New Routes in Fiction
A talk with Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín is a writer most of us might know because of Brooklyn, his novel of Irish emigration across the Atlantic, which takes place in the 1950s. A quiet study of displacement and longing, it was recently adapted for the screen. Tóibín’s new novel, House of Names, retells Aeschylus’s Oresteia—a dip into melodrama for a writer whose work has been defined by its attention to the alienation of ordinary people. But this is less of a departure than it might seem. Tóibín describes the novel’s logic at length below, but I’ll say the same questions that propel his work about rural Ireland House of Names also asks. What does it sound like when the family unit fractures? What sort of music can narrative prose play when trauma within this unit inflicts silence on some protagonist who then must try to heal and, in healing, speak, or—in the case of House of Names’s Orestes—act? These questions are less specific themes than, together, the center of his work, unspoken but always in force, moving people around and sentences along. In this his fiction has always been a bit Greek—one imagines a stage, sees characters who declare themselves—and by the same token, his novels, however everyday they are, have always been indebted to the excesses of opera, which move the wounded not to speak but to sing.
I met Tóibín at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Alex Niedenthal (Rail): I was reading Aeschylus on the train over here—long train ride. I’d forgotten a lot, but I didn’t forget the poetry of it. It’s so beautifully written. The chorus plays a large role in those plays. I was wondering: you’ve dealt with complicated source material in two books now, first in The Testament of Mary, and now this, in House of Names. How did you deal with having such pregnant and big source material whose reception has changed so much over millennia?
Colm Tóibín: With the Testament it’s not such a problem because there’s no voice to work from. In the New Testament, Mary speaks a number of times, but there’s no particular flavor to what she says. Then in the iconography of Christianity, she emerges as the mild mother, the astonished figure in the Annunciation, or the grieving mother. Then in prayers, in Catholicism, she emerges also, but the idea of her speaking, I suppose I took from certain elements in Medea and Antigone, which is that powerlessness becomes power in speech, and that powerful people speak like legislation, whereas the powerless have texture within their utterance. I worked with that idea. But really once I started, once I’d gotten the opening few lines, I didn’t think again. I didn’t let anything bother me. There were things I didn’t plan. I didn’t plan to do the Lazarus scene at any great length, and that became the best part of the book, but that wasn’t planned. It wasn’t as though I set out to do that. I wrote a little, a little more, and then I said I’ll keep going with this; I have one more thing to do with this. And then it just seemed right.
With House of Names, I really had to put all the texts aside eventually. The really crucial one is Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, that’s the one, it’s a late Euripides play, where it’s as though he realizes that Clytemnestra—the way she’s been blamed by Electra, even when her motives are doubted and dismissed by her daughter, Electra gets such eloquence and ferocity; this play tells about what happened to Iphigenia from Clytemnestra’s point of view, and so you see it as a monstrous thing that Agamemnon did to her. That was an eye-opener because I didn’t know the play before. I was reading around, found this reference, got the play and said, “Oh, wow.” And then it was the same thing as with Mary, where I just put everything aside, knew the story, wrote it down, and the problem then was the figure who began to interest me more than the others was Orestes. Again, it’s called the Oresteia, and there’s a lot ostensibly about him, but you don’t get any sense of him, where he was when he was away, for example, or what his motive and his feelings were when he kills his mother—which he does offstage.
The difference between a modern novel and a Greek play is that you really have to build and build the character with grades of nuance to get him so that he will not be a psychopath killing his mother, but someone whom the reader is almost with as he does it. And that takes a huge amount of slow detail. The other thing is this. The intervening text is Hamlet. Because that idea of the son whose father has been murdered, whose mother has taken a lover that may be implicated in the murder of his father—and who’s alone in a palace. That’s something Shakespeare took from the Oresteia. I found that more to my taste when I began to deal with my Orestes, because he’s a much more submerged figure emotionally. In my book he’s also the youngest sibling. His sister Electra does the work, and perfects the art of really forcing everything. Orestes has these quite cunning and determined women, his mother and his sister, and he’s caught between them. And I was building up to the sentence near the end that Orestes was someone who would do anything. I was probably writing that either during or after the Tsarnaev case—the boy in the Boston Marathon bombing, the one who wasn’t speaking in the court, while his older brother was the planner. I was thinking of someone whose agency isn’t particularly advanced. The problem is to get that down without the reader losing attachment. The reader has to feel sympathy for him, but not just that. The reader must also feel something more complicated than that about him, so the figure of Leander was brought in as an older brother stroke lover stroke determined one. All around Orestes there’s determination and strategy, and he’s the only one who can move from one to the other to the other, wanting approval without knowing what’s going on, but at the same time the others like him. Mitros and Leander, certainly Mitros—there’s a sense of people liking him. It’s not as if he stands apart from people. There’s a lot of work to be done, almost every sentence—of judging it and quite a lot of erasure. There were two long journeys he made, and in both of them I cut quite heavily. The reader didn’t need to be burdened with so many details.
I was also conscious that, the way we live now, many people might read this book and not have read the original sources. As with the Henry James novel I wrote, The Master, I thought I would like them to think that they could read the novel without knowing those texts. So it’s not just for experts. On the other hand, someone who’s steeped in the original, and takes a strict view of how it can be retold, might find some of the choices I made perplexing. Sometimes, however, I wasn’t being guided by the original at all. I was doing something else entirely.
Rail: Why did you think this was the book you wanted to do next, after Nora Webster?
Tóibín: In a way it’s after The Testament of Mary. After Nora Webster I didn’t have anywhere to go. I’d been working on that book for twelve years. Once it was done, there was no more place to go with that.
Rail: And that was part of a cycle of novels as well.
Tóibín: Yes, a cycle of novels. I wonder whether it would not be better if I had just written The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn, Nora Webster, and some of the Irish short stories. Those books are part of unresolved experience, memory, and are also part of a literary tradition that comes out of rural Ireland. And then the other books, like The Story of the Night, and The Master, are almost written by something else.
Rail: As a reader I would include The Master in that cycle.
Tóibín: Hold on, that’s a novel about Henry James. It’s a novel of grandeur, of social grandeur. And of great entitlement. As opposed to people living straightforward provincial lives.
Rail: When you’re working on Testament of Mary and House of Names, these novels that are more sidelights…
Tóibín: Not sidelights. Just another thing on my mind.
Rail: Your first-person narrators share a tone with your Irish novels, they share a tone, a respect for silence. Silences between, within, the word I.
Tóibín: I found that I could work with this from the first novel onward. That was a novel called The South. In that novel, I found that I could use a heightened first person tone, I could put pressure on the character and this tone would come out. It was like feeding someone coffee or giving someone a traumatic experience, and this was a tone that became available to me. The problem was that I couldn’t use it all the time. It was too tense, too heightened, and I needed to give myself—each time I did it—a big rest from it, so that I wasn’t parodying or abusing it. It comes from somewhere very raw in me, so that in the other books with calmer tones, the tones are calmer for very good reason, because I can’t use that tone too much. So it’s always a question of realizing, oh, it’s time, I can do this again. I’m ready to do this again. This book—House of Names—is the first time I’ve tried to use both things—the heightened tone and then the calmer one—together, against each other, and I was working with great uncertainty then because the first section of this book is filled with so much color and heightened language and adjectives and staccato sentences and sounds, and then it goes down. I was using this idea of the sonata form, of going into a slow movement from a scherzo—something going very fast. You would open a sonata with an amazingly tense, fast movement, and then you would bring it down suddenly, and you would have one instrument dominant, and then with Electra, up again, and then with Orestes down into slowness.
Rail: As a prose writer, would you want to do both things at the same time?
Tóibín: One is first person and the other is third person.
Rail: How does it change your writing, going between the persons?
Tóibín: Oh—I wanted Clytemnestra to be all determination, all certainty. I wanted the reader to move over to her side, to believe what she’s doing is right almost, and the reader not to know this is what this will lead to if you allow those emotions to overcome other ones,. And in order to do that you need to go to the figure who is not able to speak. Who lives in silence, in shadow. And whose affect is not colorful. And so you cannot let Orestes speak because he is not alert or self-aware enough to do that. So you just go down a notch, or ten notches. Orestes sees things on that first journey that for any child would be traumatic. Then when you realize later he has actually witnessed the sacrifice of his sister, and he’s never told anyone.
Rail: And his father’s death is kept a secret from him.
Tóibín: I mean I think both figures, Clymenestra and Orestes, are both traumatized, one into speech, the other into silence and shadow. So you’re dealing with two forms of trauma.
Rail: I guess reading this I thought it’s the twenty-first century and I thought a lot about the refugee crisis and state terror reading this book.
Tóibín: It certainly was written when Syria was happening. And when ISIS and Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo were happening, and the sense of all of this, or other things, being planned in the corridors of certain buildings, in both Damascus and Washington, of figures moving across corridors with a piece of paper.
Rail: You work with that opposition a lot. There’s the center of power in the palace and then the coast that Orestes goes out to.
Tóibín: And the way stories come in. You know, the old woman with whom Orestes stays is almost in possession of the story of Helen of Troy, which really must just have happened—the war is recent. It’s come to her as a fragmentary story. She almost has the story as a folktale already. But the other story, about the children being changed into swans for 900 years, is a famous Irish folktale that has made its way into the novel too as another swan story. It’s called The Children of Lir. It’s one of the most famous stories I would’ve heard as a child. It would’ve been told to get me to go to sleep.
Rail: What do those folktales do for people in that situation?
Tóibín: I wanted some idea that they were slightly out of time, that wherever they were in that place, it was away from the world.
Rail: All of experience is like folktales for them.
Tóibín: No. Some things are real —the old woman dies, Mitros dies, and then the dog, but yes there is an element of it all happening away from the world and out of time. And then Leander and Orestes end up leaving this mythical, secret place. Shadowy place. I was trying to fight the easy realism of them being with somebody entirely painted as though a fully credible 21st-century character. The old woman, the way she lets them stay with her, the way the boys go in threes, the way the house is—all of that should be read almost as if it were a part of a myth that has been forgotten. And it’s something that Orestes cannot recount. He comes home, and Leander comes home, but they can never talk about it, and so it moves into this realm of special space.
Rail: How did you know that structurally that was how those chapters needed to be?
Tóibín: I knew because when I lived in Spain, I would come home to the town in Ireland where I am from and no one really wanted to know where I was and what I was doing in Spain. I came across the idea first in Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. When he’s in the First World War and he comes back to England on leave, they don’t want to know about the trenches. They want it to stop. They’re so glad to see him. They want to integrate him back into their world, but they don’t want to know about his. Any soldier knows this. It’s in Brooklyn. When Eilis comes back from America, her mother doesn’t want to know all the details. She wants to give her all the details. That’s what I was working at—something I think I know. But that would mean the amount of experience that Orestes is storing up is immense. In other words he’s bottling up his witnessing of his sister’s death. His entire time away, his entire journey is also within him and cannot be released.
Rail: And then you put pressure on that.
Tóibín: Yes, you put pressure on that. You build him slowly. Orestes wants to play swordfighting. Not because he’s a violent little boy, but because of his father, his father is missing so he wants to impress his father, and then he wants to curl up by his mother, he wants all of them to love him, but he knows things they don’t know he knows. It makes him a pressure cooker. Under certain further pressures he will do anything, then.
Rail: Have you ever written a character who’s such a cipher? Someone so lacking agency?
Tóibín: To some extent, Richard Garay in The Story of the Night. He wanders through Argentina, not noticing, looking at what money is being made, as though none of it has to do with him. And to some extent, in a romantic context, Eilis in Brooklyn, that she’s actually capable of stringing along this guy in Ireland while knowing this guy in America is going crazy. This time around in House of Names I wanted to push it as far as I could, because I needed, this time, to create an emotional context whereby you as the reader would fully understand somebody killing their mother who was not a psychopath. I would remove the word psychopath from the equation. That when he gets the knife and kills his mother, it takes all those images to build, so that you will think, ‘Oh, that is what he will do then.’ He almost has no alternative now. It was done from necessity.
Rail: You want him to.
Tóibín: You’re entering the reader’s imagination in quite a dangerous way. Because you’re thinking, maybe that’s what I would do. Although you don’t want readers to go that far in their lives of course, but in the reading of the book I do want the reader to think that’s what I would do. And also I want the reader to think on that given day, in that space, in that way, that is what Orestes does and that is fully credible. I couldn’t find another example of it, of someone who kills his or her mother who wasn’t a psychopath in literature. Except, of course, Orestes.
Rail: You were talking earlier about this tone that’s more raw than that you’ve used in books like Brooklyn, Nora Webster, The Heather Blazing. How did you discover that? How long had you been working toward it?
Tóibín: I discovered it by accident. I was having a lot of difficulty with the novel The South.
Rail: You were a journalist.
Tóibín: Yes. I was having difficulty finding time, I was having difficulty at work. And I simply,something unbottled in me, there’s something in the first part of the second half of the book, which goes, “Miguel, five years dead, I am in Barcelona dead now. Last years the swallows came back.” When that came it came out of the blue, it came as a surprise. I almost realized in a few sentences, Wow, you have found what you’ve been looking for. I was probably twenty-nine, I hadn’t been through creative writing courses. I realized I think I’ve found it. But I knew enough to know, don’t try to write the book like that. Sections must come like that. I probably found bits of it in Joan Didion, I would’ve read A Book of Common Prayer by that time, Plath—it’s in Louise Gluck—I would’ve found it in some music, especially late Beethoven and maybe some opera but it was the last thing in the world I thought was coming that day, once I was a few paragraphs into it, I thought, wow, and I was almost right. Something had been released.
Rail: You hadn’t had that experience before as a writer.
Tóibín: I hadn’t. I had tried to write dull Irish short stories, which no one wanted to publish. About childhood and family and school.
Rail: But that’s what you write about now.
Tóibín: I found a way back to it. Nothing ever goes away. Nothing you ever start with leaves you. But that wasn’t working when I started to work with that. It wasn’t working. Took me a long time to get that right. And it was only after The South was written that I realized I was going to go back to a quieter tone and a provincial setting with The Heather Blazing and I was going to make one effort more to make a novel written in the most plain sentences, of people who are living lives in a very provincial place.
Rail: And it opens access to other tones.
Tóibín: It refined other tones to some extent. But the problem is that in more heightened tones there’s an intensity for me, and I think for the reader, so that you can’t let it go on for too long—it will parody itself. It has to come like somebody breaking glass and starting to speak. In real-time only once. You create that illusion. Once you create that illusion—no one can speak forever. And there’s so many things you can’t do in that style. You can’t do psychological stuff, you can’t do subplot, you can’t do… it’s quite restrictive.
Rail: Austere. You say you can’t be psychological.
Tóibín: You have to create the illusion of speech, of someone speaking who has not even thought before they’re speaking, speaking after a long silence, out of traumatic experience, in a space where they might not be able to speak for very much longer—that sort of illusion.
Rail: The Heather Blazing might be the most distilled example of a plainer style, with silence all around it. In that you have someone experiencing death after death and never speaks about or thinks about it.
Tóibín: Those books—there’s so many images in those books that are so autobiographical. Down to the smallest detail.
Rail: Like the scenes of him going to political meetings.
Tóibín: Yes, that. But also when his father has a seizure in the church. That happened while I was with him. None of them knew I was there. So I just made my way home on my own after the seizure. Everyone was so worried about him, so no one noticed me. I was using a lot of those things from silence, things that have not ever been mentioned, that have never been spoken about.
Rail: That’s a large part of your experience with your family.
Rail: That’s where the silence comes from.
Tóibín: And that landscape is the same, down to the smallest grain of sand.
Rail: The first time I encountered your work was on the Diane Rehm show.
Tóibín: She’s tough. You just go on and she asks whatever she wants, and you’d better answer her. I like her. I find her real.
Rail: It was for Nora Webster, but Susan Davis was interviewing you. And I remember hearing you read from the first few book and there’s this pregnant silence around the words. That was really palpable immediately. One thing I did wonder was about Clytemnestra in the House of Names. There’s more figurative language than I was used to hearing from you. I remember in that interview Susan Davis asks you why in the galley there were these beautiful few sentences that were gone in the published book. And you said, oh, that’s too literary, it was too literary so I cut it. And I took it to mean too figurative.
Tóibín: Too sugary, too much like a writer writing to be noticed. Too like someone trying to write and what normally people associate with writing. But with Clytemnestra I did allow a lot of stuff in, a lot of tree imagery, of leaves, of things growing. There’s a lot of stuff I left in because she’s so powerful, so ready to do her worst , that speech like this is coming to her without any difficulty. And also she’s given up on the gods, that’s empowering her hugely in her speech. There’s a lot of drum sound, a huge orchestra, in the making of that first section of the book. But I know what’s coming. It’s going to go right down.
Rail: But you can tell it’s coming. She’s walking the halls. There’s silence in those halls. You know there’s this silence that’s going to follow in her wake. I wonder. What is the drama for you as a writer in the disappearance of the gods?
Tóibín: I wonder what novel it’s in, one of the Irish novels, maybe Nora Webster, where—I think I lived through that in Ireland. I was brought up in a household where you’d pray for something. If you lost a book, you’d pray to find the book, and then thank the Lord the book had been found. Even though it had been where you’d left it. You’d pray for cure from illness. People believed that God intervened. Even more that is taken from life, that business of—my mother certainly believed that when her mother was dying that knocks came to the door, but she didn’t believe that later. I remember once asking her, and she said, “Of course, my sisters and I, we all heard it—the bang on the door.” I said, “But did you hear it when my father was dying?” She thought for a moment and said no. There were only six years in between. I was using that idea, a sort of feeling in my own life that up to the age I don’t know of sixteen, seventeen, I believed all that; and then I didn’t.
Rail: You were going to go into the priesthood.
Tóibín: Yes. I would like to feel that I would be a bishop now or something. I don’t see what you’re laughing at. Within Catholicism the priesthood is very powerful, where you have unbroken power to change the bread and the wine into body and blood. But I didn’t do it.
Rail: I’m sure you’re watching what’s happening in the Vatican. What do you think of figures like Cardinal Raymond Burke? There seems to be this split between the conservatives and the people close to the Pope. Will this be consequential for the future? Two paths for Catholicism?
Tóibín: I think Cardinal Burke should keep quiet. If he weren’t American he would. It’s that American assertiveness.
Rail: And he’s got the Trump administration behind him.
Tóibín: It’s an American assertiveness that I doubt could come from anywhere else. American Catholicism has become very powerful because of the way the faithful relate to the parish and the way the hierarchy are prepared to wield power. But I don’t see Catholicism as splitting, no. But I do see us all facing into the future with a great American problem. Which won’t go away.
Rail: The problem being…
Tóibín: People believing their country is great. Ordinary people believe that this is a great country. The word great strikes me as odd considering America’s history.
Rail: Or even ‘having been great.’
Tóibín: The great generation. Usually the word ‘great’ about a nation. That’s going to get us in a lot of trouble.
Rail: How has this resurgence in nationalism and the way the world looks and feels right now—how has it affected your work?
Tóibín: It takes a long time for me to work through anything so that I can put it into images. Being in America is useful for me because I can distill things from twenty thirty years ago, in the neutrality of this space, the Upper West Side of New York, which is completely neutral for me, with no memories. It’s useful for me for that. What will happen in the future when this particular episode, of the elections of Bush and Trump, which I’ve lived through—they’ve probably made their way into this book in ways I don’t understand.
Rail: Randomized state terror.
Tóibín: Cheney. Often it comes to this thing of just watching Cheney a lot. Thinking about him. And also the whole way someone like Cheney, or Robert Kennedy on the brighter side, how they were living on the edge of their nerves politically.
Rail: Is that America for you?
Tóibín: No, there is another America. What happened in Europe in the Second World War has maimed Europe in a way that it will not recover from. The fact is that the cities of Europe have been destroyed: because the Jews of Europe were destroyed. I’m not sure what the cities might have looked like in their time but I have an idea. And I have an idea because I’ve read Kafka and Joseph Roth and Benjamin and Adorno and I’ve listened to a lot of music. But sometimes when I’m here, in New York, the line I would draw between Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Columbia—I certainly feel it in Columbia itself—a sense of an old Europe, a fascination with learning, a real belief in art music, and this part of American is really the only pure remnant of what was destroyed in Europe. You can walk along Riverside and find that everyone here has a story to tell about how close they are to that European beginning. A figure to me like Lionel Trilling would be essential. I teach in the corridors in which his ghost walks. That’s not nothing.
Sometimes I go to the five-o-clock Sunday concert at Alice Tully. There’s a level of reverence and silence that you feel. Like something ghostly from my world that has survived here in New York.
Rail: European civilization was also destroyed twice over, in the two World Wars.
Tóibín: But the destruction of the Jews of Europe is something Europe will not recover from. It will not come back.
Rail: There’s a way that the wars have haunted Europe which we’re still dealing with, you think. In the UK too?
Tóibín: Brexit is almost an English comedy. It is poor sad England trying to get over the fact that it’s lost its empire. You watch the way they held onto sterling, the way you get a buffoon like Boris Johnson who’s incredible foolish and loud on television. And the minute Margaret Thatcher arrived in power she went off to Brussels to try to deal with Johnny Europe. It’s an old, leftover thing from the days of empire—Brexit is.
Rail: There’s no connection to the broader European drama there?
Tóibín: No, no. There isn’t. It’s the last gasp of the empire.
Rail: A ghostly gasp.
Tóibín: If it weren’t going to have such ramifications, it’s almost comic. Great numbers of people voted against it.
Rail: You have this book which I haven’t read where you walk across the Irish/North Irish border. Brexit is consequential for that border as well, right?
Tóibín: You have to know the border to know how serious this is. There are about a hundred ways to cross that border. Anyone who thinks they can seal that border just don’t know the locals, and they don’t know the border. It’s simply not possible to close it. They can talk about a hard border all they like, but the people who live near the border laugh. A hard border? I know a funny way around via fords on rivers and stuff. Since it’s not possible, something new is going to have to happen between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That could end up being very interesting as well. Northern Ireland will have to become a separate entity. I wrote a piece for the Irish Times saying Northern Ireland should become a separate state in the European Union. I wasn’t getting a huge amount of support for this, but I really wouldn’t call it a separate state. I would give it special protection… certain wording that was subtle.
Rail: How will it survive? I mean, how does it survive now?
Tóibín: It’s surviving now by huge economic intervention. Subvention. From Westminster. It costs a lot for them to keep Northern Ireland. The British would love to let it go, but you can’t let parts of your country go because you don’t like them. The Americans would love to let you guys [Alabamians] go.
Rail: Is there a part of you that wants to write about what you just described, with respect to Europe?
Tóibín: There’s a novel almost written that teases around these things. The character is German. It’s set in contemporary Europe, the character is German, and it’s about the legacy. One of the most remarkable things that happened after the War is the way Germany became this model Democracy. Notice Germany’s good relations with Israel. Notice Germany’s horrified response to what happened during the Hitler time. And it’s something that’s worth dramatizing, what that means, how that happened—it’s an extraordinary idea, that a country could so quickly turn around into a model democracy.
Rail: Well that it’s history, also, since the end of the nineteenth century it’s been the focal point of Europe.
Tóibín: There have been moments especially in the beginning of the bust around 2011 when the Germans were very arrogant, economically. But it’s important for us not to misread that and think, here they go again with their Prussian militarism. It’s a different argument we need to have with them. And we have to be careful not to misrepresent it. They were out of control with their arrogance. They took the view that by keeping wages down and by controlling the exchange rate of the Euro, they could improve things, but they actually impoverished Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and then they wanted to punish Greece, something atavistic, but not atavistic in relation to the Second World War; it was about something else entirely. Something about economic policy.
Rail: Right before Brooklyn the film came out, I remember some video online, of a Hollywood reporter asking you—you’re on the red carpet and she asks, does it feel good to see your work as a movie? And you’re like, yeah, I’m working on this book and there are images of cinema in it. All these cinematic images I’m recycling from film culture. I thought that was a really interesting moment. An interesting way of looking at House of Names—that the images in the book would be filmic.
Tóibín: Without the book itself being a good subject for a film, once you start with, say, the scene of where they’re being leading out Iphigenia, to be sacrificed, and other scenes I could see, I could actually see the shadows, the flickering, I had to be really careful I wasn’t about to become the author of Ben-Hur. It had to be psychologically right for me, but all these images of shadows and corridors were so important. But also the boy, the boy being led along this strange route. There was a constant sense of me trying to defeat this idea of cliche, overcome it by an image or a detail that I just thought would make it stop being cinema, that would stop it being like dressing a set rather than writing a novel.
Rail: You conjure up the landscape simply. The visual details you use are sparse but telling.
Tóibín: The problem was I had no source for anything in the Orestes sections. But that was also a gift.
Rail: This and the Testament of Mary are singular in that you write directly about people dying. You show people suffering. There is always death in your books, but the scene of Christ being nailed to the Cross—
Tóibín: That was tough. I’m glad I don’t have to write that again.
Rail: You said something similar about the scene at the end of Nora Webster. “I don’t have to do that again.”
Tóibín: The scene at the end of Nora Webster was something that was very special, and that I built up, and I knew when I was doing it I was not going to get another chance. You couldn’t start it wrong, you couldn’t get it right if it did not come right the first time. It had to happen in real time almost. Almost by writing it I was living it to such an extent that it wasn’t a technical exercise, it was—I was conjuring up this moment where Nora Webster speaks to her dead husband and he is there, or almost there. And it would only come once. So you’re dealing with a sort of alchemy in the case of that, using your own magic. I don’t want to overstress it, but it’s true. And, while I made cuts and changed some words, I wouldn’t have rewritten it.
Rail: Also this is important because what you’re describing is what happens to your characters. They bottle these things up and they get released in pivotal moments.
Tóibín: The music in Nora Webster was important. The music was something my mother listened to. I would not have put something in there, in that scene, that was not from my life.
Rail: It had to be as factually true as it was a fabrication.
Tóibín: That is correct.
Rail: It seems like one of those rare scenes in a novel that’s maybe more important to the writer than to the reader. Reading that, I listened to the interview before I read the book, and thought, when I read it, it was a moving scene, but obviously it’s the conclusion of the book, the climax, the end of the book; but it didn’t resonate as much as other parts in the book that didn’t, I’m sure, have as much weight for you as that ending did. As a writer. I wonder whether that rings true to you.
Tóibín: But all the time in the book I knew it was coming. And so even if it isn’t the crucial scene for the reader, it always has to be there for me. A destination, a goal, a culmination. She’s not going to get out of this particular trap easily. And it looks sometimes that she’s moving ahead, and forgetting things, and moving into her new life. Actually, I always know she’s not.
Rail: That was a kind of cleansing moment, then.
Tóibín: For me it was.
Rail: And for her.
Tóibín: And I’d like to think for the reader, but you can never judge these things. The reader’s attention wanders.
Rail: And it’s a book that ends so suddenly as well.
Tóibín: Brooklyn is the same way. They both sort of just stop. I leave it to the reader to imagine a time after the time of the novel.
Rail: I remember reading a quote from you, about how ending a novel is like putting a baby to sleep.
Tóibín: That’s what I was beginning to worry that I was doing it too abruptly, and that I would have to start ending books in other ways. This time around, in House of Names the ending does take a while.
Rail: I think you do put the books to sleep, but you don’t realize as a reader that the novel is being put to sleep until you get to the last page. It’s a good trick. I read this review you wrote of the The North Water by Ian McGuire, and you said something compelling about how historical fiction works now, where you don’t need to make pains to show this is ‘another time.’ To signpost this is x-y-z time and place. Just gives you the bare physical details. You do something similar in House of Names.
Tóibín: I was acutely aware of that in the Henry James book, The Master, that I could lose the novel very easily by describing—for example, there’s a moment in the novel’s timeline when in James apartment in Kensington they install electricity in for the first time, which must’ve been an extraordinary moment in someone’s life. For the first time wiring is coming, you can turn a switch. I know, however, that if I use that, I lose this book, I thought: Such a tempting big scene. But it is period drama and you lose the book then. It becomes about something else. Be careful about inaccuracies, obviously, but be very careful about how exactly things felt. Spending a lot of time at the V&A, the Victoria and Albert museum, where a lot of writers would go to find that fabric and what kind of clothes people would wear, would not be helpful for a serious novel.
Rail: There’s this Updike quote in which he says writing a historical novel is ‘vigorous fakery.’
Tóibín: What you do is you leave a lot out.
Rail: The Master doesn’t feel that texturally and descriptively different from Brooklyn. It’s more internal than Brooklyn, perhaps. There’s no sense that the author is going out of his way to get across a different historical period. What’s more important to you is to enter Henry James as a human being.
Tóibín: As a flickering presence, as someone there and not there.
Rail: So few people can write compellingly about writers. Obviously Henry James is a novelist you care about deeply. But was it a problem you thought about often?
Tóibín: My previous novel was The Blackwater Lightship, set in rural Ireland. Six characters over six days. It took a lot out of me and I didn’t want to do it again. So that it was almost a way of getting over the previous book, to allow myself a lot of latitude and amplitude. A lot of The Master was oddly autobiographical. In ways that were veiled. That novel is a series of metaphors, or scenes that stand for things that happened to me emotionally and that I could find no other way of describing without having to deal with the dull business of myself. If you gave that James raw material to anyone else, they’re more likely to come up with the eleven chapters that matter to them some way or other; that hit them emotionally. You’re working as much out of your own emotional life as you are out of the material you’ve researched. And there are things in that novel that have a source that no one knows. Things that are hidden even from me. But every so often it did occur to me when I was working, when I would say, “I know what I’m using now.”
Rail: Did that have most to do with Henry?
Tóibín: It would be more to do with Henry. A family of five, second brother, the older brother being very athletic, manly.
Rail: His Leander.
Tóibín: Yes, although a lot of the Leander stuff was me wandering around Southern California, in the desert. And always being led because everyone else knew where we were going and I never did.
Rail: Do you feel like when you write about male protagonists you usually have these shimmering masculine presences against whom the protagonist will compare himself?
Tóibín: Yeah, but that happens also in Brooklyn, with the older sister Rose. The same configuration is in The Blackwater Lightship, but she’s a girl; it’s Electra to Orestes; it’s also in The Master, with William James and Henry. Electra is more powerful than Orestes. When Orestes meets Leander in House of Names, Leander is ready for him. Leander takes full control, almost dismisses him. The sexual thing between them doesn’t even bother Leander. Which happens in The Master, with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who doesn’t even remember that night. The night when he and Henry are in bed together. Henry is so conscious of this figure from the Civil War. But when writing that material, you say to yourself, “Don’t go too far with this.” And James is so conscious of the meaning of that night, whereas for Holmes it would not have been as important.
Rail: Would it have ruined the novel to have given that scene in full?
Tóibín: Yes. If you start giving Henry James gay, post-Stonewall sexual presence, or a scene where he really for the first time, realizes who he is. No, this is the most buttoned-up figure in the nineteenth century. And it gave me more drama to work with him like that. At the very beginning of the novel there’s a guy called Hammond who seems to be offering himself sexually. But there’s no sex. It’s almost offered again with Heinrich Anderson too. It’s there, and not there.
Rail: That flickering presence.
Tóibín: It creates more drama than there would be if those sex scenes had occurred. But in House of Names, it’s clear that Leander and Orestes have some sort of sex. But Leander is also a leader. His family knows from childhood he’s born to lead. And poor Orestes. He really isn’t.
Rail: He has courage, but not that kind of courage. I never even cared whether they had sex or not.
Tóibín: There was going to be no sex scene between them. Whereas between Clytemnestra and her lover, it’s quite important. Whereas with Orestes and Leander, they’re just boys, and they’re just messing around.
Rail: I wonder—you write very closely about women in a way that calls up James, calls up a certain kind of writer, Flaubert as well, who can…
Tóibín: James writes about this in The Portrait of a Lady, listing writers who have not had a full female protagonist. What’s curious in the contemporary field is that you can list a good number of novelists, including marvelous writers, who just wouldn’t do it. I don’t think Banville has done it. DeLillo hasn’t done it. Roth hasn’t done it really. Bellow didn’t do it.
Rail: I wouldn’t want to read that.
Tóibín: It’s almost unthinkable in a lot of male, full-bodied work.
Rail: In the contemporary field, it gives you cachet to be able to do it. For the younger MFA generation, it’s expected of you. There’s nothing wrong with that—but it kind of functions as a badge of social consciousness, to be able to ‘get past’ your male experience. And then other people will say that’s appropriating the female experience. But beyond that there’s something compelling when a man fully imagines himself in the position of a woman.
Tóibín: And the other way around. Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Conservationist has a fully-fledged conservative and heterosexual figure. I used to have a joke that the two best gay sex scenes were written by Annie Proulx and Pat Barker. Regeneration. Barker’s hero is a bisexual guy called Billy Prior, and I said to her, “How did you know all that?” She smiled. Meaning, “You know how I know all that, I just imagined it.”
Rail: In your life as a novelist, how have you related to being thought of as a gay novelist?
Tóibín: It starts with being Irish. So that’s the first thing. You can’t do anything about that. People say: You must be Irish, you can’t be English. And then I am gay. Oh dear, so many labels. There are writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, Edmund White and David Leavitt, who have been really important for the gay movement, who have opened up with vibrant imagery and good writing gates that were really closed. I don’t think I’ve done that. I wish I had but I haven’t. Dennis Cooper has written about areas of sexual experience—you know, since it’s not animal experience, it’s called “human experience.” So we might as well call it that. Which is part of the novel’s deal. Doris Lessing did so much for women in dramatizing women’s experience. And indeed I think Jewish writers did for the Jewish experience in America. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth. The novel has a funny way of teaching us.
Rail: And you maybe wanted to do that more with Ireland.
Tóibín: Yes, but I’m also, I think, caught in a trap of my own making, where all my characters are really uneasy in the world. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing. Whether they’re having great sex or at a great party or they’re alone, they’re really uneasy. It’s not as if you can give them to your godson saying, “Here, you’ll get better, read this book.”
Rail: Do you know where their uneasiness comes from?
Tóibín: I assume it comes from me. I can just say that to you. As Mrs Touchett says in Portrait of a Lady, my opinions are personal. Similarly I presume this is a straightforward business: my sensibility as a novelist is personal. It may also be political, philosophical, psychological, or part of common human experience, but it begins with me. I’m working out of myself, in ways that I know and don’t know. It’s not a literary game. The novels are the spaces I need to move into in order to live.
Rail: Do you not have much patience for games as a reader or writer?
Tóibín: I admire Perec and Borges. I like them because they are not like me. It’s when I read work that uses an earnestness that is too apparent I can’t bear it. It drives me nuts. If we didn’t have the playful in literature, we’d be stuck with me. Can you imagine that?
Rail: And you teach English literature rather than creative writing?
Tóibín: Yes, I am in the English Department at Columbia and I love that. We just did two classes on Lord Jim. We are going to discuss The Secret Agent on Monday. With the undergraduates we just did Beckett’s Molloy; doing Endgame on Tuesday.
Rail: It must be deeply enriching.
Tóibín: The only way I work is by reading the book as the students are reading it. I don’t have a theory, a guiding theory. So it isn’t like I can go in and theorize for two hours. I want to look at the book in detail. So I’m reading certain books every year now. I’m spending half the year now studying the novel. So it has to make some difference.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.