Exquisite restraint, maximum expression: an interview with Colm Tóibín (part one)

Colm Toibin (Aus, US)

Acclaimed Irish novelist Colm Tóibín was recently in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival as well as events in Melbourne, including one for the Wheeler Centre. I caught up with Tóibín at his Melbourne hotel to ask him some questions about writing and his latest novel Brooklyn, which I recently had the pleasure of reading.

Brooklyn is a quiet and moving novel, about Eilis Lacey, who has to opportunity to move from her small Irish town of Enniscorthy, to Brooklyn, New York, leaving behind her mother and glamorous older sister. The book charts her journey – her adjustment, her job, relations to others, and romantic interest, Tony. Eilis is a memorable character, partly because she is unremarkable. Tóibín said part of the source for her character was literary: ‘there were a number of characters from the nineteenth century who interested me in terms of how they were created, one being Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, who seems the one always left behind, and the one who no one really thinks anything of. And yet because the reader is asked to concentrate on her, because the story is told through her eyes, then her desires become quite detailed, and absorbing.’

The other, he mentioned, is Catherine Sloper, in Henry James’ Washington Square, whose father doesn’t even think anything of her: ‘she seems a sort of dull girl’, and yet, Tóibín said, when you realise ‘the extent of her feelings,’ the novel gets interesting. So, too, then, is Eilis the girl who is more inclined to observe, than to sally forth. And this is very interesting, Tóibín told me, ‘because it’s the creation of a certain sort of consciousness in fiction … this is the girl who really wants to stay at home and be left alone’. So Tóibín prefers to ‘put the pressure’ on a character like Eilis, as opposed to her more confident and outward sister, Rose. ‘Her sister can go out and do all the brave things, but that business of inwardness of the self, the self alone, the self registering experience, the self as a noticer – all those things become her.’

‘Fiction lends itself to the powerless,’ Tóibín said, ‘in funny ways, so that if you were writing a novel about Napoleon … you’d certainly put it in his years of failure. You know, you’d have him on the island alone. Similar with Henry James, you have him on the years when there’s nothing much going on.’ And this is what Tóibín did, with his novel The Master, which has Henry James as its main character. ‘Fiction doesn’t really deal with triumph,’ Tóibín said.

I told Tóibín that this reminded me of a documentary I’d seen about a bullfighter, whose brother had given up his life to basically go on the road with his big-name brother, and look after him. I was so intrigued by the brother, how he’d come to his decision, what he felt – much more so than the bullfighter, who was the film’s focus. The brother would be that character in a novel. Tóibín said: ‘Yeah, I think if you’re a novelist and you look at a news photograph, you can’t really deal with the people in the main body of the photograph, but the blurred figure is the one you can most bring into focus.’

So does character generally precede the story for Tóibín? And does it differ, depending on the work? Tóibín had the story for Brooklynfirst, so he had to ask ‘what sort of character would she be?’ And *spoiler alert* ‘it all centred on the idea that she would be afraid to tell them when she came home that she was married. So that would mean then that she had to be someone who was timid, because if she wasn’t … she’d write home and she’d be open about herself.’ So Eilis had to be rendered the way she was, to make the story as poignant as it is. In this case, the plot dictated the character, for Tóibín. *spoiler over*

Tóibín’s writing style is highly praised. The Spectator said, on Brooklyn: ‘the writing is so transparent, so apparently guileless, that I kept wondering what trickery Tóibín had used to keep me so involved, so attached, so unaccountably warmed’. Tóibín prefers to think of it as being like ‘drawing in pencil’, or ‘listening to chamber music rather than just trying to “keep it down”’ (he whispered this last bit). But does that kind of writing come naturally? Or does it evolve through years of writing practice. Tóibín thinks style ‘is a DNA’. ‘I mean you can’t really change your style,’ he said, ‘you can try and make sure you don’t go into violent self-parody, by being seen to be so minimalist that you couldn’t read it because you’d think “this is just, someone being minimalist”.’ What he’s trying to do, he said, is make sure the reader doesn’t notice the writing, ‘so that after a page you think “what was it that hit me there?” And you wouldn’t really know.’

Tóibín is interested in poetry. He’s been reading two particular poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, since he was 18 or 19, and has been thinking about them a lot recently: ‘I think both of them are really figures who are able to exercise an exquisite restraint on their material, while getting from that a maximum amount of expression,’ he said. A recent (but important) interest and influence is the American poet Louise Gluck. As a teacher, Tóibín is able to choose texts he likes to put on the course, and recently this has been Samuel Beckett’s Company, which he loves for the ‘absolute precision of it’. He’s also enjoyed and been inspired by the Irish novelist John McGahern, and ‘everybody, really’ from the nineteenth century – and also Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I asked Tóibín about Kafka, one of my personal favourites, as I’d read somewhere he liked him too: ‘Kafka’s a huge liberation when you’re a teenager, just the fact that the world is a sort of meaninglessly hard place, and you never know what’s going to occur next.’

When Eilis, in Brooklyn, is getting to know Tony, the Italian, the warmth toward him, along with the fear and fascination, is beautifully portrayed. From the novel:

‘The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted”. He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else.’

Tóibín said: ‘I think that she’s somebody whose affections would be won very, very slowly. She would not fall head over heels in love. But she would slowly realise that the attachment she felt was very deep, but she’s quite cold in other ways, so she’s complicated in that sense. But the thing about Tony of course is that he amuses her so much. And also, he’s so one dimensional. It isn’t as if there’s a complex character that takes loads of getting to know. It’s the opposite – as soon as she meets him he’s exactly who he displays. That for her is very unusual. He keeps no secrets. He makes it absolutely clear what he wants. And he’s funny. And he’s charming. And she thinks, surely, there’s something wrong.’ So often when they meet, Eilis is trying to locate something, a layer, that isn’t there.

You realise, though, Tóibín said, through their interactions, and even without seeing the world through Tony’s eyes, that ‘she must be attractive. You never know that up to then. Up to then you think she might actually go unnoticed, but you realise in the way he deals with her that he really, really wants her.’

Part two of this interview can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Exquisite restraint, maximum expression: an interview with Colm Tóibín (part one)

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  4. Pingback: Guest review: Genevieve Tucker on Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family – LiteraryMinded

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