Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Tóibín family relationship essays pull together well
INCISIVE but infinitely delicate, this collection of essays by Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibn (Brooklyn, The Empty Family) looks at the tricky relations between writers and their families.
Ten of these pieces were written for various forums and audiences, but under Tóibn's attention-getting title, they pull together very well.
There's no shortage of anecdotes about writerly doom and dysfunction. Take Tóibn's account of the tragic family of Thomas Mann, his six children -- three adored and three ignored -- riven by self-destruction, suicide and "the small matter of incest."
Or his bleakly comic examination of American writer John Cheever, whose sense of himself as an ideal suburban husband and father was hampered by his heavy drinking and deeply closeted homosexuality. As Tóibn drily observes, this involved Cheever "pretending that other homosexuals were queer, while he just happened to like having sex with men."
While he's fascinated by writers' lives, Tóibn always brings it back to the work. Tóibn grounds the creative impulse in a need to metaphorically kill one's parent. From mama's boy Jorge Luis Borges to the (figuratively) fatherless James Baldwin, many of these writers are either overshadowed or undervalued by parental figures.
One particularly painful essay deals with the poet William Butler Yeats, whose feckless father, Jack, turned to writing late in his life. The elder Yeats begged for his son's approval, but the son denied it, his curt answer a form of written parricide.
More often the disapproval ran the other way. After reading a review of J.M. Synge's riot-inciting play The Playboy of the Western World, his mother wrote in a letter, "I was troubled about John's play -- not nice." Looking at several Irish writers, Tóibn treats Ireland almost as another family member, both supporting and stifling.
Tóibn's own experiences as a writer have left him wary of the biographical fallacy, and he views the correspondences between art and life as shaded and unpredictable.
And sometimes a bad mother is not just a bad mother. Highly conscious of the internal demands of fiction, Tóibn suggests "that the role of a character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern."
His discussion of absent mothers in the 19th-century novel is illuminating. He views these missing moms not so much as a psychological phenomenon but as a matter of mechanics. As the novel starts to come into its own as an exploration of an individual's moral and emotional journey, mothers tend get in the way.
"They take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality," which is why so many 19th-century heroines are motherless, either literally or figuratively.
Tóibn suggests that novelists like Jane Austen and Henry James much prefer aunts, whose busy comings and goings move the plot, and the heroine, along.
So, do literary depictions of family come from esthetic choice or emotional necessity, from art or life? Tóibn's own fictions, which are populated by cold, distant mother figures, seem to be driven by both.
While the feelings of Tóibn the son seem undeniably present, they have been transmuted by Tóibn the writer into small marvels of precision and compassion.
Tóibn always writes with a kind of self-contained tact, and in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, he extends this quality to writers, their works, and their poor, poor families.
Winnipeg journalist Alison Gillmor, who has a couple of writers in her family, plans to bide her time and get in the last word.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 J9
Updated on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 10:51 AM CDT: updates with North American version of cover
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