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

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

He eliminated Johnson and Merkel. The month he hopes to have a final scan, he just received the David Cohen (nicknamed “British Nobel”) Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. Author of 10 novels, two short stories, three plays, several non-fiction books and countless essays, Tóibín has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize and won the Costa Novel Prize in 2009 for Brooklyn, about a young Irish woman who emigrated to New York in the 1950s, turned into an award-winning film in 2015. He is arguably the most prolific and prestigious living Irish writer.

Sullen looking – in a movie, he would be the kind-hearted gangster – he is lively, gracious and talkative in conversation: we are on a video call from Los Angeles, where he spends part of the year with his boyfriend , editor. Hedi El Kholti. He is alive and well (he played tennis yesterday). To meet Tóibín in person (in more normal times) is to be struck by the disconnect between this exuberant and expansive storyteller and the scattered and dismal fictional worlds for which he is famous. His news, in particular, is as steeped in sweet misery as his native Wexford is in the rain.

“I would love to have a built-in personality,” he once told a psychiatrist friend (he has a way of telling stories that sound like the start of a joke). Tóibín said: “The books are so filled with melancholy and I walk around like a sort of party animal.” “Well, who would you like to be? His friend asked. To which he replied “I don’t know”. “Oh go away! Said the psychiatrist. “I have serious patients with serious problems.”

For a man who can flip through a heavy biography in a day (preferably in a hammock in the California garden that he flaunts when he tilts the computer) or produce over 20,000 words, when he’s “on the flow.” One of the hardest things about his illness was that he was unable to read or write. It’s something only “the chemo club” knows about, he says. “How come you couldn’t even activate Bach?” It would sound like noise! You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t read, you can’t listen to music.

The steroids would however give him a boost, “a false energy” like a “chardonnay rush”, which would last no more than an hour, during which “the grinding time” allowed him to write a few poems. He hadn’t seriously written poetry since he was a teenager. Then, during the pandemic, at seven o’clock almost every night, a line suddenly came to him “like a melody”. The rest of the poem materialized fairly quickly and in the morning he would get up and cut a few lines, or abandon them altogether.

So at 66, early next year, he will add his first collection of poetry to this impressive list of publications. The day before our interview, he received one of those “recommended new releases” emails from Amazon – recommending his own book. Truly. “Oh my Gaahd, this book really exists! He said, with the longest God I have ever heard. “It was a big shock yesterday”, especially because the cover is a painting of his mother. The title Vinegar Hill refers to the battle during the Irish Rebellion, but the collection isn’t just about the homeland, with poems set in Barcelona and Los Angeles. “Everywhere I’ve been there is a poem,” including the Dublin Hospital, which coincidentally was built on the site of Joyce’s Blooms’ fictional home. “It’s very strange to be in this space where Leopold and Molly once were,” he thought in bed. He will do Ulysses on his return to Princeton, where he teaches one semester each year, in January.

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

Like The Master, Tóibín’s acclaimed 2004 novel about Henry James, The Magician is another portrayal of a sexually repressed artist. “I don’t have a third one,” he said of this trick for inhabiting the inner worlds. great writers to explore its theme of creativity driven by a thwarted desire. Both writers were extremely important to him in his late teens and early twenties. Growing up gay in a small town in Ireland, “where homosexuality was unspeakable”, left him “fascinated by characters who had lived in the shadows in an erotic way”. As always, he was drawn to secrets, the lives lived between the lines, James and Mann’s feeling of being “like ghosts in some rooms,” a distance created by their “uncomfortable homosexuality,” he says. he. “Mann’s was more self-aware than James, but you can never be sure with James. James’ work is filled with sexual secrets.

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

Tóibín’s life has parallels with the two authors (he shares James’s shameless sociability), the most striking with Mann, one of five siblings, the artistic son of a widowed mother, who ends up in exile. to the ; he even taught at Princeton. “You end up exploring the things that interest you,” Tóibín says. “Obviously there were things I had to imagine: money and power, the rise of Hitler. Mann does not emerge as a heroic figure in private (he did not attend his son Klaus’s funeral because he was on a reading tour) or as Germany’s most influential writer during the intervening years. -two-wars: a desire to write morally ambiguous, complex or unpleasant characters are “essential” in fiction, Tóibín believes.

Since his first novel The South, published at the age of 35, he has repeatedly returned to the stretch of Wexford coast from his childhood. He would never have believed that this “very sweet place, where in summer there is more drizzle than rain, more clouds than sun” could have provided him “enough expression or felt the life or the drama “as the backdrop for so many novels, he says. “To come back again and again has been rich and surprising. “

But, like so many of his Irish literary ancestors, he also needs to get away from it all; every novel, he says, is a reaction against its predecessor. After her fourth, the Booker shortlisted The Blackwater Lightship, in which three generations of gay women and three gay men are stuck in a ruined house on the coast for seven days – “there’s a lot of rain and a lot of tea brewing and a lot of recriminations ”- it was a relief to soak up the sophisticated environment of Henry James,“ to write these longer sentences, these more elaborate dialogues and to have a lot of duchesses ”.

But then he was done with the duchesses and wanted to go home. So he wrote Brooklyn, which looks back on Enniscorthy and the life of the small town Irish. “Oh thank goodness one of your books that we can finally read,” someone told him. After Nora Webster, an austere and moving fictionalization of the aftermath of her father’s death, he felt: “I never want to go back to this house again, I don’t ever want to go back to this kind of slow heartbreak. So it was a pleasure to turn to the wealthy and cosmopolitan Manns, “after writing another Irish novel in which no one has a dime.”

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

Another constant in his fiction is the desire for an absent mother (when his father fell ill suddenly, he did not see his mother for three months), and it is still there in The Magician, when the young Thomas is left alone for a year in Lübeck. “It’s not going to go away!” Tóibín whispers dramatically. He attributes his reputation as 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 talk. “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, he is most proud of the 25,000-word short story, A Long Winter, which completes his Mothers and Sons collection. Written after the death of his mother and brother, he found in the story of poor Miguel looking day after day for his mother in the Pyrenees, a metaphor for her “very raw and difficult feelings,” he says. “It was then that I felt everything had gone well.”

On good days, he will only write. “You have to immerse yourself in it, because you want the reading process to be immersive in the same way,” he says. “It’s about being in mental pajamas all day.” He’s back to handwriting – holding a neatly written notebook with the first few pages of New Brooklyn on screen – making corrections and additions as he types it.

“What if you get Writer’s Block?” A bank clerk once asked, while looking for a loan. “I said, ‘Do you want to stop this nonsense! »Writer’s block for the love of God! It’s one of those things that other people think writers have.

Despite his prodigious production and boundless curiosity, he felt “lazy as a sin”. It must be a Catholic thing. “I think I’m a big slacker, that there are other people who work really hard and I’m not one of those people. And that I need to cheer up, ”he says. “It’s a funny thing and it is true.”

For Tóibín, writing is a form of self-effacement: “the page is not a mirror, it is white”, he remembers constantly. As a novelist, you have 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, this is n It’s not for you. You’re not here, “he said, covering his face with his hands.” And when you look, there’s NOTHING except what’s empty and you have to fill it. “

The Wizard of Colm Tóibín is published by Viking (£ 18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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