All in the Family: Colm Tóibín Constructs a Literary Genealogy

“It is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction,” Colm Tóibín writes in the preface to his

Mr. Tóibín.

“It is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction,” Colm Tóibín writes in the preface to his new essay collection, New Ways to Kill Your Mother (Scribner, 352 pp., $26.00). “We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history.”

Mr. Tóibín, the author of six novels and some dozen books of nonfiction, says readers must consider fictional characters according to distinct criteria: their richness of texture and tone, the strength and complexity of the patterns they form. These are qualities that don’t generally concern us when we deal with actual humans.

And yet, we can consider real people (and if we like, figures from history) with a kind of messy, affectionate fascination that fictional characters don’t necessarily repay. New Ways to Kill Your Mother offers readers this second kind of pleasure: “A sebaceous cyst in my anus which happily a fart swept away before it became operable.” This situation is more urgent because it comes not from an invented line of dialogue but instead in a letter written by Samuel Beckett.

Assembling work previously published in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, New Ways to Kill Your Mother bears the subtitle “Writers and Their Families.” This theme proves to be more than a convenient label for recycled material. Mr. Tóibín’s interests across the essays are cohesive enough that it’s jarring to come upon a line like “this new volume is invaluable” and be reminded that the writing at hand began life as a humble book review.

Of course, “family” is an exceptionally stretchy theme. In pieces on Beckett, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Mann, James Baldwin and others, Mr. Tóibín endows “family” with a range of meanings. Family is bound up in heritage, identity, name, class, nationality (mother tongue, fatherland). This last sense is particularly important in the first half of the book, which Mr. Tóibín devotes to his fellow Irish writers, but it also inflects his discussion of Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Argentine politics and Baldwin’s writings on America. Mr. Tóibín is interested in drawing out writers’ intimate, inescapable connection to their countries, often depicting it as a bond that (family-like) shapes them whether they like, or acknowledge, it or not.

Family also means literal relatives, and these emerge as interesting personalities in their own right, to varying degrees. Yeats’s wife, George, was less than half his age when she married the 52-year-old poet, and the combination of her interest in the occult and her anxiety over pleasing her husband led her to fake mystical “automatic writing” on their honeymoon. She admitted this (in so many words) after Yeats’s death, but later expressed discomfort with her own language. “I dislike your use of the word ‘Fake,’” she wrote to one Yeats scholar who had discussed the episode. “I told you this before [and] you had a happier phrasing in your book. However, I cannot ask you to alter this. The word ‘Fake’’ will go down to posterity.” Mr. Tóibín considers George’s conflicting impulses toward self-protection and candor and duty, and the result is a vivid portrait of a surprising character. This stands in contrast to, say, Hart Crane’s father, who is depicted as a standard-issue sketch of a philistine parent—sending his son letters from Ohio and nagging the poet to do something useful, maybe learn a trade.

The subtitle “Writers and Their Families” carries the suggestion that Mr. Tóibín might also address the families his subjects created in their work. But the piece that serves as the book’s preface, “Jane Austen, Henry James, and the Death of the Mother,” is really the only sustained discussion of these fictions. In it, Mr. Tóibín looks at the many aunts and aunt-like figures found in the work of these two authors. Addressing the mothers whom the aunts supplanted, he writes of James, “His connection to his mother, both close and tenuous, may be one of the reasons why he sought to erase so many mothers from his best work.” The essay is one of the book’s slack moments, and for the most part, Mr. Tóibín is more interested in reading writers’ lives in a literary way than in transposing those lives onto their work.

Some interesting patterns develop. There are, for example, an unusual number of haplessly ambitious dads behind the writers Mr. Tóibín chooses to discuss. We get to see excerpts from letters spanning five years written by John Butler Yeats to his son William. These letters concern a play that the elder Yeats wants to write, then is writing, and finally is very pleased to have written. His son resists responding for as long as he can. His eventual criticism (“You choose a very difficult subject and the most difficult of all forms, and as was to be foreseen, it is the least good of all your writings”) prompts this reply:

Your opinion of my play does not alter my opinion … I have no doubt you are overanxious, the play being by your father. That is only natural. Percy MacKaye, a man of some expression, was of all my critics the one that gave me the most encouragement. He did not see the actual play, but I told him all about it.

These fathers were men who modeled the wild confidence required to make things, even if they lacked the artistic genius to make truly great things. Mr. Tóibín considers this dynamic further in his essay on Borges (whose father wrote and privately printed a novel of his own), noting that failed-artist fathers seem to engender “a peculiar intensity” in their artistically ambitious offspring, for whom talent becomes a way of both making up for the father’s failure and of symbolically killing him off.

One dilettante-dad family in particular holds Mr. Tóibín’s attention: the Jameses, whom he smuggles into nearly every essay. In his 2004 novel The Master, Mr. Tóibín imagined the interior life of Henry James; with the essays in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Mr. Tóibín often uses James as a lens through which to view all his other subjects. The Jameses serve a handy point of comparison: the Borges family traveled Europe, like the James family; Tennessee and Rose Williams shared a tight bond, like Henry and Alice James; George Yeats was interested in mysticism, like Alice James. But they’re also a kind of shorthand, present even where they’re not explicitly discussed. J.M. Synge is “a native of the Synge family,” Mr. Tóibín writes, repurposing William James’s characterization of his younger brother Henry in an 1889 letter: “He’s really … a native of the James family, and has no other country.” Likewise, the protagonist of Sebastian Barry’s Hinterland is a man “on whom everything is lost,” rather than, as Henry James preferred, one on whom nothing is. “Writers and their Families” is an accurate subtitle; “Writers and their Families and Henry James’s Family” might be even better.

In part because the essays do seem so unified in their concerns, it’s disappointing that they don’t add up to a clearer argument about the relationships between these writers’ lives and their work. In fact, there’s a tendency within each chapter to shy away from taking a stance on such relationships.

“Synge’s family remains of considerable interest,” Mr. Tóibín writes, “either because of the apparent lack of any influence on his work, or because they may or may not hold a key to his unyielding and mysterious genius.” Yes, that would seem to cover the range of possibilities. Ambivalence is fair, but it reads differently when the object of your ambivalence is the ostensible topic of your book.

Mr. Tóibín’s approach serves him best in the book’s two essays on Baldwin, which depict the American writer engaged in a project that resonates with Mr. Tóibín’s own—questioning heritage, defining a literary lineage. And Baldwin, too, is a writer who repeatedly claimed Henry James. In 1962, The New York Times asked Baldwin to discuss the popularity of his novel Another Country, one of the year’s bestsellers. Baldwin wrote:

I don’t mean to compare myself to a couple of artists I unreservedly admire, Miles Davis and Ray Charles—but I would like to think that some of the people who liked my book responded to it in a way similar to the way they respond when Miles and Ray are blowing … I am aiming at what Henry James called “perception at the pitch of passion.”

In the first Baldwin essay, Mr. Tóibín describes the author as an ambitious young critic—“No young writers ever wish to give too much credit to the writers who could have been their father,” he notes. “They prefer to pay homage to grandfathers or to painters or musicians or ballet dancers or acrobats.” In the second, Mr. Tóibín places Baldwin alongside Barack Obama, reading Dreams from My Father, the president’s first memoir, against Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin becomes a kind of precedent for Obama, one he both evokes and resists:

Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don’t need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted. Whereas Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician.

Mr. Tóibín enumerates the many similarities between the stories the two men tell about themselves, but ultimately their bond feels familial not because it’s obvious or easy but because it exposes an intergenerational tension. And their positions—as a writer concerned with politics and a politician concerned with writing—give Mr. Tóibín an ideal chance to examine a topic he keeps circling, the intersection of language and life.

All in the Family: Colm Tóibín Constructs a Literary Genealogy