Tuesday, March 26, 2013


           Writers and Their Families
Pages: 346
Date: 26/03/2013
Grade: 4+
Details: Non-Fiction/Essays
             Received from Penguin
             Through Nudge

In this fascinating book, Colm Tóibín sets out to show how their families influenced the work of various authors. Divided into two sections he first concentrates on Irish authors: W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton. The second part of the book, called ‘Elsewhere’ gives us glimpses of the lives and families of Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, James Baldwin and finally Barack Obama, a man we don’t think of as an author first and foremost. And there is one other author who returns in chapter after chapter although he isn’t given one of his own: Henry James.

Of course Henry James is a favourite subject for Tóibín. His book ‘The Master’ provides a wonderful description of James’ life and work. And having recently had the opportunity to hear him talk about the James family and their connection to Bailieborough, a town close to where I live, I fully appreciate the depth of his knowledge and his affection for his subject.

With skill and clarity Tóibín shows us how authors made use of their relationships – or lack thereof – with their families. For example, in the preface he reflects on the absent mother who, in the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James, is a vehicle to allow the main character to develop on their own, without maternal influences.

But the observations in this book are not limited to how the family influenced the work of the authors mentioned, they also reflect on their actual relationships in real life:

“Thus the two successful authors, William (Butler Yeats) and Henry James, each in his prime, had managed to kill their father rather fatally, as it were, by letting his work be published in book form.”

But the reader is given much more than the title of this book seems to promise. While connections between authors, their relationships with their families and their work are frequent, those works are discussed in detail that goes above and beyond the family relationship. So, with regard to W.B. Yeats and his (much younger) wife George we are shown:
 “…a symbol of the way writers use houses for their magic properties rather than their domestic space.”

And Sebastian Barry in his play Hinterland deals with the Father, as did a lot of plays in the early years of the twenty-first century. More specifically, he deals with the father and his short-comings, both as the head (and thus father-figure) of a nation and in his home life.

“If Ireland needed a public figure to become its disgraced father, then Charles Haughey auditioned perfectly for the role and played it with tragic dignity in a lonely exile in his Georgian mansion in North County Dublin.”

The chapter on Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton provides the reader with a contrast in fathers. While father Doyle came from a republican family he had no real interest in the concept of Ireland and its language. Hamilton’s father on the other hand took such pride in his Irishness that he refused to speak English and forbade the use of that language in his house and thus managed to cruelly curtail his children’s’ childhood in the process.

In part two of this book, ‘Elsewhere’ we start with a look at Thomas Mann and his family. To say that the relationships within this family were unconventional would be putting it mildly. Covering among other things homosexuality and incest this chapter is rather gossipy in appearance and rather fascinating as a result.

With Borges however we are back in line with the title, be it that the parent being ‘killed’ is the father rather than the mother:

“It is as though an artist such as Picasso, whose father was a failed painter, or William James, whose father was a failed essayist, or V.S. Naipaul, sought to compensate for his father’s failure while at the same time using his talent as a way of killing the father off, showing his mother who was the real man in the household.”

I could give more examples of how authors deal with their families in their published work, but this book covers so much more than what is implied in the title. This book also discusses the authors’ work; sometimes staying on topic and discussing how their families and their relationship with them influenced it, but, at other times, giving a much more general description of their writings. In fact, there are some chapters in this book in which the author’s family is barely mentioned at all. Brian Moore’s story seems to be more about his absence from his native Belfast than about his relationship with his relatives for example. So I think it is fair to say that while for some of the authors mentioned their relationships with their families were hugely influential on their work, for others that was less or not at all the case. In fact, the first piece about James Baldwin doesn’t appear to be about his family at all but about his ‘relationship’ with America and the changes it was going through. The chapter James Baldwin shares with Barack Obama on the other hand is very much about their families or, more specifically, their absent fathers.

Tóibín may be writing about other authors and quoting from their work, letters and diaries – giving the reader a taste of the magnificence of those authors – his own writing is equally impressive in its thoughtfulness and fluency. It is clear that he is an expert when it comes to authors, their work and the connections between the various authors. At times this book reads as if he personally knows all these people he is writing about and is generously sharing this personal knowledge with his readers.

This is neither a quick nor an easy read. It is a fascinating book though. Ideally, I feel, it should be read in bits and pieces, a chapter started and finished when you are reading a book by or about the author in question. Especially since I found that I was far more interested in the chapters on authors and books I am familiar with than in those whose subject I had barely heard of. I know I will be revisiting certain chapters when I’m preparing for book discussions with my reading group.

Colm Tóibín provides his readers with fascinating and knowledgeable insights into authors as well as their work and in doing so also gives his readers a better understanding of those works and of what motivated the authors to write them.

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