Colm Tóibín Mad, Bad, Dan­ger­ous to Know

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

Colm Tóibín is a nov­el­ist in the tra­di­tion of ca­denced plain­ness, even of the “scrupu­lous mean­ness” that has char­ac­terised one stream of Ir­ish writ­ing since Joyce wrote Dublin­ers. In Tóibín’s non­fic­tion he has al­ways been keen to de­bunk leg­ends: was the Po­tato Famine what it was cracked up to be; was Micheál Mac Li­ammóir’s Ir­ish­ness a fraud? Here he has some­times verged on un­scrupu­lous mean­ness in his keen­ness to prove a point.

Now he looks at three great Ir­ish writ­ers – Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce – through the lenses of their re­spec­tive fa­thers. The up­shot is an in­ter­est­ing take on three for­mi­da­ble, in some ways dif­fi­cult, fa­thers and the ways their sons got out from un­der them.

Sir Wil­liam Wilde was an em­i­nent eye and ear doc­tor and a keen an­ti­quar­ian, a “cul­tured all­round man”, but he was also in­volved – fas­ci­nat­ingly, given Os­car – in a fa­mous li­bel case, and was ac­cused by one Mary Travers, a wo­man who was ob­sessed with him and who had taken money from him, of hav­ing drugged her to have sex with her.

John But­ler Yeats – fa­ther of W. B. the poet and Jack the pain­ter – is the un­for­get­table charmer of this trio. A tal­ented pain­ter him­self, he was taken to New York in his old age by John Quinn, the arts pa­tron, and from there he wrote iri­des­cent and ex­traor­di­nar­ily heart­felt love let­ters to Rosa Butts, an old soul­mate he never saw again from his New York niche, though it’s a bit of a stretch to sug­gest, as Tóibín does, that the wild, wicked old man po­ems of his son’s ma­tu­rity have more than an as­so­cia­tive link with his fa­ther.

On John Joyce, the orig­i­nal of Si­mon Dedalus, Tóibín’s good at trac­ing the way Joyce de­vel­oped a por­trait of his hope­less old spend­thrift drunk of a fa­ther, from the real­is­tic judge­men­tal­ism of Stephen

Hero through to the sym­pa­thetic mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives of A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man and then to the com­plex coloura­tions of Ulysses and of the “feary fa­ther” in Fin­negans Wake. He high­lights the cru­cial mo­ment when Joyce goes from the ear­lier Dublin­ers sto­ries to the sup­ple au­dac­i­ties of “The Dead”, which en­ables the mir­a­cle of Ulysses. The book ends mov­ingly with Joyce’s ex­quis­ite el­egy on the birth of his son and the death of his fa­ther, “Of the dark past/ A child is born …” QSS

Pi­cador, 224pp, $29.99

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