Colm Tóibín: ‘There's a certain amount of glee at the sheer foolishness of Brexit’

The author talks about his Enniscorthy childhood, the inspiration behind Brooklyn – and why Boris Johnson is right about the Irish border

The last thing Colm Tóibín does every night in New York before turning in is read the Irish Times: “There’s really nothing I don’t know about what’s going on in Ireland,” he says. The 62-year-old is in his overstuffed office at Columbia University, and although he has been coming to the city for years, he has only recently started writing about it: “What the sunset looks like on the Hudson. In the winter, you get this really extraordinary red, and if there’s ice on the river, it looks like the American sublime.” But every night, in his head, he returns home to Ireland.

Home is one of Tóibín’s great themes. It’s an interest most explicitly explored in Brooklyn, his breakout novel of 2009, and to which he returns in House of Names, a retelling of The Oresteia by Aeschylus. As told by Tóibín, after witnessing his sister’s murder, the young Orestes is banished both literally and in the sense of becoming estranged from himself; “a sad boy”, says Tóibín, “who doesn’t know who he is or what he is”, and who reminded the author simultaneously of Hamlet and himself.

If this sounds grand, it is in keeping with Tóibín’s range as both highbrow – at Columbia, he teaches a graduate seminar that takes in Swift, Beckett, Joyce, Eliot and Wharton among others, as well as focusing this semester on Sophocles – and as a documentarian of the quotidian. It is hard to read a novel such as Nora Webster, a fictionalised account of the days after the death of Tóibín’s father in 1968, published in 2014, without wondering just how he does it: that is, maintain the surface tension of a story with so little formal action and in a novel “that is so calm”, says Tóibín, “it just moves chronologically through a small number of years in a small house”.

Nothing much happens in Nora Webster; a woman gets her hair done and stands alone by the shore; two grieving boys put themselves to bed while their mother attends to her own grief downstairs; some people join a union. And yet the book is full of suspense and profoundly affecting.

Superficially at least, there is much more going on in House of Names, in which the bodies pile up from the start. Much of the shock value of the violence, in which wife murders husband, father kills daughter, and son, ultimately, murders mother, is purposefully diminished by Tóibín through the flatness of the language, so that while it is as painstakingly constructed as anything he has written – inching forward, as he says, “sentence by sentence” – it has a curiously static quality.

If this strips the book of more immediate pleasures, it is designed to mirror the traumatised state of Orestes. “I thought, I’m going to have to make Orestes’ murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, psychologically possible rather than just spring it on the reader,” says Tóibín. “And to do that I had to go right back to the damage that was done to Orestes. I have to have him witness the killing of his sister Iphigenia. That is the beginning of the trauma; he’s been holding all this in.”

Silence, for Tóibín – “the amount of silence around things” – is a frequent starting point in his work and “these are things I’ve been writing in other books in other ways that are personal to me: things that happen that you couldn’t talk about; loss; absence. And then the fact that Orestes was kidnapped, and of course what I start to use immediately was being sent to boarding school and the whole sense of trying to fit in.”

Tóibín went to boarding school in his mid-teens after his father died from a brain aneurysm, and although the school would prove a fruitful experience, it is bound up in his mind with the blank space of grief, a perilous state of lost coordination. Tóibín quotes something Thomas Mann’s daughter Elisabeth said – “that by 30, you had a duty not to blame anyone for anything” – and laughs. “But unfortunately if you’re a novelist, you end up stirring that pot where other people just get on with their lives.” He thinks for a moment. “I mean, if someone told me that Philip Roth had a book coming out next month that was set back in Newark, I’d say, yeah, sure, of course he’s back in Newark. So it’s not just an Irish thing.”

For a large part of his boyhood, Tóibín’s parents – his father a teacher, his mother a bookkeeper – thought he was stupid. He didn’t read until he was almost 10 and “teachers told them I was stupid. ‘Colm’s no good’ would be the thing. The others were academically so good, and my father, and I was just no good.” He remembers vividly returning home to report to his parents that he had come 31st in a test out of a class of 40. “And they just couldn’t believe that; how could you come 31st? And it was mentioned quite regularly; 31st.”

Home was Enniscorthy, a small town in County Wexford in the east of Ireland that would come to form the backdrop to many of Tóibín’s novels, among them Nora Webster and Brooklyn. The latter, which was made into a film in 2015, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Saoirse Ronan as the lead, is Tóibín’s most commercially successful novel, but it is, in its way, as uncompromising as his others, inverting the traditional adventure story of the Irish immigrant who goes west with something more akin to reality: the wretched displacement and homesickness of a young woman who isn’t sure she has made the right decision.

Tóibín left Enniscorthy to go to University College Dublin, and never lived there full time again (although he did build a fancy house on the town’s periphery, which he uses occasionally to write in). Something had happened in his teens; he stopped being “stupid”. Part of the reason for going to boarding school was to escape the fact that, at the local high school, he had found himself in the same classrooms where his father had taught – and at the new school, he flourished. “I had the same English teacher, who’s still alive, as John Banville. Father Larkin, as soon as I wrote my first essay, said to me, ‘You know, you can write!’ And what I began to do then with Father Larkin and the Latin teacher, was I began to give them the poems I was writing. Things were fine then.”

After graduating, Tóibín went to live in Barcelona for six years and has divided his time between Dublin and the US since then. His partner, about whom he is reluctant to give details, lives in LA and, says Tóibín wryly, has a great deal to put up with. When he was finishing House of Names, “I was working in my boyfriend’s house in Los Angeles and he says that I came in and said: ‘Jesus Christ, can you make me tea or something, he’s just murdered Clytemnestra!’ And he said: ‘Are you all right?’ And I said: ‘No I’m not! God no!’ He got fed up – I couldn’t do it all the time, coming in saying, ‘Do you know what I’ve just done now?!’”

Determined and innocent … Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
Determined and innocent … Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

It was the writer John McGahern who reassured Tóibín he could write about the same things over and over. In Brooklyn, Eilis is a strange, blank creature at the centre of the story whom, Tóibín says, “I had to make both determined in a certain way and innocent in another way, so that there were many things going on in her. And what exile had done was to make her almost incapable of true feeling; but I couldn’t name that, I could just show it.”

He looked for guidance to a Gustave Flaubert short story, “A Simple Heart”, and George Moore’s novel Esther Waters, as well as Henry James’s Washington Square and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: “bringing Fanny Price out of her comfort zone into the other house where she doesn’t belong”. Part of the joy of teaching, says Tóibín, “is that you’re constantly finding precedents. If you’re creating a really intelligent, earnest young woman you’ve got Dorothea to work with; if you’ve got a spirited woman who doesn’t care about anyone else, you’ve got Gwendolen from Daniel Deronda.”

For Eilis, Tóibín looked closely at what Austen did with Fanny Price: “I was working on an undercurrent in her, filled with noticing. Everyone wants her and likes her, and she does nothing to cause this, which causes havoc in the end because she doesn’t, in fact, know what she feels.” What’s so startling about the end of the novel is its terribly sad and unresolved conclusion; Eilis returns to a life she doesn’t feel to be hers, held to the horror of an unwanted marriage and instantly recognisable to “anyone who’s ever had a romance on holiday and thought what a dreadful mistake”. In the movie, this ending was replaced by a happier one.

“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the structure of it,” says Tóibín, “which is so brilliant; how much he left out, how he moved the drama on. But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel? “It’s all right. It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug: look what I’ve just done to everybody?”

Brooklyn is as much a story of denial as Nora Webster and Tóibín’s 2012 novel, The Testament of Mary, in which he elucidates the interior life of the Virgin Mary; a great deal of it is based on his political observations of Ireland during and after the peace process. To write about denial as astutely as he does is a hard exercise, a question of evoking stasis without paralysing the reader, although denial can be the source of extraordinary drama. During the peace negotiations, he says, “it’s really interesting that, for example, relatives in Enniskillen didn’t say, ‘Could we find out who planted the bomb in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day? Could you tell us who did it? Just a small piece of reconciliation in Enniskillen, because we don’t know who did it. We still don’t know who did it. And it would really help us, if when we’re passing them on the street, we would know. Or even more, if we’re sitting with them in the town council, we would know.’ And they just didn’t. All of that was there, too.”

I mention Boris Johnson’s recent remark that the Irish border might be regarded, post-Brexit, as no more cumbersome than the border in London between Camden and Westminster. To my surprise, although Tóibín concedes it sounds as ludicrous as the time “Mrs Thatcher said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. Finchley? I don’t think so” – he broadly agrees with the foreign secretary’s statement. “He’s right to say we have managed this with the congestion charge in London, by using technology to show who’s crossing and how; so surely we can do this with a truck? And he’s saying the Irish border could be, for crossing over with goods, as frictionless as that but there would be a record of it. Let’s give him credit for this.”

More broadly, he is critical of Johnson, whom he considers more dangerous than other Tory politicians because he is “closer to Trump in that way that he could walk across a building site and everyone would stop to shout at him”. As for the view on Brexit in Ireland, he says, “there is a certain amount of glee – if you don’t own an export company – at the sheer, sheer foolishness of it.” He also says that as a citizen of a country accustomed to holding – and restaging – referendums when the result was “ludicrous”, he thinks the British government should have had the courage to ask the populace “to vote again”. This is what happened in Ireland after the people voted down ratifying the treaties of Lisbon and Nice. “And the government just said, ‘Ah, look; this is just a piece of housekeeping for the EU, your voting against it makes no sense; could you please vote again?’” In both cases, the vote changed in the second referendum, as it did with the second Irish referendum on divorce.

“The strangest part is that if anyone has a theory of history as a predetermined thing,’’ he says, “this was a set of errors of astonishing size. It may be that as they blundered into it, with the help of Angela Merkel, who has no taste for conflict, they may blunder out, by fudging, fudging, fudging.” Either way, there is perhaps one guarantee, adds Tóibín, which is that at some point the credibility of the deal may be further undermined when people come to their senses sufficiently to “start laughing at Jacob Rees-Mogg. His glasses! And his hair. You knew people at school like this. If he came in to teach your Greek lesson, would you learn Greek? No. You’d throw things at him.”

Tóibín, whose life’s work has entailed anchoring the sweep of history to small moments of anguish, mortification or denial, laughs with the force of someone who knows what he’s talking about.

The House of Names is published by Penguin. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP£8.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Magician by Colm Tóibín review – inside the mind of Thomas Mann
This compelling fictionalised biography explores the life and times of the exiled German Nobel winner, exquisitely balancing the intimate and momentous

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

17, Sep, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín | Guardian book club, week one: restraint

Guardian book club with John Mullan. Week one: restraint

John Mullan

20, Aug, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
Colm Tóibín: writers and their families

Growing up, Tóibín was haunted by the stories of previous generations, in particular his mother's thwarted literary aspirations. He explores the relationships – inspiring, rivalrous, Oedipal – between authors and their parents, from WB Yeats to VS Naipaul

Colm Tóibín

17, Feb, 2012 @10:55 PM

Article image
Colm Tóibín: how I wrote Nora Webster
The novelist on thinking about the book every day for a decade and how listening to Beethoven helped him capture a widow’s loss

Colm Tóibín

22, Jan, 2016 @2:59 PM

Article image
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín – review

Colm Tóibín offers a striking vision of the Virgin Mary. By Alex Clark

Alex Clark

26, Oct, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
Pure evil – Colm Tóibín on The Turn of the Screw

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has inspired novels, an opera and several films - including The Innocents, which Pauline Kael called the best ghost movie she'd ever seen. How did he make such a simple story so chilling, asks Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín

03, Jun, 2006 @9:00 AM

Article image
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Week three: Colm Tóibín on the influences that shaped his novel Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín

03, Sep, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Week two: dialogue

John Mullan

27, Aug, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Week four: readers' responses

John Mullan

10, Sep, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
A life in books: Colm Tóibín

'You just have to go wherever things take you. I'm not sure you can take everyone with you, but you should be prepared to try'
Colm Tóibín talks to Susanna Rustin

Susanna Rustin

25, Oct, 2010 @7:00 AM