Witnessing Revolution

A conversation with Colm Toibin
By Lena Rubin

Colm Toibin is a professor at Columbia as well as a novelist, essayist, critic, poet, playwright, and journalist. He is the author of the upcoming novel House of Names and has been shortlisted several times for the Booker Prize in fiction. Toibin talked to the Blue and White about his craft as a writer, his involvement in both Irish and Spanish radical traditions, and gay beaches.

The Blue and White: Our magazine tries to combine the literary and journalistic genres. I wanted to ask you about your time editing for different journals in Ireland and how that played into your desire to write fiction, or if you still feel like you have journalistic aspects to your work.

Colm Tóibín: I started as a journalist but really I had tried to be a poet, but the poems weren’t really very good, and I kind of drifted into journalism and I found it very satisfying. It was an interesting time in Ireland when a lot of things were ready to change and a lot of people were eager for this [political change] to happen sooner rather than later. I had a lot of very good colleagues. I remember there was one particular magazine called In Dublin, it was like Time Out [New York] but we began to expand it.

I eventually became Features Editor. It’s a funny thing. When I put my first foot on the stairs to arrive working there [at the beginning of the work day], I would be very happy. The whole day was going to be great. And making decisions and putting the magazine together and the magazine had a certain impact. That was a very good time. Times like that always go very easily. You don’t understand how ready that is to crumble. A group of people together who are not being well paid, we’re young… it probably has a three year maximum where people begin to think about other things. So I got offered another job to be editor of another magazine and a new Sunday newspaper started and then in effect we broke up the group… we all remained friends and I suppose it had to break up. You sort of run out of steam for a way even though it wasn’t the plan… And I became editor at age 27 [in 1982] of the main Irish current affairs magazine. That was called Magill. And that was extremely influential, the readership was very high, and the pressure on me was very high.

Illustration by Kristine Dunn

I had lived in Spain. I graduated when I was 20 and I went to Spain on my own and stayed there for three years and came back an adult… I had something a lot of the other adults didn’t have which was witness to revolution. Franco died while I was there. Then, the pressures on me and on the magazine were just too great. I think I was the editor who lasted the longest. No one else could deal with that.

Whereas previously it had been drift now it was deliberate. I was thirty years old and it was deliberate to drift out of journalism and into the realm of fiction, but that seemed an impossible dream in a way and I… did it.

B&W: There are a lot of different ways in which people talk about politics, especially right now. You witnessed a revolution in Spain, you experienced the political climate in an area… that’s one type of “talking about politics.”

CT: There are people who are just political, and they love the day-to-day business of who’s in which job. It’s almost personality led, and they could watch CNN every night… There are a lot of people like that and, if you’re in conversation and you find any other subject comes up, their eyes glaze over.

B&W: Leaving journalism, what made you lose interest in talking about politics in that way?

CT: I was interested in poetry and then I was interested in novels and that became sort of private life, the life I was sort of holding onto, and it was important.

B&W: But you said that being in Spain—

CT: But that was going on with many, many other things. There was a sexual revolution at the time. I was going to concerts at the time. You were falling out of a great Beethoven concert… meeting friends, laughing about something, and eventually on your way home, you realize there’s a big demonstration tomorrow, let’s go to it. And that’s just a part of life.

B&W: I think politics is a part of life and, in a way, people are always talking about politics and we’re always in politics. Do you know Mary Gordon?

CT: Yes, she’s marvelous.

B&W: I just went to a reading where she read a book about the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. She doesn’t try to make any large proclamations about human nature. It’s just a story of someone’s life in Spain at that time.

I went to Spain on my own and stayed there for three years and came back an adult… I had something a lot of the other adults didn’t have which was witness to revolution.

CT: Yes, in a way, that’s what I was seeing.

B&W: How did that awareness of politics translate into your fiction?

CT: In my first two novels, the tension was provided by [the fact] that… I was teasing out that distance between private life and public events, public life… I was thinking about other novelists who did the same—V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer—people who were thinking about the large questions to do with the situation in the country but concentrating on a single individual in those contexts.I was reading those novelists and I was trying to write those novels.

B&W: When you say people, do you mean political actors or everyday people?

CT: I mean the everyday [people]. In the first book one of the characters was a painter and wanted to get away from politics or history, but it was following her, so there were tensions—

B&W: It’s like the line from Joyce. I forget which book it is.

CT: Which one?

B&W: History is­—

CT: A nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

B&W: You don’t purposefully go into discussions about the history of politics, and history itself, but they just happen. And… your father was in the IRA?

CT: Yes, it was a political time in a way. My grandfather had been in the 1916 rebellion, and my uncle had been in the civil war. It was a civil rights movement, one that was very inspired by the civil rights movement in the American South. Slowly it built its way up into an insurgency. And the insurgency took on things like car bombs in a shopping mall. That sort of thing was going on. I began to rethink the entire business of what this was about and the idea… of territory rather than people…

B&W: I think a lot of people think today that radical politics should be more about people than about territory.

CT: But at the same time… During the hunger strikes in the North for example, the prison conditions were really extreme. There was no simple day when you could say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” There was a dark vision of Ireland that not only excluded protestants but excluded gay people and women… the Catholic church had a large amount of control that they used.

B&W: How did these struggles play out together?

CT: Until the 1960s, to sell a contraceptive was illegal, abortion was illegal, and obviously the anti-gay Victorian laws which put Oscar Wilde in jail were still in full effect in the Irish statute of books. And there was no divorce. It was a daily battle on our side, against what we saw as a very intolerant idea of a Catholic country. Anyone who’s living in Poland at the moment is seeing this, and even in the United States.

Whereas previously it had been drift now it was deliberate. I was thirty years old and it was deliberate to drift out of journalism and into the realm of fiction, but that seemed an impossible dream in a way and I… did it.

B&W: Going back to your life in Spain, going back to the demonstrations—could you talk a little bit more about daily life in Spain?

CT: Franco dies in 1975 and it is as if, Spain is a big country, but the area around Barcelona had already freed itself from him, even about a decade earlier, from about ‘65 onwards.

B&W: In Catalonia?

CT: Yes. Young people had just developed a way of thinking. You could have long hair, smoke dope—I’m sorry, smoke marijuana: we called it ‘dope’—and listen to Bob Dylan. It wasn’t a sudden moment when Franco died, it had already been happening. But we wanted those freedoms to be put into the statute book.

B&W: You wanted these things to be protected.

CT: Speaking Catalan became trendy, because it wasn’t taught in school, it wasn’t part of the old regime. [You would] use it with your friends. When I went there everyone my age was talking Catalan and I learned it. The police did not speak it and you didn’t hear it on television or in the radio.
He [Franco] dies in November and the real fun starts in February or March. It was like out there [he points out the window of his office]. You see beautiful, often middle-class kids walking for freedom: and it looked extraordinary; it was something to see. People waving from the windows. It was really remarkable.
It was a time when news would come every day. It was like the first 100 days of Trump, every day was news but every day was good news… “oh, they’re going to have a referendum,” “oh, there’s going to be a new political party that’s going to represent the working class,” “all the trade unions are going to merge”… It was that sort of time.

B&W: Do you think the newspaper was a way of spreading revolutionary ideas? Were there any leftist newspapers?

CT: It was all word of mouth. A [leftist press] would have been out of the question under a dictatorship, no one felt free to do that. There were big issues. For example, pornography was banned under Franco, and there were some women who wanted to keep that banned, and others who said there should be freedom of speech. There were many, many arguments. The gay movement was a mixture of “let’s be really silly,” or, “let’s be really earnest.” Some people were saying “let’s not get involved in this terrible nationalism, we need to make our case in this jokey outlandish way.”

B&W: But maybe the goal was actually to have that freedom be protected?

CT: Yeah, yeah. But I mean, when I went in ‘75, there were no gay bars in Barcelona. There was a lot of cruising on the street. And it was before heroin. Heroin really changed those cities. When I went back in the 80s, people were shooting up in the street. And AIDS. But this hadn’t begun [in the 70s]. You had five years or six years of sort of pure freedom. Where bars were starting, where people were holding hands in the street, where there was a gay beach.

B&W: Well that sounds great. (Both laugh) We see that sort of spirit coming back in certain ways. It seems like something that’s recurring. What about the creative expression that can come out of this time period?

CT: Out of that time came a lot of great Catalan singers, and painters…Culturally, people didn’t waste their time.

B&W: How is your style inspired art that comes out of revolution?

You were falling out of a great Beethoven concert…meeting friends, laughing about something, and eventually on your way home, you realize there’s a big demonstration tomorrow, let’s go to it.

CT: I have a novel coming out in two or three weeks. It’s called House of Names. It’s the story of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and Orestes and Elektra. It wouldn’t have been possible to have done it without Syria in the background, Assad, ISIS, and even the earlier demonstrations [of the Arab spring]… even though it is set in ancient Greece, it is in fact a contemporary novel.

B&W: Are you allowed to say more about it? What’s the style like?

CT: Yes. What I’m interested in is the idea of violence. Once a spiral begins, it can’t be put back—the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Each killing occurs and it’s as if the appetite is whetted for further killing and further killing, and for it to come to a conclusion requires a huge amount of work. And I saw this in Northern Ireland. You know that if you look to a single killing, you always look to the context of it. That killing happened because of that killing, and then following all of those, this happened. And that nothing could ever be contained as one. But it’s very much “here we go again.” You just draw a line, even what was happening in Egypt, in Palestine, in Israel, all of it is looked over. It’s a spiral, something has been opened. My last novel [Nora Webster] was very personal, very calm. But this new one… I think it feels as if it’s been written by someone else.

B&W: That sounds like an exciting feeling.

CT: It might be the wrong idea, but you never know…w


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