Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

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On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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