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Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín

Published by Scribner on October 30, 2018

Colm Tóibín begins Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know with an essay that melds the literary history of Dublin with the city’s sociopolitical history. Wilde and Yeats and Joyce and Beckett and Stoker and Shaw and many other writers and poets are still alive in the city’s memory, still called to mind by certain streets and structures. From that stroll, Tóibín journeys to three essays about “prodigal fathers” who, at least for a time, called Dublin home.

Sir William Wilde was the father of Oscar Wilde, but Tóibín begins the essay with a discussion of Oscar Wilde’s two-year imprisonment at Reading Gaol, during which Wilde wrote De Profundis in the form of an angry letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, played an instrumental role in causing Wilde’s sodomy conviction. We eventually learn about Oscar’s father William, a doctor, archeologist, statistician, and man of learning who straddled England and Ireland.

William’s life was at least tangentially touched by the longstanding conflict between Dubliners who advocated independence and Home Rule and those who opposed separation from England. William is almost tangential to the essay, which tells us at least as much about William’s friends and acquaintances as it does about William. Much of the essay’s interest comes from its description of a time in which “revolutionary fervor in Ireland was ill-fated, half-hearted or part of a literary rather than a serious political culture.” William’s life is a good deal less interesting than Oscar’s, although he did manage to work a scandal into his High Society life involving a scorned and vindictive lover.

John Yeats is the most interesting of the three fathers that Toibin profiles. Toibin compares John to the father of the novelist Henry James: “they sought self-realization through art and general inquiry.” (John earns a gold star from me for his belief that Henry James’ novels are unbearably tedious.) Unfortunately, self-realization doesn’t pay the bills.

To the dismay of his wife, John Yeats abandoned the study of law to pursue a career as an artist. He was never satisfied with his paintings and generally began them anew each day, a habit that impaired his ability to earn money. He could only paint portraits of people he liked, another “infirmity of will” (his son’s assessment) that made it difficult to earn a living.

As a father, John Yeats was “exasperating but also inspirational.” John seems to have been most notable for wielding the Irish gift of gab. He lived the last 15 years of his life in New York, writing splendid letters and gaining American admirers while depending on his famous son to satisfy his debts. Tóibín admires John's ability to write “sentences of startling beauty,” but it is difficult to know what to make of him. John Yeats felt a passionate longing to be something more than he ever became; he lived in imagination more than reality. In the end, his correspondence reveals him to be too self-centered to be a successful father, husband, or lover.

The discussion of James Joyce’s father differs from the first two portraits. We often see John Stanislaus Joyce as James Joyce fictionalized him in stories and novels. In actual life, John ran up unmanageable debt (a common theme among three men Tóibín examines), had a serious problem with alcohol, and was a miserable father. Toibin gleans these facts from various sources, including My Brother’s Keeper by James’ brother Stanislaus, whose anger at their father is palpable.

Yet James, unlike his brother, resisted the temptation to be angry, finding ways to reimagine his father in his fiction. James’ stories often depict his father as his friends see him, not as his children knew him. John is portrayed in Ulysses as Simon Dedalus, “a complex figure of moods, an unsettled rather than a solid presence in the book.” That seems to be an accurate description of all three men.

I’m not sure what this volume tell us, except that difficult fathers sometimes produce sons who are capable of literary brilliance. Tóibín has demonstrated his own literary genius over the years, and while this work of nonfiction doesn’t display the depth of his fiction (it’s difficult to be stuck with facts when imagination offers a richer environment), it is worth reading for its insight into a time and place that produced such vital writers.


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