Colm Tóibín is Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia. His most recent book is On Elizabeth Bishop.
 (April 2016)

The Talented, Trapped Spenders

Stephen Spender, New York Review editor Robert Silvers, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Natasha Spender, New York City, 1980s
In the mid-1980s an Irish radio program asked me to go to Sligo in the west of Ireland, to the W.B. Yeats Summer School, to interview the poet Stephen Spender, who was a guest at the school. Since the radio program centered on current affairs more than literary matters, I …

She Played Hard with Happiness

In her mixture of nonchalance, inscrutability, wit, and knowing simplicity, in her use of tones that are whimsical and subtle, in the stories that are filled with abstractions, Clarice Lispector has perhaps more in common with some Brazilian visual artists of her generation than she does with any writers.

Late Francis Bacon: Spirit & Substance

Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976; oil on canvas, in three parts, each 14 x 12 inches
In his book On Late Style, published after his death, the critic Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as …

The Hard-Won Truth of the North

Stig Dagerman in the Stockholm archipelago, 1951
It is as though certain landscapes, including the Sweden of the writer Stig Dagerman (who died in 1954 when he was thirty-one), have their own sound. Northern landscapes such as his come to us without elaborate description or embellishment, or any display of easy feeling. Light is scarce and so …

Gawking at Quixote

François de Poilly the Younger after Charles Coypel: Don Quixote Mistakes Puppets for Moors and Believes He Is Rescuing Two Runaway Lovers, 1723 (click images to enlarge)

The artist Charles Coypel’s images of Don Quixote are so dramatic in their visual scope and use of space and color and contrast that they must have been a gift to both engravers and tapestry-makers. As much as Cervantes, he could work wonders with chance, mayhem, indignity, happenstance, and misadventure, and there is a sense of him as being a genuine kindred spirit with the novelist.

Goya: Order and Disorder

Francisco Goya: Self-Portrait While Painting, circa 1795

“There are two ways, perhaps, of looking at Francisco Goya,” writes Colm Tóibín in the Review’s December 18, 2014 issue. In the first version, Goya, who was born near Zaragoza in 1746 and died in exile in France in 1828, “was almost innocent, a serious and ambitious artist interested in mortality and beauty, but also playful and mischievous, until politics and history darkened his imagination…. In the second version, it is as though a war was going on within Goya’s psyche from the very start…. His imagination was ripe for horror.” Here we present a series of prints and paintings from the show under review—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s “Goya: Order and Disorder,” now closed—along with commentary on the images drawn from Tóibín’s piece.

The Dark & Light of Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya: Self-Portrait, 1815
There are two ways, perhaps, of looking at Goya. In the first version, he was almost innocent, a serious and ambitious artist interested in mortality and beauty, but also playful and mischievous, until politics and history darkened his imagination. In the second version, it is as though a war was going on within Goya’s psyche from the very start.

Lust and Loss in Madrid

How strange it must seem to historians, sociologists, and philosophers that, after all that has happened in the world, the small matter of love, in all its minuscule twists and turns, continues to preoccupy novelists more than, say, the breaking of nations or the fate of the earth.

Those Dickens Kids: What Happened?

Charles Dickens, about to begin a public reading, 1858
Between 2005 and 2010 the National Archives in Dublin put the returns from the 1901 and 1911 Irish census online, with a search engine allowing those interested to key in any name, place, or occupation and then search further for an ancestor, a neighbor’s ancestor, or for anyone else. One …

The Sweet Troubles of Proust

Proust’s handwriting is bad; it is the handwriting of a novelist rather than a dandy, and visitors to the Morgan Library who can read French will have much fun making out the words and the many untidy emendations on the pages of the manuscript. In a letter to a publisher, as Proust seeks to explain what his novel is about, one word, however, stands alone and is written with a rare exactitude. In a letter to Alfred Vallette, editor of Le Mecure de France, in 1909 Proust described his work-in-progress: it “is a genuine novel and an indecent one in places. One of the principal characters is a homosexual.”

Going Beyond the Limits

English writers have come to describe awkwardness with a great tender ease. When their characters wear the wrong clothes, for example, or are members of the wrong class, this can appear as deep, almost spiritual, unsettlement. The sentences used to describe moments, or indeed hours and years, of …

Gay Night and Day

Edmund White, New York City, May 2006
In Chapter Four of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma the novel’s hero, Fabrizio, on his travels in Europe, comes across some kind of skirmish or military adventure. When he is injured, he is looked after by a local family until his wound begins to heal. And then in the next …

The Mysterious Powers of the Word

Nadine Gordimer, New York City, 1986
There is a moment in Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Late Bourgeois World when the narrator, a white woman in South Africa in the years of apartheid, is driving behind a truck and notices a group of black men who are laughing and joking. She wants for a moment to be …

In the Fires of Catalonia

Refugees from the Catalonian villages of Isil, Son, and Alós d’Isil in Clermont-Ferrand, France, July 1938
On St. John’s Eve, June 23, each year in the village of Isil, in the province of Lleida, in the area known as the Pallars high in the Catalan Pyrenees, the same ritual is enacted, with roots deep in the rich earth of European rituals, a core aspect of which …

Still Drama: Marina at MoMA

Marina Abramović performing The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010

At ten o’clock on a recent weekday morning, when the crowds were let in the door and up the stairs to the big hall on the second floor of MoMA, Marina Abramović was already seated in the center of a space that had been cordoned off by lines on the floor, strong lights making it seem like a movie set. She was wearing an immensely dramatic flowing red dress. Her black hair was in a single plait which folded around her left shoulder. She had her back to the stairs. She would not move from her own chair, not once, not even to eat or go to the bathroom, while the museum stayed open.

The Anger of Exile

Hélas #7, 36 x 36 inches, 1994; self-portrait by Rabih Alameddine. For more paintings by Alameddine, see the NYR blog,
There is a photograph of Thomas Mann taken in Lübeck, Germany, in 1955, shortly before his death. He is standing with his wife, Katia, outside the family house, the house of Buddenbrooks, or what remained of it. He is staring straight at the camera; the expression on his face bears …

The Genius of Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn, New York City, 1995
Although Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco, it sits alone in the landscape. The sense of ordered opulence on the campus is light-years away from the untidy, chaotic openness of the city on the bay. Of all the ghosts who wander …

Glorious Ghosts

Wexford is a small town on the sea in the south-east of Ireland and an unlikely place to host an opera festival. Yet since 1951 in late October the town has organized what has become for many opera-lovers an essential date in the calendar. The reason why it has remained important is not merely the intimacy of the setting, the general air of welcome and the strange sea-washed beauty of the old town, but the policy since the early 1970s to program three operas that have fallen beneath the radar, that are seldom or never performed.

Hopkins: The Odd Man Out

One of the strangest and most beautiful shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival, which ran during the first week of October, was entitled “No Worst There Is None” and concerned the life of the English poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was performed for an audience of twenty-five who followed the actors around the rooms of Newman House on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. This eighteenth century building, which is owned by University College Dublin, has a plaque outside commemorating three disparate figures who spent time in its lofty halls—Cardinal Newman, the first head of the National University of Ireland; James Joyce, who was a student here; and poor, depressed Hopkins, who, sent to Dublin by his order, spent the last five years of his life in the building and wrote what are called his “terrible sonnets.”

Why Ireland Said Yes

On October 2, I joined hundreds of thousands of other Irish voters in approving the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty by a surprising majority 63 to 33 percent.

The Admirable Mrs. James

Henry James, American Writer
At the end of R.W.B. Lewis’s The Jameses: A Family Narrative there is an appendix, entitled ” The Later Jameses,” which is a godsend for novelists, geneticists, and anthropologists, to name just three groups who might take an interest in what happened to the James family between the death of …

James Baldwin & Barack Obama

It seemed important, as both men set about making their marks on the world, for them to establish before anything else that their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father’s shadow or a father’s permission. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, …

A Great American Visionary

There are certain single volumes of American poetry, some of them first books or early books, which carry with them a special and spiritual power; they seem to arise from a mysterious impulse and to have been written from an enormous private or artistic need. The poems are full of …

The Shadow of Rose

Although Henry James’s sister Alice was five years his junior, they were the closest among the five James siblings. In her biography of Alice James, Jean Strouse has written: Alice and Henry shared throughout their lives a deeper intellectual and spiritual kinship than either felt with any other member of …

Creating ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

A specter haunted Henry James: it was the specter of George Eliot. He visited her first in 1869, when he was twenty-six, and wrote to his father: I was immensely impressed, interested and pleased. To begin with, she is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous…. Now in this vast ugliness resides a most …

Learning to Love

Katia Mann in her old age described what happened in Venice in the late spring of 1911. She had come to the city with her husband, Thomas Mann, and his brother Heinrich. They stayed in the Hotel des Bains on the Lido: It was very crowded, and in the dining …

A Thousand Prayers

Ford Madox Ford remembered Joseph Conrad trying to write in English as they collaborated on a novel: He used to come in in the mornings and, having climbed the many stairs to my small, dreadful, study, would sit for hours motionless and numb with a completely expressionless face. Every now …

Happy Birthday, Sam!

If you walk down Kildare Street in the center of Dublin, past the National Library, and take a right turn into South Leinster Street, and look then at the old building on the opposite side of the street which backs onto the playing fields of Trinity College, you will see …

Henry James’s New York

Very early in his career as a writer Henry James made his position clear. He would not be a public novelist or a social commentator but would instead deal with the reverse of the picture; the intricacies and vagaries of feeling in the relations between people, and mainly between men …

The Comedy of Being English

In his second novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst guides his narrator, Edward Manners, into the home of an old school friend who is married with young children. Manners is horrified by this blatant display of heterosexuality. “Why did they do it?” he asks. He goes on: “It must be …