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New Ways to Kill Your Mother

Author and essayist Colm Tóibín explores the ways that writers' families influence their work.

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Even more moving here is Tóibín's essay on J. M. Synge, the greatest playwright of his generation, who lived with and was supported by Dublin relatives who understood nothing about his genius and never once went during his lifetime to see any of his plays. At his funeral – he died just before his 38th birthday in 1909 – the mourners were divided, as though by a yawning chasm, between family members and theater folk. (Synge was a director of the Abbey Theatre, along with Yeats and Lady Gregory, and wrote five plays for them.)  Although his evangelical family sighed over Synge's faithlessness and despaired of his politics and his unprofitable career, it embraced him nonetheless, "and he was included in all family events and outings, the silent, stubborn dissenter at the table." Synge's nephew wrote that the playwright's mother and four siblings remained "serenely unaware of the importance of his work"; as they saw it, Tóibín writes, riffing on a letter William James once wrote about his brother Henry, "Synge belonged fundamentally to them; he was, first and foremost, a native of the Synge family."

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The other first-rate pieces in "Ireland" are a tribute to Yeats's young English wife, George Hyde-Lee, and a partly autobiographical, emotionally complex rumination about nationalism and the Irish language in the works of two contemporary novelists, first published in The New York Review of Books, called "Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton: The Dialect of the Tribe."

Leaving Ireland to travel "Elsewhere", Tóibín grows expansive on the theme of exile, whether in the case of Jorge Luis Borges, "an exile in his own country," or John Cheever, an exile in his own suburban New York house. For Thomas Mann, exile from Germany was only one calamity in a hair-raising family story that included multiple suicides, drug addiction, cruel parental rejection, and unrequited homosexual love affairs. The story of the Manns is a tragedy of grandly operatic dimensions, best told, as Tóibín tells it, by getting out of the way as the story unfolds. He quotes Mann's hopelessly wishful comment from "Death in Venice": "It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not its origins."     

Several pieces in this section make us wish for more. The essay on Tennessee Williams tells us that the playwright's mentally ill sister Rose was an inspiration for many of his characters, but ends before Tóibín manages to show us how. And an examination of Hart Crane's brief life is itself too brief. Tóibín clearly loves Crane's poetry, "in which he worked a gnarled, edgy sound against the singing line," and we yearn for more analysis of the tension between that carefully wrought music and the chaotic life Crane lived when he was not writing.

Throughout the collection, Tóibín's voice retains authority while also displaying some of the protean qualities of his fiction. He argues with himself often, not afraid to show us his critical restlessness, his change of mind. The sense of the writer as a perpetual wanderer is what makes these essays so lively: the house of literature has many mansions, and Tóibín is keen to tour them all.

Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications.

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