Colm Tobn: Brexit expats, Trump’s Irish influence and the right way to gouge an eye

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?

They ate: Jamon Ibrico Juan Pedro Domecq, 11; padron peppers, 3; patatas bravas, 2.50; croquetas de jamon, 6; garlic prawns with pasta, 9.50; twice-cooked lamb, 8.50; pluma, 12.50 (all shared); tocinillo de cielo, 5 (Colm); crema Catalana foam, 5 (Tim). They drank: Water (Colm); glass of Zurbal Viura DO Ca Rioja, 6 (Tim). The Table Ibrica, 195 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5PS; 020 7148 1615 Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

As the dishes disappear, talk turns to politics. Tobn has an Irishmans unconcealed delight at Anglo-Saxon hubris and folly. If I was a European politician, with a certain cast of mind, Id be politely telling the Brits in the south of Spain: The name of your health service is now EasyJet, he says, with a hoot. Imagine the amount of time those English people take up in Spanish hospitals, with their Daily Mail under their arm, and their varicose veins and their refusal to speak Spanish

Of the other great disruption of our times, he feels he should take more share of the blame. The strange part of the White House drama is they are all Irish except for Trump, he says. Flynn, Kelly, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Hannity, OReilly and Ryan. Those Irish faces everywhere, I knew 10 of each of them at school. But the Irish have always been Democrats. From the Bush and Cheney side of things it must be driving them insane. Down where they are from, it would still be Irish maids and Irish builders

His default position on any subject is amusement rather than outrage. And for intrigue, politics is generally no match for literature. He tells some tales about the world in which he moves: the complexities of dinner with the taciturn Joan Didion, the inside story of Mario Vargas Llosas new partner, the fact that Edmund White always creates mischief for him whenever he sees him in New York. Tobn mentions a boyfriend in LA in passing but suggests his own travels these days are less hedonistic than in times past. I still go back to Barcelona every year, he says. But I go to the mountains more because there is not so much to excite me in the city. And I usually have some work that is overdue

He always talks of work with the same undisguised relish that he talks of everything else. Mostly its done out of his home in Dublin. For many years, he says, it was his habit to work all day and stop at six. These days four or five nights a week he goes back to his desk at seven and on until midnight.

He must be really loving it to do that?

It is guilt as much as anything else.

That is where Catholics have an advantage?

Oh yes. And the real issue now is that we dont have confession any more. I was brought up with confession every week until the age of 16. And now it has stopped. No one does it even in Enniscorthy where I grew up.

The impulse needs an outlet?

Yes, but the guilt is really if you dont write this book it will never be written and that will be awful.

Its the parable of the talents?

Well, in a city like Dublin you see an awful lot of people who thought they should have written a book but havent. You see them on the street and they look extremely miserable. They carry it around. They are not a good advertisement for procrastination. They look like Steve Bannon.

With that thought in mind he finishes pudding, and gets ready to get back to that personal war against procrastination. Ill give you your last line, he says, with a laugh.

Go on then.

The waitress presented us with a pair of complimentary glasses of clear spirit. Mr Tobn looked at his, but left it untouched on the table.

House of Names, published by Viking (14.99), is out now

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/16/colm-toibin-interview-brexit-expats-irish-influence-trump

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