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Colm Tóibín: “I think, ‘I must be deep.’ Then I think, ‘Stop this nonsense, get on with the story’”

The Irish novelist on writing after chemotherapy, growing up gay “in the 19th century”, and winning the 2021 David Cohen Prize for Literature.

By Leo Robson

In conversation, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, the winner of the 2021 David Cohen Prize for Literature, employs a range of corroborating gestures. During moments of leisurely explanatory flow, he uses the back of his right hand to fondle the air just in front of him, or to fold it in gentle Nigella-ish revolutions. When he wants to achieve a tone of emphasis, a stab of the index finger accompanies every carefully chosen word. In more pensive moments, he likes to stroke his head, which is bald except for tufts around the back and side in the manner of his hero Henry James, the subject of his novel The Master (2004).

On a recent afternoon, sitting in a library-like, though bookless, room in a small central London hotel, he preferred to lean forward from his armchair, arching his noble lined face towards the coffee table that lay between us – a disposition that reflected the infinite seriousness with which he takes “the creation of character and setting of scenes”.

“What you do,” he told me, at a moment of near horizontality, “is play to your strengths. But you keep not knowing what your strengths are.” He was talking about the evolution of his latest book, The Magician, a kind of sibling to The Master, which follows the German writer Thomas Mann virtually from cradle to grave. “You keep thinking, ‘I must be deep, I must be deeper.’ Then you say, stop this nonsense, get on with the story.” Eventually, he decided that he was “creating an illusion. The effort is to be immersive, so the reader can live this life emotionally, in a vicarious way.”

Tóibín was born, 66 years ago, to a conservative Catholic family, in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. His grandfather was an IRA member who took part in the Easter Rising. His father, a teacher, died when he was 12. As a teenager, at boarding school, Tóibín discovered literature and realised he was gay. After graduating from University College Dublin he moved to Barcelona, inspired partly by his love of Ernest Hemingway, in the final days of Franco, when the city was blooming with new freedoms.

[see also: Testing paternity: Colm Tóibín on the fathers that shaped Wilde, Joyce and Yeats]

On his return to Dublin, in 1978, he became a political reporter and feature writer, and for three years, was editor of the leading political magazine Magill, where he promoted progressive causes, including the right to abortion. His first book, an account of travelling the Irish border, was published in 1987. But he was also writing fiction. The South appeared in 1990, when he was 35. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize on three occasions and received the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award, formerly the Impac, for The Master and the Costa Novel Award for Brooklyn (2009), which was adapted into a film starring Saoirse Ronan. The Magician is his tenth novel.

I have encountered Tóibín in a range of settings over the past decade or so, and am accustomed not just to his deliberate rhetorical style, his resourceful hands, but the lovable idiosyncrasies of his delivery. He sometimes falls into a giddy gallop. I have seen him bellow, from memory – and for no obvious reason – the whole of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”. But there are also full-stop-like pauses between words, and vowel sounds elongated to the point of slow motion. During our interview, he recalled that Tennyson was said to know the weight of every word in English except for “scissors”.

In his own case, the exceptions would be too numerous to count. We were once in a members’ club, late at night, when he looked around and remarked that the venue seemed to contain “a lot of people who work in advertising”, and the first “i” lasted a good five seconds, as if he’d been set some sort of challenge. He sometimes sounds as if he could be from the western United States – Los Angeles, perhaps, where he now lives part of the time, with his partner, the publisher Hedi El Kholti, (when he isn’t in Dublin or Wexford or the Catalan Pyrenees or New York). A common friend declared not long ago, “he sounds just like a Valley girl!”

It’s certainly hard to spend much time in Tóibín’s company without noting the discrepancy between his social persona, evident even in public appearances, and the character of his work. On the one hand, he is mischievous, impudent, not altogether unribald. But over the past 30 years, he has developed one of the most mature and measured prose styles in English, comparable to that of VS Naipaul and JM Coetzee, characterised by steadiness and an overwhelming cumulative power: to evoke the life and mind of Thomas Mann, he employed his favourite narrative method – “the third person intimate”.

Now and again, in The South and The Testament of Mary (2012), and his recent play Pale Sister, Tóibín has had recourse to a “staccato” and “relentless” monologue, which he characterises as “complete revelation, all truth”. But if he uses it too much, he said, “self-parody really takes over”. And so he finds himself returning again and again to cool restraint.

When John Updike, a rather different sort of writer, argued that Tóibín refrains from doing “battle with the English language”, he was paying a possibly unintended compliment. Tóibín said that he especially admires the way that the poets Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop, whom he has written about extensively, functioned during the high period of American confessional poetry. “Everyone was reading Lowell’s Life Studies and Plath and WD Snodgrass. [Gunn and Bishop] had much bigger griefs than the others and just simply wrote poems about what was in the distance, things they could see. Poetic diction was a way of controlling experience rather than a way of revealing the self.” The pain, he explained, is “sublimated in the tone”. When he said that “self-suppression is fundamental to the business”, I asked what he meant by the self. He thought about it for a few seconds. “I can’t answer your question. I’ve never looked into that matter.” He appeared to smize. “And I have no intention of starting now.”

He said that a certain mode of description was present even in his early days as a journalist. “I didn’t know where it came from, but it was mine and I started to realise the things I could do with it.” As a fiction writer, the breakthrough came with The Heather Blazing (1992), the story of a judge looking back at his life, which won the Encore Award for best second novel. The Magician in particular is “very close” to that novel and he expressed his gratitude that “nobody” has read it.

But it’s not quite true. Nick Hornby, writing more or less the week that Fever Pitch made him famous – and almost 20 years before he adapted Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn for the screen – raved about The Heather Blazing in the Sunday Times. The article, illustrated with a photo of the rather sternly beautiful 36-year old Tóibín – full-lipped and pug-nosed, with glaring, sad dark eyes – described him as “one of the most promising novelists writing in the English language”, praising his “wilfully colourless” prose. And more recently, The Heather Blazing was read, or reread, by Dame Hermione Lee and the other judges of the David Cohen Prize, a biennial award given for the lifetime achievement of any British or Irish writer in any literary form, which for 2021 was presented to Tóibín.

The Heather Blazing also marked a breakthrough of another kind. In his acceptance speech, Tóibín recalled the evolution of his first novel The South. He knew that his painter Katherine Proctor would, as he put it, “drift back” from Spain towards Ireland. But he couldn’t think where to place her. He remembered something that the painter Barrie Cooke had said when he had asked for his help with describing Katherine’s artistic process. “You make a mark,” he had replied. “That is how you start.” Tóibín wrote two words: “The sea.” Then: “A grey shine on the sea.” He recognised that he was writing about the part of the Wexford coast he had known as a boy. It was, he feared, a landscape with “no drama”. But his misgivings soon dissolved, and before he finished The South, he already had “something else in my mind, an entire new novel set in that landscape”.

Since then, his work has moved, like Tóibín himself, between Wexford and realms of escape. The Magician succeeds a pair of excursions, to Judea (The Testament of Mary) and Mycenae (House of Names, 2017). He is currently at work on a sequel to Brooklyn, a thoroughly Irish story, and novel, despite the American setting. (He once said he chose that title to annoy established denizens like Paul Auster.) But the change of scene doesn’t bring a change of tone. He has accepted that even when he writes about Rome and Venice, as in The Master, or Pacific Palisades in LA, as in The Magician – what he calls “glamour” and “an imagined elsewhere” and not “cliffs” and “memories” – he is still writing about loss and regret and unease. For this reason, he worried that the judges of the David Cohen Prize may have found going through his books a “dispiriting” experience. At the ceremony, he turned towards Hermione Lee and asked, “Are you OK?”

The preoccupations remain constant regardless not just of setting but also milieu. He was eager to emphasise that while The Magician is concerned with a fellow novelist, it is not “a literary exercise. It’s not a literary exercise.” Then he added, to expunge any residual ambiguity, “This is very important for me.” Tóibín had completed four chapters when, in the summer of 2018, he received a diagnosis of testicular cancer that had spread to his liver and lungs – an experience he described in a moving and hilarious essay for the London Review of Books, which begins, “It all started with my balls.”

He had been terrified that illness would prevent him from finishing the book and, once the cancer was in remission, following chemotherapy, he moved from his customary longhand to the computer. “I just wrote.” He thought “This has to be done.” The result was unwieldy – 205,000 words. When he set about cutting, he started with anything “technical” or “researched” or “explanatory”. Mann’s engagement with music, his ideas, how the great novels were realised – “all that had to go”.

There were, he believed, more inspiring points of convergence. Both author and subject are second sons in families of five children, with an athletic older brother. Both lost a father in adolescence. Both left their home countries – both, in fact, spent their late middle age in Los Angeles. Both had “an uneasy relationship with their sexuality, you know”. Mann was a repressed homosexual, and Tóibín, as an Irish Catholic, “was brought up in the 19th century”.

He also noted “a worldliness in Mann that I can relate to. He rather did enjoy being received by the mayor.” He paused. “And I’ve never had any problem with that sort of thing myself.” He recalled particular moments where he felt extremely close to the character. “It’s almost like picking up wavelengths. For a second, I’m suddenly hearing something that’s clear. I will find myself working on the illness of Mann’s father and writing without knowing. I mean, the speed I was working at, because I was working out of some… unresolved experiences. ‘Another page down.’”

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