An interview with Colm Tóibín

Henry Ace Knight

“The sight of the waves miles out, their dutiful and frenetic solitude, their dull indifference to their fate,” the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín writes in his catalogue essay on the hyperrealist graphite drawings of Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins for a 2006 retrospective of her work at the Pompidou. The Empty Family, a collection of stories concerning “solitude, exile, strangeness, awayness, apartness,” was born of a day spent alternating between studying these drawings and dozing on the museum’s 5th floor couches. “As she would repeat her sea,” Tóibín spoke of the book’s genesis at a 2011 New York Public Library event, “I would repeat my set of these emotions.

Celmins has an unmistakable presence in the collection’s title story, which Tóibín says is a direct response to her work. Untitled (Big Sea #1), a fine graphite rendering of her own photograph of the ocean, lacks a centering point of reference, with neither horizon line nor depth of field to stabilize the viewer’s gaze. The drawing tightropes between the boundlessness implied by this sort of image and the artistic binding imposed by the thin, grey line framing its edges. 

Tóibín maps a similar tension onto language in The Empty Family. Its eponymous moment is a stunning description of a wave, while the coda casts doubt on the capacity of language to snare something so kinetic. For Tóibín’s silver-tongued narrator, “words are no good; [they] don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.” He endeavors to forget about them for a few days, “to know at last that the words for colors, the blue-grey-green of the sea, the whiteness of the waves, will not work against the fullness of watching the rich chaos they yield and carry.” 

Celmins is certainly not the only visual artist with whom Tóibín has a deep creative affinity. In a talk delivered at the Courtauld Institute in 2008, well worth reading in its entirety, the former Esquire art critic’s subject was Cézanne. A tendency for omission, Tóibín argued, was his defining artistic signature, arising from his commitment to make only what he knew and deployed in service of “a richer and more exact complexity.” Paraphrasing Rilke, he identifies the core tension of Cézanne’s oeuvre as “the essential struggle . . . between the intensity of looking and the ambition of making.” This dialectic between the eye and the hand, its accompanying reverence for life’s complexity and aversion to its oversimplification by art, seems to animate not only Cézanne’s landscapes, but Tóibín’s fiction, too. His writerly project is as invested in “the attempt to do justice to the idea that nothing [is] simple, single or harmonious” as Cézanne’s painterly one, “while also opposing non-arrangement or chaos or disorder.” Reduction, the blunting of nuance, is for Tóibín an artistic sin on par with leaving the shrapnel of life scattered, disassembled, altogether unattended. Ellipsis is as important to his compositional style as omission is to Cézanne’s. Words, possessing tone and texture like individual brushstrokes, “contain emotion in themselves but also in what is between them, what is subtly suggested in the gaps, in the unsaid, the unwritten.”

Born in Enniscorthy County, Wexford, Tóibín is the author of eight novels, three of which have garnered recognition on the Booker Prize shortlist: The Blackwater Lightship (1999), The Master (2004), and most recently The Testament of Mary (2012), produced as a Tony-nominated Broadway show and released as an audiobook in the voice of Meryl Streep. Brooklyn (2009), for which he is perhaps best known, earned the Costa Novel of the Year and was adapted into a film by the same name in 2015, directed by John Crowley and nominated for three Academy Awards. The aforementioned story collection The Empty Family, his second, was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize in 2010. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at The London Review of Books, Tóibín has also published a memoir, several collections of essays, and a number of books of nonfiction, including most recently, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015). Twice the Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford, he is currently the Mellon Professor in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. 

I was introduced to your fiction at a dinner party, by a new friend in an unfamiliar city, who recounted one of your stories (“The Street”) with such a forceful intensity and sharp intimacy that she sounded almost as if she were unburdening herself of a long-held secret. All but her boyfriend, whose rolling eyes implied he had heard this exact recounting at least once before, listened with rapt attention. I borrowed the collection from her at the end of the evening, already knowing how the story of Abdul and Malik ended but curious to read for myself the words that had moved her to share it. I was struck by the diverse ways in which you manage to unnerve and suspend the conceptions of home your characters carry: Home in these stories is not something one ever truly returns to. It’s something one fights for in the wake of its inevitable evaporation: you forge one anew, like Malik, or reclaim one bygone, like Carme. Even then, the resolutions feel unstable: Abdul’s proposal to cohabit with Malik is touching, but one remains skeptical of whether it would ever come to fruition, and if it did, how sustainable it would be. Carme succeeds in repossessing her grandmother’s pawned furniture and razing the wall between her house and the ocean, but her moment of catharsis comes at a tourist trap bar, surrounded by foreign voices encroaching on her property. Where do you feel (/have you felt) at home, if anywhere, and to what extent do you think your experience of it aligns with Malik’s or Carme’s?

I have a house on the Wexford coast in Ireland. When I go to the beach, I pass the very house where I was conceived. There are people there who knew my parents and my aunts and uncles and my siblings. We spent summers there until my father died. That was when I was twelve. And then it was lost to me. So coming back is to a place that is familiar but was lost. And sometimes I drive into the town of Enniscorthy and that too is a sort of lost home. In Dublin, where I am now, I use the same supermarket that I went to first in 1974. With the exception of eight years when I lived elsewhere in Dublin, I have always lived in these few streets—in three different apartments/ houses. So this is familiar territory. But Dublin is not home, never has been. I am always an outsider here. In the case of ‘The Street’, I used what it is like to be alone (and away from home) in Barcelona, which I know very well, and then I started to imagine that immigrant community. To write ‘The Street’, I walked that street in Barcelona a few times a day. I worked on the story over a few years, made many cuts and additions. The other story ‘The New Spain’ came from a sentence that arrived in my head in 1988: ‘There was such a wind over the sea that day.’ It took 20 years for an image to gather around that. The story came from my going back and forth from Barcelona to the islands, and also noticing how conservative the middle class of Majorca is, and how easy it would be to dramatize the difference between generations.

In an interview for our Fall 2016 issue, László Krasznahorkai, whom you’ve mentioned you consider one of the best living novelists, said: “You know, the ability to feel that you are at home at this place or another is something that should not be dismissed lightly. To be able to feel at home, one needs to be blind to a whole lot of things, to fail to acknowledge a whole lot of other things, and to keep the realization that his or her home is highly unstable at a distance. The unstable nature of homes is very much evident to me and thus, I find some people’s clinging adherence to their homes highly moving.” What do you make of this? 

In English, the word ‘home’ has a nice sound. Soft. Easy. So that when Abdul in ‘The Street’ says: ‘You are my home’ it is an important moment. In the history of migration, it is agreed that most people, if given the choice, will live all their lives close to where they were born. I never felt this urge to stay home myself. I wanted to leave Enniscorthy, leave Ireland. I like temporary quarters, semi-detached. But I am in a minority. For Irish people, the real history is the history of leaving. In every generation for almost two centuries, and maybe even before. So even when you work with a single story, as I did in ‘Brooklyn,’ you are aware of the larger picture. And then, like a lengthening shadow, the other story—the story of those who stayed at home—emerges.

How do you approach writing characters like Abdul and Malik, Pakistani immigrants in Spain, whose lived experiences are so far removed from the language in which you render them?

It takes a lot of time. I observe, but that in the end is no use. I try to imagine it image by image, or sentence by sentence, making each seem true.

I really enjoyed the dinner party scene in “Silence,” your set piece on Lady Gregory. The idea of Henry James being just another body at the table, a rather irrelevant presence invited of the necessity to fill the room, is quite funny. If you were buried in the corner with him at a dinner party “on a night where politics would be discussed between the men and silliness between the women, [and] neither of [you] mattered,” how do you imagine the conversation between you would go?

This was James’s world in London. He tended to dine with politicians and military men, and was not considered important. There would be many things to discuss. He tended to be very astute. I would try not to talk at all. Ask questions and listen. Maybe talk a bit, as he would, about solitude and moan about money.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Big Sea #1), 1969

I’m interested in the role visual art plays in your work. For three years you were Esquire’s art critic. In 2010, you collaborated with Callum Innes on an exhibition at the Sean Kelly Gallery. Last year, at the Louisiana Literature Festival, you described your craft in painterly terms: “You vary the sentence rhythms in the same way you find Cézanne varies the brush stroke. He varies the tonal weight of each brush stroke. You’re always reading back over the previous two sentences to see what is needed now rhythmically. You know what you need to achieve but you have to constantly watch that you’re creating a sort of melody in the prose that isn’t monotonous or doesn’t draw the reader’s attention to it.” How do you weave visual art into your fiction? What challenges does ekphrasis pose for you and why are you drawn to it?

I am interested in scenes, in paintings. But I am also interested in music. I think I need constant nourishment, and can take a great deal from a few artists and a few composers (and indeed a few writers). I think the work and the presence of Vija Celmins has been important for me, for example. I probably would not have written all of the stories in the book The Empty Family without her show at the Pompidou a few years earlier. The title story is a direct response to her work. And also some of the chamber music of Webern and a few Schubert songs. And, yes, I pay attention to what Callum Innes does, and like how spare the work is, how minimal it may seem and than how much energy it can release. One of the chapters in ‘Nora Webster’ could not have been written without his work.

Which visual artists have most influenced your work?

There is a Vermeer in Dublin in the National Gallery, near where I live. And I go on a Saturday late afternoon in New York to look at the Vermeers there. I am interested in the idea of using a single figure, a single face, and then the northern light and the northern sensibility. Some of the Velasquez paintings done in Seville have also mattered to me. I have learned a great deal from looking intensely at Mondrian and Albers and Agnes Martin. And then there are a large number of Irish painters whom I have known personally and whose work I saw soon after it was made, and whom I talked to a lot—or just a small bit, but I remembered every word said - about painting. They would be: Patrick Collins, Camille Souter, Louis le Brocquy, Barrie Cooke, Anne Madden, Maria Simmons-Gooding, Robert Armstrong, Mary Lohan.

You’ve entrusted your fiction to translators working in more than thirty languages and to Nick Hornby, who adapted Brooklyn for the screen. How do you believe the process of translating across languages compares to translation across mediums? Do you worry, in either case, about your work being mistreated?

I wanted Nick to do ‘Brooklyn’ because I thought he would do it well. I never think about translations of the books, how they are. That way madness lies.

I’ve heard you didn’t work directly with Hornby on Brooklyn, but I’m curious if there was anything about his screenplay—scenes he wrote that particularly impressed or bothered you, parts of the novel that he excised, anything really—that informed your own upcoming project with Volker Schlöndorff, an adaptation of Max Frisch’s Montauk?

In ‘Brooklyn’, I liked the ending that Nick wrote, and I find it moving and satisfying. All the cuts he made made sense to me. The Schlondorff film is not an adaptation of Frisch. The main character has read Frisch’s book, and there is a shadow of Frisch’s story. But that is about it. The Montauk film Volker and I wrote together. It became for both of us, I think, a personal exploration. Instead of talking about ourselves to each other (which we almost never did), we let things into the screenplay that were personal and then looked to see if they would survive there.

What, if anything, do you believe an adaptation owes its original?

Oh, I think the film of ‘Brooklyn’ is very close to the book. Close in its emotional shape.

Have you worked closely with any of your translators?

No. I know a few of them, but we would never discuss their work on my books. There are always more interesting things to talk about.

Have you ever tried your hand at translation?

Yes. I translated an art book from Catalan to English years ago. At first, I cut out all the rubbish in the original, but then they made me go back and re-instate it as the English had to appear on a facing page. I have also done one or two things from the Spanish. I am no good at it.

You were in China and Taiwan last year promoting Nora Webster. What was that like?

As someone from a small island, I take a great interest in Empires. The Catholic Church for example, or the poor British Empire. And then the others that faded—the Roman one, or the Austro-Hungarian. Now, we have the declining American Empire, the Chinese Empire (spreading through Africa, for example) and the German Empire, which runs Europe. The Chinese government have decided, in their wisdom, that literary novels are harmless. So they allow large number of writers such as myself to be translated and published in China. It is lovely to be deemed harmless, but I wouldn’t count on it if I were them. Chinese readers are wonderfully open and enthusiastic and intelligent. It is a pleasure to meet them.

Literary fiction and poetry in translation account for less than one percent of the U.S. publishing market. Compared with European readerships—in Italy, for example, almost half of published novels are translated from English—Americans seem particularly disinclined to engage with literature in translation. Can you tell us about your work as chair of PEN World Voices?

I was Chair for two Festivals. (I am not Chair anymore.) Part of the vision of the Festival is to introduce new writers to New York readers. To spread the word, and spread it a bit more evenly.

What are you currently working on?

I have finished two novels. One, coming out in May, is called ‘House of Names’ and is a version of the Oresteia. The other, set in Germany and New York, will come out in 2018. I have another German novel in my head and also need to revise three short stories, making them much much longer and more textured. And maybe then there will be a book of stories, as I have about seven or eight stories finished.