It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of the 2011 Irish PEN Award for Literature is Colm Tóibín.
Born in Enniscorthy in 1955, the multi-award winning and prolific author is a giant of literature on the Irish and global stages. His books include ‘The South’ (shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and winner of the Irish Times/ Aer Lingus First Fiction Award); ‘The Heather Blazing (1992, winner of the Encore Award); ‘The Story of the Night’ (1996, winner of the Ferro-Grumley Prize); ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ (1999, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize and the Booker Prize and made into a film starring Angela Lansbury); ‘The Master’ (2004, winner of the Dublin IMPAC Prize; the Prix du Meilleur Livre; the LA Times Novel of the Year; and shortlisted for the Booker Prize); ‘Brooklyn’ (2009, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year). His most recent works are a collection of stories ‘The Empty Family’ and a collection of essays on Henry James, ‘All a Novelist Needs’.
- “I am delighted to receive this award from PEN. Now more than ever, I believe that the work which PEN does is vital, and I feel honoured to be involved in that work for freedom of expression worldwide, and honoured, too, to have my own work recognised in my own country.” Colm Tóibín
The Award was presented at The Irish Pen Dinner on Friday 11th February 2011, The Royal St. George Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin by Mary Cloake, Director of the Arts Council, (speech below)
The evening was by all accounts a tremendous success. The elegant dining room was buzzing with literary lights, including Cultural Counsellor of the French Embassy Hadrien Laroche, former PEN Chair and authors Catherine Daly and Marita Conlon McKenna, authors Juliette Bressen, Clare Dowling, Sarah Webb, Claire Hennessy, Colette Caddle, Curtis-Brown Literary Agent Sheila Crowley, and Vanessa O’Loughlin, founder of Inkwell Writers Workshops and Ireland’s all new www.writing.ie.
Colm Tóibín: The Writer Who Never Sleeps Irish Pen Award, February 11 2011
by Mary Cloake
In Walking Along the Border Colm Tóibín describes the journey he made on foot, in 1987, from Derry to Newry. He tells us of his experience with maps. We are first introduced to the saga of the maps early in the narrative. He started out with a Michelin Road map of Ireland. This caused much grief because it showed only the main roads: he was determined to use the border roads. He procured an Ordnance Survey map along his way. This map had too many roads, and it was hard to know where to go. He was reduced to asking directions: often he went into pubs for this purpose, sometimes he would ask children playing outside houses. One day he was lost some distance outside Fivemiletown, in the middle of open country with no one to ask. At this point the Michelin and Ordnance Survey maps contradicted each other and neither seemed to correspond with the actual terrain. He chanced upon a group of British soldiers. One of the soldiers – a Welshman – was friendly. The writer recounts:
He showed me his map, making sure that none of his comrades could see what he was doing. The map was incredibly detailed, every house, every field, every road, carefully denoted and described. It would be impossible to go wrong with such a map. Different colours made everything clear. He laughed when I explained my plight with maps. I showed him my Michelin and my Ordnance Survey, and he shook his head in wonder at how out-of-date they were. His was the map I should have, he said.
Here in this search for a map of unknown country there is, perhaps, a clue to Colm Tóibín’s achievements. He explores territory which has been overlooked by grand narratives, literary tradition and received wisdom. These often contradict each other and do not always correspond to the terrain of our experience. Sometimes they are out-of-date.
His surveys of the physical and psychological landscapes which we inhabit come in many forms: novels and stories, journalism, history, travel writing, criticism, plays and some poems. To this can be added his manifold contributions to public life: his work as a teacher, an incisive commentator and a creative collaborator. He is an active advocate for social justice.
Tóibín writes in a variety of forms and genres. His prodigious output and range of interests resist easy categorisation, but he is clearly a model of the engaged artist, an author whose achievement represents the work of art which is a fusion of all the arts, a personal Gesamtkunstwerk in the making.
Colm Tóibín therefore is an ideal recipient of the PEN award. Founded in 1921 International PEN recognises that literature has a unique power to enable us to understand and engage with other worlds and other cultures; and believes that writers can play a crucial role in changing and developing civil society.
If anyone can be said to embody these values it has to be Colm Tóibín.
I would like to thank PEN for the opportunity tonight offers us to take a moment to reflect on the contributions of this exceptional artist. His towering literary achievement must be foremost among them, but I also want briefly to mark three very special and distinctive qualities which set him apart. First, he plays with and subverts expectations. By doing this in his art and in his life he gives us new paradigms through which to view the world. More importantly perhaps he enables us to create new paradigms for ourselves. Second, he brings unexplored territories and untold stories into focus, inviting us to consider them seriously and with attention. This can offer the possibility of vitality and renewal. And third, his writing about the arts, particularly music and the visual arts, is a gift to our generation which we should not overlook.
His literary achievement is widely acknowledged. He is the author of six novels and two short story collections which have received high praise. Awards bestowed in recognition of this include the Ferro-Grumley Prize, the Encore Award, the Costa Novel of the Year. In 2004, Tóibín’s international reputation was consolidated by his acclaimed novel about Henry James: The Master won the Dublin IMPAC Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre; the LA Times Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Booker prize. In this work the qualities of his literary technique can be clearly seen. It is a novel that gives us insights into both the author and his subject. Tóibín writes in The Master:
He walked up and down the stairs, going into the rooms as though they too, in how they yielded to him, belonged to an unrecoverable past, and would join the room with the tasseled tablecloths and the screens and the shadowed corners, and all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held.
These lines, as always haunting, beautiful and perfectly formed, depict the literary master, James himself, but they might also describe Colm Tóibín’s artistic process. He is a writer who observes the world, and all its ‘shadowed corners’, and tries to capture them, hold them, put them in words so that we, as readers, may understand. He makes his own map but it is one he wants to share: the experience is carefully observed, its impression captured in writing which is resonant, intense, evocative.
In novels and stories he creates a filigree of detail until an outline is shaped: of the psychology of an individual, the topography of a place or the experience of a people. And yet there is no surfeit of detail: the writing is sharp and intense, spare and necessary. Much is unsaid, and, as Paul Delaney describes it “what is said is always restrained”.
Tóibín’s work has an intratextual quality: his books return, literally or imaginatively, to themes and incidents that resonate, as if these layers of repetition wish to be noticed. He returns too, to familiar places. He has said that he knows Enniscorthy so well that ‘it haunts’ him. Several of his short stories and novels are set in, or revisit, the southeast of the island, and quite often to that ‘tiny stretch of childhood territory’ that was formative in shaping an extraordinary talent. But he does not fix his gaze on one particular culture. He takes us to Spain, to Argentina, to the United States. He is at once Irish and European, evoking parallels with Joyce, with Beckett, with Wilde. What is striking about Tóibín, however, is that he is not in exile, as so many of our writers of the past once were. He travels and then returns, he is both emigrant and immigrant.
In many of Tóibín’s works, both fiction and non-fiction, we a playful subversion of expectation. This is often vividly rendered when he describes arriving in a place for the first time or the experience of homecoming and renewal of the familiar. There is always an adjustment, an adaptation, things are not quite as predicted. Mobility makes a difference: there is a subtle shift in the details of what people are wearing, how they socialise and eat and drink. Sometimes there is pleasure as when the narrative recalls Hemingway: ‘there was a real delight in every aspect of Spain: the way a waiter watched you, the way a tablecloth was folded, the way crowds gathered’. And sometimes there is pain and a sense of loss, when a place imagined as familiar and welcoming proves on revisiting to be unrecognisable, hostile or indifferent. Oona Frawley says Tóibín ‘undermines certainties about the past, rootedness and identity’
His sends his characters roving across the world: Eilis Lacey from Enniscorthy to Brooklyn, Francis Rossiter from California to Dublin, Malik from Pakistan to Barcelona, Henry James on a trip to Italy. There is often a North-South axis, Northern European cultures yielding to sunnier Southern climes. The author, it must be said, subjects himself to the same relentless travel itineraries as his characters, his subtle appreciation of displacement informed by his own semi-nomadic existence. He has spoken of the experience of moving to New York to take up work as a teacher and mentions how surprised he was at the experience of missing things about Ireland that he didn’t realise he liked: Irish bread, newspapers and the radio. Visiting Spain for the first time, he says in Homage to Barcelona, all his efforts to master Spanish come unstuck when he encounters natives of the city speaking Catalan:
All the nights spent pouring over the niceties and oddities of Spanish grammar had been in vain. It was only when someone apologised to me for speaking in Catalan, and thus excluding me, that I understood the problem.
Even the most reasonable of expectations – that Spanish is the language spoken in Spain – proves wanting. Tóibín himself has acknowledged that ‘the moment of turning from one place to another gives me enormous imaginative energy’. This energy is palpable in writing which is refreshing in its repeated challenge to orthodoxies of all kinds.
This quality of Tóibín enables us to see sharply, and to see anew, cities, towns villages: those we know only through their stereotypical images, and those we may have come to take for granted, where our observation is blunted by familiarity. This is true of Eilis’s Brooklyn, where the glories of New York are left undescribed for the reader, or indeed my own native Wexford, which will never appear quite the same after reading Tóibín’s essay A Strange Beauty in which he says ‘Wexford could be a Hanseatic town’.
Tóibín also plays with the expectations of the reader in challenging social convention. The character of Father Flood in Brooklyn is a case in point – the idea of having a priest in a contemporary novel who is simply just that, a committed priest who does good work with the emigrant Irish community in New York and nothing else. No scandal, relationships, past, ambition, crisis of faith. If the reader had contrary preconceptions in the light of the complexities of priesthood which have surfaced in recent times, they are confounded.
In his critical and editorial work, we can depend on Tóibín to surprise and astonish. His social commentary too is always apposite and critically challenging. He will not easily join a consensus of any kind, and never a cosy one. He is outward- looking, optimistic but also critical in his analysis of the ills facing Ireland today, championing those who are victims of economic failure. In a week when the IMF and the EU came to Dublin to negotiate the economic rescue package, he cautioned against an emerging anti-European rhetoric in the press, highlighting the rich possibilities for Ireland in seeing itself as part of a wider, progressive European culture. He rejected simple notions of identity, praising the Good Friday agreement because it ‘allowed for the idea that you could be British in Ireland, or both Irish and British, or just Irish.’ This theme of dual identity recalls his 1996 novel The Story of the Night, set in Argentina in the 1980s, in which the half-British, half Argentine hero Richard Garay, must come to terms with the fact that his two countries are now at war.
Challenging the conventional is not limited to his own written work. As a teacher of creative writing in Princeton, Tóibín surprised his students by insisting that their stories are written without using time shifts or flashbacks: start at the beginning and then create one detail, one incident. Then follow it with another. And keep going until you have something constructed. In the home of American fiction, where the ‘back story’ is so prevalent, this amounted to quite a challenge. Colm has also on occasion confounded his friends. Planning to host one of his legendary sumptuous parties in Dublin on his return from Barcelona, he had procured, and carried carefully on the long trip back, a very special and complicated joint to roast. Accounts vary but it was something like a ham, stuffed with a chicken, which was in turn stuffed with a duck. His guests arrived to find the house in darkness, the electricity supply having been cut off during his absence. Expecting a forced decampment to a local hostelry, the revellers were astonished when he managed to produce a banquet of Tudor proportions with the help of a small gas cooker, a couple of candles and deft culinary prowess. The joint with all the trimmings followed by margarita sorbets was served to upwards of fifteen impressed people.
There is the ability, in art as in life, to play with expectation, to create the unexpected: Colm Tóibín, in the words of Don DeLillo, ’never lets us grow too comfortable’.
Colm Tóibín exhorts us to look carefully at the things that are pushed to the sidelines of our experience. He speaks about being compelled to tell the story of the figure in a photograph, not the person who is centre of the frame, but the individual who is blurred and in the background, or whose sleeve appears and is excised from the picture.
This is evident in his approach to history. In the Dublin Review, he describes the convoluted shape of Irish history with an almost Gothic relish:
things are shadowy and mirror each other strangely; nothing is necessarily true and much is mystery; facts resemble fiction more than they ought; narrative itself is misleading and full of false trails and labyrinths leading back into themselves.
In elucidating these tangles of narrative, his inclination is to challenge the traditional and familiar account in seeking out the hidden, the untold story.
He speaks about Scullabogue in Co Wexford, the site of an atrocity in 1798, where Protestant families were rounded up and burned in a barn. Tóibín describes how he did not learn about this story until the age of 20, surprising in a community proud of its history and committed to passing it between generations in the oral tradition. He says ‘The name Scullabogue does not come up in the songs, and I have no memory of my father talking or writing about it. Its memory was erased from what a Catholic child should know about 1798. It was a complication in our glorious past.’
He has written on Lady Gregory, revealing her unsuspected inner life of passion, on the Irish Famine and his interest in the history of his hometown is evident in many publications, including the forthcoming, Enniscorthy-A History. In editing this volume for Wexford County Council Public Libraries he brought together local and academic historians to combine official and lived accounts of history.
Tóibín has also explored uncharted territory in his history of gay writers in Love in a Dark Time. This offers new perspectives on the fraught and sometimes hidden sexual identities of major figures in literature, such as Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin and Thom Gunn. His fictional writing in stories such as ‘Barcelona, 1975’ is exceptional and courageously innovative in its exploration of gay sexuality.
He seeks out unlikely places, unpromising destinations, in his travel writing and the settings of his stories. Sign of the Cross treats of what Eve Patten calls the “belief stricken peripheries of 1994 Europe”. And yet Tóibín has a talent for occupying the unmapped spaces of our time just when they are at their most vital. So he surfaces in Barcelona when the old dictator is dying and describes the alternative life of the city, the nightclubs, the people, the parties, before that ‘scene’ is revealed as the gestation-ground of the emerging political and intellectual class of the new Spain. He travels to Argentina at a key moment in history, visiting Buenos Aires to cover the trials of the Generals who had “disappeared” thousands of civilians in the early 1980s.
We would do well to observe Colm Tóibín in his nomadic wanderings. Wherever he goes, it is likely to emerge as an interesting place to be.
I want to mention very briefly Tóibín’s ability to write about the arts, particularly music and the visual arts. .
Music is a key motif in his work. Sometimes this is in the language itself. Tóibín’s prose is in certain works closer to poetry, using repetition, rhythmic cadence, finding the connection between words, paying close attention to tempo, to pace. Regularly, music appears as part of his narrative; whether it is a character based on Seosamh Ó hÉanaí spellbinding an audience of expatriate Irish in New York; the plaintive song of an estranged mother at a seisún in Kielty’s of Millish, Co Clare; the strains of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto as overture to a remarkable three-way relationship in Barcelona; or the intense emotional resonance of the baritone and tenor’s duet in The Pearl Fishers at Wexford Festival Opera. He describes not simply the music itself, but the experience of music; bringing a layer of sonorous depth to the story by providing a musical score to augment the written word.
Tóibín’s writing about the visual arts is exceptionally readable, giving new insight into well-known work and bringing to our attention lesser-known works that are interesting and important. Between 2007 and 2010 Tóibín was art critic for the UK edition of Esquire magazine. His columns are incisive and amusing. He writes about the shocking and uncompromising installation artist, Tracey Emin, whose work is characterised by outspoken ferocity. He says ironically “It would be lovely if she had a decade ahead to make calm, small drawings of the sea or the sky, all placid and perfect, filled with repose and sweetness.” The span of his art historical knowledge ranges from the 16th Century lesser known contemporary of Titian, Lorenzo Lotto, to Philip Taffee, a cutting edge New York artist exhibiting this year.
His own Tuskar Press extends to the visual arts as shown in the finely produced catalogue of paintings, including some spectacular Wexford seascapes, by the artist Mary Lohan.
Athough we here tonight to mark Colm Tóibín’s achievements in the world of letters, I cannot let the occasion pass without a comment on the man, the public intellectual and also the private, brave, generous and compelling individual behind that persona. He supports artists incessantly, through his publishing house, his work on the Arts Council, and also by encouragement and practical assistance. His new imprint, Atlantic, for example, has published Peace, by Richard Baush, a novel that may otherwise have been unjustifiably neglected.
Tóibín has been to the forefront in establishing a distinctive place for gay people within Irish society, in particular clearing a path for young gay men to have confidence in their identity. A champion of minorities, he has contributed his time, expertise and resources to many good causes, including Living with Aids.
As a society we are heading into unknown territory. In the expansive work of Colm Tóibín, we have the opportunity to chart our future on the basis of a gifted author’s cartography. We are exhorted to explore not only the by-roads, but also the hidden city quarters and the crumbling coastlines that reflect our outer world and inner selves in the variegated terrain of his work. We recall the friendly contribution of the patrolling Welsh soldier: ’His was the map I should have, he said’. The sentence resonates with a history of inequality but is also a generous admission, an impulse to share. I will conclude with Tóibín’s own words which are a reminder of the ethical commitment that informs his work and his life. Invoking John McGahern, he says:
Our duty is to make good sentences, and that is our responsibility too. Beyond that, nothing much. But maybe good sentences stand for other things that are good, or might be improved; maybe the rhythms of words used well might matter in ways which are unexpected in a dark time.
Most things are open to interpretation, but a few exceptional things are not. Your talent, Colm, is one of those. Congratulations and thank you.