Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín
In 2012, Colm Tóibín published New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a collection of literary essays about writers and their families. This excellent book compiled texts ranging in subject from nineteenth century Irish playwright John Synge to twenty-first century bestseller Roddy Doyle, most of which were pulled from the highbrow pages of the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and the Dublin Review. Not only are Tóibín’s essays meticulously researched and intellectually illuminating, they also provide a reminder that critical writing is an important and often ignored facet of contemporary literature. More novelists should write like this, engaging with their peers and influences in an academic, exploratory matter. Fans of Tóibín’s bestsellers like Brooklyn, The Master and The Testament of Mary will find their readings enriched by these critical investigations of other writers, as many of the author’s themes can be traced back to the classics, influenced by the greats of Irish literature.
Tóibín’s new collection of essays Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is a sequel of sorts and explores the lives of the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. While a noble endeavor, and as passionate as the essays in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, something is amiss. Tóibín intends to present the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce as influential figures and reveal the inescapable familial connectivity between them and their sons, all while unveiling the inherent impact that their presence may have had on the creativity of these developing writers. This is too ambitious a goal and one Tóibín is not able to execute. As a trio of mini-biographies of under-analyzed historical figures, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is a thrill: Tóibín’s subjects are captivating, each with a riveting story. The book also provides an effective, cursory look at the lives and and works of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Unfortunately, its difficult to unite these two achievements without showing the stitching — the stories of these writers and their fathers do not mesh as well as Tóibín seems to have hoped.
William Wilde, father of Oscar, was a successful surgeon and intellectual in Dublin. While he was respected and revered by his peers, the Wildes were not an easy family to read: “their identities were fragile,” Tóibín writes, “wavering, open to suggestion, and also open to pressure.” Perhaps emblematic of this fragility is the libel case between William Wilde and his younger, intimate acquaintance Mary Travers. Travers published a pamphlet “parodying” her alleged affair with William Wilde, in which a “Dr. Quilp” takes advantage of a younger woman. This led to a heated legal case that was followed by seemingly all of Dublin. The case is a fascinating read, and Tóibín provides an impressive amount of source material from the original letters and legal proceedings, but he also tries to tie this to Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment in 1895. While both scandalous, and both related to the family’s “distinguished name [and] high social position,” it’s a stretch.
Tóibín’s take on Yeats is similarly enthralling but also functions better after separating the literary theory from the biography. John Butler Yeats was an aspiring painter whose talent was cripplingly eclipsed by the stardom of his son. Yeats, in an attempt to save face and not show his weakness, “exiled” himself to New York at the end of his life. Tóibín neatly connects the aged desperation of John Butler Yeats to W.B.’s poetry in a passage that’s nicely put but also somewhat of an arbitrary claim:
One of the son’s major themes as a poet would be the vitality that remains in the spirit as the body ages. As W. B. Yeats did not now witness his father’s slow and inevitable physical decline, but instead received many letters from the old man filled with good humor and wisdom and a soaring hunger for life and ideas, then his father’s exile was enabling and inspiring for his son’s work.
Like the Wilde section before it, it’s much more interesting to read about John Butler Yeats’ struggling art career independently of his son’s poetry. Tóibín is not wholly convincing of their linked relevance, leaving the Yeats men’s artistic pursuits better explored as parallel passions. Claims of the father’s direct (and indirect) creative influence on his son feel perfunctory, tacked on in a way that satisfies the Tóibín’s ambitious thesis.
The section on James Joyce is the most effective in the collection, perhaps because Joyce’s novels explicitly wrestle with the relationship between father and son. Joyce also was born later than Wilde and Yeats, and, as Toibin notes, “[circles] the world of the other two writers.” Joyce’s father was an alcoholic, and often violent, and traces of him can be found throughout Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “In his work,” Tóibín writes, “James Joyce sought to re-create his father, reimagine him, fully invoke him, live in his world….” Tóibín effortlessly presents father figures throughout Joyce’s oeuvre and shows that with each new novel the author refines his paternal characters into beautifully complicated beings of power and fragility. By the time of Simon (father of protagonist Stephen) Dedalus’ re-appearance in Ulysses, Joyce has become “wiser than his father ever was…more filled with watchfulness and nerves and depth of feeling than his father ever will be.”
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is a curious book, but asks a lot of its readers. The breadth of academic knowledge needed to dig into these stories is substantial, and those readers who possess the requisite background will find Tóibín’s biographies to be terrific but his criticism lacking. There’s no question of Tóibín’s skills — these essays are beautifully written and flawlessly researched — but the book, overall, attempts to reach too far for a conclusion that is ultimately untenable.