The Tenement Museum - I was so fortunate to be able to make it to this event! As I have mentioned on this blog before, Colm Toibin is a favorite author of mine so I jumped at the chance to hear him talk. He did not disappoint - his comments were insightful and he peppered his talk with a signature Irish wit.
The focus of his talk was the author Henry James. Toibin is a scholar of James and in addition to a writing a number of essays and literary criticism pieces about the author (now collected in All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James), made him the subject of his novel The Master which is a fictionalized account of James's life. As I mentioned in my review of the Master, the novel is a beautifully written and Toibin deftly weaves fiction with the facts about Henry James. It is no surprise that the book was shortlisted for the Booker. In the talk, Toibin referenced James's reported homosexuality which he worked very hard to conceal his entire life. In fact, it was only after James's death and upon reading his letters and his contemporaries' journals that scholars concluded James was a closeted homosexual. Toibin made the point that in many of James's works there is a theme of things being "hidden" or held beneath the surface which he connects with the author's attempts to conceal his sexual orientation.
In answer to a question about how he balanced the facts of James's life with a fictional storyline, Colm Toibin provided an insightful answer - he said, in essence, that every author puts their own stamp on a story and reveals as much about themselves as about the subject of their novel. He posited that he could provide everyone in the audience the same research and material about Henry James and we would each write a different novel about his life because we would all view the material through the lens of our own experiences and life story and that would be reflected in what we wrote. I thought that was an excellent way of describing the art of writing and what an author shares each time they write a work and provide it to us to read - they truly share a piece of themselves.
About the Venue
Tenement Museum in New York City celebrates the immigrant experience from a unique vantage point - the inside of 97 Orchard St which was once a tenement apartment building on the Lower East Side. They offer guided tours of apartments recreated to look like the apartments inhabited by the many immigrants who lived on the Lower East Side in the 19th century. It is a great experience and I definitely recommend it to any NYC visitor. Throughout the year, they host Tenement Talks, such as the one I attended with Colm Toibin.
Have you read anything by Colm Toibin and/or Henry James?