New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

Colm Toibim , Scribners, $26.00

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 Toibin’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 ax.

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 out. 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 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 critical 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 Toibim 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