Tuesday 16 July 2019

Three famous Irish writers - Wilde, Yeats and Joyce - and their wayward fathers

Essays: Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, Colm Tóibín, Viking, hardback, 192 pages, €25.20

Creating chaos: William Wilde
John Stanislaus Joyce
John Butler Yeats
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín's absorbing new book gives a fascinating insight into the influence the errant fathers of Wilde, Joyce and Yeats had on their literary sons.

Colm Tóibín's last book of essays, published in 2012, was called New Ways to Kill Your Mother - a teasing title that wasn't strictly accurate, given that its 15 chapters ranged far and wide in considering the impact of parents on writers and of writers on their own families.

The subjects included such familiar Irish figures as WB Yeats, John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brian Moore and Sebastian Barry, but also such non-Irish writers as Thomas Mann, Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and James Baldwin. The result was a book as provocative as it was playful, causing the reader, as all good literary essays do, to take a fresh look at the life and work of its various authors.

As it happens, his new book could fairly have been titled New Ways to Kill Your Father because its three essays directly concern the fathers of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce and the influence these Victorian gentlemen, eminent or otherwise, had on their famous sons.

In the case of William Wilde, that influence seems to have had the least effect, given that, as Tóibín observes, Oscar "put so much energy into letting it be known that he had invented himself", and perhaps it's overstating things to say that these three fathers "created chaos" in the lives of those around them.

That's argued in Tóibín's absorbing introduction, in which he takes a stroll through the Dublin streets these men inhabited and past the houses in which they lived and, in doing so, conjures up a 19th century city that "exalted the idea of isolation, individuality, aloneness".

And he goes on: "Leopold Bloom moves alone in the city, as Stephen Dedalus does. Wilde in his London world stood alone, too, as he suffered alone. And Yeats stayed proudly aloof, as Joyce did in his exile. Ireland offered them isolation... It was a sort of gift".

Arguably the same could be said of many creative artists in many cities (Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, Jorges Luis Borges in Buenos Aires), though in Tóibín's introduction, he vividly evokes a Dublin as full of secrets and shadows today as it was when these three patriarchs moved through its streets.

Given his work as a rate collector ("the perfect job for someone who was sociable and garrulous"), Cork-born John Stanislaus Joyce knew the city better than most - so well, in fact, that his son would later tell a friend in Paris: "The humour of Ulysses is his; its people are his friends. The book is his spittin' image". He would also tell loyal and long-time benefactor Harriet Weaver: "I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults... I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition."

The man himself, though, must have been hell to live with, though his drunken and violent behaviour affected son Stanislaus much more than James, as can be observed in Stanislaus's honest and often painful memoir, My Brother's Keeper. Here was a father who burdened his wife with 10 children and whose financial recklessness necessitated nine downward house-moves in 11 years.

It would be easy, Tóibín says, "to consign John Stanislaus Joyce to the position of one of the worst Irish husbands and worst Irish fathers in Irish history", yet he doesn't do so, and neither did the errant father's famous son.

Oscar Wilde had removed himself from parental peccadilloes when he decamped to London, but the story of William Wilde, the Roscommon-born son of a doctor, is fascinating in itself. An eminent eye-and-ear specialist, he was also an archaeologist and travel writer, with notable books on Austria and the beauties of the Boyne and of Lough Corrib.

Knighted in 1864, he was a man with "unstable and gnarled allegiances... not accepted as fully Irish and not a wealthy landowner either". And he was not immune from scandal, fathering three illegitimate children and involved in a lengthy legal battle with a former female patient, who successfully sued William's wife, Jane, for libellous comments in a letter.

As for John Butler Yeats, the Co Down-born son of a clergyman, this wayward portrait painter was "exasperating but also inspirational", though the inspiration only really registered with son William when, at the age of 67, his father left for New York, never to return in the remaining 15 years of his life.

Until then, he'd been constantly in debt, partly caused by his insistence that "I can only paint friendship portraits" and thus his inability to complete other artistic commissions.

From New York, however, he wrote extraordinary letters about art and life to his son, letters which deeply influenced WB in his own artistic journey towards becoming the 20th century's greatest poet. Indeed, WB came to increasingly admire his "wayward and improvident" father.

These three essays originally took the form of lectures at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in honour of Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of both Joyce and Wilde, but they read beautifully in their current form. And the personal saunter through Dublin that features in the introduction is alone worth the book's price.

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