Revisiting the past | Colm Toibin
This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Reviewcontributors; read the previous ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to receive them weekly in your inbox.
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 as they excavate the unmarked common graves of loved ones killed during the Spanish Civil War. Tóibín describes the filmmaker as “a moralist opposed to dishonesty and hypocrisy; his characters work to recognize aspects of themselves that were hidden or forbidden.
This surprising description could perhaps also apply to Tóibín, a prolific critic and novelist whose work candidly questions many of the themes that are also found in Almodóvar’s films: Catholicism, homosexuality and masculinity. . For two decades, Tóibín has regularly contributed to the Review. He is currently Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Chancellor of the University of Liverpool.
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, South, which follows an Irish woman who emigrates to Barcelona. After his stay in Spain, Tóibín returned to Ireland in 1978 and began working as a journalist. He left his native 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 that struggle against the forces and legacies of fascism; in addition to Almodóvar, he wrote about 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 representing the anima of post-Franco Spain, he says, “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 change also appears in the poems of Luis García Montero and in the paintings of Miquel Barceló.
In his review of Lorca’s volume Poet in SpainTóibín clarifies that artists are often burdened with politics, writing that “Lorca knew with almost whimsical certainty that in Spain in 1936 the personal was political, and that the body itself, especially the body of a woman or of a homosexual man, was as much the territory of conflict and fate as the ownership of land or factories.
While Tóibín recognizes that Parallel mothers “could seem to be Almodóvar’s most political film”, he stresses the importance of the director’s early work during Spain’s transition to democracy: “Moving sexual strangeness into the light of normality was for him a profoundly political act”.
Tóibín refers to motherhood as “one of Almodóvar’s great subjects”. The same could be said of Tóibín, who closely examined maternal dynamics in Will of Mary, house of namesand mothers and sons. I asked her if there was something that drew gay people to motherhood stories. “Yes,” he replied. “Gay people are kinder to their mothers than straight people, who, it seems, are often very busy.”
Right now he is reading Harald Jähner Consequences, a story of daily life in Germany in the decade following the fall of the Third Reich. “It gives us a fascinating account of what really happened in Germany in the lives of ordinary people after the war, but it also has a wider mission,” he said: “to show us how people behave weirdly and how the obvious things often don’t.” it doesn’t happen and how well people adapt to the oddest of circumstances.
Tóibín, although best known as a novelist, began 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 impulses. Often the impulse, the original one, is enough to sustain a poem, but a novel takes long days of boring work.
His first collection of poetry, Vinegar Hill, will be released on April 12, and is the culmination of decades of work: “If something comes to mind, I write it as the opening of a poem. From this I have completed two poems this year. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll have eight poems. When I’m not doing that, I’m working on a new novel. Perhaps, like Almodóvar’s characters, Tóibín revisits the past “to insist that what happened should not be forgotten”.