Gotham Diary:
Periphery
12 June 2012

Scouting through a short pile of books on Saturday, I came across one that I’d forgotten about, Colm Tóibín’s collection of essays about the family lives of writers, New Ways to Kill Your Mother. The title is taken from that of the essay on JM Synge.

If a writer were in the business of murdering his family, then the Synges, with their sense of an exalted and lost heritage and a strict adherence to religious doctrine added to dullness, would have been a godsend.

I am not sure that I understand this, especially given Synge’s extended periods of living at home (in the latter part of his short life, ill with lymphoma). I felt a bit unsteady with most of the pieces in the first half of the book, which is dedicated to Irish writers (Yeats, Synge, Beckett; Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry, and Roddy Doyle); I was on surer ground in the second half, headed “Elsewhere,” where the writers are mostly gay (Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, and James Baldwin). Although of Irish extraction, I find the Emerald Isle a very mysterious place on both sides of the border between north and south. I have some idea of what Irishness is made up of, but I don’t know how the bits interrelate. I can’t imagine what being Irish and Protestant must be like, but at the same time I know that I have no idea of what, until recently, it was like to be Irish and Catholic.

Even when I didn’t quite grasp Tóibín’s talk of murder, though, I was tremendously entertained by his trademark atore of magisterially sifted gossip.      

The story begins in Geneva where, it is said, Borges Senior asked his son, then aged nineteen, if he had ever slept with a woman. When Borges said no, his father arranged “to help the youth negotiate the usual rites of passage to manhood,” as Williamson puts it, by giving him the address of a brothel and telling him that “a woman would be waiting there” at an appointed time. It was, of course, a disaster. Borges Juniior was shocked at the idea that he was sharing a woman with his father. Afterwards, according to Williamson, the adolescent Borges was taken to see a doctor who recommended a change of climate and fresh air and exercise. Williamson’s footnote for this points us to page 50 of María Esther Vázquez’s Borges: Esplendor y Derrota (1996). Vázquez had known Borges well, but this is no excuse for her account of the aftermath of his visit to the brothel. “He had such a terrible crisis that he cried for three successive days; he did not eat nor sleep….he only cried.” She goes on: “With the stoicism of a monk, this healthy young man seemed to give up the necessities of the body to find in literature the only source of satisfaction and enjoyment.”

Even had Vázquez written that Borges cried for merely two days and then rose on the third, I would not believe a word of it.

Does it get better than that, tittle-tattle about artists’ lives? I don’t think so. The joke about rising on the third day is too priceless. The essays on Borges and Cheever especially are replete with a kind of affable, smiling cattiness that is enormously pleasurable.        

Each half of the new book responds to an element of Tóibín’s makeup, but neither to all of him, and only a few of the writers are (or, rather, were) happy about any of it — about being Irish or gay. What everybody shares is marginality, and this interests Tóibín quite as much as family life. Some of the Irish writers, such as Samuel Beckett, were doubly marginal, because they felt a need to escape the conditions of Irish life, thus putting them at a distance from their own families, and no more at peace with them than the run of gay writers from “elsewhere.” And then there’s religion, which generally plays a larger role in the lives of people from the margins of Western culture, troublingly so for writers. But there is no system at work here. There is arguably, a general truth that covers most of Tóibín’s subjects:

What Lorca was doing became for Borges and his friends in Argentina, as it would 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 colour and exotic variety to the world.

Marginality — writing “on the periphery” — is quite comfortably an aspect of family life. A variation that’s often added to the story is lost grandeur. We’re reminded that John Cheever was “a snob”; indeed, Cheever’s rough detachment from the world around him was so thoroughgoing his that writing was his only reliable connection to other people. Tennessee Williams, in an adjacent essay, comes across as much more “well-adjusted,” which is surprising.

Something else than many of the writers share is fatherlessness of one kind or another. Yeats, for example, supported his father — who kept his distance by living in New York City. Cheever’s father simply failed. Most of Tóibín’s subjects lost their fathers the normal way, to early death. Some of the writers, such as Borges, resolved to outstrip their fathers. Others ran from their mothers. Kathleen Synge and Leonor Borges are two of the memorable moms who managed, remarkably, not to be murdered by their creative sons. Of Edwina Williams, we’re told in a parenthesis that “The mother in [Glass Menagerie] was, according to Williams’s younger brother, so accurately based on their mother that she could have sued.” Few of Tóibín’s writers became fathers themselves, and of them, neither Thomas Mann nor John Cheever could be hailed as a successful parent.

Cheever’s relationship with his children was very close, and mostly difficult, partly because he had nothing much to do all day except lounge around looking at them in a state of half-inebriation and total dissatisfaction. Towards the end of his life, he told colleagues that once, after a row with his wife, he woke to find a message written in lipstick by his daughter on the bathroom mirror: “Dere daddy, don’t leave us.” When it was pointed out that such a scene occurs in his story, “The Chimera,” with the same misspelling, Cheever replied: “Everything I write is autobiographical.” But this was not so. Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography and another in wishful or dreamy thinking. His daughter later denied that the scene took place. “I know how to spell,” Susan Cheever said, “and I think what we wanted was for him to leave us. One thing about my father was he was always there, you could not get rid of him. He worked at home, he ate at home, he drank at home. So ‘don’t leave us’? That was never the fear.”

This anecdote, with its wonderful “lounging around,” goes to the heart of Tóibín’s take on Cheever, which is that he was a sentimental liar about things until he “straightened out” and wrote his best piece of sustained fiction, the overtly queer Falconer.  

New Ways is headed by a wonderful essay that I remember gobbling up when it appeared in the London Review of Books. I believe that it had another title there, something involving aunts. Now it’s called “Jane Austen, Henry James, and the Death of the Mother.” It’s a beautiful meditation on Persuasion, and the derelictions of Lady Bertram and Aunt Norris, that trails nicely into Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, and the pervasvie motherlessness shared by so many daughters in Henry James’s novels. As such it makes an elegant counterpoise to the book’s focus on the problem of manliness, which leads Tóibín finally to consideration of “the American Confusion”: “the shame, the lack of pride sons in a society moving onewards and upwards felt at their fathers.”

As a sort of bonus, Tóibín tosses in an intriguing compare-and-contrast piece featuring James Baldwin and Barack Obama. After quoting a passage from Dreams of My Father set in Kenya, Tóibín writes, “This passage displays the differences between Baldwin’s sensibility and that of Obama. Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don’t need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted.” That passage embodies the wisdom of a writer who has quietly established himself as a major man of letters.