New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families by Colm Tóibín – review

In mapping out literature's family tree, Colm Tóibín can't help but bend a branch or two to his will

New Ways to Kill Your Mother examines writers and their attitudes to family, though it's hard to say whether such patterns of conflict are different in kind from what happens in unliterary families or just unusually well documented.

Thomas Mann's brother, Heinrich, and his son, Klaus, were both novelists, for instance, while his favourite child, Erika, achieved semi-autonomous celebrity in American exile, lecturing against Nazism. Does the Oedipus conflict mutate when there's a literary lion in the house? Perhaps not, but it was hard for Klaus to outgrow a father who has effectively been declared immortal by the Nobel Academy.

Though Thomas Mann's conduct before his exile (first to Switzerland in 1933, then to the US in 1938) was rarely honourable – Klaus and Erika, by contrast, were admirably decisive – the washing cycle of history exonerates him. Even Colm Tóibín can't muster much sympathy for Klaus, whose self-destructiveness becomes essentially a literary failure (though suicide, too, ran in the family): "instead of writing about death as his father did," Tóibín notes, "he allowed the aura of death to enter his own spirit." Better not to have written at all than to be remembered for "a few almost interesting books". The Mann who needs no first name to identify him will always have the last word.

The first essay in the book, "Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother", takes on a broad stretch of literary history to show that mothers are absent from a number of important novels, with aunts claiming their function. Of course, many mothers of the period did die, but Tóibín makes clear that something else is going on here, in books which include Mansfield Park and The Portrait of a Lady. It's important that the heroines here should not have a maternal model available to them, or else what would be their adventure and achievement? He suggests this aspect of the books was "impelled by the novel, not the novelist", as if the genre was sending out tendrils on its own account. The idea that "a novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology" is striking but enigmatic (is mathematics a matter of strategies?), and likely to alienate both humanists and theory boffins.

In any case, if you take Harold Bloom's line about the "anxiety of influence", then writers' families aren't blood kin but ink kin, their predecessors in art. The domineering relative who must be overcome is a book. Tóibín mentions Henry James reading Daniel Deronda with disapproval then nicking what he could use, effectively treating George Eliot as a redoubtable aunt whose treasured ornaments would look better in his drawing room. When Edith Wharton reworked themes from The Wings of the Dove in The House of Mirth, she may have been doing something similar, taking issue with a serenely bossy older brother, seeking to show that she was the one who really understood women's lives.

These are mainly substantial pieces, and they need to be, to examine knotty relationships in the necessary detail, to mount satisfying arguments. Many were first published in periodicals with "Review" in the title, whether in the UK or in America, and most started with the assignment of a book, or (in the language of the trade) a "peg" for a critical article.

The biography of a writer is the hardest type of book to review, requiring as it does the deployment of three elements. There must be an account of the life, which is likely to draw on the material supplied in the book being assessed, so that the book may be used as a springboard even by a critic who comes down hard on it. Then there must be a reckoning with the writer's work, and judgment must be passed on the book which connects the two. This is hard to manage in a few hundred words. Reviews may aspire to be essays, but they're drastically weakened by the pressure of production. Weekly reviewers are the battery hens of essayists. Tóibín has a lot more space, but the element of judgment on the book is minimal. Biographical information is used as if it were common property, though at least in the original periodical the book being reviewed was credited at the head of the article. Tóibín is spectacularly knowledgeable about Borges, for instance, but it's doubtful he could write a biography of his own to match Edwin Williamson's. Certainly he doesn't criticise Williamson's accuracy, just small points of emphasis.

It's the same with Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever. At one point Tóibín quotes Cheever saying that Saul Bellow and he shared not only a "love of women but a fondness for the rain", following on immediately with a comment from Cheever's wife: "They were both women haters." This shock effect is not original Tóibín (it's how Bailey ends a chapter) and where could the second remark come from if not from Bailey himself, who interviewed Mary Cheever? It seems cheeky for a reviewer to appropriate a glittering effect, but perhaps this, too, counts as a family struggle.

The magazine version of Tóibín's piece about Yeats and his wife George (whose peg was a biography of George by Ann Saddlemyer) described it as "short on analysis and long on meticulously researched detail, at times verging on the unreadable". That judgment has disappeared, leaving only the remark that it's more "taxing" than Brenda Maddox's earlier book on the same subject. This bare stub of a verdict will hardly be claimed by either writer, since being taxing (hard to read) and untaxing (lightweight) are equally unappealing qualities in a book.

Yet the piece contains an overwhelming paragraph, evoking one of the strangest incidents in literary history, when – on her honeymoon – George Yeats did some "automatic" writing, without conscious control, founding her marriage on a mystery and bringing her husband's poetry a rich dowry of images. Tóibín speaks for George directly ("What happened was that her needs and her reading converged as she began to eroticise the occult and its attendant forces…"), as if he needed the help of a biographer only as a spiritualist needs an old glove to materialise the departed soul. It's a thrilling moment of mediumship, if not mediumship squared, but the lady who brought the glove along might feel a bit put out by the performance.


Adam Mars-Jones

The GuardianTramp

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