Colm Tóibín on Fiction and Reality

A reflection on biography, fiction and writer's lives
Colm Tóibín
An extract from 'What is Real is Imagined', a recent essay by Colm Tóibín published on the The New York Times website:
I have been writing about writers and their families so it is strange that the idea of rights versus responsibilities does not preoccupy me. I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.

Within a few months of marrying, Thomas Mann wrote a story suggesting that his wife had had an incestuous relationship with her twin brother. Samuel Beckett, in his first book of stories, used a letter from a dead cousin, thus causing offense to her family. Brian Moore’s father, who was a doctor, worked tirelessly during the bombing of Belfast in 1941; in his novel “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Moore has the father, who is clearly based on his own father, fleeing Belfast for the safety of Dublin during the air raids.

No one suggests that Mann or Beckett or Moore was an especially bad person. Indeed, all three were known for their courtesy and much loved by those close to them and by readers. But when it came to the moment when they were putting their stories together, working out the details, mixing memory and desire, they had no qualms, no problems about appropriating what they pleased. They used what they needed; they changed what they used. Their soft hearts became stony. [Read More]
Colm Tóibín is the author of the recent book, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families.

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