Revisiting the Past

Colm Tóibín, interviewed by Jazz Boothby

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In our March 10, 2022 issue, Colm Tóibín reviewed Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film in which his characters confront the dark forces of their country’s past by excavating the mass, unmarked graves of their relatives who were killed during the Spanish Civil War. Tóibín describes the filmmaker as “a moralist opposed to dishonesty and hypocrisy; his characters work toward a recognition of aspects of themselves that were hidden or forbidden.”

This surprising description could perhaps also be applied to Tóibín, a prolific critic and novelist whose work candidly interrogates many of the themes also found in Almodóvar’s films: Catholicism, homosexuality, and masculinity. For two decades, Tóibín has been a regular contributor to the Review. He is currently a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and Chancellor of Liverpool University.

After graduating from University College Dublin in 1975, Tóibín moved to Barcelona, spending the next three years amid the fever of the new Spain emerging after the death of Francisco Franco. His experiences there influenced his first novel, The South, which follows an Irish woman who emigrates to Barcelona. After his time in Spain, Tóibín returned to Ireland in 1978 and began working as a journalist. He left his home country again in 1985 and traveled through Europe, South America, and Africa, experiences that led him to produce Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border and The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.

As a critic, Tóibín has often considered works of Spanish art and literature which contend with the forces and legacies of fascism; in addition to Almodóvar he has written on Javiar Marías, Pablo Picasso, and Federico García Lorca, who was assassinated by Falangist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Among the artists that represent the anima of post-Franco Spain, in his view, “a number of novelists emerged, but many of them were playful, as interested in form and tone as they were in politics. But, still, it is possible to get a portrait of modern Spain from Javier Marías, Almudena Grandes, Antonio Muñoz Molina and Enrique Vila-Matas. But the spirit of the change appears also in the poems of Luis García Montero and in the paintings of Miquel Barceló.”

In his review of Lorca’s volume Poet in Spain, Tóibín makes clear that artists are often burdened by the political, writing that “Lorca knew with an almost whimsical certainty that in Spain in 1936 the personal was political, and that the body itself, especially the body of a woman or a homosexual man, was as much the territory of conflict and destiny as the ownership of land or factories.”

While Tóibín acknowledges that Parallel Mothers “might appear to be Almodóvar’s most political film,” he highlights the significance of the director’s early work during Spain’s transition to democracy: “Moving sexual strangeness toward the light of normality has been for him a deeply political act.”

Tóibín refers to motherhood as “one of Almodóvar’s great subjects.” The same could be said of Tóibín, whose has closely examined maternal dynamics in Testament of Mary, House of Names, and Mothers and Sons. I asked him if there’s anything that seems to draw gay men to stories about mothers. “Yes,” he replied. “Gay men are nicer to their mothers than straight men, who, it seems, are often very busy.”  

At the moment, he is reading Harald Jähner’s Aftermath, a history of daily life in Germany in the decade after the fall of the Third Reich. “This gives us a fascinating account of what actually happened in Germany in the lives of ordinary people after the war, but it also has a larger mission,” he said: “to show us how oddly people behave and how obvious things often don’t happen and how well people adapt to the strangest circumstances.”

Tóibín, though best known as a novelist, got his start with writing poetry at the age of twelve. “It was an impulse rather than a decision,” he told me. “Poems and novels can both come from impulse. Often the impulse, the original one, is enough to sustain a poem, but a novel requires many dull days of work.”

His first collection of poetry, Vinegar Hill, will be released on April 12, and is the culmination of several decades of work: “If anything occurs to me, I write it down as the opening of a poem. Out of that, I have finished two poems this year. Maybe by the end of the year I will have eight poems. When I am not doing this, I am working on a new novel.” Perhaps, like Almodóvar’s characters, Tóibín is revisiting the past “to insist that what happened not be forgotten.”


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