Tóibín, Colm 1955–
Tóibín, Colm 1955–
PERSONAL: Born 1955, in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. Education: University College Dublin, B.A., 1975, also attended graduate classes.
ADDRESSES: Home—12 Upper Pembroke St., Dublin 2, Ireland. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Scribner, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Worked as a writer for In Dublin, Hibernia, and Sunday Tribune, late 1970s; features editor, In Dublin, 1981; editor, Magill, 1982–85. Journalist and columnist for the Dublin Sunday Independent, beginning 1985. Has taught at the Dublin School of English, Barcelona, Spain, and New School, New York, NY.
AWARDS, HONORS: Whitbread Prize shortlist, 1990, and Irish Times—Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, 1991, both for The South; London Guardian Fiction Prize shortlist and Encore Prize for best second novel published in Britain, both 1992, both for The Heather Blazing; E.M. Forster Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995; Ferro-Grumley Prize for best gay novel, Publishing Triangle, 1997, for The Story of the Night; Booker Prize shortlist, 1999, and New York Times Notable Book, 2001, both for The Blackwater Lightship; Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction, 2004, for The Master; Center for Scholars and Writers fellowship, New York Public Library, 2000; Stonewall Book Award, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Round Table, 2005, for The Master.
(Editor) Seeing Is Believing: Moving Statues in Ireland (travelogue), Pilgrim Press (Mountrath, Ireland), 1985.
Walking along the Border (travelogue), Macdonald (London, England), 1987, published as Bad Blood: A Walk along the Irish Border, Vintage (London, England), 1994.
The South (novel), Serpent's Tail (London, England), 1990, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
Homage to Barcelona (travelogue), Penguin (New York, NY), 1990, published with a new introduction by the author, 1992.
The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism, 1980–1990, Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1990.
Dubliners (travelogue), photographs by Tony O'Shea, Macdonald (London, England), 1990.
The Heather Blazing (novel), Pan Books (London, England), 1992, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
(Editor) Soho Square 6: New Writing from Ireland, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1993, published as New Writing from Ireland, Faber & Faber (Winchester, MA), 1994.
The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (travelogue), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor) The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan (nonfiction), New Island Books (Dublin, Ireland), 1996.
The Story of the Night (novel), Picador (London, England), 1996, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) Enniscothy: History and Heritage (nonfiction), New Island Books (Dublin, Ireland), 1998.
(With Carmen Callil) The Modern Library: The Two Hundred Best Novels in English since 1950, Picador (London, England), 1999.
The Blackwater Lightship (novel), Picador (London, England), 1999, Scribner's (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (nonfiction), University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2002.
Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (nonfiction), Picador (London, England), 2002.
The Master (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2004.
Beauty in a Broken Place (play), Lilliput Press (Dublin, Ireland), 2004.
(Editor) The New York Stories of Henry James (short stories), New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement, Esquire, London Review of Books, and Irish Review.
ADAPTATIONS: The Blackwater Lightship was filmed by John Erman, CBS, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Colm Tóibín is an Irish journalist who has gained an audience through his regular columns for the Dublin Sunday Independent and other publications, as well as through his travelogues. He was praised as "young, brave and, more unusual, never self-indulgent" by Ann Cornelisen in the New York Times Book Review. Also a novelist, Tóibín won the Irish Times—Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for his debut work of fiction, The South, which was also nominated for the prestigious Whitbread Prize.
Katherine Proctor, the protagonist of The South, is an upper-class Protestant woman married to Tom, a landed farmer who is suing his poor Catholic neighbors for trespassing. Katherine, moved by the pleas of her neighbor's wife, asks her husband to give up his lawsuit. When he refuses, Katherine leaves him and their son for Spain. She is encouraged in her venture by her own mother, who herself fled from her family and came to England years before.
Katherine arrives in Spain in the aftermath of the civil war that ended in 1939. She drifts until she meets Miguel, who had been a political activist in the war. She is attracted to Miguel and his friends partly because of her belief that he is on the "correct" political side of things, whereas her family in Ireland was not. Katherine is also friends with Michael Graves, an expatriate Irishman who is Catholic and belonged to an Ireland Katherine never really knew. After years of living in Spain, Katherine returns to Ireland when Miguel dies in an accident. Back in Dublin, Katherine meets her now adult son, who, ironically, is married to a Catholic woman and has himself converted to Catholicism. Judith Dunford, writing in Tribune Books, wrote that The South "aches with contrasts and parallels between Spain and Ireland," and "where Tóibín might have written a didactic, ideological tract, he has instead produced a book of sustained lyrical beauty and power."
The Irish characters in The South come from the small Irish town of Enniscorthy, as does the author. In Tóibín's second novel, The Heather Blazing, which captured the Encore Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize, the main characters—a judge and his wife—plan on retiring near Enniscorthy. Various events conspire to strain their plans and their marriage. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Tóibín's writing style "measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision."
Besides fiction, Tóibín has also written travelogues, including 1990's Homage to Barcelona, in which he details the cultural history of the Catalan capital. Tóibín himself has spent two separate periods living abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and he published Homage to Barcelona after his second stay there. In The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, Tóibín produced a work that transcended boundaries: It is part travelogue, part "memoir about his own relation to faith in the Irish context," according to New York Times Book Review critic Patricia Hampl. The basis of the book is Tóibín's Holy Week visits, over a number of years, to such Catholic strongholds as Spain, Rome, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. The book begins with the author's memory of his mother and aunt returning to their home in Ireland after a group trip to the famous Catholic shrine in Lourdes, France. "Here and often throughout the book, Mr. Tóibín is an exemplary memorist," affirmed Hampl. "Spare and exact in his use of detail, his prose filled with wonder (or repulsion) rather than sentiment, with the past presenting itself not simply as a remembered story but as a vexing question never adequately answered."
In ensuing chapters, Tóibín examines the Catholic faith and his own relationship to it against the backdrop of Lourdes and other shrines. What emerges is "an unashamedly personal view of the Catholic Church … [that] cannot be bettered," according to Peter Stanford in the New Statesman & Society. "Many authors have recorded a pilgrimage across Catholic Europe in search of the soul of the church, that elusive something behind papal pomp and dwindling mass-going statistics. But Colm Tóibín is in another class altogether. His prose is never anything less than a joy: informal, relaxed, uncluttered by detail but redolent with meaning."
The author's next book is a novel unlike anything he had written before. Set in Argentina, The Story of the Night concerns torture, silence, and denial, among other themes. The narrator, Richard Garay, is the child of an Argentinean mother and an English father. His father dies when Richard is still young, and soon afterwards, the narrator begins to realize his homosexual tendencies. Much of the book is given to descriptions of his search for lovers and his encounters with them. Yet he remains outwardly in denial about his sexual orientation—just as he denies the horrible truth of the political torture that is regularly carried on in his homeland. In one scene, Richard is enjoying a tryst with a lover but becomes puzzled by the sound of car engines repeatedly revving outside his building. Looking out the window, he sees the police station opposite, with several cars in front—driverless, but with engines running. His companion informs him that they are there to provide power for the cattle prods the police use on political prisoners. "As disturbing as the fact itself is Garay's failure to respond," noted Michael Kerrigan in the Times Literary Supplement. Kerrigan continued: "The anecdote embodies what is most memorable in Tóibín's tale of two cities: the sense of the 'ghost city, a shadowy version of our own,' which emerges at night, when the prosperous daytime streets of a modern, aspirational capital have emptied to become a playground for society's most deniable elements. Secrecy—and the shame of secret complicity—bring about this alliance of the torturer and the lover."
Tóibín's next novel, The Blackwater Lightship, gives readers a portrait of an Irish family that, after years of strife and division, is forced to come together when one of its members comes home to die of AIDS. The taboos against homosexuality are strong in Ireland, more so in rural communities than in urban centers. Yet Declan, the main character in the book, asks to leave Dublin and spend his final days at his grandmother's cottage in a small seaside village. Declan further insists that his mother, his sister, and two of his gay friends stay with him there. "Tóibín understands this human tension between selfishness and altruism when a loved one is dying," commented Martyn Bedford in a New Statesman review. Bedford recommended The Blackwater Lightship as "a fine, thoughtful and compassionate novel," noting that the passages describing Declan's decline in his final weeks are particularly moving. John Boland, reviewing the book for World of Hibernia, observed that while homosexuality was in itself the main theme of The Story of the Night, in The Blackwater Lightship Declan's sexual orientation is more of a catalyst to set events in motion rather than the main theme. The crux of the novel, according to Boland, is really the realignment of the relationships between Declan's sister, his mother, and his grandmother, brought about by his illness. "The book is stronger on atmosphere than on plot or motivation," stated Boland.
Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar is Tóibín's collection of essays devoted to gay writers, ranging from Oscar Wilde to James Baldwin and Pedro Almodovar. Many of the authors represented never came out as being openly gay, or even acknowledged their sexual orientation to themselves; however, in Tóibín's opinion, their writings nevertheless contain subtexts concerned with homosexuality. Tóibín feels that gay history is a critical component of gay identity, and his exploration of the themes of gay writers is "a way for him to reflect on his own preoccupations with secret erotic energy, sadness, tragedy, and with living fearlessly in a dark time," reflected a Kirkus Reviews writer. Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide contributor Felice Picano found some flaws in Tóibín's collection, including his tendency to paint gay lives as tragic. Yet despite its imperfections, Picano continued, Love in a Dark Time is "bright, informative, opinion-ated and searching … essential reading for anyone interested in gay literature."
Tóibín used the letters, notebooks, and the novels of Henry James to write The Master, a novel that summons up an imaginative look at four years in the life of novelist Henry James. Readers do not need to be familiar with James or his works in order to enjoy Tóibín's book, according to Ann Skea in Reviewer's Bookwatch. "Tóibín's Henry is a fully realized, sympathetic character. He is educated, sophisticated, well-travelled, but a bit of an enigma…. Through his own thoughts and actions, we come to see him as a person whose emotions are complex, as one who enjoys the privileges of his status as a well-known writer." Skea also credited Tóibín with recreating "the atmosphere, social mores, gossip and the style of the Victorian society within which Henry lives and thrives." The novel, furthermore, captures James's repressed homosexuality, which was apparent to almost everyone but himself. New Republic reviewer Deborah Friedell concluded that Tóibín's fictionalized James was more vibrant than the figure summoned up in the many nonfiction volumes on the author. "Tóibín is a wise and rapacious citizen of the Jamesian universe," Friedell stated, "an excellent reader of the biographies and of the literary criticism. In the end, though, he does all those works a disservice. For the James whom he creates on the page is a man who seems so utterly real, a creature of such vitality and pain, that he threatens to obscure or to overwhelm the actual man. I imagine that James would have been horrified by such a quantity of vitality; but when in the future I think of James, it will be Colm Tóibín's."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate, October 24, 2000, David Bahr, review of The Blackwater Lightship, p. 104; June 8, 2004, Michael Giltz, interview with Colm Tóibín, p. 54.
America, October 21, 2002, Tom Deignan, review of The Irish Famine: A Documentary, p. 27.
Biography, summer, 2003, Aoibheann Sweeney, review of Lady Gregory's Toothbrush, p. 522.
Booklist, September 15, 1995, Alice Joyce, review of The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, p. 118; May 15, 1997, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of The Story of the Night, p. 1564; October 15, 1997, review of The Heather Blazing, p. 387; September 15, 2002, Patricia Monaghan, review of Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, p. 195.
Book World, October 8, 1995, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 10; March 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, p. 1326.
Business Traveller Asia Pacific, October, 2004, Tom Otley, review of The Master, p. 15.
Commonweal, November 3, 1995, Edward T. Wheeler, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 20.
Contemporary Review, April, 2000, review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, p. 223.
Culture Vulture, August 18, 2004, Harvey O'Brien, review of Beauty in a Broken Place.
Entertainment Weekly, September 22, 1995, Joseph Olshan, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 74.
Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, January-February, 2003, Felice Picano, review of Love in a Dark Time, p. 33; September-October, 2004, Felice Picano, review of The Master, p. 38.
Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies, autumn-winter, 2004, Andrew Taylor, review of The Master, p. 424.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1995, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 847; April 1, 1997, review of The Story of the Night, p. 500; May 15, 2002, review of The Irish Famine, p. 722; September 1, 2002, review of Love in a Dark Time, p. 1292.
Lambda Book Report, October, 2000, Elisabeth Flynn, review of The Blackwater Lightship, p. 17.
Library Journal, July, 1995, L. Kriz, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 86; July, 2000, Heather McCormack, review of The Blackwater Lightship, p. 143; June 1, 2002, Robert Moore, review of The Irish Famine, p. 172.
London Review of Books, November 24, 1994, review of The Sign of the Cross, pp. 17-18.
Nation, November 1, 2004, Brenda Wineapple, review of The Master, p. 34.
New Republic, July 5, 2004, Deborah Friedell, review of The Master, p. 39.
New Statesman, May 11, 1990, Patricia Craig, review of The South, p. 39; October 11, 1999, Martyn Bedford, review of The Blackwater Lightship, p. 57.
New Statesman & Society, November 11, 1994, Peter Stanford, review of The Sign of the Cross, pp. 36-37.
New Yorker, November 13, 1995, Scottt L. Malcomson, review of Sign of the Cross, p. 118; June 28, 2004, John Updike, review of The Master, p. 98.
New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1991, Ann Cornelisen, review of The South, p. 18; September 17, 1995, Patricia Hampl, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 30; June 22, 1997, Douglas Unger, review of The Story of the Night, p. 10.
Observer (London, England), October 15, 1995, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 16; September 8, 1996, review of The Story of the Night, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, November 23, 1992, review of The Heather Blazing, pp. 51-52; July 10, 1995, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 49; July 15, 1996, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 72; April 14, 1997, review of The Story of the Night, p. 53; February 7, 2000, review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, p. 63; June 12, 2000, review of The Blackwater Lightship, p. 50.
Reviewer's Bookwatch, February, 2005, Ann Skea, review of The Master.
Spectator, September 21, 1996, James Simmons, review of The Story of the Night, p. 52; November 23, 1996, review of The Story of the Night, pp. 43, 46; November 30, 1996, review of The Story of the Night, p. 58; June 23, 2001, Kevin Myers, review of The Irish Famine, p. 43; April 20, 2002, William Trevor, review of Lady Gregory's Toothbrush, p. 36; May 4, 2002, Jonathan Keates, review of Love in a Dark Time, p. 43; March 13, 2004, Sebastian Smee, review of The Master, p. 39.
Sunday Business Post, August 22, 2004, Helen Boylan, review of Beauty in a Broken Place.
Times (London, England), August 31, 2004, Luke Clancy, review of Beauty in a Broken Place.
Times Literary Supplement, September 13, 1996, Michael Kerrigan, review of The Story of the Night, p. 25.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 20, 1991, Judith Dunford, review of The South, p. 3.
Village Voice, October 10, 1995, review of The Sign of the Cross, p. 42.
World of Hibernia, winter, 1999, John Boland, review of The Blackwater Lightship, p. 154; spring, 2000, John Boland, review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, p. 158.
Colm Tóibín's Home Page, http://www.colmtoibin.com (November 11, 2005).