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Off the Page: Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin
Irish Novelist
Thursday, July 22, 2004; 1:00 PM

A conundrum about Henry James was how such a master of insight into the human heart could appear to be so divorced from his own. The man who wrote so movingly about women seemed not to have more than friendships with them; the author of love affairs that often ruined his characters was never ruined himself.

Irish novelist Colm Toibin takes on this question in his fifth novel, The Master. In his new book, Toibin tries to imagine Henry James, in the same way James himself so often imagined others.

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Toibin, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 for his novel, The Blackwater Lightship, was online Thursday, July 22 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about The Master.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to today's "Off the Page." Colm Toibin is calling in from Dublin to answer our question today--and we're off.


Washington, D.C.: Congrats Colm on this wonderful book! This is the first of your books I've read, bought it in Dublin recently and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Why did you decide to start the book with the play failing? Also, do you plan to write a similar novel on Oscar Wilde?

Colm Toibin: I was looking for a moment of public drama, and that was the main one in Henry James's life. It's much easier to write about failure than about success. And how he dealt with that night shows a great deal about his character. He put the same hopes into a play as a contemporary writer might into a film script or a film project. He thought he could clean up. The play was an unmitigated disaster, its opening night a great public humiliation.

And no, I won't write another novel about a writer, I hope.


Carole Burns: Your novel explores the question of how much James gave up to become a writer. Do you think it's necessary to sacrifice life, in that way, to be an artist? Colm Toibin: I think those decisions never get made. I think most of life, including Henry James's life, is adrift. And you don't ever have to make a choice. He tended to get great satisfaction from work, and he worked very hard. I have a feeling that work made him happy. And the problem arises then, If he hadn't worked, he would have been unhappy, and by working so hard, he missed out on other things. And that too left him unhappy. There is no equilibrium. But I think an artist can have both, and a great number of artists end up being quite happy in their personal lives. Don't ask me to name them! But there certainly are. It isn't part of the deal that you have to personally unhappy.


Arlington, Va.: Are you familiar with Alice McDermott's work about Irish Americans, and what do you think of it?

Carole Burns: For those who missed it, Alice McDermott was on "Off the Page" this fall.

Colm Toibin: I've read a number of her books, and one of them, which is called CHARMING BILLY, seems to me a masterpiece. I don't think it's a masterpiece because it's about Irish Americans, or because of its accuracy in describing a generation. But I think it's a masterpiece because of the levels of truth in the storytelling, and the astonishing skill at scene setting. I think if she wrote about outer Mongolia she would write well. So it's not the subject, it's the style. She seems to me a very Jamesian writer.


Carole Burns: I could tell from reading your novel, and then your acknoledgments, that you did much research into Henry James to write this novel. At what point did imagination take over? How much of the James in your book is Henry James, and how much is he your Henry James? Colm Toibin: I work as a novelist, which means I think in images and scenes. I'm not a biographer, and I'm not a moralist. Therefore my interest is in the creation of drama. So my interest in his character was in its dramatic possibilities--what I could do with this, rather than in trying to reconstruct a piece of history. When I was working, I was surrounded with books. I wrote some of the book in Spain, and some of it in Dublin, with a duplicate James library which cost me a fortune--two full sets of everything. But sometimes a sentence by him or about him would be enough to get me going, and I could work for three or four pages without looking up.

I didn't base the book on any of his books, but I did pick what I believe were the eleven most dramatic episodes, and I worked on them for all they were worth, and I used as much fact a) as I could find, and b) that didn't get in my way.


Washington, D.C. : Will you be coming to the States, and especially Washington, to do readings?

Colm Toibin: I'm back in October and November--so if anybody asks me, I'll go. I know I'm reading in Boston and New York, and I'm reading in Miami at the book fair, but I don't know what else I'm doing.


Falls Church, Va.: The New York Times review on 6/20 raised the challenge that Henry James could possibly have been truly content by his own standards, not necessarily as troubled by his emotional chilliness as you portray. Indeed, there are people who appear in real life to be content that way, relatively cool in their own feelings although caring and kind to others. Of course this would raise the intriguing question of "sublimation of sexual force" into artistic force. Can you comment? (And I'm a psychiatrist with a passion for James.)

Colm Toibin: Between about 1909 and 1912, James suffered a number of nervous breakdowns. I see his later years, including the years of my novel, as a build-up to the nervous breakdowns. I realize that the New York Times reviewer wondered if James in fact, because of his public persona, was a brighter person, more content and easy-going, and I emphatically doubt that, if you can emphatically doubt something. I think, like a lot of people who are witty in public, this is often a way of disguising a darkness within. I believe there was a great deal of darkness. And I sought to explore that darkness.

Had it not been there, I might have invented it. But I did invent it. I would have, I think, but I didn't.


Carole Burns: I'm also a huge Henry James fan--The Golden Bowl is my favorite. What prompted you to write this book? Are you a fan of James, or were you intrigued by his life? Colm Toibin: I began by having no interest in his life. The four novels of his that from the age of about 19--and I did not study them at university, I read them for pleasure, they meant a great deal to me--they are The Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. And I certainly went through my 20s and 30s rereading them, thinking about them and talking to people about them. I like some of the other ones I know--these would be the outstanding books, although some of short stories are very very bad. I would say about 70 percent of his short stories are bad. My interest in his life came much later.

I was intrigued, then, when I started to read about the life, at just its contours and its textures. I didn't know what I was going to do about it, and then I realized I had a character in my head, just the way I do before a novel. And I set to work.


Washington, D.C. : Parts of your novel deal with women friends who were dying, crushed that James didn't invite them to join him in Europe. Twice, he is blamed for a woman's death. How much of those parts is true, and how much fiction?

Colm Toibin: The book I used for that is mentioned in the acknowledgments. It's Lyndall Gordon, A PRIVATE LIFE: HENRY JAMES AND TWO WOMEN. Now it's really a very good book, and she goes through in immense detail Henry James's relationship with Minnie Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson. She blames James more than I do. But she presents the same evidence. So bits of the letter from Minnie is direct. Her book is really worth reading.


Arlington, Va.: Who are your favorite writers, current and classic? Are there any contemporary Irish writers you think we should know about?

Colm Toibin: There's an Irish novelist called John McGahern. John McGahern is the Irish novelist everyone should read. His first novel, published more than 40 years ago, is called THE BARRACKS. His most recent novel, published two years ago, by Knopf, and in Vintage paperback, is called BY THE LAKE. Vintage also publishes his collected stories, and there's an earlier novel published by Penguin, which is probably his best book, which is called AMONGST WOMEN. I think he's fully recognized both here and in France as being a most serious contemporary novelist, but he deserves to be better known.

And I love Hemingway. I'm still a sucker for Hemingway. I can read any of him. People say he's parodying himself in the later books. I don't even mind that. He's better than anybody. I love Joseph Conrad. I love George Eliot. I love Jane Austen.

Carole BurnsAre you a James Joyce fan>?

Colm ToibinI'm interested in Joyce--how can I not be? but I didn't read him when I was young. When I was growing up here as a teenager, you didn't want to read Irish fiction. I do love the last story in DUBLINERS, and I wouldn't be without that. And then there are chapter in Ulysses that I like, and then there are chapter that I don't like so much.


Carole Burns: Do you like the Henry James in your novel? Colm Toibin: Yes. I don't think we should model ourselves on him. I don't think he's a role model for the young, but he's all the better for that. I like what he notices, how he feels, and the fact that nothing is lost on him.

Carole Burns: Isn't that a famous quote from him.

Colm Toibin: Yes. A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.


Washington, DC: What are you working on now? And which book of yours is your favorite?

Colm Toibin: My first play, which is called BEAUTY IN A BROKEN PLACE, is opening on the 16th of August in the National Theatre in Dublin, so it's in deep rehearsal, so deep that the author is required to be absent, having been present for quite some time. I get a call every day with suggestions for transpositions and erasures, most of which I agree to. But it was an exciting week--I was there all last week, watcdhing it. I'm working on a collection of stories, which are all about mothers and sons. And I have a novel in my head, and I have a book of essays about fathers and sons. And when all that is over, I'll have got parents out of my system. I don't know what I'll do then.

The play is about Sean O'Casey, who wrote a play called THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS in 1926, which caused riots, and it's about the riots. And it's lovely putting a riot on the stage. Pure noise.

I had written the opening chapter of THE MASTER when the theater wrote to me and asked me to write the play. So I said, I can't turn this down, because it's in my novel. It gave me a chance to be a character in my novel.


Carole Burns: By the way, you didn't answer which of your own books you liked best. Colm Toibin: It's an impossible question to answer, because the five novels are all very different from each other. And I don't think anybody likes all five, except me. And I'm not sure that I fully exist as a person, in the way that other people do, with a complete solid personality. This means that I can sort of become anybody or anything, and it means the five novels could have been written by five different people. Take your pick.

I suppose there are things in the novel, THE STORY OF THE NIGHT, which were exciting to write at the time, but I'm not sure about favorites.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Colm, for being our guest today on "Off the Page." Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

And I hope everyone joins us in two weeks, when Thisbe Nissen talks about her new novel, OSPREY ISLAND.


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