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Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin is an award-winning novelist known for his lyrical, carefully rendered stories of strained family relations in coastal Ireland.  He was born in the Irish town of Enniscorthy in 1955, attended University College, Dublin and spent three years after graduation in Barcelona.  Drawing on his experiences abroad, his first novel is about an Irish woman creating a new life for herself in Spain. The South was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and won the Irish Times First Fiction Award. After returning to Ireland he worked for several years as a journalist before turning full time to writing.  His other novels include: The Heather Blazing (winner of the Encore Award), The Story of the NightThe Blackwater Lightship (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize), The Master, an homage to Henry James (winner of the Dublin IMPAC Prize and the Prix du Meilleur Livre, named the LA Times Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), Brooklyn (winner of the Costa Novel of the Year), The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and Nora Webster.  He has also published two collections of short stories, Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family. He is currently the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

In May, Toibin's ninth novel, House of Names, was published. House of Names is a retelling of the The Oresteia. While Aeschylus' Greek tragedy is a story about fate and the "furies," Toibin's version gives us a revenge saga of psychological suffering, offering readers a degree of intimacy and closeness to the characters and to their motivations that is lacking in the original telling of the tale. The themes that run through all his novels -- fraught family baggage, mothers, loss, exile and homecoming -- are present, but there is an overlay of violence and rage in this new book that is different from the restraint and subtlety that typifies his work.

On Tuesday, June 27th, Toibin discussed House of Names at The White Hart Inn in Salisbury, Connecticut. The White Hart Inn is 65 miles from Wallingford, on the other side of the state and up some beautiful, twisty and remote roads.  I pulled into the parking lot of the inn 30 minutes before the discussion was scheduled to begin, and when I walked onto the front porch, I saw Toibin sitting comfortably in one of the chairs, reading.
Although I was sorely tempted to go over and greet him, I was too afraid of bothering him to do so, but I did smile at him when he lifted his head to look at me.

The book discussion was a delight.  Toibin spoke honestly and with real feeling and wit about the process of writing House of Names. He told us how he turned to Hamlet for insights into the struggles of a son wanting to avenge his father's death, and was candid about the trauma and pain he experienced personally while writing about Orestes' murder of his mother. As a treat, Toibin read from an early scene in House of Games, and he did so with a cadence and compassion that left me wishing we had time for him to read the entire book out loud.
Speaking more broadly about the writing process, Toibin shared with us his belief that, in general, the novel is not "good with" heroes but is good with flaws, with "chancers," with failure, and with weakness.  He also noted that the novel is essentially a secular place, where actions and events are the result of human agency rather than prayer or divine intervention.  For fun, he shared some great stories about the process of turning his novel Brooklyn into a movie and about attending the Oscars as an author rather than as a nominee.

After the discussion was over, Toibin happily signed copies of his books, including the ones I own and had brought with me for that purpose.
Although he has lived in the United States for many years, Toibin's Irish brogue was obvious, as were his gift for story telling and his generous, self-deprecating sense of humor.  The evening made me want to re-read all of his books, even Brooklyn, which I had just re-read in April for our Thursday Night Book Club meeting.  Toibin's passion for literature, his love of teaching, and his massive talent were all fully evident Tuesday evening.  His books are well worth a read.


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