FOR many of us, the pandemic changed our experience of reading, Colm Tóibín suggests over a dodgy Zoom connection. He believes reading became more intense and more essential than ever during lockdown, and our necessary solitude at a time of great crisis only helped us to realise how important a shared sense of community is when it comes to reading.
“And even though reading is something you tend to do alone, and in silence, you want other people to read the book you’re reading, or you want to have some sort of communication with other people about what it is you are reading,” he says, as he speaks from a study lined – of course – with books.
Tóibín spoke to The Echo ahead of two planned visits to Cork, including an appearance at West Cork Literary Festival on July 9. But first, at Cork City Library on Tuesday night last, he and author Naoise Dolan discussed her novel Exciting Times as part of The Art of Reading, a national book club he is hosting in libraries across the country.
The Art of Reading is part of his term as Laureate for Irish Fiction, a three-year post he took up in January of this year, and it is an idea about which he is passionate, meeting a different library book club each month, and discussing with them a selected work of Irish fiction.
“The idea was that I would take, over a year, books that were old, we’ve already done George Moore’s Esther Waters, a book written in the 1890s, Mary Lavin’s In the Middle of the Fields, a book published in the 60s, and then we’ve taken contemporary work, such as Colin Barrett’s new book, Homesickness. And a book then that I had really enjoyed last year or the year before, which is Naoise Dolan’s book.
“The idea would be to take some book, that a lot of people have read over the last two years, people would maybe want to formulate their opinions about, or even just share with other people. So the idea would be that we would do this in various places, all over Ireland.”
He says the idea of doing so in partnership with libraries made perfect sense.
“Since libraries already have the structure for this, then we hitchhike on their structure and see if we could add anything to it. That’s really what that thing is about.”
At the time of our interview, he says he is looking forward to meeting Naoise Dolan in Cork City Library, and he mentions a particularly enjoyable event which took place in May in Dun Laoghaire Library with Sinéad Gleeson and Alice Ryan, Mary Lavin’s granddaughter, who is also a writer. He says he looks forward to other events over the course of the year, where writers and readers can meet to discuss books.
I remind him of the phrase he used in his introduction to The Art of Reading: “No book matters unless someone is reading it”, and he nods enthusiastically.
“The book comes alive with the reader, and I think sometimes when you’re working, you’ve got to be conscious of that, that this book is for a reader, that I’m not just satisfying something in myself, that I’m actually involved in some form of communication. Yes, the reader brings the book alive.”
He has had two notable, and critically acclaimed, forays into the realm of fictionalised biography, with The Master (2004) depicting American-born novelist Henry James (1843-1916) in the last years of the 19th century, and The Magician (2021) covering the life of canonical German author Thomas Mann (1875-1955). Given that he’s so good at it, is a return to bio-fiction something that might appeal to him?
His reply is gentle, but firm: “I’ve done it twice, I won’t do it again, I think. The first thing is you need is about 20 years of preparation,” he laughs.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, the next book is going to be about, you know, WB Yeats’. Like, it has to be an obsession. It has to go on for years. You have to keep thinking about it, and you have to keep it going while you’re writing it.”
James and Mann were writers he read in his late teens, becoming fascinated with them over the years.
“In the case of both Henry James and Thomas Mann, the jury changed, in other words, views on them changed from the time of their deaths, James in 1916, Mann in 1955. As scholarship changed, especially in relation to homosexuality, views on both of them changed and also on Mann’s politics, which were not as stable as they might have seemed at the time of his death.
“I was working on the idea that there was no single way to see them anymore. And if you’re a novelist, that’s an interesting idea, that someone has hidden depths or an interior life, that they kept private.
“Part of the job of the novel in a way is to deal with the private life in ways which we don’t deal with in other ways.
“People keep things to themselves, and have thoughts they don’t share. So the novelist can go in there and attempt to explore that. Obviously, you do it mainly with fictional characters, but in that case, I did it with two people who had left a great deal of material behind, not only their fiction, but diaries and letters.”
Will he really never return to biographical fiction, though?
“I don’t have an idea,” he says simply. “John McGahern used to say ‘Hope you don’t have another idea until after Christmas’. Because of course, once you had the idea, you would have to start working.”
At this point, our connection, glitchy throughout our interview, threatens to collapse completely, but I manage to ask if he has indeed had an idea this side of Christmas. He smiles and nods.
“I’m working on a sequel to Brooklyn,” he says.
He holds up to the screen a journal, its pages covered in longhand handwriting.
“This is what it looks like.”
Our interview ends, the internet connection fizzling out just as I say thank you, and he says it was nice to chat. He still has Brooklyn: The Sequel in his hands, and if the reader brings the book alive, his smile suggests perhaps the book returns the favour to the writer.
All of Colm Tóibín’s The Art of Reading book club talks will be available on the Arts Council’s website.
He returns to Cork for an appearance at The West Cork Literary Festival at 8.30pm on Saturday, July 9, where he will discuss his latest novel The Magician and his role as the Laureate for Irish Fiction.
For more see www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie