Happily, a thing can be both odd and wonderful.
Search Colm Tóibín’s introduction to “Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know” for a direct explanation of what drew him to write a book about the fathers of three renowned Irish writers (Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce) and you will be frustrated, but also evocatively entertained, especially if you fancy Dublin, as Tóibín clearly does.
Dublin’s streets, pubs, libraries and shops, for Tóibín, are lively with ghosts. It’s a place where, “with time, thoughts thicken and become richer, connect more,” creating an aura that “can be greatly added to by history and by books.”
No simple line connects his three subjects and their famous sons. There are similarities, but there are also marked differences.
Oscar Wilde’s father was a notable and successful polymath, while Yeats’ father quit law school to pursue a life that involved rarely finished paintings, heavy drinking and financial ruin. James Joyce’s father, a gregarious and legendary raconteur, was a wayward drunk, especially in later life.
Tóibín’s most memorable short profile is of larger-than-life Sir William Wilde, a doctor specializing in eye and ear maladies who was knighted not for his medical advances but for his contributions as a pioneering expert on the census. He’s the kind of guy who, on a sailing expedition to the Mediterranean, has the crew land a dolphin, then spends three days dissecting it for a paper he’s writing.
Like Oscar, Sir William and Lady Wilde were the subjects of a notorious sex scandal when a young woman (Mary Travers) and her parents accused Sir William of taking liberties with her. The resulting trial scarcely dented Sir William’s reputation. Oscar, who was gay, later did serious jail time after being found guilty of “gross indecency.”
“Posing as a full-fledged orphan” was a mode for Oscar, a writer who “put so much energy into letting it be known that he had invented himself.” But “many of the ambiguities in his personality, many of his sweet talents, came from his father.”
A degree of filial revolt runs through all these son-father relationships.
The younger Yeats was often exasperated with his father, who publicly criticized his son’s writing. John B. Yeats found success continually out of reach, while his son had published seven books by the time he was 30. Still, the two had things in common. “W.B. Yeats is perhaps the best talker I ever met, except his father,” wrote the writer G.K. Chesterton.
Father and son rarely talked or saw each other in John Yeats’ old age, as he exiled himself to New York and stayed there 15 years, until his death.
John Stanislaus Joyce, father of James (and his eight siblings), started out as a prosperous local tax collector, but was in financial ruin by age 44. Frequently drunk, he was a man of “vile humor” and “unreliable temper,” “domineering and quarrelsome.”
In bitter memoirs, James’ younger brother, Stanislaus, vented anger toward their father. James Joyce was more forgiving, using him as the basis for nuanced fictional characters. He “sought not only to memorialize his father but also to retrace his steps, enter his spirit, use what he needed from his father’s life to nourish his own art.”
James’ dad may have been a loser, but without him the world would never have encountered Stephen Dedalus’ father, Simon, in “Ulysses.”
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.