Colm Toibin Posts

Garth Greenwell, “What Belongs to You”

Garth Greenwell…more and more I took refuge in books, not serious or significant books but books that offered an escape from myself, and it was these books, or rather our shared love for them, that bound me to the few friends I had… 

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You is about a nameless American schoolteacher who is based in Bulgaria. Funnily enough even though the narrator remains nameless the two cultural landscapes that influence him are very much fixed in a period —the Republican conservative homophobic Kansas and Bulgaria emerging from the Soviet era, detritus of which are still visible in the dilapidated buildings and in the attitude of the people. The novel is divided into three parts — Mitko, A Grave and Pox. In fact “Mitko” won the Miami University Press Novella Prize. What Belongs to You begins with the narrator looking to have sex and comes across Mitko in a public bathroom and from then on they forge a curious relationship. The second section is about the narrator receiving news about his father’s hospitalisation and the flood of memories it unleashes. The final section is about his mother’s arrival in Bulgaria and due to a concatenation of events primarily the fleeting return of Mitko in the narrator’s life, there is a sudden unyoking of himself from his past–immediate and childhood. It is an epiphany that liberates him paradoxically leaving him in despair too. It seems to happen subconsciously while recalling his experience of a severe earthquake.

…the first time I had known that absolute disorientation and helplessness, the first time I had felt in that incontrovertible way the minuteness of my will, so that underlying my fear, or coming just an instant after it, was total abandon, a feeling that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, a kind of weightlessness. 

At Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, Colm Toibin said while researching for The Master, his novel/tribute on/to Henry James, he realised gay fiction was a 21st century phenomenon. He also observed that “fiction contains many mansions” a comment apt for Garth Greenwell’s debut novel. What Belongs to You is much more than a fine example of gay fiction with its extraordinarily bold voice; it is a Künstlerroman, a narrative about the artist’s growth to maturity. What Belongs to You is in the same category as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or even Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home. It is evident in the experimentation of form in “A Grave” such as the long unbroken paragraphs sometimes running on for pages and pages that fit snugly with the literary device of interior monologue. The lyrical prose of “A Grave” is structured as magnificently as Isabel Archer’s reflection in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.  In both novels the interior monologues by the central characters are pivotal not only to the structure of the plot but also to the radical transformation they wrought in the narrator and Isabel and to the chain of events to follow.

At one level What Belongs to You is reading a story about a young man living in a new land and yet it is also recognising what belongs to you are who you are, what you make yourself. This could be by rejection such as the narrator’s complicated relationship with his father or by accepting new influences as the narrator says by “thinking it half in Bulgarian and half in my own language, which I returned to as if stepping onto more solid ground.”

One of the best interviews published so far with Garth Greenwell has been with Paul McVeigh. “The world according to Garth Greenwell” (The Irish Times, 25 April 2016. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-world-according-to-garth-greenwell-1.2623753)

Garth Greenwell is a boldly confident youthful writer who writes extraordinarily beautiful prose with panache. Hopefully one day the following writers will be together on a panel discussing the art of blending truth and fiction, writing a memoir-novel: Damian Barr, Paul McVeigh, Sandip Roy, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell and Alison Bechdel.

What Belongs to You is a debut that will be talked about for a long time to come!

Garth Greenwell What Belongs To You Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 196. Rs 550

18 May 2016

 

‘Jane Austen has mattered more to me than Irish folktales’ : Colm Toibin ( 26 Dec 2015)

Colm Toibin

‘I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape’ PHOTO COURTESY: COLM TÓIBÍN WEBSITE

(I interviewed Colm Toibin for The Hindu. The original url is: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/colm-toibin-in-conversation-with-jaya-bhattacharji-rose/article8026101.ece. It was published online on 26 December 2015 and in print on 27 December 2015.)

Colm Toibin, author and playwright extraordinaire, talks about how his writing is not a conscious decision but comes from some mysterious place.

He is the author of eight novels, including Brooklyn and Nora Webster and two collections of stories, Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family. His play The Testament of Mary was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. His novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. His non-fiction includes ‘The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe’ and ‘New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers & Their Families.’ He is a Contributing Editor to the London Review of Books, and the Chair of PEN World Voices in New York, and His books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Toibin will participate at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 in Chennai. Excerpts from an interview:

 When did you start writing fiction?

I was writing poetry. Then, at 20, I stopped and for a few years wrote nothing except letters home. Then I wrote a few bad short stories. Then when I was about 26, an idea came to me for a novel. Really, from the moment that happened, I was writing fiction.

Did training as a journalist help you as a writer?

Yes, it gave me a relationship to an audience, a sense that work is written to be read, is an act of communication.

Your fiction has strong women characters who lead ordinary lives. But it is the tough choices they make that mark your fiction as remarkable. Is it a conscious decision to create stories around women?

I think it’s 50-50 men-women. Some novels like The Heather Blazing and The Master are written from the point of view of men. I think writers should be able to imagine anything. I was brought up in a house full of women. Writing never comes from a conscious decision, but always from some mysterious place.

Does writing about women with such sensitivity require much research?

I listened a lot to my mother and her sisters and to my own sisters when I was growing up.

An aspect that stands out in your fiction are the constant discussions you seem to be having with Catholicism and the Church, almost as if you are in constant dialogue with God. It comes across exquisitely in the moral dilemma your characters experience. Is this observation true?

I think that might be a bit high-flown. I work with detail and I often let the large questions look after themselves. But it is important not to be banal, so I allow in some images from religion but I try to control them.

The tiny details that enrich your fiction are very similar to oral storytelling. Has the Irish literary tradition of recording and creating a rich repository of its oral folktales in any way influenced your writing?

Not really. I am a reader, so I have a sense of the rich literary tradition that the novel comes from. When I was a teenager, I was not interested in reading any Irish fiction, so I was devouring Hemingway, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Henry James. I think Jane Austen, with all her irony and structural control, has mattered to me more than Irish folktales. But I like Irish folktales too.

Who was the storyteller at home and from literature who influenced you the most?

All the women talked a lot, but it was not storytelling in any formal sense.

Your fiction at times feels like a meditation on grief exploring the multiple ways in which people mourn. Why?

My father died when I was 12 and I think this has a serious effect on me. I didn’t think about it for years, almost repressed it. So then it began to emerge in the fiction, almost despite me.

Your characters reappear in your stories like Nora in Brooklyn becomes Nora Webster. Is this part of your attempt at creating a literary Wexford landscape or is it at times convenient to work with characters you are already comfortable and familiar with?

I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape that is slowly growing or becoming more complete. Thus in Nora Webster, there are characters from The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn and some short stories, most notably The Name of the Game.

6 January 2016

“Looking for Jesus, the man” ( An interview with Reza Aslan, the Hindu, 16 Nov 2013)

“Looking for Jesus, the man” ( An interview with Reza Aslan, the Hindu, 16 Nov 2013)

I was asked by the Hindu to interview Reza Aslan. Earlier this year he published Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It was released in India by HarperCollins in Sept 2013. The interview that was conducted via email has been published online on 16 Nov 2013 and in the paper edition on 17 Nov 2013. Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/looking-for-jesus-the-man/article5357812.ece?homepage=true . I am c&p the text below. ) 

Reza AslanDr. Reza Aslan on why he wrote his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is the author ofZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was in the news a few months ago and also reached the number one slot on The New York Times Bestseller List.

He is the founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, an entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East. His first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was translated into 13 languages. His other works include How to Win a Cosmic War(published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age) and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.

Excerpts from an interview:

How long did it take you to write this book?

I have been researching for more than two decades, ever since I began my academic work on the New Testament as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in California. Of course the quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for 200 years. Countless scholars and academics have written about the Jesus of history. The methodology for that is more or less written in stone by this point. I have distilled these two centuries of debate and analysis and rendered it in an appealing and accessible way for a general audience.

What was the target audience you had in mind?

I wanted to give those who worship Jesus as God a different perspective of him as a man. Of course, Christians believe that Jesus was both God and man, yet they rarely understand the implications of that belief. If Jesus was also a man, it means he lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place shaped who he was. This book is an introduction to that time and place. But I also wanted to write to a non-Christian audience to help explain why, 2000 years later, this man and his teachings and actions are still so significant.

Has your upbringing influenced your thinking?

My upbringing taught me to take faith seriously, to respect it and not denigrate it, even when I am questioning some of the most fundamental tenets of that faith.

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?

I suppose the most surprising thing about Jesus and his time was just how many other messiahs there were around the first century, many of whom were far more popular and far more successful in their lifetime than Jesus was.

What is the difference, if any, between the men who claimed to be messiahs in Jesus’ time and the many god men (across religions) today?

I suppose if you believe that all religious experience is a matter of the psyche, then there is not much of a difference.

In the “Author’s Note, you state that you “have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called Gnostic gospels… they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself”. But did not the Gnostic gospels actually reveal much more about the man we know as Christ, including that he probably belonged to the Essene sect? So would not a close reading have helped you “reclaim” the historical Jesus before he became synonymous with Christianity?

The Gnostic Gospels were written in the second and third centuries. While they shed light on the enormous diversity of Christianity in the years following the death of Jesus, they do not give us much information about the historical Jesus himself. Neither does the Gospel of John, which by the way was written between 100 and 120 A.D. These texts are simply too late to be of much use to those looking for the Jesus of history.

The Jews attached great importance to writing things down. Yet the testaments were written only some 70 years after Jesus’ death. Muhammad knew the importance of writing things down, yet the Quran ended up being a careful reconstruction of his words. In your opinion, why isn’t there a Book of Jesus?

Mostly because nobody could have written it. Jesus and his disciples were Galilean peasants. None of them could read or write.

Was your choice of Christ as a subject a natural result of being a scholar of religion or did it have something to do with the number of books on the topic, including Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary?

I think Jesus has always been an interesting character and always will be. While some argue that there has been a sudden flood of books about Jesus recently, the truth is that such books have been appearing every few years for some time.

Do you think that the days when men could start major world religions are over?

On the contrary, take Mormonism, which is only 150 years old and already a major world religion. I think the same could be said about Scientology one day. Religions are born all the time. Who knows which one will be seen as “great” one day?

Reza Aslan Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Harper Element, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 300. Rs. 499

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

My article on the Man Booker Prize 2013 has been published today in the Op Ed page of the Hindu, 19 Oct 2013. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-long-and-winding-road-to-the-booker/article5248697.ece?homepage=true . The article is published below.) 

The Luminaries

On October 15, 2013, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries — a thriller spread over 800 pages with a variety of voices recounting and recreating details. It was a win that surprised many. Set in 1866 in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island, the story begins when a traveller and gold prospector, Scotsman Walter Moody, interrupts a meeting of 12 men at Hokitika’s Crown Hotel. These men are immigrants but locals now who gather in secrecy to solve crimes. The novel is about the mystery surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells and the stories told by those 12 men. The narrative architecture is based on the 12 signs of the zodiac and the seven planets; each chapter is half the length of its predecessor, adding pace and tension. Of the books shortlisted — Jim Crace’s Harvest, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names — it was widely assumed that the battle for the winning post would be between Jim Crace and Colm Toibin.

The Luminaries is in the tradition of a good, well-told, 19th century English novel. It has a leisurely pace with the story slowly being told, bit by bit. Eleanor Catton has trained at the best creative writing schools and is an alumna of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But this novel is an example of original thinking and excellent craftsmanship that are not easily taught.

The chair of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast.” It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster’, but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.” It is true that the 19th century novels were serialised (for example Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope) and then put together as a book. Present day writers are taking advantage of virtual publishing to do something similar. The Kills by Richard House, long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013, actually began life as four enhanced e-books that were then published as a single printed volume. But in the 21st century, to first publish in print such a thick book as The Luminaries takes extraordinary courage — a fact that did not go unnoticed even by Catton. In her acceptance speech she said, “… The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher’s nightmare. […] I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to […] have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.”

FOR MORE ENTRIES

At 28, Eleanor Catton is the youngest winner of the Booker. (Before her the prize went to Ben Okri who won it when he was 32 for The Famished Road.) Catton was born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, awarded annually to a novelist from Britain, Ireland or a Commonwealth country. The winner receives £50,000, or about $80,000. The winner is selected by the judging panel on the day of the ceremony. In September 2013, it was announced that from next year the prize will be open to all those publishing in English, across the world, a move that has not necessarily been received well by many writers. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the foundation, wrote at the time: “Paradoxically it has not […] allowed full participation to all those writing literary fiction in English. It is rather as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympic Games.”

It is a fortunate coincidence that in 2013, three of the high-profile international awards for literature have been won by women — all for very distinct kinds of writing. Lydia Davis won the fifth Man Booker International Prize 2013 for her short stories (the length of her stories vary from two sentences to a maximum of two to three pages) and the Nobel Prize for Literature 2013 to Alice Munro, for her short stories and Eleanor Catton, Man Booker Prize 2013, for a novel that has been described as a “doorstopper.” For the world of publishing, these achievements sets the seal of approval on craftsmanship. It is probably recognition of geographical boundaries disappearing in digital space, conversations happening in real time and emphasis being placed on good content. It’s not the form but the craft that matters. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize win is a testament to the new world of publishing.

(Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist. E-mail:jayabhattacharjirose @gmail.com)

19 Oct 2013

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm ToibinAt a little over a 100 pages The Testament of Mary is the slimmest novel on the ManBooker Prize shortlist. In this novella Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, narrates in first person the events leading up to the crucifixion of her son. She recounts the story in her old age to two people, whom she refers to as “Guardians”, but were probably those who were recording the events marking the life of Jesus. These testaments were to be later compiled into a text. All though in the Bible the only four gospels are by men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No women.

The Testament of Mary is a novel that has been adapted from the play of the same name, written by Colm Toibin. It was nominated for a Tony Award Best Play,  Best Actress, Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Lighting Design of a Play. Even two thousand years or so after the Bible was created and nearly seventy years after the Gnostic gospels were discovered ( in which there was a script by Mary Magdalene ) it is rare to find a woman’s testimony on the events surrounding Jesus Christ. ( Recently there have been attempts to create a feminist Bible as by the German evangelicals and the new version of the Bible being translated by the NIV Committee on Bible translation is gender sensitive too. ) So Colm Toibin’s attempt at writing this testimony is significant within theological traditions and literary fiction. To create a woman character who speaks at length, it is like a monologue, but remains an observer. The story works dramatically and it is not necessary to be familiar with the events in the Bible to understand or even appreciate this novella. Yet I was left wondering at when Mary witnesses the crucifixion of her son on the cross, she continues to recount the events in the first person, whereas if a woman ever tries to record a traumatic incident in her life, she is only able to do so in the third person. It is a dramatic shift that occurs. So it is curious that Colm Toibin retained the first person narrative even for this section–maybe it worked well on stage? ( Passages on p.76-77.)

Recently it was announced that  actor Meryl Streep would be doing the audio version — http://shelf-life.ew.com/2013/09/10/meryl-streep-testament-of-mary-audio-clip/ .This is a good example of literary fiction. It will be read and it will be discussed over time. But whether it wins the ManBookers Prize on 15 Oct 2013 remains to be seen.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary Viking, Penguin Books, London, 2012. Pb. pp. 108 Rs. 299

9 Oct 2013