Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know
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
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Colm Tóibín, Mad Bad Dangerous to Know". Subscribe here.