Relentlessness: A Syllabus



Photograph by Sophie Haigney.

In our new Winter issue, Belinda McKeon interviewed Colm Tóibín, the author of ten novels, two books of short stories, and several collections of essays and journalism. In the autumn of 2000,” he told her, “I taught a course at the New School called Relentlessness, and I chose to teach translations of some ancient Greek texts, and Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Ingmar Bergman, Sylvia Plath. The class was very useful because it gave me a bedrock of theory about what this sort of work was doing. … Once you have that certain authority, you can actually write a plainer prose.” We asked Tóibín for his syllabus from that class, along with a short introduction, as the first in a new series we are launching called Syllabi.

I am interested in texts that are pure voice or deal with difficult experience using a tone that does not offer relief or stop for comfort. Sometimes, the power in the text comes from powerlessness, whether personal or political. Sometimes, death is close or danger beckons or violence is threatened or enacted. Sometimes, there is a sense of real personal risk in the text’s revelations. Sometimes, there is little left to lose. All the time, the tone is incantatory or staccato or filled with melancholy recognitions.

Euripides, Medea

Sophocles, Electra

Sophocles, Antigone

Sylvia Plath, Ariel

Louise Glück, The Wild Iris

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

Juan Goytisolo, Forbidden Territory

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Nadine Gordimer, The Late Bourgeois World

Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata

John McGahern, The Barracks

Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, The Turin Horse

Doris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing

J. M. Coetzee, Age of Iron

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle

Constance Debré, Love Me Tender


Colm Tóibín’s most recent book is The Magician.