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Arundhati Nath
28 Feb 2021

The Master

Colm Toibin in conversation with Nandini Nair

I really liked Colm Tóibín. As a person. Before I could think of him as a writer. At the #JaipurLiteratureFestival2021 session I was watching, he came through to me as a warm yet plain-speaking, non-fussy, without the typical writer’s-bells -and-whistles kind of a guy. He said at the beginning, when editor and interviewer Nandini Nair asked him if he was a ‘watcher of the world’, that writing is an inward-facing process where you see ‘the shape of things’ as they are and not when you feel a ‘master of the universe’ with a ‘beautiful desk and a chair’ with ‘your secretary outside the room’. Writing for him isn’t about ‘over-shaping’ but of ‘watching yourself’ where you are ‘suspicious of your worst instincts’.

Why I found myself warming to him so quickly was also because he spoke feelingly and familiarly about some of my favourite writers and books – Henry James, Sylvia Plath, WB Yeats, Hamlet, Middlemarch, The Turn of the Screw. He described how he liked his books around him to be able to go to them when he wanted. Oh, yes, I got that!

His work, The Master (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book ReviewThe Washington Post), is a part-fictitious retelling of the life of Henry James. He spoke of the ‘seed of departure’ in his own novels where a lot is left unsaid - in a novel, unlike in a film, he said, ‘one can leave so much visually to the reader’s imagination’. He cited from James’s Portrait of a Lady where large tracts of Isabel Archer’s marriage are left untraced but we, the readers, have the liberty to imagine and we just know of her growing unhappiness.

Tóibín, a much-awarded writer, playwright and poet, grew up in Enniscorthy in Ireland. After graduating from University College Dublin, he had spent a few years in Barcelona that had inspired his debut novel, The South, a free-flowing story of a young woman who leaves her marriage and child in Ireland and flees to Spain to fall in love with an artist and move to the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees obviously dominate Tóibín’s mental landscape – he spoke of the time he had spent in a village there when the wind, that seemed like snow, would howl and screech. He talked about his story ‘A Long Winter’ (a part of Mothers & Sons) being inspired by a story he had heard of a woman, who after a fight with her family, drinks solitarily one winter evening, and walks out of her home in the snow-covered Pyrenees and doesn’t return.  The search parties normally find such wayward wanderers through circling vultures – this macabre image made me realise how comfortable Tóibín was with noir and dysfunctional relationships (my kind of writer, I thought in my guilty preference for complex, sinewy, gnarled depictions of relationships).

When Nandini quoted from Pico Iyer’s review of Toibin’s Mothers and Sons – ‘You pick up a book called "Mothers and Sons" and expect something reassuring and warm, domestic; but it is part of Tóibín’s pitiless and often brilliant vision to show that mothers and sons are suspicious even of one another, less pietàs than emblems of missed connections’ - my attention was kindled even more.

At this point, Tóibín said that mothers and sons (and mothers and daughters) interested him – these relationships that began ‘elementally with blood and birth’ and then transitioned into social constructs, often having to unpeel layers. It is these relationships that remain elemental within a defined social boundary which he finds more gnarly and befitting a novel than the study of a marriage. It is no wonder then, in his much-lauded  novella, The Testament of Mary, Mary, mother of Jesus, sees herself as a victim of men driven to create a story which isn’t at all about her life. In her mind or in Toibin’s tale, she did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was there, like all mothers, only to ensure he came home safe.

He went on to talk about his latest work The Magician based on the life of Thomas Mann – how he had had to juxtapose Mann’s private and public lives, his six children, his liberal, Bohemian wife who didn’t give a toss about his homosexuality, the two World Wars, Mann’s emigration to the US, his public denouncement of Hitler, his frustration with rising McCarthyism during the Cold War when he was a ‘suspected Communist’. Tóibín made what  a writer has to do when giving lifeblood to his characters very real when he described how in each chapter, he had needed to weave the children in and not make them out to be fillers, while straddling the considerable other facets of Mann’s life.

When Nandini asked him how he got women so much better than other writers did, he admitted he had grown up with several unmarried aunts and that both his siblings were sisters. As a five-year-old, he had always found men’s talk, that mostly veered around a football goal, unidimensional and boring, whereas, wandering into women’s conversations, sometimes about a coat someone had almost bought, he had found a certain vibrancy and a feeling of multiple perspectives. Again, a man who gets that je ne se quoi, I thought!

As the session ended, Tóibín recalled how he liked to write about places he has lost – rather than those where he stayed. Like Enniscorthy and Spain – lost to times to which he can’t go back to. Barcelona would always be special as he had been there when he had been so young and it was one part of his life he could only wistfully recreate in fiction. There is a ‘funny regret about loss that is very useful if you are trying to evoke somewhere in fiction’, he said. Loss, complexity, ambiguity, tenacity – all this that make up a full, lived experience - are a writer’s tools, I thought. And the loose-limbed grace that a gritty writer’s writing flows with – it makes me marvel each time I encounter it.