THE German novelist Thomas Mann had a stern way of introducing his children to the realities of life. Once, during the food shortages of the First World War, when the family had divided up what food they had, a single fig was left over.
He handed it to his eldest daughter as the others stared on hungrily and observed, "One should get the children used to injustice early."
The great thing about families, from a writer's perspective, is that they are so often so dysfunctional. Or at least that's how it seems from the families in Colm Toibin's new book. New Ways To Kill Your Mother is a witty and affectionate account of the eccentricities that lurked in the homes of some our most revered literary figures, and an astute study of how that family dysfunction in turn coloured and inspired their writing.
The title evokes Freud, and Oedipus, who married his mother and killed his father. It also evokes the idea that poets are motivated by a desire to outdo their predecessors, as Harold Bloom proposed in The Anxiety of Influence. The family, in actual and metaphorical form, turns out to be an exceptionally suitable prism for Toibin to explore other writers' lives and influences.
We learn about the terrible honeymoon that WB Yeats and his new wife George Hyde-Lees endured when they married in 1917. He was 52, she 25, and he still harboured feelings for both Maude Gonne and her daughter Iseult. "She realised now not only that the famous poet did not love her and had married her on a whim, but that the idea of the poet, which would have fascinated her, was far removed from the grumpy, sickly, indifferent and miserable man with whom she was now confined in a small space."
Later, George would acclimatise to her plight, befriending both the mother and the daughter Gonne. But she faced other trials. When Yeats grew old she would take the boat with him to Holyhead so that he could visit his lovers in England, before returning to Dublin herself. As Toibin notes, "No wonder she was drinking."
Perhaps the most obnoxious of Toibin's subjects is the American novelist John Cheever, who was married with several children, but throughout his life was tormented by homosexual urges. In this chapter -- first published in the London Review of Books in 2009 -- Toibin says that before he died, Cheever, who knew that his scandalous diaries would at some point become publicly available, told his adult son that he had had sexual relations with "quite a few disreputable characters". His son replied, "I don't mind, Daddy, if you don't mind."
Toibin writes best about conflicted souls like this -- he clearly loves the closeted Cheever, and Tennessee Williams, whose sister had a lobotomy, and James Baldwin, who was African American, gay and, as Toibin rightly says, "the finest American prose stylist of his generation".
While it covers a vast swathe of topics -- the 19th-Century novel, Irish literature of the 20th Century, along with particular discussion of Yeats, J M Synge and 12 other writers -- the selection is also notable for what it leaves out. There's only a brief mention in the section on "Ireland" of John McGahern and John Banville, and none at all of Edna O'Brien, all of whose novels surely explore concepts of family. The chapter on Sebastian Barry feels a little more cursory. and the only woman writer to give her name to a chapter is Jane Austen, sharing the preface with Henry James. I would have liked an explanation from Toibin as to why he chose the writers he did.
That is not to say that women don't play a part in this account. Thomas Mann's oldest daughter Erika worked as a war correspondent, became one of the most highly paid individuals on the US lecture circuit, had many lovers, male and female, and married the poet W H Auden. He was vastly amused by the Mann family remarking, "What else are buggers for?"
One of the virtues of New Ways To Kill Your Mother is that it shows how closely connected -- and sometimes related -- many of these writers were. This is especially true of the Irish section. James Joyce's daughter fell in love with Samuel Beckett and became obsessed with him, but her feelings went unreciprocated. Beckett corrected the proofs of Finnegans Wake, complaining to a friend about the pay ("Joyce paid me 250 fr. for about 15 hrs work on his proofs ... He then supplemented it with an old overcoat and 5 ties!"). Lady Gregory and WB Yeats were friends with Synge, who died of Hodgkins Disease while still in his thirties. In a letter to his fiancee, Synge grumbled that they promoted his plays far less frequently than they did their own.
Toibin divides the book into two sections, "Ireland" and "Elsewhere", but they could almost have easily been called "Ireland" and "America". Apart from Thomas Mann, who became an American citizen during the Second World War, and Borges, who came from South America, all of the writers in the second section are from the States.
His affection for Obama in the final chapter "Baldwin and Obama: Men Without Fathers" is more forgiving than current American opinion, although even Toibin's take on the president is not without its bite. Quoting Obama's famous speech on race, he writes: "Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don't need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted. Whereas Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician."
Unravelling these stories of romance, alcoholism, heroin addiction, incest, and tragedy of various forms, Toibin's research reveals a persistent curiosity -- the curiosity not necessarily of an academic or even a literary critic but of a novelist with a thirst for erratic and illuminating tales about human behaviour.