Colm Tóibín: ‘I don’t think I learned anything at all from cancer’

TV review: On Memory’s Shore is an enjoyable portrait of the unshowy author

Colm Tóibín: ‘It’s important for writers not to go on too much about how hard it is.’ Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty

Colm Tóibín: ‘It’s important for writers not to go on too much about how hard it is.’ Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty

 

One of the pleasures of Colm Tóibín: On Memory’s Shore (RTÉ One, Monday) is watching the author as walks across a beach in Wexford and pauses occasionally to stare out over the grey waves. The scenery has a sort of glum beauty. Tóibín, who does not seem burdened with a galaxy-sized ego, is content to be eclipsed by it.

The three-time Booker nominee is simply happy to be a 65-year-old returning to the byways of his youth and to feel the loam of his childhood under his feet. Whether or not you’re steeped in his bibliography, it’s an emotion with which it is easy to empathise. That bittersweet pull of your earliest years splashing around your toes

Brendan J Byrne’s enjoyably rambling but never indulgent documentary arrives ahead of the publication in September of Tóibín’s latest novel, The Magician. The book tells a sort of origin story of the 20th-century German writer Thomas Mann, with a focus on the trip to Italy that inspired his masterpiece Death in Venice. But Tóibín doesn’t get caught up in promoting the novel. Byrne’s film instead meanders enthusiastically as the author casts a wry eye back on his life and times.

At the Oscars for Brooklyn, Tóibín was bundled upstairs to the cheap seats: in Hollywood, authors were third-tier nobodies expected to enter via the servant’s door. That was fine: he could get to the bar whenever he wanted

He comes across as agreeably un-star struck by himself. “It’s important for writers not to go on too much about how hard it is,” he says. “No one cares if there isn’t a new novel. It’s not as though you’re a plumber where you’re actually needed.” 

Nor did a battle against cancer reveal to him universal truths about the nature of being, he says. “I don’t think I learned anything at all from it,” Tóibín says with a shrug. “Just came out the other side. Just glad it was over. I sat on a sofa feeling pretty anguished with all this chemo in me.”

Drolly, he shares an anecdote about attending the Oscars, for which the adaptation of his novel Brooklyn was in the running. En route to saying hello to the movie’s star Saoirse Ronan, he was brusquely bundled upstairs to the cheap seats. In Hollywood authors were third-tier nobodies expected to enter via the servant’s door. That was fine: he could get to the bar whenever he wanted.

Enniscorthy remains a lodestone, even if he now concludes that he was traumatised by the death when he was 12 of his father. “There was no such thing as therapy,” he says. “There was no concept that a child could carry something. You didn’t know you were carrying it.” 

Tóibín doesn’t play to the gallery by framing Enniscorthy as a place he needed to escape. The provincial Leinster of his upbringing would be easy to caricature as a sinkhole of repression and superstition. Tóibín celebrates it as a place of community and fortitude (while acknowledging his relative privilege as the son of a teacher). The absence of a chip on his shoulder feels novel and refreshing.

Tóibín’s student recollections are of a cosmopolitan Dublin, where undergraduates would bar-hop while debating urgently the merits of James Joyce and Henry James

He speaks with great tenderness, too, of Dublin and his time at UCD. As with small town Ireland, it is fashionable to depict the city prior to the mid-1990s as grotesquely, almost cartoonishly, oppressive. Yet Tóibín’s student recollections are of a cosmopolitan Dublin, where undergraduates would bar-hop while debating urgently the merits of James Joyce and Henry James.

There are intriguing glimpses of the next potential chapter in his career. As a gay man who began to explore his sexuality in the 1970s he has witnessed the progression of Ireland from homophobic backwater to beacon of tolerance. In this, he sees the raw materials for a future book.

“It struck me that I’m probably in a unique position as a writer where I know what gay life has been in Dublin since the 1970s,” he says. “That’s in my mind and that will be a Dublin book.”