Irish novelist and essayist Tóibín (Brooklyn, 2009, etc.) investigates how writers’ classic works were inspired by their families—and sometimes in spite of them.
One line of critical thinking holds that a writer’s personal history is out of bounds when judging a poem, play or novel. Tóibín, who mined the life of Henry James for his 2004 novel, The Master, doesn’t adhere to that notion, and these essays are largely concerned with how writers’ personal lives influenced their work. In the opening essay, the author explores why James and Jane Austen tended to avoid writing about mothers, who “get in the way in fiction,” and how that instinct was partly a product of their occasionally tense family relationships. Half the pieces that follow focus on Irish writers, including William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Roddy Doyle; the other half consider the non-Irish likes of Thomas Mann, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin and others. Most of these pieces, written for the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books, are piecework prompted by a new biography or collection of letters, but common themes emerge. Dominating mothers provoked Irish playwright J.M. Synge and Beckett (who declared in a letter, “I am what her savage loving has made me”), and closeted homosexuality frustrated Williams and Cheever’s lives and writing alike. Tragedies abound: Yeats brutally dismissed his father’s literary ambitions, Thomas Mann’s children were a riot of addiction and dysfunction, and Hart Crane’s pioneering career as a poet ended in suicide. But like all fine critics, Tóibín inspires readers to go back to the work, and he brings a human aspect to the works of seemingly deracinated authors like Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges.
Though there’s no truly coherent thesis here, it’s a pleasure to watch Tóibín rove through 19th- and 20th-century literary history.