New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín’s new collection brings together a series of essays he has written in recent years on the topic of writers and their families. For Tóibín, the family, whether happy, sad or surface-average, is the creative catalyst; the reason that writers write, especially in the case of writers whose father or mother had themselves harboured literary ambitions. Ambitions that came, somewhat ominously, to nothing.

If, in suggesting that writers write to do what their father could not – ‘to prove who the real man was’ to their mother – Tóibín does not seem to be saying anything particularly original, it is worth noting – as he tells us in a recent essay for The Guardian, curiously not included here – that his mother was a failed writer:

Unwritten books and poems mattered to me when I was growing up; there was a melancholy sense of what was never achieved [by Tóibín’s mother], and that sense has been vivid for me, and it still is, even more than some things I remember happening, or that I saw coming into being.

Tóibín then is as much interested in telling us a personal truth as a universal one; and he appears to have picked this particular subject because he recognizes that his own family background has indelibly shaped his art. Indeed, as is often the case when writers double as literary critics – from Nabokov’s brilliantly idiosyncratic Lectures on Literature to Frank O’Connor’s charismatic treatise on the short story, The Lonely Voice – it is Tóibín’s own work and theory of writing that he is subliminally discussing here; albeit through the medium of other writers; in this instance, Jane Austen:

A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place. …A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Tóibín review
New Ways to Kill Your Mother
by Colm Tóibín
346 pages. Viking. £20

While this is undoubtedly thought provoking in relation to Mansfield Park it is surely all the more so in the context of Tóibín’s own The Master; and it is in these frequent insights – Tóibín is surely fast becoming one of our great writers – that the true value of this collection lies. In asking us to look at writers such as Yeats, Borges and – this being Tóibín – Henry James from his own artistic viewpoint, he not only makes us think of these writers in new ways but leaves behind little pinpricks of light through which we can glimpse his own creative process.

The other great pleasure of New Ways to Kill Your Mother is Tóibín’s pitch perfect dry humour set alongside his instinctive insight into the mind of the author. Here again, we benefit from the writer who doubles as a critic. Tóibín has a grasp of the potential for vanity and venality in the authorial mind that a non-practicing critic might only ever surmise. He introduces us to a Yeats who embarks on a series of geriatric love affairs while at the same time requiring his wife to help him reach the location of his assignations; a Hugo Hamilton so concerned with the promotion of the Irish language he would not even allow his children to hear English let alone speak it. When one of his sons begins to sing an English song he has accidentally heard on the radio Hamilton prays to God in order to know how he might punish him. Sixteen strokes of the cane is God’s less than generous reply. Meanwhile there is a portrait of Thomas Mann’s relationship with his son Klaus that is almost too painful to read. WH Auden, again with that degree of acuity that perhaps only writers can claim of each other, said of this relationship, that:

For an author, sons are an embarrassment, as if characters in a novel had come to life.

When Klaus tried to commit suicide, his father failed to interrupt his literary tour of America. When, several months later, Klaus succeeded in killing himself his father chose not to attend the funeral.

Then there is John Cheever, ‘master of the single, searing image of pure desolation’ that is the short story; but a man who described his daughter as ‘a fat importunate girl’; and who apparently helped aspiring male authors to get published in the New Yorker in exchange for handjobs. Indeed, Cheever took the view that sexual stimulation could improve his eyesight… (When driving at night, Cheever used to ask his wife to fondle his penis ‘to a bone’.) ‘Whenever Max [a PhD student with whom he had an affair] submitted a manuscript… Cheever would first insist that the young man help clear [his] vision with a handjob.’

Tóibín writes engagingly and with cool humour about these literary giants/grotesques but also with a luminescent insight when it comes to what makes their work the timeless art it unquestionably is. Commenting on the difference between Cheever’s short stories and his longer fiction, he says, for instance, that:

…his talent could thrive using the sharp system of the story, but he struggled so much with the novels because there were vast areas of himself he could not use as a basis for a character dramatized over time. In his stories he could create a tragic, trapped individual in a single scene or moment; he had a deep knowledge of what that was like.

While this is directly applicable to Cheever in the sense that he was a secret (at times not-so secret) homosexual hiding within the confines of a marriage that he compared to hell but was nevertheless desperate to perpetuate; it also returns us to the vast empty spaces of Tóibín’s own fiction, which is the real subject of this always fascinating collection. To a fiction-world filled with the silence of all that is left unsaid and undone.