Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know

my review of Colm Toibin's Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know from The Australian..

Colm Tóibín’s latest book Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is a slim stocking-filler treat for anyone who is interested in the golden age of modern Irish literature. The book’s subtitle – The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce – and the author’s reputation will be sufficient incentive for many readers. Fortunately Tóibín neither coasts on his repute nor stints on the research. This book may be short and fun but it is also a serious addition to literary scholarship.
            Taking as his model the late Richard Ellman’s equally slim but equally rigorous Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett Tóibín delves deep into the mores, the times and the psychology of Sir William Wilde, John B Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. It’s somewhat heretical to say this but Tóibín may be a better biographer than Ellman because he has a lighter touch and he feels no obligation to tell us everything.
            Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know begins with an entertaining walk through the streets of Dublin with Tóibín as our tour guide. The new iPhones come with something called “enhanced reality” which sounds like a nightmare out of a William Gibson novel. One can think of no person less in need of such a device than Colm Tóibín. Mad, Bad, Dangerous has two maps and we can follow along as Tóibín points out the place where Nora Barnacle stood up Joyce on a date, where Samuel Beckett’s father (alas not a character in the rest of the book) ran a quantity surveying business. We pass the famous house at 1 Merrion Square where the Wildes held court and the bit in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom gazes through the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company.
            Iain Sinclair has got London sewn up for this kind of thing. Sinclair’s dense, vastly entertaining literary walks through the Big Smoke’s “psychogeography” have yielded eight or nine books and Tóibín could definitely do the same for Dublin if he wanted to. (Tóibín’s Bad Blood : A Walk along the Irish Border remains my favourite of his books.)
            After the delightful introduction we go more or less into straight biography.
            Sir William Wilde (1815 – 1876) the son of a doctor, through hard work and an ability to make connections rises up the middle class pecking order of Dublin to become one of the most important eye and ear surgeons of the British Empire. He marries the brilliant and beautiful poet Jane Elgee (by far the most glamorous and interesting all six parents under consideration here and perhaps a flaw in this book’s structure is why the focus on fathers only?) Both father and mother are writers of note and everything is going swimmingly until a former patient, the deranged Mary Travers, writes a pamphlet insinuating that Sir William has raped her. A libel case damages Sir William’s reputation and he dies soon thereafter. The fact that his son’s career is also destroyed by a libel action and his life taken by an ear disorder William could probably have cured is certainly one of history’s crueler ironies.
            John B Yeats (1839 – 1922) was a noted Irish painter and engraver. He was no businessman and the Yeats children grew up, if not in penury, certainly with limited means. We do get some tales about John Yeats from Tóibín  but for me he is the dullest of the fathers on offer here. It’s not until he goes to America and starts slagging off the locals (especially Bostonians) that his narrative sparks into dyspeptic life.
Tóibín is very good here at explaining that most of the famous writers we think of in this era (Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Synge, Bram Stoker, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey) were all Protestants and it’s not until James Joyce comes along that Ireland’s majority population gets its Homer and Shakespeare rolled into one. But finally we do get to John Stanislaus Joyce (1849 – 1931) a Cork man, the only son of an only son who becomes a customs officer in Dublin. Gifted with a fine tenor voice and a love of politics and literature John is something of a dreamer and spendthrift who squanders an inheritance and pension managing to outlive his long suffering wife Mary by 28 years. Charming and maddening by turns John is clearly the model for Simon Dedalus in Ulysses.
            At 176 pages Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know is a delicious hors d’oeuvre of a book illuminating many a dark corner of geography and biography with consummate skill. More Mr Tóibín please.