Magazine article The Spectator

The Family Plot - Sam Leith Explores the Effect That Certain Writers' Relatives Have Had on Their Published Works

Magazine article The Spectator

The Family Plot - Sam Leith Explores the Effect That Certain Writers' Relatives Have Had on Their Published Works

Article excerpt

New Ways to Kill Your Mother

by Colm Toibin

Viking, £20, pp. 352,

ISBN 9780670918164

This book's sort-of preface is a lecture on aunts and absent mothers in Jane Austen - an odd diversion, given that nowhere else in its pages are aunts, or female writers for that matter, given much of an outing. Colm Toibin sets out his stall early doors: he's a formalist.

Noting the difficulty critics have had getting to grips with Mansfield Park's great couch-potato Lady Bertram - is she a goodie or a baddie? - he rebukes them high-mindedly:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual's role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters from fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern, a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology.

Well, yes. True, of course, but it is a harsh counsel of perfection both for readers and writers. Toibin, like many of us, rows back from it a bit in the way he actually goes about things. Most of the readings in the essays that follow are biographical, psychological and personal at least as much - in fact, in most cases far more - than they are technical or formal. Toibin, with great subtlety and sometimes with splendid impudence, is interested here in what you might call the higher gossip.

Given that this is a miscellany of essays and long book reviews published elsewhere, it's pleasantly surprising how well New Ways to Kill Your Mother hangs together, how unforced it feels thematically. An edition of letters, or a writer's journals, or a biography, becomes the occasion for Toibin to talk about writers' families as they bear on the work - not only in the way that characters and anxieties are reworked in fiction, but in the way those relationships affect the quality and direction of a writer's ambition.

'For writers and artists whose fathers dabbled in art and failed, there seems always to be a peculiar intensity in their levels of ambition and determination, ' Toibin writes at the beginning of a very lively essay on Jorge Luis Borges. At the same time - and in this case it seems particularly appropriate - he's prepared to concede that 'there is a real possibility that the books he read mattered much more to Borges than the events of his life'.

J. M. Synge's nephew and literary executor Edward Stephens wrote: 'I see J. M. and his work as belonging much more to the family environment than to the environment of the theatre.' That said, as Toibin drily goes on to report, 'in Synge's lifetime, not one member of his family had seen any of his work for the theatre.' Toibin resists a simple binary. Writers belong to families and to literature. They use literature in their struggle with their families, and their families in their struggle with literature.

The first section deals with Ireland and Irish writers. There are two essays on Yeats: one on his sad, mouthy old dad, forever on the point of writing a play; the other on his steadfast, ill-used wife George. Gosh, Yeats could be babyish. There's a lovely vignette about her sending him a lamp and his writing back to ask what sort of oil to put in it. 'The lamp of course consumes lamp oil, paraffin, ' she wrote back in exasperation. …

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