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Finding a Very Secret Self

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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.
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