Tóibín Explores Using Emotional Truths Versus Facts in History Writing at Lowell Lecture

For Irish playwright and novelist Colm Tóibín, writing history depends more on emotional truth than literal facts. 

“I make it up if I thought it would fit,” he said during “Writing Thomas Mann: Fact into Fiction,” a lecture held as a part of the Lowell Humanities Series on Wednesday. 

Tóibín is the author of 20 books, which have been translated into 30 languages. He is best known for his novel The Master, which won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, a French literary prize for best foreign book, in 2005 and was named the LA Times Novel of the Year in 2004. Tóibín’s Nora Webster was awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 2015, and most recently The Magician—the novel that inspired Tóibín’s lecture—was awarded the Rathbones Folio Prize in 2022. 

Richard Kearney, a friend of Tóibín for 50 years and a philosophy professor at Boston College, opened the lecture with introductory remarks and a brief account of his and Tóibín’s shared history. Kearney said he and Tóibín met in college and became fast friends. He described Tóibín as a “walking library.” 

“He had this big Harris tweed brown coat with lots of pockets and they were full of books: poetry, fiction, essays, whatever,” Kearney said.

Tóibín’s literary knowledge is evident in his works. In The Magician, he fictionalizes the life of Thomas Mann, a German author, and in The Master, he fictionalizes Henry James, an American novelist.

Tóibin said the intersection of fiction and reality preoccupies him. 

“[I’m] not just retelling the story [Mann] told… [but] attempting to make him a character in fiction,” Tóibín said. 

Tóibín said he had been fascinated with Mann for many years to the point that he made a visit to Mann’s former California home for inspiration. He described Mann as a “great writer of the eccentric soul” and spoke on what Mann’s homosexuality meant to him. Tóibín, just like Mann, is gay and said he understands the feeling of being closeted. 

Though Tóibín is an admirer of Mann, he said he distances himself from what he sees as Mann’s reprehensible militarist phase, represented in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man

Even more so, Tóibín said he distances himself from the tragedies that inevitably feature as background events in Mann’s life, particularly those associated with the atrocities of Nazism. Although the rise of the Nazi Party had a profound effect on Mann’s life, Tóibín said he avoids treating the subject too directly in The Magician

Tóibín said he prefers writing about domestic scenes as opposed to global ones. 

“I will never set a novel in a torture chamber,” Tóibín said. 

Tóibín said authors have only a small obligation to tell the truth. According to Tóibín, far more important than telling the truth is the ability to express what is emotionally true—the sort of truth that comes in constructing a narrative after the fact.

According to Tóibín, the historical novel—a genre he said he has a profound interest in—lives or dies by its ability to create a narrative of the past. He said the author of a historical novel has to navigate the lines between fact and fiction and truth and imagination. Tóibín, whose The Magician blends factual truth and the emotional truth of an artist, said he finds the balance to be in his favor.

“You have many more rights than you have responsibilities,” Tóibín said of being a novelist. 

February 24, 2023

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