- 27 Nov 18
The Paternal Influence, As It Pertains To Three Literary Giants.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you. - Philip Larkin
Originally a series of lectures delivered in Atlanta, Georgia in 2017, Tóibín’s very enjoyable book examines the relationships between three literary giants and their fathers. After an entertaining stroll through Dublin literary history, we meet Wilde’s unconventional polymath father Dr. William, plagued by a sex scandal - a patient, Mary Travers, not only accused him of seduction but also successfully sued Mrs Wilde, 'Speranza' herself, for libel - just as his son would be. Wilde Sr. gave about as much of a fig for conventional behaviour as his son, fathering three illegitimate children before he married Jane and, bizarrely for an eye and ear surgeon, espousing a distinct lack of concern for cleanliness and personal upkeep. George Bernard Shaw remembered William Wilde as "being, like Frederick the Great, Beyond Soap and Water, as his Nietzschean son was Beyond Good and Evil." W.B. Yeats, in his autobiographical The Trembling Of The Veil, quoted an old Dublin riddle; "Why are Sir William Wilde's nails so black? Because he has scratched himself."
Though he thought little of W.B.’s mystical bent, the impecunious painter John Butler Yeats wasn’t above touching his son for a few quid. The poet despaired at his father’s inability to finish work, but the letters sent home from his exile in New York, full of life and humour, provided inspiration - "An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing" - to a poet writing about “the vitality that remains in the spirit as the body ages”.
John Stanislaus Joyce drank his way from comfort to poverty. His son James went into exile to escape his father as much as Ireland, although the last line of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, as Joyce heads off to Europe to forge our race's uncreated conscience, finds the writer imploring "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead." He also painted a sympathetic portrait in Ulysses and credited the humour of the book to his pater.
A father may be a necessary evil, according to Stephen Dedalus, who laid out this maxim as he expounded his Hamlet theory in the National Library during the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Ulysses; a theory which reckoned Shakespeare identified more with the father's ghost than the Danish prince - another day's work altogether - but Tóibín’s thesis encourages the idea that these three artists could only really become themselves once the father's presence, either through exile or death, was removed.