New Ways to Kill Your Mother Colm Toibin

Viking, pp.352, 20

Sam Leith explores the effect that certain writers’ relatives have had on their published works

This book’s sort-of preface is a lecture on aunts and absent mothers in Jane Austen — an odd diversion, given that nowhere else in its pages are aunts, or female writers for that matter, given much of an outing. Colm Tóibín sets out his stall early doors: he’s a formalist. Noting the difficulty critics have had getting to grips with Mansfield Park’s great couch-potato Lady Bertram — is she a goodie or a baddie? — he rebukes them high-mindedly:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters from fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern, a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology.

Well, yes. True, of course, but it is a harsh counsel of perfection both for readers and writers. Tóibín, like many of us, rows back from it a bit in the way he actually goes about things. Most of the readings in the essays that follow are biographical, psychological and personal at least as much — in fact, in most cases far more — than they are technical or formal. Tóibín, with great subtlety and sometimes with splendid impudence, is interested here in what you might call the higher gossip.

Given that this is a miscellany of essays and long book reviews published elsewhere, it’s pleasantly surprising how well New Ways to Kill Your Mother hangs together, how unforced it feels thematically. An edition of letters, or a writer’s journals, or a biography, becomes the occasion for Tóibín to talk about writers’ families as they bear on the work — not only in the way that characters and anxieties are reworked in fiction, but in the way those relationships affect the quality and direction of a writer’s ambition.

‘For writers and artists whose fathers dabbled in art and failed, there seems always to be a peculiar intensity in their levels of ambition and determination,’ Tóibín writes at the beginning of a very lively essay on Jorge Luis Borges. At the same time — and in this case it seems particularly appropriate — he’s prepared to concede that ‘there is a real possibility that the books he read mattered much more to Borges than the events of his life’.

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J. M. Synge’s nephew and literary executor Edward Stephens wrote: ‘I see J. M. and his work as belonging much more to the family environment than to the environment of the theatre.’ That said, as Tóibín drily goes on to report, ‘in Synge’s lifetime, not one member of his family had seen any of his work for the theatre.’ Tóibín resists a simple binary. Writers belong to families and to literature. They use literature in their struggle with their families, and their families in their struggle with literature.

The first section deals with Ireland and Irish writers. There are two essays on Yeats: one on his sad, mouthy old dad, forever on the point of writing a play; the other on his steadfast, ill-used wife George. Gosh, Yeats could be babyish. There’s a lovely vignette about her sending him a lamp and his writing back to ask what sort of oil to put in it. ‘The lamp of course consumes lamp oil, paraffin,’ she wrote back in exasperation. ‘What in Heaven’s name else could it consume! Its very form shouts paraffin oil; you could surely not have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil, or olive oil?’

Tóibín also looks at Synge’s revolt into bohemia and Beckett’s attempt to escape from Ireland, or if not, at least to use it in his work ‘without any reference to its mythology, its history, the amusing oddness of its people or the so-called lilt of its language’. Alternative careers Beckett contemplated, incidentally, included advertising man, commercial pilot, film-maker, art critic and lecturer in Italian at the University of Cape Town. There follow, too, essays on Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry and Roddy Doyle.

A second section — opening with the dreadful story of Thomas Mann’s children, Klaus and Erika — deals with the rest of the world. There’s Tennessee Williams’s relationship with his mad sister, perhaps the only person besides himself he found it in him to pity (‘His whining was not a game or done for effect: it seems, indeed, a rare example of whining both sincere and heartfelt. Tennessee Williams meant business when he whined’).

There’s Borges — so thoroughly a mummy’s boy that when he once tried to dress himself (his wife insisted) he ended up with two odd shoes. And there’s the story of John Cheever — hilariously and heartbreakingly in denial about his homosexuality, ‘blissfully unhappy’ in American suburbia. On his deathbed, Cheever — knowing his journals were lying in a drawer ‘like a lovely toy time bomb’ — phoned his son Ben:

‘What I wanted to tell you,’ he said, ‘is that 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.’ Ben wrote that he was ‘forgiving’. ‘But mostly I was just bewildered, and I remember now that my reply came almost as a whisper: “I don’t mind, daddy, if you don’t mind.” ’

These are foxy essays. Tóibín knows lots of things, and his characteristic approach is to sneak up on things steadily: with the patient and downbeat recounting of detail, then a sudden gust of amusement or surprise, a sweeping statement, as in the following (‘Like most young men of his age [Hart Crane] wanted love from his mother and money from his father’), or an endearingly silly gag (‘Since there is nothing much to do in [Buenos Aires], other than bang saucepans together as a protest against government policy, discussing Borges’s love life has become as popular as polo’).

He’s also austere in his judgments — Brian Moore’s lesser work gets what I think you could call ‘bitch-slapped’ in an offhand way — and acute in his occasional close readings. He notes, for instance, the very various musics of James Baldwin’s prose, now Miles Davis, now Hemingway; and he not only captures deftly the extra-ordinary clash of idioms in Hart Crane, at once a jagged modernist and a throwback to Shelley, but hints at a reason: ‘His enthusiasm for writing was not watered down by much formal education.’

The Hart Crane essay is one of the best things here. In addition to its literary excellence, it reveals that Crane’s dad invented the type of ubiquitous American sweetie called Life Savers. Given the manner of Crane Jr’s demise, there’s a gag there. Tóibín resists making it. Good on him.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Non-fiction, Writers, Writing