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A reading with Colm Tóibín

Author lectures about Ireland and book on Henry James’s life

By Selene Campion
On April 24, 2012

Author Colm Tóibín already had a connection to Brandeis University before he entered Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Wednesday night. "There were two people that no matter what I did or how hard I worked came away better than me at everything: they were funnier than I was, they were better looking than I was, and they were certainly cleverer than I was." Those people were Richard Kearney, now a professor at Boston College, and Gerard McNamara, who obtained his graduate degree from Brandeis.

Rapaporte Hall was packed with students and professors alike to hear author Colm Tóibín read and discuss his book The Master, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004. The story is set in the late nineteenth century and details five years of author Henry James' life-from the failure of his play Guy Domville to his seclusion in Rye, East Sussex where he produced several masterpieces, including What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age. Some of the attendees were obvious literary buffs while others were simply curious to learn more about the famous author who came to Brandeis to discuss everything from his love of Henry James to his childhood in Wexford, Ireland.

Tóibín attended University College Dublin, graduating in 1975. His friendship with McNamara served as his first introduction to Brandeis.

"When he came back from America he didn't just have an American accent, he didn't just have a Massachusetts accent, I realized that what he has was a pure Brandeis accent. The way he moved, the way he spoke-and it never ended. He had a certain wit and certain response," described Tóibín.

He continued to describe his deep attachment to his hometown of Wexford, Ireland, "Ireland only seems small when you measure, it doesn't seem small archaeologically, certainly racially and not in soul or in spirit. There are variations every five or ten or thirty miles." After recounting stories of his childhood, including sneaking into his neighbor's house to watch The Flintstones as a child, it was obvious that his childhood greatly shaped his character. His family "was so conscious of being from Wexford that Ireland seemed more alien in a way than Boston did."

After treating listeners to two excerpts from The Master, he sat down for a conversation with Prof. Kathy Lawrence (ENG), who is currently teaching a class called "When Genius is a Family Affair: Henry, William, and Alice James." She said, "It was audacious of you to write this book in a way, because so many people think they own the material, avid fanatics, and you were entering unsafe territory."

James' life continues to be a controversial topic today. Many literary scholars debate his sexuality, and his time in seclusion still eludes those who study his works.

Tóibín admitted, "I think it's been very difficult, as an Irish writer, to write about America after a certain year, when you start getting new names for things. You start getting Cadillacs and The Great Gatsby arrives and your fridges become five times the size they need to be. I would get the words wrong for all of them. But with this [book] I was closer to it and I could do it. I didn't know how much trouble it was going to cause me, but then again I have nothing else to do with my time."

Tóibín also discussed James' odd relationship with the city of Boston. Lawrence commented, "James had a certain fear of Boston. I think that's one of the reasons he didn't include The Bostonians in his collective New York edition." Tóibín continued to discuss the prolific author's life and stated that after his death, his sister-in-law Alice carried his ashes back to Boston to bury him even though he had lived most of his life in Europe.

Judging from the enthusiastic audience reactions to Tóibín's tales of his childhood, it's safe to say Tóibín's work paid off. Prof. Dawn Skorczewski (ENG) said in the question-and-answer session, "I have to say that when I see your name in the New Yorker, I think 'what a treat, this is the best dessert' but listening to you speak, I think I'll never have to eat again; it was like banquet of all mankind."

Both Undergraduate Departmental Representatives for the Creative Writing department, Erica Lubitz '12 and Samantha Paternoster '12, were equally thrilled to have Tóibín visit Brandeis. Reacting to the reading, Paternoster said, "Amazing, it's the best one yet. I like how he incorporated parts of his personal life, his characters and the actual work itself. We've known about [the reading] for months and we've been so excited, it's always fantastic to have the experience of someone in the industry come here and talk about their books."

Lubitz agreed, "It's amazing to see someone with this much prestige come to our school. It's a big deal. We've had fantastic writers come here before, but this is so much bigger than we could've imagined. We pushed our nerd glasses up for this one."

Chen Arad '15 said after the event, "Though I never read any of his books, a quick Google [search] made me feel like he would be an interesting person to listen to, and I was not disappointed." His favorite part of the presentation was listening to Tóibín read his work.

"He didn't really lecture, just read. I always really enjoy listening to authors reading their own work and I certainly did in this case. Closing my eyes and listening to what he was reading I felt almost like I was in that theater during Henry James' premiere and even at some points like I was standing in his shoes."


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