Colm Toibin's Dublin

Article excerpt

Byline: Henry C. Krempels

The novelist on the literary city of Wilde and Joyce.

Colm Toibin spends much of his time lying down, on a sofa, in the back room of his four-story Georgian house in Dublin, reading. The rest of his time is either spent at his writing desk, in New York (where he teaches a creative writing course at Columbia University), or doing all the errands that come with being an internationally known writer.

For the past 40 years Toibin has lived in Dublin--producing numerous essays, a play, and seven works of fiction--but it is only recently that the city has begun to creep into his writing. And yet he has managed to become as synonymous with Dublin as many of his historical counterparts, whose spirits add an extra layer to the city.

Can you describe the area of Dublin that you live in?

I live right in the center of Dublin. One block from St. Stephen's Green and one block from Fitzwilliam Square, so it's right in the city. If I go out of the door and turn right, let me think, if I walk down the bottom of the street, turn left and turn right again, I will come to the house--I'm only talking three or four blocks here--where Oscar Wilde's parents lived. It's on the corner of Merrion Square. Then tucked around the corner from there is Sweny's chemist, and it was in that shop that Leopold Bloom, in 1904, bought the lemon soap. You can still buy the lemon soap. Until about two or three years ago, Sweny's didn't realize the importance. They thought you could just buy lemon soap as an ordinary thing. Now, unfortunately, not only do they sell Viagra and all those other things, but they have a picture of James Joyce in the window. It's sort of a pity, because until only two or three years ago it was just an ordinary chemist shop, and they didn't know and they didn't care. Now they do. It's a pity.

The problem is that most of the time I don't think about this at all. Do you know what I mean? I'm telling you all this, but most of the time I have many other things on my mind. I never think, really, about James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Gerald Manley Hopkins, or Cardinal Newman because these are just normal streets in the city where you go to buy things.

Is there anywhere in Dublin that you feel comfortable enough to go to write?

No. Absolutely not. Dublin is such a funny place. If you tried to write a novel in a cafe, every single person around you would try to make a joke. They'd be like, "How's the book going, Colm?" or "Hey, you're working hard today." There would be no moment you'd be left to relax. I mean, everybody would be very cheerful, but there would be an element of mockery. It wouldn't be full mockery, but it would contain an element of it. It could be anything; people would think to say anything.

That's interesting in the sense of your relationship with the city. It sounds as though you're as much a part of it as the places you've talked about.

No, that's not entirely true. What it is, there's no Hollywood and there's no Wall Street. So with no real actors living in the city--I mean, Jamie O'Byrne lives in New York--it's not just me, it's any number of writers. We're the sort of the front line of the city, that in other cities rich people might be, or actors might be, or big, big nasty-looking politicians might be. But here, that's not the case.

Do you find the literary history of the place overbearing as a writer?

I don't think about it. It's a funny business because it's so normalized and built into the fabric of the place, so you can inhabit the place without putting any thought into it. Dublin has got something I think is interesting, not just for writers, but for everybody. The history sort of thickens experience. It gives experience an extra layer of taste because certain things have happened. In other words, if you find yourself in a Dublin winter, in the top room of a house, being miserable, as I have, then the fact that Hopkins was not far away doing the same thing, I don't know if it helped or not, but it certainly means that you feel a sort of thickening of the experience. …