Prodigal Fathers

Private Collection/Niland Collection/Sotheby’s
John Butler Yeats: Self-Portrait, New York, 1911–1922; from the exhibition ‘Portrait of a Family,’ on view at the Model, Sligo, Ireland, until December 16, 2018

More than twenty years ago, writing about Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, Colm Tóibín recalled what it was like to study history in Ireland in the 1970s—to be on the cusp of the revisionist wave, questioning all the old narratives. “Imagine if Irish history were pure fiction,” he wrote, “how free and happy we could be! It seemed at that time a most subversive idea, a new way of killing your father, starting from scratch, creating a new self.” The burden of having relatives has been a constant theme of Tóibín’s stories, essays, and reviews: “A Priest in the Family,” “How to Be a Wife,” “The Brother Problem,” “The Importance of Aunts,” “Mothers and Sons,” and, for equality’s sake, both “New Ways to Kill Your Mother” and “New Ways to Kill Your Father.” And these are just some of the titles. The desire to start from scratch, to worm (or to smash, but mostly to worm) your way out from under the yoke of dull, unavailable, or tyrannical parents figures in most of his fiction.

Irish literature offers a rich history of attempts to kill your parents, from Stephen’s mother in Ulysses, who is “beastly dead” (or Stephen’s attempt to swap Simon Dedalus for Leopold Bloom), to the done-away-with mother at the beginning of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, to John McGahern’s absent mother and the murder by portraiture of the father in his early novels The Barracks and The Dark. But Tóibín has his eye on a wider fictional world of parentless and parent-killing children. He writes, for example, of the motherless heroes and heroines in the novels of Henry James and Jane Austen that “mothers get in the way of fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” Or to put it another way, “The novel is a form ripe for orphans.”

Yet Tóibín rejected patricide in that essay on Modern Ireland, arguing instead for a respect for the past that has made us—an attention, though a skeptical one, to our inheritances, even if they embarrass and annoy us, as parents often do. And so it is fitting that the orphans peopling his own fiction are not quite orphans at all. They don’t get to create a new self from scratch; the past bears down on them despite the absence of parents. In his recent novel Nora Webster, the cranky, inarticulate teenager Donal (a portrait of the artist as a young man) is haunted by the shadowy presence of his dead father; in House of Names Tóibín’s Orestes is left to fend for himself, but he is certainly not free of the burden of relatives. In…


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