In his new novel, The Testament of Mary, Irish writer Colm Toibin imagines Mary's life 20 years after the crucifixion. She is struggling to understand why some people believe Jesus is the son of God, and weighed down by the guilt she feels wondering what she might have done differently to alter — or ease — her son's fate.
Toibin grew up Catholic and, for a time, considered joining the priesthood. This changed upon his arrival at university, however, when exposure to new people and ideas soon led him to lose his faith. "I suppose I had been moving toward it without knowing," Toibin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "but, yeah, it went very quickly."
It was around this time, too, that Toibin acknowledged his homosexuality. Growing up, he says, "there was no word for it," and he describes his feelings as "absolute confusion." It was after meeting an openly gay friend at university, he explains, that "I moved very gingerly from between being a very conservative boy from a small town and being out with some friends."
Toibin replaced his faith in God with faith in music and art and poetry: Leonard Cohen, T.S. Eliot and "some writers like Joseph Conrad," he says. But losing his faith did not mean losing interest in Christianity. The idea for The Testament of Mary grew from both his concerns with high art and the lasting influence of Catholicism on his life.
For years, Toibin had been preoccupied with Titian's masterpiece, Assumption of the Virgin. But it wasn't until he was walking down the street from that favorite painting to see another Venetian work — Tintoretto's depiction of the crucifixion at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — that the germ of the novel developed. Tintoretto's painting, he says, is untidy and chaotic. At its center is the crucifixion, but surrounding that central scene is "every form of ... human activity as sort of odd and strange and random."
It was this realization of the distance "between the ideal and the real" as illustrated in the differences between the two paintings that inspired Toibin — who is also the author of Brooklyn and whose novel The Master was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Lambda Literary Award — to want to tell the story of how real people who had known Christ might have remembered his death and the time leading up to it.
Imagining such violent events as the crucifixion, he says, "is really, really serious work. In other words, you have to go in and pretend ... it's happening now and go into absolute detail, so you're almost working in the same way maybe a painter is working ... [except] that it's occurring word by word, sentence by sentence."
On imagining what the real life of Christ might have been like
"Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist, has written a book called The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, in which Jesus has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, so it's not as if it hadn't been done before. Even if it hadn't been done before, I would have felt an absolute right as a novelist to see this character as my invention and to work with that as truthfully as I could within the terms that I had set myself. And I suppose the second issue is that I am a citizen of the European Union, in which such freedoms are allowed and absolutely accepted by everybody."
On death by crucifixion
"Death on the cross is the strangest thing because you die of sunstroke, where you're just held up in that way and you can't faint and you can't fall. But obviously, if you have nails in your hands and in your feet, then there's a question of blood ... if you've already been sort of tortured, so that it can go quicker, but some crucifixions were in fact very, very slow, which made them extremely cruel. ... [A]lso, the fact that they were done on hills meant that crowds in the distance could see them, that ... as I say in the novel — they were silhouettes against the sky — and that that was part of the cruelty."
On how he approaches writing in order to bring the characters on the page alive
"I felt that I was Mary. In other words, I was her voice, I was her eyes, I was her soul, I was her consciousness watching the thing happening and wondering what to do and thinking about it years later, 'Did I do anything right? Was ... there anything more I could have done?' and then going into the next paragraph, describing in the next paragraph exactly what she saw. For example, I tried to think very precisely and exactly, 'If you're wearing a crown of thorns ... ,' and I'd never thought about it before, of course. She sees that he puts his hands up to try and pull the thorns out and by doing so manages to seal them further into the skin, and she's watching him doing that, and she's watching him doing that thinking, 'Stop. No, no, you're actually not helping. ... '
On his introduction to beauty through the Catholic Church
"The cathedral, both in my boarding school — the church — and the cathedral in my town, were both designed by Pugin, which was a great English 19th-century neogothic architect, and he created really beautiful spaces. ... [S]o I suppose [that was] my first connection with beauty, of seeing stained glass, of seeing soaring architecture, came from the church and also the choir in Enniscorthy where I'm from, they would have always sung Mozart's Ave Verum, so that the idea from a very early age [of] hearing religious music, and also the smell of incense and the vestments of the priests and the fact that the priests themselves were figures that people had enormous respect for. So yes, all of that was so much a part of life that you never even thought about it."
On losing his father at an early age, how his family dealt with the loss and how it shaped him as a novelist
"[T]he funeral took place and a lot of people came to the house, and what I noticed was everyone was talking about everything else — no one was talking about him. And then people didn't come as much to the house, and then we didn't quite know what to do, and my older siblings had gone by that time, so it was just my mother and my younger brother and myself. And my father, I can't think that his name was mentioned, and there was no photograph of him on the wall or anything like that. ...
"[W]e simply got on with our lives and that seemed normal, and you lived with that and, you see, if you're a novelist, that becomes a very interesting subject for you in a way. I think if that hadn't happened I might not have bothered with the books because that lived in me so, so fundamentally and so powerfully — that distance between what you are thinking about and what you are saying — and the silence that lingered all the time around serious emotion, that I could deal with in the books because I could of course enter people's privacy, which is one of the things you can do in a novel — you can write about what people are really thinking, how they're suffering, how they're feeling, and then look at what they're actually saying."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new novel "The Testament of Mary," my guest Colm Toibin imagines Mary's life and what goes through her mind years after the crucifixion of her son. The Mary that Toibin has imagined doesn't comprehend why Jesus' disciples - men who she considers misfits - believe that her son is the son of God.
She doesn't want to cooperate with them in writing the Gospels, and she feels constant guilt that she couldn't or didn't do more to help save her son or shorten the duration of his suffering. Colm Toibin is Irish and seriously considered becoming a priest before becoming a lapsed Catholic. His novels include "Brooklyn," and "The Master."
His non-fiction books include "Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar," "New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families," and "Signs of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe." You might have seen Toibin's name, yet not recognize it from the way he pronounces it, so I'm going to spell it for you. It's C-O-L-M T-O-I-B-I-N.
Colm Toibin, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start with a short reading from "The Testament of Mary," and you could just set up where we are in the story before reading it.
COLM TOIBIN: This is Mary about 20 years after the crucifixion. So she's an old woman, and she's remembering the past. She's talking about her son.
(Reading) I should've paid more attention to that time before he left to who came to the house, to what was discussed at my table. It was not the shyness or reticence that made me spend my time in the kitchen when those I did not know came. It was boredom. Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, sent me into the kitchen or the garden. Something of their awkward hunger or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them made me want to serve the food or water or whatever and then disappear before I'd heard a single word of what they were talking about.
(Reading) They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy. And then the talk was too loud. There were too many of them talking at the same time, or even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him.
(Reading) It was like something grinding, and it set my teeth on edge. I often found myself walking the dusty lanes with a basket, as though I needed bread, or visiting a neighbor who did not need visitors in the hope that when I returned, the young men would have dispersed or that he would've stopped speaking.
(Reading) Alone with me when they had left, it was easier, gentler, like a vessel from whom stale water has been poured out. And maybe in that time talking he was cleansed of whatever it was that had been agitating him. And then when night fell, he was filled again with clear spring water, which came from solitude or sleep, or even silence and work.
GROSS: That's Colm Toibin reading from his new book, "The Testament of Mary." Why did you write a novel about Mary in which Mary does not see her son as the son of God, and she sees his followers as a group of needy misfits?
TOIBIN: I didn't know where the story would take me, so I didn't begin with any set of principles. Or I even wasn't clear myself as to what she would say or do in the novel. I simply found myself in Venice, looking a lot over the years at the painting by Titian of "The Assumption," which is the altarpiece over the altar of the friary.
And it's a glorious painting, and Mary is being assumed body and soul into Heaven. It's the apotheosis of everything. But nearby - I mean, some blocks away, is a painting by Tintoretto of the crucifixion. And I came across that much later. In other words, I'd looked over the years at the Titian in Venice, but not at the Tintoretto.
And one day when I went into that building, which is the Scuola de San Rocco in Venice, I was really struck. The Tintoretto's enormous. It's long. It's untidy. It's chaotic. It has the crucifixion at the center, but all around is every form of untidiness and human activity, as sort of odd and strange and random. And it struck me, the distance between the two things, between the ideal and the real.
And it struck me that that story had not been told, the story of what it might've been like on that day, in real time for somebody, and how they would remember it. And so, slowly - I mean, I went back and I looked at the Gospels. I especially looked at St. John. And I came across - in the introduction of one of the translations - the idea that St. John had seen Greek theater.
And I was fascinated by the idea of that, by the idea that one of the people who wrote the testament had been - had seen "Medea," and had seen "Electra," had seen "Antigone." And so it was that voice - I began then to look at those translations of those plays to look at that voice of a woman who is strung out, who is deeply angry, who is somehow or other using a very heightened tone to describe feelings which have not been resolved. And so I started to work. And I went where it took me.
GROSS: So one of the things I see in your book - and I have no idea if you intend this or not - is, in some ways, you've described Mary as a typical mother who likes the son that she knows, the son that she raised, her son, a boy. But now that he's a man, now that he's an adult, she sometimes thinks he's false when he speaks, that he's stilted when he speaks, and that the people who look up to him and admire him don't really understand who he is. That's a kind of false self. She's the one who understands who he truly is, because she raised him. She knows his essence, and he's only his authentic self when he's alone with her. She can't see him through the eyes of others, and she can't see him as a fully grown adult man who has been transformed by growing up, by being an adult, by being his own person.
TOIBIN: Yes. I was fascinated by that idea of a relationship between a mother and a son in which the separation had not occurred, in which whatever had happened between them remained elemental, as though he was almost a baby in her arms, that she had never seen him as an adult, and that when she did she sort of minded that. She found it difficult to deal with.
Especially because of, I suppose, the intensity of what he was doing seemed to strike her as not an aspect of the child she knew, who was very quiet and retiring. I mean, I think this is quite a common business in the relationship between mothers and sons, and I've probably explored it in other areas.
I wrote a book of stories called "Mothers and Sons," but I was interested in the idea that that full separation between them - and then they would both become adults - had actually not occurred, thus giving her a sort of feeling about him that was all the more intense and all the more gnarled.
GROSS: You know, it seems to me that that kind of separation anxiety is maybe a pretty contemporary thing. Like, I have no idea if people in the time of Jesus had that kind of sense of their children, the inability to let go and see who they are as an adult. I mean, life was, I assume, very different then. So I'm just kind of interested in why you wanted to project a very kind of contemporary anxiety onto Mary and her relationship with Jesus.
TOIBIN: Well, I think that the terms to use about it are contemporary, but the idea that something like that did not occur in the past, that it is not something eternal and perennial I think is something that really didn't occur to me. Obviously, I have to be very careful about issues. I didn't want to be anachronistic. But I did want to include the fact, how much we know now about psychology and about family relations and sort of play with that at the edges of this story.
GROSS: So before I go any further, I want to say you're really playing with fire in this book, because a lot of people will see it as blasphemous. I mean, you're saying that Mary didn't believe her son was the Son of God and she doesn't really believe his disciples. The disciples who are staying with her to protect her, she kind of thinks what they're really doing is to protect her against telling her story to other people because her story is inconsistent with their story.
So everything that you're saying is so contradictory to the gospels and kind of contradictory to, you know, the basic tenets of Christianity.
TOIBIN: Well, I suppose there are two things there. One, the first, is that I'm a novelist. And my job is to imagine and to create character and there's a long tradition of this. In other words, George Moore, who was an Irish novelist, wrote a novel called "The Brook Kerith" which he published in 1916 in which he deals with the fact - not the fact, the fiction that Jesus survived the crucifixion and ended up in India.
You know, someone like Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist, has written a book called "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," in which Jesus has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. So it's not as though it has not been done before, but even if it hadn't been done before I would have felt an absolute right as a novelist to see this character as my invention and as to work with that as truthfully as I could within the terms I had set myself.
And I suppose the second issue is that I'm a citizen of the European Union in which such freedoms are allowed and absolutely accepted by everybody. So that I don't really see any difficulty there.
GROSS: Has anything surprised you about the reaction you've gotten so far?
TOIBIN: I suppose what surprised me about Ireland, the response in Ireland, has been the ease and the mildness of the response. That there has not been any difficulty.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Colm Toibin and his new novel is called "The Testament of Mary." Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Colm Toibin. His new novel is called "The Testament of Mary." So in your novel Mary actually asks, is there anything that can be done so that my son suffers as brief a time as possible. Is there anything to do to hasten his death during the crucifixion? And what is she told in your novel?
TOIBIN: Well, she's told that it could last for a long time and she's told that it could last for a shorter time if they break his legs. And that there is somebody who knows how to manage this. And she becomes very interested in that idea, that all around are people who actually know the strangest things. That is as though, you know, somebody could in childbirth say, oh, right, it could take another hour now.
So too, here on the hill, there are men who could say, right, leave it for another two hours and we'll be able to handle it then. And that, for her, is really upsetting and part of the atmosphere that is so ominous.
GROSS: And did you do any research for that part of the book to understand more about crucifixions and how long death took on the cross?
TOIBIN: Well, it is one of the issues where, you know, death on the cross is the strangest thing because you die of sunstroke where you're just held up in that way and you can't faint and you can't fall. But obviously, if you've nails in your hands and your feet, then there's a question of blood.
And if you've already been sort of tortured, so that it can go quicker. But that some crucifixions were, in fact, very, very slow, which made them extremely cruel. And also the fact they were done on hills meant that crowds in the distance could see them, that they're - as I say in the novel - silhouetted against the sky, and that that was part of the cruelty.
GROSS: Was it upsetting to do that part of the research? I mean, just crucifixion is such, you know, one of the many horrible things in history.
TOIBIN: I didn't find the research upsetting. What I found absolutely upsetting was the writing, because I had to enter into it. I had to be there. I didn't write this from outside. I went into it. And certainly in writing those sentences, in writing those passages, had to, you know, had to really get myself set up and know this was the day for this. And know that I really would need sort of protection myself.
I remember one of the days going into another room and somebody saying to me in the other room, all you all right? What's wrong with you? Are you OK? And I wasn't. You know, in other words, it was very, very difficult to imagine that, pretending as a novelist I think has to do, that it hasn't happened yet and now in these sentences it will now come into play, so it will now happen. That was very, very difficult work.
GROSS: So in making Jesus a character in your novel did you feel like you were crucifying Jesus?
TOIBIN: No, I didn't feel that. I felt that I was Mary; in other words, I was her voice.
TOIBIN: I was her eyes. I was her soul. I was her consciousness watching the thing happening and wondering what to do and thinking about it years later - did I do anything right? Was there anything more I could've done? And then going into describing in the next paragraph exactly what she saw.
For example, I tried to think, you know, very precisely and exactly. If you're wearing a crown of thorns - and I'd never thought about it before - of course she sees that he puts his hands up to try and pull the thorns out and by doing so manages to sort of seal them in further into the skin. And she's watching him doing that, thinking stop. No, no, you're actually not helping.
And of course, there is an image in the book where she watches as they have - they have one arm nailed on the cross and they can't get the other arm nailed because he won't give it to them. He's holding it in so hard against his chest to stop them. And they have to get other men to come and sort of pull it and free it and nail it.
And, look, writing that sort of stuff, I mean, writing that seems like that is really, really serious work. In other words, you have to go in and pretend it hasn't happened yet and that it's happening now and go into absolute detail. So you're almost working the same way maybe as a painter is working or a photographer, except that it's occurring word by word, sentence by sentence, and you have to imagine it in that way.
GROSS: You grew up in Ireland and still there much of the year, although you live part of the year in New York. So what role did the Church play in your life as a boy?
TOIBIN: I think it played such a great role that you didn't even notice it. In other words, that I was an altar boy, so often I would serve in the morning. On a Sunday morning I would do 7 o'clock mass and I would do maybe 8 o'clock mass. And then I might even go to a later mass myself with my parents.
And that was Sunday. And I would often then during the week serve 8 o'clock mass every morning, riding on my bicycle from home to the church. I would go up into the steeple. I would ring the 22 bell, 22 before. I don't know; I was 10 or 11 years old. And most of the teachers - I mean, the school was Catholic. Some of the teachers were Christian Brothers.
And later I went to a diocesan school with priests and when I went there you had rosary every day. You had benediction a lot of time. And you had mass every morning. And the church had, I suppose, a great deal of power. So much power that you didn't even notice the power.
But, yes, it was a Catholic society. It was a Catholic country with enormous quantities of Catholic worship. The church, the cathedral - both in my boarding school, the church and the cathedral in my town were both designed by Pugin who was a great English 19th century neo-Gothic architect.
And he created really beautiful spaces. So that I suppose my first connection with beauty, of seeing stained glass, of seeing soaring architecture, came from the church. And also the choir. In Enniscorthy, where I'm from, they would've always sung Mozart's "Ave Verum," so that the idea from very early age hearing religious music.
And also the smell of incense, you know, and the vestments of the priest. And the fact that the priests themselves were figures that people had enormous respect for. So, yes, all of that was so much part of life that you never even thought about it.
GROSS: You've just described a very sensual experience. I don't mean sexual-sensual. I mean, you know, like your nose is engaged through the incense. Your eyes through, you know, there's, like, magnificent architecture. Your ears through the music, the Mozart. So, you know, you've described something quite beautiful.
TOIBIN: Yes. Yes. In other words, it's very difficult to say that Catholicism did damage. You know, in other words - also, there's something I haven't mentioned which is the beauty of the language. And at boys confraternity, I mean, we went there from the age of seven, you went on, I think, a Monday night to boys confraternity and the lights of the cathedral would go down and the booming voice of the priest would go: Death comes soon and judgment will follow. So now, dear children, examine your conscience and find out your sins. And for some reason, I found that very satisfying. I mean, as a piece of language. I mean, I sort of always looked forward to him saying it. I liked the sound of it. And also, I was never really that interested in the sermons.
But when the mass was put in English and it came to the consecration and you say: And so Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your spirit. I don't know what that is, but whatever it is, it has an element of poetry in it. And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your spirit.
GROSS: You didn't find it ominous that every day the priest would say, death comes soon so atone?
TOIBIN: It was once a week that happened.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
TOIBIN: I mean, yes, later on, obviously when I was a teenager and started to listen to Leonard Cohen...
TOIBIN: I found Leonard Cohen equally satisfying, if you know what I mean, and I didn't find that as satisfying as before. But it was the beginning of that, I suppose, engagement with language as something sacred, as something special, as something if used publicly, if used properly, that could be very powerful.
GROSS: Colm Toibin will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "The Testament of Mary." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Coming up, Colm Toibin tells us why he seriously considered becoming a priest but became a lapsed Catholic instead, and how his love of art, architecture, and literature relate to growing up in Ireland immersed in the church.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with author Colm Toibin. His new novel, "The Testament of Mary," is written from Mary's point of view 20 years after the crucifixion of her son. She doesn't understand why her son's disciples - men who she considers misfits - believe the man she raised is the son of God.
Toibin is also the author of the novels "Brooklyn" and "The Master," and the nonfiction books "The Sign of The Cross: Travels In Catholic Europe," "Love in a Dark Time," "Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar" and "New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families."
When we left off, we were talking about Toibin's relationship with the Catholic Church as a child growing up in Ireland. He now considers himself a lapsed Catholic.
So when did you start to separate from the church?
TOIBIN: The Dublin boarding school was very interesting because the priests spent a lot - I mean a lot of the priests spent the summers in America and they came home - this is 1970, I went there, they came home with new ideas and they came home with an idea that everything should be debated. And the only thing I should say, that wasn't debated was homosexuality. But everything else was debated, including the quality of your faith was open to debate, and that there were very serious theological discussions in the school and slowly, slowly mine faded. You know, in other words, I would have at the age of 16 I didn't go home for the Easter holidays. I stayed in the school to, at my own volition, wondering if I would become a priest. There was an arrangement whereby you could do this. I should say, my family and friends were very surprised by this and it was a big decision to make, look, I'm not coming home because I think I might have a vocation. There was a sort of silence that you're, you're not coming home? No, I'm staying. And so I stayed and it was a very satisfying an interesting time as serious theologians came to talk to us and there was a lot of silence and there was a lot of discussion. It was a very, and a lot of prayer, and then it just went away by the end of that year, by the end of the summer something else had taken its place, maybe and then I didn't join.
GROSS: What do you think took its place?
TOIBIN: Certainly music did. Certainly Leonard Cohen and to some extent T.S. Eliot as a poet, and some writers like Joseph Conrad. And then when I went to university at 17, within a few weeks I met somebody who I, who became a very close friend and he just said to me, it's all rubbish, you know. It's all rubbish. All of its rubbish. And I'm very susceptible to that if anyone ever says something like that to me about anything. I said, is it? He says yeah, it's all rubbish. There's no truth in it. I said, are you sure? He says, yeah. And that was almost the end of that.
GROSS: Really? After being so deeply involved with it...
TOIBIN: I know.
GROSS: ...and thinking you had a vocation...
TOIBIN: I know.
GROSS: ...a friend tells you it's all rubbish and that's that?
TOIBIN: Well, I suppose I have been moving towards it without knowing. You know, I as I had been reading D.H. Lawrence, I had been reading whatever else I had been reading and certainly D.H. Lawrence might have been an important element in this where the element of the sensual, the elements of the sex of all of that. But, yeah, it went very quickly.
GROSS: Was he the first person who basically said you have the right to think this?
TOIBIN: Yes. It was something like that and he was so sure and he knew so much about literature in general that I thought he must be right. No I didn't. That's not true to say that I thought he must be right about this, but it's simply I was clearly ready for it and when he said it, then it happened.
GROSS: So earlier, you were talking about how once some of the priests in your boarding school started making trips to America and bringing home ideas from America back to the boarding school, things opened up to debate and discussion in a way that they hadn't been before, and many things were opened to the debate but one of the things that was not was homosexuality. You're gay. Did you know that at the time when you were in boarding school?
TOIBIN: You know, there was no word for it and there were no, I mean obviously, there was a word like we are work something but, you know, even we didn't use that word very much, I mean as an insult, it would have been used very much. And I suppose what I'm talking about is absolute confusion with no image of anybody else who was in that position. So what I thought was that I would go on and get married and do what everybody else did and it didn't occur to me the difference that this confusion was going to make to my life.
GROSS: When did you start to understand more fully who you were?
TOIBIN: Very slowly and in my in university. In other words, I met somebody when I was about 18 or 19 who was really out who had really, you know, who had been, spent a summer again, in America and come back just with absolute feeling of I must be free to declare who I am. I was terribly embarrassed to be around him but I couldn't avoid it, and so I moved very gingerly between being a very conservative boy from a small town and being out with some friends.
GROSS: What year was this about?
TOIBIN: Seventy-three, '74, '75.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So just getting back to your church experience for a moment. When you decided to basically part with the church and not practice Catholicism anymore, if I'm putting that correctly, how did it feel to lose religion when religion had been such an essential part of who you were? Did you have a void in your life? Did you have a hole that you needed to fill? Did you have to search someplace else for the kind of meaning that religion can provide?
TOIBIN: I suppose I did in that I was really terribly interested in poetry. You know, I would have been by that time have found somebody like Wallace Stevens to be terribly important for me and indeed, the portrait of W.B. Yeats, and other American poets like Robert Lowell, so that I was reading poetry very seriously, and I was reading fiction almost for its poetry. And so yes, I suppose a life, I mean very intense reading of books and poems and also the discovery of classical music, and all of that simply fill the gap and so that I didn't feel a void. The void was filled so deeply and seriously by painting, and to some extent, but not as much as by literature and by music.
GROSS: And the language and the music of the church was part of what you loved about it, so you're kind of consistent with that.
TOIBIN: Yes. I remember in Barcelona buying a record of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" and finding that extraordinary, I mean really powerful and sort of using that in a way to have I suppose what I might call now a spiritual life. But I didn't call it that then. I called it pleasure then.
GROSS: So you call what you have now a spiritual life?
TOIBIN: I think that if you have a deep engagement with music or with poetry and you have to sort of question what that does or what that means, I think that one of the things it does and one of the things it means is that it offers you a sort of nonmaterial way of having your life or a way of having certain transcendence or a way of living in the world properly so that you take full pleasure or advantage from the nonmaterial things in the world.
GROSS: So now that you know you're gay and you're, you know, you're out and you're living the life of a gay man, could you ever seriously go back to the Catholic church knowing that the church hasn't really budged on the issue of homosexuality?
TOIBIN: I think I could. I mean I think that the church has many mansions and there are many ways of being in the church. And just because this particular group have these very rigid rules and this particular group of popes have these rigid rules doesn't mean that if you had a relationship, say with the ceremony of the mass or indeed, with the idea of eternal life or with the figure of Jesus on the cross, that you should allow men such as that - ordinary men and sometimes very bossy men - to interfere with you.
GROSS: Because the church is such a big part of Ireland where you grew up, are you angry with the church?
TOIBIN: No. No, I'm not. I got a lot from the church. I mean, in other words, that idea of beauty, that idea of ceremony, that idea of I suppose community. But I did get to understand that there is an element in all of us, I think, that wants to boss and bully other people around. I suppose the church came to mean that at a certain point for a lot of people, I mean for a lot of women, and indeed, for gay people, that you had these very bossy men standing very rigidly telling you what you should and shouldn't do and I got to feel an immense dislike for that sort of exercise of power.
GROSS: So it was that exercise of power and not your understanding of Catholicism that...
TOIBIN: I think Catholicism is much grander...
TOIBIN: ...than the mere exercise of power by a number of men who happen to be alive at the moment.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist and essayist Colm Toibin. His new novel is called "The Testament of Mary."
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Colm Toibin and he is a novelist and essayist. His new novel is called "The Testament of Mary."
I read that your father had, I think it was a brain aneurysm when you were a boy - eight years old I think you were. And your mother took you and your younger brother to stay with an aunt while she took care of your father? Do I have that correct?
GROSS: And that you were just kind of like how - she didn't call or visit or anything during that period, and you were just kind of how could she do that? How could she just like leave you with an aunt and not stay in touch during the period. So how did that affect your relationship??
TOIBIN: I think it affected myself and my brother very deeply. And, in other words, that we simply didn't know what was happening and obviously, she had to make a decision as to whether she was going to - you know, he was very sick and she had to be within - he wanted her, and the town didn't have its own hospital. The hospital was, you know, in Dublin, which at that time was considered very far away. So she went and she stayed with him. I really can't remember how long that was but it seemed forever. And whatever was going on in her mind at the time - you see it wasn't the time where telephones were used widely in Ireland. Some people have them, some didn't. We never had a telephone in our own house when I was growing up and I'm not, you know, the house we stayed in didn't have a telephone. But she, no, so she didn't phone because there wouldn't have been, I would never have spoken to her on the phone, you know, and she didn't get in touch. So we simply never knew what was going to happen to us. And this doesn't seem to me now that I think about it, I mean I had to go and think like how long did this last for. I think it was a couple of months, I think it was three months, but it seemed - and, of course, when we came home finally, my father had really lost his speech so everything was different and both of us - I think I was eight and my brother was four - I don't think we knew what to do even when we came home.
GROSS: Did you ever patch things up with your mother?
TOIBIN: No. I mean I wrote about it in a novel. This is one way of patching things up. To some extent it's in all of the novels, an idea of abandonment is there somewhere and I think more particularly in a novel called "The Blackwater Lightship." But no, I didn't feel it was appropriate since she had gone through so much at that time to start raising the issue of how much I'd gone through. I didn't think it was to be done. I didn't do it.
GROSS: Your father died when you were how old?
GROSS: Yeah. And you wrote in a recent essay: His name was hardly ever mentioned again. It was too much that he had died, too hard. His absence was too sad. So it entered the realm of what you thought about and did not speak of, a realm I remain very comfortable in to this day.
Would you describe the realm that you're talking about?
TOIBIN: Well, I suppose that, you know, the funeral took place and a lot of people came to the house, and what I noticed was that everyone was talking about everything else - no one was talking about him. And then people didn't come as much to the house, and then we didn't quite know what to do, and my older siblings had gone by that time, so it was just my mother and my younger brother and myself.
And no, my father - I can't think that his name was mentioned. And there was no photograph of him on the wall or anything like that. And we simply got on with our lives. And that seemed normal. In other words, you lived with that.
And of course, you see, if you're a novelist that becomes a very interesting subject for you. In a way, I think if that hadn't happened I might have not bothered with the books, but that because that lived in me so fundamentally and so powerfully, that distance between what you are thinking about and what you were saying and the silence that lingered all the time around serious emotion, that I could deal with that in the book.
Because I could of course enter people's privacy, which is one of the things you can do in a novel. You can write about what people are really thinking, how they're suffering, how they're feeling, and then look at what they're actually saying. So I could, sort of, explore that but at the time it was normal. It was what we did.
GROSS: I want to ask you about your novel, "Brooklyn," which was published in 2009. And this is a novel about a young woman growing up in Ireland, where you grew up. And it's the 1950s and hundreds of thousands of people during the '50s left Ireland. It's a period of great unemployment. Three of her siblings have already left for England.
One - you know, a sister has a job but, you know, this woman has a not very good job and one of the priests from her parish has moved to America and invites her - offers to sponsor her to go to America and to live in his parish. Which she does. And when she first gets there she feels so lost, so without a home. And before we talk about this, I'd like you to just read a paragraph that describes that feeling from your novel "Brooklyn."
TOIBIN: (Reading) She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family. It was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house in Ireland belonged to her, she thought. When she moved in them she was really there.
In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the vocational school, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false. Empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to. But there was nothing.
Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing, maybe, except sleep. And she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet since it was not yet nine o'clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.
GROSS: Did you ever experience the kind of loneliness and dislocation that you've described in the paragraph from "Brooklyn" that you just read?
TOIBIN: Yeah, I did but, I mean, I wouldn't like to dwell on it. In other words, I didn't have that experience that so many Irish immigrants had of going on their own, having menial jobs and working as servants or builders, or having those jobs in England and in America.
But I did find myself in the, you know, year before I started the book, living in Austin in Texas. I was teaching in the university. Look, it was a very privileged business, but I had never really thought about it before I went there. I thought it was going to be great. And some of it was great. But you woke in the morning in a foreign country where every single thing was different.
I mean, you drive on the wrong side of the road here, for example.
GROSS: No, you drive on the wrong side of the road there.
TOIBIN: Oh, I see. So that's exactly what I'm talking about. And so I started to think about home and I started to miss home. And I started to have those feelings that I realized that millions of Irish people had had over the generations. And I started to count the days - I was going home at the end of it.
But nonetheless, the feelings were real and they became very useful and nourishing once I got home and realized that I had a story to tell. And there was a story that hasn't been told very much, because, of course, a lot of the people who came as immigrants to England or America, they were so busy in their lives that they didn't end up writing books.
Maybe their children did and their children became Eugene O'Neil or their grandchildren became Henry James. Or in later life they became Frank McCourt. But the immediate experience of those first months away, realizing you'd lost home and you'd not gained a new one and that you were nobody in this place, those feelings had not been explored in literature.
And I realized that I had had the feelings and they were urgent for me and that I could deal with them in this way by finding a character and by giving the feelings to her.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Colm Toibin and his new novel is called "The Testament of Mary." Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Colm Toibin. He's the author of several novels, including "Brooklyn" and the new novel "The Testament of Mary." I think a lot has been written about the immigration at the beginning of the 20th century from the potato famine, immigration from Ireland to the United States.
Much less has been written about the hundreds of thousands of people who left Ireland in the 1950s. Can you talk a little bit about that wave?
TOIBIN: Yes. Every family in the town I'm from, people went to England or America. Now, people really stopped going to America in the '50s, but they went in the '30s and '40s. The big difference with going to America is that often you never came home at all. But the other difference was that the - America was viewed as glamorous, as a land of opportunity whereas England was viewed as a land where you would always be a second-class citizen.
It was always - the view was taken that in America you could become anybody. I mean, when I was eight - in other words, just the summer when my father got sick. I mean, he got sick later in the year but he took me out of school when I was eight in the June of 1963 to see John F. Kennedy coming back to Wexford. And we're from Wexford.
So you saw the president of the United States, the most glamorous and suntanned man - he looked extraordinary - coming around the corner in an open topped car and the crowd waving. He was Irish. You know, his great-grandfather had come from very close to where we're from. So that America was seen as a land where you could become president, or where your descendants could.
Whereas, in England obviously they had laws, and they still do, indeed, to prevent your descendants becoming queen or king.
GROSS: So did you have family who left in the 1950s?
TOIBIN: Yes. I had an uncle who went to Birmingham. And the homecomings were always strange.
GROSS: Birmingham, England. Not Alabama.
TOIBIN: Yes. And the homecomings were always strange. In other words, he would be home for two weeks and you would notice him talking about people that everyone else had sort of forgotten. He was living, still, as though he was 20. He was going around to bars that he used to go to when he was a teenager that nobody went to anymore.
And so there was a funny, sort a brittle excitement about his two weeks home and there would be a sort of relief when he had finally gone back to Birmingham, England. And that happened all around us. In other words, for two weeks each summer you would have them coming home and their children would come with them, sometimes, with English accents.
And there was an absolute distance between you and them and at the same a fierce connection. And no one was quite sure, which.
GROSS: So, like, everybody else had moved on and they would return to the same routines that they had before they moved, before they left.
TOIBIN: Yes. And they'd remember funny things. My mother would get totally irritated at her brother who would say do you remember so-and-so? You know, I went to see him the other day. Why'd you go and see him for? You know, we don't see him anymore. And my uncle would look completely puzzled and we'd sort of watch the conversation.
Yes. So I think that became a very common experience if you went to England. But the other one was - we didn't have anyone who went to America, but our neighbors did, and eventually one of them came home and she had an American accent and she had American clothes and she had American glamour.
And she talked about the size of everything in America and the, sort of, extraordinary life she lived in America. So we saw America as being a totally glamorous place without knowing, of course - only years later it struck me that what she was talking about were the people she was working for because she was working as a servant in a house.
GROSS: There's a couple of other questions I wanted to ask you, so I'm just going to squeeze them in before our time is up. You've said you dislike being told, oh, you're Irish. You're from an oral tradition of storytelling.
TOIBIN: Yes. My friend, the English painter Howard Hodgkin hates being called a colorist. And I said, oh, Howard, I know what that means. Yes. You're a serious painter. I hate being called a storyteller because I'm a novelist. In other words, I hold and wield textures and tones in language. And if you think that it's natural to me to do this, it is not.
TOIBIN: In other words, people think, oh, Irish people are always talking. But there's no structure on that, and often what they talk about is not what they're thinking about. So yes, I don't come out of an oral tradition. I come out of silence.
GROSS: You come out of silence? What does that mean?
TOIBIN: I mean that what I noticed most in my childhood, or even in my adulthood, were the silences between the words, the things that were not said. The reason why the story was told, so some other story that was more true might not be told. And it's my job to tell that story.
GROSS: Colm Toibin, thank you so much for talking with us.
TOIBIN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Colm Toibin is the author of the new novel "The Testament of Mary." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.