Colm Tóibín: Commentary


Maurice Harmon
Hayden Murphy
G. V. Whelan
Brendan Hamill
John Dunne
Eithne Farry
Jim Marks
Cormac Ó Gradha
Joyce Carol Oates
John Gardiner
John Banville
Adrian Frazier
Helen Meany
Terry Eagleton
Mark Lawson
John Waters
Conor McCarthy
Frank Kermode
Alex Clark
Gerry Colgan
Maurice Harmon
Arminta Wallace
Sophie Harrison
Jennifer Schuessler
Margaret Drabble
George O’Brien
Belinda McKeon
John Preston
Bernard O’Donoghue
Kim Forrester
Francine Prose
Tessa Hadley
Alex Clark
Eavan Boland
Lavinia Greenlaw

Maurice Harmon, review of The Heather Blazing (Picador 1992), Irish Literary Supplement (Spring 1994), p.21; ‘he is a flawed human being, afraid of emotional commitment, uncertain of being wanted by anyone, afraid of being rejected. The gap between Wexford’s community of shared values and Dublin is great; in the space between Eamon suffered an erosion of spirit as stead and as ruinous as the erosion that afflicts the Wexford coast. [/.../] The novel’s moral core embraces much more than the weakening of political morality, and it is also part of its achievement that Redmond is so attractively human, drawn with understanding an sympathy. [...] The exact style of the novel is reminiscent of the stories of George Moore’s The Untilled Field where characters are similarly revealed as indecisive or uncertain of themselves.’ Harmon concludes oracularly, ‘At the heart of our difficulties is the failure of love. he is right, too, in his analysis of the reasons, the gap between a world that was, between the old, sustaining interconnection of custom and feeling in the past, the simplistic patriotism, the nationalistic slogans, the simple faith, and the inrush and acceptance of a modern, competitive ethic in which success, greed and personal advantage become primary forces. Sean O’Faolain made us aware of this in The Bell, Austin Clarke showed its effects on individual life, Thomas Kinsella fights its cultural consequences. Now Colm Tóibín seems ready to register the way we are.’

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Hayden Murphy, review of talk given by Tóibín at the 7th Biennial Edinburgh Book Festival (Sept. 1995), in Irish Times (9 Sept. 1995), [q.p.]; [Colm Tóibín talked on] ‘shared prejudice and common bigotry in Ireland and Scotland’ to ‘rapturous audience’.

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G. V. Whelan, review of The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (London: Jonathan Cape 1994), in Books Ireland (April 1995), pp.84-85; highly commended as being a near-perfect experience for its prose, and the work of one of the ‘the best people-watchers you could hope to meet’.

Brendan Hamill, review of The Story of the Night, in Fortnight Review (Nov. 1996), [q.p.]; notes humdrumness of narration, passed off as ‘picaresque’ in blurb; narrator Richard Garay (or Ricardo), brought up in Buenos Aires, child of Argentine businessman and English woman who never integrated after her arrival in 1920, growing obsessive about emblems of British empire during the Falklands War; Garay assists Americans in establishing an acceptable Western capitalist democracy; he is homosexual; meets Pablo Canetto; associates with Americans Susan and Donald Ford, who work with the CIA; his mother delights at learning he is homosexual as increasing her hold on him; tests HIV positive; reviewer notes a ‘mysterious plot which is seamless and emotionally coherent’.

John Dunne, review of The Story of the Night (1996), in Books Ireland (Nov. 1996), p.320; remarking greyness of prose that is ‘functional to the point of being utterly banal, and notes to the author’s credit a low-key ending that gives a ‘heartbreaking rendering of a tragedy that is more inevitable than predictable’.

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Eithne Farry, review of The Blackwater Lightship (1999), ‘Set in Ireland in the 1990s, The Blackwater Lightship tells the story of the Devereux family. Helen doesn’t get on with her mother Lily, and Lily doesn’t get on with her mother Dora. Three generations of women, tetchy with recriminations and memory, are forced together when they discover that Helen’s younger brother, Declan, is dying from AIDS: “It was like a dark shadow in a dream, and then it became real and sharp.” This novel is an intense examination of Colm Tóibín’s signature themes: death, loss, illness and morality. However, if the themes are a continuance from his previous books, the style is a distinct departure from the lyrical prose of The Story of the Night and The Heather Blazing. In The Blackwater Lightship Tóibín strips his style down to spare sentences, and what is said is bleaker: “It was clear to her now that it did not matter whether there were people or not - the world would go on. Imaginings and resonances and pains and small longings, they meant nothing against the hardness of the sea.” It is almost as if he is writing us and himself, as the novelist, out of the picture. The familiar poetry of landscape: “the sudden rise in the road and then the first view of the sea glinting in the slanted summer light”, is all that is left. There is not much plot, the book concentrates on the gradual unfolding of talk between the Devereuxs [sic], and two friends of Declan’s, who have fine lines of catty commentary. Dora asks: “Is there a need to rake over everything?” But words, even bitter ones, are shaky constants, when everything else is crumbling. This puts a lot of pressure on the prose; when it works well it’s charged with suppressed emotion, strangely lulling in its determination to be quiet and ordinary. But sometimes its simplicity makes the book a little static, threatening to becalm the reader. The Blackwater Lightship is a book about the frailty of human experiences, in the face of indifferent nature: “soon they would only be a memory, and that too would fade with time.” Tóibín deals with the tricky balance between hopefulness and hopelessness with elegant economy, and very few stumbles. (Q. source, cited in Amazon Online book notices, Oct. 1999.)

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Jim Marks, review of The Blackwater Lightship (Scribner), in Washington Post, Book World [16-20 Dec. 2000], notes beginning chapter that parallels Joyce’s “The Dead” … in 1916 [sic for 1914], and remarks: ‘In one respect the author’s feeling outraces his designing head, resulting in a serious imbalance in the structure of the novel’, holding that the writer’s imagination is ‘most fully engaged by the life-and-death drama of Declan’s illness’ rather than the story of Helen and her mother which he has used as a vehicle for an account of AIDS experience; hence ‘Helens more subtle, interior story is robbed of poignancy by the messy spectacle of Declan’s illness.’ (p.14.)

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Cormac Ó Gradha, review of Colm Toibín & Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish Famine: A Documentary (Profile Books), 214pp. originating as a review article by Toibín for London Review of Books in 1999 which Ó Gradha calls a ‘Famine history with the hard bits left out’. (Irish Times, 19 May 2001.)

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Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing Andrew O’Hagan & Colm Tóibín, eds., New Writing II (London: Picador 2002) [pb.], remarks: ‘it cannot be an accident that of the thirty contributions there is a predominance of Irish writers’; cites Desmond Hogan, “Winter Swimmers”, a collage of meticulously rendered Irish scenes that weaves in and out of tales of tinkers and youths with “primrose-flecked hair” and “cherry-coloured nipples”, remarking: ‘described as a short story, Hogan’s piece is essentially a daringly sustained prose poem that, instead of gathering to a climax at its conclusion, simply dissolves into discrete jewel-like elements’; and quotes, ‘On this side it is a spate of river, and the current, always strong at the side, after rain, is powerful. I did not gauge its power and one morning I was swept away by it, over the barrier, as by a human force, I had no control. There was no use fighting. I was carried down the waterfall on the other side of the barrier to another tier of the river, drawn in a torrent. I say a pegwood in red berry on the bank. I got to the side, crawled out. In ancient Ireland they used to eart bowls of rowan berries in the autumn.’ Adds remarks: ‘By its end, the long-ago act of “winter swimming” has become elegaic: “an article of faithl”.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 12 April 2002, p.11.)

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John Gardiner, review of Colm Tóibín, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovár (London: Picador), 279pp. Tóibín covers Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, Thom Gunn, and Mark Doty and the title personages. Gardiner writes, ‘The problem is that Tóibín, the author of four beautifully crafted and quietly precise novels, is too shrewd to foreground homosexuality to the extent that he collective identity of the book would seem to require’, and quotes introduction: “This is a book in the main about gay figures for whom being gay seemed to come second in their public lives, either by choice or by necessity.” Tóibín sees something reductive in attempt to forge gay canon but is generous towards Gregory Wood’s History of Gay Literature, the subject a his first chapter.; instinctively wishes “to have gay lives represented as tragic, an urge which I know I should repress”; deals with themes of Irishness and Catholicism but ‘the main theme is Tóibín’s deep fascination with the individuality of human experience’. Gardiner regrets absence of a chapter on Henry James since, ‘like Tóibín, James was a tentative commentator on sexuality, and a sharp observer of the unsaid.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 12 April 2002, p.22.)

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John Banville, review of Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovár (London: Picador), 278pp. Relates that Andrew O’Hagan, the ed. of London Review of Books, invited him to contrib. a series of long articles on homosexual writers, alter to be produced as a book. Quotes Tóibín: ‘In most societies, most gay people go through adolescence believing that the fulfilment of physical desire would not be matched by emotional attachment. For straight people, the eventual matching of the two is part of the deal, a happy aspect of normality. But if this occurs for gay people, it is capable of taking on an extraordinarily powerful emotional force, and the resulting attachment, even if the physical part fizzles out, or even if the relationship makes no sense to the outside world, is likely to be fierce and enduring.’ Tóibín ends with a review of Mary Kenny’s Goodbye to Catholic Ireland and Eibhear Walshe’s Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing in the latter of which the editor writes: ‘within the monolith, or not far away from it, there were individuals who had other things on their minds’. Banville writes in conclusion, ‘Colm Tóibín is one such individual, who not only has other things on his mind, but keeps his mind alertly trained on other things, to our benefit.’ (The Irish Times, 6 April 2002, Weekend, p.8.)

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Adrian Frazier, reviewing Colm Tóibín, Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (Dublin: Lilliput Press), notes that Tóibín gave a hint of his motive in writing the book in a Daily Telegraph article (15 April 2000), in which he recalls growing up in a Catholic housing estate and being entranced by the Anglo-Irish as Wilde was by Catholics; attending Bach concerts at St. Anne’s on Dawson St., and adoring his Anglo-Irish landlady’s haughty, gushing voice to which he listened as Synge listened through the floorboards. Frazier commends the book for its ‘clarity, wonder, and charm.’ (The Irish Times [Weekend], 23 March [2001] p.8.)

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Helen Meany, notices paperback edition of The Blackwater Lightship, in The Irish Times (uly 200), writing: ‘a much-loved young man is dying of AIDS in early 1990s Ireland. As a result, his sister, mother, and grandmother are thrown together for the first time in many years, watching over him in a house by the sea; the profound sadness at the heart of the novel is all the more affecting for its understatement.’

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Terry Eagleton, “Mothering”, review of The Blackwater Lightship, in London Review of Books (14 Oct. 1999): ‘[...] Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger rank among Dublin’s so-called Northside realists, creating a world in which compulsively blaspheming council-estate dwellers keep cocaine in the bath and horses in the kitchen. This novel, by contrast, could be described as Southside realism, at least in its opening pages. Helen O’Doherty and her husband Hugh live with their small sons on the middle-class south side of Dublin, though Hugh is an Irish-language enthusiast from Donegal and Helen comes from small-town Wexford. Helen is estranged from her mother Lily, and fantasises about running her over in a car; indeed, Larry, despite being an easygoing fellow, would very much prefer to be taken hostage by Hizbollah than be locked in a room with Lily. It is one of those commonplace families in which, as Helen remarks, making tea is a form of power play. But as the narrative unfolds, this resentful mother and daughter, along with Helen’s grandmother Dora, move edgily together over the body of Helen’s brother Declan, who is dying of Aids. It was the death of Helen’s father which turned her against her mother, and it takes another death to reunite them. Meanwhile, Paul and Larry, gay friends of Declan, have been giving him the care and consolation he refuses from his mother, who did not even know of his gayness. The reader, too, is allowed to know little of his sexual history; it is not that kind of novel. Paul and Larry are his companions, not his partners.’ Eagleton ponders if the novel could not be set equally in Boston or Bournemouth but notes that it gains resonance by its Irish setting by raising ‘questions of tradition and modernity [...] which touch the nerve of a nation increasingly divided between the Treaty of Rome and the Bishop of Rome [...]’. Further, ‘In a series of deft twists, however, the novel broaches this conflict only to deconstruct it. Helen and Hugh may buy their wine at a posh south Dublin supermarket, but Hugh speaks Irish to the children and Helen is sullenly nostalgic for her rural Wexford home. Ironically, it is her thoroughly modern mother, a computer specialist who favours avant-garde living spaces, who has unsentimentally sold the place off. Helen’s grandmother, a magnificent creation who lives in a ramshackle old Wexford house overlooking the sea, far from being a withered crone in a black shawl, is a feisty controversialist who wears make-up, sports a flick knife and learns to drive a car. Rather than allow her daughter to become a nun, she packs her off to dances in search of marriage partners. Granny may not approve of homosexuals, but she is unshockable, reasonably tolerant and an avid viewer of the liberal-minded Late Late Show. [... &c.]’ However, Eagleton finds in the discrepancy between Helen’s way of coping with her own marriage and the need for compassion towards Declan and her own mother a ‘dilemma creates a flaw in the fiction itself.’ (See London Review of Books, online.)

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Mark Lawson, ‘Whispering gallery: ML wonders if Ireland has lost its voice’, review of The Blackwater Lightship, in Guardian (25 Sept. 1999): ‘In The Blackwater Lightship (shortlisted for the Booker Prize this week), three generations of women from the same family - Helen, a young married woman, her mother Lily and granny Dora - have come to a bruised truce after decades of dissent. They are forced together in a crumbling old house (Chekhov, again) in Wexford in order to nurse Helen’s brother, Declan, brought to his final days by Aids. Two gay friends of Declan’s are also in attendance. Toibin’s main business in the novel seems to be the denial of expectation. He has deliberately written neither the default gay novel (polemical and operatic) nor the required Irish one (superstition, bigotry, whimsy.) Stereotypes of Irish life and fiction might lead us to expect the arrival of a Catholic priest at Declan’s bedside howling about sodomites, but he never comes. Similarly, granny Dora, informed of Declan’s condition, doesn’t weep and Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph but nods wisely. She’s seen all about it on the big television in the corner. Nor is the high comedy that is possible in the collision between rural Irish women and three gay men ever delivered. Everyone gets along fine. [.] Certainly the novel speaks up for tolerance and acceptance but - fittingly yet irritatingly - does so in a whisper. Nor do the sentences ever shout about themselves. Toibin renounces thesaurus, word-play, fancy phrasing. (Another of the book’s denials of expectations, perhaps: rejecting Joyce as a model of Irish writing.) / You can see why it pleased a committee. Unlike bigger books omitted by the Booker panel, it’s almost flawless as far as it goes: elegant, honourable, believable. The only possible objection concerns the sins of omission. For me, the earlier The Heather Blazing better balanced the private and the public, honed prose and narrative interest. The Blackwater Lightship is a disquietingly muffled book and Toibin’s admirers may regret that, because of the Booker, this one will produce the most noise. [End]’

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John Waters, Jiving at the Crossroads (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1991; rep. edn. 1994), writing of the crisis occasioned by the Brian Lenihan phone-call controversy in the 1990 presidential election: ‘Every jouranlist whose stock-in-trade was a similar irony [to Brian Lenihan’s remarks that ‘the House was the only place to lie’] suddenly become very solemn, as though they had been rumbled walking between the lines on the pavement. “What Brian Lenihan did”, wrote one such journalist - Colm Tóibín in the Sunday Independent - “should not be judged in isolation; it is part of a system, and a system that we can all do without in the future.” This system, Colm Toibin said, was “when misleading the public became a way of life for members of his party.” For such people, Lenihan was now to bear not just the sins of his own past but those of his party, his leaders past and present, and all the wrongs, real or imagined, that Fianna Fáil had inflicted on the people of Ireland. Those who had lain in wait or Fianna Fáil for half their lifetimes were now playing it by the book, were calling in all the old markers. / There was a price for this new literalism. [...]’. Waters goes on to speak of the death of irony and the jokes with which Lenihan used to deflate his opponents. (pp.17-18.)

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John Waters, Jiving at the Crossroads (1991) - cont.: ‘On finishing college in 1975, Tóibín had spent a couple of years in Spain. His arrival there had coincided with the death of Franco, and his witnessing of the country’s transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy had had a profound effect on his view of politics. When he returned to Ireland, he saw Irish politicians anew, and wrote of them as strange creatures inhabiting a weird and fantastic landscape. Some of his articles were just plain torrents of abuse, witty and colloquial, against politicians and other public figures. Others contained a vast amount of informatior and insight, carefully woven into a narrative that was far from the deadened prose of much journalism of the time. When he wrote, he seemed to go beyond the mere recounting of factual information, to give some sense of the mystery, the complexity of much to do with modern Irish politics. In many ways he was a better editor of Magill than [Vincent] Browne had been. He appeared to have less of an urge to bring down the government each month, but then, despite Browne’s best efforts, governments and politicians just went their own way. Tóibín’s style was less cataclysmic, but in a quiet way his sabre seemed to draw more blood. He was the kind of journalist Iwanted to be. He was a day younger than I was.’ (p.113.) Quotes Tóibín: ‘“Dublin for me [...] is the inside of two rooms” [...]’ he appeared uncomfortable with having come from “the country” [...] His every utterance, no matter how ostensibly vicious, was clothed in irony. “Nobody”, he told me once, “will ever know what I really thing”. He wanted to be a writer, a “proper writer” as he would say, as opposed to a mere journalist. This, too, you imagined, was ironic [...]’ (p.114.)

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Conor McCarthy, Modernisation, Crisis and Culture in Ireland, 1969-1992 (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2000), quotes Tóibín: ‘Unreconstructed Irish Nationalists have always had real difficulties with the 26 Counties. The 26 Counties are limbo, they believe, waiting for the day when our island will be united and the British will leave. This leaves out any idea that Southern Ireland has been forming its own habits and going its own way.’ (‘Confusion of literary traditions’, in Sunday Independent, 24 Nov. 1991, p.8; here p.219.) Further quotes, ‘the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s has left the artists in the Field Day group singularly unmoved [...] They write as though nothing had changed: their Ireland is distinctly pre-decimal. Thus England is the problem and the enemy (and the dramatic other).’ (Review of fifth series of Field Day pamphs. in Fortnight, No. 271, March 1989, p.21; here p.219.) McCarthy now charges Tóibín of participating in ‘an ideological project of near McCarthyite proportions’’ and and with being exponent of ‘Southern partitionism’ along with C. C. O’Brien, Ronan Fanning, and Eamon Dunphy in attacks on John Hume, Gerry Adams, and the Roman Catholic Church.’ (p.220.) [Cont.]

Conor McCarthy (Modernisation, Crisis and Culture in Ireland, 2000) - cont. ‘Tóibín’s “social and cultural revolution” seems to lack any trace of international consciousness, any awareness of the American Civil Rights movement, of the anti-Vietnam war movement, of the Paris soixante-huitards. Tóibín seems to forget also that it was the singularly conservative revolution of the 1960s in the Republic that brought to power the corrupt or ineffectual political generation of the 1980s, in the form of Haughey (in Fianna Fáil) and Fitzgerald (in Fianna Gael). Tóibín’s implicit defence of the [220] mediocrities of the Southern state is congruent with the narrow sense of modernity I outlined earlier and suggests a disappointment that the 1960s change might have involved more than the bourgeois liberation of the humanist individual form “ideologies” of church, land, nation, language and class into a kind of consumerist democracy. The problem is that while this may have been the case in the South, it did not obtain in the North.’ (p.221.)

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Andrew Brown, ‘Interpreter of myths’ [interview-article on Roy Foster], in The Guardian, 13 Sept. 2003), includes these remarks: ‘[...] There was, however, one area of Irish life where this picture of history was not accepted, and that was among professional historians. From about 1940 onwards, at both the historically Catholic University College Dublin, and the historically Protestant Trinity College, the study of history was dominated by men who rejected the nationalist myth. They did not write large books, and their work was largely unknown to the general public. But they taught generations of teachers that Irish history was far more complicated than could be publicly acknowledged. The writer Colm Tóibín came up to University College Dublin in 1972 from a very hard-line republican background, which incarnated the tradition of violent republicanism. His grandfather had fought in 1916. He was shocked to discover that “my teachers didn’t want to know anything about physical force republicanism. They talked about O’Connell and Parnell instead. This was in 1972, when a car-bomb campaign was being waged in the north and was being justified, not just in the name of what the other side had done last week, but also in the name of what Pearse and Connolly had died for in 1916.”’ Further, remarks on Foster’s Life of W. B. Yeats, which Tóibín calls ‘[...] a masterclass in biography. We learn from them that you can’t surmise if you don’t know; that people are capable of being three different things in the same day; Yeats could be a revolutionary in the morning, a social lion in the afternoon, and a theosophist in the evening; and that Yeats and Lady Gregory have won the debate about intellectual freedom. How we live now in Ireland, after the collapse of censorship and everything, is how they wanted us to live. The actual people who had the blueprint for that are Yeats and Lady Gregory and if we leave them out of our history we leave out the roots of our cultural freedom.’ (Idem; online at Guardian Books [online - front page, &c.])

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Frank Kermode, ‘Meditations on The Master’, review of The Master, in The Irish Times (6 March 2004), Weekend: ‘ Colm Tóibín has developed a style distinguished by its careful gravity and consistent with his skill in the construction of narrative - with what he calls, in his new book, “the slow, sly systems used to write a novel, the building of character and plot through action and description and suggestion”. / The practice of these arts makes emotional demands on the writer, whose “systems” are regulated by conscience and sometimes distorted by guilt. A novelist whose concern is with these matters above everything else is bound to admit allegiance to, or descent from, Henry James, and Tóibín’s new book is a meditation on that master. [...]. Tóibín makes ample biographical and topographical provision, but the book is primarily a study of Henry James’s mind and temperament. [...] Aware of the importance of character and setting, Tóibín provides brilliant sketches of Lamb House, James’s beautiful house at Rye, of such friends as Edmund Gosse, and of his servants, including the drunken butler, Smith, his house-boy, Noakes, and his dour Scottish stenographer, MacAlpine. But his main business is with the mind of a venerated predecessor in the art of fiction. On the question of the cost of such devotion, he is clear and moving. He makes Andersen ask James whether he had planned his life. James turns away in tears, “facing towards the window”. He knew what Yeats meant when he spoke of memories that appalled his conscience or his vanity. / This book meets the requirements of action, description and suggestion mentioned above. It is a quiet but bold tribute to a writer whom serious artists still acknowledge as The Master.’

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Alex Clark, ‘Songs of experience’, interview-article in The Guardian (13 March 2004) [dealing with The Master], includes biographical details: ‘Tóibín’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, and his early horizons were necessarily limited. He was the fourth of five children, and attended the town’s Christian Brothers school, at which his father was a teacher for almost 30 years. Michéal Tóibín, who died when Colm was 12, also founded a museum in Enniscorthy’s 13th-century castle and, in 1998, his son collected and edited his writings on the town’s heritage. This family background - down to the museum - found its way into Tóibín’s second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992). “I come from a very enclosed background”, he comments, “a very small place, where my four grandparents are buried in the same graveyard. It’s a very small world. There would for me be a number of streets and a place you went in summer by the sea - but then I left.” Initially, he headed for University College, Dublin, where he studied history and English. Then, as the end of his student days was nearing, somebody told him he could get a job as an English teacher in Barcelona . “The minute they said it, I said yes, I’m going”, he remembers. He left the day after his final exams and arrived in Spain in September 1975. And then, in November, Franco died and the city exploded.’ [&c.]

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Gerry Colgan, review of Beauty in a Broken Place, in The Irish Times (18 Aug. 2004): ‘Colm Tóibín’s first play deals with the events surrounding the riots at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, during the production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. The story is told by O’Casey himself, observing the ebb and flow of reactions to his work, from loyal support to violent condemnation. / Is it possible to create credible images of people such as W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Lennox Robinson and F. J. McCormick with historical accuracy and dramatic interest? The answer is clearly no, because the author has not seriously attempted it. He has instead filled his version with caricatures, and provided singing but single notes for their interpreters. True, he seems to change his mind and style in the closing scenes, when solemn thoughts are unfolded; but that is too late to change the thrust of the play. [...] The ending is [...] a solemn retrospective, and only here is Colm Tóibín’s undoubted ability to write impressively in clear evidence. / But it is not credible dialogue, and the writer has yet to make that notoriously difficult leap from novel to stage.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Maurice Harmon , review of The Master, in Books Ireland (Summer 2004), ‘It is too simple to say that first and foremost James is a writer who turns experience into fiction, including personal relationships. At the centre of his personality is a hard core of selfishness, the artist’s need to maintain a place in which he can work. if there are three attractions in James’s lifemen, women and art-the latter is primary. It will be protected at all costs. For it he will sacrifice family, friendship, women and men and will do so instinctively and consciously. / Tóibín is honest about this side of his subject, calmly dissecting his feelings while at the same time indicating the price paid. James “is a mere watcher from a window”. This is the central trope. In situation after situation he stands aside observing, reflecting, conscious of his distance, of not fully belonging, He is guarded in his speech. Everything and everyone is grist to the mill of his imagination. He likes solitude, absents himself from home and country, conducts friendships on his terms. His essential solitariness inhibits his relationships. Loneliness is the inevitable result, as is his sense of being an outsider in America, England, Ireland and Europe. Such men give the impression of being cold. We do not have any sense that James is liked. He is not outgoing, not generous, not shown to be dependable or to be there for the long haul. Of course he is greatly admired. He is a major novelist. He is welcomed socially. He mixes with the great and the wealthy. It is part of the complexity and subtlety of this portrait that we are able to see his aloofness, his calculating selfishness, while at the same time seeing his inner pain.’

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Arminta Wallace, ‘In the Shadow of a Playwright’, [nterview article with Colm Tóibín], in The Irish Times (7 Aug. 2004), Weekend: ‘[...] The voice of Lady Gregory, he says, was “really easy”. As for Yeats, Toibin’s portrait of Yeats may surprise those who come to the play expecting to see the endearingly dotty creator of “The Wild Swans at Coole”. “The Roy Foster books change everything for Yeats”, says Tóibín. Instead of this dreamy poet we ahve this committee man, this determined individual, this finisher of people. It’s a lovely dramatic idea: that Yeats constantly moves from being dreamy, from miissing the point of things to being more like an arrow about to hit the mark. That makes Yeats very interesting!” [...]’

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Sophie Harrison, NY Times, 10 Oct, 2004): ‘It takes a lot of audacity to reanimate a dead author - or so the evidence of David Lodge’s new novel about Henry James would suggest. Yet it can be done, and Colm Toibin’s recent attempt at the same subject, The Master, casts a terrible shadow over this book. “A few weeks after I delivered the completed Author, Author to my publishers in September 2003, I learned that Colm Toibin had also written a novel about Henry James which would be published in the spring of 2004,’’ Lodge writes in a postscript. It is hard not to imagine the awful emotions in the Lodge household at this point, the anguished telephone call: He’s written a what? About who? Lodge leaves it to “students of the zeitgeist’’ to ponder the significance of this coincidence.’ (Source: online.)

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Margaret Drabble, reviewing Lodge, The Year of Henry James, in New Statesman (12 June 2006), writes: ‘[...] In the opening section of The Year of Henry James, he [Lodge] attempts to exorcise the distressing experience of discovering, too late, that both he and Colm Tóibin had written a Henry James novel, scheduled for publication in the same year, and in contention for the same Booker Prize. it is a painstaking and painful chronological record, noting many ironies and unlikely coincidences. Lodge is a fine comic novelist of manners, and this story has its funny moments, but it also has a darker, sadder side. / The most authentic Lodge episode finds our hero, shortly after the problematic reception of Author Author, bravely trying to enjoy himself with his wife, Mary, in a luxury hotel in Tunbridge Wells. In the morning he is booked to speak down the line on the Today programme to Tóibin and John Humphrys, and he dutifully leaves the hotel for Radio Kent at 7.30. It is pouring with rain, and although he locates the building he cannot force an entry. Nobody responds to his banging on the steel door. There is no bell, no entryphone, and he has no mobile phone with him. He is, in the nick of time, admitted by a hunched figure clutching a takeaway coffee, who seems surprised to see him. Discomposed, Lodge finds his well-prepared jokes are no match for “Colm’s mellifluous brogue”. This is what happens to those who pay their dues to the age of publicity. Henry James didn’t have to endure many experiences like that.’ (p.62.) Drabble adds that Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst, the winner of the Booker, both attended the Toronto Harbourfront Festival and ‘appeared together in public in good humour, the former having just one the prize and the latter therefore having “lost” it.’ (p.63.) The remainder of the article records her inept remarks to Hollinghurst about the bus timetable where congratulations would have been more to the point.

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Jennifer Schuessler, ’Gorgeously Minimal’, review of Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons, in New York Review of Books (1 March 2007): ‘[...] , Mothers and Sons, a collection of nine powerfully understated stories set mostly in Ireland, may seem a modest offering after the remarkable ambition of The Master. Here the strangled intimacies of family life aren’t a condition to be overcome for the sake of art but an unavoidable fact no less painful for being utterly ordinary. Tóibín is a master diagramming loss and emotional dysfunction with gorgeously minimal means, hardly a word or a gesture wasted. In general, not much happens here: Tóibín has his unblinking eye on how people hold themselves together after something happens -a death, a disappearance, the revelation of a shameful secret. / The Ireland in these stories is a place of cold tea, sodden beach raves, fading small-town businesses, and country pubs packed with “outsiders” from the city who spill beer on the uilleann pipes. It’s a place where men with names like Mousey Furlong have given up peddling junk from horsedrawn carts in favor of selling heroin to kids and fencing stolen Rembrandts to Dutchmen - “an unnatural state of affairs,” laments the coolly psychopathic narrator of the “The Use of Reason,” the stiletto-sharp opening story. Well, maybe. But Tóibín, who worked as a journalist before turning to fiction, is hardly after anything so easy as prodding the underbelly of a Celtic Tiger grown fat on the wages of European unification and globalization. If his people have left the island at all, it’s usually only to escape an unhappy marriage, like the middle-aged folk singer in “A Song,” or to wind up dead in a motel in Fresno, like the long-lost sister (another folk singer: Tóibín seems to have a thing for them) in “Famous Blue Raincoat.” The son in “A Priest in the Family” turns out to be a pedophile -something the reader may guess even more quickly than his elderly mother, who wonders why her own parish priest keeps showing up at her door with a worried look but strangely little to say. The court testimony is going to be bad, the woman’s son warns her, but the horror - and the temptation of facile social cornmentary - is kept offstage in favor of the subtle but devastating shift in her life of bridge games and neighborly pleasantries, “the plain language of small talk that ... could conceal every thought from her, every sign, as she could from them.” / Tóibín is very good at writing about old ladies, the kind who cheerfully carry flash-knives against intruders and talk back to the nightly news and, when complimented on the lovely view, say things like “You can get fed up looking at the sea.” Not that his women (their husbands tend to be already in the grave, or otherwise missing in action) do much better with their daughters than with their sons.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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George O’Brien, ‘Cutting the apron strings’, review of Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons, in The Irish Times (26 Aug. 2006), p.11: ‘[...] The full weight and character of the complications of mothering, which in these stories is usually grounded in experiences of loss and abandonment, is what the existence of sons brings sharply into focus. Sons are different. Fergal, the protagonist of the somewhat awkwardly structured “Three Friends”, attends his mother’s funeral, then a couple of nights later goes to a beach rave; the story concludes with the possibility of his taking a new lover. Elsewhere, the emergence of difference is less arresting but equally clear-cut, revealing again and again that the circumstances that have brought mother and son together are also the ones from which their eventual apartness issues. The eventual dissolution of the binding ties of nature and nurture are obviously unnerving to both parties, and the freedom which sometimes results from it is typically conceived of as less a liberation than a fresh challenge. Yet the dissolution itself is also another form of going on, a further revision of family structures which have already been subjected to radical disruption, so that the stories end not with anything as dramatic as breakdown or break-up, but rather with a suggestion of unexpected, untraditional alignments of power within the family. / This suggestion receives more support from the shape of the stories than from reliance on the epiphany or any other related trick of the short story-writing trade. In fact, the length, wealth of incident and large number of characters typical of these stories make them the opposite of the Joycean, modernist conception of the form. Instead, they draw on an earlier, Jamesian model, and if they wisely show no particular interest in reproducing the master’s high-gloss manner, they do share some of his interests in inheritance, succession, singular intelligences and the moral cost of experience. Stories such as these, which cover a good deal of space and time, find it difficult to avoid being episodic, and to an extent that is also the case with Mothers and Sons, suggesting that this form, unlike the novel, is one that the author has yet to make quite his own. But such a reservation hardly detracts from the vividness of the characters, the spare clarity of the style, and the deceptive complexity with which “The Name of the Game”, “A Summer Job” and “A Long Winter”, in particular, negotiate the perennial themes of change and loss and getting through.’ (&c.; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Belinda McKeon, ‘An Irishman in America’ [“The Saturday Interview”], in The Irish Times (4 April 2009), Weekend Review: ‘[...] Tóibín has been out as gay for many years. Did anything like that ever happen to him in Ireland? “Never in my life,” he says, quickly moving from the weary bemusement with which he has told the story of the snub to a clipped, almost dark vehemence. “Never in my life. Never once.” And such behaviour on the part of a public figure would never happen in Ireland, he says. This insistence forms the core of a speech which Tóibín says he has had cause to give more than once during the past decade. It’s a speech which, last St Patrick’s Day in New York, brought an audience at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to thoughtful and, it seemed, grateful silence. Tóibín, who had just read an excerpt from the manuscript of  Brooklyn, spoke out against the banning of gay and lesbian groups from the official St Patrick’s Day parade in that city, arguing that the ban only highlighted the chasm between Ireland and Irish-America. “Because the way those groups were treated in America would not happen in Ireland,” he says. “People might not have known what the Stonewall riots were in Ireland, but at the same time, they knew how to treat their children. Or their neighbour’s children. Which was with respect and decency, which didn’t happen here.”’ Also talks about playing bridge in childhood and the writing of NYRB articles (‘how the eye sharpens, how the mind gets a workout’ - and responsibility for post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, &c.; (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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John Preston, ‘Costa Book Awards: Colm Tóibín interview’, in The Telegraph (25 Jan. 2010)."[...] The spark that eventually ignited it came from a childhood memory of Tóibín’s. His father died when he was 12 and among the visitors who came to pay their respects to his mother was a woman whose daughter had gone to Brooklyn and got married. “For some reason the incident made a big impression on me. I remember the woman her scarves and her hat and so on - and I remember her talking about her daughter and how much they were going to miss her.” Tóibín originally wrote a short story in which this woman appeared, briefly, 10 years ago. “There were just a few sentences, nothing more.” He then put the story aside with a vague sense that there might be more to be done with it. / Five years later, he picked it up again. In the intervening years, Tóibín had spent a lot of time travelling back and forth to the United States: he’s been a visiting professor of creative writing at Stanford, the University of Texas and at Princeton. He’d also been teaching a lot of Jane Austen. Both these things were to prove crucial both to the story of Brooklyn and to the way he told it.’ [Cont.]

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John Preston, ‘Colm Tóibín interview’ (Telegraph, 25 Jan. 2010) - cont. [quotes]: ‘“I reread the short story one night and there it was, the story of the woman who’d gone to Brooklyn. The minute I saw it, I thought: ‘There’s something there.’ Straightaway, I realised what I could do with it which had never occurred to me when I wrote the story.” Right from the start, Tóibín was determined that this would be a book without any detectable style to it: the story would unfold in the plainest possible way. “I wanted to cut everything right back. Part of that was as an experiment: I was hoping that if you got the level of detail right then the reader would slowly become emotionally involved without knowing at what point that began. It also went back to the teaching I’d done. I’d spent a lot of time at Stanford talking to students about stories that were nearly there, but not quite. How much should you tell a reader? How much should you withhold? All that sort of stuff.”’ [Cont.]

Causa scribendi: ‘I wondered how much, if any, of this fascination with concealment was a result of his growing up gay in Sixties Ireland. Tóibín, now 54, tilts forward in his armchair and thinks for quite a long time before he speaks.
 “I don’t think it does, no,” he says. “In fact, a few years ago, I realised I had missed the point. Between the time I was 16 until I was about 20, the books I read were by people like Thomas Mann, James Baldwin, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Bishop. All gay, of course, although I swear I didn’t know that at the time. Yet all of them, it turned out, had had a parent who died during their childhood. Sexuality is nothing compared to that. It’s an issue that affects and unites people much more than whether they’re gay or straight. Whoever you are, it hits you very hard and I’ve never known anyone to recover from it.”’ [Cont.]

(John Preston, interview with Tóibín, Telegraph, 25 Jan. 2010 - cont.:) ‘“Here,” he says, “I’ll show you what I mean ” Tóibín proceeds to demonstrate what makes him such a good writer and also, you suspect, an inspiring teacher. “For instance, you could write a sentence like: ‘He hated his mother more in that moment than he had ever hated her before.’ But, alternatively, you could say: ‘When his mother turned away from him, he looked out and he noticed that the branches of the tree were swaying. He held his eyes on it for a moment, and when he looked back she was staring at him.’ See? It doesn’t really matter who hates who anymore, but something has occurred. There’s something there that makes the reader shiver. All writing is a form of manipulation, of course, but you realise that a plain sentence can actually do so much.”’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘The Clear Voice of a Master’, review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, in The Irish Times (25 April 2010), Weekend, p.11: ‘[...] If the book has to be assigned a single subject, it seems to be another great theme of the Irish fictional tradition since George Moore, homesickness. And, as in Moore’s famous short story, homesickness here is not one-directional. But in Tóibín’s remarkable treatment of the theme, the spirit throughout is attraction to the present location rather than nostalgia for the absent one. The two poles of the homesickness provincial Ireland (but even that adjective has too much of the negative to it) and Brooklyn in the 1950s are evoked with great conviction: small-town, shop-keeping Enniscorthy, and pre-trendy Brooklyn with its Irish, Jewish, Italian and Norwegian populations. [...] In the end, the moral of this book is fatalism; Eilis does not take control of her destiny maybe because she is not at liberty to, but we are not sure. Her attachments are understandable and convincing; but they are marked by a resignation which is the other face of inevitability. It is forgivable; but it is disastrous. There is a strikingly effective recurrent image for this: the posting of a letter which the writer thinks is imperfect. In the most crucial of these, Eilis’s brother writes: “I hope this letter isn’t terrible but, as I said, I didn’t know what to put into it.” We too are unsure whether Tóibín is saying that this Hardyesque fatalism (which also seemed to be the spirit of “A Cold Winter”, set in Spain) is something to which Irish culture is particularly liable.’ [End; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Kim Forrester, review of Brooklyn, at Kimbofo’s Typepad (22 Nov. 2009): ‘[...] The book opens in poor, provincial 1950s Ireland - Enniscorthy, County Wexford to be precise. Eilis Lacey, a part-time shop girl, leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. She lives in an all-girl boarding house, presided over by the matron-like Mrs Kehoe, and spends her days working in a local department store and her evenings studying for a book-keeping qualification at Brooklyn College. Along the way she makes several friends, meets a boy and finds herself living a relatively contented life, despite the fact that she still misses her family back home. [...] a quietly devastating read [...] but its gentleness should not be mistaken for shallowness, because this is a story that’s profoundly moving and tickles the grey matter in ways you might not quite expect. It might be set in the 1950s but it touches on universal themes that resonate today, and I’ve yet to read anything that so perfectly captures the profound sense of dislocation you feel when you swap one country for another and then return to your homeland for the first time. / In short, Brooklyn is a superb paean to homesickness and the émigré experience.’ [...; see full review online ; accessed on 21.11.2009.)

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Francine Prose, ‘Stories From an Irish Master’, review of The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín, in The New York Times (14 Jan. 2011), Sunday Book Reviews: ‘For Toibin, memory seems not merely a function of the heart but proof that the heart exists. Even the least appealing of these mostly sympathetic characters is humanized or humbled by an immersion in the past. So, in “Two Women,” an imperious set designer returns from Los Angeles to Dublin, where a stranger’s resemblance to the only man she truly loved topples her off her brittle perch, and she spirals back into her dead lover’s orbit. / Like the Dubliners who populate Joyce’s fiction, many of the people we encounter in these pages can’t escape the fierce, damaging winds gusting from their homeland. Revisiting their birthplace, they experience the pleasures of return, the shock of seeing how poorly reality compares with what they remember, along with a prickly awareness of all the reasons they left. For Paul, the protagonist of “The Color of Shadows,” this discomfort is sharpened by the inability of his Irish Catholic family to accept the fact that he is gay. In “The New Spain,” a woman goes back to her native Barcelona (where several stories are set) soon after the fall of Franco. There she discovers that the distance between her and her family, a chasm that originated in her Communist activism during the dictatorship, has been widened by domestic events that have transpired in her absence: her grandmother’s death, a quarrel over a legacy. Meanwhile, the political ideals that once inspired her succumb with hardly a fight to the seduction of having inherited a parcel of beachfront property. / The most affecting stories in “The Empty Family” are the longest and most complex, stories in which Toibin allows the accretion of incident and detail to engage us most fully in the fates of his characters. The novella-length finale, “The Street,” is a sensitive account of a romance that blossoms, despite daunting obstacles, between two men newly arrived from Pakistan, living in the claustrophobic and oppressive immigrant community of Barcelona. It’s to Toibin’s credit that after the story ends, the reader continues to wonder about the future of this brave couple.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Tessa Hadley, review of New Ways to Kill Your Mother, in The Guardian (22 Feb. 2012): ‘[...] the range and freedom of Tóibín’s criticism, and the audacious play of his critical writing backwards and forwards between the writers’ work and their lives, between their work and the politics of their historical moment. The essays are the continuation by other means of the achievement of The Master, Tóibín’s novel about Henry James, where he makes himself eerily and superbly interior to the creative alchemy as it might work inside a great novelist translating his experience into fiction (and the fiction translating in turn into an element of experience). The urge to write, the need to write, becomes in itself a mystery for Tóibín’s novelist-imagination to work on: what does that need express, where does it come from? Tóibín’s hunch is that we can understand something about it by looking at how these writer-individuals fit, or more often don’t fit, inside their families. However painfully the writer may experience the solitude of his nature (J. M. Synge said “he never met a man or woman who shared his opinions until he was 23”), and however urgent his need to free himself, he can’t make himself or his work out of nothing; it is the tight or loose or twisted knot of family, the murky scene of origins, which makes the writer in the first place and then, through transformations however opaque, becomes his or her material.’ [...] It’s clear that his theme, the writer’s repudiation of family and persisting involuntary attachment to it, is close to the heart of his own work (his last story collection, magnificently austere, was called The Empty Family). The source of the power of fiction, he believes, is in the private life; at the heart of the alchemy, imagined worlds (as opposed to the “world as we know it, raw and shapeless”) are tested against “the private and hidden experience”. [...] A masterly writer, working at the full stretch of his powers, sends back reports from where he’s engaged at white heat, writing and reading.’

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Alex Clark, review of The Testament of Mary, in The Guardian (26 Oct. 2012): ‘[...] What her visitors want is someone pliable, on-side, part of the project, someone who will satisfy their “vast and insatiable needs”; what they get is low-key resistance. “Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another,” Mary tells us, “or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say.” / Instead, she tells the reader her story: the ambivalence, bordering on dislike, she feels for her son's followers, whom she describes as misfits, “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers”; the estrangement she feels when he sheds his boyhood identity and becomes someone else, “his voice all false, and his tone all stilted”. That estrangement reaches its height when, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus appears not to recognise his mother; he has become, she realises without rancour or self-pity, filled with “unthinking energy”. Leaving the wedding, she almost turns back, but does not. [...] The book’s climax comes, of course, with the crucifixion. Here, Mary gives full rein not only to her love for her son but to her understanding of the limits of their bond; “the pain was his and not mine”, she says, unburdening herself of a final moment of weakness that her visitors would rather not hear. “The truth should be spoken at least once in the world.” / That truth, as Tóibín imagines it in this fearsomely strange, deeply thoughtful book, is far more subversive than it might at first seem. It runs counter to much Marian doctrine and many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, not least the power of Mary to intercede on our behalf. The Mary who sits in her darkened house in Ephesus would not, I think, willingly take on the prayers of the world; all that she wishes for, she tells us at the book’s close, is to confine dreams to the night-time and living to the daytime, and to live “in full recognition of the difference between the two.” (Available online; accessed 25.10.2012.)

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Mary Gordon, ‘Blessed Among Women’, review of The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín, in The New York Times (11 Nov. 2012), Sunday Book Review: ‘[...] Tóibín the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed. Her fear and desire for self-protection drowned her grief and sympathy for her son’s fate. “The pain,” she says, “was his and not mine.” So much for the Pietà. So much for the Stabat Mater. [...] Atmosphere is powerfully created; we share the bodily realities of events that, through repetition, have become almost generic and so, abstract. Fleeing the violence she fears, Mary sees stars as “leftover things confined to their place, their shining nothing more than a sort of pleading.” As the guests wait for Jesus’ appearance at the wedding at Cana there is “a hushed holding in of things.” The tension preceding the crucifixion is chillingly evoked: “I knew that I was facing into something ferocious and exact.” [...] The Testament of Mary is a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother’s grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son. Her prayers are directed not to Yahweh but to Artemis, Greek not Jewish, chaste goddess of the hunt and of fertility, but no one’s mother. Mary’s final word on her son’s life and death is the bleak declaration: “It was not worth it.”’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Eavan Boland, review of Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop [title sic], in The Irish Times (21 March 2015): ‘[...] Sometimes it has seemed that a radical poet would have to wait for a radical critic. / She has found one. Colm Tóibín’s powerful, unorthodox study of Bishop’s work – simply called On Elizabeth Bishop – reverses accepted critical process. Instead of beginning with a poem and listing the elements that might transform the reader, he begins at the end: with the transformation itself. The transformation, that is, of his life by her language.[...] Therefore Bishop is not just critiqued in this book: she is translated. [...] On Elizabeth Bishop is divided into 13 parts. The sections are linked and separate, moving in a sort of lateral creep between Bishop’s poems and Tóibín’s life. An example is the relation between the third and fourth sections. The third is called “In the Village” and considers some late poems against the childhood background. Tóibín provides his own eye-witness accounts of the Novia Scotia landscape, the modest house where Bishop’s mother lived and that noisy tide filling the bay. He writes of Bishop’s “wounded sensibility”. / This might well raise an expectation of a straightforward critical chronology. But the fourth section makes an abrupt detour. It begins with the striking sentence “I come from a house where Time’s hand had also reached in.” Once the reader picks up this rhythm and can follow the swerves from close reading to personal disclosure, there is a sense of having a Virgilian guide: a voice ready to provide his own life as context for the text. This is what makes this book unorthodox, original and deeply effective as literary witness. [...] In this book it is more than enough to be going on with. The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop: “closets, closets and more closets”’, in The Telegraph (7 July 2015): ‘[...] This is neither criticism nor biography. [.../] The trauma of Bishop’s childhood is echoed in Tóibín’s loss of his father. He writes here of how it was not spoken about, of the development of his stammer and his subsequent “close relationship with silence”. He took Bishop’s poems when he left Ireland for Barcelona, like her establishing a place from where to write about home. Bishop once observed that people understood her better when she was on a different continent, and her most comfortable perspective does seem to have been close focus from a distance – the telescopic. / Tóibín learns what she can do and so starts to notice when she doesn’t quite manage it. There are times when her “breezy ambiguousness” deflects the poem from its course. Brazilian politics baffled her, while she delighted in the country’s picturesque detail to the extent that she could be, as Tóibín says, “whimsical and naive”. Her playfulness was an impressive form of resistance to rhetoric but it could obstruct. When her early mentor, Marianne Moore, was said to have “controlled panic by presenting it as whimsy”, Bishop blustered in defence that surely panic underlies all art? The observation seems to have hit a nerve. / Tóibín is an exceptionally musical writer: “Novels and stories only come for me when an idea, a memory, or an image move into rhythm.” The point of formulation is, for him, one of orchestration as it is for the poet. Bishop’s music is plain, resistant and takes some getting used to. It attracts those in danger of loving the music of language too much. How does she manage to make something of such substance and resonance without it singing as sweetly as we might expect? / In this conversation between writers, Tóibín brings in Joyce, “another great exile”, and Thom Gunn, who left Britain for San Francisco. He recalls an evening when reading Gunn took him on an adventure through his shelves that brought him to the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky’s essay on Robert Frost, “On Grief and Reason”, which Brodsky describes as “language’s most efficient fuel”. This phrase, for him, makes sense of Bishop. So one writer reads another writing about another, and the heart of the matter is reached.’ (Available online; accessed 07.07.2015.)

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