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“New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families” by Colm Toibin

By Heller McAlpin,

Back when I was writing fiction, the father of a well-known novelist expressed condolences to my parents, noting that it took fortitude for them to face permutations of themselves in print. I often think of this when reading Julian Barnes, whose depictions of his mother, even years after her death, are so unflattering. No, lethal.

The complicated, sometimes difficult relationships between writers and their families are the focus of the 15literary essays in Colm Toibin’s archly titled new book, “New Ways to Kill Your Mother.” Writers, he maintains in this juicy collection, have to break away from and repudiate their families in order to gain the necessary independence to write freely.

Toibin’s novels and stories, which include “Brooklyn” and “The Empty Family,” are often set at least partly in Enniscorthy, Ireland, his home town, and involve fraught family dynamics and monstrous mothers. “A happy childhood may make good citizens, but it is not a help for those of us facing a blank page,” he writes. Many of his essays, along with those in an earlier collection, “Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar,” focus on homosexual writers and artists.

In his 2004 novel, “The Master,” about Henry James, Toibin brilliantly integrated his critical and fictional abilities. James clearly remains a touchstone and recurring subject of fascination for him. In “Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother,” first delivered as a lecture and then published in the London Review of Books (as were many of the essays in this volume), Toibin compares the absence of mothers in both novelists’ works and their frequent replacement with aunts. Mothers, he argues, “get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” Female characters especially must “move outside their family’s arena of influence” in order to “project the individual as alone in the world” and shape their own destinies.

As for James’s relationship with his mother, Toibin writes that it was “complicated and raw,” an area that he chose not to explore (like his sexuality). He notes wryly, “He was devoted to his mother and he arranged not to see her much [by moving abroad], thus making the devotion all the more heartfelt as time went on.”

Several of Toibin’s most intriguing essays concern writers’ relationships with their fathers. James and William Butler Yeats were both sired by talkers rather than doers, fathers who were overshadowed by not just one but two genius sons (there were also William James the philospher and Jack Yeats the artist). Where mothers might have taken pride, Henry James Sr. and John Yeats felt challenged and belittled. Toibin comments that “there is no starker enactment of a slow and humiliating murder” than W.B. Yeats’s condescending criticism of his father’s fledgling attempts to write drama.

There’s nothing fledgling about Toibin’s beautiful appreciation of James Baldwin, who repudiated both his actual father and “his literary fathers” — including Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald — in order to pursue his “fascination with eloquence itself, the soaring phrase, the rhythm pushed hard, the sharp and glorious ring of a sentence.” Toibin’s comparison of Baldwin and Barack Obama, which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books in October 2008, offered what was then an inspired new angle on the first African American presidential candidate. Toibin makes the case that both men found their voices after losing their fathers on the cusp of adulthood.

Toibin’s concern is not with the autobiographical aspects of the literature he writes about — all of which, save Jane Austen’s, is by males — but with the writers’ underlying relationships with their families. His biographically driven narratives go light on textual analysis in favor of a sort of highbrow literary gossip. It is hard to resist the magic mountain of dirt he digs up on Thomas Mann’s family, with its multiple suicides and a possible case of incest, or Toibin’s stark evocation of the sexually conflicted, drunk and miserable husband and father found in John Cheever’s journals. Occasionally, quick summaries leave us baffled by casually dropped details that beg further explanation: Samuel Beckett was once stabbed in Paris? Hart Crane was beaten up the night before he jumped overboard to his death at sea?

Nevertheless, Toibin snags our interest even when he’s discussing Irish writers such as Brian Moore, Hugo Hamilton and Sebastian Barry, who may be unfamiliar to American readers. And it’s reassuring to this mother that so many of the writers he considers, including Beckett, “the sort of young man who was made to break his poor mother’s heart,” remained faithful if not exactly devoted sons to the end.

Heller McAlpin reviews books for NPR and The Washington Post, among other publications.

NEW WAYS TO KILL YOUR MOTHER Writers and Their Families By Colm Toibin Scribner. 345 pp. $26

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