Colm Toibin is the author of several novels and short story collections. (Brigitte Lacombe)
Colm Toibin’s books include the novels The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, Nora Webster and Brooklyn, the short-story collections The Empty Family and Mothers and Sons, and several works of non-fiction. He is a three-time finalist for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the International Dublin Literary Award. His latest novel, House of Names, a retelling of the myth of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, was recently published by McClelland & Stewart.
Why did you write your new book?
I like the idea of the blurred figure in the photo, the person at the edge of a story. Although I thought I knew the story of Electra, I simply had not read a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis. When I did, it gave me a new way of looking at Clytemnestra, Electra’s mother. I began to work on a version of the story, told from Clytemnestra’s point of view. Once that was done, I saw it was not enough. The figure of Orestes, Electra’s brother who killed his mother, remains shadowy. He returns from somewhere in the plays, but where has he been? I began to imagine a life for him, a childhood, a way of being in the world, oddly passive and uneasy, watchful, easy to manipulate. I became fascinated by him then as I set about building a character who is not a psychopath but who is willing to murder his own mother.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
I would like to be Joseph Conrad in about 1894, my years at sea all done, many stories in my head, wanting only peace and quiet to write them. I know he’s not fictional, and if I can’t be him then I would like to be Marlow, his salty alter ego.
Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?
Some poems: one by Rilke called Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes, which sees death as a sort of completion; Byzantium and Cuchulain Comforted by Yeats, which also deal with death; Obit by Robert Lowell; North Haven by Elizabeth Bishop; On His Deceased Wife by John Milton; This Living Hand by Keats.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
Hamlet; Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady; James Joyce’s Dubliners; Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Sylvia Plath’s Ariel; Wallace Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.
What’s the best death scene in literature?
The death of Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady manages to be fully secular and worldly while also allowing for the possibility of soul and spirit. It is filled with a longing for love and for life, and seemed to see death almost as a part of that.