The award winning writer Tóibín reads from his insightful new book on literary fathers. Today, Tóibín's gaze turns to John B. Yeats, father of the literary giant, W.B. Yeats. It turns out that the brilliant conversationalist and impoverished artist was a source of exasperation, but also of inspiration to his son, and here Tóibín tells us why.
Tóibín’s focus on Dublin is intensely personal, autobiographical, atmospheric. As with the memoir by his fellow Wexford man John Banville, Time Pieces, there is a kind of fierce possessiveness at work here, as well as an elegiac memory of the sleepy city he came to in the 1970s. There are also gimlet-like reflections on writers who preoccupy him (Beckett, Gregory, Synge, O’Casey as well as Yeats and Wilde), not least their ancestral Protestantism. It meant little to them in terms of religious practice (except in Gregory’s case), but inflected the way they were perceived in Ireland. ‘It must be fun,’ reflects Tóibín, tongue-in-cheek, ‘not believing in anything, and having your fellow countrypeople wanting you to clear off to England because of the very religion you don’t believe in.’
This book is, in its sly way, far more substantial than it might at first seem – more, indeed, than it presents itself as being. Colm Tóibín’s subject is the influence of their fathers on the artistic thought, attitude and writings of three great Irish literary artists: Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats and James Joyce. What Tóibín has produced is not only a group portrait of three men who in their way were almost as brilliant as their sons, but also an illuminating meditation on the familial sources of artistic inspiration.
...poignant and engrossing tour of his Irish literary hinterland... This project began as a lecture series in honour of Richard Ellmann, biographer of all three writers. It stands, though, on its own sturdy and nimble feet. Toíbín prefaces his essays with an evocative account of a stroll across Dublin... Toíbín shrewdly notes that whereas the fathers “created chaos” and often abandoned their grand designs, the sons became “expert finishers”... An author justly acclaimed for his portrayals of women — from the mother of Jesus to a 1950s Brooklyn immigrant — proves a far-sighted guide to the country of old men.
"Father, muses Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses, is "a necessary evil". If Colm Tóibín's intriguing new book had an epigraph, that would be it. Combining biography, literary criticism and psychology, it looks at the relationships with their fathers of Joyce, WB Yeats and Oscar Wilde, and argues for the creative importance of parricide.
This is a book about all manner of things. About being an Irishman in an Englishman’s writing world, about ardour in old age, about measuring a man by his gaze, about freedom and spirit-crushing incarceration, about homosexuality, tolerance, reputation, class, duty and loyalty. It is about the sins of the fathers — debt, self-delusion, drunkenness — and the legacy left to their sons.
It is not a mad book, certainly not a bad book, but it is an odd book. Each man is viewed as if through a prism, sending reflections and shafts of light shooting off at strange angles. The result is thought-provoking and perplexing. Paths cross and recross. The six men — fathers and sons — walk the same streets, loiter on the same corners, though in different decades. If there is a fourth literary father here, it is Dublin. Tóibín’s portraits are often moving, always interesting and made me tearful as I listened to my father and brother planning a boys’ trip to, as it happens, Dublin. But it is a demanding book. And it is odd.
Colm Tóibín’s sparkling little book... the joy of Tóibín’s erudite, subtle, witty and often deeply moving biographical essays is that one generation’s paternal prodigality can become the next generation’s powerhouse of neurotic energy... Tóibín’s explorations of the Wildes and the Yeatses are deeply and constantly engaging but it is in his evocation of the imaginative connection between the Joyces that the psychological probing of subtleties and intimacies so familiar from his novels yields a classic of biographical criticism... Yet the tolerance of literature is precisely the terrain that Tóibín inhabits and it is the very existence of Simon Dedalus as a fictional character that allows him to test, as he cannot really do with Wilde and Yeats, the way the son gives way to the artist, the way James Joyce transforms “actual life”... His own watching of this process makes for a highly original and convincing reading of Joyce’s artistic development... The light that Joyce shines on his father’s ghost becomes, in Toibín’s richly illuminating reflections, a light cast back on Joyce himself.
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know began its life as a series of Richard Ellmann Lectures, given at Emory University, Georgia, in the biographer’s memory – and each of the essays in it comes with the mild but confounding sense of lifelessness and disorganisation one often finds when reading words that were written originally to be spoken aloud (I do not know how to account for the gap between these two things, but I will say this: I hope there is an audio book, read by the author, who has one of the most marvellously suggestive voices I’ve ever heard)...All the same, there is something interesting and insightful to be found on almost every page.
This short book throws up big themes of attachment, resentment, influence and loss. Toibin has a hawk-like eye for literary subtleties, and a generosity towards his subjects that is warm and unacademic. My only quibble is with the awful Byronic title. Whatever has the English milord to do with these turbulent, passionate Irish fathers?