If youre having lunch with the Booker-shortlisted novelist, expect a wide-ranging discussion
If you were to go in search of a prime example of the genus writer, Colm Tobn would have strong claims as exhibit A. Theres the face to begin with: meaty, heavy browed, quick-eyed, both grave and wickedly animated, the head and neck invariably rising, as today, out of a white shirt and a black coat. And then the voice, with the inflection of his native Co Wexford, low tones moving easily to lightness, erudite and conspiratorial. Seeing Tobn advancing toward you across the restaurant is the equivalent of hearing a memorable opening line: Call me Ishmael, or his own favourite this (from Anthony Burgesss Earthly Powers) It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me. You sense that Tobn comes complete with stories.
In vague homage to his early writing career in Catalonia we are at the Marylebone outpost of the tapas chain Iberica (which actually has its roots in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, where owner Nacho Manzano developed his two-star Michelin soul food up in the mountains). Tobn has been doing an interview with the BBC up the road about the sex life of Henry James and hes had no breakfast I just lay in the hotel bed brooding as ever so hes starving. Having established the provenance of the Asturian waitress, with whom he falls into fluent conversation about the Spanish distinction between talking Christian rather than Catalan, he offers a potted history of the weakness of the separatist movement. Catalan is spoken also on the islands and in Valencia. But they hate Barcelona. Menorca went communist in the time of the civil war. Mallorca went fascist and those tendencies persist as though there was something in the blood or in the soil while Ibiza just has fun and enjoys life As he recounts this history we pick some staple highlights from the menu: patatas bravas, padrn peppers, twice-cooked lamb, jamn ibrico from Manzanos acorn-fed pigs, and settle back while the plates fill the table.
Tobn gives the impression of being the most sociable of beings, knowing everyone in the bookish world, a fixture at festivals and parties, yet he also is a marvel of brilliant industry. As well as his 11 novels three of them shortlisted for the Booker prize and a dozen non-fiction books, he teaches English at Columbia University in New York, he writes on Irish history and literature for the London Review of Books and elsewhere, and of late, he curates art shows, and involves himself in politics (he was vocal in the Yes campaign on the Irish referendum on equal marriage). How does he do it?
I think writers have a decision to make at a certain age, he says. Alcohol is the issue really. You get to an age as a writer and the big question is whether you can control your drinking enough to work. Its not easy. There are plenty of nights when you think another bottle of red wont hurt. If you do that you lose two hours in the morning.
He sips his agua con gas. He made the decision to stop?
I remember standing at a doorway at a party years ago with a famous editor and watching this very well-known writer approaching, he says, by way of reply. The editor whispered to me, Here he is: the great non-deliverer. And it struck me, that is how they think about us. We either fulfil the promises we make or we dont.
The latest promise Toibin has fulfilled is a novel, The House of Names, which retells one of the oldest stories of all: the events of Aeschyluss Oresteia, the internecine bloodbath in the House of Atreus.
Toibin is a great writer of troubled and domestic love stories Brooklyn, which became a movie, set the standard so by his own habits the Greek epic is a very violent departure. Readers have suggested it as a comment on the present moment all those knives as he says. Was that how he conceived it?
Hes not sure it was that conscious, he suggests. But yes, there is that sense that savagery is a spiral. People get a taste for it. For a writer it is also a technical challenge. To prove the point he gets up briefly from his chair to re-enact a scene in which Orestes pushes out his adversarys eyes. He extends his big thumbs toward my face. I thought he would do it from the back, he says. But you cant get any traction. Youd have to do it from the front.
He takes a knife to the twice cooked-lamb. He has no doubt we are living in sanguinary times. I was on a plane overnight recently. And I could see right down the rows of these little TV screens. And everyone was watching a violent film. Men and women. No one was watching a love story. No comedies. It would be better if sex came back into fashion, wouldnt it?