Sunday, March 09, 2008

Two Men Chatting In A Pub

Halifax Chronicle Herald

Colm Toibin brings message
on fiction and truth to SMU


Irish writer Colm Toibin, whose home is in Dublin, is speaking from San Francisco and explaining how it is he is coming to Halifax this week to deliver the Cyril J. Byrne Memorial Lecture at Saint Mary’s University.

Over his career, this peripatetic writer has wandered the globe the way we might go back and forth to work. His novels and short stories have been set in Argentina, Italy, Spain and Ireland, and his reportage has covered many countries.

Toibin is thrilled to be coming to Halifax. We have been speaking for almost 10 minutes — a conversation sprinkled with much laughter and coloured by a cadence that is musical — when he tells of how he came to be invited to Nova Scotia.

"You see, the visit happened because I was walking down the quays in Dublin, for no good reason really. I mean I was going down to a gallery to look at paintings and this man," Toibin pauses in great emphasis, "was sitting there. "And the last person in the world I was expecting to see was Alistair MacLeod and he was sitting waiting to go on — of all things — a boat trip on the River Liffey, and there wasn’t enough water. But he was waiting patiently and waiting to be told that there wasn’t enough water.

"So, we looked at one another and I said, ‘Hallo’! So we went to the pub."

At this point, Toibin pauses and says, "In the afternoon, the two of us," as if it was a surprising and naughty thing to go to a pub, midday.

The enchanting and engrossing way in which Toibin weaves the anecdote into a vivid, miniaturist portrait of a moment on the docks of Dublin echoes his precise and illuminating prose.

Toibin has known renowned Canadian author Alistair MacLeod for several years. Both writers are winners of the International IMPAC Dublin Award, the largest and most international award of its kind. MacLeod received the award in 2001 for his novel No Great Mischief. Toibin received the award in 2006 for his novel The Master. (

As well, Toibin is one of the people featured in the film Reading Alistair MacLeod by Halifax filmmaker Bill MacGillvray, in which Toibin talks about MacLeod’s writing. Toibin says that as the two men chatted in the pub MacLeod told him that his son Alexander is teaching in Halifax "and that’s how the connection came."

Toibin will deliver the Cyril J. Byrne Memorial Lecture on Friday at Saint Mary’s University. His lecture is called The Reverse Side of the Picture: How to Make Fiction from Truth. The topic of Toibin’s lecture is the way in which fiction and journalism must tell the same story differently, he said.

In his career, Toibin has been a reporter, a novelist and short story writer. His earliest books include two non-fiction titles: Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border and Homage to Barcelona. Both books rely on Toibin’s trenchant observations and his penchant for walking and discovering the reality below the surface of his surroundings.

Toibin’s award-winning short story collection Mothers and Sons contains a story entitled A Priest in the Family that Toibin had begun as a novel. The tale tells of a mother in an Irish village who is told that her son, a priest, is "in trouble."

"Immediately she knew what that meant . . ." and the story goes on to explain that her son has been charged with abuse and will go to court. Toibin soon realized that the novel was simply covering the same material as the news reports about the revelations of abuse within the Catholic Church.

"I wasn’t doing anything more than what they (journalists) were doing," he admits. So he had to think about fiction and what it could do in a different way from reportage. He said that ultimately his fictional story became what "Henry James would call, ‘the reverse side of the picture.’ "

Toibin knows Henry James, by the way, inside and out. He spent years researching and writing the novel The Master, a fictional telling of James’ later years living in Italy and England.

The book is so brilliant and so resoundingly evocative of a man, a time, and a life that a reader cannot help but feel as if she has been in the company of James for many a day.

Toibin explains how a fiction writer must "find the drama in the story that isn’t the obvious story but some other part of the story."

Fiction writers must work in a way "which is more, which is richer, and more imaginatively serious than what they are doing on television and in the newspapers. I do less reportage now because I don’t have enough time. And you know, there are times when I would love to do it but it just isn’t possible."

He still writes literary criticism — mostly for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books because "it involves staying home."

But then "staying home" for Toibin may have a different meaning, since he is spending a term teaching at Stanford University in San Francisco. And the conversation comes back to his imminent trip to Nova Scotia.

"But the other person who looms large in this (trip to Halifax) is Elizabeth Bishop," Toibin said. He admits a long love of the poet’s work, beginning in the 1970s when he first encountered her writing.

American-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Bishop spent formative years in Nova Scotia with her mother and her maternal grandparents. Her poetry and her prose are seeded with many references to the landscape and the life she loved. Bishop has a towering reputation internationally though ironically Bishop is not so well known in Canada or Nova Scotia.

For many years, Bishop lived in Brazil and she wrote to Robert Lowell, another American poet, about the beauty of Brazil. Toibin starts to quote the letter and how Bishop wrote she would give up all the exotic beauty, "just to see a certain part of Nova Scotia."

Toibin goes on to quote Bishop’s poetry at length; his knowledge of her work is considerable. He also talks of her style, her craft.

Here is a man with a prodigious memory and evident genius talking about Bishop in the way in which he wrote about Henry James in The Master.

Though our conversation must come to a close, I could listen to this gracious and fascinating man forever. Fortunately, I will have the chance to hear him speak again at the lecture on Friday. And, we are so very lucky to have the opportunity to read his work whenever we wish.

Mary Jo Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax.

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