Colm Tóibín Critical Essays

Introduction

Colm Tóibín 1955-

(Also spelled as Colm Toibin) Irish journalist, travel essayist, novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Tóibín's career through 2001.

Tóibín is an award-winning Irish journalist who has won acclaim for his series of travel essays and novels. He has been noted for his skillful evocation and thoughtful examinations of different cultures in his travel writing. His travelogues also display a firm concern for social and political histories, whether he's examining the traditions of Spain or South America or the customs of his own home country of Ireland. His sparse, journalistic writing style—developed in his long-running weekly column in the Dublin Sunday Independent—influenced the simple prose of his later novels. Tóibín's novels are set in many of the locales that he explored in his travel writing, and the attention to cultural details in his fiction has been commended.

Biographical Information

Tóibín was born in the village of Enniscorthy, Wexford, in 1955. He was the second youngest of five children. During his youth, he attended the Christian Brothers School and later transferred to St. Peter's College, Wexford. He enrolled in University College, Dublin, in 1972, where he received a B.A. in History and English. After graduating in 1975, Tóibín moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he taught at the Dublin School of English. Tóibín became involved in Spanish politics during his stay and attended many demonstrations supporting Spanish democracy. His experiences living in Spain would later be used as source material for several of his works, including The South (1990) and Homage to Barcelona (1990). He returned to Ireland in 1978 and began work on an M.A. in Modern English and American Literature. During this period, Tóibín began writing for several publications, including In Dublin, Hibernia, and The Sunday Tribune. In 1982 he became an editor at Magill, one of Ireland's top current affairs magazines. Tóibín left Ireland again in 1985, travelling to South America, the Sudan, and Egypt. He wrote a number of travel essays recounting his experiences abroad, which were published weekly in the Dublin Sunday Independent. Upon returning to Ireland, Tóibín worked as a journalist and contributor to a number of publications, such as the London Review of Books. He published his first novel The South in 1990. The novel won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Whitbread Prize. He also won the Encore Prize for Best Second Novel, the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Heather Blazing (1992). The Blackwater Lightship (1999) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. In 2000 Tóibín became a Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has taught and held workshops at several universities, including the American University at Washington, D.C., and the New School in Manhattan, New York.

Major Works

Tóibín is widely regarded for his journalism, essay collections, and travelogue writing. In Walking along the Border (1987), Tóibín travelled along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, recording the day-to-day lives, fears, and prejudices on both sides of the divide. Homage to Barcelona explores the rich cultural history of the city of Barcelona and examines the city's turbulent political past, as evidenced by its role in the Spanish Civil War. The Sign of the Cross (1994) recounts Tóibín's travels through Poland, Bavaria, Italy, the Balkans, the United Kingdom, and Ireland during different Roman Catholic Holy Weeks. Tóibín discusses his own Catholic upbringing and the unique ways that European countries practice and celebrate their Catholicism. The Irish Famine (2001)—co-written with Diarmaid Ferriter—offers a critical assessment of how the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 has been virtually ignored by many historians, despite the fact that the famine caused the migration of over two million people. Love in a Dark Time (2002) assesses the lives of several influential homosexual artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—including Oscar Wilde and Francis Bacon—who were forced to keep their sexuality a secret for fear of discrimination or reprisals. In Lady Gregory's Toothbrush (2002), Tóibín offers a biographical reexamination of the life of Lady Augusta Gregory, the wife of Sir William Gregory, an Irish magistrate, who went on to found the Abbey Theatre, campaign against colonial rule, and become a friend and sponsor to poet W. B. Yeats. In 1990 Tóibín published The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism, 1980-1990, a collection of his previously published journalism pieces.

Tóibín has also earned a reputation for his fiction, beginning with the publication of The South. The novel recounts the story of Katherine, an Irish wife and mother who abandons her family to move to Barcelona, Spain, where she becomes a painter. In Spain she marries an artist and political activist with whom she has a daughter. Tóibín combines elements of both Spanish and Irish history as Katherine narrates her story and the stories of the people she meets in Barcelona. She eventually returns to Ireland as a successful artist and tries to rekindle a relationship with her son. The Heather Blazing tells the story of an Irish judge, Eamon Redmond, who is spending the summer with his family in a house on the coast at Ballyconnigor. The narrative switches back and forth between Redmond's youth and his present life as he reflects on his relationship with his family and his role in Ireland's conservative legal system. The Story of the Night (1996) focuses on Richard Garay, a half-English, half-Argentinean homosexual living in Argentina. The novel examines both the personal story of Garay's homosexuality and the public story of Argentina's political history as Garay becomes involved with an American couple as they seek to advance America's business interests in Argentina. In The Blackwater Lightship, a homosexual man named Declan Devereux is dying from the AIDS virus. Declan's sister, mother, grandmother, and two friends join him at his grandmother's crumbling old house to wait out his last days. Tóibín also contributed to Finbar's Hotel (1997), a short story collection that published stories from seven different Irish novelists—Dermot Bolger, Joseph O'Connor, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, Hugo Hamilton, and Tóibín—but refused to acknowledge which author had written which story. Each story in the collection is set around an aging hotel in Dublin on the eve of its demolition.

Critical Reception

Critics have praised Tóibín for his sharply written prose in both his fiction and nonfiction works. His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South. Reviewers have also commended Tóibín's control of narrative structures. Jeff Danziger has complimented Tóibín's use of flashbacks in The Heather Blazing, stating that, “Tóibín shows remarkable dexterity in balancing the events of his characters' lives with the stories of their past.” A number of critics have argued that Tóibín's controlled writing style is a result of his years working as a journalist. Peter Sanford has praised Tóibín's straightforward language in The Sign of the Cross, saying, “[Tóibín's] prose is never anything less than a joy: informal, relaxed, uncluttered by detail but redolent with meaning.” However, some reviewers have found Tóibín's writing too minimalistic and simplistic for his subject material, especially in his novels. Commentators have criticized The Blackwater Lightship for its bland prose and the way it juxtaposed a disagreement between a mother and daughter against the backdrop of a man dying of AIDS. Some reviewers have also argued that Tóibín's political views often overshadow the more personal themes in his works, citing Homage to Barcelona and The Story of the Night as examples. Despite these criticisms, Victoria Radin has asserted that, “Colm Tóibín is a writer's writer: fastidious, unshowy and capable of thrillingly accurate perceptions. His view of life is stoically tragic—an unfashionable stance in this age of grievances—and his range is wide.”