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Tóibín, Colm (b. 1955)  
page: 1  2  

In The Blackwater Lightship (1999) Tóibín again explores the devastation of AIDS. Set in rural County Wexford, the novel focuses on a splintered family forced to reunite when Declan, in the final stages of AIDS, decides to move to his grandmother's house by the Irish Sea to live out his final days. His sister Helen and their long-estranged mother Lily join them. Two gay friends, Larry and Paul, who have come to attend to Declan's physical caretaking, add to the tensions in the house.

After years of hostility and silence, the family members begin to mend their relationships with each other, accepting their failings and forgiving past misunderstandings that have kept them apart. The Blackwater Lightship is a poignant reflection on obligation, forgiveness, and the politics of family.

The novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001, and was adapted for American television in 2004, with a screenplay by Shane Connaughton and featuring Angela Lansbury as Declan's grandmother, Dianne Wiest as his mother, and Gina McKee as his sister.

In 2002 Tóibín published Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a series of essays, most of which first appeared in the London Review of Books.

Interweaving close readings of individual works with detailed analyses of the personalities behind them, Tóibín takes a fresh look at some of the most significant and influential artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--including, among others, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, and Pedro Almodóvar--artists whose sexuality has often been isolated from their works, due mainly to the reticence or obtuseness of critics and biographers.

Tóibín argues that a deeper understanding of the sexuality of an artist and a greater appreciation for a gay artist's sensibility is imperative; as he explains "... as gay readers and writers become more visible and confident, and gay politics more settled and serious, gay history becomes a vital element in gay identity, just as Irish history does in Ireland, or Jewish history among Jewish people."

Tóibín's most recent novel, The Master (2004), is a brilliant, evocative examination of the life of the writer Henry James from 1895 to 1899 (the "treacherous years," as Leon Edel termed them in his magisterial five-volume biography of James). The novel begins with the humiliating opening night of James's play Guy Domville when the author was booed from the stage by the exasperated audience as he appeared for a misguided curtain call, and ends with James just on the brink of his venerated late phase (with the creation of his masterworks The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl).

For Tóibín, James's repressed homosexuality--which is apparent to almost every character in the novel except James--is the unspoken subtext of his entire life. Tóibín shows James subtly attracted to an Irish manservant, listening greedily to gossip about Oscar Wilde, and yearning quietly for the handsome young sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Tóibín's Henry James never does face or act upon his sexuality, but instead retreats into "the sad, helpless monotony of the self ... the locked room of himself."

In one deeply resonant scene, James remembers a tension-filled night he spent in the summer of 1865 sharing the lone bed in the single room available at a resort with his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, the future Supreme Court justice. Holmes, "large-boned and strong," fresh from soldiering in the Civil War, is at ease with the situation, but James is acutely anxious and conscious of himself.

Henry watches Holmes undress and wash at the basin: "Henry studied his strong legs and buttocks, the line of his spine, his delicate bronzed neck." Holmes gets into bed, naked, and James joins him. "Holmes did not turn but lay flat on his back. To make sure that he did not fall out of the bed, Henry had to move closer to him ... keeping near the edge, yet still touching Holmes, who lay impassive. He wondered if he would ever again be so intensely alive."

The Master has received near-universal critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly called the novel "riveting," and said, "The subtlety and empathy with which Tóibín inhabits James's psyche and captures the fleeting emotional nuances of his world are beyond praise." The novel was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

As an Irishman, Tóibín has worked diligently to promote his national literature, editing The Guinness Book of Ireland (1995), The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), and The Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems (2000), as well as contributing to collections of Irish writing, such as Finbar's Hotel (1997), a series of unsigned stories by seven Irish writers which link to form a collaborative novel.

He was awarded the E. M. Forster Award in 1995 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a member of Aosdána, an Irish organization founded to promote the arts.

Tóibín currently lives in Dublin.

Craig Kaczorowski

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literature >> Overview:  Awards

The contemporary literary awards given specifically to honor glbtq books may be seen as an outgrowth of the modern American gay rights movement, so intertwined are they with the movement for equality.

literature >> Overview:  Historical Fiction

Glbtq historical fictions creatively interweave fiction with facts in ways that have not only won them a large readership but also have offered that readership insightful illuminations of glbtq histories.

arts >> Almodóvar, Pedro

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's gay and transsexual themed films present absurd situations framed by the trappings of everyday life.

literature >> Bishop, Elizabeth

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest twentieth-century American poets, Elizabeth Bishop encoded a lesbian identity in her poems.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Gunn, Thom

The Anglo-American writer Thom Gunn was a major gay poet and a perceptive critic of gay poetry.

literature >> James, Henry

Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

literature >> Mann, Thomas

One of Germany's greatest twentieth-century authors, Thomas Mann encoded his own homosexuality in his novels but thought that homosexuality led to the destruction of social institutions and the death of the individual homosexual.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Bailey, Paul. "The Art of Loss." The Guardian (April 13, 2002): 12.

Canning, Richard. Hear Us Out: Conversations with Gay Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Cooper, Rand Richards. "A Little Nearer Redemption." New York Times Book Review (September 10, 2000): 14.

Cornelisen, Ann. "Come With Me to the Pyrenees." New York Times Book Review (September 15, 1991): 18.

Cumming, Laura. "Ask Him, He Knows." The Guardian (September 12, 1996): T16.

Flynn, Elisabeth. "Emerald Island." Lambda Book Report (October, 2000): 17-19.

Giltz, Michael. "Regarding Henry." The Advocate (June 8, 2004): 54-56.

Green, Jesse. "Orientations." The Washington Post (November 17, 2002): T6.

Jones, D. A. N. "Motiveless Malignity." The London Review of Books (October 11, 1990): 19.

Keates, Jonathan. "Queerness Is No Big Deal." The Spectator (May 4, 2002): 43.

Marks, Jim. "On All the Living and the Dead." The Washington Post (December 10, 2000): T14.

Maslin, Janet. "The Hours of a Master at an Awkward Age." New York Times (May 31, 2004): E10.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. "The Passion of Henry James." New York Times Book Review (June 20, 2004): 10-13.

O'Foalain, Julia. "Keeping the Peace." Times Literary Supplement (September 14, 1992): 19.

Radin, Victoria. "The Secret Agent." New Statesman (September 20, 1996): 48.

Seligman, Craig. "Master of His Domain." Artforum (Summer 2004): 45.

Unger, Douglas. "The Silence." New York Times Book Review (June 22, 1997): 10.

Updike, John. "Silent Master." The New Yorker (June 28, 2004): 98-102.

Wineapple, Brenda. "About Henry." The Nation (November 1, 2004): 34-37.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kaczorowski, Craig  
    Entry Title: Tóibín, Colm  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated October 17, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


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