Does every man secretly desire his father’s death? The great biographer Richard Ellmann believed there was something in this idea, noting that it recurs in the work of, among others, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Edmund Gosse and JM Synge; and in his new book about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce, the novelist Colm Tóibín quietly suggests that it was only thanks to a certain paternal absence that their sons were able to release their genius into the world. Death itself, of course, often took its time: John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce both lived into their 80s. But while their sons patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, waited – even if they didn’t know exactly what it was that they were waiting for – they also, in various other ways, set about hurrying things along.
Joyce did not see his father once during the last 19 years of his life; nor was Yeats much inclined to visit his ageing dad in New York, where he lived from 1907 until his death in 1922 (though he did help pay the bills at his West 29th Street boarding house). Oscar Wilde was still a young man when William Wilde, an eye and ear surgeon and archaeologist, took his last breath in 1876 at the age of 61. But as Tóibín explains rather brilliantly: “Since Wilde put so much energy into letting it be known that he had invented himself, it is easy to understand how having a father might have seemed at certain points quite unnecessary for him.” When he came to write De Profundis in Reading Gaol 20 years later, one figure would be almost entirely missing from his letter: that of his father. And yet the two had so much in common, the scandal that had trailed William uncannily foreshadowing the one that would later bring down his son (his patient Mary Travers, having accused him of seducing her, brought and won a libel case against William’s wife, Jane).
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know began its life as a series of Richard Ellmann Lectures, given at Emory University, Georgia, in the biographer’s memory – and each of the essays in it comes with the mild but confounding sense of lifelessness and disorganisation one often finds when reading words that were written originally to be spoken aloud (I do not know how to account for the gap between these two things, but I will say this: I hope there is an audio book, read by the author, who has one of the most marvellously suggestive voices I’ve ever heard). I think, too, that we’ve probably already heard quite enough – too much – about Wilde and his strange, passionate family: of their “unstable and gnarled allegiances” as Protestants in a Catholic country; of William’s flouting of sexual morality by acknowledging his illegitimate son. Reading about all this again made me feel as I do when I’ve eaten too much cake.
All the same, there is something interesting and insightful to be found on almost every page. In the chapter on Joyce’s father, Tóibín devotes himself to looking for the man among the pages of his son’s stories and novels. In life, John Stanislaus was a violent drunk who had fallen, largely through his own fault, on hard financial times, and his many children were frequently disgusted by him – facts that only make his shimmering resurrection in Joyce’s writing all the more remarkable, an act of love as well of artistic creation. In a cultural climate that grows ever more sententious, determined to ignore both historical context and human frailty, Tóibín understands that what captivated Joyce was the dizzying, unfathomable space between what he knew about his father, and what he felt about him. Out of this, he forged his style: generous, varied, replete. It had to be so, if it were ever fully to encompass the “shivering ambiguities” that lay at its heart.
Most enjoyable of all, however, is the essay on John B Yeats, an artist who struggled ever to finish his work, and who only painted those he liked, the act of creation being for him one of sympathy. His influence on his son’s poetry came to be profound; safely at a distance in the US, it was possible for him to write to William often, and fervently, about his work. But I found myself more moved and captivated by his love letters to Rosa Butt. Though he and Rosa, the daughter of Isaac Butt, the Irish politician and first leader of the Home Rule League, had known each other when they were young, they began their passionate correspondence only in old age, separated by the Atlantic, their creaking bones and John’s spoony hopelessness (this widower in exile was all longing and no action).
His side of it (hers was destroyed) has something in common with several poems WB Yeats wrote after his death, verses that vividly encompass defiance in the face of old age. But these are letters to be cherished for their own sake, too. To Rosa, John wrote not about the life he had missed but, as Tóibín has it: “The life he imagined, and he gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only somehow possible, but almost present.”
I cannot tell you how affecting I found this: Tóibín’s open-hearted interpretation of the letters almost as much as the notes themselves. Desire goes on and on and on, and never believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
• Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce by Colm Tóibín is published by Penguin (£14.99). To order a copy for £11.49 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99