Es­says in the best sense of the word: search­ing, hu­mane

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SEÁN HE­WITT


At the be­gin­ning of his es­say on John B Yeats, the artist fa­ther of the poet WB Yeats, Colm Tóibín turns first to think about the act of biog­ra­phy, the mo­ment of in­tense con­nec­tion that char­ac­terises the beau­ti­ful at­ten­tions of his lat­est work:

“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.”

Mad, Bad, Dan­ger­ous to Know is not a book of new ma­te­rial per se, and the very read­abil­ity of the es­says might per­haps ob­scure what is in­no­va­tive and ex­cit­ing about them. Tóibín presents us with new con­stel­la­tions of ma­te­rial: let­ters, po­ems, au­to­bi­ogra­phies, mem­oirs, events and his own ex­pe­ri­ences are placed side by side, with Tóibín hold­ing them newly up to the light. What we get, here, is a writer’s take on lit­er­ary his­tory: a set of es­says that probes emo­tional res­o­nances, the af­ter­shocks of fam­ily drama, the pe­cu­liar ways that buried ten­sions and in­flu­ences can resur­face down the gen­er­a­tions.

Tóibín’s own gen­er­ous pres­ence lifts in and out of these es­says: the mo­ment when he sees John B Yeats’s self-por­trait, worked and re­worked for years, hang­ing in a stair­well; the day that he spent read­ing Oscar Wilde’s De Pro­fundis aloud in Wilde’s cell in Read­ing Gaol; a chance meet­ings with a scholar in a New York ar­chive; a dis­cur­sive and writerly walk through Dublin past and present, his own per­sonal his­tory in­ter­twin­ing with the his­tory of the city.

But Tóibín never in­serts him­self into his es­says through ego: rather, he presents mo­ments of recog­ni­tion, of con­nec­tion, where the gaze of his sub­ject meets his own gaze for a sec­ond, and teaches some­thing much more valu­able than the his­tor­i­cal de­tails of dates and shift­ing ge­ogra­phies.

In each of these es­says, Tóibín finds the hu­man, the per­sonal con­nec­tion be­tween fa­ther and son, the re­align­ment of fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, and in turn re­hu­man­ises through con­text these canon­i­cal writ­ers and their works.

In the first es­say, Tóibín draws il­lu­mi­nat­ing con­nec­tions be­tween the pub­lic scan­dal over the al­le­ga­tions lodged against Wil­liam Wilde by Mary Travers and the later tri­als of his son. He also makes a won­der­ful dis­cur­sive ar­gu­ment about class hered­ity and the pos­si­bil­ity of form­ing iden­tity through lit­er­a­ture that is both a re­veal­ing and re­fresh­ing take on the 19th-cen­tury An­glo-Ir­ish. The trem­bling, ec­static let­ters from John B Yeats to Rosa Butts are also placed in oblique but fas­ci­nat­ing re­la­tion to the later po­ems of his son. As Tóibín writes of John, “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 some­how pos­si­ble, but al­most present.” Al­though based on bi­o­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal “fact”, it is Tóibín’s in­tu­itive sense of emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal nu­ance, of char­ac­ter, we might say, that re­ally makes these es­says so en­gag­ing.

The fi­nal piece, on John Joyce, fa­ther of James, is more heav­ily fo­cused on James’s pro­cess­ing and re­fig­ur­ing of his fa­ther through his lit­er­ary works, from Dubliners and Stephen Hero through his po­etry and on to Fin­negans Wake. John’s fam­ily back­ground, though con­sist­ing of well-to-do mer­chants and prop­erty own­ers, per­haps makes doc­u­men­ta­tion of his life less ac­ces­si­ble for lit­er­ary ex­plo­ration than the in­tensely lit­er­ate lives of Jane El­gee, Wil­liam Wilde, John B Yeats and Su­san Pollexfen. And so Tóibín’s es­say is more geared to James’s grap­pling with his fa­ther than his fa­ther as a stand­alone fig­ure. That choice is un­der­stand­able.

Tak­ing much of its doc­u­men­ta­tion from Stanis­laus Joyce’s of­ten em­bit­tered rec­ol­lec­tions of fam­ily life, the John Joyce we get here is “dom­i­neer­ing and quar­rel­some”, “ly­ing and hyp­o­crit­i­cal”, “spite­ful like all drunk­ards who are thwarted”. In Tóibin’s shift­ing ex­plo­ration of John’s fig­ure in James’s work, we see how Joyce took his fa­ther out of time, saw him­self in his guise, and even­tu­ally merged with his spirit, as in Fin­negans Wake: “it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold fa­ther, my cold mad fa­ther, my cold mad feary fa­ther.”

These are es­says in the best sense of the word: search­ing, funny, ex­ploratory, gen­er­ous, with a will­ing­ness to reach out and hu­man­ise, through fre­quent acts of em­pa­thy, both the ma­jor and mi­nor fig­ures of these three fam­i­lies. Through­out them, Tóibín holds the gaze, is watch­ful and in­tent and charm­ing, and (as a wel­come bonus) tells us more than a lit­tle about our own selves along the way.

Sir Wil­liam Wilde: Colm Tóibín draws il­lu­mi­nat­ing con­nec­tions be­tween the scan­dal over the al­le­ga­tions lodged against him by Mary Travers and the later tri­als of Oscar

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