Colm Tóibín: Quotations

Fiction Misc. Prose Reviews Views

Numerous literary reviews by Tóibín of books by other Irish writers are given in RICORSO Library “Criticism > Reviews” - index. [The contents of that section are protected by a Ricorso password.]
A large selection of Toibin's critical essays in the London Review of Books and the Guardian are available through links from the Works and Quotations sections of this page [as above].

From the fiction ...
The Heather Blazing
The Blackwater Lightship
The Master
Mothers and Sons
"Two Grecos"
The Empty Family
The Testament of Mary
See also
  • Tóibín’s account of James Joyce’s Dublin and his Dubliners stories - under Joyce > Commentary - as supra.
  • Tóibín on the filming of Brooklyn in The Guardian (10 Oct. 2015) - under Quotations [as infra].
[ For extracts from Walking Along the Border, see under de Valera - infra. ]

Fiction (extracts)
The Heather Blazing (1992): ‘[Eamon Redmond] sat at his desk and looked down at the judgment he had written in longhand on foolscap pages [...] He took a biro from a drawer and began to make squiggles on a pad of paper. What was there beyond the law? “Law”; he wrote the word. There was natural justice. He wrote the two words down and put a question mark after them. And beyond that again there was the notion of right and wrong, the two principles which governed everything and came from God. “Right” and “wrong”; he wrote them and the word “God” in capitals beside them. / Somehow here in the middle of the night with the moths and midges drawn to the window, the idea of God seemed more clearly absurd to him than ever before; the idea of a being whose mind put order on the universe, who watched over things, and whose presence gave the world a morality whih was not based on self-interest, seemed beyond belief. He wondered how people put their faith in such a thing, and yet he understood that the courts and the law ultimately depended for their power on such an idea. He crossed out the word “God”. He felt powerless and strange as he went back to read random passages of his judgment.’ ‘As he worked on the judgment, he realised more than ever that he had no strong moral views, that he had ceased to believe in anything. But he was careful in writing the judgment not to make this clear. The judgment was the only one which he could have given: it was cogent, well argued and, above all, plausible. He went to the window again and stood there looking out. How hard it was to be sure! It was not simply the case, and the questions it raised about society and morality, it was the world in which these things happened which left him uneasy, a world in which opposite values lived so close to each other. Which could claim a right to be protected? He went over to his bookshelves and took down the sacred text: Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution. This contained the governing principles to which the law was subject. The preamble was clear about the Christian nature of the state, it specifically referred to the Holy Trinity. He thought about it again, how the school had a duty to defend Christian principles, and indeed a right to do so, under its own articles of association and also under the general guidance of the Constitution. Surely these rights and duties were greater than any rights a single individual, whose presence in the school might undermine the school’s ethos and principles, could lay claim to?’ ‘One other matter began to preoccupy him. The family, according to the Constitution, was the basic unit in society. What was a family? The Constitution did not define a family, and at the time it was written in 1937 the term was perfectly understood: a man, his wife and their children. But the Constitution was written in the present tense, it was not his job to decide what certain terms - he wrote “certain terms” in his note-pad, underlined it and wrote “uncertain terms” below that - such as “the family” had meant in the past. It was his job to define and redefine these terms now. Could not a girl and her child be a family? And if they were, did the girl have rights arising from her becoming a mother, thus creating a family, greater than the rights of any institution?’ (85-91; quoted in Liam Harte, Satellite Lect., MA Dip., UUC, 2003.) [See also note, infra.]

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The Blackwater Lightship (1999): ‘Helen closed the doors to the garden. The party was nearly over. She remembered Hugh telling her that Mick Joyce knew only one song, and she was relieved about this. His singing could have been heard by the neighbours on both sides, and possibly further down the street. She wondered about Mick Joyce: since he liked children so much, why he didn’t have children of his own, and how he managed to pretend, in his manners and speech, that he was in the west of Ireland. She wondered what it [23] would be like to be married to someone like that - the mixture of control and anarchy, the unevenness. She turned around and watched as Hugh began to sing in Irish, his voice nasal and thin, but sweet as well and clear. His eyes were closed. There were only about ten people left, and two of these joined the song, softly at first and then more loudly. She stood there and thought about Hugh: how easygoing he was and consistent, how modest and decent. And she wondered - as she often did in moments like this - why he had wanted her, why he needed someone who had none of his virtues, and she felt suddenly distant from him. She could never let him know the constant daily urge to resist him, keep him at bay, and the struggle to overcome these urges, in which she often failed. / He tried to understand this, but he was also frightened by it, and often succeeded in pretending that it was nothing, it was her period, or a bad mood. It would pass, and he would wait and find the right moment and pull her back in again, and she would lie beside him, half grateful to him, but knowing that he had [willfully] misunderstood what was between them. As she watched him now, his voice - soaring in the last verse of the song, clearly in love with the sounds of the words he was singing, she knew that anybody else would have laid bare, in the way that he had covered, the raw areas in her which were unsettled and untrusting.’ (pp.24-25.)

The Blackwater Lightship (1999): ‘She [Helen] realised, too, that the unspoken emotions between them in the car, and the sense that they were once more a unit, seemd utterly natural now that there was a crisis, a catalyst. She was back home, where she had hoped she would never be again, and she felt, despite herself, almost relieved.’ (p.106.) ’And it was only now that it struck her [Helen] that Declan had just the previous evening enacted the fantasy that she had feared so much. He had come back asking for comfort and forgiveness, as she felt she would, and they had been ready for him, as they too had always been alert to their side of the bargain. Shaw was frightened by the symmetry of this but did not know what it meant.’ pp.120-21.)

The Blackwater Lightship (1999): ‘When I was young, lying in bed in your granny’s house. [...] I used to believe that Tuskar was a man and the Blackwater Lightship was a woman and they were both sending signals to each other and to other lighthouses, like mating calls. He was forceful and strong, and she was weaker but more constant, and sometimes she began to shine her light before darkness had really fallen. And I thought they were calling to each other; it was very satisfying, him being strong and her being faithful. If I could meet him here for one minute now, your father, you know, even if he were to be allowed to pass us on the strand here, here now, when it’s nearly night. And not speak, just take us in with his eyes. If he was only to know, or see, or acknowledge with a flicker of his eyes what is happening to us.. it’s what I think about when I look at Tuskar lighthouse. (p.192; quoted in Christina Hunt Mahony, ‘The Poet Tóibín - Cadence, Incantation, Imitation’ [paper], Colum Toibin Conference, TCD 17 May 2007.)

The Blackwater Lightship (1999): ’When my father died I was left alone by my mother and grandmother. I knew that they had their own problems and maybe they could not have helped, maybe the damage was already done, but I got no comfort from them. And these two women are parts of myself I have buried, that is who they are to me, both of them., and that is why I still want them away from me. / I associated love with loss, that’s what I did. And the only way that I could live with Hugh and bring up my children was to keep my mother and grandmother away from me.’ (pp.197-8.)

The Blackwater Lightship (1999)[At the funeral of Hugh’s father:] ‘[H]e lay in an open coffin in the hallway of the house. The expression on his face was mild and satisfied. Helen’s mother-in-law sat close to the coffin, turning sometimes to look at him, or touch his face, as though to admire it or make sure that no great change was coming over it. And Hugh’s brothers and sisters wandered in and out of the hallway, stopping for a while to touch the coffin or touch their father’s hand. All of them cried at various times, and all of them took turns to sit by the coffin while their father’s body lay there, lit only by candles, his skin waxen in the flickering light, his presence increasingly shadowy and distant. No one in Hugh’s family watched things as Helen did. She looked out for a niece or nephew or cousin or aunt or brother or sister who watched everything, who took everything in as though it were not happening to them. But there was no one like that except Helen herself at this funeral; they were all involved in being themselves, and this surprised her and impressed her. She wished she had been like that at her father’s funeral instead of watching everybody, instead of observing her mother as though she were someone she had, never seen before. And she wondered, as she passed the ball-alley on her way into Blackwater, how different she would be now if she had spent those days after her father died openly grieving for him. Would she be happier now?’ (p.219.)

The Blackwater Lightship (1999): ‘Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea. They meant less than the marl and the mud and the dry clay of the cliff that were eaten away by the weather, washed away by the sea. It was not just that they would fade: they hardly existed, they did not matter, they would have no impact on this cold dawn, this deserted and remote seascape where the water shone in the early light and shocked her with its sullen beauty. It might have been better, she felt, if there never had been people, if this turning world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love. She stood at the edge of the cliff until the sun came out from behind the black rainclouds.’ (p.260; quoted [in part] in Aisling McPhillips, MA Dip. Essay UU 2003.)

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The Master (2004): ‘Yet he liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss almost everything. He himself learned never to disclose anything, and never even to acknowledge the moment when some new information was imparted, to act as though a mere pleasantry had been exchanged. The men and women in the salons of literary paris moved like players in a game of knowing and not knowing, pretence and disguise. He had learned everything from them.’ (p.5; qouted in Conor Doris, MA Diss., UUC 2004)

The Master (2004): ‘He loved walking up and down the room, beginning a new sentence, letting it snake ahead, stopping it for a moment, adding a phrase, a brief pause, and then allowing the sentence to gallop to an elegant and fitting conclusion. He looked forward to starting in the morning, his typist punctual, uncomplaining, and seemingly indifferent as though the words uttered by the novelist equalled in interest and importance his previous work in the commercial sector.’ (p.127.)

The Master (2004) [of the young woman - Minny Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson - who provided Henry James with models for Daisy Miller, Travelling Companion and The Portrait of a Lady]: ‘He wanted to take this penniless American girl and offer her a solid, old universe in which to breathe. He gave her money, suitors, villas and palaces, new friends and new sensations. He had never felt as powerful and as dutiful he walked the streets of Florence and the quays and the steep, winding hill to Bellosguardo with a new lightness and this lightness made its way into the book. It moved elegantly, easily and freely as though Minny herself were protecting him, presiding over him. There were scenes wrote in which, having imaged everything and set it down, he was, at moments, unsure whether it had genuinely happened or whether his imagined world finally comes to replace the real [...] She belonged to the part of him he guarded most fiercely, his hidden self, which no one in England knew about or understood.’ (Quoted in Maurice Harmon, review of The Master, in Books Ireland, Summer 2004, p.142.)

The Master (2004) [on the death of a brother of James in the Civil War]: ‘Less than a year earlier, Wilky [...] had lived in a state of complacent expectation, as if the stretch of earth they inhabited had been created for their freedorn and happiness. In Boston and Newport and in the villages of New England, they were everywhere welcomed, their accents understood, their manners appreciated. In time their boyish openness would be tempered by experience, just as their handsomeness would ripen and their beliefs solidify. No one told them and no one warned their parents that they would be shot down before they were twenty. The New England which their grandparents and great grandparents had created was not a place of violent death or battle roar or infected wounds, but of settlement, propriety, peace, righteousness. Henry knew [...] that their visitor’s shock came not only from the brutal disappearance from the earth of his golden son, but from the idea that a public pact, a version of the civic order as ordained by history, had been cruelly broken.’ (Ibid., p.143; see also T&0acute;ibín’s remarks on Henry James as subject of The Master - infra.)

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Mothers and Sons (2007) - “A Song”, publ. in Village (20 Dec. 2004) - a story in which a young sean nós singer encounters his estranged mother as she performs one evening and parts without greeting: ‘[...] Her style was the old style, with electricity added, almost declamatory at times, with hardly any interest in the sweetness of the tune., […] She had her eyes closed as she worke don trills and cadences. At times she left half a second between lines not to catch her breath but to take the measure of the bar and its inhabitants, let them hear their own stillness as the song began its slow and despairing conclusion. / As she began these stanzas of pure lament, his mother was now staring straight at him once more. Her voice became even wilder than before, but never dramatic or striving too much fo effect. She did not take her eyes from Noel a she came to the famous last verse. He, in turn, had worked out in his head a way of singing half an octave above her. He imagined fiercely how it could be done, how her voice would evade such accompaniment, and perhaps deliberately wrong-foot it, but he believed if he was ready to move a fraction of an octave more up or down as she did that it could be managed. However, he knew to remain silent now and watch her quietly as she looked into his eyes, aware that everyone was watching her as she sang of their love who took north from her and south from her, east from her and west from her, and now, and she lowered her head and almost spoke the words, her love had taken God from her.’ (pp.55-57.)

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Brooklyn (2009): ‘Even when she woke in the night and thought about it, she did not allow herself to conclude that she did not want to go. Instead, she went over all the arrangements and worried about carrying two suitcases with all her clothes without any help, and making sure that she did not lose the handbag that Rose had given her, where she would keep her passport, and the addresses in Brooklyn where she would live and work, and Father Flood’s address in case he did not turn up to meet her as he had promised to do. And money. And her make-up bag. And an overcoat maybe to be carried over her arm, although perhaps she would wear it, she thought, unless it was too hot. And it still might be hot in late September, she had been warned. / She had already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be, in a different room in a different country, and then the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.’ (p.29; for longer extract, see attached.)

Brooklyn (2009) - the sean nós singer: ‘When Eilis looked up the man was signalling to her. He wanted her, it seemed, to come and stand with him. It struck her for a second that he might want her to sing so she shook her head, but he kept beckoning and people began to turn and look at her; she felt that she had no choice but to leave her seat and approach him. She could not think why he wanted her. As she came close she saw how bad his teeth were. / He did not greet her or acknowledge her arrival but closed his eyes and reached his hand towards hers and held it. The skin on the palm of his hand was soft. He gripped her hand tightly and began to move it in a faint circular motion as he started to sing. His voice was loud and strong and nasal; the Irish he sang in, she thought, must be Connemara Irish because she remembered one teacher from Galway in the Mercy Convent who had that accent. He pronounced each word carefully and slowly, building up a wildness, a ferocity, in the way he treated the melody. It was only when he came to the chorus, however, that she understood the words – ‘Má bhíonn tú liom, a stóirín mo chroí’ – and he glanced at her proudly, almost possessively, as he sang these lines. All the people in the hall watched him silently. There were five or six verses; he sang the words out with pure innocence and charm so that at times, when he closed his eyes, leaning his large frame against the wall, he did not seem like an old man at all; the strength of his voice and the confidence of his performance had taken over. And then each time he came to the chorus he looked at her, letting the melody become sweeter by slowing down the pace, putting his head down then, managing to suggest even more that he had not merely learned the song but that he meant it. Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place and give way to another singer as Eilis too went back and sat in her chair. As the night wore on, some of the men fell asleep or had to be helped to the toilet. The two Miss Murphys made pots of tea and there was Christmas cake. Once the singing ended some of the men found their coats and came up to thank Father Flood and the Miss Murphys and Eilis, wishing them a happy Christmas before setting out into the night. ’ (See longer extract - attached.)

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Two Grecos (in Times Literary Supplement, 23 April, 2004): ‘There was a fierce storm in the night, / The sea lunging at us, assault water. / She slept to the slapped beat of that / In the old bed where so much once took place. / Nothing disturbed her except soft sounds. / With the creaking of stairs or pages turning, / The pulling back of sheets or a half sigh, / She woke in hard fright and came / Downstairs to find out what the racket was. / Thunder comforted her, made her yawn. // That night when old Casas and mad Rusinyol / And the young crew that hung around the bar / Brought the Grecos to the town, / I warned her that there might be noise. / I sold them beer sometimes and knew them all. / And they walked quietly like it was God / Was calling out to be restored, having / Been found rotting in an old dark shop. / Nothing could save us now. The sound of feet / Drove her to the window, mad, roaring / At the neighbours and civil guards to help.’ Quoted in Christina Hunt Mahony, ‘The Poet Tóibín: Cadence, Incantation, Imitation’, in Reading Colm Tóibín, ed. Paul Delaney (Dublin: Liffey Press 2008, q.p.)

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The Empty Family (2010) - Title story: ‘I have come back here. I can look out and see the soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea. It is threatening rain. I can sit on this old high chair that I had shipped from a junk store on Market Street and watch the calmness of the sea against the misting sky. / I have come back here. In all the years, I made sure that the electricity bill was paid and the phone remained connected and the place was cleaned and dusted. And the neighbour who took care of things, Rita’s daughter, opened the house for the postman or the courier when I sent books or paintings or photographs I had bought, sometimes by Fedex, as though it were urgent that they would arrive, as I could not. [...]’ Given in The Guardian, 28 Aug. 2010 - online; or see a full-text version, see attached.)

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The Testament of Mary (London 2012) [for Loughlin Deegan and Denis Looby] - beginning: ‘They appeared more often now, both of them, and on every visist they seem more impatient with me and iwwth the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiing in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not konw the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothign escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to slee. Or there is nothign further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down this passageway as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end. / They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notive the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something vague or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem nt to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones. [...] There was a time when I though that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but i am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. [...] I no longer need tears and that should be a reief, but I do not seek relief,, merel solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.’ [Cont.]

The Testament of Mary (2012): ‘He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was noraml, i said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a children in a tantrum. yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anthing, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could look a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all - fearlessness, ambition, anthing - and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.’ (Digital edition via Google Play on Sony Xperia E - accessed 20.09.2013.)

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Miscellaneous Prose
Martyrs and Metaphors’, in Letters from the New Island, ed. Dermot Bolger (Dublin: Raven Arts 1987), pp.6-8: ‘Six short stories, six lyric poems in a country where history wiped out any hope of us forming a cohesive, safe, secure, well adjusted, class-ridden society. We were left instead with something broken and insecure, a post-colonial society which remained in spirit part of the one-time mother country, and part of America, and part of its own invention. / How can the novel flourish in such a world? The novel explores psychology, sociology, the individual consciousness; the novel finds a form of language and a language for these explorations. We requite an accepted world for the novel to flourish, a shared sense of time and place. .. What we have come to treasure instead are those small moments in our literature known as short stories. This is the legacy we have chosen to take from Joyce, not the vision and word play of Finnegans Wake, but the glimpses of life as it is truly lived in Dubliners, the sharpness of the realism, the precision, the detail, the ending of each story in pathos and bitter wisdom and purple prose, the individual in relation to landscape and memory. / Short stories occur in a limited time and a limited place. In our post-colonial societies, it is a perfect form: we need not deal with the bitterness of the past, the confusion of the present or the hopelessness of the future. We can offer merely small instances unassociated with other instances.’ (Quoted in Irena Boada-Montegut, “Relations of Power and Violence in Irish/Catalan Literature”, MPhil/DPhil UUC 1997 [draft], p.56-57.)

Tóibín on the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991): ‘[...] On 24 November [1991], a piece by Colm Tóibín appeared in the Sunday Independent taking serious issue with the anthology’s nationalist ideology and its omissions: “Where are Mary Robinson’s famous speeches? The Kerry Babies Report? ...June Levine’s Sisters? We have 10 pages of Eamonn McCann; where is Nell McCafferty?” He concluded: “Still, I wouldn't be without it. I strongly recommend it, with all its faults and its governing clapped-out ideology, to the reader.”’ (See Catriona Crowe: ‘Testimony to the Flowering’, in The Dublin Review [n.s.; ed. Brendan Barrington] (Spring 2003; available online; accessed 07.11.2011.)

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New Ways to Kill Your Father: Historical Revisionism’, in Ireland: Towards new Identities?, ed. Karl-Heinz Westarp & Michael Böss (Aarhus UP 1998), pp.28-36 [on Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland]: ‘using such an arch tone as that it gives the game away. It suggest that underneath the brilliant insights and real originality [...] there is an ideology, perhaps not as crude as that of any nationalist historian writing school texts in the 1920s, but just as clear’ (p.32). ‘Roy Foster loves two minds, the dual inheritance. Although the essays in Paddy and Mr Punch were written for different occasions and contexts, there is a single concern running throught the book - the way in which the intersection between Ireland and England affects individuals and institutions. He is always deeply aware that this intersection can be dangerous and dark, but, in a few essays, he shows that it has also been enriching, and these essays are important and original.’ (p.35.) Reproaches Foster for lacking the ‘same level of nuanced study to the contradiction and complexities of the Irish revolutionary tradition […] as, say, Elizabeth Bowen’ (idem.) [Cont.]

New Ways to Kill Your Father [...]’ (1998) - cont.: ‘I was in my late teens and I alrady knew that what they had told me about God and sexuality wasn’t true, but being an atheist or being gay in Ireland at that time seemed easier to deal with as transgressions compared to the idea that you could cease believing in the Great Events of Irish nationalist history [...] Imagine if Irish history were pure fiction, how free and happy we could be!’ (Quoted in Conor Doris, MA Diss., UUC, 2004.) [Cont.]

New Ways to Kill Your Father [...]’ (1998) - cont.: ‘I know that ambiguity is what is needed in Ireland now. No-one wants territory, merely a formula of words ambiguous enough to make them feel at home. If we cannot understand Elizabeth Bowen’s Irishness, and her British allegiances, then there are other forms of Irishness, and other allegiances, more insistent and closer to us, that we will fail to understand as well. Foster’s position is clear, he wants Ireland to become a pluralist, post-nationalist, all-inclusive, non-sectarian place. So do I. But there are other (I hesitate to use the word atavistic) forces operating within me too that I must be conscious of. Maybe it comes out in odd moments when I read a book like this, or Thomas Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty, and know that I am not part of the consensus of which they are part. Maybe it would be good if they looked again at Catholic Ireland. We, in turn, are learning to talk in whispers. It will take time.’ [End]. (p.36.)

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Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), Introduction: ‘Ireland, from the time of Jonathan Swift to the present, has been, it seems, awash with “national and intellectual mood”, especially national mood, so that those writers who have sought to evade the opportunities to interpret this, who have sought to deal with the individual mood, however trivial, perverse and fleeting, seem now oddly heroic and hard to place. The purpose of much Irish fiction, it seems, is to become involved in the Irish argument, and the purpose of much Irish criticism has been to relate the fiction to the argument.’ [Cont.]

Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), Introduction - cont.: ‘In 1929 the Censorship of Publications Act was passed in Ireland, and work by most Irish writers and many foreign writers was banned; this did not encourage Irish writers to feel that there was an audience out there hungry for their work. The sense that there was no reader fed into a tradition which was already strong in Irish writing, a tradition which insisted that a book could read itself, hermetically sealed in a deep self-consciousness. From Tristram Shandy to Ulysses to At Swim-Two-Birds to Beckett’s fiction to John Banville’s Birchwood to John McGahern’s The Pornographer, pastiche and parody combine with the idea of the built-in reader.’ [Cont.]

Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), Introduction - cont.: ‘While there has been stylistic innovation in the work of, say, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle and Patrick McCabe and Aidan Mathews, a playing with tone, an ability to write sentences like no one had ever written them before, most of the work being produced in Ireland now is formally conservative. This may be because, for the first time, there is an audience for books in Ireland. You can have readers outside the book as well as within it. This new conservatism among fiction writers both north and south of the border is most clear when you compare the calmness of contemporary Irish writing with the wildness of contemporary Scottish writing. It is as though the legacy of Sterne and Swift, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien had taken the Larne-Stranraer ferry; in the writing of James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and Alan Warner there is political anger, stylistic experiment and formal trickery. Books are written, as in Ireland in the old days, to replace a country.’ Tóibín: ‘For the first time in its long life [Irish] fiction, has become post-Freudian and post-feminist and, of course (three cheers!), post-nationalist.’ [End; quoted by Des Traynor, reviewing Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, in Books Ireland, Dec. 1999, pp.370-72.)

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Let us lay these ghosts to rest” [on the Irish Famine, 1845-49], in The Guardian, [Sat.] (10 July 1999): "[...] Catholic society in Ireland in the 1840s was graded and complex: to suggest that it was merely England, or Irish landlords, who stood by while Ireland starved is to miss the point. An entire class of Irish Catholics survived the famine; many, indeed, improved their prospects as a result of it, and this legacy may be more difficult for us to deal with in Ireland now than the legacy of those who died or emigrated. / In my father’s account of the famine in Enniscorthy, County Wexford - he was a local historian - he wrote about the rise in the price of food: the workhouse could buy oatmeal for £2 a ton in October 1845; within a few months that had gone up to £5 and by the end of 1846 it was £20. He does not comment on this. There were things you could not say in 1946 about the famine, such as that ordinary Catholic traders in the town and the stronger farmers speculated in food and made profits. It is plain from much writing about the famine that two things happened in its aftermath. One, people blamed the English and the ascendancy. Two, there began a great silence about class division in Catholic Ireland. It became increasingly important, as nationalist fervour grew in the years after, that Catholic Ireland, or simply “Ireland” (the Catholic part went without saying), was presented as a nation, one and indivisible. The famine, then, had to be blamed on the Great Other, the enemy across the water, and the victims had to be this entire Irish nation, rather than a vulnerable section of the population." (See full text version, attached.)

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Emmet and the historians [what were the epaulets for?]’: A review-essay published in The Dublin Review, 12 (Autumn 2003): ‘[...] Hardly any letters written by Robert Emmet survive; there is no autobiography; there are few contemporary references to him, although there are many to his older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet. Robert Emmet appears, it seems, from nowhere, with fire in his eyes and nothing in his head except abstract ideas of liberty. He is out of Stendhal more than he is out of history. Thus he is fodder not only for songs and stories and patriotic speeches that sanctify his glory, but also for mockery by writers such as James Joyce and Denis Johnston (and indeed Borges) who saw the comic possibilities of such sanctity, and for Irish historians, crudely called “revisionist”, who sought to re-examine the shibboleths surrounding Irish nationalism. Laughing at Emmet was one of the best ways available of killing your Irish nationalist father.’ (See full text under Robert Emmet infra - or as attached.)

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Henry James [subject of The Master]: ‘The London Review of Books asked me to write [...] about what constitutes gay literature and what doesn’t and what are the complexities and ironies within that. A alot of this was dealing with James and his peculiar position as somebody who may have been a homosexual, though he certainly never wrote aabout it and may not have acted on it, and produced a large body of work that dealt with other matters. It’s all complicated, but I started to read about James again.’ (Interview with David Weich, at [July 2004]; quotd in Conor Doris, MA Diss., UUC 2004.)

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Darkness of the Heart’: ‘In the last years of the 19th century, a number of writers who were in exile in England began, as outsiders, to consider the drama surrounding the brittleness of English manners and morals and the pressures on English stability. This offered them an alluring, mysterious and, at times, evasive subject. / Henry James, for example, remained fascinated by the English system of inheritance in which, on the death of her husband, the widow was cast aside while her son inherited the property. James sought to dramatise this in The Spoils of Poynton (1896). / It was this world, too, which Oscar Wilde described in his comedies of manners written in the early 1890s, work in which no Irish characters appeared, in which members of the English drawing-room class are mimicked and mocked, masked and unmasked. So, too, the hero, whoever he is, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) wallowed in the great unstable openness of London. The vast and various city, in all its ineffable mystery and otherness, offered these three writers an escape from their own narrow heritage, and a richly layered world to chart in its duplicity, and perhaps even its decline.’ (Introduction to Joseph Conrad, The Return, London: Hesperus 2004; extract in The Guardian, 3 April 2004; for longer version, see attached.)

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Turning Back the Century’: ‘I’ve been involved in a number of controversies in Ireland over the past twenty years, and I hope to be involved in some more before I die. This involves writing polemic, and it involves taking sides ... The novel is a pure space. I’m nobody once I go into that room. I’m not gay, I’m not bald, I’m not Irish. I’m not anybody. I’m nobody. I’m the guy telling the story, and the only person that matterrs is the person reading that story, the target. It’s to get that person to feel what I’m trying to dramatise.’ (Interview with David Weich, at; quoted in Conor Doris, MA Diss., UUC 2004.)

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Denis Donoghue (“What to do. How to live”, Plenary Lecture at the Donoghue Festchrift Conference, QUB 2005): ‘Home was Enniscorthy, County Wexford, fourteen or fifteen miles south of Tullow, County Carlow, where Denis Donoghue had been born. An aunt of mine lived close to there and my grandmother had been born not far away so we often passed through the town, driving along the River Slaney to Bunclody and then to Kildavin. / We knew the word Tullow in any case from the song "Boolavogue" as the place where the Yeomanry took Father Murphy in 1798 and burned his body upon the rack. Father Murphy’s head, we knew, had been kicked like a football through the streets of the town. My father also knew that a local shopkeeper was descended from those who had betrayed Father Murphy and he pointed out their shop which bore the old treacherous name and he said that no one should go into that shop. The shop where Denis Donoghue’s mother grew up and where Denis Donoghue was born was a distance, you will be glad to know, from the forbidden shop and was not connected to it in any way. / In one of those weekends home in my first term at University College, Dublin or at Christmas, Denis Donoghue’s origins in the town of Tullow were casually mentioned by my mother and the fact that my aunt had briefly done a line, which was the phrase used at the time, with his brother, was added as an afterthought. This seemed strange to me and I remember asking if the Donoghues were not rich, from one of the big houses along the valley, and I remember my mother saying that she did not think so.’ (Quoted in Christina Hunt Mahony, op. cit., 2007.)

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The Lads: ‘Over the past twenty-five years in Ireland I have made a point of asking anyone who was at schol with members of the IRA, the INLA, the UDA and the UVF what these people were like at the age of ten. All have agreed that each child dispalyed a nasty early sign of terrorism long before he had a “cause”.’ (John Freeman, ‘The Master’, in The Journal-Constitution []; quoted in Conor Doris, MA Diss UUC 2004.)

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1916 Rising
- ‘Playboys of the GPO’, in London Review of Books (18 April. 1996): ‘The most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional values as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit.’ (p.14); ‘the fetishisation of certain parts of the landscape - Montseny or example, or the Canigo - bore a great resemblance to the sanctity of the Aran Islands and the Blasket Islands in Ireland. The attempt by Yeats and Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde to surround the Gaelic past with holiness had loud echoes in the efforts by Catalan architects and artists, from Gaudi to Miro, to establish the Romanesque tradition as quintessentially Catalan while the rest of Spain was Moorish. And the attempt, too, by Yeats an Synge, and indeed Joyce, to embrace modernity and Europe as a way of keeping England at bay was close to Domenach’s use of iron and steel and modern systems while Spain slept.’ (idem.); [contesting Kiberd’s account of colonisation as to blame for poor economic performance’] ‘it is just as likely, that the way in which Ireland was invented, with so much emphasis on the Gaelic past and foreign occupation and so little on how people lived and what they wanted, meant that economic performance would never become a priority for an Irish government.’ (p.16).

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Revising the Revisers - review of Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha & Theo Dorgan eds., Revising the Rising (1991), in Sunday Independent (8 Dec. 1991), [q.p.]: ‘I have always had a problem with the idea that our state was founded as a result of 1916. The rise of the Catholic middle classes throughout the nineteenth century made the emergence of some sort of state a certainty; and the civil war was fought not about the North but, in many instances, between the settled middle class and the men of no property. To glorify the Rising as a cata[c]lysmic event in Irish history to the detrement [sic] of more abiding forces seemed to me to distort grossly what happened in the past.’ At the time of the 1991 celebrations Tóibín was in Seville, preparing his book on Catholic Europe, an absence which he is willing to regard as an excuse, ‘ducking the grand occasion’. He asperses Deane and Kiberd, ‘The mythic Gaelic past is first of all mythic and then it is past. Declan Kiberd has been reading too much Yeats.’

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Pugin in Ireland’, review of Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, in The Irish Times (11 Aug. 2007), Weekend: ‘In the early 1970s, Dr Donal Herlihy, the Catholic Bishop of Ferns, often preached in St Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy. Unlike some of his fellow bishops who laid down the law on pressing matters of faith and morals, Bishop Herlihy’s themes were the lacrimae rerum and the glories of Latin poetry and Italian light. As the discussion on Ireland’s joining the EEC began, however, he joined in the public debate, telling his congregation that the emphasis by politicians was misplaced - Europe was not about housekeeping or economics, he said, Europe was a great cultural dream whose centre was Chartres Cathedral. / He was preaching in a beautiful building, neo-Gothic in style, designed in the second half of the 1840s by the English architect Augustine Welby Pugin [...]’ (For full-text version, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Reinventing Shakespeare’, review of Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, in New York Review of Books (3 Oct. 2004), p.22: ‘On March 12, 1819, John Keats, in a letter to his brother and sister, asked them to give him a description of where they were sitting in the room as they wrote. “Could I see the same thing done of any man long since dead”, he wrote, “it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began ‘To be or not to be . Keats, in his curiosity, is our contemporary. The desire to know every move and the slightest feeling of the famous dead remains a central part of our culture.’ (p.22.) Further: ‘Shakespeare was brought up in an age when private and public religious allegiance could differ, when many adhered in some secret way to the old religion but also obeyed the rules and attended the new official church as ordained by the queen. Because of a document said to have been found in the roof tiles of his parents house in 1757, but now missing, there is some doubtful evidence that Shakespeare’s father remained secretly loyal to the Roman Catholic Churhc. Because of certain elements in Shakespeare’s work, like the use of ghosts and the sense of terror (which Catholics felt in Elizabeth’s England), his religious background may be of great importance. [...]’ (Cont.)

Reinventing Shakespeare’ (review Greenblatt, How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, in NYRB (3 Oct. 2004) - cont.: On the question of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, Tóibín concludes that ‘there is very little hard evidence’ and looks askance at a rhetorical question in Greenblatt regarding a possible encounter with Thomas Campion. Noting that Greenblatt speaks of Shakespeare’s preference for things untidy, damaged and unresolved’ in point of technique, rendering his characterisation ‘more arbitrary and more rooted in deep psychological needs’ than external events, Tóibín writes: ‘The After 400 years Shakespeare’s own life and its relationship to his work remain also untidy, damaged and unresolved. The opacity surrounding him adds to the mystery of his work, which is all we have, save a poor few and rather useless facts about his life. Greenblatt would, perhaps, be the first to admit that this is enough to be going on with.’ Further: ‘Greenblatt is at his best when he merges his gifts as a literary critic and scholar with his instincts as a biographer ... writes with real subtlety and skill about the sonnets.’ Quotes: “The sonnets are a cunning sequence of beautiful locked boxes to which there are no keys, an exquisitely constructed screen behind which it is virtually impossible to venture with any confidence” (Greenblatt); also commends Greenblattt for his account of the contemporary ‘climate of torture .. and how this enters into the very spirit of Shakespeare’s work.’ (p.23.)

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Sean O’Casey: ‘A complex Personality ...’, review of Christopher Murray, Sean O’Casey: Writer At Work, in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 2004), Weekend: speaks of O’Casey’s legacy as power and enduring and his own sense of the response to the ‘sheer rightness of the shifting styles’ of The Silver Tassie, seen at the Abbey in the 1970s and later productions by Joe Dowling and others. ‘O’Casey was like Synge and Becektt, a difficult figure, attracted to the shadows and the margins, unable to join any group for long. The talent of all three seemed to stem somewhat from a personal shyness or limnal position: they were fascinated by excitement, their theatrical skills flourished almost in spite of their education and background.’ (...; see further under O’Casey, supra.)

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Edmund Wilson: ‘American Critic’, review of Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, in The New York Times Book Review (4 Sept. 2005), pp.9-11: ‘Wilson’s great gift as a critic was his ability throughout his life ot write with acuity and real seriousness about new work, fresh from the printers, while deepening his negagement with iconic figures like James and Flaubert, Ben Jonson and Pushkin. He champioined the work of many young writers like Robert Lowell and John Berryman. His taste was also unpredictable. He failed, for example, to see the point of Robert Frost, writing to Lionel Trilling in August 1959, “In my opinion Frost is party a dreadful old fraud and one of the most relentless self-promoters in the history of American literature. / There is, in much of of Wilson’s early work, a wonderful chameleon quality. He can become Henry James, take on his style and attitudes wit perfect pitch. He was resecued, however, from what must have been a great temptation to follow James on a lifetime’s journey, when he spent a year as a hospital orderly in France during the First World War, in the company of ordinary Americans, while numbers of his friends became officers. Many years later, in “Patriotic Gore”, he wondered what might ahve happened to James had he fought, as many of his contemporaries did, in the Civil War. [...].’ Toibin gives an account of To the Finland Station, remarking on the brilliant conception behind it - to trace the intellectual roots of Communism - but also pointing out that his great handicap was, as he wrote to an old teacher in 1937, knowing nothing of German philosophy. ‘Wilson’s brilliant evocation of Marx’s disastrous personal circumstances as he laboured on his great work, Das Kapital, echoes a similar disordered context in which Wilson put order on his thoughts. [...] [Cont.]

Edmund Wilson: ‘American Critic’ (NY Book Review, 4 Sept. 2005) - cont.: But Wilson was also capable of thinking carefully and writing well about Marx’s Jewish heritage and how he “found personal experience the key to the larger experience of society.” Wilson was not a rigid ideologue; he thought on his feet and if the thinking did not suit a theory, then he stood his ground. This means that books like Axel’s Castle and The Triple Thinkers contain great essays but no over vision of literary theory or practice. It means also that some of his asides in To the Finland Station, what V. S. Pritchett called its “vernacular pugnacity” and its “shrewdness, piety and good will”, which Pritchett believed marked it out as “deeply American”, give the book an edge, make it exciting.’ [...] The sheer passionate untidiness of Wilson’s personal life, his crazy relationships with women, the fierce drinking, mixed with the intensity and the headlong nature of his writing life, belong to a Bellow novel. His marriage to Mary McCarthy would be a gift to any novelist. It real life, however, it was hard. [...] it is impossible for a biographer to enter with equal fire and flair into Wilson’s tragic and comic soul, his innocent appareites, his pure idealism, his belief in the word and his vast impracticality. Dabney, who worked on this book for many years and who knew Wilson personally, is diligent. All the information one needs about Wilson is here, except how the man became the style’ [...] Writing a biography of Edmund Wilson is like taking one of Saul Bellow’s better-known protagonists and reducing him to a sober set of themes. It is hard not to feel sometimes that, despite Wilson’s patrician background and Princeton education, Bellow played a part in inventing him, or, indeed, that Wilson helped to mould Bellow.’ [...] ‘‘It is too easy to suggest that Wilson the lover and the boozer should be kept away from Wilson the writer. His private life did not make its way into his best work, which was criticism, in the way that it did in the case of novelists like his friend Scott Fitzgerald or indeed Saul Bellow. And yet Wilson’s personality, his sensuous nature, entered into his writing in a way that is rare for critics and historians. [...]’

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The mystery of Inis Meáin’, review-article on Walls of Aran [photographs by Sean Scully] in The Guardian (12 May 2007): ‘[...] I came to the Aran Islands first in September 1977, when there were no proper piers on Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin, when an unwieldy ship called the Naomh Éanna from Galway Harbour was the main means of transport. On a calm Sunday, I remember, it anchored off the smallest island and men came out in currachs, small traditional fishing boats; each person had to be lowered from the large boat down into the small one, each piece of luggage too, just as we would have to be hauled back up on our return. Animals, too, would have to be hauled up and down in slings. The harbour at Inis Oírr was more sheltered than the one at Inis Meáin, boats could come in and out from Doolin in County Clare. But only the Naomh Éanna serviced the middle island and it could only anchor on a very calm day. This meant that the middle island remained the most cut off, the least visited, the most mysterious, the island where timelessness, such as it was, held most sway.’ (For full text, see attached.)

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Pugin in Ireland’, review of God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, by Rosemary Hill, in The Irish Times (11 Aug. 2007), Weekend.‘In the early 1970s, Dr Donal Herlihy, the Catholic Bishop of Ferns, often preached in St Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy. Unlike some of his fellow bishops who laid down the law on pressing matters of faith and morals, Bishop Herlihy’s themes were the lacrimae rerum and the glories of Latin poetry and Italian light. As the discussion on Ireland’s joining the EEC began, however, he joined in the public debate, telling his congregation that the emphasis by politicians was misplaced - Europe was not about housekeeping or economics, he said, Europe was a great cultural dream whose centre was Chartres Cathedral. / He was preaching in a beautiful building, neo-Gothic in style, designed in the second half of the 1840s by the English architect Augustine Welby Pugin; its soaring spire and opulent design, its intricate construction and its mass of detail all took their bearings from the great Gothic churches of France and Germany which Pugin studied carefully throughout his life. Much of the colour and exquisite detail have been, in recent years, restored in the church, allowing the strength of its stone to be lightened as he intended, thus reminding us what a shock it must have been to the Catholic faithful when they saw it first.’ Quotes: “Pugin’s architecture,” Hill writes, “had an influence on the Catholics of Ireland such as he never achieved in England. Yet Pugin never liked or understood Ireland. Like many politically more sophisticated Englishmen, he was often at a loss to fathom the currents of national and religious sentiments flowing through it” - and remarks: Hill herself, clearly steeped in the period and the milieu in England in which Pugin worked, is careful not to say too much about his work in Ireland. (Rather quaintly, she uses the word “mainland” when she seems to mean England.) [...’; for full text, see Ricorso Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.]

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Their Vilest Hour’, review of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of the Second World War, the End of Civilisation, by Nicholson Baker, in New York Times Book Review (23 March 2008), [cover review; cont. p.9] ‘[…] The main figures in the book are Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; members of the pacificist movement including Gandhi; Hitler and his entourage; and diarists like Victor Klemerer in Dresden and Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest. But sometimes it is the simple stark fact that makes you sit up straight for a moment, like this one from early in the book: “The Royal Air Force dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India.” It was 1925! This, coming soon after an account of the proposed bombing of civilian targets in Iraq in 1920 (with Churchill writing: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”), set a theme for the book, which Baker will skllfully weave into the fabric of events mainly between 1920 and 1942 – that the bombing of villages and cities from the air represents “the end of civilisation”. [...] The problem, as Baker makes clear, was. that the bombing served to kill and maim the civilian population, yet the survivors did not blame the Nazi leaders, who used the bombing as a further excuse to inflict suffering on the Jewish population, claiming, for example, that evictions of Jews were “justified on the grounds that Aryans whose houses were destroyed by bombing needed a place to live.” As early as 1941 a member of Churchill’s cabinet could write: “Bombing does NOT affect German morale: let’s get that into our heads and not waste our bombers on these raids.” Churchill’s rationale for the bombing, Baker writes, arose from his belief that it was “a form of pedagogy - a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.” [...] It is possible that Human Smoke will infuriate those who believe that Churchill was a hero and that war, in all its viciousness, is often the only way to defeat those who declare or threaten war. Human Smoke will not be admired by those who argue that methods used to win a war may seem, especially to novelists writing more than 60 years later, impossible to justify. Nonetheless, the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.’ (p.9; for full text version, see attached.)

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The Empty Family”, in The Empty Family & Other Stories [forthcoming] (London: Viking 2010), printed as a new story by Colm Toibin, in The Guardian (28 Aug. 2010): ‘[...] I knew he wanted me to move the telescope, to focus now on Rosslare Harbour, on Tuskar Rock, on Raven Point, on the strand at Curracloe, and agree with him that they could be seen so clearly, even in this faded evening light. But what he showed me first had amazed me. The sight of the waves miles out, their dutiful and frenetic solitude, their dull indifference to their fate, made me want to cry out, made me want to ask him if he could leave me alone for some time to take this in. I could hear him breathing behind me. It came to me then that the sea is not a pattern: it is a struggle. Nothing matters against the fact of this. The waves were like people battling out there, full of consciousness and will and destiny and an abiding sense of their own beauty. / I knew as I held my breath and watched that it would be wrong to stay too long. I asked him if he would mind if I looked for one more minute. He smiled as though this was what he had wanted. Unlike you, who have never cared about things, your brother is a man who likes his own property. I turned and moved fast, focusing swiftly on a wave I had selected for no reason. There was whiteness and greyness in it and a sort of blue and green. It was a line. It did not toss, nor did it stay still. It was all movement, all spillage, but it was pure containment as well, utterly focused just as I was watching it. It had an elemental hold; it was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing. Instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave, unknowing energy. [...]’ (For full-text version, see attached.)

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Joyce’s Dublin: ‘City of dreams and chancers’, in The Guardian (15 June 2011): : ‘In the autumn of 1974, I moved into a damp room at the back of the basement of one of two gaunt Victorian houses which stood on Upper Hatch Street, 10 minutes’ walk away from here. They were the only houses on the street and were demolished in the early 1980s. My room was called the “garden flat” by the genteel landlady who lived upstairs and who often entertained her friends for drinks. There was a sink in the corridor in the basement and a toilet outside, but there was no bathroom. At night as I walked home from a pub or from the National Library, the street that led from Stephen’s Green to Hatch Street was empty and desolate. These were the years before the National Concert Hall was constructed inside the shell of the old university building and when the Conrad Hotel had yet to be built. The university itself had moved to the suburbs, and the Harcourt Street train line, which had once run at the back of the house in Hatch Street, was also closed. It was not difficult to imagine that the city James Joyce wrote about in Dubliners was still in place, perhaps even more paralysed than he had ever imagined. The spirit of scrupulous meanness that he used in his prose was a spirit which a lone walker on those nights could sense as palpable and present.’


While the characters in Dubliners have a fierce privacy, a picture slowly emerges of a more public fictional space; a society, however pale and limited and filled with absences, begins to take shape. It is too simple to use the word “colonised” to describe the denizens of Dubliners, but nonetheless, the idea that they are living in a place which does not have full political autonomy, or that the public sphere in which they suffer has been somehow damaged, has to be taken into consideration. It is there in the shadows, as it were by implication.

It is easy to imagine the final story, “The Dead”, happening in a number of other cities besides Dublin, capital cities which, like Dublin, did not have a parliament and in which there was no government; cities where two languages, or two cultures, seemed to clash; cities which dreamed of sacred places in the countryside in which the soul of the citizens could be purified; cities caught between a dull, deadly provinciality and the even duller possibility of cosmopolitanism. The Dublin of “The Dead” has echoes of Barcelona or Calcutta or Edinburgh in the early years of the 20th century, places where musical life could be conducted with a peculiar intensity, and songs and singers handed a strange power.

In all four cities music moved from the world of entertainment to become or replace or suggest what was missing in the public world. Songs in these cities in these years had a mystical power, and politics too, for certain people, a mystical edge. Thus a gathering of people who knew one another because of music could take on a power beyond the mere idea of music as recreation or entertainment.

In all four societies – Ireland, Catalonia, Bengal, Scotland – two languages were in conflict, or at least there was an older shadow language against the one of substance. It is easy to imagine a Calcutta intellectual being attacked for not writing in his native language, Bengali, and being married to a woman from the countryside whom he, so urbanised and deracinated, will come to misunderstand and almost foolishly desire. And it is easy to imagine a Catalan intellectual attacked for not writing his book reviews in Catalan, or a Scottish intellectual berated for not wearing a kilt.

(Available online; see copy as attached.)

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Writers and their families’, in The Guardian (17 Feb. 2012) [at publication of New WAys to Kill Your Mother]: ‘In an essay on the writer Seán O’Faoláin, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote about ideas of childhood and memory: “There is for all of us a twilight zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of a continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being ... Children of small and vocal communities are likely to possess it to a high degree and, if they are imaginative, have the power of incorporating into their own lives a significant span of time before their individual births.” / The twilight zone of time for me goes back decades before I was born. It is always Enniscorthy; and it belongs also to earlier generations of my family. When she died, my mother left me her books and her CDs. Her A Golden Treasury of Irish Verse, edited by Lennox Robinson, is dated in her handwriting: 27 January 1941. She would have been 19 then. At the back of the book are pasted two poems she wrote, which were published in the local newspaper, the Enniscorthy Echo, and then reprinted in the Dublin newspaper the Irish Press in 1941, with a commentary by one of the editors calling the first of them “lovely” and the second “exquisite”. The two poems had been published with her initials only, but it was known in the town that she had written them, and it gave her a sort of fame among her friends. [...]’ (Available online; copy as attached.)

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Putting Religion in Its Place’, review of Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, in London Review of Books, 36, 20 (23 October 2014): Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”, when I read it first, came as a relief. For once, someone had said something true, or almost true, about religion and its shadowy aftermath. The poem seemed to have a lovely assuredness and finality. The self-deprecating voice - resigned and a bit sad - was having an argument with no one. The tone was mild and tolerant, and although it was filled with uncertainty, there was a convincing veneer of pure certainty about the main matter, which is that churches are left-over things, belonging to the sweet foolishness of the past. The future won’t be much better, the poem suggested, but we won’t have churches, except to visit, of course, and wonder about.’ (See full article online; accessed 10.11.2014.)

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The literature of grief’, in The Guardian (2 Oct. 2014) - written to accompany the publication of his novel Nora Webster: ‘[The] idea of the personality as suddenly protean under the pressure of loss belongs fundamentally to the literature of grief because, of course, it belongs to the experience. / I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet’s madness and Hamlet’s character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? / I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this. [...] I began my novel Nora Webster in the spring of 2000. Even though I wrote other books over the next thirteen and a half years, I added to Nora Webster every year, or deleted something from it. I thought about it almost every day. Although some of the details are invented, including the details of the place where Nora goes to work, there is nothing invented about the atmosphere in the house in the small town where myself and my younger brother lived with my mother in the years after my father died. / I thought at first of writing the book from my own perspective, rather than my mother’s, but when I tried to set some of that down, I found there was nothing, or not enough for a novel. It was as though the experience had hollowed me out and was, from my perspective, too filled with silence and distance for me to be able to harness it for a novel’s purposes.’ (See full-text version - as attached.)

Colm Tóibín, ‘The Road to Reading Gaol’, in London Review of Books (30 Nov. 2017)

When I was alone in Wilde’s cell that October Sunday with the pages in front of me, pages I had already read over and over in silence, I still had a problem. I did not know what sound the sentences Wilde had written in this solitude should make if they were to be read aloud. I did not know what the voice should be like were these words to be spoken to these cold four walls. Theatrical? Angry? Passionate? Dramatic? Or quiet? Hushed? Whispering? Or trying to find a voice that was real, a voice that needed desperately to be believed or heard, or, maybe even more important, a voice that sought to re-establish its own sound so that the speaker’s identity and sense of self, so crushed by solitude and prison rules, could find a space again. The letter was written by a prisoner to someone who was free, by an older man to a younger one, by a writer to an idler, by the son of a man who had earned his privilege to the son of a man who had inherited his.

But it was also written by an Irishman to an Englishman. And it was that last idea that gave me a clue about how to start speaking the words that Wilde had written. I would speak them in my own voice, as though I was talking to one person only, and see as I went along if I would find out something new about the text that might have eluded me in all my silent readings of it. What I noted as I read was not only the venom that came to the surface at any mention of Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, but also the disdain Wilde felt for Queensberry’s whole clan, as though he were a figure from a lesser culture or indeed a lower species. The conflict in De Profundis was not only between the writer and the recipient, but also between Wilde’s pride in his own class, his own family, and his despising of the entire world that had produced the Douglases. Wilde left himself in no doubt about what he thought of Douglas’s family, or of the hospitality Douglas’s mother had offered, what he called ‘the cold cheap wine of Salisbury’. He resented being used as a pawn in the game between father and son: ‘I had something better to do with my life than to have scenes with a man, drunken, déclassé and half-witted as he was.’

The word ‘déclassé’ is interesting here. In De Profundis, Wilde refers to Lord Alfred Douglas as ‘a young man of my own social rank and position’. But this view, in a country acutely alert to differences in rank, would not have been widely shared. Wilde was merely the son of an Irish knight while Douglas came from two aristocratic families and was a peer in his own right. Wilde’s father worked for a living; Douglas’s father had inherited his wealth. In Douglas’s world, Wilde was an interloper. In the message he left at Wilde’s club, the message that would cause the famous libel action, the Marquess of Queensberry alleged that Wilde was ‘posing as a somdomite’, as he spelled it. He might have added that Wilde was also posing as someone who held a social rank and position higher than it really was. This, in the England of 1895, may almost have been seen as a more serious accusation. But Wilde came from a long tradition of Irishmen who had created themselves in London. He was an artist, he moved freely in society, often using an English accent. He had been to Oxford. He invented himself in England much as his parents had invented themselves in Dublin. In De Profundis, he suggests that his own wit and cleverness were themselves a sort of social rank.

This idea of rank coming from words and wit had belonged to his parents too. In the absence of any other aristocracy in residence in Dublin, Sir William and Lady Wilde represented a type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity. When Wilde describes himself in De Profundis as ‘a lord of language’, he is suggesting that this title is far loftier than Lord Alfred Douglas’s. It was a title that his parents, in the books they wrote and the lives they lived, had handed down to him. When he lists what he lost at the time of his bankruptcy, he includes the ‘beautifully bound editions of my father’s and mother’s works’. In passing, he refers to lines by Goethe, which his mother often quoted, ‘written by Carlyle in a book he had given her years ago, and translated by him’, as though it were the most natural and ordinary thing in the world for Carlyle to have given a book to his mother. But the most significant passage comes shortly after he has been given the news of her death: ‘She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology and science but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation.’

As I went on reading the letter, with light from the same sky coming into the cell as when Wilde was there, I became interested in the silences that lurk between the words in De Profundis, the things Wilde glosses over, that he seems almost to avoid. While Wilde has time to say everything he needs to say, there is one figure all but missing from the pages of his letter, a figure whose life has a considerable number of echoes with the life of Wilde himself. This figure is his father, [...]

—Available at London Review of Books - online; see also full-text version - as attached.

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Determined characters
: ‘The characters I am interested in are determined. They have to struggle against something they do not quite recognise […] The novels are entirely Freudian, in the sense that they take on board the idea that a child’s consciousness is a deeply vulnerable and woundable object and that damage done then is difficult to unravel.’ (Belinda McKeon, ‘Colm Toibin: Biography’, in Local Ireland; online at].

Mother’s son: (1999) [speaking about Declan:]: ’He’s the son that you often get in Ireland and in other places too, the youngest one who everybody loves and who just basks in that love and can do anything he likes. Declan doesn’t tell his family that he is ill as he does not want to disappoint them. You’re meant to feel for him, without really knowing him.’ (Eithne Farrell, ’A Sensual Education’ [Amazon interview], online at


Irish Tradition: ‘Each artist in the great Irish tradition has invented an Ireland. Each has done so in order to survive. Yeats’s Protestant Ascendancy, Brian Friel’s history lessons, Seamus Heaney’s Catholic Derry childhood [...]. In the Field Day enterprise itself, however, such manoeuvrings for the sake of art, such distortions, such single-mindedness have been stripped of their origins in artistic necessity and present to us as a political manifesto, the political truth. A number of men have come to believe in their own dreams.’ (On The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing; ACIS annual meeting, Galway, July 1992; also in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 18, 2 (December 1992), [q.p.]; cited in Edna Longley, The Living Stream (1994), p.25 [see also p.40].)

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Novels v. short stories: ‘[Tóibín sees] no connection between the stories in the fiction we have been given as our history, no continuity and no legacy [...] in a country where history wiped out any hope of us forming a cohesive, safe, secure, well adjusted, class-ridden society. We were left instead with something broken and insecure, a post-colonial society which remained in spirit part of the one-time mother country, and part of America, and part of its own invention. How can the novel flourish in such a world? The novel explores psychology, sociology, the individual consciousness; the novel finds a form and a language for these explorations. Short stories occur in a limited time and a limited [pl]ace. In our post-colonial societies, it is a perfect form: we need not deal with the bitterness of the past, the confusion of the present or the hopelessness of the future. We can offer merely small instances unassociated with other instances.’ (‘Martyrs and Metaphors’, in Letters from the New Island, Raven Arts Press, Dublin, 1987, p.5-6.)

Partition in Ireland: ‘Unreconstructed nationalists have always had real difficulty 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.’ (Sunday Independent, 24 Nov. 1991; quoted in Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe 1994, p.34.) But see letter from Eoin O’Neachtain, describing Tóibín’s classification of the political project of Field Day as ‘unreconstructed nationalism’ as ‘a mite too pat’ while containing an essential kernel of truth (Times Literary Supplement, 9 June 1995).

History as comedy: Review of George Macbeth, The Testament of Spenser (Deutsch 1992). ‘In Ireland now, for at least half the time, history is the comedy from which we are trying to awake’; calls Banville’s Birchwood (1973) a seminal text of revisionism, not generally recognised by the historians as such. Macbeth’s novel is set in our own times, where one John Spenser comes to occupy a house under conditions a little like those of Spenser. At the back of the book there is a chronology of Spenser’s time in Ireland; in 1598 his castle was sacked and his newborn child perished. ‘We know what to expect’: An elaborate literary joke - post-modernism in a wet country. [... &c.] (Times Literary Supplement, 13 Nov. 1992, p.16.)

Banville told me ...: ‘John Banville told me he thought Eamon [in The Heather Blazing] was a weasel. I was quite surprised. I didn’t think he was that bad. I suppose all this comes from what I read when I really started reading ... Sartre, Camus, Hemingway. Hemingway’s male figures are always dysfunctional ... Those early books change you. You never read anything again that matters so much. I just thought that was what happened in tragic fiction.’ (In interview; Angela Long, ‘Portrait of Colm Tóibín’, in The Sydney Morning Herald [online]; quoted in Conor Doris, MA Diss., UUC, 2004; also available on Colm Tóibín website.)

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Joyce & Beckett: ‘Pressures of some sort in this society produced Joyce and Beckett. There is certainly not anyone like that working here now - I’m not sure there is anywhere. [...] The nearest thing might be people like James Kelman in Scotland, or don de Lillo in the States ... Or even storytelling on a vast scale like Peter Carey in Australia.’ further, ‘What’s happening here is much more democractic now: there is a sens eof an ordinary reader. Beckett didn’t have a sense of an ordinary reader; Joyce didn’t, for the very good reason that there wasn;t any such thing as an ordinary reader then. The movies have also been hugely influential in the way people write now.’ (In interview; Angela Long, ‘Portrait of Colm Tóibín’, in The Sydney Morning Herald [online]; quoted in Conor Doris, MA Diss., UUC, 2004; also available on Colm Tóibín website.)

The Best of Tomes: book-choice in Guardian Magazine (8 Dec. 1995), p.23, review of Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, and Michael O’Loughlin, Selected Poems (1995), calling the former a ‘loving anatomy ... in which the point where nature and culture meet in the island is observed with great beauty and precision’, and the latter one of the most neglected Irish poets.’

On Not Saying What you Mean’, in London Review of Books (?Dec. 1995), cited as ‘thoughtful essay’ in Dick Walsh, Irish Times (3 Dec. 1995), [q.p.]; Tóibín writes, ‘I began to notice that if you put the word “not” in the sentences used in public life in Ireland ... you get a much better idea of what is going on ...those who speak for Sinn Féin ... deal in euphemism ... love the phrase the peace process ... [&c.]’.

Literary Genesis: Colm Tóibin tells how he and Carmen Callil selected the 194 best novels in English since 1950 for mention in their new book …’, in The Irish Times, 17 April 1999 (Weekend, ‘Books’); [Callil was founder of Virago and retired as MD of Chatto & Windus; Tóibin celebrates her immediate attachment to Eugene McCabe, Death and Nightgales (1992), which he ‘adored since it came out.’] Note that the last six novels are left for the reader to select.

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The Day Poetry Came Alive’, in The Irish Times (9 Dec. 2000): remembers early glimpses of the secret world of adults reciting verse at Curracloe; a memoir of his mother, who collected poetry in notebooks, the last completed containing poems of Sean Dunne, Michael Coady, Durcan, Mahon, Ní Dhomhnaill, Anthony Cronin, Heaney and Pat Boran; ‘such Irish writing begins in song as does much Irish life. / Joyce’s work is full of song’; notes that ‘[i]n Ireland, in the 20th century, the best and the brightest became teachers’.

Alistair MacLeod: review of Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief, novel, in Irish Times, 12 Aug. 2000; ‘[...] The drama of MacLeod’s stories is simple and stark. Most o fhis sotries are technically perfect; he handles a present tense narrative superbly. He is also brave: the world he describes is old-fashioned and the emotions he explores seem old-fashioned too. Neither contemporary trends nor modern ironies interest him. The genius of his stories is to render his fictional world as timeless.’ Further, ‘the novel is simply breathtaking in its emotional range.’

Irish Tradition: ‘In Irish fiction we speak of tradition all the time, because of its strangeness.’ Introduction, The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, Penguin 1999.)

Gay love: ‘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.’ (Q. source.) See also remarks under Roger Casement, supra.

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Ivor-ed: Tóibín relates a social conversation with the psychiatrist Ivor Browne: ‘I must have shrugged as I tried to explain that my father was a secondary school teacher [...] He died just before I was due to got to his secondary school, and I had dreaded the idea of him teaching me. So I told Ivor, in a way when he died I was relieved.’ Browne suggested that he had blocked the experience of his father’s death and told him he was going to have to do something about it. Tóibín subsequently joined a weekend workshop with Browne in which he ‘experienced the unexperienced’ trauma, resulting in a ‘new self-awareness, a new lightness’. (Quoted in ‘I lost contact with my children ... &c.’, review of Music and Madness, in Books Ireland, May 2008, p.100.)

On Brooklyn - ‘The Writer Responds’ [to Book-Club members], in The Irish Times (27 Feb. 2010), Weekend Review, p.12: “I was trying for a sort of simplicity which would hold the reader. No elaborate sentences or tricks in the narrative. Just write it down, the story, and try and make it true. I may have failed. I’m sure I failed. But it was something I would never have tried when I was starting – my first two novels, for example, play with time. Brooklyn does not play with time. There are no flashbacks. It moves forward without display. I would never have had the confidence to try that years ago. / I was trying to find a subdued rhythm for the book, one that the reader would barely notice. I wanted to reflect the protagonist’s powerlessness in a sort of powerless prose, but the job also was to hide enough energy in the sentences to avoid complete greyness. I was working as though making drawings in pencil, with a lot of sharp detail, but also with a good deal of shading and a good deal left blank to be filled by the readers imagination. / The American poet Louise Gluck has spoken of “sentences that are clear, communicative and unshadowed” and I was fascinated by the possibity of writing “unshadowed sentences”. I realise that I did not do this in my previous novel The Master, where every single sentence has a shadow and a style on display. This time I wanted to reduce the music to close to zero and see if I could still get the range of expression and emotion I wanted for the book.” (For full text, see attached.)

Amor matris (from A Guest at the Feast, 2011): ‘Now she went and got her hair done and put on her best high heels and set out for the monastery. For days afterwards, she gave anyone who called a vivid account of her interview with Brother Carbery. She told him she had no interest in anything he had to say, she was here to talk and not to listen. And she was here to tell him that if I didn’t get a scholarship, declensions or no declensions, she would blame him personally and write to the head of the Christian Brothers in Ireland about him. / It was deliciously unfair.’ (Quoted by Alex Clark in review of The Testament of Mary, in The Guardian, 26 Oct. 2012 - available online.) [Note, A Guest at the Feast was published as an e-book in 2011.]

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internet crits.: ‘The traditional newspaper review has much less weight now. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the British newspaper supplements had the most extraordinary writers appearing in them. You’d see reviews by Anthony Burgess, one of the greatest novelists of the time, week in, week out. Even in the way they covered theatre and classical music there was a whole sense of weight. [...] About 20 years ago the supplements’ focus moved towards entertainment instead of the heavy arts, as though someone said “We have to lighten it.”’

Further: ‘The big impact was at the marketing end. [...] The really significant thing about a good review was that it meant oyu could make a deal with the bookshop chains.’ (See Mick Heaney, ‘Everyone’s a Critic’ [on internet influence], in The Irish Times, Sat. 6 June 2011, Weekend Review, p.8; see further under Notes, infra.)

Paul Cezanne - “The artist must avoid thinking like a writer”’, review of Letters of Paul Cézanne, ed. & trans. Alex Danchev, in The Irish Times (16 Nov. 2013), Weekend, p.10: ‘Cézanne was a voracious reader, familiar with the contemporary French novelists as with classical literature. While his life inspired Zola, the work itself began to intrigue novelists and poets. The brush strokes with the look of textured sentences, and Cézanne’s ability to paint a section of the canvas in great rich detail and then leave other sections undernourished or even blank, would interest writers such as DH Lawrence (“Sometimes,” Lawrence wrote, “Cézanne builds up a landscape out of omissions”) and Hemingway. / In a deleted passage in Hemingway’s story Big Two-Hearted River, he wrote: “He wanted to write like Cézanne painted. Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do ... He .... wanted to write about country so that it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting ... He felt almost holy about it.” Some of the most beautiful and perceptive writing about Cézanne’s work was by the poet Rilke. / “The artist,” Cézanne said, “must avoid thinking like a writer.” By this I understand him to mean that the painter must avoid narrative in a picture, or taking sides, however briefly, for one tone against another, or offering moral truth or even ironies, or allowing mere feelings to interfere with a picture, including a portrait. It is perhaps for this reason that writers, who much of the time believe also that writers must avoid thinking like writers, have been so interested in Cézanne, and why his work and the legend of his life, as dramatised in these letters, have endured.’

Note that Tóibín previously delivered at lecture at the Courtauld Gallery Institute on Cézanne’s painting “Route [through] Tournante” (1902-06) - available as pod-cast at Guardian Newspaper/Samuel Courtauld Trust - online; accessed 23.11.2013. He notes that Cézanne’s insistence that painters must not think like writers is reflected by some writers - including Seamus Heaney in Stepping Stones. Tóibín makes much reference to Rilke’s thoughts on Cezanne in this lecture. (‘How great this watching of Cezanne's was.’)

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Filming Brooklyn: ‘[...] In my novel Brooklyn, when the young Eilis Lacey and her friends go to a dance in the early 1950s, they go to the Athanaeum. The town she inhabits is a town before supermarkets, with many small shops, and a place where most people did not have a car or a telephone. It was also a town, like most Irish towns, that had a legacy of emigration spanning a hundred years. Almost every family in every generation in Enniscorthy had members in England and the US. In the summers, many of them would return for a brief holiday, the American emigrants much less than the English ones because of the distance and the expense. / You noticed the difference between those who were home from England and those who were home from America. Emigrants home from England were low-key. Many did not seem to have much money. Returned Yanks, on the other hand, were full of glamour. They had fancy accents, fancy clothes and fancy dollars. In America, they made clear, you could become a millionaire. Even the ones who had not become rich themselves sounded, or looked, as if some day they might be worth a fortune. It would just take a bit of luck. America was full of lucky people, or so it was believed. / All this happened in the small streets of the town in the summer. In the winter, Enniscorthy went back to being itself. I have written about the town now in a number of novels and stories, but it is strange and interesting when I drive through the streets I have described, or walk along them these days, that they seem more vastly real than any story could make them. They are the thing itself, the life we shadow in words and then try to turn back to substance in the readers’ imagination.’ [... &c.; see full-text version as attached.]