From Jane Austen's aunts to Tennessee Williams's mentally ill sister, the impact of intimate family dynamics can be seen in many of literature's greatest works. Read more...
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From Jane Austen's aunts to Tennessee Williams's mentally ill sister, the impact of intimate family dynamics can be seen in many of literature's greatest works. Toibin, celebrated both for his award-winning fiction and his provocative book reviews and essays, and currently the Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, traces and interprets those intriguing, eccentric, often twisted family ties in "New Ways to Kill Your Mother. "Through the relationship between W. B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, and J. M. Synge and his mother, Toibin examines a world of relations, richly comic or savage in its implications. In Roddy Doyle's writing on his parents, Toibin perceives an Ireland reinvented. From the dreams and nightmares of John Cheever's journals, Toibin illuminates this darkly comic misanthrope and his relationship to his wife and his children. "Educating an intellectual woman," Cheever remarked, "is like letting a rattlesnake into the house." Acutely perceptive and imbued with rare tenderness and wit, "New Ways to Kill Your Mother "is a fascinating look at writers' most influential bonds and a secret key to understanding and enjoying their work.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-04-16
- Reviewer: Staff
Through a series of accessible essays, lectures, and reviews that rove from Jane Austen to Brian Moore—many of which appeared in either the London or New York Review of Books— Tóibín explores the ambivalent relationships that many writers of the past few centuries have had with their families. The topics Tóibín (All a Novelist Needs: Essays on Henry James) addresses include the troubled bond between W.B. Yeats and his father, the fate of Thomas Mann’s children, and John Cheever’s alcoholic parenting and sexual hijinks. The book is divided into two sections: “Ireland,” containing chapters about Irish poets, playwrights, and novelists, such as John Synge and Sebastian Barry; and “Elsewhere,” which roves from Jorge Luis Borges to Tennessee Williams. With essays that prove more informative than argumentative, along with useful minibiographies of important authors, Tóibín excels when discussing craft, such as in the opening essay, which compares structural devices in the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James that for some reason necessitate an absent mother. Though chock-full of biographic detail that will interest ardent readers, Tóibín unfortunately resists drawing conclusions from the various case studies. But overall, given their figurative patricidal, matricidal, fratricidal, and infanticidal tendencies, one ought to be thankful not to have a writer in the family. Agent: Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge, and White. (June)
Literature: it's a family affair
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 Tibn—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, Tibn 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 Tibn’s comparison of Obama to James Baldwin proves persuasive. “[T]heir stories began when their fathers died,” Tibn 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 Tibn 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.