Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.

 

Norway 2: Bergen and the coastal ferry

Following on from yesterday’s post about Oslo, I started drafting a piece for today on the complexities of the languages spoken and written in Norway, but it started to become too academic, so I’ll just stick to more pictures. As the comment from ireadthatinabook pointed out last time, there are two main variants: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive account.

Bergen harbour

Bergen harbour in the rarity of a sunny day

After three days in Oslo we took the long train ride to Bergen. It’s a pretty harbour town and ferry port surrounded by hills, but less vibrant than the capital – though my son, who’s in the music business, tells me it has a buzzing music scene.

Bergen view from hill

Bergen view from hill

There’s a funicular up to the top of one of them. Great views from the top, and some friendly goats. Friends on social media suggested they’re descended from central Asian cashmere goats.

Bergen goat

At Bergen we boarded the Hurtigruten ferry which was to take us over seven days right up the western coast of Norway, stopping numerous times – often during the night when we were sleeping. This was not a cruise ship, but a working ferry, used by locals as a more convenient way of travelling north when the roads have to avoid long fjords and wind around mountains.

It had more in common with a night sleeper train than a pleasure cruiser. Such a good way to see the harbours, cliffs and crags of this beautiful west coast.

Sadly the northern lights didn’t show up.

Arctic circle marker

Arctic circle marker

Once we crossed the Arctic Circle the scenery started to become bleaker and more brooding, with skies to match.

Here’s some of the pictures I took; I hope they convey some of the magnificence and atmosphere of this nordic world.

 

Ferry wake 2Ferry weather skyTrondheim Cathedral was built in the middle ages by British masons, which probably explains why its front and design generally look so familiar.

I liked the detail of the Norse monster decorating the edge of the romanesque arch over a doorway. A nice pagan touch on a Christian building, typical of the medieval northern sensibility.

The statue of a whaler in Tromsø is an unfortunate reminder of Norway’s history as a whaling nation. Sadly there was often whale steak on the menus of restaurants.

We did get to see some sea eagles at Honningsvåg on another sunny day.

Honningsvag sun

Evidence that it doesn’t always rain in Norway: this is Honningsvåg harbour, with out ferry in the background, with the orange hull.

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral front

Trondheim cathedral front

Ferry wake

Norway trip: Oslo

I wanted to relate some of my enthusiasm for my recent two-week visit with Mrs TD to Norway. Although this and any subsequent posts about it won’t be the usual bookish stuff entirely, there will be a literary-cultural aspect, so please don’t look away.

Many Norwegian houses are made from one of the country’s most abundant resources: wood. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and cities have therefore been damaged by fires. After over a dozen such conflagrations, Oslo was effectively destroyed in 1624 in one of its biggest. It was rebuilt and the new town named Christiania, after the then king Christian IV. After a spelling reform in 1877 it became Kristiania. It reverted to Oslo in 1925.

A whole post could be devoted to the Norwegian language. Maybe next time.

Perhaps the best-known novel set in Oslo is Hunger (1890) by proto-modernist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). I wrote briefly about it in one of my earliest posts here. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 – a choice that became increasingly controversial because of his support for the Nazi cause during the German occupation of his country before and during WWII. Everywhere we went in Norway there were stories of the ruthless scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German troops near the end of the war. Whole towns were burnt down and anything that could be used or eaten by the approaching allied forces was destroyed. I hope to say more about the occupation in another post.

The city today bears little resemblance to the one his troubled protagonist roamed through. The area round the Oslofjord harbour is now all steel and concrete high-rises.

The most striking is the Opera House, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. It’s supposed to resemble a glacier, and it’s fun to walk up its sloping sides to admire the view from the top.

Oslo new Munch museum

The new Munch museum is scheduled to open in spring next year

Behind it is the almost finished new Munch Museum. It’s one of the largest and most striking-looking buildings on the waterfront. I’m not sure what it reminds me of most: a racecourse grandstand, perhaps. It’s a rectangular block, but its top few floors lean forwards as if trying to look at the floor. The architects call it ‘Lambda’, but I can’t see the similarity to that Greek letter.

We visited the existing Munch Museum, housed in a less dramatic modern block just off the city centre. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born forty miles from Oslo, and moved there in 1864.

Although it doesn’t hold more than a few dozen of his paintings, the most famous are there, and many of the tens of thousands of prints and drawings he donated to the state in his will. His two most famous – The Scream (‘Skrik’ in Norwegian; I think ‘The Shriek’ doesn’t quite convey the existential horror the picture conveys) and The Madonna – were stolen in an armed raid on the museum in 2004.

Munch Scream

This is I think the 1910 version of The Scream, done in oils; there are also two versions in pastels, and several versions in lithograph

Both were recovered, slightly damaged, two years later. His obsession with these works is reflected in the numbers of versions he produced in oils and prints. Like most of his work, they reflect his lifelong acquaintance with illness, bereavement, love, loss, terror and loneliness.

Munch Madonna

Much has been written about this Madonna (also titled Loving Woman). The pose is ambivalent: erotic, pained, strong, submissive, a victim? The facial ecstatic/pained expression reminds me of the marble Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rådhus Oslo

Rådhus Oslo [Public Domain photo: By Ranveig – Own work, CC SA 1.0]

The other most prominent waterfront building is the Rådhus, home of the city council.

This is where, since 1990, the Peace Prize ceremony is held annually. Alfred Nobel (1833-96) is perhaps most famous for inventing dynamite, but he patented over 350 other inventions, including gelignite. At his death he owned ninety armaments factories (including Bofors).

When his brother died in 1888 a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary for Alfred. So appalled was Alfred to read its condemnation of him as ‘marchand de la mort’ that he made a will donating most of his huge wealth to the foundation of the five prizes named after him, so that his legacy would not be that of a merchant of death. It’s not known why this Swedish industrialist stipulated that the Peace Prize should be decided by a Norwegian committee; the other four are determined by the Swedish academy.

It’s an ugly brutalist building (constructed 1931-50). The mud-brown brick it’s made of has given rise to its unflattering nickname with locals: Brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese that tastes as bad as it looks. But it has some interesting decorative features. My favourite is the frieze of multi-coloured scenes by Werenskiold from the Norse legends related in the Poetic Edda .

Swan maidens

Three valkyries, half spiritual, half earthly, come flying as swans and change into three beautiful maidens. Three brothers discover them, carry them off and marry them. Seven years later they left. Volund remains at home waiting for his wife’s return; his brothers leave to search for theirs [adapted from the caption to this relief in the frieze]

Oslo deer frieze

Four deer grazing on the world tree Yggdrasil’s green shoots. Three of them in this relief are depicted as symbols of ‘peace, cautiousness and timidity’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other most notable literary figure associated with Norway is of course Henrik Ibsen (1822-1906). Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the museum located at the house where he lived for his last eleven years in Oslo, after spending most of his life in exile abroad – he found the people and atmosphere of Norway stultifying, as much of his drama shows. He wrote in Danish; as I said earlier, so much could be said about the significance of Norway’s relationship to language.

Munch sick child

Munch, The Sick Child. One of his earliest departures from his earlier Impressionist style in favour of the effort to depict his inner soul and emotions expressionistically or symbolically. This is one of six paintings and numerous prints on this theme done 1885-1926; it probably depicts his sister Sopie’s deathbed. She gazes into the abyss – or her aunt’s face. She died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his mother died of the same illness when he was five. Mental illness also ran in the family, the awareness of which haunted him as much as his morbid fear of the precariousness of existence.

Another time I intend to post on the rest of our experience of Norway: by train to Bergen, then the working ferry to Kirkenes…

Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.