Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín’s Vinegar Hill, a book of poems, is forthcoming from Carcanet.

Snail Slow: Letters to John McGahern

Colm Tóibín, 27 January 2022

McGahern was amused by many things and people. There was no telephone in the house in Leitrim on my first visit (‘I’m uneasy on the phone,’ he wrote in 1998. ‘I think it comes from having to “mind” the phone when I was a boy in my father’s police station’) and I noticed no television. I realised that he had no interest in music as he was tone deaf. But most of all, he had no interest in Dublin.

Pessoa evokes the city of Lisbon with a nostalgia all the more intense because he has not lost it. Sometimes he is nearly a novelist, managing to make his own quotidian life almost credible and his voice, as he narrates ‘my factless autobiography, my lifeless history’, almost real. What he doesn’t do in ‘my haphazard book of musings’ is relax his control. He can be precise, exact and restrained – like a chess player or a mathematician. But the thinking in The Book of Disquiet is almost light. At times, he can make Bernardo Soares sound like Oscar Wilde (‘I see humanity as merely one of Nature’s latest schools of decorative painting’); at other times, like the J.M. Synge of The Aran Islands, utterly alone in strange weather, trying to make sense of his own solitary condition. Like Synge, he can write simple phrases that do nothing more than say something simple: ‘I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown.’

Open in a Scream

Colm Tóibín, 4 March 2021

Since Bacon was known for his tangled personal life, his gambling, his drinking and the chaos of his studio, with the stories of his sexual habits and ghastly Irish childhood in circulation, something needed to be done to explain that his paintings were not just garish expressions of his own neuroses. David Sylvester and Michel Leiris, who both wrote perceptively about his work, emerged as friends and champions. As early as 1951, Sylvester asserted that Bacon was ‘the major English artist of his time’. He soon had access to Bacon’s studio and saw paintings before anyone else did. Sylvester was practised at making eloquent, high-toned, oracular statements and, spurred on by John Berger’s contrary judgments, applied this skill to Bacon: ‘In these claustrophobic curtained settings, there loom up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these are creatures faced with their tragic destiny.’

The Bergoglio Smile: The Francis Papacy

Colm Tóibín, 21 January 2021

Pope Francis at the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City on 13 May 2016.

The trial​ of Argentina’s military leaders took place in Buenos Aires between April and September 1985. The court heard evidence against the nine most senior figures in the regime, including three former presidents – Videla, Viola and Galtieri. Sittings began each day in the early afternoon and...

Diary: Alone in Venice

Colm Tóibín, 19 November 2020

Suddenly,​ there was nothing to complain about. No cruise ships went up the Giudecca Canal. There were no tourists clogging up the narrow streets. Piazza San Marco was often completely deserted. On some bridges a few gondoliers stood around, but there was no one to hire them. Instead, dogs and their owners walked the streets, with no one pushing them out of the way. People greeted one...

Closet Virtuoso: Magic Mann

Seamus Perry, 24 February 2022

Colm Tóibín is not the first person to advance an interpretation of Thomas Mann as a virtuoso of life in the closet, and he generously lists in an appendix the numerous works of scholarship he has consulted....

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At the start​ of Aeschylus’ Oresteia a watchman sees a flaming beacon. This is supposed to be the sign that Troy has fallen and that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan war. The...

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‘Nobody knows​ … nobody knows.’ Elizabeth Bishop said her grandmother’s remark was the chorus of her childhood. ‘I often wondered what my grandmother knew that...

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Eilis Lacey is a young Enniscorthy woman who has never dreamed of leaving Ireland. Friary Street and Castle Street, the square and the cathedral: the grey co-ordinates of her small County Wexford...

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‘It’s, on the whole, I think,’ Henry James wrote to Edmund Gosse, ‘a queer place to plant the standard of duty.’ The letter is dated 7 January 1893, 29 years before...

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The Sacred Cause of Idiom: Lady Gregory

Frank Kermode, 22 January 2004

The possession and use of a toothbrush was a mark of the difference between us and them, gentry and peasant, or so Lady Gregory suggested when she made the remark – jocular, perhaps, and...

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‘You know, in my family,’ remarks a gay Irish architect in Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, ‘my brothers and sisters – even the married ones...

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His Socks, His Silences

Adam Mars-Jones, 3 October 1996

Colm Tóibín’s frustrating new novel starts from a pleasingly skewed perspective: its narrator Richard Garay (less often, Ricardo) was brought up in Buenos Aires, child of an...

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Hugo Young, 24 November 1994

In Kiev in 1992, Colm Tóibín met the Bishop of Zhytomir, who was dressed in his full regalia. ‘He had that wonderful, well-fed, lived-in look that reminded me of several Irish...

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Thick Description

Nicholas Spice, 24 June 1993

To write simply is always to seem to write well. Bad writing is usually identified with over-writing: too many adjectives and adverbs, flowery figures of speech, verbosity. No one is ever accused...

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Motiveless Malignity

D.A.N. Jones, 11 October 1990

Ever since 1958, when his play The Birthday Party opened in London, Harold Pinter has been admired by the judicious for the witty realism of his dialogue and the engrossing mystery of his...

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