Interview: Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin has just arrived in Hong Kong for a writers' festival. He's so jet-lagged he's not sure from where he's flown. Nor is he sure if his new book, The Testament of Mary - (see review below), is out yet. But he's confident that when he surfaces and goes out into the streets ''it will be the only thing on anyone's mind''.

Toibin has written much about Catholicism and much about mothers in novels, essays, stories and, more recently, a short memoir. His own mother was a believer who made a pilgrimage from Dublin to Lourdes in the early 1960s when Toibin was five. He went eventually, but by then he had lost his faith and the purpose of his visit was not in expectation of a miracle, something he writes about in The Sign of the Cross, his account of travelling through Catholic Europe.

But he had been a conscientious altar boy, palms locked together. ''I did think of becoming a priest quite late on, when other boys were thinking of knocking over fences and going out with girls,'' he says. ''I would have made a very good bishop: nice housekeeper, nice clothes - god, the clothes.''

In his new novella, he writes in the voice of the holiest figure for Catholics, Mary. But we meet his Mary in exile in Ephesus, 20 years after the crucifixion of the son she cannot bring herself to name. She remains traumatised by what she saw - and didn't see - and frightened for her own safety.

She is in exile but in the company of two men who ask her to corroborate the story they want to tell for the future: that her son was the son of God; that he rose from the dead three days after the crucifixion; that he died to save mankind.

But Toibin's Mary is no pushover. ''I was there,'' she tells them. ''I fled before it was over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.''

This is the woman who was repelled by the many young men who came to see her son at their home; there was something about their ''awkward hunger''. She would disappear before he ''would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted''. The woman who swiftly realises - at Cana, where water was turned into wine - that ''I had not missed my chance to take my son away from here, I understood that I never had a chance in the first place and that all of us were doomed''.

Toibin goes to Italy each year and it was while he was in Venice that he stumbled upon Tintoretto's Crucifixion in Scuola Grande di San Rocco. ''It's very untidy and big,'' he says. ''The crucifixion is as though a lot is going on at the time - the drama, fires lighting, a lot of noise - it's a hugely noisy painting. And that painting really got me thinking about what it could have been like and then how come Matthew, Mark and Luke don't have Mary at the crucifixion the same way as John does.'' (Toibin's reader assumes that one of Mary's visitors is writing John's gospel.)

And then Toibin had the notion of John having seen classical Greek theatre - Medea or Elektra - and realising that the story of the crucifixion without a grieving figure at the foot of the cross could not have the power it would once you placed a mother there.

Tobin wrote The Testament … as a novella and, although it has just been published, it first appeared as a play, a monologue, at the Dublin Theatre Festival last year. He says that as he was writing he had an inkling of the effect it might have on an audience if spoken out loud.

''I did try to get a voice that someone could work with,'' he says. ''But I think almost any first-person narrative does that. It's a sort of natural thing.''

Once he had the rhythm he felt he had Mary's voice and then it was a question of ''holding it and wielding it and making sure you didn't ever lose it''.

He worked with two old friends - Marie Mullen playing Mary and Garry Hynes as director - in the production. They had known each other well for 30 years or more - they could recall funny moments when they were all together in a B&B in 1979 - so I assumed it must have been an easy working environment.

''No, no. What? Sorry,'' Toibin says, then laughs slightly hysterically down the line. ''You must be joking. There was no sense of, 'Oh, we're all friends, we'll just throw this out'. It was a tough experience.''

He certainly wasn't worried about how the play would be received by the ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland. ''I don't think the ecclesiastical people have any authority,'' he says. ''If it had been some years ago, they would have leapt on it, but now they've got other things.''

Toibin says he was very careful that the book didn't become just a debunking of the biblical stories about miracles. The miracle at Cana and the healing of the sick man in the temple were, he says, straightforward to write. But the account of Lazarus being brought back from the dead was different.

''Cana looked like nonsense to her [Mary],'' he says. ''But the Lazarus thing was too powerful, had taken over too many people. I didn't expect it to come in so much detail. But once I wrote it and the whole presence of Lazarus coming into the space, once I'd got that, I was very surprised by the effect that had on me - which was powerful.''

Toibin's Lazarus is like the sort of child that everyone loves, but he comes back with knowledge that he cannot share. As Mary puts it: ''I knew that whatever it was had bewildered him, whatever knowledge he had come to possess, whatever he had seen or heard, he carried it with him in the depths of his soul as the body carries its own dark share of blood and sinew.''

Toibin published a short e-memoir, A Guest at the Feast, at the end of last year. In it he wrote of his mother: ''She was what most writers long for, and what most of us still write for: the ordinary reader, curious and intelligent and demanding, ready to be moved and changed, and believing still that the written word has all the power to make the deepest imprint on the private self.''

He still carries her example with him and still writes for someone like her. His mother left school at 14 but always had a sense that books and learning were so precious. She would ''mooch around'' her local library and often surprise her son with what she found. Saul Bellow, for example. Toibin says she preferred Bellow to his own writing.

''It was her way of annoying me, saying those novels are so funny and he manages to get so much philosophy in them,'' he says. ''And she would look at me and I would say, 'There's no point looking at me, I can't do any of that'.''

Did she like his books? No, but she was very nice about them. ''She liked novels to be smart and she thought mine were too slow … She liked me because I was her son and stuff and she liked the books coming out, but, no, I don't think so.''

These days, Toibin spends one term each year teaching in the English department at New York's Columbia University. ''I'm pretty serious about what I have to do there,'' he says. ''The ghost of Edward Said is somewhere around and it's the department of Lionel Trilling.''

He's taking a course called Irish Prose, which takes in mythology and Beckett and Joyce, as well as lesser-known writers, such as Somerville and Ross, of The Irish R.M. TV series, and a graduate course in the novel from George Eliot and Edith Wharton. He approaches the course like a military campaign - no alcohol will pass his lips; it's more like a diet than a teaching program. But as soon as he's marked the last papers he skedaddles back to Ireland.

He lives south of Enniscorthy, where he grew up, in a house by the sea close to where the family holidayed each year until his father died when Toibin was in his teens. It's the landscape of his wonderful early novel, The Heather Blazing, and some of Brooklyn.

And it's in the novel he's currently working on. ''You think, 'give it up,' at some point, and then here it comes again, hey.'' He sighs and says he's going over the same material again. ''I'm sort of worried that I've just done that but nonetheless it's true.''

Some of us, I say, wouldn't mind that. The Heather Blazing remains my favourite of his books.

''I think this new one is closer to that than any of the other books,'' Toibin says. ''That same sort of emotional territory, those same years. And that same landscape.''

But we have a while to wait before the novel appears. ''It's still in longhand,'' he says.

Pick of the week - Review of The Testament of Mary

Any thinking person brought up Catholic in Ireland must have spent many hours contemplating Mary, the most human and humanising figure in the story of Christ.

This novella is set years after the crucifixion and St John, author of the fourth gospel, is bothering her for details and for verification of his own version. But Mary's voice is full of bitterness and rage and her heart full of grief and guilt. She recalls resenting the changes she saw in her son after he gained the following of his disciples, and being frightened by his claim to be the son of God. She worships Artemis, whose temple is in Ephesus where she now lives.

Toibin, a self-described lapsed Irish Catholic, must have had years of thinking about it behind him when he wrote the story of the New Testament in Mary's voice, and his version warms and animates an iconic figure.

Reading this perfect novella is like watching a candle being lit inside a lantern.

Review by Kerryn Goldsworthy

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY

Colm Toibin

Picador, $19.99

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