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Colm Toibin on the Fathers of Geniuses

Category: Art & Culture,Books

John B. Yeats, too, provides Toibin a complicated and eccentric character study. A trained lawyer who abandoned the law to pursue his passion for painting, Yeats achieved some renown as an artist but sabotaged his ambitions through his paralyzing inability to finish what he started; a stranger, on meeting W. B. Yeats and learning who his father was, once remarked, “O, that is the painter who scrapes out every day what he painted the day before.” This is a fairly common affliction — among book reviewers as well as artists — but most people who suffer it find other ways to earn a living. Not Yeats. The financial prospects for a painter who finishes few paintings are somewhat dim, and he squandered a significant inheritance before decamping to London and eventually New York at the age of 68, seven years after his wife’s death. There he more or less continued to avoid painting and wrote long, fervent letters (to his children, to a love interest back in Dublin) that suggest he found it easier to be affectionate at a safe remove. That pattern recurs throughout Toibin’s account: “In this world of sons,” he writes later, in another beautiful sentence, “fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions.”

Toibin pointedly contrasts W. B. Yeats’s prolific output as a poet with his father’s scant record as an artist, and in an interesting digression says that a comparable dynamic affected Henry James (whom Toibin inhabited so memorably in “The Master”). “I was alert,” he writes, “to the similarities between the two families — the Jameses and the Yeatses — and the similar ways in which two famous sons had been influenced by their father.” Among those parallels is that the sons “specialized, unlike their fathers, perhaps in spite of their fathers, in finishing almost everything they started.”

About Joyce’s father — an overbearing but underinvolved drunkard who abused his children before eventually abandoning them — Toibin has the least direct documentary material. Paradoxically, this section feels most alive as a result. After summarizing the basic biographical data, about John Stanislaus Joyce’s marriage and children and his difficulty holding a job, Toibin runs out of narrative momentum and is forced instead to explore the father’s psychological impact on his children. He plumbs a memoir and a diary by James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, then turns at last to Joyce’s own writing to argue, persuasively, that the effort to understand and empathize with his father provided an abiding source of Joyce’s genius: “James Joyce,” he writes, “sought not only to memorialize his father but also to retrace his steps, enter his spirit, use what he needed from his father’s life to nourish his own art.” And again: “Joyce allowed a complex imagination to shine its pale, unsettled light on what had already passed into shade so that he could coax it back into substance, courtesy of style.” This is a thrilling reading that aptly unites Toibin’s novelistic gifts for psychology and emotional nuance with his talents as a reader and critic, in incomparably elegant prose.

Of course, any Irish writer dealing with Wilde and Yeats and Joyce might be expected to struggle with some “daddy” issues himself along the way. (It’s worth noting, given the other personal detours Toibin indulges, that in a book devoted to writers’ fathers he nowhere mentions his own.) But as a biographer Toibin seems largely untroubled by the accomplishments of the three sons, neither competitive nor rebellious, despite some vestigial envy and ancestral pride that Wilde, Yeats and Joyce had the opportunity to define a national literature; in early-20th-century Dublin, he observes a little wistfully, “every writer had to invent a world as though from the very beginning.”

The book unavoidably invites questions about the nature of the father-son bond — and then mostly avoids them. That’s to Toibin’s credit: The three fathers’ lives are so varied, and the sons’ work so different, that it’s hard to derive general conclusions about father-son relationships or their influence on art, and for the most part Toibin is too subtle and circumspect to try. Always an understated writer, who prefers innuendo to inflection, in this book he evinces a talent for the deadpan. (“Yeats even met the young James Joyce on the street,” he writes at one point. “Joyce found him ‘very loquacious.’”) Where Toibin does try to force conclusions, he stumbles uncharacteristically, as when he declares, “They created chaos, all three of these fathers, while their sons made work.” This is so broad as to be meaningless, and in any case doesn’t bear scrutiny — the sons might be said to have created plenty of chaos on their own, after all.

Is it true, as Stephen Dedalus says, that a father’s legacy to his children is limited to an instant of blind rut? Sometimes, sure. But other times the connection is far deeper and more complicated, as Toibin’s wise and resonant book makes clear. However fraught the relationship, however competitive or controlling or cold, sometimes even an imperfect father gives his son wings and teaches him to fly.

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