The master, in conversation

The master, in conversation

By VINEET GILL | | 6 February, 2016
Colm Tóibín, photo: reuters
In Jaipur recently to attend the literature festival, Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín, author of such timeless classics as Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary, took time out from his packed schedule for an extended, often digressive, chat about literature, style, writing and reading with Vineet Gill.

Q. Writers who talk well, in person and on stage — as you certainly do — often hold greater appeal for the contemporary reader than writers who don’t. I remember Nabokov once said that conversational ability is separate from literary talent. What’s your view on this?
A. Yeah, I know writers who want to be in the shadows, and work very well in the shadows. I mean, writing in a way is done in the shadows. Up to a certain moment in the 1980s, only poets appeared in public. Poets did readings, and people wanted to hear a poet’s own voice reading the poem. The big figure was someone like Dylan Thomas. I know Charles Dickens did readings in the 19th century.  But in the 20th century, most prose writers did not do readings. Henry James never did a reading from his work, for example, nor did Graham Greene. James Joyce made one recording from Finnegan’s Wake, but he didn’t actually go and do readings. And so, some time in the 1980s, the marketing departments and publishers realised this: “Get these guys who’ve finished their novels, and send them out into the world! Your job is to be your own bookseller.” This business of a writer appearing to crowds is a recent phenomenon, that arises from a new trend in marketing. Now you have all these authors being photographed, so that now I know what many of these people look like.

Q. And does this put more pressure on the writer, now that he or she is being cast in the role of a performer?
A. I think it does two things. One, it gives a rich sense of an audience — you’re actually attempting to connect to potential readers in a time when potential readers could easily go elsewhere. You know, they could be into saying, “I never read a book. But I watch TV, I watch HBO series.” The other side is more problematic: it’s where the writer is actually performing.  You’re almost like a clown, whereas the person writing has to be silent, meditative, contemplative, solitary, shy, looking down, looking inwards. But suddenly you have this person on a stage. What happened to me was that I began to teach. So, as far as I am concerned, when I am in such a situation, I behave like I am in one of my seminars. If there’s a student of mine here he’d say, “That’s just like you in the classroom”.

Q. These days there’s more emphasis, in colleges and especially in creative writing courses, on teaching how to write a book than teaching how to read one. Do you think this needs to change?
A. See, as you’re writing, you’re looking at the previous sentence always. You’re looking for ways of following that sentence. After a month of writing something, when you go to read it over, really, the more skill you have as a reader, the more you’re likely to detect bulls***. So reading is an essential element in all of this. But there are writers who don’t read! They have something natural and pure that they can work with. But they do take nourishment from songs, from movies, from other aspects of culture.

Q. I do know of some novelists who don’t read any fiction at all. What about you? Do you take nourishment from other aspects of culture? TV perhaps?
A. Yeah, I know of these figures who find fiction very boring, who only read history books. I am not like that, though. About TV: I have tried to watch The Wire and I just can’t bear it. And The Sporanos... I mean, I watched a few episodes and I thought it was an insult to my intelligence. I just had no interest in it.

Q. The American critic Adam Kirsch has a theory about why TV can never replace the novel: he says that TV still lacks subtlety. Which is why so many of the great TV series are based on the premise of crime and violence.  
A. In other words, a committee meets that knows something about the audience, and they know what the audience needs here. The movie Brooklyn [based on Tóibín’s 2009 novel Brooklyn] was made on a small budget. If it were made on a larger budget, somebody would have interfered with it and made a complete mess of it by telling us what the audience wants. If there had been, say, $20 million more, there would have been huge, huge interference at every stage of the process, by a group of men, usually, who are usually cynical, who know about that thing called the bottom line, do audience research. They would have said, for example, that in Brooklyn you need some violence, or you need someone to be drunk.  In the movie, actually, we have nobody who is drunk. We have no violence. Those things are clichés about Ireland and we didn’t want them. But somebody would have insisted on them.

Q. While reading your work, I always find myself thinking of certain questions of style. The way you’re able to move a narrative forward through sheer emotional weight, creating an effect, weaving a dream, using simply-constructed sentences and a language that is straightforward. I don’t know how you do this.
A. I think the theory of this is that you feel the thing before you write the thing. And you only write it because you feel it. And therefore no matter what style you use to describe it, the feeling will come through. Also, the less you use words that describe feeling, the more likely you are to convey what you want to convey. You should be able to say, “He came in the door. He stood for a minute watching her.” And you should be able to make that work. Now the problem always is self-parody: if you start depending on the style, and not the feeling. If the style doesn’t become a vehicle for communicating that feeling, but becomes something in itself that you think works no matter what you feel, then there’s an emptiness apparent to the reader immediately. So it’s a funny process: you don’t think about the style, you’re trying to concentrate on the emotion, on registering the emotion somewhere or other in the rhythm. And sometimes, trying to do so in way that’s hidden — in a way that the reader can’t notice. The reader doesn’t know why, what mechanism is being used to make the reader shiver. And you can’t make the reader shiver in every sentence. You build up — then you can get a sentence that suddenly does something — often a very tiny sentence —  that does something particularly strong, and you’re working towards that.

Q. This is a very different approach from someone like, say, Joyce, in whose hands literary style and language become something completely different.
A. It was only after he’d written Dubliners, that Joyce described the...what’s the phrase...“the scrupulous meanness of the prose”. Then in Ulysses, what he starts to do is parody style. So that in every chapter, there’s something being parodied: the style of a newspaper report, even his own particular style of consciousness. He lets every single thing in. Everything is examined, and turned around and parodied and played with. But then when he comes to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, it’s not a parody of someone speaking. Joyce wants you to believe that these are the words she’s using. You’re with her voice, and he is manipulating that voice for you in a way that’s very straightforward. So he gives us an interesting mix of things.

“The movie Brooklyn [based on Tóibín’s 2009 novel Brooklyn] was made on a small budget. If it were made on a larger budget, somebody would have interfered with it and made a complete mess of it by telling us what the audience wants. If there had been, say, $20 million more, there would have been huge, huge interference at every stage of the process, by a group of men, usually, who are usually cynical.”

“I know something about Bengal, for instance. And the idea of a very privileged people — from Tagore to Satyajit Ray — who began to take a huge interest in peasant culture and villages, when they were not themselves from that culture.”

Q. Do you think the impulse to experiment is missing in young fiction writers today, who lean towards a specifically realist idiom of telling stories?
A. Yeah, but there are exceptions to this. George Saunders in my view has had an enormous influence, not least with his own students at Syracuse University where he teaches. But his short stories are now reaching a big audience. Someone like Saunders, who is really writing experimental fiction, and someone like Lydia Davis — both of them, actually now have a high-priest, high-priestess presence in the literary community. And a lot of young people are following them, who are not attempting to write like John Updike or Hemingway. Who are attempting to make it new and are following Borges, following Calvino. I was teaching creative writing in Texas, and I had a student who was making concrete prose. You know, he would make a bench with words: bench, bench, bench, bench... I told him, “Stop!” I said, Who taught you to do this? Where is this coming from? Just write the word “bench” and get it over with. And they all laughed, because this is what they really wanted to do: they wanted to do something new. Concrete poetry is 50 years or 80 years old. Why not concrete prose? And I was saying, no, no. Could you just get on with it? Next semester, please, do as much concrete as you like, but this semester just write: “He sat on the bench.” They thought I was being old.

Q. So the ideas of European high modernism, when artists rebelled against the established order and acceptable ways of creating art, are still among us?  
A. Yeah, these European writers were against that whole business of those big novels about some young man who comes to Paris... “Oh shut up!” they said. “We want a novel to be about a novel, its own style, its own voice”. There was also a big battle over the subject of sexuality and sexual explicitness — how much you can do and not do. I think what happened with both modernism and with the nouveau roman was that they were revolts, rather than revolutions. And after the revolt, there was reform. So writers stopped writing longwinded descriptions of landscape — by the 1920s, it’s over. All that Thomas Hardy-esque, long, two-page description at the beginning of a novel, of what a certain road did, or where it went. Instead, a novel would start with a brisk sentence. I think the same thing happened after the nouveau roman —  especially with Nathalie Sarraute, of bringing into prose a sort of dreamy, poetic tone — when the idea of voice began to matter, as much as narrative distance and structure.

Voice — either the narrator’s voice, or the protagonist’s or the author’s — became something very special. But this isn’t new. This was there in Hamlet’s soliloquy. See, the real problem, in a way, that the novel faces — unlike visual art where one curator can really matter so much — is that the reader still matters for novels. And the reader’s desires matter. Some of the crucial works of modernism contain passages that were deliberately, irritatingly, long-windedly boring. If you look at Beckett’s Watt, there are pages of that in it. Some of the great modernist masterpieces seem to contain their own reader. It is as though Ulysses would have been happy enough if no one had read it; it would have read itself. And Borges is so filled with books and libraries and invented worlds. And for him the idea of having a sentence like, “A man went to the airport” would have been anathema. You know, there was no man! There was no, man! There was m-a-n... and Borges would do anything with that word to usurp it and f*** it over. But what’s happened with the novel is that it has gone back — or it goes back regularly — to its stable form. Then it destabilises again.

Q. It’s funny that the world’s first novel was also, in a way, the world’s first postmodern novel — Don Quixote. Right?
A. Yeah, and Tristram Shandy. If it was written now, everyone would say: Oh my god, this is so experimental!

Q. We spoke earlier of the importance of reading in a writer’s life. I’d be very interested to know what you have been reading these days.  
A. I am on page 530 of Ferdinand Mount’s book The Tears of the Rajas. And I didn’t know that story. I thought the Mutiny was a mutiny. I didn’t know it was a full revolt in north India against the British, and that it was so bloody, was put down with such bloodiness. He’s very, very good at building up a picture of these poor English people, who came out here full of greed and goodwill. Thinking they were bringing civilisation. There’s a funny moment, early in the book, where he has one person, an Englishman, who is an ancestor of Mount, saying: “They do not like us. Do you know that? They do not like us.” And you watch that building up further. Lord Dalhousie, who built the railway and canals, was the same person who usurped territory, thinking he could run it better than the local kings. But the people didn’t want that. People didn’t want the British. They wanted them to get the f*** out of here.

Q. Were there any parallels between such colonial conquests in Ireland and India?
A. There were fascinating parallels. Mount’s book talks about a Lord Lake who arrives in India in 1803. He is the General Lake — who put down the rebellion of 1798 in Wexford, where I am from in Ireland. So in 1798, he came with an army, and half the population of the place where I am from was massacred during that summer — by General Lake. Within five years, he is in India. So the same guys are coming over from Ireland to you guys. Lord Cornwall, too, appears in our ballads: “To my misfortune and sad downfall/ I was taken prisoner by the Lord Cornwall.” They were up to the same tricks here in India and with us in Ireland.

Q. And what of the colonial or postcolonial literatures of Ireland and India? Do you find any similarities between the two — similarities in tone or sensibilities perhaps?
 A. I know something about Bengal, for instance. And the idea of a very privileged people — from Tagore to Satyajit Ray — who began to take a huge interest in peasant culture and villages, when they were not themselves from that culture. This is like W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge — all Irish Protestants who owned land — suddenly throwing in their lot with the idea of an ancient Irish culture, which they didn’t belong to, and which they sought to rescue, nourish and at the same time take over in some way. I was interested in just how rich the Tagores were, or just how urbane and cosmopolitan Ray was. And yet, Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, is not set among advertising executives in Calcutta. If you came to Dublin now, you’d be amazed. St. Stephens green is the main city park, and it has the monument by Henry Moore to W.B. Yeats over there; then it has a statue of James Joyce here, beside his old university; and just five steps from there, the next statue is Tagore’s. Yeats promoted Tagore, as another example of how the periphery will become the centre. That the Nobel Prize will no longer be won by John Galsworthy or boring English novelists: We will come from the outside. And we will not merely nourish the inside. We will become the inside. And this was happening in Bengal in almost precisely the same year as it was happening in Ireland. I think you could set Joyce’s story “The Dead”, in Calcutta in exactly the same year, where the protagonist is an Indian, but he’s speaking English; he’s writing articles and reviews in English, and some say that he should be writing in his native language; his wife could be from a village; he could be unsettled by colonialism, by being a man caught between his own country and a country he dreams about or desires. I just thought it would be terribly interesting to rewrite “The Dead” — you should do this — and set it in 1904, in Calcutta.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.