Colm T?n’s new novel The Master has been winning him pretty much universal acclaim even from critics who have been harsh on him in the past. He’s the first to admit that the reception has been fantastic but he is also quick to warn of the dangers of too much exposure.
There was an awful lot of exposure, especially in England and America as well, an awful lot of big fuckin’ photographs and big fuckin’ interviews and big fuckin’ reviews. I mean it’s very nice being on the road actually, but you have to be very careful with it, you know, cause you start to believe it, you’ve got to be ready to go right back in again, as though you’ve never written anything before, he told me, as he settled in for another series of big fuckin’ interviews in Sydney this week.
T?n has worked as a journalist and novelist, and last year also published a book of essays about gay writers. His work varies enormously from the austere prose of Story Of The Night, set in Argentina, through to the lyrical Blackwater Lightship about an Irish family, which won him a nomination for the Booker Prize.
Although they vary in style and setting, all the novels continue his primary themes and share a certain melancholic sensibility, a concern with mortality, memory and loss. He sums up the typical T?n landscape as follows:
There’d be an isolated hero or heroine, there’d be sadness around death, a lot of that, and the protagonist would have a mixture of great intelligence and great emotional stupidity, he says with a trademark wry look.
It sounds bleak but T?n always leavens his more desolate concerns with a certain sense of wonder attuned to the wry, the unexpected and the redemptive power of the everyday.
In The Master, T?n concentrates on the period of novelist Henry James’s life from 1895 to 1899, with chapters allocated to 11 selected months in that period. But within that structure each chapter also includes James’s reflections from other periods in his life, so while it is not a total biography it replays many of the major incidents in James’s life.
It’s sort of 11 greatest hits, the bits of James I thought I could most play with, he says.
I discovered afterwards that most of them refer to something about me. I didn’t know that at the time -“ in other words they picked me and then I realised why.
T?n sees his life and that of Henry James as a century apart but strangely similar.
What James does is nothing obvious, everything is ambiguous, everything is hidden and in a way for somebody like me -“ somebody like me meaning somebody who is gay and who comes from society where that has only recently been accepted as a possibility -“ well then the life of somebody born in 1842, 1843 isn’t that different, he says.
The twin themes of both his Irish heritage and his gayness weave their way through much of T?n’s work.
I’m never sure which it is sometimes at work, you know -¦ I’m never sure whether the perspective is Irish or gay -“ I get them mixed up. They’re both relatively small groups in terms of the overall population and they both have been through various forms of oppression and revolution and struggle, and I’m not sure if it’s not the same thing, he speculates.
T?n’s vision of Ireland may surprise some, but as he describes it, it is a country where class is not easily defined, where in spite of the Catholic influence manners and beliefs are not solidified. He points to the ease with which Irish people migrate and fit into other societies.
Gay identity has a similar sort of fluidity about it that you can come in and out of being gay, he says.
You can walk along the street and decide almost, am I going to be gay today? And it leaves you very fluid. In other words you have to make up your life, you have to work out how you want to live, there’s nothing arranged for you and it’s almost like writing a novel in the sense that you have to work out slowly, gradually, very deliberately who it is you want to be.
A limited number of signed copies of Colm T?n’s The Master are available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst.
For an extended version of this interview click here.