With a keen awareness of stillness and silence, Tóibín draws the reader into the narrative not with plot twists or gratuitous violence, but with descriptions of a passage in a string quartet or a single defiant gesture. Our rawest emotions are laid bare through his carefully measured prose that demands the reader’s full attention.
I had the pleasure of spending many hours in Tóibín’s company during my undergraduate studies at Columbia University, and he sat down with me again in New York City to discuss his latest work. As is often the case with Tóibín, our discussion took a winding path, from high to low and back as we probed the nature of grief, how creative writing programs often ask the most misguided questions, and the folly of a writer delving too deep into continental philosophy.
CHARLES SHAFAIEH: Like Maurice Webster, your own father died when you were 12 years old. You "exist" in the novel as the teenage boy, Donal Webster, yet you chose to write from your mother’s, or Nora’s, perspective. Why was that?
COLM TÓIBÍN: I almost couldn’t have written from my perspective because the novel would have been very short. It would have been some image only, like a short story of walking home from school … feeling a number of things — none of which was really what I was feeling. There was a lot of silence, a lot of not knowing things, and half-knowing things. Whereas with my mother, I felt I could do it. I felt I could imagine her in a way that I could not — I mean, really not — imagine myself. While a novel may be autobiographical, you’re still in the process, all the time, of imagining it because you’re creating a character, and even though some of the events are real, the character remains elusively imagined. It’s not a photograph. You’re working with paint, or language, much more than you’re working with a camera. I couldn’t have imagined Donal in full at that age in any way that would allow me to develop him, work with his consciousness, let things happen to him, that would give me anything at all, other than quite a lot of blank pages and frustration. With her, however, I could see a sort of arc — even though the way the arc works is almost imperceptible. It’s a tiny arc, of her moving away from her husband who has died, just simply moving away from him, swimming away, toward something else. What’s happening in the book all the time is that although he doesn’t appear — until the end — he’s fading all the time. He’s mentioned less. He’s thought about less. He’s disappearing. While everyone else is doing something, he’s going.
I recently saw a trio of Beckett plays — Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby — performed by Lisa Dwan. In a piece about the production in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes that "Beckett was never more potent than when writing for one woman, alone or desolate onstage." Does that resonate with you, in relation to your last three novels, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster?
It’s not entirely true about Beckett. You feel with the trilogy, women don’t even get a look in, really. Nonetheless, his Winnie is a spectacular creation, and we get the same idea, really, with Molly Bloom. That soliloquy — that business of voice. But in other novels, it comes. For example, John McGahern’s first novel, The Barracks, really tells a story entirely from a woman’s perspective. And Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a woman’s story. Moore tried to formulate that, saying that he felt that women were ready to conceal less, to give you more — or at least they had more flavor in what they said — whereas men were all concealment, and therefore, with a man, there was so little dramatic exposure that you really almost couldn’t work with it. But it should be possible for any novelist to do anything. However, I don’t think I’m going to do it again for awhile.
The three books come together out of ideas about power and powerlessness — that out of powerlessness you can get a sort of power. This happens in Greek theatre. In Antigone, Creon has the power, but his voice has no power or flavor or texture, whereas Antigone’s voice is all flavor, all texture, arising from the attempt to crush her. In that attempt, she emerges victorious, vocally. This also emerges in opera. When we envision Maria Callas, we think of somebody who had an enormous sense of yearning within herself, which emerged vocally. So although my three characters Eilis, Mary, and Nora are different from each other, there is the sense that they don’t control anything except how they feel.
In Nuruddin Farah’s forthcoming novel, Hiding in Plain Sight, which also grapples with the death of a father, Farah discusses Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and the way Barthes believed photography is bound with death. Both Donal and his brother Conor become interested in photography, and Donal in particular has a penchant for photographing not people but images from the television. His photos are abstract, blurry, with indiscernible lines. It evokes one of the novel’s refrains — how a place can be "filled with absence" — which connects to Maurice’s death.
I wish I could tell you that I read deeply in Roland Barthes, and that this is the direct result of an immersion in him, but with me, things are often just personal, just something that I know. I have a friend who’s an abstract photographer. He works now with computers, making lines. His mother one day said to me, “He was always doing that, when he started … he was always blurring, and not wanting the picture to show everything. Photographing was not for him a way of capturing.” I said, “At what age did he start doing this?” She said, “Thirteen or 14. He was always working with an idea of what wasn’t there or what was nearly there.” So it was really just that. I really wish I could tell you that Roland and I sat in Les Deux Magots and discussed this before I wrote the book, many years ago, but no, I’m afraid not. It’s just something that comes from something someone said to me that I then began to elaborate.
You have often used Enniscorthy as the setting of your stories and novels. Does working with material from your past add immediacy to your work? And is it easier than using less familiar settings?
What happens is that something that occurs to me — a memory or an image — and I go with that. I don’t make decisions. Obviously, I make decisions on details and the structure, but the initial impulse is quite mysterious and not willed. My parents were born in Enniscorthy, three of my grandparents were born in the town, and I was brought up there. If I turn left, I know what happens. If I turn right, I know what happens. I don’t know that about many other places. So I’ve never written, really, about Dublin — although I’ve lived in Dublin more than I’ve lived anywhere else — because I’m not sure that if I got a bus in Dublin that I would know where the bus would go. Enniscorthy is that place that’s easy to manage. I know what the voices are like. I know the class structure. I know the shops — a lot of the names of the shops in this novel are real. Even some of the people named are real. I mean, a lot of the book is imagined as well as some of the book being exactly what happened.
This makes me wonder — and forgive the false dichotomy — if, when you’re writing, you are more often removing material or adding it?
I’m not alert to the style at all. I don’t think about it. I write down the next thing. I know how much I need to do to get the reader to feel what I need the reader to feel, in the same way as, if you were giving someone directions, you would know not to say, “Turn your head right, then take 10 steps.” You say, “Turn right.” Language is a form of shorthand. All speech is a form of shorthand. You leave so much out.
Do you go through many drafts?
I write in longhand, with a pen, so that has to be typed by me. This means that I have to enter into the book twice because, if I’m typing it, I’m sort of reading it slowly — because I’m a slow typer — and I get to know what I’m doing by the second draft. In this process, you’re reading it emotionally, so you really are sharp about whether something is working or not or what something is leading up to. But more than anything, between the beginning and the end of this book was 13 and a half years, from Spring 2000 to August or September 2013.
And what came to you first?
The first chapter.
A recurring theme in your work is silence. While your silences are not like Pinter’s — in the sense that his are filled with the threat of violence — I nevertheless wonder if it makes sense to discuss another characteristic of Pinter’s silences, which is the importance of what goes unsaid — in other words, the silent underbelly of what little is actually said?
You’re giving the reader clues, and you’re trusting the reader’s imagination. The reader knows much more than what the reader’s actually being told. You’re living in a strange space with the reader: if I go on telling you things, you will cease to imagine the things I’m telling you to imagine because I will have imagined them for you. Therefore, in this system — let’s call it third-person intimate — the reader slowly begins to imagine the world from the perspective of the protagonist because of the details being offered from the protagonist’s perspective. Therefore, the reader becomes the protagonist and can feel what the protagonist feels. The thing you need to do is give enough clues to help the reader do that imagining, but not tell the reader what to imagine. You must open the space for the reader to imagine, so that it becomes almost a form of tact, of how much you need to give for everything to work, because if you do it too much, it will really ruin everything. It’s a funny process. It’s got nothing to do with Pinter’s sort of menacing silences and sense of a bubbling-under rage. If you give too much detail, you actually puncture the strange business of what the reader is beginning to feel. As the writer, you’re involved not only in imagining the character but also in a deep imagining relationship with the reader.
That raises a question I found myself asking on multiple occasions: are Nora’s readings of other people correct or not? Most of the time, we’ll never know.
She’s trying to read the sons, but she never can. I mean, she really can’t read them. But there is a scene, at the boarding school with Donal, where they almost move close, where they almost become each other. They’re involved in a dance, where he’s attempting to get her to bring him home, and she’s attempting to get him to understand that that’s not on the cards, and they learn to read each other — very slowly and carefully they’re reading each other — but that’s the only time she manages to do it.
Are you exploring the idea of the impossibility of reading other people?
I don’t have any view on that. I have no interest in that. That’s a matter for someone with a much larger mind than mine. I’m interested in only this situation. I just really write down. It’s quite a simple process. People talk about us being in a barrage of images — I keep reading about these images — but they don’t come my way. I don’t turn on the TV unless I need to for some piece of information. It sits in the corner, and there’s dust on it. What is true is that there’s so much now novelists can use from philosophers and psychosexual theorists and very many other high priests of high linguistics, that to keep it small … to keep it down to your own intuition of what this character will do now. If you add a layer of someone very serious — Barthes would be a good example, Foucault would be another, or Freud (Freud would be really dangerous) — you would lose your intuition. You’d lose your own trust. Of course, Shakespeare clearly read Freud before he wrote Hamlet. Theorists often come quite late in the day and formulate things already known by novelists. The thing is, novelists have to know it themselves. The temptation has never really been there for me to start thinking from a philosophical anything. I use nothing other than intuition to try to make the next sentence true.
On the subject of sentences, I remember you saying once, with great excitement, how much you love a sentence like "She walked into the room."
[Laughs] The issue really is that if you just write that sentence, it’s no use. But if you feel that sentence before you write it, so that you see the room she came into, you see her, you know exactly what she’s feeling, you have every single thing ready, you could write an entire novel on that entrance. You could just write down — “She came into the room” — and somehow or other, the reader will get it. But if you haven’t done the feeling, the reader won’t. I mean, it has to do, obviously, with the surrounding sentences. There’s a sort of rhythm.
It’s a reductive exercise with not just you but all Irish writers to ask whether this one or that one is a Joycean or a Beckettian …
Ah yes, and that’s to miss the point of what happened. When you were reading in Ireland — and everyone will talk about this — when you were starting to buy your books and think about literature, you would not have read an Irish book under any circumstance. I mean, you really wouldn’t have dreamt of it. I remember I got a book token from the Minister for Education after winning a prize and I bought books: Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre’s novels, Hemingway. There are a few sort of governing things in Nora Webster, but they’re not Irish. One would be D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which I don’t think anyone reads anymore, where you have a woman trapped in a place where her education has not in any way matched her intelligence. Also, the last 100 pages of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: provincial place, father dead, son and mother left, and music becoming the thing that they use to connect at the novel’s end. These two — especially Buddenbrooks — might have been really important. Mann in particular has a way of being able to write about music.
So when did you start reading Irish books?
When I was 16, I saw Jack MacGowran doing his one-man show based on Beckett’s prose works, and I took it in like it was normal because it was presented to me as normal. The sucking the stones, the tapping the head — I just sat in the audience and thought this was the best thing I had ever seen. I went and found the books then. With Joyce … I didn’t read Ulysses until I was in my 20s. I would have known “The Dead,” but not the other stories.
It was other writers then?
Yes, it was Hemingway. And Faulkner — Faulkner was all the rage. Even The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, and Henry James, Edith Wharton. Anyone Irish will have a different list, but it won’t include a lot of Irish writers because we’d just had enough of Ireland. The rain. The misery. The Catholicism. The smallness of the island.
Do you think it’s a worthwhile conversation to have about how you see yourself in relation to other Irish writers?
I was friends with John McGahern, and we talked a lot. There was a level of determination in his artistry, and also the effort to try and find a way to describe our particular dilemma as artists — which was that we came from very small houses, with the long winters, where very little was said. There are times when I find what I’m looking for in a number of writers — McGahern, Alice McDermott, Alistair MacLeod in Canada. It wasn’t as though they made any difference to me, but they just cemented something I was already creating. There are a few people in Scandinavia, but also, more than anybody, Ingmar Bergman. Fanny and Alexander is all over this book. It’s the story of a boy, Alexander, and the death of a father. Alexander is all over Donal. And the last scene of the book is all taken from Fanny — I mean, literally, just “Thank you, I will take that.” I mean, these are bourgeois people with beautiful houses — it’s a different world — and the grandmother comes in, and Alexander is playing, and she says, “Alexander, we’re going to do Strindberg’s A Dream Play in the theater.” He sort of turns and looks at her — it’s an opening up of something. So I always had Nora coming in to Conor to say, “We’re going to do the Brahms German Requiem.” It was always the end of the book.
What were your first memories of listening to classical music?
I saw Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers, when I was 15 or 16. We lived about 10 miles from Wexford, and I went to the boarding school in Wexford town. Wexford, oddly enough, has a really famous opera festival that comes in and out of my fiction because it made such a difference to us. In boarding school, instead of going to sport or smoking out in the field, you could go to the dress rehearsal nearby. I became really interested in the music — the whole idea of motifs and how the opera was structured. Then, in one of the summer holidays — I can’t remember which one — just any record at home, I’d start listening to it. By about 17 or 18, I became interested in chamber music, and I’ve never stopped on that. I mean, the taste has changed. I can’t really listen to symphonic music — it’s always so bloated. Except a bit of Sibelius.
Is that why chamber music fills the book?
No, some of that is accurate in the real. Nora’s recording of the Archduke Trio really mattered to my mother. I found it had too much withholding. But she listened to it a lot and talked about it a lot. Whereas some of the songs — there’s a Mahler song and a Schubert song mentioned — are out of my lexicon. The mention of János Starker, when the men are discussing the different cellists, would be a big “me” discussion. But the Gramophone Society was real, and my mother did go to it.
Music and family seem much more important in the novel than Irish politics, even though the latter is frequently mentioned.
Yes. The novel is set very emphatically from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s. Humming in the background is all this business; it can’t not be there because it very much did impinge in odd ways on people. Charles Haughey, the budget stuff, Bloody Sunday, and the events leading to it — all of that happened, and I was there for it. That funny business of somebody turning on the TV and shouting upstairs, “Come down, there’s something on the television” — that actually was from memory. I mean, I know that novelists research things, but I don’t think I did any research for this book. [Laughs]
I was at the opening night of the 2014 PEN World Voices Festival — a festival which you now chair — when Judith Butler delivered a speech before yours. The topic of the night was "rage," and she spoke about how "speaking from rage does not always let us see how rage carries sorrow and covers it over" — in other words, rage and grief are intertwined, inseparable. Did this, or anything similar, ever come to your mind while writing Nora?
I was being very careful about the stages of grief, as we could find them in a manual. Literally anyone working with people who are traumatized will talk about stages of grief, and one of them is anger. I had to be really, really careful with that, because if I had decided to let the novel happen according to those stages, I would lose the novel. It would become an illustration of a theory. I mean, the big scene with the school — where Nora goes down and becomes extraordinarily eloquent and powerful when dealing with the Christian Brother who has moved her son from one class into another — I suppose, you do think she’s gone slightly further than she should go. Certainly her daughter thinks so.
And maybe when she grabs the scissors during fighting with Miss Kavanagh as well?
The scissors too, but that happened! My mother was bad — I mean, really bad. If you told her anything about school, she could go into a rage. We used to keep things from her because she’d go down to the school and cause havoc. She would come home, filled with all the things she’d said — and she would have said them!
Nora’s emotions never seem to settle. At one point, all she wants is for no one to come to the door. Then later, after Bloody Sunday, she’s surprised and a bit upset when people don’t stop her on the street to talk about it.
I’m trying to write about that idea that she just doesn’t know what she wants. Her anchor is gone. She’s been unmoored, so nothing is stable, including her own feelings — one feeling can have the opposite feeling darting against it all the time. That’s what I was trying to write about in my Guardian piece on grief, about Hamlet or even Orestes in that scene when he can’t not make a joke about the most important thing there is, for him.
Everything you’ve said so far seems to point away from making a grand point about Irish politics, the Catholic Church, et cetera. Would it be a mistake to read Laurie’s speech at the end, in which she talks about performing Brahms’s German Requiem in France, after World War II, as making just such a grand point?
If you were a good semiologist or a good structuralist, you would look at that last speech of Laurie’s as being the most important speech in the book, because what is about to happen — remember, this is 1972 in the Republic of Ireland — is that on January 1, 1973, Ireland is going to join the European Union. There’s no reference to it in the book, but what she says in that speech, more or less, is that the first moment of this movement was not Jean Monnet. It was not the steel and coal union. It was a nun who dreamt that she should sing a German piece in a French place that would bring the two things together. That is deliberately there as a way out for the society and for Nora. So, yes, I’m breaking all my own rules here. She doesn’t mention the common market, the war hasn’t been mentioned at all, not even the legacy of Ireland’s position in the war, and suddenly here all of it is, and the women are just watching Laurie with awe because she talks for so long.
Darin Strauss in the LA Times calls your writing "incidental" and puts it in opposition to the writing produced in MFA programs. You’ve taught some of these courses at the University of Texas, Princeton, and the University of Manchester. Do you think if a student in a creative writing program presented Nora Webster in class that it would go over well?
No, I don’t.
I think somebody would say, instantly, that we need to know more about Maurice. They’d say, “We need a scene with Maurice; we need to know what their marriage was like.” I can just imagine … my God. Do you have any idea the damage it would do to this book, if you had a flashback scene in chapter three, where Nora was describing the first date she had with Maurice? [Getting very quiet] Maurice needs to be not there at all. It’s so important.
The problem is that people need to say something about your work. The creative writing course is interesting to teach because you end up formulating what it is you already know, and you can actually almost show somebody what works and what doesn’t.
Whether you can teach somebody anything or not, I don’t know, but I was always trying to push people back into doing the feeling first. Maybe feeling isn’t the word as much as the full seeing of everything — knowing, seeing, feeling, having, experiencing — before you would dream of writing. Hold it. Don’t do it until it comes to you. As necessity. And then do it.
Charles Shafaieh is a freelance arts journalist and critic. He lives in New York City.