Colm Tóibín is a member of a small club of nearly household-name book reviewers. Of these, each is recognized for a distinctive approach. Daniel Mendelsohn is praised for his loping, rueful analyses of contemporary culture. James Wood and Martin Amis are famous for their close readings, with Amis being more insistent on the importance of the cleverly constructed sentence. Jenny Diski is renowned for taking down intellectual imposters, and Zadie Smith makes her arguments about aesthetics seem urgent and personal.
Tóibín is unique for his studied remove and biographical focus. His reviews are never summaries—the tedious fallback for those trying to earn a dollar per word—but instead, are a careful recombination of the lively and unique bits of the work under review. A typical Tóibín essay describes the arc of a writer's development and life, and uses the writer's own words to draw graceful conclusions about his temperament and biography. Take, for instance, a passage from his essay on the first volume of Beckett's letters. Tóibín quotes one of Beckett's letter to Thomas MacGreevy: "I drowse through the days & do nothing. I try now & then to get started, but it comes to nothing. If it is to be like that, let it be like that." Then, Tóibín provides a sure-handed analysis: "His problem in these years was very simple and not easy to solve: it was how to live, what to do, and who to be. He was clever, well educated, he spoke French and Italian fluently; his German was very good. But his first book of stories had not sold and he could not find a publisher for his novel. He had no idea how he would earn a living and he was also deeply unhappy."
Tóibín's skill at glossing the lives of great writers is on display in his latest essay collection, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, which features many pieces that first appeared in the pages of the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Though the book isn't as focused as the title makes it out to be, unifying themes do emerge: Irish writers, crazy families, homosexuality, Henry James. Tóibín comes by these themes honestly. He was born in County Wexford, Ireland, and was educated at University College Dublin. He is openly gay, and his most famous and well-regarded novel, The Master, is a meticulous exploration of James's artistic life and repressed sexuality. Tóibín is rarely explicitly autobiographical (with the notable exception of one essay about his uncle and a neighbor's involvement in the 1916 Easter Uprising), though his personal history obviously informs his criticism.
More than simply focusing on an individual writer's life, Tóibín's reviews often hone in on family relationships in order to understand a writer's formation. His essay about W. B. Yeats and his father, for example, is an excellent study in familial passive-aggression. Tóibín recounts a series of letters sent by John Butler Yeats to his son about several poems and plays he had been working on. The elder Yeats, best known as an artist, is insistently solicitous of his famous son's approval: "I send you a great many letters," he writes. "I begin to think I am a born writer. Did you get my 'poem'? I thought it had spirit and a sort of flowing inspiration. Flowing in its small way at full tide." His son did not reply to this, or to the many other letters asking for comment on his writing. After a further barrage, W. B. Yeats finally answered his father: "I have never written to you about your play. You choose a very difficult subject and the most difficult of all forms, and as was to be foreseen, it is the least good of all your writings . . . You are a most accomplished critic—and I believe your autobiography will be very good, and this is enough for one man. It takes a lifetime to master dramatic form."
Along with a talent for chronicling dysfunction, Tóibín has a great eye for the salacious detail. In an essay on Thomas Mann and his children, Tóibín catalogs the Mann family's plagues—suicide, gerontophilia, and "the small matter of incest"— in a cheerful manner that offsets this disturbing family history. An especially troubling quip from Klaus Mann's mother, upon hearing that her son had attempted suicide—"If he wanted to kill himself, why didn't he do it properly?"—is the kind of revealing remark Tóibín revels in. In an essay on Borges, he spends a good deal of time trying to puzzle out whether Borges's father really sent his son to a brothel to lose his virginity. Though Tóibín writes of the story, "it really is possible that all of this is rubbish," that doesn't stop him from repeating it. And it shouldn't—Tóibín knows a good story when he sees one, and always reserves a place for gossip at the literary table.
The main objection one might mount against the book is its half-hearted attempt to appear as something other than a collection of previously published pieces. The essays bear silly titles such as "Thomas Mann: New Ways to Spoil Your Children" and "John Cheever: New Ways to Make Your Family's Life a Misery," in order to fit the book's thematic thrust. This desire for a coherent collection might explain why the original books under review aren't listed at the top of the pieces, a frustrating omission that turns reading the book into a bit of a scavenger hunt. There's an alphabetized bibliography in the back, but it still requires an Internet search to confirm, for example, that Edwin Williamson's 2004 biography of Borges was the occasion for Tóibín's essay. In addition, Tóibín delivers barely a hint of judgment or evaluation of the works under review—whose titles are typically not mentioned until at least halfway through a given essay, and then only in passing—leaving the reader to wonder whether, for example, Blake Bailey's biography of Cheever is worth reading, or whether Tóibín's encapsulation will suffice.
But Tóibín's approach does not really necessitate judgment, only analysis and understanding, and any objections to the book's format are put to rest by the quality of Toibin's writing and his insight into the authors he profiles. New Ways To Kill Your Mother opens with an essay about the lack of mother figures in the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James, and the substitution of aunts in their stead. This is literary analysis, and highlights the way familial power struggles affect the writers under review. Toibin's opening essay alerts the reader to the fact that family dynamics can, and will, be read as literature. And Tóibín is an expert reader. He reminds us that genius is often the result of a miserable upbringing and some combination of indifferent or overbearing parents. They try too hard or not enough; either way the child becomes a genius. Or, in most cases, they don't.
Andrew Martin has written for the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic's The Book, among other publications. He lives in Missoula, Montana.