Taking a writer’s background or intentions out of the equation when reading a literary work, as adherents of the once-dominant New Criticism suggested we do, can take much of the fun out of reading. Shouldn’t we know something about Tennessee Williams’ tortured relationships with his mother and sister if we want to fully appreciate The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire? Doesn’t knowledge of the accomplished, eccentric James family further our understanding of Henry’s nuanced fiction?
Irish writer Colm Tóibín—who has won a passel of prestigious awards for his fiction, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Costa Novel Award—certainly believes so. In his new collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, he looks at the domestic affection and friction that shaped major writers and their works—from his countrymen Yeats, J.M. Synge and Beckett, to international masters Borges and Mann, to Americans Cheever, Baldwin and Williams.
By focusing largely on major writers, Tóibín has guaranteed a certain familiarity with most of the work under discussion here. There are only three contemporary writers in the mix, all Irishmen: Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry and Hugo Hamilton. Some writers feature in more than one essay; others, like Brian Moore or Synge, have perhaps fallen outside the margins of what people are reading today.
Despite its provocative title, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is a serious, at times academic, book. Still, there is no dearth of compelling literary “gossip” between its covers. John Cheever, trapped in the misery of the suburban family life he feels he must lead, buries his secret homosexuality just beneath the surface of his fiction. Yeats’ much-younger wife fakes an ability for “automatic writing” in order to reignite her spiritualist husband’s waning interest in her. The Mann family propensity for suicide and incestuous impulses rears its head often in the Nobel Laureate’s novels. The wayward, idle Beckett was “the sort of young man who was made to break his mother’s heart.”
There is only one subject who writes strictly nonfiction: Barack Obama, a surprising choice. But Tóibín’s comparison of Obama to James Baldwin proves persuasive. “[T]heir stories began when their fathers died,” Tóibín writes. “[T] hey set out alone without a father’s shadow or a father’s permission.” The emphasis on fathers and sons, which also propels essays on James, Yeats, Mann and others, highlights the fact that, with the exception of Jane Austen, the writers Tóibín probes are exclusively male. This is not a shortcoming per se, merely the book’s purview. But it does raise the tantalizing question of what this astute essayist might have to tell us about, say, Plath or Mary Shelley or Lessing or—well, you get the idea. Maybe someday we’ll find out.