No place like Colm
Whether it is the death of his father when he was 12 years old or the disappearance of Sunday as a weekly chance for introspection, loss and home are central themes for Colm Toibin. And in his latest novel Brooklyn he explores the idea of a space that is rich yet familiar, writes Ciara Dwyer
The day after Colm Toibin graduated from UCD he left for Barcelona. "I wanted to get the hell out of the whole f***ing place," says the Wexford-born writer.
In 1975, Spain was like "walking into the future," he says. There was sunshine, sexual openness and a general attitude towards pleasure in the society. The ethos was to enjoy life. Toibin found that sexually, socially and politically, the Spanish were light years ahead of the Irish. He stayed there teaching English and relishing the vibrant lifestyle until a friend urged him to go home and make something of himself. It was then that he began his life as a journalist, editor of Magill magazine and later, an award-winning novelist.
Rather than a sentimental yearning for home, returning to Dublin was about putting an end to his drifting days and getting serious about life and work. Years later, Toibin went to a lecture in Buenos Aires. (It was about patterns of migration from Northern Ireland in the 19th Century.) The lecturer said that ideally, if people are given the choice, they will mainly stay where they are born and live close to where their siblings and parents live. Toibin latched on to this notion and it became one of the seeds of his latest novel, Brooklyn, which will be published this month. "It was an idea that hadn't occurred to me personally and therefore, when I came across it as an idea for other people, it shocked me," he says. "It doesn't matter whether or not I agree with it. In the novel I was trying to play with this whole idea of home."
The novel is about a girl from Wexford who emigrates and blossoms in Brooklyn. Then she goes home for a visit and is tempted to stay.
"Also, it's about when you're away for a few months and you come back into a room that you've been used to, suddenly that room will seem so much more real than anywhere you've just been. This happened to me when I had been away in Stanford and Texas for about four months.
"I was using the idea of not exactly missing home, but realising when I came home -- and I don't mean my family or Enniscorthy but I mean back to familiar rooms -- you suddenly go in the door, put your bag down and you think, this is easier than where I've just been. Experiences you've had a week earlier will crumble. The familiar seems infinitely more rich and true and absolutely solid than where you've just been, even though you didn't put a thought into that when you were away. It is home, whatever that word is; it's that familiar room."
Toibin was born in Enniscorthy in 1955, the fourth of five children. He now lives in Dublin and has a house in Wexford where he often goes to write. Though he prefers not to talk about his private life or his childhood, he did open up about his father's death when Colm was 12 and how his unresolved grief about this came to the fore much later on in a group therapy session in Grangegorman Hospital, conducted by the psychiatrist Ivor Browne. (Colm was great friends with Ivor's late wife June Levine.)
"It had come up a few times and he asked me if I would come, that maybe I needed help, whatever he noticed in me. Ivor is terribly perceptive. He was basically a friend's husband. June and I would be in full flight on the issues of the day. Whatever she would be indignant about, I would be even more indignant about. Ivor would have to listen to the two of us. He asked me to go to this thing without really giving me an idea of what it was. I always managed to wriggle out with some excuse. But one time they knew I was around on the particular dates and there was no getting out of it."
It was a weekend course, a therapy session where people with varying degrees of traumatic experience gathered together. Everyone was asked to make a list of the things wrong with them.
"I thought, God are we going to have to discuss it? I was becoming uneasy. Then they said, 'Get the list and throw it over your shoulder'."
When the session was in full swing, Colm found himself vomiting and dry retching. "Some said that you could experience your birth -- I had been quite looking forward to that" -- but instead, his father's death emerged.
"I didn't know what would come up and I was surprised, but also, I was surprised by how quickly it came and how real it was. It moved on each time from very great distress to further levels of almost reconciliation to the end. It was a very strange experience and I learnt an awful lot. Here I am mentally trying to work out aspects of the human personality in these books and I discovered I knew nothing about it at all.
"When my father died I was very young, so you're in that stage where you're not able to handle something as enormous as that. But even if you're an adult, no matter what age, I've come across a lot of contemporaries whose parents have died and I often say to them, 'Be very careful with it because it's not nothing. You might think you're OK now, but next year something will darken.' We're so skilled at shrugging things off and saying 'It's nothing' and making sandwiches and going back to work on Monday."
I agree with him. Deaths should be grieved and attention must be paid. I say that there is a lot to be said for the Jewish tradition after a funeral, where the week after they "sit shiva" -- refrain from work, stay home and have a week-long lamentation. Toibin is equally enamoured by other aspects of Judaism.
"When I was in New York I asked a Jewish person about the Sabbath. He said: 'It isn't just religious. It's a day of great introspection.' I thought Mother of God, maybe that's what we lack. If I was Diarmuid Martin I would say, 'Can we have Sunday back?'"
Toibin thinks it is atrocious that we no longer have a weekly day to reflect. In the past, he has criticised the Catholic Church for many things but now, is he sounding like Fr Brian D'Arcy, asking for a little bit of religion? Well, it's not so much religion as spirituality.
"If you think of the really big change in Ireland, it isn't from boom to recession. It's the opening up of Sunday, a day that was given over to what might be called boredom, but at least for the possibility of introspection. Solitude is now missing from the week. Great numbers of people have to work on Sundays but the ones who are shopping look more stressed out than the ones who are working. As they go up and down with bags, people are elbowing each other out of the way. Instead of going up to Holy Communion they are going up to the cash register. And that's not going to change. We've lost Sunday."
But that's not to say that Toibin is a devout church-going Catholic himself. When I ask him what religion he is, or if he has faith, he tells me a story about going to mass with friends in New York. (This is not something he would usually do in Ireland.) Yet in New York, it turned into a regular sociable occasion followed by brunch. When it came to the part in mass with the congregation going up to the altar to receive communion, Toibin stayed in his seat. His friend was surprised and asked him why he didn't go up, what exactly did he believe in?.
"I said, 'I don't know what I am but I wouldn't mess with that.'"
And yet he says that he doesn't feel out of place in a church.
"When I was living in the Upper West Side, I used to go on my own. I used to sing in the choir in St Gregory's. I used to go to a church, which had been Irish but it ended up being full of people from Haiti. They used to love me because I was the only white guy there. They all came over to shake my hand because they wanted to show that they had no prejudice."
If he was worried about something, would he pray?
"I have a serious spiritual life which is why I feel I can preach to Diarmuid Martin about what he should be doing. I read poetry every night and I listen to music all the time. You needn't call it religious but I have a deeply introspective life. Sometimes I look around and I think people should have that more because it's very rewarding and nice."
Why does he think that poetry and music are spiritual?
"They're absolutely spiritual. It's about the human spirit at its most soaring and strange. There's no material value in it. I'm not as much into opera as I was -- although I go to the Met all the time -- I'm more interested in Bach cantatas or chamber music. I'm not one of those gay men who spends their time talking about Maria Callas. I wish I was. Maybe I'd be happier."
When I press him on this, he moves on. I ask him if he is discontent. The last time I met him he struck me as full of gloom but this time he tells me that he doesn't suffer from depression.
"You get on with your work" he says, as if he is happy to distract himself. This very morning he had been at his desk at 7.15, tidying up a short story for The New Yorker. He also relishes his freedom. "I can do anything I like, so that's OK, isn't it?"
He has been teaching undergraduate students in Princeton and found the experience energising. Having this audience balances out his solitary writing life.
"As a novelist and a person, you drift into being yourself. If you try to do it deliberately, it doesn't work. One Friday evening, I had a deadline and I'd no food in the house. I went down to Tesco on Baggot Street and I was walking back up with two bags full of stuff, to find that every single person had fallen out of their offices at half five. They were having a wonderful time standing outside the Pembroke pub with pints. It reminded me of when I worked in Magill and how we would always go to O'Donoghues. But now everyone else is drinking and I'm sober, going home to work. How did that happen?"
Then he quotes Elizabeth Bishop's poem North Haven.
"You had 'such fun'" you said, that classic summer.
("Fun" -- it always seemed to leave you at a loss ... )
"I get real pleasure from those lines," says Toibin. And then, off he bounds, like a rabbit back to his burrow. There is work to be done..
Brooklyn, Viking, €13.99