Colm Toibin: the living spell of Henry James

Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

After The Master, his breakthrough meditation on Henry James, there’s no detaching the Irish novelist Colm Toibin from James’ own “dramatizations of secrecy.” Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn will remind you oddly of The Portrait of a Lady, as his modest Irish heroine, Eilis Lacey, arriving in the States from County Wexford in the early 1950s, can be read as a re-casting (in a different direction) of Isabel Archer.

I suppose I was aware that I was dealing with a young woman, as Henry James said about Isabel Archer, “confronting her destiny” but doing so almost ironically in the sense that she doesn’t really confront anything and she doesn’t really have a destiny; and that I was dealing with something that is one of those great, almost hidden subjects, oddly enough, which is the subject of Irish immigration. Though we know so much about it, we end up knowing so little about it. There are very few novels about it, for example…

The James thing was interesting to me, too, in that James deals with dramatizations of secrecy and of people having things they keep to themselves and that, if known, will be explosive. So too, in this book there are two sisters and they keep things deep in themselves. And I was interested in that dramatic power of withholding, which is something I think I learned a lot about from James — in his own life and perhaps moreso in his work.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, May 2009.

Our fresh conversation on Brooklyn is topping up a sort of seance Colm Toibin and I enjoyed five years ago at the James family burial plot — on the fringe lawn, oddly enough, of the lesser Mount Auburn immortals. For me, nothing summons the ghost of the great Jameses, all of them, more studiously and more persuasively, than the melodious Irish voice of Colm Toibin. On Henry, for example:

You begin by admiring the work. But then I found that the life is so ambiguous and so interesting. His relationship to his family is constantly in a state of flux. He himself — in London, say — longs to go out. He longs for society; he gets an enormous number of stories from duchesses and archbishops. But he also longs to be alone. He never longs for the same thing twice. The next day he wants something else. He is a very fluid and mysterious character.

He sexuality remains mysterious. What sort of erotic life he must have had, what sort of dream life, remains entirely mysterious. It’s a pre-Freudian existence as Freud is coming into vogue. It’s a pre-Wildean existence as Wilde is coming into vogue.

He exile is also strange: the way in which he never really wrote about the English very well. His English characters don’t work for me. And yet he couldn’t write about a settled Boston. The Boston of the Metaphysical Club — that is lost on him, too.

So he realized in his last years that he could actually go and describe those Americans in Europe again — the disruptive presence of Americans whose wealth or whose ambitions would fit against an older and much more duplicitous society. He knew about duplicity, just as he knew about secrecy… His life as lived — the level of industry, the level of care taken with work, the secret suffering and also the secret glamor, the going to Italy, the living in palaces — all that is what he had.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, 2004.

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  • hurley

    Enjoyed the conversation about the James gang even more five years later. Hope you take it up in another five. Or sooner.

    I think Toibin misquoted Henry James Sr. as to the “obscure bird of night.” “Obscene” what I recall. (The X-rated suggestion no doubt familiar to anyone who lives around nesting seagulls as they gibber and squawk through the early hours.)

    W. James put his disdain for his brother’s achievements succinctly: “He can do anything to a story but tell it.” Or something close to that. I wonder if anyone knows what Henry made of William’s work?

  • galoot

    Very interesting listening to the 2004 conversation now, in Britain, as the parliamentary expense scandal threatens to remake/reshape ancient democratic and social structures. An American woman, journalist Heather Brooke, who doggedly pursued her freedom of information request all the way to the high court, played a significant role in bringing the facts to light,

    Again the fascinating intersection of America and Europe, with a heroine to boot!