Blood and ink

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tóibín, Viking, £20, 346 pages

February 17 2012 / Financial Times

Beware the family that has a writer in its midst, the one who watches, records, remembers and confesses. After all, as Joan Didion wrote, “writers are always selling somebody out” - and those closest to them invariably suffer most.

Colm Tóibín is fascinated by writers’ relationships with their families. In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a series of review-essays, he works away at and through his obsessions: family, homosexuality, homeland, the anxiety of influence. Along the way, he tells us plenty about himself, such as what he thinks a novel is, or should be - a “set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology” - as well as much else besides about the psychology of serious literary ambition.

Tóibín’s hero is Henry James, about whom he wrote a fine novel, The Master (2004). James is the model he measures all other writers against. He says that as a reader James “took what he needed, as any novelist does”, a remark that lays bare his own strategy of appropriation: you read, you take what you need and move on.

The subject of the best essay here is John Cheever, the American writer who once said: “Everything I write is autobiographical.” For Tóibín, this isn’t quite so. “Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography,” he says of Cheever by way of correction, “and another in wishful or dreamy thinking.”

Autobiography recast as dream: that would serve as a good description of Cheever’s fiction - with its superficially becalmed suburban settings and baffled, yearning protagonists - as well as Tóibín’s own. Like James, Cheever was a guilty and tormented homosexual, with many secrets. As a father and husband living in affluent seclusion on the Hudson river in upstate New York, he was serially cruel to those he purported to love, especially his poor wife. He was an alcoholic, sentimentalist and narcissist. His ambition was never-ending. He longed for fame and immense riches. “I dream that my face appears on a postage stamp,” he wrote in his journals, which were edited and published to acclaim after his death.

So far, so bad. Yet against the cultivated miseries and selfishness of the life one must also set the excellence of much of Cheever’s work, the poise, restraint and subtleties of the stories especially, but also the cold, hard, penetrating truths of the journals, so intimate and revealing about the psychology of the egomaniacal writer. Tóibín suggests that Cheever’s “view of other writers was not sweet”. We are told that he loathed John Updike. “I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company,” Cheever said of Updike in the journals. “I think his magnanimity specious and his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart.”

Yet Cheever could also write this of Updike in the journals, a statement of admiration that Tóibín misses or overlooks: “Updike’s cover story - and I quite sensibly envy his gifts.”

As an Irishman, Tóibín is understandably interested in other Irish writers. There’s a gripping essay on WB Yeats and his father, John, who was a better talker than writer and struggled to complete projects. Tóibín calls him the “great unfinisher”, which makes him sound like the former England striker Emile Heskey.

As with the fathers of James, Jorge Luis Borges and VS Naipaul, John Butler Yeats was a failed writer. “For writers and artists whose fathers dabbled in art and failed,” Tóibín postulates in an essay on Borges, “there seems always to be a peculiar intensity in their levels of ambition and determination.” Perhaps.

Towards the end of his life, resident in New York, John Butler Yeats sent a series of letters to his son William at home in Dublin, in which he expressed passionate belief in his own poems, stories and a play. The son is slow to reply, as if embarrassed by his father’s striving. The letters from father to son become ever more insistent. Tóibín quotes appositely from them, to poignant effect, as he recounts the story of the father’s deluded ambition and the son’s indifference.

The essay on Samuel Beckett is titled “Beckett Meets His Afflicted Mother” (with the exception of Jane Austen, Tóibín writes only about men). It’s an odd and misleading title because there’s very little about the mother in it and even less on her relationship with her son, beyond being told that she was frustrated by Sam’s indolence in the years before he settled in France, served with the Resistance and began to produce the great works. The essay is essentially a review of the first volume of The Letters (2009), covering the years 1929-1940, and it’s wide-ranging and digressive.

But one has little sense from it of the complexity of Beckett’s relationship with his mother; you have only a mild sense of the misunderstanding that existed between them. It was written before the publication of the second volume of The Letters in 2011 (no attempt was made to update the essay or to write a postscript to it, as Martin Amis did to the literary essays collected in The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America). This is a pity because in the second volume one finds a beautiful letter, in which, on a visit to see his mother in Dublin in 1948, Beckett wrote:

“The weather is fine, I walk along my old paths, I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age ... I think these are the first eyes that I have seen. I have no wish to see any others. I have all I need for loving and weeping.”

If Beckett’s mother was “afflicted” by her son, as Tóibín keenly suggests, she was also loved unconditionally by him.

The Beckett essay’s curious title is surely a consequence of gathering together a series of occasional pieces, written over many years, into a book and then attempting to impose a retrospective coherence on it. An introduction would have helped to contextualise and would have eased the reader’s way. As it is, these review-essays share a family resemblance as themes overlap and interconnect, but the whole turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts.