Colm Tóibín

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Ireland | 2000, 2005

Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in Ireland in 1955 and was educated at University College Dublin where he read History and English. He was awarded the E. M. Forster Award in 1995 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first novel, The South(1990), was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, and The Blackwater Lightship (1999), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. His non-fiction includes The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994) and The Irish Famine (1999), The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction(editor) and a book of essays, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (2002) and Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (2002). His latest novel, The Master(2004), is a portrait of the novelist Henry James, and was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. He lives in Ireland, returned to Santa Maddalena in 2005 and took part in the Premio von Rezzori 2011.

Report 2000

Certainty Upon the Dreaming Air:

I came to Santa Maddalena in March 2000 and stayed for six weeks. I knew about the tower already because Bruce Chatwin had described it. I knew that Chatwin had written some of his first novel, On the Black Hill, in the tower and this is the book of his I most admire. I knew also that Michael Ondaatje had written in the tower. I had long admired the ironic, self-mocking and almost melancholy tone in the work of Gregor von Rezzori. I loved the joy he felt in his statelessness. I, on the other hand, am deeply rooted in provincial Ireland; three of my grandparents were born in the town where I was born. My grandfather and uncle fought for the state where I was brought up. I know dullness, lower middle class mores and social caution. I have always longed for glamour and uprootedness.

I came to Santa Maddalena to write two pieces which reflected these two aspects of myself. The first was a ten thousand word short story, “House for Sale”, set in my town in 1967. Often it is easier to conjure up the past in all its nicety and detail when you are far away, when everything in the room is strange. And as March moved into April–the weather, oddly enough, was turning cold–I set down this story as clearly and plainly as I could. A woman’s husband dies and she decides to sell the run-down old shack they have on the Wexford coast. She has to deal with her neighbours and her two sons and then she has to travel to Dublin to see her daughter. I think if I had gone back to look at those places, or spoken to anyone from those places, I might have packed in too much detail and missed what I wanted: a sort of emotional purity and a simple line in the story.

The house at Donnini, Santa Maddalena, was all lamps and shadows and beautifully created spaces. Art which was “serious” was close to strange objects, but more than anything I liked the atmosphere of the house and the sense of its two owners, and I loved going back into my room and working on something, a creation of a whole provincial Irish world, which no one who had ever lived in this house would know. Working on the story was like slowly revealing a carefully guarded secret. That is, I think, what all fiction should sound like.

My other project was more ambitious. I am writing a novel which I have been researching for some time about the life of Henry James between 1895 and 1902. Italy for James was essential; it gave him what his father called his “sensuous education”. My own sensuous education has been sporadic, to say the least. Thus, as I set out to begin the book (and I wrote the first chapter in Santa Maddalena), I needed a completely different style, a style I had never used before, with longer sentences and more elaborate cadences. I also needed a sense of opulence: sensuous colours, houses with servants, notions of old families and old money, a sense of an old Europe which both my Ireland and Henry James’ Boston had lacked.

In the evening at Santa Maddalena a huge blazing fire was lit in the old grate in the dining room. The food was simple and perfect, beautifully presented. Eating was a ceremony. Sometimes there were visitors and they were always interesting. There was a sense of custom and leisure, good manners and good conversation.

And close by were the great cities: Florence, Sienna, Pisa, Arezzo, and the wonderful Tuscan villages. I used walking the streets of Sienna for the James novel, and I used some of the atmosphere of Santa Maddalena and its shadows for the first chapter also.

The Irish poet Yeats, when he was broke and mainly living in London, came to Coole Park in the west of Ireland every summer and most of his poetry was written there. The house was presided over by his friend Lady Gregory and many years afterwards he wrote this stanza about her. The swallows were all the writers she supported and befriended:

“The came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a powerful woman’s character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air.”

With the help of Beatrice Monti I found “certainty upon the dreaming air” in Tuscany. I finished a story and began a novel.

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