An Irishman in America

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:IT’S SPRINGTIME in Brooklyn, in the old Italian neighbourhood of Cobble Hill. But suddenly it doesn’t feel like Brooklyn anymore; suddenly the air seems that of a small Irish town, of a small Irish sittingroom, where a small Irish boy sits at a card table with his sisters, aunts and neighbours and learns to play his hand, writes BELINDA McKEON

Colm Tóibín, sitting at a cafe table on Smith Street, is talking about bridge. Not the bridge, the glinting marvel of stone and steel that soars out over the Hudson just blocks from here, but the card game, the game of chance and plotting and trick-taking, the game which, Tóibín has just announced, taught him more about writing novels than anything else. A moment ago, he was talking about the benefits of having to write long essays on literature and politics for publications such as the New York Review of Books; how the eye sharpens, how the mind gets a workout. And now, he says, it’s all really down to bridge. “It was the big training I got, intellectually,” he says. “It requires an enormous amount of planning and remembering.” Of long silences, working out what to do, working out when to yield. “It’s a way of thinking,” he says. “Of watching how the cards are distributed, of how to guess them. And for writing novels, that’s the skill you use.”

Tóibín, who will turn 54 this year, and whose gimlet eye has long been in evidence in his writing and in his observations as one of this country’s foremost cultural commentators, played cards all through his childhood in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. His was a family in which, he says, you could fight, they could swear, “but if you played badly, if you forgot that someone had played a king and you then played the queen, that would be considered absolutely foolish.” Anything, he says, “would be excused, except bad bridge playing”.

Anything – even, it turned out, the writing of fiction often rooted very deeply in Enniscorthy and in the intimacy and intensity of local and family life. As he began to return to Enniscorthy as a novelist, after a time in Spain in the late 1970s and a successful period as a journalist and editor in 1980s Dublin, Tóibín saw with relief that his mother, aunts, uncles and siblings (his father, a local schoolteacher, died when Tóibín was 12) weren’t interested in dissecting his use of those stories, snapshots and shadows that had woven their way into the consciousness from which he wrote. “They knew what to do,” he says, “which is to say absolutely nothing. Sometimes my mother might write me a letter about the style, the sentences. But sometimes they wouldn’t say anything at all, and you would arrive down to see them, and it would be lovely. Because they would have loads of things to tell you and to ask you, and it would be as though you hadn’t written any book.”

Tóibín has now written a dozen books; six novels, a short story collection, and five works of non-fiction. Of the fiction, only two books – The Story of the Night(1996) and The Master(2004) – are set at a complete remove from the landscape and seascapes of Co Wexford; the former novel is set in Argentina in the time of the Falklands war, while the latter takes as its subject the last years of the novelist Henry James. The South(1990), The Heather Blazing(1992), The Blackwater Lightship(1999) and several of the stories in his collection Mothers and Sons(2006) pass through Enniscorthy with an army of characters seeking ways to belong, to come home, to make sense of the worlds in which they have been landed by their creator. In Tóibín’s new novel, Brooklyn, published by Penguin Viking, the central character – a young woman called Eilis Lacey – leaves a quiet existence in 1950s Enniscorthy for the teeming streets of downtown Brooklyn, but learns that the job of truly leaving home is more difficult, and more life-changing, than she could ever have imagined. What starts out seeming like a gentle, almost delicate study of an era in Irish and Irish-American life becomes, in Tóibín’s hands, a window flung open on a complex psychology, both of an individual woman and of a web of cultures and communities jangling against one another, struggling to forge norms in a society in which everything, public and private, is moving almost too rapidly to be seen and known.

From her shyness, to her resourcefulness, cunning and desire, Tóibín inhabits the mind of Eilis with ease and utter conviction. He didn’t “go around asking questions or staring at women in the street” to achieve this, he says. A university course which he taught shortly before beginning the novel, and which focused on the emergence of female protagonists in 19th-century fiction, did the work of rousing this character out of his subconscious, and the writing of her did the rest. Neither did he spend time trawling the streets of Brooklyn, looking for anecdotes or historical sediment; he has only been here a handful of times, he says, looking out on the very streets on which his character wanders.

A close friend of Tóibín’s, the writer Robert Sullivan, lives in a brownstone on nearby Clinton Street, and that house metamorphosed, in Tóibín’s imagination, into the boarding-house in which Eilis lives when she arrives off the boat (by sheer coincidence, it transpires, a house just a few doors up from the Sullivan residence was, in fact, an Irish boarding-house until relatively recently). Meanwhile, a neighbourhood church, the Oratory Church of St Boniface, where Tóibín has attended an elaborate Easter vigil for the past few years with Sullivan and his family, became the model for the church run by the priest who brings Eilis to Brooklyn, and for the parish life into which she quickly becomes assimilated.

“I’m interested in it,” he says, of his very occasional (and always stateside) trips to church. “When I first came to New York, I joined a choir, and I obviously had to go to mass because we were singing at the mass. But it’s almost a question of – sometimes almost deliberately, but not very deliberately – trying to find metaphors, trying to find things that I can work with. And going to church on a Sunday in America, and hearing the sounds and looking around, has something. But it’s not religious. And it’s not even nostalgic. I mean, I’m talking about, in the last few years, maybe five times, but they do stay in my mind.

Tóibín now spends a large part of each year in the US; the success of The Masterhere has brought visiting professorships his way, at Berkeley, at Austin, Texas and, this year, at Princeton. And something else that has stayed in his mind is one of his less-pleasant brushes with the force that is old-fashioned Irish-America, when the organiser of a Boston folk and literature festival, in 1997, marched up to him after his reading and informed him where to board the festival bus to mass the following morning. By itself, the offer – or rather, the instruction – would have seemed merely over-eager, a little presumptive, but it was coloured by the fact of a very prominent Irish-American politician publicly refusing to shake Tóibín’s hand at the reading.

The problem was with the novel with which Tóibín was touring at the time, The Story of the Night, a gay love story set in 1970s Argentina; at one point, the protagonist and a man he meets in the street make love to the sound of the revving of car engines powering the cattle prods used as torture weapons by the police. And this politician, by refusing even to look at Tóibín, was not protesting about the torture, but about the sex.

Tóibín has been out as gay for many years. Did anything like that ever happen to him in Ireland? “Never in my life,” he says, quickly moving from the weary bemusement with which he has told the story of the snub to a clipped, almost dark vehemence. “Never in my life. Never once.” And such behaviour on the part of a public figure would never happen in Ireland, he says. This insistence forms the core of a speech which Tóibín says he has had cause to give more than once during the past decade. It’s a speech which, last St Patrick’s Day in New York, brought an audience at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to thoughtful – and, it seemed, grateful – silence. Tóibín, who had just read an excerpt from the manuscript of Brooklyn, spoke out against the banning of gay and lesbian groups from the official St Patrick’s Day parade in that city, arguing that the ban only highlighted the chasm between Ireland and Irish-America. “Because the way those groups were treated in America would not happen in Ireland,” he says. “People might not have known what the Stonewall riots were in Ireland, but at the same time, they knew how to treat their children. Or their neighbour’s children. Which was with respect and decency, which didn’t happen here.”

To Tóibín’s story about the Boston politician and The Story of the Night, Ireland soon presented an extraordinary foil. Shortly after the novel’s publication, he received a letter from, he says, “someone who had been in government in Ireland, in a terribly important position”. The letter-writer had read the book, and had learned something which was utterly new to them. “It said, ‘I simply didn’t know that two men could love each other’,” Tóibín remembers. “It said, ‘I thought that was about perversion, about sex. I didn’t know that a man could wait by the phone for a phone call from another man, in exactly the same way as we do. I just didn’t know that, until I read your novel’”.

It’s a story which illustrates, to Tóibín, that the acceptance of gay love has long since happened in Ireland at a fundamental level. “That sort of lesson has been learned in the domestic sphere, in so many families,” he says. “And perhaps it’s made its way into the public domain, very slowly and carefully. But watching the debates here in the US, even when they are lost, as in California, and watching what has happened in Iowa and Vermont, and watching the astonishing lift of the human spirit in Spain when same-sex marriage was allowed and El Pais, the main paper, would print a photograph every day of couples getting married.”

Tóibín is utterly eloquent on the subject of marriage rights for gay couples. He is disappointed, he says, in the people in government – people younger than him, people of whom he speaks with respect, such as John Gormley and Ciarán Cuffe. “Because there isn’t, as far as I know, a political party in Ireland which has guaranteed even to put this on the agenda. And if anyone is saying, in Ireland, and nobody seems ready to come out and say it, that our love is lesser than your love, well, no one said that to the Catholics of Northern Ireland or the blacks of South Africa. Or no one said that in the southern states of America. And I would be very surprised if people are saying that now about gay people.”

WHEN WE MEET, it is two days since Brian Lenihan’s announcement of his emergency budget. If the refusal of the Boston politician to shake Tóibín’s hand spoke volumes about the angry bandwagons underlying official Irish America, then Tóibín believes that Ireland, right now, is in danger of yielding to a bandwagon of its own.

“I was in the Conrad Hotel [in Dublin] earlier this year and Michael Fingleton came in, alone,” Tóibín says. “I was proud to stand up and shake his hand. He gave me my first mortgage. When he mightn’t have. When I wasn’t the most solvent person in Ireland. And I think if you’re going to do witch-hunts, you should do your own personal ones. Pick your own people. But joining an Irish witch-hunt, whether against priests or against bankers . . . I’m afraid not.” It’s his Fenian background coming out, he says; his grandfather, Patrick, took part in the 1916 rebellion in Enniscorthy.

Nothing changed during the boom, as Tóibín sees it; nothing except for credit-card limits. Urban planning was still as poor as it was in the 1970s; reports on building and prisons were still being ignored; primary schools were still neglected; two people with the same disease could still see “one dying prematurely from it while the other one was eating grapes in a private room”. What he’s most interested in, almost, is what came out in the work of young writers during that time: “But a sort of darkness entered in. If you went to any new play, it had a level of darkness that didn’t come from nowhere. All the young writers producing foul images. Images of a new sort of foulness was entering into the theatre. And it wasn’t being done out of badness. It was being done out of need. So there was something very, very interesting going on.”

What’s needed now, he says, is something for which he doesn’t hold out much hope. “A period of very deep introspection,” he says. “The entire society has to become as introspective and dull, almost, as Studies magazine,” he laughs, referring to the quarterly review published by the Jesuits.

Tóibín is always prone to mischief in conversation – his thoughts and his intonations dart so that it’s hard to tell, often, whether he is being serious. But he almost always is. He’s serious when he says that Ireland’s celebrity economists must be banned from the radio, since they were unable to warn of the crisis in language skilful enough and vital enough to make people sit up and listen. “They weren’t talking about ideas of justice. They weren’t using their skills properly, weren’t moving their skills out into the world. So nobody paid attention to them, and rightly so. And they’re nattering on, the same four of them on the four programmes, four months later, being not listened to by the same two million people.” He laughs. “If we want figures, we can google them, thank you very much.”

He’s serious when he says that he wants, instead, to hear people who are “not nuns, but like nuns, on the radio instead. People with a certain sort of wisdom, people who have some sort of set of spiritual or material values that are serious. Who are asking fundamental questions.”

He’s serious, too, when he says that the prominence of RTÉ Radio 1 in the national debate is a real problem, because “it hasn’t moved from a set of formats that belong in the late 1970s”. He’s serious when he says that the media more widely is “frozen”, that it is no longer stirring up the kind of argument and debate that can change the course of history. And he’s serious when he says that, when the New York Times asked him to write about the construction of the M3 on the Hill of Tara, he wondered for a moment, and he is wondering again now, “whether what’s happening in Ireland, and the degree to which it’s happening, is not as a direct result of disturbing that landscape?

“I’m talking about a general lack of thought, of planning, about how people are going to live,” says Tóibín. “About how the disturbing of that landscape – who planned it, and how, and why – has made its way into what is happening now. Of how it is a metaphor for other things that have occurred. So I’m not just talking about the disruption of magic.” Although, he adds, there’s no reason at all why the disruption of magic should be discounted in this whole affair. So, from witch-hunt to witchcraft? No, just that same search for the right hand of cards that has driven Tóibín from Enniscorthy to Austin to St Boniface’s in Brooklyn and back again.