House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

When trying to describe the writing of Colm Tóibín it is easier to point out, not what he does, but what he does not do. He does not use contractions which gives his writing formality, gravitas, and weight; he does not use many adjectives and rarely long and compound sentences making the writing plain, stark, and bold; he does not describe places, people, or the weather unless it is absolutely necessary; and he does not use many adverbs or sentimental phrases to steer the reader into an emotional reaction. It is like watching a movie without a soundtrack (and if you would like an example of such a movie try Maren Ade’s superb comedy/drama Toni Erdmann, 2016 – no soundtrack).

Tóibín asks a lot of his readers; he allows readers to supply the detail: he simply says
‘she walked slowly along the corridor of the palace to her room,’ and leaves it up to us to provide the detail: the decorations, the floor tiles, the guards and their uniforms, drapes, and statues. We all have an idea of the a corridor in a pre-christian palace. Our thoughts may not be accurate, but interior design has nothing to with Tóibín’s story. Our imaginative efforts are all he needs.

All of these elements are in his latest work, House of Names, Tóibín’s retelling of the pagan Greek tragedy of the turbulent family of the House of Atreus, headed by Agamemnon who prepares to besiege the city-state of Troy and return his kidnapped sister-in-law, the beautiful Helen, and return her to her husband, his brother, Menelaus. There is also no sense of good and evil, there is just what must be done to get what you want. Revenge, rape, human sacrifice, incest, matricide, kidnapping, imprisonment, and murder by any means are par for their daily lives as they are for the gods they worship and from whom they seek guidance.

She [Cassandra] had come to us in glory and now, in ignominy, she was running through the palace seeking Agamemnon, having divined that something had happened to him. Aegisthus followed her at a slow pace. When I saw her, I calmly ushered her into the bathroom, where she could see my husband bent over naked, his head in the bloody water. As she howled, I handed Aegisthus the knife I had used on Agamemnon and indicated to him that I would leave him to his task.

Tóibín has used the bones of the story garnered from the Greek playwrights, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus but has also relied heavily on his own imagination, especially in the Orestes section. The book is divided into parts each focusing on one of the three main characters, Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, Orestes, their son, and Electra, their daughter. The sections labeled Clytemnestra are told in the first person, the others in the third. However, Tóibín uses free indirect discourse (also known as ‘close writing’) where the words used are similar to those the protagonist might use giving the third person narrative a taste of the first; so, whether told in the first or third person this tale is very personal to the murderous trio.

The story opens the day after Clytemnestra has slit the throat of her husband Agamemnon just after he slipped into a warm bath,

I gave orders that the bodies should remain in the open under the sun a day or two, until the sweetness gave way to stench

but quickly takes us back to the reason for this: the death of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s eldest daughter; rather than marrying Achilles, her father’s famed warrior, which she thought was happening that day, she was sacrificed to the gods, with Agamemnon’s approval, to enable fair winds to take him and his fleet to Troy. Clytemnestra plots her revenge which never fades while Agamemnon is away fighting the decade long Trojan War.

This novel, his eleventh work of fiction, is a departure for Tóibín, which may have been his attraction to the idea. Usually his family stories are more about the emotional geography of everyday life of everyday people: the inability of a father to confess love to a lonely son; a recently widowed mother’s attempt to regain her life on her own terms; or how a writer, used to success, copes with failure; rather than the murderous shenanigans of the rich and powerful. However, in the first-person narrative of Clytemnestra, there are similarities with Tóibín 2012 novel, The Testament of Mary. Here too the tone is confessional: a woman, a character from our ancient past, confessing to the reader her inner thoughts, motivations, and decisions.

To facilitate her murderous plans, Clytemnestra has her son, Orestes, still a teenager, kidnapped and sent away along with other young men – to garner silence from their fathers – and guards who might get in her way. Orestes, with two others, the strong and decisive Leander, and the weak and sickly Mitros, escape and in this third-person narrated section there exists, eventually, a taste of domestic happiness, rural contentment, and even romance. But Tóibín only hints at such human pleasures with the same distanced control he uses to describe filial treachery, pride, and murder.

Electra, a sad and rather pathetic character does not have the beauty of her dead sister, Iphigenia, nor the cunning and charisma of her mother, or the courage of her brother, but she hovers over the story biding her time, making plans, until she is able to set up the matricide for her brother to commit.

I enjoyed this tale – it’s a quick read –  but I hanker for Tóibín to get back to what he does best and to the promise he made post Brooklyn (2009), that after three novels about women he would tackle a story about men; his previous, The Heather Blazing (1992), The Story of the Night (1996), and The Master (2004), where a long time ago.

You can obtain this work in various editions here.

Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border by Colm Tóibín


Young Colm Tóibín

In a pub in the little cross-road town of Cullaville, just two fields north of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the bar has two till-drawers: one for Euros (Irish currency) and one for the British pound. More than 200 formal and informal roads (tractor and foot paths) cross the border and it isn’t often clear for travellers which country they are in; sometimes it may only be the change of the speed-limit that may give them a clue, sometimes nothing at all.

Alastair McDonnell, an MP from Belfast has been flooded with queries, following the Brexit vote, from his constituents about what will happen if the border becomes ‘hard’ again. It’s possible that come the reality of Brexit (2019 says British PM, Therese May) little border towns like Cullaville will potentially become the EU’s back door to Britain.

Anne Devlin, a resident of the North who buys her petrol in the South where it’s cheaper, said, “Brexit got everyone talking, that’s for sure. It reminds everyone who is who, where is where, north or south, the Troubles, all of that.” It’s been only 18 years since the last bomb exploded during the religious-based conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 between the UK and the Irish Republic the path was finally set for peace but which didn’t come for another 13 years with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the summer of 1986 Colm Tóibín walked the border in preparation for his account of the feat published the following year: Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border. Actually it was more like a ‘drink’ along the Irish border: Colm likes his ale.

For a border that may now need to be re-fortified, given the European refugee problem that doesn’t look like slowing down – certainly not within the next two years, its ‘hardness’ may have many other repercussions. Sometimes it runs through the middle of someone’s field; in South Armagh (the North) there is a shop whose “doorway itself was the border, the outside of the shop being in the North, every entry and exit involved smuggling”; and not only that, where the border separates County Fermanagh (the North) from County Caven (the South) there is a house where “the border went right through like a slicer through a block of cheese.

The house was a small, modest, old-fashioned cottage. When I knocked on the door a man in his sixties came out. His name was Felix Murray, I discovered, and the border ran through his house in which he and his two brothers lived. These days, he said, all three slept in the North, but there was a time when one of them had slept in the South. ‘Only an odd time now,’ he said, ‘we sleep in the State’. There was a sofa in the kitchen, he pointed out through the window. Where you could sit and let the border run through you.”

This was 20 years ago and things may be a different now but as you can see from the image below, the border to this day, seems a long way from logical.


His early non-fiction shows the development of Tóibín’s style later employed, to some extent, in his novels; his first novel, The South, was published in the following year, 1990. His fiction shows his debt to journalism with his plain unadorned prose, seen here in Bad Blood.

“I told him I was writing a book. He invited us in. He didn’t say anything. The front room of the house was small and comfortable. There was a fire lit. A television and a video machine stood in the corner.”

Compare this is a passage from his second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992),

“His grandmother was in the kitchen with his Aunt Margaret and his Aunt Molly who was married to his Uncle Patrick. Two of his cousins were in his the back room in cowboy suits. They all stood round as Eamon distributed the presents. Stephen sat by the fire, huddled in against the wall with his legs crossed. He opened his parcel slowly and smiled when he saw the book.”  Short, bald, unadorned sentences.

Tóibín trusts his readers to do most of the descriptive work and gives them great responsibility to fill in the detail, so much so that in his latest novel, Nora Webster (2014) no place or person is described: every reader has a hometown, its feel and smells, and every reader knows a nosy neighbour or a favourite aunt and Tóibín relies on this reader-experience. In this way Toibin’s work, for readers, becomes very personal. A reader from Melbourne, Australia, on finishing reading The South, slept with it under her pillow for two weeks.

In 1989, even though the border may have been on the map it wasn’t, in a lot of places, on the land (large white crosses had to be painted on roads to make the border visible to British helicopter pilots), but it was in people’s hearts. Back then it was all about tension in the air but a stiff upper British lip, this is in the North, was still the way people behaved.

At dinner in a hospitable family house in the North the first course served was beetroot soup. Toibin, from the South, innocently commented that it was called borscht, and it was a great favourite of the Pope’s. That word hung in the air like a fart. Everyone stopped listening and became immensely interested in their soup and the care it took to not let it spill on the white tablecloth. No-one spoke.

Religion was not at the heart of it but at the bottom of it.

“Yes, one of them said, the older people maintained that the accidents were a sort of revenge for what was done to the Grahams. God, you know, did I understand? It was God. It seemed like a large number of young people from the same area, I said, to be killed in accidents. They nodded grimly. I said I didn’t think it was God. No, they agreed, they didn’t either. It was just something which was said.”

Since Brexit the talk now is again about Irish re-unification: Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (once a terrorist organisation, now a major political player), said that since the vote by the North against Brexit (56%) a referendum over unification was necessary, Michael Martin leader of the main opposition party in Ireland agrees; Arlene Foster, first minister of the North, thinks such a move would be ‘a folly’.

When Tóibín walked the border the air was still tense. Now a lot of golf is being played and it’s a nice place to be a cow. In people’s lives now the border is a shadow: it’s crossed for shopping, for school, for selling. No-one wants it to become a frontier again. What everyone wants is for the leaders in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to manage Brexit while preserving the peace and allowing the economy to flourish. They’ve got 2 years.

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

Page one can tell you a lot about a book. Here, in  Colm Tóibín’s 1996 novel, The Story of the Night, the first paragraph is in the simple past tense with a first person narrator, Richard Garay, a young Argentinian with an English mother:

“During her last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher.”

The second paragraph is in the present continuous: now, the time of writing.

“I am living once more in her apartment. I am sleeping in her bed, and I am using, with particular relish, the heavy cotton sheets that she was saving for some special occasion. ”

The third paragraph returns to the past, to the story Tóibín wants to tell; set in the time before, and after, his mother’s death,

“She died a year before the war [The Falkland’s war, 1982] and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness … The war would have been her shrill revenge on everybody, on my father and his family, and on the life she had been forced to live down here [Buenos Aires] so far away from home.”

What you also get from page one is the tone, generated by a sparse prose peppered with well-chosen adjectives (“her shrill revenge”); simple and often short sentences; a formal style – few contractions; and of course the situation, melancholic and fearful, which has a lot to do with meaning: his mother a widow in a foreign country with an only child who is anxious about his future and his desires.

By the end of page one it is clear that the world of The Story of the Night is dark, devious, and dangerous.

“She was elated by the election of Mrs Thatcher. Here is a woman, she said, who knows what is right and what is wrong. And that is what we need here, she said. She showed me Thatcher’s face in a magazine, pointed to her and said how sorry she was not to be in England now.”

This direct speech without punctuation; more like indirect speech is curious since there are passages of traditionally punctuated direct speech. It may be that this direct/non-direct speech, which is reported by Garay, is his version of what was said which raises the question of his trustworthiness; yet he is our key to the story. He is honest with us about his desires, inexperience, political naïveté, and inaction; or is he?

The creation of verisimilitude is essential to the novelist’s goal: to make the reader believe that what they are reading is true, even if that truth only exists in the universe that the writer has created and in which the story lives. As in the theatre, the audience, the readers, are expected to suspend disbelief and believe what they are experiencing. With a first person narrative a strong and common way to do this is, ironically, for the narrator to admit what he or she does not know:

“I don’t remember how or why I began to talk about this.”

Curiously, such a line makes the narrator more believable; we all forget things, why we said things, how we met someone, how we know something. (This doesn’t work, of course, for a third person narrative who is usually all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like) But this not remembering makes him more like us. Tóibín uses this little technique to also heighten the tension surrounding the narrative which is steeped in the political uncertainty following the war with Britain over the Falklands, the Malvinas as the Argentinians call them. Garay is fearful of his professional future; he has a lowly paid English-teaching job which he hates; he is watchful of others who may be spying on him; he is anxious about others knowing his desires; and doesn’t know who to trust. However he is brave (or foolish) enough to take a gamble and becomes politically involved with the father of one of his regular students who introduces him to an American couple, Donald and Susan Ford, with whom he embarks on a friendship but with hidden motives and where the real story, what he assumes, is possibly false. These layers of acquaintances help to deepen the fear; slipping him deeper into a labyrinth. This mixture of political and sexual intrigue creates a sense of danger that always threatens to manifest itself: it is as if danger is around every corner, under every bed, over every page. Garay is constantly on edge and so are we.

Tóibín has been criticized for getting the history wrong and although the setting is a country we all know exists, Argentina, it doesn’t have to be that Argentina; it is the Argentina of the writer’s imagination and this a reader accepts or doesn’t. This is creative writing and one has to accept that it is all created; just because he writer uses the name of an exiting place the reader should not confuse the associational reference with the place itself; anyway, how many of us know the political climate, atmospheric geography, and bar etiquette of 1983 Buenos Aires? And would you take time out to research such things at such times? I think not. The writer wants us to use our knowledge, albeit skimpy and tabloid-ish, to his advantage: he is creating a world in which it is possible for us to believe that what we are reading is true (even if it isn’t). That is the point of fiction.

The Story of the Night is a love story, a tragedy, but also an affirmation: Tóibín is too much an optimist about love to let it be down-trodden by plot.

Tóibín has written previously about men, The Heather Blazing (1992) and The Master (2004), but not for over a decade; his last three novels have been about women; but of all his long-form work The Story of the Night is the most unusual. It has been reported that he has said that his next novel will be again about a man. We can all look forward to that!

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

The Irish writer, Colm Toibin
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

On Colm Tóibín’s website under ‘Essays” is a short story called “House for Sale.” It was written decades ago and attempts to recreate the atmosphere and situation of late 1967 when Tóibín’s father died and he and his brother were left alone in the house with his mother. Early in the story a nosy neighbour comes to visit and relates a story of two Irish men who meet in a hospital ward in Brooklyn. They discover not only that they are from Ireland, and not only from the same county, but from the same town. This obviously got Tóibín thinking about immigration and in particular the Irish kind of immigration: what is it you want by leaving and what is it that you leave behind? As a result of this digression another novel was born, Brooklyn (2010). This is the opening paragraph:

Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clery’s in Dublin in the sale. Rose was wearing a cream-coloured cardigan over her shoulders. Her golf clubs were in the hall; in a few minutes, Eilis knew, someone would call for her and her sister would not return until the summer evening had faded.

The language is simple – it is hard to imagine it being simpler – but contains a wealth of information. This is going to be a story about Eilis. Her sister works but she does not. Rose has her own money: she has taste and buys leather handbags in the sales in Dublin. She also plays golf, golf clubs are not cheap, and she is part of a crowd that Eilis is not; and the flit into the future makes it clear that this is a routine. Rose works but also parties, and parties late, eats and drinks at clubs, while Eilis does none of these things, she stays at home gazing at other people’s lives from a window.

By the way, the short story eventually became chapter one of his 2014 novel, Nora Webster.

What interests Tóibín is how the immigrant changes, not through any conscious decisions, but merely through contact with the strange and how that strange becomes normal by the immigrant adopting it as a matter of course; and this change is only evident if and when the immigrant goes back home. This is what happens to Eilis Lacey. She goes; she changes; she comes back; she is forced to choose. This provides a neat bi-line for the current movie adaptation of Tóibín’s novel: two loves, two countries, one heart.

Saoirse Ronan Brooklyn pic
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn

The film, directed by John Crowley, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, stars Saoirse (Ser sha) Ronan who you might remember as the 13 year old girl, Bryony, who gets it so so wrong in the film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s Atonement. Ronan, Hornby, and the film are all nominated for Oscars in this year’s awards announced on February 28th.

Having just read, and reviewed Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (see previous blog February 6) I was curious to know why one award winning author left me unmoved (James) while another (Tóibín) had the opposite effect.

Tóibín places one character at the centre; his third person narrator describes her feelings, emotions, indecisions, prejudices, desires, faithfulness, and faithlessness in the simplest terms possible, even when the character herself is not aware, or does not understand them. He does this with no other character. Everything is seen through her eyes, her prism. It is as if the narrator is sitting close on her shoulder, spying on her thoughts, seeing everything from her point of view; it is the closest to a first person narrator as a third person narrator can get.

“When she returned she realised that Father Flood had heard about her job at Miss Kelly’s.” Tóibín could have left it up to the narrator to simply say ” Father Flood had heard about her job at Miss Kelly’s.” But he does not do this, we get the information through what Eilis does; how she sees it. His language is formal, no contractions, and straightforward which enhances his authority and leaves our emotions vulnerable and easily affected. However plot points are not obvious. We know all her misgivings, prevarications, fears and hopes; is she in love with Tony? She almost has to talk herself into it, but it is Tony’s reaction to her rehearsed confession that convinces her; but does she really?

 “…and the next time if you tell me that you love me. I’ll …”

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll say I love you too.”

“Are you sure?”


“Holy shit! Sorry for my language but I thought you were telling me that you didn’t want to see me again.”

She stood beside him looking at him. She was shaking.

“You don’t look as though you mean it.”

“I mean it.”

“Well, why aren’t you smiling?”

She hesitated and then smiled weakly.

“Can I go home now?”

“No. I want to jump up and down. Can I do that?”

“Quietly, ” she said and laughed.

He jumped into the air waving his hands.

All of Tóibín’s Irish characters come from his hometown, Enniscorthy, in Wexford, southeast Ireland. He knows these people but by putting them into unusual surroundings (Eilis in 1950’s New York: Katherine Proctor in Spain, The South; Richard Garay in Buenos Aires, The Story of the Night; Nora in widowhood, Nora Webster) he delights in seeing them falter, challenged, confronted, but ultimately surviving; getting through it all, if not unscathed.

Tóibín is not long on descriptions. In Nora Webster, no descriptions at all! However a sense of place and time is effectively created through fashion and behaviour of the day: the prices and availability of things, the New York Irish attitude to Jews and Norwegians; when coloured women are first served in department stores; the morality of dating, dancing, and music; and what your job, clothes, and choice of words say about you.

It is a romance, a tale of dislocation, of loyalty and belonging, and the meaning of ‘home’. It is also a bloody good read. You may guess the ending but you will not guess how it happens.

The South by Colm Tóibín


Colm Toibin 1987
A young Colm Tóibín 1987

For a woman who, at any given moment, doesn’t quite know what to do, Kathleen Proctor, the protagonist in Colm Tóibín’s The South, has accumulated a raft of major decisions by the time she hits forty: she has abandoned her husband (just like her mother had done), son, and country; moved almost penniless to Barcelona, said yes to her mother’s financial support; taken up painting, taken a lover for his looks and attention; moved with him to the top of an isolated mountain in the eastern Spanish Pyrenees; and had a daughter. She just can’t decide if she should stay or go.

Tóibín’s attitude to, or fascination with, motherhood is a flavoursome ingredient in a lot of his work: it’s foremost in his first Booker Prize nominated novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999) – about three diffident mothers; it underpins the decisions of the protagonist in Brooklyn (2009), she runs away from hers; The Story of the Night (1996) opens with a dying one; it is pivotal to his latest novel Nora Webster (2014) when a mother finds herself a widow and reclaims her life as ‘hers’, not ‘theirs’; & Jesus! how mother-obsessed can you get when you write a lengthy, grumpy, but redemptive speech for the mother of God, The Testament of Mary (2012). Here in his first published long-form fiction it is something that the protagonist, Kathleen Proctor, is ambivalent and confused about: children get in the way, children make a mother out of a woman and if it’s a woman you are trying to be, being a mother seems like a second choice, and she lets it happen, twice!

 I went to live in Barcelona in 1975, when I was twenty. Even before I went there, I knew more about the Spanish Civil War than I did about the Irish Civil War. I liked Barcelona, and then I grew to like a place in the Catalan Pyrenees called the [Farrera de] Pallars, especially an area between the village of Llavorsi and the high mountains around it. Until the late nineteen-fifties, the eight or nine villages in the area were cut off from the outside world, with only a footbridge connecting them to Llavorsi; there were some mountain passes, but no roads into France. I loved how enclosed it all was. For the past twenty years, I have spent a part of every year there.”

Colm Tóibín The New Yorker, February 24, 2013.

 Tóibín worked as a journalist in Barcelona and wrote many short stories, including explicit autobiographical tales; a journalistic book about the city itself, Homage to Barcelona came out in 2002, and also this, his first novel, published in 1990.

It establishes Tóibín’s style; stark, formal, where the language is simple but clear – you never have to rush to the dictionary:

Isona was playing on her own in the garden. Katherine picked her up and took her into the house. Miguel was in the kitchen. Katherine put Isona down. There was hot water on the gas; she washed out the jug and poured in the milk from the bucket.                                                                                                               The South, p 141.

 Like frames from a film where the reader supplies the action between each one; the movement between frames. The action seems mundane but the drama is in what the characters may be thinking or feeling but not saying.

He also spends short introductory paragraphs describing the weather, the place; something he no longer does.

Surprisingly the book opens with a first person narrative, by Katherine, of her first few disorientating days in Barcelona, alone and poor, after her abandonment of Ireland and her family. I’ve always been disquieted by works where the gender of the story-teller is different from that of the author (a publisher who turned it down thought it was written by a woman) but Tóibín’s honest prose appeased my initial objection via a detailed description of a potential molestation, in the dark, on a train, and I forgot all about gender; more about this later.

The South is a story of wish fulfilment even though Katherine doesn’t know quite what the wish is. However she takes up painting because she moves in painterly circles and it becomes her wish: to be a painter. Her development as an artist, and growing confidence, is reflected in the size of her canvases: small bits of paper at first but eventually to formats so big that they have to be left outside covered in plastic. She disappoints her husband and child by leaving them but picks up with two disappointed men in Spain; one she sleeps with, the Catalonian, the other, the Irishman, she doesn’t. Her life in Spain is about passion, sexual and artistic, the former she learns to do without, the latter she concentrates on but success is not what interests her. She doesn’t care, she is doing what she wants. Even tragedy becomes part of the passion: a rich and full life, albeit a penniless one.

As the book begins with a departure, it ends with a return; she faces the consequences of her youthful, and selfish determination, and learns to live with the forgiveness, of sorts, that is offered to her.

Although Tóibín’s featured characters are usually women, their gender isn’t what interests him. If a man had squeased two children out of his own body, born of love, necessity, acceptance, resignation or simple lust, and was then expected to care for them even if he didn’t want to; even if doing so made him feel less of a man; this is what interests him. This is what feeds his novelistic brain: human beings coming to terms with, not coming to terms with, fooling themselves, berating themselves, celebrating, manipulating, cursing, damning their own biology.

There are hardly any women at all in The Master (2004), arguably his masterpiece, but that’s exactly what it’s about too.

Oh, and by the way, The South doesn’t appear on Tóibín’s website; there’s not a mention of it. However in the new edition I have just read (Picador Classic Series) – my first copy was lost with my entire library in 2010 – there is a charming Afterward by the author where he talks of it with some affection and also surprise that he managed to finish it.

One day, when I had no idea how to proceed, when no new images came, when I felt I was blocked with the book, I remembered what Barrie Cooke had said. I made a mark. I decided that I would write the first thing that came into my head and then make it stick. What came was: ‘The Sea. A grey shine on the sea.’ I was surprised by this and began to work with it.

Colm Tóibín’s,  Afterward, 2015.

Colm Toibin 2015
Colm Tóibín 2015

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin

In 2009 in the US state of Illinois two siblings, Steven and Kathryn Miner, began a lawsuit against their mother, Kimberly Garrity, for ‘bad-mothering’, suing her for $50,000 for ’emotional distress’: the mother had sent her son an ‘inappropriate birthday card’ that did not contain any money; called her daughter to come home early from a ‘homecoming’ event; and threatened her 7 year-old son with the police if he did not put his seat belt on. Two years and two courts later the case was thrown out. The fact that one of the sibling’s lawyers was their father, Garrity’s ex-husband, only adds fuel to the farce. What is bad mothering? What is good mothering? How do mothers learn to be mothers? Today there is a wealth of information on the internet, as well as publications and TV shows but for baby-boomers, people born in the decades after World War II, there was no such help; mothering was assumed to be innate.

Colm Toibin’s fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999), which earned him his first appearance (the first of three) on the Man-Booker Prize short list, is about just that: mothering. It is a story of Helen, a young mother of two boys, her mother, Lily, and Lily’s mother Dora. All mothers. These three women are thrown into a crisis when a man called Paul, the best friend of Declan, Helen’s much-adored brother, visits her with awful news. Declan is in hospital. He has AIDS and he has had it, unknown to his family, for a long time. He is dying and he wants to be taken to his grandmother’s house near the sea, and he wants Helen to break the news to their mother, Lily. The husbands of these mothers are either dead or away: Helen’s husband has taken their two boys to visit his family in the west.

All this is most difficult for Helen, who has been estranged from her mother, and grandmother, for more than ten years: over-mothering is what Helen would describe as the reason. However Helen does as she is bid. She re-arranges her busy life as an education administrator, breaks the news to her mother in her mother’s new and expensive house, a house Helen has never seen before and they take an emaciated and very sick young man to his grandmother’s house on the coast where he remembers boyhood summer visits with affection; but two of Declan’s friends come as well: Paul, of course, and another gay man called Larry.

The three men sit in Declan’s bedroom with the door shut, talking and giggling, while the three women sit around the kitchen table trying to think of something to say to each other; what they have in common is only the past, and the past is thwart with danger.

Transience is everywhere. Grandma’s house is falling down and in a few decades it will probably fall down the cliff and into the sea, just like the house down the road where only a back wall remains: the coast is moving inland, time is winning. Declan can remember the lighthouse from his childhood, the Blackwater Lightship, but it is no longer there, replaced by a modern electric one, its moving beam washing over the house and everyone in it

Three diffident mothers and two confident and self-assured men haggle over mothering rights. The men win because the men know what to do. All Declan wants from these women in his life is for them to love him. Unconditional love is something all three women know very little about.

This was the book that introduced me to the work of Colm Toibin. His formal and authorial prose (no contractions) clearly defines the boundaries between these people and his deft handling of the back-stories and the changes and smudges that develop over these boundaries brings a smile to your lips (Larry tells a bemused Grandma about his first sexual experience) and a tear to your eye (Declan’s stark, angry but silent confrontation with his future as he sits by the fire staring into it; the women set the table and chat about the weather not knowing what else to say).

It is a confrontation between the past and the present; a clash of generations; a stark reminder of how far the world has changed in a single lifetime; it highlights the difference between mothering and caring, and it is a wonderful affirmation of the power of literature.

If you don’t know the work of Toibin, and you should, this is a great place to start.


Arts Opinion Commentary by Colm Toibin: Columbia University, New York City, April 2015.

Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin

On the online portal about Sexual Respect, for students, faculty, and staff at Columbia University, New York City, Colm Toibin, has recently provided an arts opinion commentary to accompany an art exhibition on Sexual Respect held at the Faculty House this month. In so doing he has defined what art is; where it comes from; and what it achieves. Here is what he said.

The art we make arises from the most private and intimate concerns and struggles, but also from pressing matters which arise when our dream life merges or intersects with what is sharply public or even openly political. Art begins in whispers and tentative rhythms but it can branch out into many realms, including ones in which the voice becomes loud and the rhythm angry and the tone combative. Art begins in ambiguity but as it proceeds it can shed that ambiguity and aim towards the forceful, the clear, the disturbing. Just as art can insist on its own need for subtlety and quietness, it can also inhabit a space where artists can have an argument with themselves and with the world.
Art seeks out an autonomous space. Now, more than ever, we are in need of autonomous space. Thus the image made, the dance movements worked out, the film shot, the words written on the page, the photograph taken, the painting created, are metaphors for our right in the wider world to imagine and make, metaphors for our own will, for our own freedom, for our own vulnerability; they are signs too of our own autonomy, our own power. These rights, these signs, stand for not only what we want from the world and how we wish to be in the world, but also how we want to re-imagine the world and how we want the world to re-imagine itself.
Many years ago, two poets living in America – Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan – in the white heat of the Vietnam War began an argument about what artists should do about evil. Levertov took the view that we should in our work oppose evil; Duncan believed that we had a duty instead to imagine evil. In the work on show here, it is clear that this argument remains as powerful as ever and as unresolved. The questions of sexual respect, sexual responsibility, the removal of power and violence from the sexual equation, are not questions that any one of us can be easy or complacent about. What is notable in this work on display here is its commitment, its passion, its stark and unsparing exploration of these most difficult and important and urgent subjects.
Some of the work here is deeply and openly opposed to evil. Other work seeks to explore what evil looks like, throw dramatic light on what is dark and cruel so that we can see it all the more clearly, so that we cannot avert our eyes from it, so that we will recognize it in the future.
Art comes from our loneliness. Images and phrases come most sonorously to us from the shadow world, a world in which the thing that should have happened did not happen, the world in which the right action was avoided and something else occurred, the world in which many people failed and some did their worst. Art arises from suffering, from regret, from harm, from experience more than innocence.
But art comes too from our sheer need for utterance, our urge to cry out, our knowledge that the silence all around us hungers for our noise. Art comes from our knowledge that silence moves like a thief, or someone who wishes to exert power, do harm, cause grief. Silence moves in fear; it darts and flits. Silence knows that its enemies are words and images and songs. The most forceful enemy of silence is someone speaking the truth, someone alone in a room, someone writing cries and messages from the depths of the self, words or images that strive to matter and make a difference, concentrate our minds, re-create the world.

Colm Toίbίn
Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities
Columbia University Department of English and Comparative Literature

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut, when he is not travelling, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is 52, and an openly gay man – which begs the question, why mention it? I mention it in relation to his latest book, Arctic Summer, which is a fictionalised account of the middle years – the early 20th century – of E.M. Forster’s life, his early career, his success with Howard’s End, his long roaming interlude that finally brought him to A Passage to India, but most importantly, his grappling with his homosexuality.

“At the time I grew up in South Africa,” said Galgut in a recent interview, “it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it.”

Edward Morgan Forster
Edward Morgan Forster

Forster also hid and assumed a fake persona, all the more tragic that the persona he chose to hide behind was an imitation of the same persona all the men around him hid behind as well: English, literary, controlled, stiff-upper-lip, and straight, if only in that English way of not seeming to be interested in marriage. He also suffered immense self-doubt especially about his novelistic portrayal of relationships between men and women of which he had no experience at all. Yet he craved intimacy, especially sexual intimacy but had no idea of the actions or words needed to satisfy such a craving. When ‘it’ finally happened he stumbled into it, and before he knew it, there it was and his seducer did all the work; and although it was fleeting he was amazed and pleased, but he was thirty seven years old.

Arctic Summer was the name of another Forster novel but one that he abandoned in early 1913 having succumbed to a weariness at only writing, or being allowed to write, about the love between men and women.

Galgut’s writing is masterful especially in creating and colouring indecision, sexual expectation, and longing. Forster, who everyone calls Morgan, visits a country friend of a friend whom he hasn’t met yet although he has read some of the man’s writings on “Homogenic Love” which excited him. This country friend, Edward Carpenter, lives with his younger ‘companion’, George, a working class man from the Sheffield slums, and the three men have lunch, after which Morgan helps George clear the table. The following is the description of putting down the plates in the kitchen. A simple domestic act, but oh, there is so much more.

‘Looking for a clear surface on which to set down the plates, he was aware of George’s closeness behind him and of the sound of his breathing.
“Is this right?” he said. “Here?”
“Let me see. Yes, that ‘s all right. Just put them down.”
He put them down and stood, not moving. He could hear the sound of breathing, close enough to be intrusive. Then he realised it was his own.
“Oh,” he said, surprised.
And then a little frightened.
Because George was touching him.
It was merely a hand, in the lower curve of his back. The contact was suggestive though the fingers didn’t move. Perhaps it was the talk they’d been having, or the thoughts he’d entertained, but there was something subversive about that hand. Something flowed out of it, transmitted through the palm: a presumption of equality, or worse – ownership. Yes, this must be how it felt, to be touched by a lover. He could feel the heat of it, the possessive certainty of its contact. Then the hand dropped down to his bottom, wavered there for a moment, and came to rest a little above his buttocks, at the base of the spine.
It was astonishing. Something had happened to him. He wasn’t quite in the kitchen any more, not quite in his own body. His mind had flashed away from itself, to some inner place where the events of the day were still being arranged. Now they were arranged differently.
“Yes,” George said again. “That’s all right, there.”
Carpenter’s voice called outside, and the hand fell away.’

Forster did write a gay novel, Maurice, a happy-ever-after romance between men from different social backgrounds but it was only published after his death and inspired, Galgut suggests, by the scene of domestic ordinariness of that luncheon with Edward Carpenter and his companion, George.

This is a story concerning real people, real events but it is also full of conjuring, and flights of imagination, like the above quote – and Galgut’s depiction of Forster’s first sexual encounter – which sets this work as fiction, not biography. The above event may not have happened but it’s possible, and believable, that something like it did.

Galgut describes several of Forster’s relationships. The first, sexually unrequited, with an educated Indian, Masood, and the second, more successfully, although far from passionate, with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. Galgut also gives Forster the opportunity to tell the former about the latter: a ‘romance’ he called it, and it is due to Galgut’s skill that when Foster finally says it: vocalises his love for another man I was overjoyed for him, not so much that, finally, he had known sexual love, meagre though it was, but that he was able to express it.

Arctic Summer is not unlike Colm Toibin’s The Master, about another writer, Henry James, who also grappled with his sexuality, but in the American it was buried so deep that not even Toibin’s masterly conjuring could’ve produced a scene like that above, and nor would it have been appropriate: for James, thoughts such as those reliably never existed, whereas for Forster they plagued his every waking hour and sometimes his sleeping ones as well.

This work is an example of historical biographical fiction and if you are concerned about what is true – and you shouldn’t be – all that can be said is that this is Galgut’s version of what ‘maybe’ true; and there are many others. What IS important is what the reader understands, enjoys, is enlivened and enlightened by.

Damon Galgut was unknown to me until the arrival of my ‘book fairy’, a European friend who comes twice a year to the tropical island where I live bearing news about books and his reading adventures but also books themselves. He had forgotten the name of this book and its author but knew the work was about E.M. Forster. Google did the rest. Fancy finding it here in a local bookstore! It has only been out a year.

Galgut’s first book, A Sinless Season, was published when he was 17, and following a serious cancer scare, a collection of short stories appeared, Small Circle of Beings, in 1988. He has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize twice: for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010. He has also written plays and taught drama at his alma mater, The University of Cape Town.

“… we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story.” Damon Galgut.

I’m going to make a space for Damon Galgut on my bookshelf between Anna Funder and Helen Garner.

A Conversation With Writer Colm Tóibín on the ‘Close Imagining’ of Fiction

The Irish writer, Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin has always been the most subtle writer. When I finished reading The Heather Blazing I went straight to page one and read it again. I doubted my reading skills; I thought I had missed something. I had; I was waiting for bits novelistic drama, a murder perhaps, a fight, but Toibin is not like tha. Thi story is the most gentle story of familial love where men find it so difficult to tell each other how they feel. Tobin makes drama from the everyday. Here is an interesting convesation with Toibin where he talks about his writing, how he writes, what a novelist needs, and how he is always thinking of the reader. Just click on the link below. I hope you enjoy it.

A Conversation With Writer Colm Tóibín on the ‘Close Imagining’ of Fiction.thenbeginning

On Experience: writing about writing


Mark Twain’s memorable quote ‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most misunderstood in all literature and according to Nathan Englander, the author of the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, it isn’t about events, it’s about emotion; “Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Our literary landscape is full of proof of the veracity of such a statement: how many vampires did Stephanie Myers interview before writing Twilight? How many witches did J K Rowling interview before creating Harry Potter? None, of course. What is important is imagination and ‘don’t sell your imagination short’ said the American author Richard Ford (author of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter in 1986). By that he meant, as he explained to his audience at a Southbank interview in October 2012, not to over-rely on what you know because, for him, writing is really about the imagination.

And so it is for the Irish writer, Colm Toibin,

“The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms. Sometimes we have no idea ourselves why a novel begins, why a style takes root, or a plot grows.” More about this later.

In his essay about Henry James and his final abode, Lamb House, (The Haunting of Lamb House in the collection All a Novelist Needs) Toibin describes his wandering through the master’s house, the ground floor of which is a Henry James museum, and then being invited upstairs to the private apartment of the owner. He was embarking on auguably his masterpiece, The Master, about the five years in the life of James following his disasterous tilt at being a playwright.

“I had what I was searching for – the two objects over the mantelpieces, the view, the height of the upstairs rooms. All I needed now was to get back to work.”

And then in the title essay he explains what he means,

“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mystreiously.”

The publishers of the notable Australian writer David Malouf have recently released two volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, the second of which is entitled The Writing Life and collects in one inspiring volume speeches, articles, and essays on what it means to be a writer.

He explains that sometimes our mind ‘plays a peculiar trick on us’ and we remember an event ‘so real, so alive’ that we can only believe it to be an actual event from our past; but when we think again we realise that this is not so but something we read in a book! ‘But’, he asks, ‘didn’t that also happen … to our ‘reading-self’? We read, go to the theatre, to the movies, to have just this kind of experiece.

Who among you is a murderer? No-one I hope, but you have an infinite number of experiences of murder and, who knows, all you may need is an ingenious trick or twist in a plot to be the writer of one.

Malouf quotes two literary ‘glimpses’ that help to illustrate Malouf’s, and Toibin’s point. One is an anacdote from the diary writings of Henry James where he tells of an English novelist, a ‘woman of genius’ who was much admired for her fictionalised portrayal of ‘the nature and the way of life of the French Protestant youth’; and what opportunities came her way to enable her to write with such assurance and believability? Only one, a glimpse, ‘in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at a table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but the moment was experience.’

The other is from Dickens’ David Copperfield who when visiting the Micawbers in prison the young man is asked to fetch a knife and fork from Captain Hopkins, another prisoner on an upper floor. He encounters in the Captain’s room ‘a very dirty lady’ and ‘two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair.’ The young Copperfield knows ‘God knows how’ that the two wan girls are the Captain’s daughters, but the dirty lady is not his wife. He had only a glimpse of the room but he returned to his host knowing that what he held in his head was just as true as the knife and fork he held in his hand.

Malouf infers that it only takes a glimpse for a writer to expand that glimpse into knowledge and he uses a quote from James to explain what he means; that a writer needs the ability ‘to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowledge of every corner of it … If experience consists of impressions, it may well be said that impressions are experience.’

On Saturday afternoon, 23 March, 2013 I experienced a mental ‘flip’ while I was sitting on my daybed reading a book review in The International Herald Tribune, as it was then called. I was only a few column centimeters into the review when suddenly a voice popped into my head: an angry, domineering, female voice chastising a wayward daughter for making bad decisions and giving her mother nothing but grief and disappointment.

It happened somewhere in the first two paragraphs but where exactly eluded me. I searched for it many times. It may have had something to do with ‘growing up evangelical in a secular age’ or ‘a buttoned down morality – a more adventurous approach to religious faith’ or maybe not.

What was important was that I had to write it down. It: the tone, the voice; hit me heavily. It is absolutely true that from the daybed, where I was reading, to collecting my iPad, to sitting down at the table, the ‘flip’ evolved into something else and then into something else again as I began to tap it out, and something else again as I wrote the last word and consolidated a reason. It was like what happens inside a chrysalis: no-one can possibly know. This is the imagination as Toibin’s ‘half-lit room’.

I recorded the above at the time and what I wrote down became not a very good one-act play called Truth which eventually turned into a much better short story called Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I mention it here as an example of something happening, I still don’t know what, while reading a newspaper, which sparked my imagination which in turn morphed into a situation, two characters, and a comment on American culture. The point of what I wrote down only developed by the time I had finished; it certainly wasn’t there when I began.

In my soon-to-be-posted novel, Veronica Spreads it Around, the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, there is a fire, a devastating, tragic fire, that my protagonist, Veronica, is trapped in. I have never been in this situation, and hope never to be, and, I confidently surmise, neither have you, but because of my many glimpses and impressions of terrible fires I launched into the writing of it relying on those glimpses and impressions and not on any direct experience. I knew it had to be hot, very, very, hot but I tried not to use those trite words; I had to find other words; I had to make writerly decisions about metaphor and simile. I also needed to ask myself important and pertinant questions: how do I describe the heat and the noise? without it sounding obvious and silly. How does she escape? I am using close writing (subjective free indirect discourse), eveything is seen from Veronica’s point of view, so she has to be conscious, trapped but conscious. Serendipitously there was another story-line that needed a conclusion that I realised at this moment, and not before, could be included in the introduction to this scene that would also provide a ‘red-herring’: the reader would think the scene would develop in one direction so when I dramatically took it in another there would be an ‘Oh my god!, moment. I definitely wanted an ‘Oh my god’ moment – what writer doesn’t? – and my confidence in my solutions to the problems of this scene is great enough for me to think that by telling you all this here you will still, when you read it, have the ‘Oh my god!’ moment. I hope.

Anyway, my decisions were more to do with what words and expressions to use rather than getting the experience right. Remember that the fire is seen from Veronica’s point of view so if she fainted she had to quickly recover in order to experience it and therefore for me to write about it and if she is then conscious she has to be protected in some way so as to be thinking, planning to get herself out of this very dangerous situation while the threat rages around her.

I knew that when I began work on this scene that the fire would happen at some stage but I did not know about the red herring idea or how she was going to survive. In fact the red herring idea provided the means for her survival. I repeat, I did not know this when I sat down at my desk to write the scene.

What happened to me that morning was an example of what I have written above: what Ford, Toibin, Malouf, and James were explaining in their various ways about experience and the incredible role imagination plays in the creation of something that can take the place of experience when direct experience is lacking, or, indeed, not needed, and that, I hope, will lead my readers to go along with the story, ‘believe’ the story, and be interested in Veronica’s many affairs, joyed by her success, moved by her plight and satisfied… if she makes it out alive.