More than twenty years ago, writing about Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, Colm Tóibín recalled what it was like to study history in Ireland in the 1970s—to be on the cusp of the revisionist wave, questioning all the old narratives. “Imagine if Irish history were pure fiction,” he wrote, “how free and happy we could be! It seemed at that time a most subversive idea, a new way of killing your father, starting from scratch, creating a new self.” The burden of having relatives has been a constant theme of Tóibín’s stories, essays, and reviews: “A Priest in the Family,” “How to Be a Wife,” “The Brother Problem,” “The Importance of Aunts,” “Mothers and Sons,” and, for equality’s sake, both “New Ways to Kill Your Mother” and “New Ways to Kill Your Father.” And these are just some of the titles. The desire to start from scratch, to worm (or to smash, but mostly to worm) your way out from under the yoke of dull, unavailable, or tyrannical parents figures in most of his fiction.
Irish literature offers a rich history of attempts to kill your parents, from Stephen’s mother in Ulysses, who is “beastly dead” (or Stephen’s attempt to swap Simon Dedalus for Leopold Bloom), to the done-away-with mother at the beginning of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, to John McGahern’s absent mother and the murder by portraiture of the father in his early novels The Barracks and The Dark. But Tóibín has his eye on a wider fictional world of parentless and parent-killing children. He writes, for example, of the motherless heroes and heroines in the novels of Henry James and Jane Austen that “mothers get in the way of fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” Or to put it another way, “The novel is a form ripe for orphans.”
Yet Tóibín rejected patricide in that essay on Modern Ireland, arguing instead for a respect for the past that has made us—an attention, though a skeptical one, to our inheritances, even if they embarrass and annoy us, as parents often do. And so it is fitting that the orphans peopling his own fiction are not quite orphans at all. They don’t get to create a new self from scratch; the past bears down on them despite the absence of parents. In his recent novel Nora Webster, the cranky, inarticulate teenager Donal (a portrait of the artist as a young man) is haunted by the shadowy presence of his dead father; in House of Names Tóibín’s Orestes is left to fend for himself, but he is certainly not free of the burden of relatives. In the beautiful early novel The Heather Blazing, Eamon Redmond, a motherless boy born in the early 1930s and now close to retirement, lives, despite himself, in the past, in a history belonging to the previous generation, and even the one before that:
At times he felt that he had been there, close by, when his grandfather was evicted, and that he had known his father’s Uncle Michael, the old Fenian, who was too sick to be interned after 1916. Or that he had been in the bedroom, the room above where they were now, when his grandfather came back to the house on Easter Monday 1916 and had sat watching him as he pulled up the floorboards under which he had hidden a number of rifles. Or that he had witnessed his grandfather being taken from the house at the end of the Easter Rising. These were things which lived with him, but he could only imagine them.
What fascinates Tóibín in all these stories, and in his new book of essays on the fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce, is the effect of fathers who are absent, but who have not gone away. He quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien:
There is for all of us a twilight zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of a continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being.
This is all very well for the creative youngsters, perhaps, who get to do a sum: their own lives plus the memories of the previous generation. But what does it mean for the elders, whose experience becomes the twilight zone for the future?
In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know Tóibín sketches the lives of three men who talked their memories into their sons’ memories, and so helped father twentieth-century Irish literature. He is explicit about his style of portraiture, beginning with a beautiful passage in the essay on the painter John B. Yeats in which Tóibín reflects on seeing and being seen:
Somewhere in the great, unsteady archive where our souls will be held, there is a special section that records the quality of our gaze. The stacks in this branch of the archive will preserve for posterity the history of those moments when a look or a glance intensified, when watchfulness opened out or narrowed in, due to curiosity or desire or suspicion or fear. Maybe that is what we remember most of each other—the face of the other glancing up, the second when we are held in someone else’s gaze.
The elder Yeats was remembered by the critic Edward Dowden as having a “fluid and attaching” gaze: “every glance at one’s face seems to give him a shock, and through a series of such shocks he progresses.” He said of himself that he could only paint “friendship portraits” and that each portrait survived, if it survived at all and however hard he had worked on it, as a sketch, “something struck off at a first heat.” The idea surely prefigures W.B. Yeats in “Adam’s Curse”: unless a poem seems “a moment’s thought/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”
Tóibín seems to have taken this advice to heart in structuring his book. Although a great deal of work has clearly gone into them, the essays have a sketchy, even unfinished quality, perhaps the result of having started out as a series of lectures. They are less biographical studies than Yeatsian portraits, pictures made by looking from different angles rather than analyzing. Tóibín’s refusal to pin his subjects down can be frustrating, but it is not unproductive. Echoes, patterns, and contradictions are left for the reader to assemble, in effect making us each our own impressionist portrait painter, or our own novelist.
Indeed, the final essay on the Joyces, father and son, suggests that the series of portraits James made of his father, from the partial sketches in “Grace” and “The Dead” to the various likenesses of Simon Dedalus in Stephen Hero, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, should be thought of as a composite, impressionist work—John Stanislaus Joyce presented to our gaze in different lights. “Character is created not by statements but by suggestions, not by verdicts but by stray images,” says Tóibín of Joyce. Not only would this make James Joyce—whose alter ego in Ulysses proclaimed, after all, that paternity was a legal fiction—as much John B. Yeats’s son as W.B. was, it also slyly marks out a paternal lineage from Joyce to Tóibín.
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is in part a book about nineteenth-century Dublin and the kinds of originality it engendered. William Wilde (born in 1815), John B. Yeats (in 1839), and John Stanislaus Joyce (in 1849) came to maturity in the post-famine city. Down-at-heel and politically unstable, it nonetheless offered financial and social opportunities through an exponential growth in professional and clerical jobs, for those who would take them. That didn’t in the end include the elder Yeats, who gave up the law in favor of failing to make money by painting, to the prolonged distress of his wife; nor did it include the elder Joyce, who lost a series of ever-less-distinguished positions in business through drink and irresponsibility; but it did include the elder Wilde, who made a name for himself as the city’s principal eye surgeon.
Yet for Tóibín, Dublin’s real advantage was that it offered “isolation…a sort of gift.” Tracing the social web that connected this paternal trio (and kept them apart) offers a neat way into the cultural, political, and sexual history of Ireland’s eminent Victorians, their fraught and ambiguous sense of themselves, their class, and their relationship to England. “It remained an era of individuals, with writers and painters creating their moral worlds from chaos by themselves, for themselves,” Tóibín writes. In fact he implies that the city itself behaved like an enabling father: creative, idiosyncratic, and not too overbearing.
In arguing that social rank in Dublin came from “words and wit” as much as from, well, social rank, Tóibín takes his cue from Oscar Wilde’s description of himself in De Profundis as “a lord of language.” The comparison between the bogus form of superiority enjoyed by the Marquess of Queensberry and his son Lord Alfred Douglas and the intellectual aristocracy of Wilde’s own parents is first sketched out in his letter to Bosie from Reading Gaol. But it is hard to disagree with this account of the Wilde parents. With their many and varied enthusiasms Sir William and Lady Wilde inhabited “a place of their own invention,” a place “of reading and writing.”
Tóibín’s essay follows Sir William from his early travels in 1837 to Egypt and Algiers, his medical studies in Austria, his involvement (mainly through his wife Jane) with the Young Ireland movement, his folklore-collecting in Meath and the Aran Islands, the gargantuan task he undertook as a census commissioner in 1851, 1861, and 1871, and his work as a statistician and epidemiologist investigating the causes of mortality in Ireland. We eventually find him in the dock. Having refused to settle a libel case, in 1864 Wilde became the subject of a very public sex scandal involving a woman named Mary Travers, the daughter of one of his medical colleagues.
Tóibín stresses the Wildes’ absolute disregard for convention, whether sexual, political, or even hygienic (they were both apparently notoriously filthy): “In the absence of any other aristocracy in residence in Dublin, the Wildes represented a type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity.” In this account, Oscar Wilde’s insistence on his own self-creation, his celebration of artifice above nature, and even his cavalier attitude toward putting his sexual history on trial turn out to be natural after all. His originality was inherited from his parents.
The idea of inventing yourself in writing is a familiar one, and it underpins Tóibín’s exploration of all three lives here. Dublin’s freedom from tradition allowed fathers to teach self-invention to their sons, he suggests, and the sons in turn became the “finishers” of their fathers’ incomplete creations. (The notion that, uniquely, late-nineteenth-century Dublin could provide fertile ground for self-invention implies, surely wrongly, that late-nineteenth-century London could not.) But Tóibín’s emphasis seems amiss. What comes across most strongly in these essays is not that these three fathers succeeded at self-invention but the extent to which they failed to do so. These are stories of diminished lives, of men who knew they were living in the twilight zone of time.
Fear, and failure, are the bass notes to Tóibín’s essay on John Butler Yeats, the story of a man who had to contend with not one but two sons out to do away with him, William and his brother Jack B. Yeats. Much of the essay focuses on the last fifteen years of his life, when he lived in a boardinghouse on West 29th Street in Manhattan, endlessly tinkering with his self-portrait (which remained unfinished when he died; see illustration on page 38) and endlessly deferring a return home to Ireland. He was sixty-eight when he moved to New York in 1907, seven years after the death of his wife, Susan Mary Pollexfen. It had not been a happy marriage, though it lasted nearly forty years—Yeats later said that he had married her in order to place himself “under prison rules and learn all the virtues.” But he failed to learn the virtues of industry and sound financial management, and the prison walls closed in further when his disappointed wife fell ill, and he became alternately resentful of her misery and tortured by guilt over his failure to provide for her the kind of life she had wanted.
His son William diagnosed “infirmity of will” as the ailment that prevented him from finishing his pictures: “He even hates the sign of will in others…the qualities which I thought necessary to success in art or in life seemed to him ‘egotism’ or ‘selfishness’ or ‘brutality.’” And it was surely John’s own suspicion of such infirmity that led him not only to choose a marital prison in the first place, but subsequently to distance himself from the woman with whom he experienced “absolute intimacy” after his wife died.
Yeats met Rosa Butt (the daughter of the prominent Home Ruler Isaac Butt, who defended Wilde in the Travers trial) when they were both in their early twenties; they remained friends throughout his marriage, and after Susan’s death they became, briefly, and according to John himself, “something much closer than lovers.” From 1907 until his death in 1922, they conducted a passionate epistolary love affair. Tóibín quotes liberally from Yeats’s letters (Butt’s have not survived), laying bare an extraordinary desire for intimacy and an unabashed celebration of physical love. Yeats writes at length of literature and art and his day-to-day life, and he insists on their marriage of true minds: “I would as it were tell you things that I would not tell to myself. Can you understand this?—so that you are more to me than I am to myself.” He imagines caressing her, and being caressed:
I think of you constantly again and again, put myself to sleep thinking of you, fancying myself married to you, and both of us young, picturing to myself what you would say and do and what we would say to each other.
Tóibín is strangely sentimental when it comes to assessing Yeats’s decision to stay in New York and write letters rather than to love the flesh-and-blood Rosa. He wants to think of the writing as a form of self-creation, and there is truth in the statement that
the foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate, fantastical imagination, did not write about the life he had missed, but the life he imagined, and he gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only almost possible, but somehow present.
He suggests that marriage to Rosa would have “contained” Yeats, and that “he did not wish to be contained”; rather than a conventional relationship Yeats “chose freedom.”
But this is surely the opposite of the case. Yeats’s letters to Rosa are moving because they reveal his need for containment rather than his desire for freedom. The letters did not sketch “the dream of a life he did not have” (another version of making yourself up in writing), but protected him from living, as “again and again” he tried to persuade himself that he was right not to return home, that he had no option but to be parted from Rosa. He couldn’t afford to endanger his self-portrait by moving back to Dublin before it was finished; he couldn’t afford the fare; he couldn’t face Dublin and its ghosts; he couldn’t be sure of Rosa. The letters protest too much. They manifest his fear of his own desire.
The elder Yeats chose not freedom, but a boardinghouse prison from which he could write long letters imagining freedom. Arguably this makes him a spiritual father not only to James Joyce but also to Oscar Wilde. But the spiritual father presiding over the book of essays as a whole is Henry James. Like all good fathers James is enablingly absent, but he makes his presence felt. He appears in one of John B. Yeats’s letters to William: “I have just finished a long novel by Henry James. Much of it made me think of the priest condemned for a long space to confess nuns. James has watched life from a distance.” The lack of sympathy is striking, given how well James articulated the problem of deciding to withhold oneself from the life one might have lived:
What is there in the idea of Too late—of some friendship or passion or bond—some affection long desired and waited for, that is formed too late?—I mean too late in life altogether. Isn’t there something in the idea that 2 persons may meet (as if they had looked for each other for years) only in time to feel how much it might have meant for them if only they had met earlier?… It’s a passion that might have been. I seem to be coinciding simply with the idea of the married person encountering the real mate, etc.; but that is not what I mean. Married or not—the marriage is a detail. Or rather, I fancy, there would have been no marriage conceivable for either. Haven’t they waited too long—till something else has happened? The only other “something else” than marriage must have been, doubtless, the wasting of life.
This note for the story that would become “The Friends of the Friends” is dated February 1895, around the time that the friendship between John B. Yeats and Rosa Butt began to intensify. The tragedy, as James has Lambert Strether realize in The Ambassadors, is of life occurring too late to be lived: “I see it now. I haven’t done so enough before—and now I’m old, too old at any rate for what I see. Oh, I do see, at least; and more than you’d believe or I can express. It’s too late.” Another way of putting this is to say that Strether has arrived too early. His part is to abdicate in favor of the next generation, or so he tells himself, and his painful reward is that he knows it. Like Strether, the role these literary fathers took on themselves was to give way to the young, to accept that their own lives were meaningful insofar as they provided someone else’s inheritance.
John B. Yeats chose to live the last fifteen years of his life communicating from beyond the everyday if not the grave. He chose not to live in order to create (letters in which a relationship that hadn’t begun could not end, and the always unfinished self-portrait). That’s one way of putting it, and Tóibín does put it this way, because he wants to tell a mostly upbeat story about creativity being passed from father to son, and augmented in the process. But surely the truth is far more sobering. It is impossible, when reading the letters to Rosa, not to think of the wasting of life.
The parallels with John Stanislaus Joyce’s last years are also sobering—having lost his livelihood to drink and fecklessness at the age of forty-four, his wife to an early death, and his children to his violent temper, the elder Joyce lived his final twenty years “in a sort of aftermath.” Bloom’s assessment of Simon Dedalus is bleakly apt: “Wore out his wife: now sings.”
Precisely because he sang rather than wrote (whether letters or epidemiological and statistical surveys), John Stanislaus’s portrait in Tóibín’s book depends to a large extent on the sketches of him to be found in the letters, diaries, and fiction written by his sons. Born into a well-to-do family in Cork, John Stanislaus dabbled in medicine and accountancy before moving to Dublin at the age of twenty-four, to work as a secretary in a distillery in which he had bought shares. Within a few years the distillery went into liquidation, and Joyce lost both his job and his investment; for the next twenty years, during which he married and fathered ten children, he tried his hand at accountancy and rate-collecting but remained, according to his third child, Stanislaus, “quite unburdened by any sense of responsibility” toward his family.
He spent his leisure time, and much of the time when he was supposed to be at work, in one of the many pubs on his rate-collecting beat, until he was discharged in his early forties. Thereafter the family lived, as Stanislaus wrote, “gypsy-like,” on his pension, subject to John Stanislaus’s “domineering” and “quarrelsome” behavior, and his “voluble abusiveness” when drunk. In eleven years they lived at nine different addresses, each time “a smaller house in a poorer neighbourhood.”
In comparison with those of his brother Stanislaus, James Joyce’s portraits of his father are more nuanced, and even tender. It is true that he appears as a vomit-soaked and sentimental drunk (in Dubliners) and an unreliable husband and father (in Stephen Hero), but also as a passionate Parnellite (in Portrait) and as a complex character in Ulysses, where he is sociable, witty, and gifted with a voice that has a “glorious tone”: “loud, full, shining, proud.” But he is also vicious—he tells his daughter Dilly that she and her sisters are “an insolent pack of little bitches” when she asks for money. Most of all he appears as a spurned father, consigned to “the shadows,” as Tóibín puts it. None of his children wants anything to do with him, and he knows it.
For the last nineteen years of his life John Stanislaus saw neither of his eldest sons. He died in his early eighties in the Dublin boardinghouse where he spent his last eleven years. Like William Yeats, James Joyce diagnosed in his father a lack of will, though in his case he called it lack of courage: “He had his son’s distaste for responsibility without his son’s courage.” Again, it is hard not to agree that the elder Joyce’s life was blighted by a failure of nerve. None of the Joyce children had much time for their father, but in a rare moment of appreciation the young Stanislaus confided to his diary that John Stanislaus was unusual in accepting with equanimity the idea that his sons would outstrip him: “He wishes and confidently expects that his sons will be different from the sons of other people, even—and this shows a yet higher mind—more distinguished than he, in his own judgment.” Was it a form of generosity, or lack of will? Either way, in effect, John Stanislaus Joyce chose to pass the task of living over to his sons before his time.
It is perhaps no accident that the “aftermath” in which these men spent their old age coincided with Ireland’s youthful beginnings as an independent country. Their own youth had run in parallel with Ireland’s struggle to free itself, and to construct its history as one of self-making rather than serial defeat and acquiescence. As the past generation they were placed in an impossible bind, both preparers and makers of emancipation, and by default those who had failed to secure freedom.
These essays were first given as a series of lectures in honor of Richard Ellmann at Emory University, and Tóibín quotes Ellmann quoting Ivan Karamazov: “Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?” Sir William Wilde died relatively young, when he was sixty-one and Oscar only twenty-one. Perhaps John B. Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce offered a more useful lesson by living on as boardinghouse ghosts, unable to fully grasp the moment of their own lives. It is the lesson Lambert Strether tried to teach: “Do what you like as long as you don’t make my mistake…live!”
This article was published by The New York Review of Books.
Clair Wills is King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. Her latest book, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, was shortlisted for the 2018 Orwell Prize. (December 2018)