Tóibín turns his critical eye on the forces and families that shape writers
A recent review of mine from the Irish Examiner…
Penguin Viking; £20
There is an argument to be made that Colm Tóibín has always been a sharper critic than a novelist. As his work in fiction has evolved he has tended more and more towards prioritising aesthetics and interiority above all else. By contrast, to read his critical output — which exceeds that of his fiction — is to witness a sophisticated mind tackling the same concerns for style and social pressures but with a more journalistic urgency and regard for the general reader.
This volume, a study of those families where “discussion of art” is “part of emotional life”, collects 15 lectures, reviews, and essays into a surprisingly cohesive package. In it, Tóibín challenges our tendency to stereotype writers as tortured loners. Instead he rightly claims every artist to be a product of the social and cultural forces prevalent in their age, of which the family, even escaped or rejected, is often the most powerful.
Moving from the motherless heroines of 19th century novels, where maternal figures were often killed-off and replaced by stepmothers or other enabling surrogates, to the depiction of fathers in modern Irish drama, to the relationships of young black men to their families in the contemporary United States, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is that rarest breed of literary criticism: the readable kind. An opening touchstone on Henry James and Jane Austen (for whom the influence of family was “a technical problem rather than a psychological problem”) is followed by a bipartite division into essays on authors from Ireland and “Elsewhere”.
Though Tóibín perhaps betrays himself by referring to the War of Independence, as “the Black and Tan War” — and more so by giving Sebastian Barry’s clumsy Hinterland (2002) a free pass — his Hiberno-centric essays are measured and informative, lacking the hysterics with which critics often seek to claim the greats for one ideological camp or another. Here the boldest conflict of the Yeats brothers is their “battle with each other over politics and style”. George Yeats transforms into a mother for a husband 30 years her senior while William’s father eventually becomes a kind of son: “Did you get my poem?” Yeats senior implores; “Why don’t you tell me about my play?”.
Less cutting is the breezy history of JM Synge’s family, “staunch defenders of the Union”, through which Tóibín paints a vivid portrait of the writer himself. “Skilled at withdrawing”, Synge worked hard to overcome his unsociable tendencies. He was a student of science and archaeology for “their own sake” and, spurned in an early marriage proposal, he passed most of his short life with “no prospects just as he had no religion”. His blood relatives tolerated his literary indulgences without ever attending any of his plays so he sought a new and equally fraught family among the leaders of Irish theatre.
Thus the “strange hostility” between Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory when Ireland’s original troika ran the Abbey Theatre is framed by Tóibín in terms of familial secrets and lies. Yeats and Gregory, he says, were constantly fearful that Synge was on the verge of finding them out as they reinvented themselves. Yet while they fulfilled a psychological need for kin, they could never provide the creative fodder which Synge required for drama. Tóibín therefore slyly traces the creation of the Widow Quinn — and so “a central part of the action of The Playboy” — to Synge’s own mother, jealous of the attention he received from young ladies.
Mrs Synge, who spent a decade dying alongside her son, is also a gateway to the circuitous conversations Tóibín’s essays have with each other within the volume. She prefigures Samuel Beckett’s mother, a neurotic and often depressed women for whom her offspring “became the focus of her worry”. Despairing at his inability to find a publisher for his first novel, or, for that matter, a job, Beckett rejected his mother’s solace for that of art, particularly the paintings of Jack B Yeats. Turn by turn Tóibín’s book turns back upon itself like this, returning the reader to figures they’ve already encountered with fresh insights and knowledge.
The international side of things, while less tightly interwoven, displays a similar thematic connection through pieces on Borges and his nation, Mann and his children, John Cheever and his penis, along with Tennessee Williams and his unstable sister whom Tóibín pegs as the inspiration for the fractured women of plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). While a gloss on Hart Crane’s poetry disappoints on grounds of brevity, the two essays on American novelist and social critic James Baldwin which close the volume are Tóibín’s personal tribute to a talent rarely read on this side of the Atlantic.
It is easy to see why Baldwin appeals to Tóibín. He was a “spokesman for a minority” (two, in fact, if you add his sexuality to his race), a prose stylist with “a fascination for elegance”, as well as a writer who, like Tóibín, claimed Henry James as an inspiration for dealing “with the matter of failed masculinity”. Here his Notes from a Native Son (1955) is offset against the most unexpected of texts, Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from my Father (1995), in an effort to show how both fatherless Americans grew to shoulder national paternal responsibilities. The result is a well meant but awkward comparison.
Still, this is a minor issue in an otherwise well argued volume filled with fascinating literary history and replete with metaphorical slayings. New Ways to Kill Your Mother depicts the writer as a “silent, stubborn dissenter at the table” in “all family events and outings” but it also makes us part of a rich and fruitful gathering. There is much here for the intelligent reader to enjoy.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 26 January 2013 (p.16).
Other posts you may enjoy:
- ‘Study of the Irish Novel falls between two stools’: My Irish Examiner review of George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1960-2010.
- ‘Bridging the Gaps in McGahern’s Journey to Becoming a Great Writer’: My Irish Examiner review of Denis Sampson’s Young John McGahern.