This book is, in its sly way, far more substantial than it might at first seem – more, indeed, than it presents itself as being. Colm Tóibín’s subject is the influence of their fathers on the artistic thought, attitude and writings of three great Irish literary artists: Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats and James Joyce. What Tóibín has produced is not only a group portrait of three men who in their way were almost as brilliant as their sons, but also an illuminating meditation on the familial sources of artistic inspiration.
Happily, Tóibín is no Freudian and avoids obfuscating speculations on, for instance, the Oedipus complex, although he does cheerfully acknowledge that the three sons often chafed under the burdens placed on them by their variously annoying, interfering, disreputable and importunate paters. If it is not easy being a father, it is sometimes nigh impossible to be the father’s offspring. As Kingsley Amis pointed out, the greatest gift a father can bestow on his son is to die early.
At the start of his relaxed and ruminative introduction to the book, we find Tóibín loitering in modern Ireland’s most emblematic site, the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in the dead centre of Dublin. The ambiguity of the adjective here should not be overlooked. The GPO was chosen by the leaders of the 1916 Rising, the somewhat unlikely founding fathers of the Irish Republic; as Tóibín reminds us, it also houses a bronze statue of the mythical Irish warrior Cuchulain, against whose posterior the character Neary in Samuel Beckett’s early novel Murphy liked to bang his head. We Irish set up our heroes with reverence, and promptly knock them down again.
In these opening pages Tóibín ventures, with a perceptible degree of fondness and nostalgia, down the same mean streets both deplored and celebrated in Joyce’s Dubliners. After the GPO he ambles up to what used to be known as Baggotonia, an area athrob with echoes of fin de siècle literary Dublin, and of his three subjects and those subjects’ fathers. The latter, like the former, he notes, ‘stood apart, following no route that any community had charted … They created chaos, all three of these fathers, while their sons made work.’ And if the fathers lived by the dictates of ‘only waywardness and will’, the sons ‘became expert finishers – of plays, poems, novels, essays, and indeed their own fragile selves. In their own likeness, they made the world we walk in.’
Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William, was, as Tóibín’s only mildly ironic chapter heading has it, an Eminent Victorian. A fashionable and hard-working doctor, specialising in diseases of the eye and ear, he lifted himself and his family to real prestige in Victorian Dublin, where they lived in some style in a fine small mansion on the corner of Merrion Square. Here he received numerous big cheeses of the city’s gratin, including the lawyer and politician Isaac Butt, who had an affair with Dr Wilde’s wife, before her marriage, and later acted for the prosecution in a case brought against him by one of his female patients.
The case was an eerie foreshadowing of Oscar’s downfall, since the meat of the matter was sex – Wilde père most likely had an affair with the complainant in the case – but the actual charge was one of libel, brought against Lady Wilde for saying rude things about her husband’s erstwhile mistress. Oh, what a tangled web…
The middle section of Tóibín’s book is the most absorbing, since his subject here is the endearingly eccentric, wonderfully colourful and hopelessly dithering painter John B Yeats, father of W B. The elder Yeats married into the Pollexfen family, which according to him had a genius ‘for being dismal’. Later he explained, with characteristic elegance of expression and caustic wit, that ‘it was because of this I took to them and married my wife. I thought I would place myself under prison rules and learn all the virtues.’
John B, who spent the last sixteen years of his life in a boarding house in New York, fiddling with a legendarily delayed self-portrait in oils and cadging loans from his ever less than prosperous poet son, was poised always ‘on the verge of a great future’. The true glory of these seemingly idle years was the correspondence John B conducted with his son. As Tóibín points out, the old man was ‘one of the best letter writers of the age’, or, as others would contend, one of the greatest of any age. The artistic advice he gave to the not always appreciative W B, in letter after letter, amounts to a fully realised aesthetic programme. Consider a single instance of the old man’s shrewdness and depth, especially in light of W B’s own work: ‘Only for his dreams is a man responsible – his actions are what he must do. Actions are a bastard race to which the man has not given his full paternity.’
As for Joyce’s father, the greater part of his life was a dream of heroic fortitude and past glories. Certainly in his latter years John Stanislaus Joyce was a drunkard, a wastrel and a rogue. He squandered his money, ill-treated his wife, neglected his offspring – to one enquiry he replied airily that he had fathered ‘sixteen or seventeen children’ – and provided his son with a figure whom he could mythologise into the ‘old artificer’ who would stand him artistically in good stead.
Tóibín is clear-eyed as to the skill and cunning with which the son fashioned the figure of his mythic progenitor. John Stanislaus, like John B Yeats, spent the final years of his life in rented lodgings, leaving after his death ‘an old suit of clothes, a coat, hat, boots and stick’ – and a copy of his son’s play, Exiles. That the son revered the father is beyond doubt, but the nature of the reverence might be questioned. Was Joyce’s father any more ‘real’ to him than the Dublin he left behind as a young man? In a toe-curlingly awful poem, ‘Ecce Puer’, Joyce cried out ‘O, father forsaken,/Forgive your son!’ but a more heartfelt and emotionally ambiguous memorial comes at the close of Finnegans Wake: ‘And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father…’