Colm Tóibín wins the 2021 David Cohen Prize for Literature
Colm Tóibín received the 2021 David Cohen Prize for Literature at a ceremony held this evening at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.
Hermione Lee, chair of the judges, said the Irish author was the unanimous choice of all the judges: Reeta Chakrabarti, Maura Dooley, Peter Kemp and Professor Susheila Nasta. “I think of him as a Renaissance man who can do almost anything with equal brilliance,” she said. “He is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, travel writer, critic, teacher, journalist and gay rights activist.
“His novels and stories imagine their way into the lives and minds of others with incredible empathy and skill. He is a deeply insightful writer who can also be deadly funny and daringly erotic. He is a truly international figure and a vigilant historian of our time. He is a beautiful writer of loss and grief, of silence and tranquility. He writes with the intensity of a poet and the lyrical rhythms of a musician. I have never missed a book by him and every one of his books that I have read has been a revelation.He is one of the essential writers of our time.
Tóibín, whose latest novel is The Magician, about German writer Thomas Mann, said: “When I attended the inaugural reception of the David Cohen Prize in London in 1993, I had no idea that my own writing would one day be honored in this way. Those who have won the award in the past are artists whose work I revere. I am proud to be among them.”
Tóibín is the latest in a long line of distinguished writers to win the prize, which is awarded every two years for lifetime achievement. Previous winners who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature are Harold Pinter, VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Seamus Heaney. Other Irish winners include William Trevor, Derek Mahon and Edna O’Brien.
Chakrabarti said: “Our outstanding winner – Colm Tóibín – is simply a class act in a highly competitive and talented field. He is a natural novelist, a writer of subtlety, simplicity and intelligence. formidable. His novels are grounded in time and space. He seamlessly brings together major public themes of politics and history with the personal struggles of individuals. He is fascinated by ambiguous characters and writes them in beautiful sober prose.
Dooley said, “The experience of reading Colm Tóibín often makes me feel like an old friend is approaching to tell me a story. Whatever the form, be it review, essay, poetry or fiction, Tóibín’s distinctive voice crystallizes in a register so compelling, intimate and captivating that any awareness of his technical achievement is masked. . He casts a spell. He himself is “A Magician”.
Yet these technical skills are extraordinary. He’s a writer just as comfortable writing poetry, or for the stage, as he is, with subtlety and grace, creating character and narrative voice in his fiction. His personal essays are full of wit and substance, and he made brilliantly lively and tender presences of Henry James and Thomas Mann. His remarkable insight, careful attention and nuanced reading of the human condition are never clearer than when he writes about women, from the Virgin Mary or Clytemnestra to his own Nora Webster. Tóibín’s work crosses countries, sexualities and genders; he scrutinizes the silence and writes with the greatest sensitivity what it is to be alive. Colm Tóibín is a dazzlingly gifted writer who for decades has brought the inner lives of his characters to life with kindness, insight and precision.
Kemp said: “The 2021 David Cohen Prize has been awarded to a writer of impressive range and exceptionally high achievement. Author of ten novels, two collections of short stories, three travel diaries and various collections of essays, Colm Tóibín is a writer of both exceptional versatility and constant consistency. With intense immediacy and piercing lucidity, his fiction – particularly his masterpiece Brooklyn – explores enduring themes such as how family life can support or entrap, uprootings can disturb or energize. The relationships between writers and their families, most recently to the fore in his masterful Thomas Mann novel The Magician, are also a recurring concern in non-fiction works such as his brilliantly insightful investigation of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and their fathers.
“Ireland, exile, gay life and creativity, politics and travel are also subjects to which his novels and other writings have brought unflinching intelligence and literary flair. It is with happy unanimity that we, the judges, awarded the prize to a writer who is a man of letters in the finest and most complete sense.
Nasta said: “The more one reads Colm Tóibín, the more his imaginary world resonates like a haunting piece of music. From the intimate portraits of his Enniscorthy fictions, set in an Ireland torn by conflict and change, to the larger historical and cultural compass of his fictional biographies, a sustained emotional integrity exposes the conflicts of his characters’ lives. One of the privileges of judging the David Cohen Prize is the opportunity it provides to read through a lifetime as a writer. Already well known for his pioneering chronicling of same-sex sexualities and his critique of narrow Irish nationalisms, the depth of Tóibín’s empathetic engagement with the full arc of human experience continues to amaze. Above all, his work compels us to recognize the vital power of writing as a vehicle for questioning and change.
Tóibín then awarded the Clarissa Luard Award to Padraig Regan. The prize, founded by Arts Council England in memory of a much-loved literary officer, is worth £10,000 and the winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature in turn nominates an emerging writer whose work he wishes to support.
Regan is the author of two pamphlets, Who Seemed Alive & Altogether Real (Emma Press, 2017) and Delicious (Lifeboat, 2016). They hold a PhD from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast, where they are currently one of the Ciaran Carson Writing and the City Fellows for 2021. Their first book, Some Integrity, will be published by Carcanet in January.
Regan said, “I am honored to have been selected as this year’s Clarissa Luard Award recipient, and deeply grateful to Colm Tóibín for nominating me. To have your work recognized by a writer you admire is always encouraging, and this is especially true for a writer like Colm, whose body of work has made it easier for young queer writers like me to find their place in Irish literary traditions.
Tóibín’s previous awards include the Encore Second Novel Award for The Heather Blazing (1993); Dublin International Literary Prize for The Master (2006); Costa Novel Award for Brooklyn (2009); Hawthornden Award for Nora Webster (2015); and the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature (2019).