Colm Tóibín wins David Cohen Prize for Literature 2021

Previous winners of £40,000 award for a lifetime’s work have gone on to win Nobel

Colm Tóibín has been awarded the 2021 David Cohen Prize for Literature at a ceremony held this evening in the Royal Institute of British Architects, London.

Hermione Lee, chair of judges, said that the Irish author was the unanimous choice of all the judges: Reeta Chakrabarti, Maura Dooley, Peter Kemp and Prof Susheila Nasta. “I think of him as a Renaissance man who can do almost everything with equal brilliance,” she said. “He’s a novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, travel-writer, critic, teacher, journalist and activist for gay rights.

“His novels and stories imagine their way into the lives and minds of others with amazing empathy and skill. He’s a deeply perceptive writer who can also be lethally funny and daringly erotic. He’s a truly international figure, and a watchful historian of our times. He’s a beautiful writer of loss and grief, silence and quietness. He writes with the intensity of a poet and the lyric rhythms of a musician. I have never missed a book by him and every book of his I’ve read has been a revelation. He’s one of the essential writers of our times.”

Tóibín, whose latest novel is The Magician, about the German writer Thomas Mann, said: “When I attended the inaugural reception for the David Cohen Prize in London in 1993, I did not imagine for a moment that my own writing would ever be honoured in this way. Those who have won the prize in the past are artists whose work I revere. I am proud to be among them.”

Tóibín is the latest in a long line of distinguished writers to won the prize, which is awarded every two years for a whole body of work. Previous winners who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature are Harold Pinter, V S Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Seamus Heaney. Other Irish winners include William Trevor, Derek Mahon and Edna O’Brien.

Chakrabarti said: “Our outstanding winner – Colm Tóibín – is quite simply a class act in a highly competitive and talented field. He is a natural novelist, a writer of tremendous subtlety, simplicity and intelligence. His novels are rooted in time and place. He brings together seamlessly big public themes of politics and history with the personal struggles of individuals. He is fascinated by ambiguous characters, and writes of them in beautiful, spare prose.”

Dooley said: “The experience of reading Colm Tóibín often feels to me like an old friend drawing close to tell me a story. Whatever the form, whether it is criticism, essay, poetry or fiction, Tóibín’s distinctive voice crystallises in a register so compelling, intimate and engrossing that all awareness of his technical accomplishment is masked. He casts a spell. He is himself ‘A Magician’.

Yet those technical skills are extraordinary. This is a writer just as at home writing poetry, or for the stage, as he is, with subtlety and grace, creating character and narrative voice in his fiction. His personal essays are of wit and substance, and he has made brilliantly vivid, tender, presences of Henry James and Thomas Mann. His remarkable insight, careful attention and nuanced reading of the human condition is never clearer than when he is writing about women, from the Virgin Mary or Clytemnestra to his own Nora Webster. Tóibín’s work steps across countries, sexualities, and gender; he examines silence and writes with the greatest sensitivity of how it is to be alive. Colm Tóibín is a writer of dazzling gifts who, over decades now, has brought the interior lives of his characters to life with kindness, insight and precision.”

Kemp said: “The 2021 David Cohen Prize has gone to a writer of impressively wide range and outstandingly high accomplishment. The author of ten novels, two collections of short stories, three travel books and various collections of essays, Colm Tóibín is a writer of both exceptional versatility and steady consistency. With intense immediacy and piercing lucidity, his fiction – especially his masterpiece Brooklyn – explores persisting themes such as ways in which home life can support or entrap, uprootings can disturb or vitalise. Relationships between writers and their families, most recently to the fore in his masterly novel about Thomas Mann, The Magician, are a recurrent concern too in nonfiction works such as his brilliantly perceptive survey of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and their fathers.

“Ireland, exile, gay life and creativity, politics, and travel are also subjects to which his novels and his other writings have brought unfailingly illuminating intelligence and literary flair. It was with happy unanimity that we judges awarded the prize to a writer who is a man of letters in the finest and fullest sense.”

Nasta said: “The more one reads Colm Tóibín, the more his imaginative universe resonates like a haunting piece of music. From the intimate portraits of his Enniscorthy fictions, set in an Ireland riven by conflict and change, to the wider historical and cultural compass of his fictional biographies, a sustained emotional integrity exposes the conflicts of his characters’ lives. One of the privileges of judging the David Cohen Prize is the opportunity it offers to read across a whole writing life. Already well known for his pioneering chronicling of gay sexualities and critique of narrow Irish nationalisms, the depth of Tóibín’s empathetic engagement with the full arc of human experience continues to amaze. Above all, his work compels us to recognise the vital power of writing as vehicle for interrogation and change.”

Tóibín went on to award the Clarissa Luard Award to Padraig Regan. The award, founded by Arts Council England, in memory of a much-loved literature officer, is worth £10,000 and the winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature in turn nominates an emerging writer whose work they wish to support.

Regan is the author of two pamphlets, Who Seemed Alive & Altogether Real (Emma Press, 2017) and Delicious (Lifeboat, 2016). They hold a PhD from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast, where they are currently one of the Ciaran Carson Writing and the City Fellows for 2021. Their first book, Some Integrity, will be published by Carcanet in January.

Regan said: “I am honoured to be selected as the recipient of this year’s Clarissa Luard Award, and deeply grateful to Colm Tóibín for nominating me. To have one’s work recognised by a writer one admires is always encouraging, and this is especially true of a writer like Colm, whose body of work has made it easier for younger queer writers like myself to find their place within Irish literary traditions.”

Tóibín’s previous awards include the Encore Award for Second Novel for The Heather Blazing (1993); International Dublin Literary Award for The Master (2006); Costa Novel Award for Brooklyn (2009); Hawthornden Prize for Nora Webster (2015); and the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature (2019).

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