New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families – Colm Toibin (Scribner)

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If Hell exists, there is a
special place there for critics and reviewers who write that a collection of
essays or stories or in fact of anything is “uneven.” Clearly the author or
editor or compiler believed there was
an overriding, cohering theme, or concept to the book and I bet that she/he
actually took a great deal longer to think about and arrange the works exactly
so in a particular sequence. A lot longer than the lazy reviewer apparently did
to bother to figure out what that sequence was and why it was important. Colm
Toibim’s collection of essays about writers sidesteps that by making its
concept immediately available in its subtitle just so no one can miss it:
“Writers and Their Families;” it is against this idea, among other things, that
the critic ought to judge its contents.

It’s not the tightest of
concepts, and Toibin doesn’t always work it out that well. Furthermore, his
editor and publisher did him no favor with that title, which smacks of the
trendiest Boerum Hill authorettes. It’s false advertising. There are no new
ways to kill your mother inside this book—sorry. Nor old ones made new and
prosecution-proof either. None of the writers herein actually did kill their
mothers although many would have liked to. Actually, fathers are more often
targeted than mothers, and reading some of these essays, believe me, you will
be, as I was, rooting for the son for to get out the axe.     

John Butler Yeats, father of
poet William Butler and artist Jack Yeats looms high on the list. A man of
Cyclopean ego, he became a painter when one son succeeded in that field, and
then switched to being a poet and playwright when son Willy succeeded in that
area. Worse yet, he insisted that his famous son read, comment upon, correct
and then agent his plays around Ireland, while he lazed about in New York City
saloons being semi-famous. Homicidally annoying! No wonder Yeats eventually
gave up on the Irish and married an Englishwoman named George. I might have
myself.

 Then there’s Thomas Mann who was known inside
the family as “Z,” short for “Die Zauberer,” i.e. the Magician. I suppose
because he turned what many considered dross into literary gold over and over
again. Alas for his alchemically challenged children, especially the two older
and pushier ones, Klaus and Katia, who spent the rest of their lives having to
deal with various ideological rabbits Papa Thom pulled out of his copious hat.
Both children became writers: Klaus’s late ‘Thirties novel, Mephisto became a good film a few years
back, while Katia became an anti-Nazi alarmist in the US with a best selling
book long before F.D.R. decided the SS was a real political problem and not
merely a fashion atrocity. Toibin gives us enough details about the sibilant
sibs that I have to admit I began cheering for the father. I mean, after all
these years, I still read him with involvement and of course ironic amusement—The Confessions of Felix Krull was my
most recent experience. Whereas the children, despite decades of acting out
across two continents, marrying inappropriately (she wed Auden—of all queens!),
and having dramatic breakdowns and or suicides, have fallen
into—ho-hum!—history.

Other writers with greater or
lesser parent issues that Toibin writes about are Samuel Beckett, John
Millington Synge, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Hart Crane and Jorge Luis
Borges. But the better of these pieces are luckily more literary than
psycho-familial –especially the ones on Baldwin and Borges. In other essays, he
takes on Irish authors Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry and Robby Doyle, and my own
interest waned. The lead off essay on Jane Austen and Henry James and the
“death of the mother” is a strictly more about those authors very tangled relations
with various other members of their families.

Anyway, with Austen’s books I
always think first of pajama party sisters, (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice), then of fathers (Emma, Pride and Prejudice), and only
then of how mothers are either silly or replaced by strong Aunt figures—Lady
Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and
Prejudice
and Lady Betram in Mansifeld
Park
. And what of Austen’s brother, who figures so crucially in her last
and my personal pick of her novels, Persuasion?
Also there are volumes of correspondence among the gabby kin, including
Austen’s many nieces and nephews. Whereas the James family—the rich do-nothing
father Henry, the novelist Henry Jr., the psychologist brother William, and the
official-victim sister Alice—get and stay in each other’s hair, in one
deleterious way or another for decades. Even the vast, intervening Atlantic is
little barrier to their incessant, crisscross letter writing and one-upmanship.
No wonder their youngest brother fled, trying to die in various local wars, and
when that failed, took jobs more like suicide missions in the Wild West,
becoming a sort of demented Bret Harte character. You might have done something
similar.  

But the real corker here is
Toibin’s essay on the very-closeted John Cheever and his coming. Now there was
what we used to call a head-case! And in fact, Cheever makes a spectacular case
for why Gay Liberation was necessary at all. Earlier, he’d written in his diary
“Every comely young man, every bank clerk and delivery boy is aimed at my life
like a loaded pistol” Sheesh! Talk about internalized homophobia! Cheever was
self-hating, publicly and privately homophobic, snobby and elitist although he
lied about his ahem! fabulous heritage, and according to his wife a “hater of
women.” Cheever’s  children—including
writers Susan and Ben—found him to be always underfoot, boring, drunk,
judgmental and interfering. In fact, he seemed to never really do anything
right until he began teaching writing at Ossining prison and came to understand
Whitman’s “adhesive love” between two cons. The result, in Toibin’s and my
estimation, is his only successful novel, Falconer,
with a gay love story at its prison setting center. Eventually Cheever admitted
to anyone he could get to listen that he was gay and paraded young men past a
family who by then viewed him with extremely glazed and exhausted eyes. He may
have died of acute alcoholism but at least he died happy—i.e., gay.

The bulk of these articles were
written for several literary reviews and are of that quality but also in that
blandly annoying New York Review
tenor. In some cases—Borges  Borges and
Baldwin especially—Toibin really loves the work and it shows. He calls Baldwin
“the best prose stylist of his generation.” I would place him second, after Truman
Capote, but Toibin makes a real case for his man. He is clearly an avid reader,
and that makes such a difference in essays like these. I suppose all the Irish
guys here were to be expected from a writer who spells his name with Celtic
diacritical marks. But aside from Yeats and a little Joyce, I think their work
is aging badly, especially Beckett and Brian Moore. No one outside of County
Clare does Synge’s plays anymore, do they? Has anyone under ninety seen one
produced in the U.S.?

One oddity for me is that the
man Colm Toibin is seldom revealed here; although this is something I learned
to expect early from my brief friendship with W.H. Auden. Wystan was funny, and
brilliant and dishy and chatty in company: a real doll. Then there was the
public Auden—for groups larger than three—and he was kind of a drag: Oh so
British and formal. Some years ago I had drinks with Toibin in a fancy Dublin
watering hole and he too was funny, and brilliant and dishy and chatty. That
personal aspect never comes through here, as it does in almost every American
writer of any substance when writing prose, from Papa Hemingway on down to
Andrew Holleran. Too bad. I would have loved to hear what Toibin really thought
of Happy Days—not to mention what he
could possibly make of Beckett’s Bride of
Frankenstein
haircut!

   ©2012, Felice Picano

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