New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 352pp, £20

The title of this collection of essays comes from a passage in a piece on J M Synge, about his uneasy friendship with the somewhat older, staider W B Yeats: "Yeats had had bohemianism foisted upon him by his feckless father," Colm Tóibín writes. "Synge had done it all alone as a new way of killing his mother."

I wonder whether a better title lurks elsewhere in the same chapter. When Synge was 14, he got hold of a book of Darwin's that offered convincing proof of evolution: "I lay down and writhed in an agony of doubt . . . Incest and parricide were but a consequence of the idea that possessed me."

“Incest and parricide" are sprayed all over this book: Thomas Mann lusts over his 14-year-old son Klaus; Synge's mother lets one of his women friends know how jealous she is of her son's attentions; Yeats ignores his ageing father's artless, pleading boasts about his own literary efforts. And there is infanticide, too: the octogenarian mother of Jorge Luis Borges refuses a drink on behalf of her middle-aged son ("El niño no toma vino"); John Cheever, two weeks before he dies, phones his son Ben: "'What I wanted to tell you,' he said, 'is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I'd tell you that, because sooner or later somebody's going to tell you and I'd just as soon it came from me.'" Killing your mother is the least of it.

As the title and those incidents make plain, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is full of lurid, violent feeling; but the overall tone of the book is one of wisdom and calm. Henry James - the subject of Tóibín's 2004 novel The Master - is the presiding spirit. After a prologue entitled "Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother", the chapter on Yeats and his father opens with a series of parallels between the lives of John Butler Yeats and Henry James Sr (like Borges's father, unsuccessful dabblers in writing). A chapter on Yeats's wife, George, notes her lifelong interest in William James, Henry's brother; and one of two pieces concerned with James Baldwin quotes him asserting that he aimed at "what Henry James called 'perception at the pitch of passion'". And then there's John Butler Yeats's comment on the First World War: "It is enough for me that it stopped Henry James writing a continuation of The Middle Years."

For all his ponderous calm, James sits more easily with lurid feeling than you might immediately guess. The main topic of the prologue on Austen and James is the prevalence of aunts in 19th-century fiction - Tóibín's contention is that this has less to do with the incidence of death in childbirth than with how mothers in fiction get in the way: "They take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality." What he has smuggled in here is a manifesto for the novel: it should dramatise inward conflicts, the growth of the solitary individual, as James did; but there is every reason to expect that those feelings will be murderous in their intensity, and even in their intention.

Tóibín's readings of other novelists are acute; so are his occasional generalisations on the novel - he is "unsure whether it is a story, told by a single teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors". He is a supple, subtle thinker, alive to hints and undertones, wary of absolute truths. Only now and then does he drift into schemes and certainties.

Sebastian Barry's play Hinterland was taken in Ireland as a personal attack on the former premier Charles Haughey. Tóibín's assertion of the writer's freedom to take history as raw material is well taken, but he misses the nontrivial point that Hinterland was awkwardly made and constrained. Once or twice in pieces on Irish themes, he seems to get tangled up in what are, in essence, local concerns. Then again, that's to acknowledge the truth, evident at a number of points, that Ireland can feel like an especially tight-knit family, seething with parricidal and incestuous feeling.

The final chapter, about Obama in the light of Baldwin, is sensitive but trammelled. Dealing with race, or with America, he feels that he has to tread carefully. Perhaps that's the biggest lesson this brilliant book contains: a willingness to kill, whether it's your father or a stranger, is the most potent weapon that a writer has.