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Colm Tóibín’s passionate silences

The poetry of parsimonious prose

Instead of taking thechair across from me for our interview, Colm Tóibín sidles up next to me on the bench and drapes his arm across the cushion behind my head. When he starts to whisper conspiratorially in his Irish lilt, I feel I’m meeting an old friend.

Tóibín, winner of the IMPAC Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker, carries with him a strong sense of the familiar, both physically and in his work. Surprisingly, this sense reaches beyond his native Ireland — even when writing about Argentina or the Spanish Pyrenees, Tóibín convinces you he’s right at home.

In his recent collection, Mothers And Sons, Tóibín sets eight stories in Ireland and one in a small Spanish village. Unlike many writers, he doesn’t generally evoke place by describing landscape or city streets. He prefers houses, and this is perhaps the key to some of his authenticity.

“The houses are probably without exception all real,” he says. “It’s hard enough making up a character, but Jesus, making up a house?”

Tóibín’s house obsession may be great for his writing, but it’s not so good for his wallet.

After his first novel, The South, he bought a home in the Pyrenees, right next to where the novel was set — a place he returns to in the final story of Mothers And Sons.

“The amount of emotion I’ve put into evoking a place, I absolutely can’t lose it,” he says.

He bought the Spanish house for a song, but apparently there’s now another house in his favourite locale of County Wexford, and Ireland is far from cheap. “I’m not going to set novels anywhere new,” he jokes. “I couldn’t afford it.”

Using spare and scrupulous prose, Tóibín conveys information in an almost clinical way. You’d be as hard-pressed to find a flowery sentence in this book as you would a neat ending. Even his dialogue is so clear and clean that he rarely requires words such as “she said.”

While in some hands this technique could make for cold and inaccessible writing, Tóibín manages to evoke huge amounts of emotion. There is such physical and psychological distance between people in these pages, yet readers are infused with the pain of each character’s unfulfilled dreams. This happens equally in “A Song,” a nine-page story set in Ireland, and “A Long Winter,” an 83-page story set in the Pyrenees.

“I wonder if it’s about northern countries,” Tóibín says. “where connections between people, between families, can be very fierce…. Love comes fiercely. But they’re not used to hugging each other, kissing each other. Things are withheld. People are withdrawn, stubborn. Everybody knows something that’s surrounded with silence.”

This is true of all the stories in Mothers And Sons, but perhaps most distilled in “A Song.” When discussing this story, Tóibín talks of the extreme bitterness of family breakups in Ireland, where divorce was not legal until the 1990s. The plot is simple, but the tension high: Noel, a 28-year-old musician, stumbles upon a folk performance by his estranged mother. They’ve had no contact for 19 years; his father returned her letters unopened. Suddenly faced with an opportunity for reconciliation, Noel is paralyzed.

“If I was a really good writer,” Tóibín laughs, “I would have him go up to her and say the right thing, anything, and then the next part would be, ‘The next day they had lunch together.'”

Withholding that conclusion is precisely what makes Tóibín excellent. It’s the sense of longing, of the impossibility of knowing your own family, that draws readers into novels such as Blackwater Lightship and The Story Of The Night.

Difficult parent/child interactions are a strong focus in Tóibín’s novels, but he had written four stories in this collection before he noticed the commonality. It was only when he became stuck with a story about a widow, and found a way out through introducing her son’s point of view, that he chose the book’s title. Thanks to this organic process, the theme never feels forced.

“There’s a very elemental relationship,” he says, discussing the recurring parent/child theme. “Anyone who’s been through illness and the death of a parent… I’ve never read about it properly. I’ve never imagined it properly. It isn’t ordinary, it isn’t about missing somebody. The cells in your body are actually doing something, having an emotion of their own.”

“Three Friends” opens with Fergus studying his dead mother in the funeral parlour. Tóibín’s description of how death robs the body of personality is unparalleled in its poetry. The sense of the unknowable parent that permeates the book is made larger and terribly permanent in those moments near the coffin. There’s also a quiet, visceral logic when Fergus goes to a rave and seeks solace through sex with his friend, Mick.

Tóibín views being a gay man of the pre-adoption rights generation as another cause for his parental focus. “Maybe if you’re a gay son you can see it more clearly. It’s different than when you have nine children of your own and you end up writing about your children. There’s greater intensity in how you imagine it, remember it.”

Although he says elements of certain stories are “true,” he adds that, “they’re not exactly autobiographical, in the sense that I never managed to get my mother into a book. Because she was really more interesting than any of the characters I’ve ever managed to present. She had a great way of talking and she was very funny, very independent.”

Tóibín may not feel he has fully captured his mother, but parts of the woman he describes to me certainly emerge throughout the book. Tóibín is rarely satisfied with his writing, and constant self-critiquing accounts for his high level of accomplishment. He once wanted to be a poet, but considers himself incapable of mastering that form. Arguably, his understanding of poetry is what makes his prose so rich.

After five novels, five nonfiction books and one play, this is Tóibín’s first collection of short fiction. He remains unconvinced of his talent.

“When I started to write, I wrote short stories, but they were really no good,” he confesses. “I stopped writing completely. I thought that whatever magic wand you need to make short stories, I don’t have it. I’m still not sure I do.”

Apparently he has more magic than he thinks. He seems to have forgotten he wrote one of the stories in this collection in 1979, the year his mother died, when he was only 24, meanwhile, Mothers And Sons continues to garner international acclaim.

Despite his misgivings, and the fact that writing short fiction is no way to make money, he’s determined to stick with the form. There was some pressure to make “A Long Winter” into a novel, or to market it separately as a novella, but he would have none of it.

“I thought, ‘Just leave this the way it is,'” he says. “This is the story. Because if you start to think commercially, you’d really be better to get drowned. But also I could get something right, for once in my life, of that length.” And he really has. “A Long Winter” is one of the most haunting tales of love and yearning you’ll find; it couldn’t have succeeded at any other length.

The vastly different voices, points of view and circumstances Mothers And Sons tackles are a testament to the breadth of Tóibín’s skill. His next project is a novel — after all something has to pay for those houses — but stories may be where he proves himself a master.