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“A happy childhood,” Colm Tóibín tells us, “may make good citizens, but it is not a help for those of us facing a blank page.” Withholding or meddlesome fathers, control-freak mothers, siblings whose sexual hijinks would make polite society shudder—these are the stimuli that fill blank pages with art. And Tóibín in New Ways to Kill Your Mother (Scribner) mines this potent field of twisted and troublesome literary families for all it’s worth.
William Butler Yeats and his competitive father become embroiled in undignified pissing matches. Thomas Mann, when eyeing his own children, blurs the dangerous line between father and lover. John Millington Synge and his mother engage in a life-long tug-of-war that pits his rebellious, expansive nature against her dogmatic, religious fervor and unrelenting dullness. The essays in this extraordinary collection are always illuminating and a delight to read no matter how familiar you are with the authors or the works being dissected.
Tóibín is a great wit, quick with the aphorism, the smart remark that can leaven even the weightiest of literary topics. He terms a mad father in a Sebastian Barry play as “well past his sell-by date.” He derides a Brian Moore novel set in contemporary Belfast as having “as much truth and local flavour as a CNN news report.” And he brands a couple of Jorge Luis Borges’ friends as “capricious and mad and permanently horny, a wealthy pair of monsters, like two figures in an early Polanski film.”
A universally acclaimed writer, Tóibín is an exceptional reader, too. And he shares with us his discoveries, his appreciation of the great sense of style his peers bring to their craft. Praising “the hidden nervous system in the words and between the words” in Hart Crane’s poetry, he adds that the poet “worked a gnarled, edgy sound against the singing line…. His syntax had something hard and glittering in it, utterly surprising.” Of James Baldwin: He “had a fascination with eloquence itself, the soaring phrase, the rhythm pushed hard, the sharp and glorious ring of a sentence.”
Happily for us, Tóibín is not above lacing such erudite prose with a little dish now and then. He reveals that Samuel Beckett, “not always the saintly figure, full of politeness and withdrawn courtesy,” was a potty mouth. That Ezra Pound, best man at Yeats’s wedding, hoped that the Irish poet’s bride would “perhaps dust a few cobwebs out of his belfry.” And that Baldwin wrote of James M. Cain: “Not only did he have nothing to say, but he drooled, so to speak, as he said it.”
Not that he’s spilling any big secrets. It’s the notebooks and letters of the authors themselves, which Tóibín thoroughly combs, that serve up the wealth of behind-the-scenes information. Take, for example, this warning a dying John Cheever (knowing his journals soon would be published) offered his son: “Your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.”
Many of the writers covered in this book are gay in one way or another. Of Irish poet Thomas MacGreevy, confidant of Beckett and gossipy BFF of Yeats’s wife: “Like many before and after him, he was homosexual abroad but celibate in Ireland. (When he mentioned his sexual inclinations to a priest, he was told to kick himself every time he had such thoughts.)” Of Mann and his brood: “Some things ran in the family. Homosexuality, for instance. Thomas himself was gay most of the time, as his diaries make clear. So were three of his children….And then there is the small matter of incest.”
And while the book relates many gay writers to the context of their times, nowhere is it more revelatory than in the discussion of closet case extraordinaire Cheever. As Tóibín says of him and his ilk, it was “not unusual for a married man who was gay to keep the world at arm’s length by pretending that other homosexuals were queer, while he just happened to like having sex with men.” And Cheever just happened to like it a great deal if his journals are any indication: “If I followed my instincts, I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.”
It’s often been said that the English invented the language but the Irish showed them how to use it. True? Maybe. But if I had to pick a single Irish writer to give credence to this old chestnut, based on this remarkable book alone I’d select Colm Tóibín without a moment’s hesitation.
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families
By Colm Tóibín
Hardcover, 9781451668551, 256 pp.