Saturday, June 25

Colm Tóibín: ‘Boris Johnson would be a blood clot… Angela Merkel cancer’ | Colm Tóibín

IAs of June 2018, Colm Tóibín was four chapters into writing his most recent novel The Wizard, an epic fictional biography of Thomas Mann that he had put off for decades when he was diagnosed with cancer. “It all started with my balls,” begins with a witty rehearsal about his months in the hospital; the testicular cancer had spread to the lungs and liver. In bed she has fun identifying the difference between blood clots (a new emergency) and cancer: “Boris Johnson would be a blood clot … Angela Merkel the cancer.”

He has said goodbye to both Johnson and Merkel. In the month that you expect to have a final scan, you just received the David Cohen Award (nicknamed “the UK Nobel”) for an achievement in literature. The author of 10 novels, two short story collections, three plays, several non-fiction books and countless essays, Tóibín has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times and won the Costa Novel Prize in 2009 for Brooklyn, about a young woman Irish who immigrated to New York in the 1950s, made into an award-winning film in 2015. Without doubt, he is Ireland’s most prolific and prestigious living writer.

Eerily surprising in appearance, in a movie he would be the gangster with a kind heart, he is lively, courteous and gossipy in conversation: we are on a video call from Los Angeles, where she spends part of the year with her boyfriend, the editor. Hedi El Kholti. He’s very much alive (he played tennis yesterday). Meeting Tóibín in person (in more normal times) is to marvel at the disconnect between this expansive and exuberant storyteller and the gloomy and gloomy fictional worlds for which he is famous. His tales, in particular, are as steeped in mild misery as is his native Wexford in the rain.

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“I would love to have an integrated personality,” he once told a psychiatrist friend (he has a way of telling stories that sound like the beginning of a joke). Tóibín said: “The books are so full of melancholy and I wander like some kind of party animal.” “Well, which one would you like to be?” asked his friend. To which he replied, “I don’t know.” “Oh go!” said the psychiatrist. “I have serious patients with serious problems.”

For a man who can fight his way through a major biography in one day (preferably in a hammock in the California garden, flaunts when he tilts the computer) or produces more than 20,000 words, when “in the flow,” one of the most difficult part of his illness was that he could not read or write. This is something known only to “the chemotherapy club,” he says. “How is it possible that you couldn’t even turn Bach on? It would sound like a noise! You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t read, you can’t listen to music. “

The steroids, however, would give him a boost, “a false energy” like a “chardonnay high,” lasting no more than an hour, during which “grind time” he was able to write a couple of poems. He hadn’t written serious poetry since his teens. Then, during the pandemic, at seven o’clock almost every night, a line came to him out of nowhere “like a melody.” The rest of the poem materialized rather quickly and in the morning he would get up and cut a few lines, or drop them altogether.

And so, at age 66, early next year he will add his first collection of poetry to that impressive list of publications. The day before we spoke, he got one of those “recommended new releases” emails from Amazon, recommending his own book. Actually. “Oh my gosh, this book really exists!” he says, with the longest God I’ve ever heard. “It was a big shock yesterday,” especially since the cover is a painting of his mother. Title Vinegar hill refers to the battle during the Irish rebellion, but the collection is not only about the homeland, with poems set in Barcelona and Los Angeles. “Everywhere I’ve been there is a poem,” including the Dublin hospital, which happened to be built on the site of Joyce’s Blooms fictional home. How strange to be in this space where Leopold and Molly once were, he mused in bed. He will be doing Ulysses when he returns to Princeton, where he teaches one semester each year, in January.

To finish The Magician, he switched from his usual typing to a computer. “If the treatment worked, or if it didn’t kill me, I had to finish the book before a recurrence,” he says. “The recurrence did not happen. I finished the book. “

Like The Master, Tóibín’s acclaimed 2004 novel about Henry James, The Wizard is another portrait of a sexually repressed artist. “I don’t have a third,” he says about this trick of inhabiting the inner worlds. of great writers to explore their subject of creativity fueled by frustrated desire. Both writers were very important to him during his teens and early 20s. Growing up gay in a small town in Ireland, “where homosexuality was unspeakable,” left him “fascinated by figures who had lived erotically in the shadows.” As always, he was drawn to secrets, to the lives lived between the lines, to the feeling of James and Mann as “ghosts in certain rooms,” a distance created by their “awkward homosexuality,” he says. “Mann’s was more self-aware than James, but you can never be sure with James. James’s work is full of sexual secrets. “

Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in the 2015 film adaptation of Tóibín's novel Brooklyn
Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in the 2015 film adaptation of Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn Photograph: Lionsgate / Allstar

Tóibín’s life has parallels with both authors (he shares James’s unapologetic sociability), most strikingly with Mann, one of the five brothers, the artistic son of a widowed mother, who ends up in exile in Los Angeles; he even taught at Princeton. “You end up exploring the things that interest you,” says Tóibín. “Obviously there were things he had to imagine: money and power, the rise of Hitler.” Mann does not emerge as a heroic figure either in private (he did not attend his son Klaus’s funeral because he was on a book tour) or as the most influential writer in Germany during the interwar years: a morally ambiguous will to write, The Characters Complex or unpleasant are “essential” in fiction, believes Tóibín.

From his first novel The South, published when he was 35 years old, he has repeatedly returned to the stretch of the Wexford coastline of his childhood. He would never have believed that this “so temperate place, where in summer there is more drizzle than rain, more clouds than sun” could have provided “enough expression or sense of life or drama” as a backdrop for so many novels, he said. He says. “Going back to that over and over has been rich and amazing.”

But, like many of his Irish literary ancestors, he also needs to escape; every novel he tells is a reaction against his predecessor. After the fourth, Booker shortlisted The Blackwater Lightship, in which three generations of women and three gay men are trapped in a dilapidated house on the coast for seven days: “there is a lot of rain and a lot of tea and a lot of recriminations” – it was a relief to soak up the sophisticated vibe of Henry James, “writing those longer sentences, more elaborate dialogue and having a lot of duchesses.”

But then he finished with the duchesses and wanted to go home. So he wrote Brooklyn, which goes back to Enniscorthy and the lives of the small-town Irish. “Oh thank goodness a book of yours that we can finally read,” someone told him. After Nora Webster, a poignant and stark fiction in the aftermath of her father’s death, she felt “I never want to go back to that house again, I never want to go back to that kind of slow-burning pain.” So it was a pleasure to turn to the cosmopolitan and wealthy Manns, “after writing another Irish novel in which nobody has a penny.”

While he might be in sunny California right now, he’s also in Wexford once again, working on his next two novels, one of which, excitingly, is a Brooklyn sequel and short story collection. “So get back up in a big way.”

Another constant in his fiction is the longing for an absent mother (when his father fell ill suddenly he did not see his mother for three months), and it is there again in The Wizard, when young Thomas is left alone for a while. year in Lübeck. “Will not disappear!” Tóibín whispers theatrically. He credits his reputation for convincing and complicated female characters (Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn, Nora Webster) to a childhood spent in a house full of women, listening to his mother, aunts and sisters speak. “It’s more about voices,” he says. Also his fascination with the gaps between what is said and what is felt, especially the unspeakable.

Of all his work, what makes him most proud is the short story (25,000 words), A Long Winter, which brings to an end his collection Mothers and sons. Written after the death of his mother and brother, he found in the story of poor Miguel who day after day searches for his mother in the Pyrenees, a metaphor for his “very raw and difficult feelings,” he says. “It was then that I felt that everything went well.”

On a good day, you will do nothing but write. “You need to immerse yourself in it, because you want the reading process to be immersive in the same way,” he says. “It’s a matter of being in mental pajamas all day.” He’s back to handwriting, holding a neatly written notebook with the first few pages of the new Brooklyn on the screen, making corrections and additions as he writes it.

“What will happen if the writer crashes?” a bank employee once asked when he was looking for a loan. I said, ‘You could stop the bullshit!’ Writer’s block, for crying out loud! It’s one of those things that other people think writers have. “

Despite his prodigious production and limitless curiosity, he feels “lazy as sin.” It must be something Catholic. “I think that I am a big lazy person, that there are other people who are working very hard and that I am not one of those people. And that I have to encourage myself ”, he says. “That’s a funny thing and it’s true.”

For Tóibín, writing is a form of self-erasure: “the page is not a mirror, it is blank,” he constantly remembers. As a novelist, “you need to disappear,” he says, waving his hands like a magician, “to convey the feelings to the character and make sure they are not yours. This is for a reader, not for you. You are not here,” he says covering his face with hands. “And when you look, there is NOTHING except what is blank and you have to fill it out.”

Colm Tóibín’s The Wizard is a Viking publication (£ 18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, request your copy at Shipping charges may apply

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