Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Penguin Random House 2018)
Before the meeting: I was going to say that this book does what it says on the tin – that is, it tells about the three fathers of famous Protestant Irish writers named in the subtitle. But it doesn’t come good on the implication of the main title – which is a slight variation on a phrase used to describe the poet Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, and which has been used as a title for a number of works since, including a play about Byron by Australian Ron Blair. Neither Byron nor Byronic heroics are to be found in these pages. Nor, really, are any of the three men all that mad, all that bad, or all that dangerous.
Three of the book’s four chapters were given as lectures at a university in Atlanta Georgia in November 2017. I imagine the lectures were riveting. I don’t know this for sure, but it looks to me as if Colm Tóibín has added an introduction and padded out the lectures in a bit of a rush job.
So: there’s plenty of interesting information about the three men and their roles in their sons’ lives and works.
The chapter on William Wilde is framed by Tóibín’s account of a five-hour reading he gave of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in the Reading Gaol prison cell where Wilde wrote it. A striking thing about De Profundis, he writes, is that while it honours Wilde’s mother it barely mentions his father. Nonetheless, Tóibín argues, William Wilde was a big influence on Oscar. And a striking picture of the man emerges, gleaned from contemporary accounts and biographies. My takeaway from this chapter, however, is the desire to see Paul Capsis reading from De Profundis in Woolloomooloo – seven of us from the group are planning to do so.
John B Yeats didn’t get on with his famous son. The elder Yeats was a failed artist – he had trouble finishing paintings, and even his masterpiece, a self-portrait he spent years on, remained incomplete at his death. He was an amazing letter-writer, which we know because his correspondents kept his letters, and many of them have been published, and republished. Among the letters he wrote to William, there’s one that Tóibín quotes advising him to turn away from the mystical path he was taking. In his later years, and this is where the chapter comes fully alive, he wrote frank, passionate love letters from New York to Rosa Butts in Ireland, a woman he may or may not have ever had physical intimacy with. She and he had agreed to burn their letters once they had read them: he kept his part of the agreement, but she did us a favour and reneged.
John Stanislaus Joyce had the dubious honour of being written about by two of his sons, Stanislaus and James. Stanislaus’s books, My Brother’s Keeper and The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, make it clear that he was a terrible husband and father: drunk, improvident, at times cruel. The main thrust of his chapter is an exploration of how Joyce in his fiction managed to combine ‘the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fulness, and indeed its pain and misery’. If ever I reread Ulysses my reading will be richer thanks to this chapter.
A key question about a book like this is whether it engages the interest of a reader who doesn’t have a prior commitment to the subject. I’m moderately interested in all three of these writers: not the Wilde of De Profundis so much as the one who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, who doesn’t really get a look in; the Yeats who wrote ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’; and the Joyce who, as my eldest brother told my father when he was 19 and I was 10, wrote a ‘dirty dirty‘ book called Ulysses. I enjoyed a lot of it, but there’s a lot that I found dull. In particular, the Introduction, which might have offered some basis for general interest, takes the reader on a stroll, pedestrian in both senses, through Dublin streets, telling us how the Wildes, the Yeatses and the Joyces were sometimes neighbours, or not, how their lives intersected (‘Yeats’s grandparents and his father knew Oscar Wilde’s parents’), and how other poets and writers since have lived in or near those places.
I’ve no doubt that Colm Toíbín has a deeply felt interest in these three men. Not a Protestant himself as far as I know, perhaps he is fascinated by the eminence of these Protestant writers and their fathers in mostly-Catholic Ireland. But the book fails to communicate to me why I should be interested. In particular, it may be that Toíbin’s heart just wasn’t in the process of expanding his three lectures to a 205 page book. The lectures were published in the London Review of Books (and are available online here, here and here). I expect they make excellent reading.
After the meeting:
I was nearly two hours late for our meeting. Ice creams were being eaten when I made my entrance. Though there was a feeble attempt to convince me that everyone else had completely loved the book it didn’t take long to elicit an elegant summary of the discussion so far: the book was mostly dull and unengaging with some excellent bits. Most of the discussion had been about people’s relationships with their own fathers and, where possible, sons. I was very sorry to have missed that conversation, though the remnants of it that followed my arrival were terrific: an extraordinary tall traveller’s tale about one chap’s father shouting him and his brother to dubious treats in Bangkok; unspectacular but treasured moments of play; how different generations express affection among males.
About the book: about half of us studied literature in some way at university a long time ago. If the book was marginally interesting to us, it was substantially less so to the others, and fewer than usual bothered to read to the end. One man, who is deeply cultured in other respects, didn’t know the circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, knowledge that Tóibín assumes in his readers; and I’m pretty sure someone said they’d never heard of W B Yeats (though he’s now tempted to seek out Yeats Senior’s letters).
And because it’s November, here are 14 rhyming lines. I went searching on my bookshelves for anything on the fathers of famous Australian writers, and found this little anecdote in Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass (Jonathan Cape 1981, page 5).
November Verse 6:
Patrick White, when just a laddy,
felt his penis growing hard.
There's something odd, he told his daddy.
Daddy reddened, hummed and haaed,
and said, 'Step out' – the passing glimmer
of a smile told the young swimmer
all was well. At that same age
a first poet stepped onto the stage
of Paddy's life. Face like a wrinkled,
sooty lemon, driest kind
of gent, the Banjo paid no mind
to Patrick. But those first notes tinkled:
first ripples on great passion's tide
delivered at his father's side.