Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature


Colm Tóibín knows the languages of the outsider, the secret keeper, the gay man or woman. He knows the covert and overt language of homosexuality in literature. In Love in a Dark Time, he also describes the solace of finding like-minded companions through reading.

Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or ...

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Colm Tóibín knows the languages of the outsider, the secret keeper, the gay man or woman. He knows the covert and overt language of homosexuality in literature. In Love in a Dark Time, he also describes the solace of finding like-minded companions through reading.

Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or necessity. The larger world couldn't know about their sexuality, but in their private lives, and in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire defined their expression.
This is an intimate encounter with Mann, Baldwin, Bishop, and with the contemporary poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Through their work, Tóibín is able to come to terms with his own inner desires — his interest in secret erotic energy, his admiration for courageous figures, and his abiding fascination with sadness and tragedy. Tóibín looks both at writers forced to disguise their true experience on the page and at readers who find solace and sexual identity by reading between the lines.

2002 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, LGBT Studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
John Banville Irish Times Is it permissible even to speak, as so many do nowadays, of a "gay community"? Tóibín treats [this] and many other questions with confidence and authority, both of which attributes are only strengthened by the moderation of his tone and the depth of his compassion. He writes with rare tenderness of figures as disparate as Elizabeth Bishop and Francis Bacon, Thomas Mann and Roger Casement, Thom Gunn and Pedro Almodóvar.

John Gardner Times Literary Supplement It is Colm Tóibín's great strength that he is able to attune himself to nuances, and to the ways in which people "invent" themselves.

Ruth Padel Financial Times Tóibín demonstrates wonderfully how a dedicated writer always thinks with other writers: their lives and sexuality, as well as their work. Tóibín can be engagingly mischievous and witty, but is deeply serious about books.

Mark Levin Men's Journal Tóibín is a superb technician with a brave soul.

Robert Sullivan Vogue Tóibín writes with high-voltage restraint; his sentences are masterfully devoid of trickery...He is tuned in to the silent language of families, the messages that are unspoken and slip past the rest of the world, landing deep into the hearts of those who understand.

Publishers Weekly
Departing from recent novels The Blackwater Lightship and The Story of the Night and nonfiction such as his Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border, Dublin-based writer Toibin offers nine case studies in as many chapters of how "gay life" has informed our readings of writers, artists and filmmakers like Oscar Wilde, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, Pedro Almodovar and Mark Doty. The chapter "Goodbye to Catholic Ireland" wonders if Cathal " Searchaigh is the first gay poet in the Irish language, and speaks against the Church's continued hold on the Irish life of the mind. (Oct. 29) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A noted Irish novelist and critic discovers the comforts of gay literature. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of gay sensibility in literature, read artfully between the lines and mapping emotional attachments. Discerning the gay influence in literature where it is veiled in subtexts-"a hidden world of signs and moments, fears and prejudices"-is of critical importance as gay history becomes a vital element in gay identity, writes Toib'n. Gays all too often "grow up alone; there is no history." So it is hardly surprising that Toib'n, a gay man and celebrated novelist (The Blackwater Nightship, 2000, etc.), would find in literature an elemental aspect of that history and a way for him to reflect on his own preoccupations with secret erotic energy, sadness, tragedy, and with living fearlessly in a dark time. He has one eye trained at the edge of things, the other on the domestic conflation of worlds: Wilde's family, he tells us, were Irish Protestants supporting the cause of Irish freedom, which "lifted them out of their circumstances and gave them astonishing individuality and independence"; Elizabeth Bishop was "a northern woman in the south"; Thomas Mann "combined the Brazilian roots of his mother and his father's Hanseatic heritage"-sharp, flighty, steely, ethereal, distant, romantic. Themes recur and can be seen, for example, in the work of filmmaker Pedro Almod-var, who "plays with opposites and doubles and secret identities," or in James Baldwin, whose writing "is bathed in the sadness which resulted" from an intelligence, wit, and longing that were battered by Baldwin's being a black, gay man. Understanding such presences allows us, suggests Toib'n, to understand the intensity of our response to an artwork by Francis Bacon, or to Mark Doty's poems when news of beingHIV-positive hits his lover. Toib'n expresses a companionable solace here, but at what a price. These artists create in him "an urge to have gay lives represented as tragic, an urge I know I should repress."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743244671
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/25/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 809,350
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.


Colm Tóibín is a literary star of the "new" Ireland, the one -- as noted by National Public Radio's Jacki Lyman -- is short on whiskey and St. Patrick and long on cell phones, personal computers, and a stage set for economic opportunity. This is an Ireland where the people stop to cheer an author, yes, an author, whose latest novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its key subject matter is the protagonist's struggle with his homosexuality.

"When I went down to get my groceries, people stopped their car and got out of them and waved at me and looked at me as though I was an athlete and shouted at me, ‘Come on, you can do it. You can do it,' " Tóibín said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2000. "And I basked in the sunshine of Irish approval and love for about three weeks.... You know, sort of -- I keep wondering when this, you know, backlash or something is going to happen, but I'm afraid it isn't going to happen. I'm afraid the country has changed, and being a writer there is actually quite a nice thing these days."

In fiction, travelogues, essays, and newspaper columns, Tóibín has established himself as a writer who can connect both the political and the personal to a sense of place. Though his work has often been informed by the political history of Ireland, he has also drawn on his travels to places like Spain and Argentina to create settings for his work.

And, even though his current home of Dublin has never made an appearance in any of his fiction, the environs of his youth -- County Wexford -- have been prominent.

The Washington Post, in a 2000 review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which Tóibín edited, called him a "journalist and critic of influence, a brilliant novelist steadily harvesting his own postage-stamp piece of Wexford as diligently as Faulkner worked Mississippi."

"Colm Tóibín has established himself as a major and distinctive voice in contemporary Irish fiction," the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted. "While his work makes much of the complex associations between people and place, he eschews easy stereotypes of Irishness in favor of the often-contradictory impulses that pull on contemporary lives.

Tóibín was born into a family that had a long history in his hometown. His father, who died when Tóibín was 12, was a local schoolteacher, and his grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was twice imprisoned by British authorities for civil disobedience against British rule.

Tóibín explored this history as a writer, following four years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. He began as a features editor but moved to editing a current affairs magazine and joined the Sunday Independent in Dublin in 1985 as a columnist. As an author, he started by writing travelogues on Ireland and Spain before publishing his first novel in 1990. The South, which draws on Ireland's Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as Tóibín's life in Spain, is about an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and moves to Spain, falls in love with a political artist, and returns to Ireland as an artist herself, once her son is grown.

This novel would establish Tóibín's reputation as a writer with a keen sensibility for characterization ("His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South," noted Contemporary Literary Criticism), but it wasn't until later novels such as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship that readers would realize his insight into gay characters as well.

"This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism," Merle Rubin wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1997. "Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself."

David Bahr, writing in The Advocate in 2000, predicted that The Blackwater Lightship -- now that it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- would finally make Tóibín known outside his magazine's primary readership: "His latest...should finally prove to straight American readers what many gay people have long known: that Tóibín is one of the more honest and subtly powerful novelists publishing today.... Perceptive and moving, The Blackwater Lightship again reveals Tóibín to be the kind of restrained, quiet writer whose prose feels as natural as breathing. His poetic narrative is so understated that its profound lyricism often takes you by surprise, infusing a potentially familiar tale with vibrant new life."

Mixing fiction and biography in 2004, Tóibín penned a novel inspired by the life of Henry James. "Ambitious and gracefully plotted," said the New Statesman. In the pages of London's Observer, a previous Tóibín skeptic confessed he had been swayed. "There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel," Adam Mars Jones wrote, "The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture."

Moving fully into nonfiction, Tóibín continued to impress.

The New Statesman observed that The Irish Famine: A Documentary was "no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. And Joseph Olshan, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, awarded Tóibín's The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe an A, not only for its ability to dissect the Church's close relationship with European politics and social order. "[W]hat Tóibín comes back to is the transcendent power of Catholic ritual," Olshan writes. "Indeed, in a very moving centerpiece, Tóibín describes a therapy session during which he relives his father's death and comes to realize that his most profound wish is to bless his deceased parent with the sign of the cross. This is an extraordinary document."

But it may always be the intensely personal moments in his fiction that will always stand out. Susan Salter Reynolds noted as much in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "There is little reconciliation in Colm Tóibín's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass," she wrote. "His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins.... It's good to read Tóibín's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?"

Good To Know

Tóibín's novel The Story of Night is No. 84 on the Publishing Triangle's list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels of all time.

He counts two books by James Baldwin -- Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain -- as major influences on his work.

Tóibín covered the downfall of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1985.

He joined such authors as Roddy Doyle in the 1997 novel Finbar's Hotel, in which each of the seven authors wrote individual chapters set in the same 24-hour period at a fading hotel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
    1. Education:
      St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


It was the winter of 1964 in the town of Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland and I was training to be an altar boy. My fellow apprentices and I spent an hour three evenings a week in the vestry of the cathedral learning the intricacies of serving Mass and Benediction. We learned by rote the names of all the vestments the priest wore — the amice, the alb, the girdle, the stole, the maniple, and the chasuble. We learned how to ring the bell on the altar, first to alert the Mass-goers to the immanence of the Consecration and once more as the Host was raised and the chalice lifted. We learned how to serve the water so the priest could wash his fingers. We learned how to hold the gold plate under the chins of those who came to receive Communion.

We were serious and dutiful, knowing that we had been chosen carefully not only because of our families' position in the town but because of something the priests had noticed about us, a lack of a rebellious spirit perhaps, a willingness to bow our heads during religious ceremonies and an ability to go straight home when they were over.

After our training sessions we did not go straight home. We went to the chip shop opposite the cathedral, which served hamburgers and fried fish and fried potatoes. There were a few tables at the front, and although we ordered only take-away chips, we liked to sit there. Walking through the streets with the chips somehow did not involve the same pleasure as eating them in the shop. I loved pouring salt over the potatoes and then vinegar and watching the vinegar melt the salt. The fries were always too hot for my delicate altar boy's hands and I liked to sit in the window and let them cool.

The two men who ran the chip shop wore white tunics and black-and-white trousers. One of them was thin and dark and very hairy. He always seemed to have a few days' stubble. He could have been Italian, but he was, I knew, from the town. The other had fair hair, was stockier. I watched them as they flung potatoes into the oil, waited for them to cook, and then vigorously fished them from the oil, tossing them into another compartment of the chip-making machinery. They were businesslike, but never friendly. I have no memory of their voices.

One evening, the dark one told us that we could no longer sit at the tables. The tables were for people eating meals, he said. Not for take-away customers. When we got our chips, he said, we were to leave. He was firm about this, so there seemed no point in telling him that since the tables were always empty at this time it could hardly matter. It seemed to matter to him. We never sat at the tables again.

I have a vague memory of two half-heard snatches of conversation in the subsequent few years. One is my mother talking to someone, I cannot think who it might have been. She is saying that the two men in the chip shop go everywhere together, that she had seen them, or someone had seen them, out for a Sunday drive together. I have no memory of a label being used. She does not say homosexual or queer, or anything like that. But it is clear to me that they are together and it is unusual, and yet she does not seem to disapprove. And later someone visits the house who is a great gossip and always has interesting and accurate information about many things and people in the town. She mentions the couple in the chip shop and uses the word misbehaving and says that the police have had to intervene and that the men have been put away. No one else in the room comments.

Decades later, I wonder if we learner altar boys were banished from the tables so that the two men on the other side of the counter could guard themselves against suggestions that they were preying on the young. I wonder what pressure they were under in those years, from the town, from the law. (The Victorian laws against homosexual acts between men remained on the Irish statute books until the early 1990s, and were still enforced in the mid-1960s.) I thought about their bravery, living openly in the town during a dark time, thinking they could behave freely in a place full of prejudice.

In 1985, I reported from Buenos Aires on the trial of Galtieri and the other Argentine generals accused of causing the disappearance of more than ten thousand people. Evidence was given by those who had survived the torture camps and by those whose relatives had disappeared. On certain days evidence was also given by the torturers themselves or by members of the security forces.

The testimony began at three each afternoon and often went on until after midnight. I was living in San Isidro, a posh suburb about thirty-five minutes away from the old city by train. Each evening I walked from the courthouse to the station, passing through the grid of narrow streets that make up the old center of Buenos Aires. Sometimes, the sheer cruelty of what had been described all day in the court, the wanton viciousness of it all, stayed with me as I left the court and, as a way of getting it out of my system, I lingered in the old city for a while, having a drink and looking around me, before taking the train back to the suburbs.

Since I had not been in the city before, I heard the street names for the first time in the court, addresses where, for example, one of the disappeared has lived, or been detained, or was last seen. Now I was walking these very streets at night alone. In those years the bars and city center sidewalks were half empty, but there were nearly always lone figures wandering oscillating between the aimless and the purposeful as the moment required. Gay men pretending they were going somewhere. I had no trouble recognizing them.

I heard stories in those months about gay life in Argentina. Many of the men I spoke to had never told anyone they were gay and were certain they never would. Being rich, or really smart, or having traveled a great deal, or being well read, all this made no difference. I remember being told by one man that he thought one of his friends was gay, but he knew that the friend would commit suicide rather than tell anyone. Most of these men intended to get married, and although some of them knew that a great liberation had taken place in North American and European and Australian cities, all of them believed that Argentina would not change. They had never contemplated anything other than a life of secrecy and shame. This did not make them unhappy. It was how they lived and how they expected to live. The drama surrounding gay life in Argentina in those years was one of quickly snatched interludes of sharp sexual pleasure surrounded by silence and prohibition. They could talk about it just now to me. I was an outsider. I would not be around for long.

In August 1993, at the Edinburgh Festival, I arranged to meet Andrew O'Hagan, who at that time was an editor at The London Review of Books. The London Review of Books, he said, was commissioning a series of articles that would also become pamphlets, and they wanted me to write one. These pieces would be long and serious, he said, but also personal and polemical. I presumed as he spoke that he wanted me to do something about Ireland since I had been writing about Irish books and Irish history for The London Review of Books. No, it wasn't about Ireland, he said, and he seemed hesitant and almost embarrassed. Instead, they wondered if I would write a pamphlet about my own homosexuality.

arI told him instantly that I could not do that. It was a matter, I said, that I did not think I could write about. And there were many other writers, Irish, English, and American, who could easily do so. I had, when we spoke, written the first chapter of my novel The Story of the Night, in which I dealt with homosexuality for the first time. But it was set in another country — Argentina — and it was not autobiographical, or not obviously so. My sexuality, like Richard's in that novel, was something about which part of me remained uneasy, timid and melancholy. I told O'Hagan that I had nothing polemical and personal to say on the subject.

Then, without my realizing, The London Review of Books decided on another method of enticing me to confront my own sexuality in print. They began to send me books about gay writers or by gay writers, and some of these books were too interesting to resist. Thus I found myself writing constantly on the work and lives of homosexual writers. I realized that certain writing done in the hundred years between the trial of Oscar Wilde and the rescinding of the Victorian laws against homosexuality in Ireland raised fascinating questions. Some of the greatest writers of the age were fully alert to their own homosexuality. In their work, they sought to write in code, yet they managed also, once or twice, despite their own reticence and the dangers involved, to tell the truth in their fiction, to reveal the explicit drama of being themselves. Thus we get The Picture of Dorian Gray, Roger Casement's Diaries, Death in Venice, and Giovanni's Room. We also get work such as E.M. Forster's Maurice, which the author did not feel free to publish in his lifetime, but nonetheless needed to write, and the poems about lesbian love which Elizabeth Bishop did not publish in her lifetime, but which have been published since her death:

Just now, when I saw you naked again,

I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose...

Rose, trying, working, to show itself,

Forming, folding over,

Unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.

Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,

clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,

rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,

exactly roses from the body,

and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex —

It is easy to imagine Bishop writing this poem, the style so tentative, the effort to describe so precise and exacting, her mind so free and independent, her imagination so fearless. And yet she did not publish the poem. She was describing, as all these writers and artists were, a love that was 'trying, working, to show itself' and then holding back, fearing the 'unimaginable connections' between private desires and the public realm.

This is a book about gay figures for whom, in the main, being gay seemed to come second in their public lives. But in their private lives, in their own spirit, the laws of desire changed everything. The struggle for a gay sensibility began as an intensely private one, and slowly then, if the gay man or woman was a writer, it seeped into the work or was kept out of the work in ways that are strange and revelatory. Writing these pieces helped me come to terms with my own interest in secret, erotic energy (Casement and Mann); my interest in Catholicism (Wilde and Casement converted close to the end and the work of Almodóvar is full of Catholic imagery); my interest in Irish Protestants (Wilde, Casement, Bacon); my admiration for figures who lived in a dark time and were not afraid (Wilde, Bacon, Almodóvar); my abiding fascination with sadness (Bishop, Baldwin, Doty) and, indeed, tragedy (Gunn and Doty).

In the 1970s, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains and Elizabeth Bishop's Selected Poems were among my favorite books. But I did not know until later that these authors were gay. Love in a Dark Time reflects my excitement about my discovery and my interest in exploring the work and lives of these writers in the light of that new knowledge. This book is also a tentative history of progress. The first subject was born in the 1850s in an intolerant age. Mark Doty and Pedro Almodóvar are contemporaries of mine, born a hundred years after Oscar Wilde and living now in a less dark time.

I am interested in tracing the tension between the fearless imagination and the fearful self. I want to trace, in writing, the connection between the altar boy's half-understood sense of his own sexual difference, which would soon develop into strategies of concealment, and the chip shop owner's bravery. I want to imagine now the lone figure in Buenos Aires or in Dublin as he opens a book in solitude and secrecy to find there the story of his life, told to him by E.M. Forster or James Baldwin or Thomas Mann or Thom Gunn, or by one of the others who have broken the silence that has surrounded our lives for so long.

Colm Tóibín


January 2002

Copyright © 2001 by Colm Tóibín

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Table of Contents



Roaming the Greenwood

Oscar Wilde: Love in a Dark Time

Roger Casement: Sex, Lies and the Black Diaries

Thomas Mann: Exit Pursued by Biographers

Francis Bacon: The Art of Looking

Elizabeth Bishop: Making the Casual Perfect

James Baldwin: The Flesh and the Devil

Thom Gunn: The Energy of the Present

Pedro Almodóvar: The Laws of Desire

Mark Doty: The Search for Redemption

Good-bye to Catholic Ireland


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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2005

    Colm Tóibín, May His Tribe Increase!

    Once captured by the liquid, informed prose of Colm Tóibín it is difficult to ignore anything this brilliant writer has written. Still under the spell of 'The Master' and having just sadly finished 'The Story of the Night' (that novel could have been extended another 300 pages!), it seemed only appropriate to read an investigative work, just to see how this man's mind absorbs and dissects the world of reality instead the one of fiction.Happily LOVE IN A DARK TIME is as fascinating a read as his novels. Tóibín searches the lives of many writers and artists asking how did/does their sexuality inform what they create. After a few historic references regarding the gay aspects of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Melville, Joyce, Lorca, Yeats, Kafka, Proust, Gide et at, he analyses biographies (example: Lionel Trilling's bio of EM Forster) that appear unaware of the subject's sexual proclivities! That thrusts us into the exploration of history before the term 'homosexual' was created, regards the aspects of 'the gay being', and proceeds to introduce postulates as to how the works created by nine particular people were deeply influenced by their sexuality, occult or accepted.What then follows is a richly detailed and elegant series of essays on Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement (of The Black Diaries), Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon (the painter), Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, Thom Gunn, Pedro Almodovar, and Mark Doty. In each essay Tóibín takes a new stance of investigation, finding incidents or traits in the lives of those discussed that allow 'stories' to develop naturally.For those who have read 'The Master' (Tóibín's own 'biography' of Henry James) this series of highly researched essays will come as no surprise. Tóibín's mind is rich with a plethora of books read and a penetrating mind that examines art from a vantage peculiar to a man that has arrived at the top of the heap in the field of literature. For enjoyable and informative reading, LOVE IN DARK TIME is a pearl. And reading Tóibín's older works only serves to whet the appetite for his next opus. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp

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