Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Colm Tóibín | There are no 19th century ballads about being gay

Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s book On Elizabeth Bishop, a deeply personal investigation of the work of the poet, this month nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. Perhaps one of his best known works is The Master, a fictional account of a part of Henry James’ life and work. Tóibín, a prolific writer, has published novels, short stories, essays, been a playwright and a journalist. In both the above books about writers who were homosexual, what interested him, he says, were the “connections to the life and work by the amount of concealment and disclosure that took place", and discovering aspects of gay history through their letters. Tóibín, homosexual himself, has lived in a country that was deeply conservative about homosexuality, which changed very quickly, with the country last year passing a gay marriage referendum by a majority. Excerpts from an interview:

Henry James, Elizabeth Bishop… these seem to be writers who you discovered through their writing, but their works weren’t enough for you. You needed to know everything about their lives, to discover them and their works fully.

In both of those cases, I think without knowing it, I had a very intense reading experience aged between 17 or 16 and 21. Those five years, without knowing, without thinking about it, just picking up books and finding some books that affected me in a way that stayed with me. Books later on didn’t affect me as absolutely as these books did.

But I am talking about the poetry of Bishop. I knew nothing about her. I knew she lived in Brazil, but I didn’t know anything about her private life at all. And similarly with Henry James, I simply loved the books; then later, I had a sort of funny curiosity. In the Bishop’s case, it is really about writing about her letters, and in the case of James, it was attempting to grapple with the whole idea of the relationship between his homosexuality and his work. So I had to go find out about it. And in the course of both of that work, I became intrigued by the connections and disconnections to the life and the work by the amount of withholding, concealment as well as an amount of disclosure as went on in both those cases. They were both particularly private people. How can you be private at a time when everyone is keeping your letters, in a time when both wrote a lot of letters? And they wrote very good letters. And everybody held on to them. We know so much about Bishop and James now.

So I tried then to write books which would attempt to dramatise in the case of James that disconnection and connection between what was concealed and what was disclosed. And in the case of Bishop, I suppose, I wanted to analyse it more than dramatise it because I was writing about her poetry. It was much more a sort of critical book about poetry whereas the James book was a biographical book about a writer. Nonetheless, all of this came from (my reading of them in those) five years. Obviously I could take in impressions very quickly, and forever, without knowing that I was doing that.

But it’s not just these two writers about whom you have books. From reading you, the relationship between writers and their lives seems to be a particular interest.

Yes, and this happened by accident to a large extent where I began to write for the London Review of Books and they would send me these biographies. And I would settle into them and try to grapple with the relationship… in the case of Thomas Mann, I have written a few times about the peculiar strangeness of that life, a life in exile, and again we’re talking about sexuality, and the work. And also someone like Oscar Wilde. In the case of Wilde, it is quite difficult to separate Wilde the man and Wilde the artist. That he became himself a sort of work of art and a very tragic work of art, a doomed work of art, nonetheless his own story seemed as powerful as any of the stories he actually wrote.

Do these particular authors also interest you because of their homosexuality?

Yes, in other words, you are finding something absolutely fascinating going on in the time before gay liberation in Europe and America when history becomes a dotted line to the past, rather than direct line. These lives are very interesting for us because we do not have many other examples about what it is like to be homosexual in the 1890s. Other than writers, because people kept their letters, they wrote diaries, books, so you can see how they navigated these very difficult waters, all of them in different ways. And it is interesting how much they withheld or disclosed, again you are talking about all that drama between concealment and disclosure. Someone like Graham Greene, he doesn’t interest me much because his private life, I think I understand who he was. In the case of Mann, it’s a constant puzzle how he managed. And, indeed, Wilde’s marriage. Wilde was a happily married man with children at one point. That’s a most interesting idea, because very soon afterwards he was not. So you are watching something change, and you are watching, I suppose, the nearest thing to historical evidence for something that’s very important, which is what the gay past was actually like.

And what was it like you? Was concealment a part of your life?

Oh yes. I suppose that’s why in a way I’m interested in it because I am finding something that I myself experienced. I am finding, in a way, what we are all looking for in our lives is when we look in the mirror we see something at least, even if it is not true, it’s there, and I think certainly in women’s lives and in children’s lives, in a sense of images you get of women and children, have been blurred. If you are gay, you look in the mirror, (and you think) who else is gay, what does it mean, what’s it like and what is the history. For example, if I am Irish, I can give you the full history of all our rebellions, when the English came, I can talk about the 7th century, 8th century, the history of victimhood in our lives, it’s so clear that you can even rewrite it, reinterpret it. But if you are gay, there are no 19th century ballads about being gay. Yes for me, it was an act of self discovery, on self investigation and obviously it mattered to me enormously because I had lived, you know, I suppose, in a very, very conservative society which then began to change very quickly, almost without me realizing how quickly it was changing. I lived through that time when these things were unmentionable in Irish discourse, you didn’t read articles about anybody who was gay unless it was Oscar Wilde; you didn’t have images of contemporary people. Then you suddenly did.

To be any sort of citizen in Ireland now, especially since the gay marriage referendum we had (it was passed 60:36, I think in favour, a full referendum in the country, a very conservative Catholic country, that’s a huge thing), to be gay, (people saying) I have a brother who is gay, a sister who is gay, oh my son is gay, it suddenly became a thing that people almost wanted. I thought that was the strangest idea, that was never anything I expected.

You’ve written fiction and non-fiction books, written poetry and essays and plays, you’ve worked as a journalist. Is there a preferred form of writing?

Yeah, I am a failed poet—that before anything. Now I have 22 poems for all my life that maybe I would say these are okay. But I haven’t published a book of poetry yet. I probably will at some point, but really I am a failed poet. That’s what I wanted to be. The problem I have is things interest me, too many things maybe, and I take on too much, then I finish what I have to do. So I agree to write something, suddenly I have to do it. None of this is intentional. I would have been much happier at home looking out of the window, writing a few lines of poetry, then erasing it, like some serious sort of Japanese genius. But there’s too much going on for that.

“Finish what you start"—that’s consistently been your advice to writers.

The idea there is that you often find that the book, halfway through, you become bored, because you know the rest of the story, there’s no more discovery for you. So remember it is not written for you, it is written for the reader, it s an act of communication. And, therefore, the next part of it is called work, you do that because leaving half of a book means that you could discover something amazing that you don’t know two quarters way in. But often you discover nothing. It is just the daily grind of finishing.

What are you working on now?

I am trying to write a novel on ancient Greece.

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