Wednesday, May 09, 2012
New Ways to Kill Your Mother; Writers and Their Families
New Ways to Kill Your Mother; Writers and Their Families by Colm Toibin (Picador; $38.00). Reviewed by Gordon McLauchlan
Sometimes even top fiction writers have a block and plod for a while in subjects less demanding to the imagination, which is what I thought Colm Toibin was up to with his latest book based on research into the lives of writers and how families may have conditioned their responses to the world.
But this is no plod. It is a shrewd, imaginative look at how and in what ways selected writers’ personal lives influenced or did not influence the lives of their characters. He has probed the family backgrounds of a number of internationally known poets, novelists and playwrights and discusses how he thinks the family dynamics may have made them the sort of writers they turned out to be.
Most of them are fellow Irish – “ Willie and George” Yeats, J M Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brian Moore, Roddy Doyle among them – and most of the rest are Americans: Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and James Baldwin.
It’s a dangerous game to infer a wellspring of creativity from relations with mother/father/siblings/wives/husbands but Toibin avoids too much plausibility and mostly leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.
The introduction is a long discussion on the killing off of mothers. He starts by claiming that in 19th and 20th century fiction, the family is often broken, disturbed or exposed, and the heroine is often alone or strangely controlled or managed. He then takes a close look at Jane Austen, noting that her last three novels have motherless heroines, but concludes that it was not so much her own experience (the first wives of three of her brothers died in childbirth, leaving motherless children) but was rather because of the need to free up her characters: “….mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality, and by something more interesting and important as the novel itself developed.”
In Henry James’s “six great works” there is an absent mother who is replaced by a real aunt or by a set of surrogate aunts. Again he concludes the cause lay not in his own life -- perhaps: “This idea of James killing off mothers and replacing them with aunts could easily be misunderstood. He was close to his own mother, as he was to his aunt Kate, who lived with the family for most of James’s upbringing….But he also sought to get away from his mother and managed to do so by settling in Europe.”
The Irish writers he investigates are as fraught as any but for all their domestic malice they don’t seem to have the same urge to self-destruct as the fairly mad brood of Thomas Mann, or the Americans whose propensity for alcoholism during most of the 20th century probably bespeaks their deeply puritanical society.
Toibin uses background facts and the technique of a novelist to paint pictures of these families and he makes it a book writers and serious readers will relish.
Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based writer and commentator, and an occasional reviewer of this blog.