Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know
Ireland is a small country, and it seemed even smaller a hundred-some years ago when giants of literature roamed the narrow Dublin streets, routinely crossing paths and sharing friends, social connections and antagonists. As novelist and critic Colm Tóibín walks the neighborhood south of the River Liffey, where he has lived since his student days, he draws connecting lines between shared locations haunted not only by three of the greatest writers his nation has produced—Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce—but by their fathers as well. William Wilde, John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce were three very different men, yet they shared more than the streets around Merrion Square. Each sired a literary genius and possessed formidable, and in some cases unfulfilled, talents. And these fathers all came to influence their sons’ work in varying ways.
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know offers richly drawn portraits of these fathers and sons, illuminating the influence rippling between generations. While Oscar Wilde may have inherited his sharp wit from his mother, William Wilde was a doctor, influential amateur archaeologist and writer whose hubris-laced court case involving alleged sexual indiscretions offered an eerie premonition of what would befall his son. John B. Yeats was a talented painter cursed with an inability to finish a canvas. His escape to New York to live out his life (funded by his son) did not preclude his voice permeating some of his son’s seminal poetry. Joyce’s father, a drunkard and raconteur, infiltrates Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses at every turn, as Joyce probes their complicated relationship, “evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true.”
As charming as it is illuminating, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know provides a singular look at an extraordinary confluence of genius.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.