(O’Toole’ s article appeared in The New Statesman, 10/24.)
How the complicated relationships between three writers and their fathers left its mark on Irish literature.
“All women become like their mothers,” says Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Left hanging there, of course, is the implication that the son’s tragedy is that he becomes like his father instead. In Oscar Wilde’s own case, that might not have been such a terrible thing, at least for his creative productivity. Colm Tóibín’s sparkling little book on Sir William Wilde, WB Yeats’s father John and James Joyce’s father John Stanislaus, seems originally to have been called “Prodigal Fathers” – the phantom title appears on the inside flap of the cover. It may have been dropped because of Sir William, for whom the word – with its implications of wasted talent – is a poor fit. But it certainly works for John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. And yet the joy of Tóibín’s erudite, subtle, witty and often deeply moving biographical essays is that one generation’s paternal prodigality can become the next generation’s powerhouse of neurotic energy.