Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given Christianity a good name. None of the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred have attached to her. She has been free for centuries of the “blame Mom” syndrome, representing endless patience, loving kindness, mercy, succor, recourse.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
By Colm Toibin
81 pp. Scribner. $19.99.
The problem with all this is that it has led to centuries of sentimentality — blue and white Madonnas with folded hands and upturned eyes, a stick with which to beat independent women. In my youth, stores sold items called “Mary-like gowns,” which meant you could go to your senior prom looking as undesirable as possible in the name of the Virgin.
Colm Toibin’s novella “The Testament of Mary” never even approaches the swampy terrain of sentimentality. Consider, for example, the elderly Mary’s wish in relation to the Evangelists who persecute her with their insistent visits: “When I look back at them I hope they see contempt.” Traveling by ship after the death of her son, she realizes that she longs for a wreck, a drowning. “I had developed a hunger for catastrophe.” Contempt. A hunger for catastrophe. She’s a lot closer to Medea than to June Cleaver.
The writer who assumes the task of making a fictional character of someone whose life took place in history faces particular challenges. When the character’s life is a part of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the ante goes way up. His awareness of these complications leads Toibin to make a deft strategic move at the very beginning of his book by weaving the creation of a text into the structure of his tale. It is, after all, entitled “The Testament of Mary,” and the word “testament,” which we might be tempted to slide over in our association with its biblical meaning, in fact suggests both the act of witnessing and the preparation of a legacy — usually composed near death.
Throughout the novella, Mary is involved in questions of writing. She sees herself as a victim, trapped by men determined to make a story of what she knows is not a story but her life. The making of the Gospels is portrayed not as an act of sacred remembrance but as an invasion and a theft. The Evangelists — which are they? . . . Luke, perhaps, or John? — are portrayed as menacing intruders, with the lurking shadowy presence of Stalin’s secret police. They have an agenda: They know what they want to write and, almost faute de mieux, they have to interview the mother. They need to lay down the foundation for a future understanding of Jesus, and this must include the conviction that he is the Son of God, and that his death saved the world. But Mary will have none of it.
“I stood up from the chair and moved away from them, assaulted by their words.
“ ‘He died to redeem the world. . . . His death has freed mankind from darkness and from sin. . . . His suffering was necessary. . . . It was how mankind would be saved.’
“ ‘Saved?’ I asked and raised my voice. ‘Who has been saved?’
“ ‘Those who came before him and those who live now and those who are not yet born. . . . ’
“ ‘Saved from death?’ I asked.
“ ‘Saved for eternal life,’ he said. ‘Everyone in the world will know eternal life.’
“ ‘Oh, eternal life!’ I replied. ‘Oh, everyone in the world.’ ”
The use and repetition of the word “oh” is masterly. Its casual diminishment of the larger words “eternal” and “everyone” is a perfect marker of the enormous gap between the mother and the writers.
And Toibin the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed. Her fear and desire for self-protection drowned her grief and sympathy for her son’s fate. “The pain,” she says, “was his and not mine.” So much for the Pietà. So much for the “Stabat Mater.”
Unlike other writers who, in rendering the historical past, leave their poetic and image-making gifts at the door, Toibin is at his lyrical best in “The Testament of Mary.” When she is remembering the crucifixion, at the insistence of her inquisitional Evangelists, what she wants to talk about is a man with a hawk in a cage and rabbits in a sack. The cage is too small for the hawk; the bird is angry and frustrated, and the man keeps feeding it rabbits, although “the bird did not seem to be hungry. . . . The cage became full of half-dead wholly uneaten rabbits. . . . Twitching with old bursts of life.”
Atmosphere is powerfully created; we share the bodily realities of events that, through repetition, have become almost generic and so, abstract. Fleeing the violence she fears, Mary sees stars as “leftover things confined to their place, their shining nothing more than a sort of pleading.” As the guests wait for Jesus’ appearance at the wedding at Cana there is “a hushed holding in of things.” The tension preceding the crucifixion is chillingly evoked: “I knew that I was facing into something ferocious and exact.”
We learn the psychological implications of events through the precise evocation of their physical manifestations: “There was a dark vacancy in the faces of some, and they wanted this vacancy filled with cruelty, with pain and with the sound of someone crying out.” “Everybody’s blood was filled with venom, a venom which came in the guise of energy, activity, shouting, laughing, roaring instructions as they paved the way for a grim procession to a hill beyond.” With a poet’s gift for imagery, Toibin describes the scene of the crucifixion: “It was like a marketplace, but more intense somehow, the act that was about to take place was going to make a profit for both seller and buyer.”
Very occasionally, an anachronistic slip-up can distract. Mary complains twice about ill-fitting “shoes” and speaks of someone seeing to her “bills.” Now, it’s certainly possible that people wore shoes and paid bills in first-century Roman Palestine, but it almost doesn’t matter. This is a place where our associations — sandals and piles of coins versus shoes and bills — create doubts that hang in the air, like an annoying buzz. Or like a tiny pimple on an otherwise beautiful face.
For “The Testament of Mary” is a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother’s grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son. Her prayers are directed not to Yahweh but to Artemis, Greek not Jewish, chaste goddess of the hunt and of fertility, but no one’s mother. Mary’s final word on her son’s life and death is the bleak declaration: “It was not worth it.”
Mary Gordon’s most recent novel is “The Love of My Youth.”
Steven A. Cohen, whose SAC Capital just settled two insider-trading lawsuits with the government for $616 million, has bought himself a gift — Picasso’s “Le Rêve” for $155 million, Page Six has exclusively learned.
Billionaire Cohen secretly bought the masterpiece from Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, who famously put his elbow through the 1932 painting of Picasso’s mistress, creating a six-inch tear.
The price is estimated to be the highest ever paid for an artwork by a US collector — and it’s even more impressive because Wynn had previously agreed to sell the masterpiece to Cohen for $139 million in 2006, but accidentally tore the painting the following day.
A source told Page Six, “Steve bought ‘Le Rêve’ as a gift to himself. This was supposed to be a top- secret sale because of the government investigation and settlement.”
It reaped a hefty profit for Wynn, who also got a $45 million insurance payout after he elbowed the painting while showing it off to friends including Nora Ephron at his Las Vegas office.
Wynn, who suffers from vision problems, agreed at the time to release Cohen from the sale and repair it. Now he has sold it to Cohen for $16 million more than the pre-damage price.
Another source told us, “Steve has wanted that painting for a long time. The timing of the sale is just a coincidence.”
In what officials are calling the largest-ever settlement of an insider-trading action, SAC Capital Advisors LP agreed March 15 to pay securities regulators more than $600 million to resolve a civil lawsuit related to improper trading.
Despite reports that Cohen, worth about $9.3 billion, was feeling the pinch after investors in SAC asked to withdraw $1.68 billion — sparking speculation he might sell his art — it seems he’s building his collection, which includes works by van Gogh, Manet, de Kooning, Cezanne, Warhol, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst.
Cohen’s longtime spokesman Jonathan Gasthalter declined to comment, and reps for Wynn didn’t get back to us.
Marie Mullen in the Dublin Theatre Festival production of Testament, 2011. Photograph: Patrick Redmond
Colm Tóibín's mothers don't always behave as they should; they are often unpredictable, occasionally downright troublesome, prone to gusts of passion or rage or – worse – unnatural indifference. Rarely are they uncomplicated figures of placid, nurturing devotion; but they do make for fantastically involving fiction. In his 2006 short-story collection, Mothers and Sons, Tóibín brought us relationships that were often characterised by the way they inverted traditional roles. An entrepreneurial widow plots to escape to the anonymity of the big city, clashing with her son's determination to hold fast to their small-town life; another man slinks away from a crowded pub rather than be spotted by the celebrated mother who has absented herself from his life; in "A Long Winter", a magnificent extended piece set in rural Spain, a young man is forced to keep house ineptly for his father after his alcoholic mother walks out into a snowstorm rather than be deprived of drink.
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
It's not just made up mothers, either. A Guest at the Feast, the short memoir that Tóibín released as a Penguin Special ebook at the end of last year, contains tremendously tender, poignant portraits of his mother, father and other family members. But one memorable passage also depicts his mother on the warpath, as the young Tóibín runs into trouble at school:
Now she went and got her hair done and put on her best high heels and set out for the monastery. For days afterwards, she gave anyone who called a vivid account of her interview with Brother Carbery. She told him she had no interest in anything he had to say, she was here to talk and not to listen. And she was here to tell him that if I didn't get a scholarship, declensions or no declensions, she would blame him personally and write to the head of the Christian Brothers in Ireland about him.
It was deliciously unfair.
It is no surprise, then, to discover more than a hint of that determination to face down authority and to have one's opinion heard in Tóibín's depiction of the most famous mother of all. The Testament of Mary, a novella that first manifested itself as the stage-play Testament, is bereft of high heels, or new hairdos, or mothers laying down the law; it is pitched in a far quieter and less dramatic register. But we are left in little doubt that its narrator, a woman mourning the death of her son and called upon to give an account of his life to two unnamed visitors, is more angry than she is accepting.
The mother of Jesus – she cannot bring herself to utter his name, referring to him only as "my son", or "the one who was here" or, to her interlocutors, "the one you are interested in" – is living in a small house in Ephesus; after the crucifixion, when all those close to him came under surveillance and suspicion, she was spirited away by "the Beloved Disciple", whom we may fairly assume is John, the author of the fourth gospel. Now, some years later, he has returned with another man to question her. Again, we assume that he is in the act of writing his account of the times; what she says, therefore, will not only be part of the founding of a new religion, but also ensure the posterity of its author.
What her visitors want is someone pliable, on-side, part of the project, someone who will satisfy their "vast and insatiable needs"; what they get is low-key resistance. "Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another," Mary tells us, "or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say."
Instead, she tells the reader her story: the ambivalence, bordering on dislike, she feels for her son's followers, whom she describes as misfits, "fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers"; the estrangement she feels when he sheds his boyhood identity and becomes someone else, "his voice all false, and his tone all stilted". That estrangement reaches its height when, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus appears not to recognise his mother; he has become, she realises without rancour or self-pity, filled with "unthinking energy". Leaving the wedding, she almost turns back, but does not.
Tóibín recounts a handful of these familiar stories, on each occasion making them subtly disturbing. The wedding, for example, includes an almost jocular aside about the lavishness of the gifts and the bride's clothes that first calls to mind the excess of contemporary weddings and then prompts a reflection on Mary and the cult of virginity. The resurrection of Lazarus is used as a way of thinking about the desirability – or otherwise – of immortality, the profound impact it might have on what it means to be human.
The book's climax comes, of course, with the crucifixion. Here, Mary gives full rein not only to her love for her son but to her understanding of the limits of their bond; "the pain was his and not mine", she says, unburdening herself of a final moment of weakness that her visitors would rather not hear. "The truth should be spoken at least once in the world."
That truth, as Tóibín imagines it in this fearsomely strange, deeply thoughtful book, is far more subversive than it might at first seem. It runs counter to much Marian doctrine and many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, not least the power of Mary to intercede on our behalf. The Mary who sits in her darkened house in Ephesus would not, I think, willingly take on the prayers of the world; all that she wishes for, she tells us at the book's close, is to confine dreams to the night-time and living to the daytime, and to live "in full recognition of the difference between the two".
It is 20 years after the Crucifixion. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is being held or protected in a house in Ephesus by two figures, one of whom may be St John, another who may be an early version of St Paul. All around is a Greek landscape. Thus there is a new language, an unfamiliar form of worship, a vastly rich culture and a sense of the slow growth of something else, something new. All around too is a strange, insistent force that comes from the goddess Artemis, statues of whom dot the landscape, exuding power and mystery.
All around too are the theatres and temples, the public spaces that cause awe and fear in a woman from a village, someone who has come traumatised and terrified to this place on the edge of the sea. No one is sure what should be done with Mary, if she is merely the mortal mother of Jesus or if she is, as she will later be declared at the Congress in Ephesus in 431 to be, Theotokus, the Mother of God. Although Matthew, Mark and Luke in their Gospels do not deem it necessary, or indeed wise, to dramatise her presence at the Crucifixion of her son, John, who has seen Greek theatre and writes later, understands how powerful this image of the compliant and grieving figure is. For the moment, however, her two guardians need to control Mary’s testament, they need merely her account of the childhood and early manhood of her son. But more than anything they need her silence, the reverberations of which they will ensure will last for many centuries.
THEY APPEAR MORE often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.
But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to sleep. Or there is nothing further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down these stairs as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.
They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.
I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears.
There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true.
There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.
Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end. There were moments then when he was soft, ready to hold me and comfort me as he is ready now to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained. Yet I can see signs of that softness still and there are times when the glow in his eyes returns before he sighs and goes back to his work, writing out the letters one by one that make words he knows I cannot read, which recount what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed. I have asked him to read the words aloud to me but he will not. I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.
I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.
So when I told him about the rabbits I was not telling him something that I had half forgotten and merely remembered because of his insistent presence. The details of what I told him were with me all the years in the same way as my hands or my arms were with me. On that day, the day he wanted details of, the day he wanted me to go over and over for him, in the middle of everything that was confused, in the middle of all the terror and shrieking and the crying out, a man came close to me who had a cage with a huge angry bird trapped in it, the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze; the wings could not stretch to their full width and this confinement seemed to make the bird frustrated and angry. It should have been flying, hunting, swooping on its prey.
The man also carried a bag, which I gradually learned was almost half full of live rabbits, little bundles of fierce and terrorised energy.
And during those hours on that hill, during the hours that went more slowly than any other hours, he plucked the rabbits one by one from the sack and edged them into the barely opened cage. The bird went for some part of their soft underbelly first, opening the rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes. It is easy to talk about this now because it was a mild distraction from what was really going on, and it is easy to talk about it too because it made no sense. The bird did not seem to be hungry, although perhaps it suffered from a deep hunger that even the live flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy. The cage became half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds. Twitching with old bursts of life. And the man’s face was all bright with energy, there was a glow from him, as he looked at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty.
By that time we had spoken of other things, including the men who played with dice close to where the crosses were; they played for his clothes and other possessions, or for no special reason. One of these men I feared as much as the strangler who arrived later. This first man was the one among all those who came and went during the day who was most alert to me, most menacing, the one who seemed most likely to want to know where I would go when it was over, the one most likely to be sent to bring me back. This man who followed me with his eyes seemed to work for the group of men with horses, who sometimes appeared to be watching from the side.
If anyone knows what happened that day and why, then it is this man who played with dice. It might be easier if I said that he comes in dreams but he does not, nor does he haunt me as other things, or other faces, haunt me. He was there, that is all I have to say about him, and he watched me and he knew me, and if now, after all these years, he were to arrive at this door with his eyes narrowed against the light and his sandy-coloured hair gone grey and his hands still too big for his body, and his air of knowledge and self-possession and calm, controlling cruelty, and with the strangler grinning viciously behind him, I would not be surprised. But I would not last long in their company. Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice, and the strangler, or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.
Compared to them, the man with the rabbits and the hawk was oddly harmless; he was cruel, but uselessly so. His urges were easy to satisfy. Nobody paid any attention to him except me, and I did because I, perhaps alone of those who were there, paid attention to every single thing that moved in case I might be able to find someone among those men with whom I could plead. And also so that I could know what they might want from us when it was over, and more than anything else so that I could distract myself, even for a single second, from the fierce catastrophe of what was happening.
They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting who had been told to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.
The second one who comes has a different way of making his presence felt. There is nothing gentle about him. He is impatient, bored and in control of things. He writes too, but with greater speed than the other, frowning, nodding in approval at his own words. He is easy to irritate. I can annoy him just by moving across the room to fetch a dish. It is hard to resist the temptation sometimes to speak to him although I know that my very voice fills him with suspicion, or something close to disgust. But he, like his colleague, must listen to me, that is what he is here for. He has no choice.
I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first. He was waiting for me to tell him something else and he sat opposite me, his patience slowly ebbing away, as I refused to return to the subject of his desires: the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name.
So we call him “him”, “my son”, “our son”, “the one who was here”, “your friend”, “the one you are interested in”.
Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.
He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye.
Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young.
Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will not only get foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.
This is an extract from The Testament of Mary, which will be published by Viking on Thursday. Colm Tóibín will be reading from the book at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on Wednesday October 31st at 5pm; €8/€5;abbeytheatre.ie
The gospel according to Colm … Toibin was careful to not outright dismiss or debunk Jesus's miracles.
Colm Toibin has just arrived in Hong Kong for a writers' festival. He's so jet-lagged he's not sure from where he's flown. Nor is he sure if his new book, The Testament of Mary - (see review below), is out yet. But he's confident that when he surfaces and goes out into the streets ''it will be the only thing on anyone's mind''.
Toibin has written much about Catholicism and much about mothers in novels, essays, stories and, more recently, a short memoir. His own mother was a believer who made a pilgrimage from Dublin to Lourdes in the early 1960s when Toibin was five. He went eventually, but by then he had lost his faith and the purpose of his visit was not in expectation of a miracle, something he writes about in The Sign of the Cross, his account of travelling through Catholic Europe.
But he had been a conscientious altar boy, palms locked together. ''I did think of becoming a priest quite late on, when other boys were thinking of knocking over fences and going out with girls,'' he says. ''I would have made a very good bishop: nice housekeeper, nice clothes - god, the clothes.''
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin.
In his new novella, he writes in the voice of the holiest figure for Catholics, Mary. But we meet his Mary in exile in Ephesus, 20 years after the crucifixion of the son she cannot bring herself to name. She remains traumatised by what she saw - and didn't see - and frightened for her own safety.
But Toibin's Mary is no pushover. ''I was there,'' she tells them. ''I fled before it was over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.''She is in exile but in the company of two men who ask her to corroborate the story they want to tell for the future: that her son was the son of God; that he rose from the dead three days after the crucifixion; that he died to save mankind.
But Toibin's Mary is no pushover. ''I was there,'' she tells them. ''I fled before it was over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.''
This is the woman who was repelled by the many young men who came to see her son at their home; there was something about their ''awkward hunger''. She would disappear before he ''would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted''. The woman who swiftly realises - at Cana, where water was turned into wine - that ''I had not missed my chance to take my son away from here, I understood that I never had a chance in the first place and that all of us were doomed''.
Toibin goes to Italy each year and it was while he was in Venice that he stumbled upon Tintoretto's Crucifixion in Scuola Grande di San Rocco. ''It's very untidy and big,'' he says. ''The crucifixion is as though a lot is going on at the time - the drama, fires lighting, a lot of noise - it's a hugely noisy painting. And that painting really got me thinking about what it could have been like and then how come Matthew, Mark and Luke don't have Mary at the crucifixion the same way as John does.'' (Toibin's reader assumes that one of Mary's visitors is writing John's gospel.)
And then Toibin had the notion of John having seen classical Greek theatre - Medea or Elektra - and realising that the story of the crucifixion without a grieving figure at the foot of the cross could not have the power it would once you placed a mother there.
Tobin wrote The Testament … as a novella and, although it has just been published, it first appeared as a play, a monologue, at the Dublin Theatre Festival last year. He says that as he was writing he had an inkling of the effect it might have on an audience if spoken out loud.
''I did try to get a voice that someone could work with,'' he says. ''But I think almost any first-person narrative does that. It's a sort of natural thing.''
Once he had the rhythm he felt he had Mary's voice and then it was a question of ''holding it and wielding it and making sure you didn't ever lose it''.
He worked with two old friends - Marie Mullen playing Mary and Garry Hynes as director - in the production. They had known each other well for 30 years or more - they could recall funny moments when they were all together in a B&B in 1979 - so I assumed it must have been an easy working environment.
''No, no. What? Sorry,'' Toibin says, then laughs slightly hysterically down the line. ''You must be joking. There was no sense of, 'Oh, we're all friends, we'll just throw this out'. It was a tough experience.''
He certainly wasn't worried about how the play would be received by the ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland. ''I don't think the ecclesiastical people have any authority,'' he says. ''If it had been some years ago, they would have leapt on it, but now they've got other things.''
Toibin says he was very careful that the book didn't become just a debunking of the biblical stories about miracles. The miracle at Cana and the healing of the sick man in the temple were, he says, straightforward to write. But the account of Lazarus being brought back from the dead was different.
''Cana looked like nonsense to her [Mary],'' he says. ''But the Lazarus thing was too powerful, had taken over too many people. I didn't expect it to come in so much detail. But once I wrote it and the whole presence of Lazarus coming into the space, once I'd got that, I was very surprised by the effect that had on me - which was powerful.''
Toibin's Lazarus is like the sort of child that everyone loves, but he comes back with knowledge that he cannot share. As Mary puts it: ''I knew that whatever it was had bewildered him, whatever knowledge he had come to possess, whatever he had seen or heard, he carried it with him in the depths of his soul as the body carries its own dark share of blood and sinew.''
Toibin published a short e-memoir, A Guest at the Feast, at the end of last year. In it he wrote of his mother: ''She was what most writers long for, and what most of us still write for: the ordinary reader, curious and intelligent and demanding, ready to be moved and changed, and believing still that the written word has all the power to make the deepest imprint on the private self.''
He still carries her example with him and still writes for someone like her. His mother left school at 14 but always had a sense that books and learning were so precious. She would ''mooch around'' her local library and often surprise her son with what she found. Saul Bellow, for example. Toibin says she preferred Bellow to his own writing.
''It was her way of annoying me, saying those novels are so funny and he manages to get so much philosophy in them,'' he says. ''And she would look at me and I would say, 'There's no point looking at me, I can't do any of that'.''
Did she like his books? No, but she was very nice about them. ''She liked novels to be smart and she thought mine were too slow … She liked me because I was her son and stuff and she liked the books coming out, but, no, I don't think so.''
These days, Toibin spends one term each year teaching in the English department at New York's Columbia University. ''I'm pretty serious about what I have to do there,'' he says. ''The ghost of Edward Said is somewhere around and it's the department of Lionel Trilling.''
He's taking a course called Irish Prose, which takes in mythology and Beckett and Joyce, as well as lesser-known writers, such as Somerville and Ross, of The Irish R.M. TV series, and a graduate course in the novel from George Eliot and Edith Wharton. He approaches the course like a military campaign - no alcohol will pass his lips; it's more like a diet than a teaching program. But as soon as he's marked the last papers he skedaddles back to Ireland.
He lives south of Enniscorthy, where he grew up, in a house by the sea close to where the family holidayed each year until his father died when Toibin was in his teens. It's the landscape of his wonderful early novel, The Heather Blazing, and some of Brooklyn.
And it's in the novel he's currently working on. ''You think, 'give it up,' at some point, and then here it comes again, hey.'' He sighs and says he's going over the same material again. ''I'm sort of worried that I've just done that but nonetheless it's true.''
Some of us, I say, wouldn't mind that. The Heather Blazing remains my favourite of his books.
''I think this new one is closer to that than any of the other books,'' Toibin says. ''That same sort of emotional territory, those same years. And that same landscape.''
But we have a while to wait before the novel appears. ''It's still in longhand,'' he says.
Pick of the week - Review of The Testament of Mary
Any thinking person brought up Catholic in Ireland must have spent many hours contemplating Mary, the most human and humanising figure in the story of Christ.
This novella is set years after the crucifixion and St John, author of the fourth gospel, is bothering her for details and for verification of his own version. But Mary's voice is full of bitterness and rage and her heart full of grief and guilt. She recalls resenting the changes she saw in her son after he gained the following of his disciples, and being frightened by his claim to be the son of God. She worships Artemis, whose temple is in Ephesus where she now lives.
Toibin, a self-described lapsed Irish Catholic, must have had years of thinking about it behind him when he wrote the story of the New Testament in Mary's voice, and his version warms and animates an iconic figure.
Reading this perfect novella is like watching a candle being lit inside a lantern.