Colm Tóibín is the current Laureate for Irish Fiction. His most recent novel is The Magician, and Tóibín was awarded the David Cohen Prize last year. He will be reading at the West Cork Literary Festival which runs in Bantry from July 8 to 15.
The books on your nightstand?
The books are not just on the table, but piled up on the floor beside the bed. At the top, there is a novel by the Argentine writer César Aira called Ema, The Captive, set in a grim 19th century. Aira, born in 1949, has published more than a hundred books, most of them very short.
His novels have elaborate and ingenious plots. The best one I have read so far is An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. I also have John McAuliffe’s Selected Poems, Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor and Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses (which I am enjoying immensely) beside the bed.
Your book of the year so far?
There is a marvellous new biography of the poet John Donne (“No man is an island”) called Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell.
Favourite literary character?
I love Leopold Bloom for how he doesn’t join the gang. He has his own opinions, his own manners, his own way of wandering. I like his quiet wit and the richness of his mind. I also like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady for her idealism, her personal ambition. I admire Gwendolen at the opening of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.
The first book you remember?
Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington. The plot surprised me and there is a long accusatory speech that is very well written.
A book that changed your life?
Between about 18 and 23, I read the novels that I still re-read and still grapple with. Among them are the Henry James masterpieces The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and some novels by Thomas Mann including Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.
The book you couldn’t finish?
I am sure I am not alone in not being able to finish the Old Testament.
Your Covid comfort read?
Because I was writing poetry during the pandemic, I was also reading poetry, and especially enjoying a few poets from the 16th century – Thomas Campion, Thomas Wyatt, Fulke Greville – and some from the second half of the 20th: Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Bishop, Fernando Pessoa. I also got comfort from an edition of Gunn’s letters and a massive biography of Pessoa.
The book you give as a gift?
Terence Killeen’s Ulysses Unbound is a great present to give because it will open up a whole new world for the recipient. It doesn’t ‘explain’ Joyce’s Ulysses; it offers a coherent and intelligent guide to its intricacies.
The writer who shaped you?
When I was starting to write, the figures of John McGahern and John Banville shaped all of us. Banville, in the 1970s, wrote brilliant book reviews, drawing attention to what was happening to the novel in other languages.
He also published his science trilogy – Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter. In this period, McGahern published his story collection Getting Through and his superb novel The Pornographer.
The book you would most like to be remembered for?
There is one short story (actually, it is a long short story) in my book Mothers and Sons. It is called ‘A Long Winter’. For once, I think, I nearly got it right. I made it as close to a folk tale or a quest saga as I could while concentrating on real and complex emotions.
I wrote it in the very landscape where it is set (the high Catalan Pyrenees) at the very time of the year when it happens (the deep winter).