Finding a Very Secret Self

Dominique Nabokov
Colm Tóibín, New York City, April 2007

Every so often, in his captivating new collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Colm Tóibín allows himself moments of general (and perhaps also personal) meditation and commentary. Here are two of the strangest. The first is the opening of a vivid, compassionate essay on Hart Crane:

There are certain single volumes of American poetry, some of them first books or early books, that carry with them a special and spiritual power; they seem to arise from a mysterious impulse and to have been written from an enormous private or artistic need. The poems are full of a primal sense of voice, and the aura of the voice in the rhythms of the poem suggests a relentless desire not to make easy peace with the reader. If some of these poems have the tone of prayers, they are not prayers of comfort or of supplication as much as urgent laments or cries from the depths where the language has been held much against its will or has broken free, and now demands to be heard.

The second comes in a piece about Sebastian Barry, countering the charge that his play Hinterland exposed the lives of living Irish politicians:

Almost any imaginative writer who creates a set of motives and signature tones for a character from history ends by writing a sort of autobiography. Sometimes this can happen unconsciously; the character begins as a set of facts, and slowly melts into a set of fictions. The process is gradual and tentative; it may have its origins in speculative drafting, seeing how some new ingredient might work, realizing that, while the main character need not be changed, some of the surrounding circumstances will not fit the drama. Gradually, the play, or the novel or the story, becomes a dramatization of an aspect of the secret self.

In these highly characteristic riffs, Tóibín has invented his own language for talking about the origins and sources of artworks. This is not exactly literary criticism; the terminology is vague, even mystical (“spiritual power,” “mysterious impulse,” “primal sense,” “prayers,” “cries from the depths,” “the secret self”). The critical voice is impressionistic rather than technical—we hear a lot about tone, tones, voice, aura—though it is very interested in how writing proceeds from different kinds of origins, through drafts, to final “dramatizations.” It pays attention to mystery, tentativeness, and uncertainty. It is not quite psychoanalytical, though it clearly believes in the power of the unconscious in writing and in writing as a form of conflict or struggle, whether between facts and imagination, or between the writer and the reader, or between the secret personal life and the need to transform it: between whatever holds language imprisoned and what allows it to break free. It is quasi-biographical, hovering daringly and thoughtfully in the terrain where writers’ works and lives shadow one another.

As in his earlier collections (Love in a Dark Time, on gay writing, and All a Novelist Needs, on Henry James), these essays derive from reviews, mostly of volumes of letters, memoirs, or biographies, many of them for the London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books. This time the overarching theme is writers and their families, though the catchy title, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, only gives us the half of it: as well as forsaken or demanding mothers, there are plenty of sibling rivals, discarded or threatening fathers, exploited or protective wives, and helpful, or unhelpful, aunts (a Tóibín specialty, and a welcome addition to the usual array of writers’ kith and kin). Apart from Jane Austen, Lady Gregory, and George Yeats (and I’m not sure she counts as a writer), all the main subjects are male, so some primal family scenarios—old ways to kill your father—recur.

The premise of the essays is not as ruthlessly single-minded as Czesław Miłosz’s famous adage, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” or Philip Roth’s advice to the young Ian McEwan: “You must write as if your parents are dead.” Certainly there are stories here of sibling artists (the Manns, the Yeatses, the Jameses) whose metaphorical killing of the father allowed the children a “strange new freedom,” of families such as the Synges who are a “godsend” to a writer “if [he] were in the business of murdering his family,” of writers (like some young Irish playwrights at the start of this century) for whom not killing the father, on stage, was “a powerful and intriguing way of offering…no easy hope,” or of writers like James Baldwin who needed to demolish their “literary fathers” before they could take flight. And the book opens with a fine account of nineteenth-century novels (by Austen, Eliot, and James) in which mothers must be absent so that the heroine can have autonomy, depth, and momentum. But more than the artistic slaughter of one’s relations, it’s the often inexplicable tension between lives as they are lived and as they are dramatized and reinvented that fascinates Tóibín.

Some of the writers’ lives invoked here are so alarming and extreme that all he needs to do is describe them. The frightful story of Thomas Mann’s family, played out under the shadow of Nazi Germany (incest, exile, secret crimes, scandal, family rifts, suicides, and great damage) runs alongside the “imaginative energy and dark daring” of Mann’s work. The part-comic, part-tragic correspondence between John Butler Yeats and his son the poet, in which the father is sending W.B. Yeats his own writings, advising him about his work, and depending on him for handouts, is wonderfully enacted: “The old man is an infant, innocent in his pride and hope, the son distant, godlike and all-powerful, ready to ignore and criticize and quietly destroy.”

Tóibín tells his stories as if he is writing about people he knows, and also as if he is projecting them into a novel. So minor characters walk through with brio, like Samuel Beckett’s friend the art critic and poet Thomas MacGreevy,

a dapper little fellow who wore a bow-tie [and] managed to be Catholic and queer, patriotic and cosmopolitan all at the same time. When he lived in Paris, he often went for a walk during the day to “make sure the world was where [he] had left it the evening before.”

Scenes are intimately conjured up: we can imagine ourselves with George Hyde-Lees on her difficult honeymoon with Yeats:

She realized now not only that the famous poet did not love her and had married her on a whim, but that the idea of the poet…was far removed from the grumpy, sickly, indifferent and miserable man with whom she was now confined in a small space.

And so, “in her panic,” she began to write her automatic writing, saved her marriage, and inspired the poet. Was it “fake”? “It seemed that she both believed and didn’t believe in what she was doing.”

It is one example, the oddest, of many acts of imaginative transformation in these essays. Some of Tóibín’s writers use their family experience very directly in their books, like Tennessee Williams compulsively returning in his plays to the awful story of his schizophrenic sister Rose, institutionalized and lobotomized, or Beckett putting his father’s “interest in not doing a stroke of work” to good use: “Lassitude is one of Beckett’s great subjects.” Many of the experiences described here are those of exile, living on the periphery, pulling away from home: Synge back with his pious provincial family after his time in Paris, the Manns splintering all over America and Europe, Beckett getting Ireland out of his system through the study of European paintings.

Not all these essays are equally acute: Tóibín’s unsympathetic treatment of the remarkable novelist Brian Moore, whom he considers to have been “damaged by exile,” is disappointing. But his thinking about writers on the edge is always interesting. He is especially fascinated by Borges (partly because of his own experience of Argentina), and sees that there was for him, as

for writers in every country on the periphery, a working-out of a serious dilemma: whether to adopt a full European Modernist identity or to describe Argentina (or Trinidad, or Ireland) in all its color and exotic variety to the world.

As often, Tóibín seems partly to be speaking about himself there. But he keeps under cover in these essays, and that masking is what most interests him in other writers. It is the indirection and evasiveness with which writers transform their lives into art that brings out his best writing. Biographers want to place writers’ families in their fictions; they want to root imaginative inventions in life experiences. But sometimes the links are impenetrable, or counterintuitive. What to make, for instance, of Synge?

Synge’s family remains of considerable interest, either because of the apparent lack of any influence on his work, or because they may or may not hold a key to his unyielding and mysterious genius. He seemed in his concerns and beliefs to have nothing in common with them…and yet, for a great deal of his adult life, he lived with them and depended on them. Any version of his life and work has to take his family into account.

It is stealth and indirection and ambiguity, the finding of a language that can at once conceal and reveal, that Tóibín relishes, and practices himself in work that hovers provocatively between fiction, biography, and concealed autobiography. He has written before about the idea of a secret “store” of sources, especially in relation to Henry James, who draws so deeply on “the secret self where memories are stored.” In James’s work (and, we deduce, also in Tóibín’s) the personal store is worked on and transformed by the imagination to produce, gradually and indirectly, a narrative in which “things that have mattered emotionally” to the writer become “the secret subject of the book”:

This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mysteriously.

In these essays, he reiterates this theme, not by talking explicitly about his own work, but in a tone of conviction that makes clear his artistic credo. The point, as he always says, is that “fiction comes from a direct source” and then “makes its way indirectly to the page or the stage”:

It does so by finding metaphors, by building screens, by working on half truths, moulding them towards a form that is both pure and impure fabrication. There is simply no other way of doing it.

In describing how writers do this, Tóibín plays ruthlessly fast and loose between biography and fiction. He likes the shadowy overlapping area between these genres, which more purist biographers (those who feel you shouldn’t make things up if you don’t have the proof) might eschew, and less daring novelists (those who are afraid of putting real toads in their imaginary gardens) might avoid. Writing recently in the London Review of Books about Mario Vargas Llosa’s fictional version of Roger Casement, The Dream of the Celt, Tóibín puts biographers and novelists on a sliding scale of “understanding” of their subjects. A biographer of Casement needs to understand his “sexuality in all its energy and compulsion and its connection to the energy and compulsion he showed in other areas of his life” (which Vargas Llosa, according to Tóibín, has failed to do). “A novelist needs such an understanding too—or perhaps an even deeper understanding.” The implication is that there is no firm demarcation between the two kinds of writing, only a need for one to be “even” more deeply understanding than the other.

In the same essay, he gives an acute account of Conrad’s transformation of his own experience in Heart of Darkness:

His story shows the distance which fiction can go: how accurate and enduring it can be when it allows substance and shadow to nourish each other, and yet how ambiguous it remains when we read it as a version of what happened.

And we all know, he goes on to say, how “what happened” in history can become fictional even before a novelist has got to work on it: “how our version of what happened shifts and slips into a lovely fictional unreliability according to our needs.”

One of the characters who recurs in his work is Lady Gregory, landowner and Irish nationalist, playwright and folklorist, friend and inspiration to Yeats and Synge, leading figure of the Abbey Theatre, mother to the “Irish Airman” of Yeats’s poem, Major Robert Gregory. In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, she figures as one of the splendid walk-on parts, irritating the life out of George Yeats (“Christ how she repeats herself now”), exasperating Synge with her “tireless and fearless promotion” of Yeats at Synge’s expense, collecting rents at Coole from the same tenants from whom she collected folklore, and with the same zeal, but recognized by all as a great spirit.

She has been a favorite of Tóibín’s for a long time, treated in part-comic, part-heroic tones. In 2001, he published a biographical essay about her in The New York Review of Books, reissued in 2003 as a short book called Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush. In 2009, he published a story about her and Henry James, called “Silence.” In 2010, the story was reprinted in his collection The Empty Family, and as a coda to his volume of essays about Henry James, All a Novelist Needs. In these essays, he also give a nonfictional version of the story.

All this recycling means that Tóibín’s own biographers are going to have a complicated time of it. In the nonfictional version of “Silence,” which comes in the essay “Henry James in Ireland,” Tóibín tells us that in 1894 James wrote down in his notebook (where he kept his “données,” things he had been told that might work as ideas for fiction) a story Lady Gregory had told him at dinner. It is about a clergyman who discovers, during his honeymoon, a love letter to his wife from a former lover of hers. The clergyman thinks he will send her back to her parents, but in the end does live with her, but “never as his wife.” Tóibín comments:

There is something strange about Lady Gregory telling James the story two years after her husband’s death. She, within a year of her marriage, had had a love affair with the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt. She had written twelve sonnets about the liaison, which she had published under his name in a book of his poems. She had lived with her husband after the affair for ten years until his death. Her own dark concealments combined with an interest in veiled, coded disclosure. James would have understood such maneuvers, and one can imagine him watching her carefully as she told him the anecdote.

James himself, he goes on to say (and it is what attracts Tóibín to James as a writer and a person), is guarded, ambiguous, and self-concealing, “creating compartments whereby things were known to some and not to others.” “In his best novels, there is always a secret that, if disclosed, will be explosive.”

In the story “Silence,” Tóibín dramatizes this encounter with a “lovely fictional unreliability.” We see Lady Gregory telling Henry James the story, we go back in time to her passionate secret affair with Blunt, we see the end of the affair and her writing of the sonnets that she then tells the poet to publish as his own, we hear James at dinner—this is funny—chattering to her “about the relative merits of various American hostesses in Venice,” and we see him listening intently to her anecdote “as though he was noting every word.”

We understand that Lady Gregory is relieving herself of the burden of secrecy by giving James a highly fictionalized version of her own story:

It gave her a strange sense of satisfaction that she had lodged her secret with him, a secret over-wrapped perhaps, but…that she had kept the secret and told a small bit of it all at the same time made her feel light.

In the lithe elastic interplay that is going on here between fiction and biography, Tóibín’s belief in screening, wrapping, and masking as a condition for invention, his fascination with secrets and their subterranean power, and his own delight in taking a factual “donnée” and making a story out of it are all on display. These are the qualities that made The Master, his fictional version of Henry James, such a seductive and audacious enterprise. We enter into James’s memories and reflections and follow him into the crucial events of his past life, especially his relations with his family, mixed with scenes from his life in the late 1890s, which Toibín has extrapolated from the historical facts.

Secrets, unspoken desires, regrets, and losses fill James’s thoughts as though he were a character in one of his own novels. We begin to understand (as a biographer might make us understand, but “perhaps with an even deeper understanding”) that James—Tóibín’s James—has spent his life resisting demands, holding intimacy at bay, and avoiding commitment, in order to do his writing. He is haunted by self-reproaches and by the ghosts of the past. Did he abandon his tragic young cousin Minny Temple and prefer her “dead rather than alive,” so that he could turn her into art? Did he fake his “wound,” with his mother’s connivance, at the time of the Civil War? Did he refuse poor Constance Fenimore Woolson the friendship she needed, and so she killed herself? Every human contact he makes must be measured against the imperative of his “quiet and strange treachery” toward the world, so that he can make himself unavailable, alone in his room with the door shut, undisturbed, writing.

Pretending to be Henry James seems to have become almost second nature for Colm Tóibín. Pretending to be Mary, mother of Jesus, is something else again. As in his Lady Gregory story, Tóibín has often imagined himself into a woman’s life. In The South, he intensely and passionately evoked (moving between first and third person) a woman painter in Spain after the civil war, who has abandoned her Irish family. In Brooklyn, he poignantly entered into the life of Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Enniscorthy, sent off to America in the 1950s and caught between her life at home and in the new country.

In his collections, Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family, full of painful family stories of loss, regret, and need, set in Ireland and America and Spain, the women characters are powerfully imagined, like Nancy in “The Name of the Game,” who takes over her late husband’s failing store in small-town Ireland, or the film set designer in “Two Women,” who returns from California to Dublin in old age and meets by chance the widow of her long-lost lover. These women’s lives are imagined with rigor and realism as well as with tenderness. Tóibín is as good at this as James or Flaubert—or, for that matter, Brian Moore.

But imagining himself into Mary’s interior life is his boldest jump yet, and his most extreme form of self-disguise and self-dramatization. The Testament of Mary began as a stage monologue, Testament, performed first at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival by the actress Marie Mullen. The high intensity of this short book draws its tension—and also a tinge of sensational theatricality—from its stage origins.

Tóibín is always severe and ironical with readers who think fiction has anything to do with liking or disliking people and issuing moral judgments, or who expect good behavior from writers. “Right-thinking people” who might reproach Beckett for ruthlessly making use of his family and friends in his writing are bound to be at odds with readers who are simply interested in the work. Readers whose first instinct is to “judge,” to issue praise or blame, are thwarted by crafty novelists trying to create a character “who could be both good and bad to the extent that neither of those words could mean anything.” As he says sternly at the start of New Ways to Kill Your Mother:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society: it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live…. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones…. The role of a character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern….

But the story of Mary, of course, is a tale from the Bible, to which Tóibín applies a Joycean ruthlessness, the ruthlessness necessary to an Irish Catholic writer who returns with a skeptical eye to the dominant myths of his childhood. His desire to write her story against the received version makes for some straining and overemphasis, but it is a bold enterprise.

This Mary is not the meek Virgin accepting the angel’s directive, or the Mater Dolorosa weeping at the foot of the Cross, or the figure in the “pietà” praying over the body of her dead son. This is a harsh, isolated, angry old woman, full of “bitter imaginings” and cruel memories, exiled in a strange landscape, like the tragic heroine of a Greek drama after the catastrophe. Hidden in a safe house, far from home, she is kept under observation by some sinister characters who come in to question her. They are the gospel writers, trying to get her memories out of her, and to make them fit into their version of events. Impatient, even brutal, they want to extract every drop of her story and make their own shape out of it. These two—Saint John and Saint Paul?—are like a pair of sadistic biographers, storming in after the events to wrench what they need out of the last witness.

Her true story is utterly unlike the version that will become gospel. Her son (always unnamed) was a quiet, pious child, but when he grew up and started attracting disciples and went away to Jerusalem she disliked the change in him and the earnest young men who surrounded him:

When my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted…I could not bear to hear him.

She thinks of his followers as “misfits,” “twitchers, malcontents, stammerers.” What she witnesses of his life and death is alien to her. The raising of Lazarus (brilliantly done) is a horror story. The son’s rejection of her at the wedding at Cana is a pompous, bullying act; he seems to her to have become “unfamiliar, oddly formal and grand,” using “strange proud terms to describe himself and his task in the world.”

Cruel and threatening figures hover around mother and son; they are all, always, being watched. There is a fierce sense of danger throughout. This Mary, instead of staying at the foot of the cross, runs away to save herself. She does not see the resurrected Christ, she has a dream of him, which gets turned by the gospel writers into part of the legend. Most subversive of all, this Mary is not Jewish or Christian, she is a pagan. In her sufferings she turns to the goddess Artemis; exiled to Ephesus, she takes her comfort from the old gods.

Tóibín’s version of the Mary story is above all about the separation between a mother and a son. “The boy became a man and left home and became a dying figure hanging on a cross.” It is one of his most persistent subjects, and one wonders why. But Tóibín’s deepest, private sources are kept well screened from any biographical raids on the novelist’s secret self.