Jack Mckeever's Reviews > Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín
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really liked it

I picked up this book on a whim, having read plenty of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, but nothing by Colm Toibin (despite his reputation). I hoped to find find some semblance of how Ireland's three most legendary literary exports used their work to mine their relationships with their fathers, and perhaps even to wrap a warm blanket around my strange relationship with my own dad.

I wasn't disappointed on either count. At a brisk 173-pages, in hindsight it might have been silly to expect total depth on those things, or hope that I might see a thorough reflection of my own life. But Toibin wields his research into a compact, almost always fascinating and often beautiful analysis of how the masculinity and shortcomings of three troubled men impacted their sons' attitudes and, in the case of James Joyce, pretty much his entire life's work. As he writes towards the end: 'In this world of sons then, fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, fulfilling their sons' needs as artists, standing out of the way'.

Toibin's writing is matter-of-fact and forensic, but it's when he engages that with a sense of lyricism that shows the depth of his research and reaction to the lives of these men. For example:

'Somewhere in the great unsteady archive where our souls shall be held, there is a special section that records the quality of our gaze'.

And he frequently relies on that tone to effectively characterise, as if they were protagonists he'd invented, how these fathers damaged and propelled their sons. He explores how Oscar Wilde's 'De Profundis', written whilst he was in Reading Gaol, exposes attitudes towards imprisonment that he'd learned from his father growing up. Incidentally, William Wilde's preference to put his private life and family secondary to his academic work rings huge bells for me.

John B. Yeats was a hopeless romantic who sought to influence William in pretty much every direction. He largely failed, but the letters he wrote to his son in his twilight years would form the basis of a recurring thematic art in W. B. Yeats' work.

And then there was John Stanislaus Joyce, a horrible, sometimes violent drunk of a man who failed spectacularly financially and absconded responsibility of his children; and yet James Joyce found his relationship with him a near endless well; ‘Instead of actively and openly killing his father, James Joyce sought not only to memorialise his father but also to retrace his steps, enter his spirit, use what he needed from his father’s life to nourish his own art’.

Besides Toibin's assessment of Joyce's 'Ulysses' - which to my mind ventures into the realm of being a bit of an indulgence - this book is pretty much constantly fascinating and poetically insightful. I'll end this review with an excerpt from a letter than John Yeats wrote to W. B., which I think will resonate with every creative, somewhat dismissed in the eyes of those around them for not choosing a linear bread-winning life path, who values emotion over shallow wealth:

'Our weakness is our raison d'etre, and now and again when the strong man is broken he comes to us that we may comfort him'.

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Reading Progress

August 13, 2020 – Started Reading
August 13, 2020 – Shelved
August 19, 2020 – Finished Reading

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