blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"I have a problem. I'm too earnest."

So said Colm Toibín, the Irish writer who was in Ottawa on my birthday this year. He was being interviewed in front of a full house as part of the Writers' Festival. The event was televised. When I arrived at the venue I was put on a waiting list and didn't think I'd get in.

Toibín is a novelist, playwright and travel writer as well as a journalist and teacher at Columbia University. His articles often appear in the London Review of Books. His writing––he writes in longhand––has been translated into 30 languages and he has recently had a series of essays published called New Ways To Kill Your Mother.

Testament of Mary (a monologue for the stage which later became a novella and which was briefly performed in New York last month) was the main subject of the interview, Elizabeth Hay asking the questions. Toibín sees himself as a lapsed Catholic, having been brought up in a very pious household, his aunts praying to the Virgin for the sake of his exam results. Because of poverty his mother was uneducated, bringing him up with the message: don't mess this up. You're the one with the chance. His play imagines Jesus Christ's life and death from his mother's point of view, although "putting a shape to Mary's story is probably a sin." The book / play took two months to complete, an intense piece of work. When Toibín emerged from his room after writing about the crucifixion, his companions looked at him and said, "Are you all right?" He wasn't all right; he had lived through it. He goes quiet under stress, he says. He writes "out of silence"; the starting point for a new creation is "the sound of a sentence" from which he generates all the other sentences he needs. "Knowledge becomes rhythm," he says. Writers are vultures, he confessed, using what they need from other people's stories, but they put a structure on things. He has an untidy desk. "I'm awfully unstructured," he said.

At the Ottawa event, Toibín read an extract from Testament of Mary aloud, the part that describes Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead. Mary does not approve: "The dead must be left alone with their new freedom from affliction ... [Now] he will die twice and only sorrow will come from that."

"A dark festival"
In the voice of Mary he found a sharpness, an edge, an element of anger. "I found a rhythm for that voice." In Toibín's vision of her, she's the most intelligent of the dramatis personae, a constant trouble maker. His interviewer, Elizabeth Hay, called Mary's character (in the play) ferocious: she's as headstrong as her son, but with survival skills He doesn't have!

To immerse himself in the subject, Toibín went to Ephesus as well as hearing J.S. Bach's St John Passion over and over, the recordings with Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker singing the alto part. "I did loads of work!" he commented. The painting of the crucifixion by Tintoretto also fascinated him. He called it utterly chaotic, a dark festival.

Toibín is aware of the appositeness of his subject matter to current affairs. "There's a crisis in Rome over the maleness of things ... the exclusion of women ... it would be a liberation if [women could be ministers] in the Catholic Church." The audience applauded.

He likes Fiona Shaw, the actress who played Mary in New York (he had previously seen her act Medea and Hedda Gabla). The Testament was a collaboration, Ms. Shaw finding humour in the part where the author had not intended it (being "too earnest") but "who am I to criticise?" he said. "I met my match."

Toibín doesn't like being called an Irish story teller. People aren't telling you the whole thing when they speak, he has noticed. Speech is a form of concealment, but the reader of a well written story can deduce what was nearly said, like the man in the corner, observing the conversation. In fiction, the interesting moment for Toibín is where one of the characters (in particular one who's trodden upon) starts to take control. He is interested in family members who are undermined / bullied, and in the tensions between siblings. His sympathy lies with characters who can "navigate around difficult people."

As I was queueing up to buy my ticket beforehand I heard people saying that they intended to tackle this man about his blasphemy and presumptuousness, but in the event no hostile questions were asked. In Ottawa, at least, he had quietly but effectively silenced his critics.

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