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Author Colm Tóibín to examine fathers of famed writers at Ellmann Lectures

Acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín brings his experiences and insights to Emory Nov. 12-14 to deliver the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, where he’ll address the theme of “Writers and Their Fathers: Wilde, Yeats and Joyce.” Photo by Jason Thrasher.

Award-winning Irish author Colm Tóibín was 12 years old the summer his father died — a defining event that would shape him as a writer.

Shortly after his father’s death, Tóibín developed a stammer, a hesitation that would drift in and out of his voice until he eventually learned to control it on his own.

Writing, on the other hand, freed him. And quietly observing the world around him came easily. In that way, Tóibín grew to become “the sort of kid who remembered everything,” he said in a 2014 interview in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

“I remember what shop was where, I remember what grave was where, I remember who said what to who — I stored that up,” he related in the interview. 

Tóibín (his name is pronounced toe-BEAN) began writing poetry and stories shortly after his father died, when he fell into the habit of writing every day, mostly long-hand with disposable pens. 

Following graduation from University College Dublin, Tóibín moved to Barcelona, where he taught English for three years. Later, he returned to Ireland to work in journalism, eventually rising to become the editor of Magill, Ireland’s current affairs magazine. After leaving the magazine in 1985, Tóibín traveled in Africa and South America, where he never stopped writing.

He would go on to earn international acclaim as a versatile novelist, short story writer, playwright, journalist, poet and screenwriter.

Tóibín will bring his experiences and insights to Emory Nov. 12-14 to deliver the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, where he’ll address the theme of “Writers and Their Fathers: Wilde, Yeats and Joyce.”

It promises to be an engaging series as seen through the author’s unique lens, says Geraldine Higgins, an associate professor of English at Emory who specializes in 20th-century Irish literature and culture, and co-directs the Ellmann Lectures with Ron Schuchard, Emory professor of English emeritus.

“Tóibín has long been fascinated by the idea of familial inheritance,” Higgins says. “One of his collections of essays is called ‘New Ways to Kill your Mother: Writers and their Families.’ In one chapter, he compares the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama, men who grew up without fathers and learned to ‘make it up as they went along.’” 

“The themes of identity and family, loss and grief, home and exile permeate his work,” she says, and “speak to diverse readers everywhere.”

Celebrating literature, language and wit

Established to honor Richard Ellmann, Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor, and launched in 1988 by the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, the Ellmann Lectures have emerged as one of America’s most prestigious literary lecture series.

For nearly 30 years, the series has drawn a distinguished roster of international authors, including David Lodge, A.S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood and songwriter Paul Simon.

All of this year’s lectures will take place at Emory’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium, including:

Sunday, Nov. 12

5 p.m., “Sir William Wilde: An Eminent Victorian in Ireland”

Monday, Nov. 13

8 p.m., “John Butler Yeats in Exile: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?”

Tuesday, Nov. 14

4 p.m., “John Stanislaus Joyce & Dublin: Old Father, Old Artificer"

8 p.m., Reading and signing (Three book limit per person)

Fittingly, Ellmann also served as the distinguished biographer of literary luminaries Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, the three writers under investigation in Tóibín’s lectures, notes Higgins.

“Ellmann’s biography of Joyce is considered one of the masterpieces of the 20th century and his life of Oscar Wilde won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, the year after his death,” she says. “So it seems very timely that Tóibín is returning to these fascinating fathers and sons in the 29th year of the Ellmann lectures.”

Tóibín will reflect the grand Ellmann tradition of “being able to lecture on serious literature to a general audience in beautiful language, with much sparkle, humor and wit, and with an extraordinary ability to re-vivify artistic sensibilities and literary histories for his audience,” predicts Schuchard.

A writer noted for artful restraint, rich detail

Considered among the top voices in modern Irish literature, Tóibín is a master of many genres who “writes and speaks with an air of casual erudition,” according to Higgins.

A prize-winning novelist, short-story writer, dramatist and critic, his works have been translated into more than 30 languages. He is the author of nine novels, including "The Master" (2004) and "Brooklyn" (2009), which was later made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 2015. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the London Review of Books.

Tóibín has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize, won the IMPAC Dublin International Literary prize, and the Broadway adaptation of his book, "The Testament of Mary," was nominated for a Tony Award for best play in 2013.

Higgins quotes Cambridge classicist Mary Beard’s description of Tóibín’s most recent novel, "House of Names" (2017), as “an almost unfaultable combination of artful restraint and wonderfully observed detail” — an “excellent description of all his work,” she says.

Tóibín is currently Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool University earlier this year.

Tickets are free, but required for all events. For more information or to secure tickets, visit here.

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