Colm Tóibín on Irish literary mentors

Colm Tóibín, Miroslav Penkov and Julia Leigh

Colm Toibin, Miroslav Penkov and Julia Leigh

This past Saturday, Colm Tóibín moderated a discussion on mentorship as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

The panel comprised current mentors Michael Ondaatje and Jennifer Tipton, former mentor Peter Sellars, current protégé Miroslav Penkov and former protégé Julia Leigh, who talked about their experiences in the Rolex Mentors and Protégés program.

In his opening remarks, Tóibín shared these two anecdotes from Irish literary history.

…There are other cases where the mentoring seems to end before it had indeed started.

The Irish poet WB Yeats and his associate Lady Gregory sought to help the young James Joyce in every way, Joyce responded by biting the hand.

He told Yeats that Yeats was too old, and there was nothing he could do for him. It was Yeats who was seeking to mentor.

Joyce was grateful then when Lady Gregory found him work reviewing books for a newspaper.

He was so grateful that his first review was a collection of folk tales, edited and collected by Lady Gregory herself. In these stories, Joyce wrote in his review, he found evidence of senility.

But perhaps the most moving version of a mentorship is that between James Joyce himself and the young Samuel Beckett who became part of Joyce’s Paris circle in the early 1930s as Joyce was working on Finnegan’s Wake, his last masterpiece.

In those years, Beckett learned about Joyce’s single-mindedness, his dedication, his belief in the work itself and the autonomy of the imagination.

By the end of the decade, Beckett had learned enough about Joyce’s wish to totalize, to use maximum means towards his goal, for Beckett to realize his own tone would always be minimal, that he would thrive, or perhaps suffer is a better word, in a realm of lesses, he had learned enough from Joyce to know how to go his own way, and maybe that is one of the primary functions of the mentor.

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