On Thursday, Jan. 2, at 8 p.m. welcomed Colm Tóibín to give a reading of his books “Nora Webster” and “Brooklyn.” The evening was open to the public and attended by many residents of Schenectady and the surrounding area, as well as students, faculty and staff from Union. Colm Tóibín is an Irish novelist, short-story writer, essayist, playwright, critic and poet born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, Ireland. His novels, including “Brooklyn,” “The Master” and “A Testament of Mary” have won awards and have been shortlisted for others. “Brooklyn” was made into a movie directed by John Crowley and nominated for three Oscars.
Before arriving at the Nott to speak, Tóibín attended a dinner in Sorum House with faculty from the English Department and English Honors thesis students including Justin Zorn ’17, Jamalaruddin Aram ’17, Robert Pinkham ’17 and Meghan Keator ’17. Tóibín took interest in all the students’ projects but had special advice for Zorn, who is writing a screenplay, and Keator, who is working on a project comparing the language of the Irish constitution and the works of Donal Ryan with the current and historical realities of Irish culture.
After dinner, Toíbín was escorted to the Nott by English Department faculty. In the Nott, Tóibín was introduced by Edward E. Hale, Jr., Professor of English Jordan Smith. Smith emphasized that Union was “extremely pleased and proud” to welcome Toíbín to read on campus. The Tóibín talk was supported by the Minerva Program and the John and Winn Smith Foundation, according to Smith.
In addition to his novels, Tóibín has authored “perceptive and very personal readings” of both Elizabeth Bishop and John Donne, and has also written critical reviews for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.
Smith stated that Tóibín’s critical works are “addressed to that rare, endangered and always fabulous species, the educated general reader.”
Tonight, however, Smith was anxious for the audience to enjoy the “lovely and exact quality of his words” in Tóibín’s novels. Smith finally noted that in Tóibín’s work, the reader senses that “the best of fiction is a matter of that sort of poise: the tricky attempt of the mind to keep its footing in a world of intersecting experiences and intersecting expectations”
With that, Smith welcomed Tóibín to the podium. To open his talk, Tóibín discussed the links between Union and Henry James, who is the subject of Tóibín’s fifth novel, “The Master,” and who also has Irish roots. James’ grandfather, William James, was an Irish immigrant and, in Tóibín’s words, “a great old Puritan and a control freak” and, later in life, “the second richest man in New York state.”
He sent his son, Henry James, Sr., to Union partly because the elder James had funded Union and also because he wanted to reform his son’s drinking habits, as well as to save him from “suffering from a thing which was even worse than drinking: free thought.”
On his visit to Union this time, Tóibín was able to visit the portrait of William James that is currently hanging in the President’s House, joking that he needed “to see what he looked like” and that he was “very glad” to have met him face to face.
Tóibín was also very grateful to read the transcripts of the Yeats’ family letters in Special Collections. W.B. Yeats’ father decided to emigrate to New York from Ireland while in his 70s and ended up staying there until his death in 1922. Yeats “fell in love with New York” and although he had fallen in love with a woman in Ireland, he never went back.
Around the holidays, Yeats would suggest that he was coming home, but never actually would, much to the dismay of his family and his love, Rosa. The letters showcase Yeat’s fascination with New York and his exploration of the world as a “prodigal father,” and are of particular interest to Tóibin because they deal with the theme of living abroad that is so central to books like “Brooklyn” and “The Master.”
Tóibín compared writing “The Master” with writing “Nora Webster,” both of which he undertook in 2000. “The Master” is a fictional work focusing on Henry James, the American-born British realist who wrote works like “The Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of the Dove” in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, “Nora Webster” is a novel that “dealt with what happened in our house… in the three or four years after my father died,” specifically addressing how Tóibín’s mother “rebuilt her life.”
For Tóibín, it was easier to write “The Master” than “Nora Webster,” “to go back into the 19th century” than to “deal with the small matter of my own experience.” Tóibín drew the contrast between real life, which has no plan or pattern, and novels, which are all planned and have a pattern.
Writing “Nora Webster” required that Tóibín recount his own experience, rather than delve into research and reading for “The Master.” On this theme, Tóibín read the opening of “Nora Webster,” which describes the Irish custom of visiting a family who has just lost someone late in the evening.
In describing the scene of Nora Webster receiving a visitor, Tóibín noticed that the key word uttered by the visitor was “Brooklyn” – “not Manhattan or New York.” The talk of Brooklyn centered around the idea of young people going there from Ireland and never coming back “home.”
Tóibín shared his own experiences of being homesick while teaching for a semester at the University of Texas at Austin. “I began to miss things about Ireland I didn’t even like,” joked Tóibín. After returning home, Tóibín continued to work on “Nora Webster,” and decided to take the idea of “Brooklyn” and turn it into a short story. This, however, would become his bestselling novel “Brooklyn.”
Reading from “Brooklyn,” Tóibín picked a scene where the main character, Eilis, is reading letters from home. The letters transport Eilis home, and make her question why she relocated to New York.
“Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty,” notes Eilis in “Brooklyn.” Tóibín, comparing this scene to the Yeats letters, decided to focus on Eilis’s first Christmas in America and examine her feelings at that time.
While serving people at a soup kitchen, Eilis encounters a man who’s singing again reawakens her memories of Irish music. Tóibín pointed out that many recordings of traditional Irish music are made in recording studios in New York or Chicago by immigrants.
While in New York, an Irish immigrant might just be a doorman, in Ireland he could be a musical legend, noted Tóibín. Lastly, Tóibín read a scene from “Nora Webster” in order to describe what Ireland, specifically Enniscorthy, was like in the 1960s. It wasn’t “drugs, sex and rock and roll” like it might have been in San Francisco or London. Rather, the biggest radical change in Enniscorthy was perhaps women’s hair colors.
Tóibín depicts this in “Nora Webster” when Nora Webster dyes her graying hair back to brown and gets a “fashionable cut” for the first time in her life. She endures looks from both her sons and strangers on the street. “Well, that will takes some getting used to!” exclaims one woman on the street.
The vision of small town life Tóibín portrays is rooted in his own experiences, making his works especially realistic. With that, Tóibín closed his talk Smith mentioned in his introduction that “Union has a long tradition of attention to Irish literature.” William Murphy, Lamont Professor of English, and Adrian Fraser were two professors previously dedicated to studying Irish literature at Union. Their legacy has been taken up by Associate Professor Claire Bracken, whose interests include contemporary Irish women writers and feminism.