The final literary event as part of the 2011 Galway Arts Festival was certainly a resounding way in which to draw a truly amazing Festival to a close. The IMPAC award winner and Booker prize nominee Colm Toibin did not disappoint the sell-out crowd that filled the Meyrick Hotel on a sun-filled Saturday on the final weekend of the Galway Arts Festival. While the thousands were enjoying the festivities on the thronged Galway streets, those with a ticket for Toibin certainly would not swap for any prize.
Toibin was in warm and open form as he took to the lectern on stage in the Connemara Suite of the Meyrick. He started into a story recounting his experiences of regional arts festivals in Ireland. Toibin outlined how the Gorey Arts Festival , founded by his late friend Paul Funge, opened up such opportunities throughout the early 1970’s and onwards as it afforded the locals to see amazing works of theatre, hear great writers read their works and to see the works of great artists.
He talked in particular about visit to the Gorey Arts Festival by Patrick MaGee and Jack McGowran, both renowned acquaintances of Samuel Beckett and also famous actors of his work, so much so that Krapp’s Last Tape actually had a working title of ‘Monologue for Magee’. Toibin spoke of these characters, Beckett, Magee and McGowran as if he was with old friends sharing a drink and a story. This affability, genuine warmth and connection with his readers as well as with the people he is writing on paper about makes Toibin one of Ireland’s most loved and successful of contemporary writers.
Toibin read from his latest work, his collection of short stories the Empty Family (Read my review of this here ) Reading the story Two Women, Toibin presented one of the most memorable stories from the collection. Set in present-day Ireland, a divorced and middle-aged TV producer who has put all of her strength and passion into her career is brought to relive her past lost love when she encounters a woman from the past: a woman she has never met but with him she shares so much experience and people.
Following this the floor was opened up for questions for Toibin. No shortage of willing volunteers as question after question were ably taken by the guest of honour. When asked about his setting out to write his IMPAC-winning work, The Master, Toibin answered he wanted to really get to know the man, Henry James, and not the outward character which people may have known. To Toibin, James was a mysterious character, often proving to be the opposite of what you thought. James was gay but loved the company of women as well as men, he was often reclusive but ate out every evening in large company. James’ writing, Toibin, described, is full of winding and snaking sentences, full of sub-clauses. You don’t get to know the Henry James, the man, from his writing, as you would be able to know James Joyce from reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Toibin was also asked about his inspiration about his Costa Prize-winning novel, Brooklyn. Again delving into his rich personal memory, he talks of the scene at his father’s wake. Colm Tobin is a twelve-year-old and bewildered by the streams of people calling to the house, stayed so long and talked and talked with his family. One woman in particular stood out, even after all these years. She had a pile of letters in her hand, all from Brooklyn: not from U.S.A., not from New York, but from Brooklyn. “That’s the woman whose daughter went to America but came home”, Colm heard people whisper. He never forgot this woman, even over the following forty years or so, and so Brooklyn came to be.
Speaking about the books ending (no spoilers will be given!) Toibin simply outlined how he ended the book the way he wanted to end it but crucially, he got their convincingly. He had conceived other endings but would do a disservice by inserting radical changes that would arrive at a contrived ending.
Finally, Toibin was asked about what contemporary writers he is currently reading. His first response was an American writer who actually also read at this year’s Galway Arts Festival – Willy Vlautin. Vlautin (nearly if not fully) stole the show when he shared the bill with Roddy Doyle. (read review here ) Upstaging Doyle is no easy feat but Vlautin made a new home from home for himself in Galway with his fantastic writing and engaging and humorous personality. Toibin hailed Vlautin as “a real discovery. He writes in beautiful American tones and with an absolute knowledge of rhythm, coming as no surprise that he (Vlautin) is an accomplished musician. Also singled out by Toibin were the Austrian short-story writer, Tim Wenton, Welsh writer Tessa Hadley and of course Canadian Alice Munroe.
It was a fascinating evening and a great if also rare opportunity for an intimate evening with the one and only Toibin. Evening like these are exactly what Arts Festivals are made for –probably along the lines of what Toibin felt like attending the Gorey Arts Festival all those years ago.