I came home, educated.” Franco died while he was there: he watched the transition to democracy – “I was on every demonstration” – and returned to join a legendary generation of Irish journalists. “We wanted to be Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe. I learnt to be a novelist through journalism. Journalism got the poison out of me, over the issues that bother me – the IRA, intellectual nationalism, the Church, conservative, softspoken government. I didn’t need to put the anger into novels.”

His settings swing from Ireland to a Spanishy elsewheres. His first novel was Spain, second Wexford, third Argentina; this one returns to Wexford, but always with that alien perspective; and he writes in alien places too. “I wrote The South in Lisbon. There was terrible noise from a rock festival. I’d paid for the room, so I asked for a card table, and wrote in the toilet.” And what is an Irish novel? “One of the greatest Irish writers was Henry James. He was appalled by Ireland but his grandfather came from Cavan. They were displaced Protestants – the most Irish Irish you could have.” Hmmm.

Apart from James, Toibin is on his own. Though set in Argentina, The Story of the Night is the first male gay Irish novel; this one the first set in Ireland. Colm brushes that aside. “The foreground is love and loss. Contemporary Ireland, people being given freedom they did not have before – not only to be gay – is the background.” Hang on. His dad analyzed the impact of railways on nineteenth-century Irish provincial life; he trained his own exacting historical consciousness to New Journalistic standards: isn’t the society experiencing love and loss his target too? He’s writing Irishness as deep as Roddy Doyle but a different kind: the newly affluent middle-class of mobile phones, motorways, headmasters’ committee meetings? His work is photo-sensitive to – and can be very funny about – the social-cum-emotional significance of objects and uncertainties. Even when he’s playing Argentina, he still talks Ireland. In hsi new novel, he’s exploring love and loss through two lots of people – middle Ireland, the gay community – who are very new, who have shape-changed radically in thirty years. Isn’t he exploring the impact of change on them through love and loss, as much as love and loss through them?

He looks down at the Aroma’s table-top. “That’s probably all wrong?, I say”

“No,” he says. “It’s probably true. If there is a political foreground, it’s the clash between traditional beliefs and an open economy. New electrical gadgets, new ways of being in a house – changes I saw as a child which have accelerated in the last ten years. Belief in two knocks at the door when someone is dying – people at home believe that today – alongside mobile phones. In a very closed society, we’ve moved in twenty years from knocks on the door to home computers. Yes. I’m interested in the effect that has on people: who they are, who they kiss.”

How come his Ireland is so different from Roddy Doyle’s? “Everyone writing in Ireland re-invents the place. In my generation, Dermot Bolger and Roddy Doyle meant that homes never before considered part of the national culture, became national culture overnight. In 1973, Ireland joined the EEC, John Banville’s Birchwood came out, and Irish consciousness stopped wanting to be Catholic Nationalist with a melancholy narrative and wanted to be urbanely European.” Alongside Doyle’s adventurers, Toibin choreographs middle-class Irish privacies. As he wrote about the poet Paul Durcan, “What happens inside the family in Ireland remains so secretive, so painfully locked within each person, that any writer who deals with the dynamics of family life stands apart.” In conversation, Toibin is mischievous as a mongoose, but his prose is famous for its pared sentences (late Beckett, rather than Joyce). The humour – which English readers associate with Irish writing – is quick, understated, in the dialogue.

He once wrote poems, and has just done a radio programme about contemporary poetry. “From poetry, especially Elizabeth Bishop, I found the more you leave out the more powerful it is. You must feel what you imagine, but never state what you’re feeling. Just give the process, sentence by sentence.” He knows literary London inside out but still finds Englishness hilariously mysterious. (Or says he does.) He’s off to a party. “Should I stay as I am?” he asks. “Or put on a white shirt?”

“Maybe the white shirt?”

He is, after all, the Henry James of Enniscorthy – though more economical with adjectives and instead of America-meets-Europe you get nineteenth meets twentieth-century Ireland. Both address human communication and its failure. In the new novel, a lighthouse stands guard over mutual self-discoveries in psyches cloistered together by love for a young man dying of Aids. It is Toibin’s big theme: how divided people – straight and gay, hurt daughter and careerist mum – try and often fail to understand each other, fitfully illumined by staring across the dark, estranging, loss-filled sea between.

Of course he should wear his white shirt.