Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce
What an odd, wonderful book Colm Toíbín has written, said Claude Peck in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Search for an organizing idea behind his group portrait of three sets of fathers and sons and “you will be frustrated, but also entertained.” Little besides their Dublin hometown unites the polymath who fathered Oscar Wilde, the ne’er-do-well who sired William Butler Yates, and the violent alcoholic who raised James Joyce. And yet, “a degree of filial revolt runs through all these in their father-son relationships.” Writes Toíbín, “They created chaos, all three of these fathers, while their sons made work.”
In the company he’s asked to keep here, Sir William Wilde at first “seems to be something of an outlier,” said Maureen Corrigan in The Wall Street Journal. A surgeon whose side interests included archaeology and statistics, he looks to have been “one of those eminent Victorian spinning tops of prodigiousness.” But he also caused enough havoc that Oscar Wilde preferred presenting himself as an orphan, and William was eventually accused of raping a patient in a scandalous trial that foreshadowed Oscar’s later trial for sodomy. The “blithe spirit” among the book’s fathers is John B. Yeats, a painter and “a bit of a sexual scamp” who oozed charm but failed to provide for his family. Not for nothing, then, did the work of his son carry Oedipal undertones. Oddly, this group’s “only out-and-out reprehensible father”—John Stanislaus Joyce—fared better in his son’s literary creations.
Toíbín’s examination of the Joyces “lacks some of the herky-jerky charms and frustrations of the Wilde and Yeats portions,” said Thomas Mallon in The Washington Post. But though there’s less personal reflection in the final dual portrait, Toíbín succeeds in showing how the elder Joyce, drunk and brutal as he was, became a muse to his son, inspiring central figures in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. James Joyce was left feeling both grateful and guilty about having such material to exploit. In spotting and savoring such complex dynamics, Toíbín makes literary scholarship seem “a heartfelt, heavenly pursuit.” ■