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Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

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Member Reviews

Toibin's collection of essays provides insight into not only the fathers of the famous Irish authors, but also provides insight into the sociopolitical aspects of the times when the men were alive. This collection of essays should interest anyone with a love of Irish literature, an interest in history, or even those who find the relationships between fathers and sons something to be analyzed and studied. I really enjoyed this work.
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This is really a series of lectures and more is the pity that my knowledge of the subject was not broad, nor deep enough to appreciate Toibin’s writing. Set in Dublin there is an expectation that the reader will be familiar with streets, people and events. Unfortunately I lack the knowledge and after fumbling through while I could appreciate the wry humor Toibin’s insight was lost on me.

Thank you NetGalley and Scribner for a copy
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Published by Scribner on October 30, 2018

Colm Tóibín begins Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know with an essay that melds the literary history of Dublin with the city’s sociopolitical history. Wilde and Yeats and Joyce and Beckett and Stoker and Shaw and many other writers and poets are still alive in the city’s memory, still called to mind by certain streets and structures. From that stroll, Tóibín journeys to three essays about “prodigal fathers” who, at least for a time, called Dublin home.

Sir William Wilde was the father of Oscar Wilde, but Tóibín begins the essay with a discussion of Oscar Wilde’s two-year imprisonment at Reading Gaol, during which Wilde wrote De Profundis in the form of an angry letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, played an instrumental role in causing Wilde’s sodomy conviction. We eventually learn about Oscar’s father William, a doctor, archeologist, statistician, and man of learning who straddled England and Ireland.

William’s life was at least tangentially touched by the longstanding conflict between Dubliners who advocated independence and Home Rule and those who opposed separation from England. William is almost tangential to the essay, which tells us at least as much about William’s friends and acquaintances as it does about William. Much of the essay’s interest comes from its description of a time in which “revolutionary fervor in Ireland was ill-fated, half-hearted or part of a literary rather than a serious political culture.” William’s life is a good deal less interesting than Oscar’s, although he did manage to work a scandal into his High Society life involving a scorned and vindictive lover.

John Yeats is the most interesting of the three fathers that Toibin profiles. Toibin compares John to the father of the novelist Henry James: “they sought self-realization through art and general inquiry.” (John earns a gold star from me for his belief that Henry James’ novels are unbearably tedious.) Unfortunately, self-realization doesn’t pay the bills.

To the dismay of his wife, John Yeats abandoned the study of law to pursue a career as an artist. He was never satisfied with his paintings and generally began them anew each day, a habit that impaired his ability to earn money. He could only paint portraits of people he liked, another “infirmity of will” (his son’s assessment) that made it difficult to earn a living.

As a father, John Yeats was “exasperating but also inspirational.” John seems to have been most notable for wielding the Irish gift of gab. He lived the last 15 years of his life in New York, writing splendid letters and gaining American admirers while depending on his famous son to satisfy his debts. Tóibín admires John's ability to write “sentences of startling beauty,” but it is difficult to know what to make of him. John Yeats felt a passionate longing to be something more than he ever became; he lived in imagination more than reality. In the end, his correspondence reveals him to be too self-centered to be a successful father, husband, or lover.

The discussion of James Joyce’s father differs from the first two portraits. We often see John Stanislaus Joyce as James Joyce fictionalized him in stories and novels. In actual life, John ran up unmanageable debt (a common theme among three men Tóibín examines), had a serious problem with alcohol, and was a miserable father. Toibin gleans these facts from various sources, including My Brother’s Keeper by James’ brother Stanislaus, whose anger at their father is palpable.

Yet James, unlike his brother, resisted the temptation to be angry, finding ways to reimagine his father in his fiction. James’ stories often depict his father as his friends see him, not as his children knew him. John is portrayed in Ulysses as Simon Dedalus, “a complex figure of moods, an unsettled rather than a solid presence in the book.” That seems to be an accurate description of all three men.

I’m not sure what this volume tell us, except that difficult fathers sometimes produce sons who are capable of literary brilliance. Tóibín has demonstrated his own literary genius over the years, and while this work of nonfiction doesn’t display the depth of his fiction (it’s difficult to be stuck with facts when imagination offers a richer environment), it is worth reading for its insight into a time and place that produced such vital writers.

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Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Toibin is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early October.

Yay, my first Colm Toibin non-fiction and about the fathers of Wilde (William), Yeats (John Butler) and Joyce (John Stanislaus), no less. Toibin does research while walking through areas in Dublin that still speak volumes about the personal lives of these authors and their fathers, even reading De Profundis in Wilde's cell in Reading Gaol. He describes William Wilde as a great, musing traveler after years as an ear & eye doctor and knighted for contributing to the Irish census, yet plagued by slanderous pamphlets for his former ward, Mary Travers; John Butler Yeats as a storyteller or 'talker' and "the painter who scrapes out every day what he painted the day before” before moving to New York in 1907, still relying on his son's dime to keep himself afloat; James Joyce and Stanislaus admiring their father, John, yet staying away from him and writing about their lives in their father’s household, while he was sometimes steady, other times drunk and prone to violence.
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If you love Irish literature and history, you are sure to love this book. Colm Tóibín's newest book is a compilation based on lectures he gave on the topic of three literary giants' fathers and families. Tóibín delves into the lineage of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats and paints a picture of 19th century Dublin through their fathers. 

Tóibín's analyses are engagingly written and researched to give an enigmatic, full portrayal of artistic life in Dublin. William Wilde, John Stanislaus Joyce, and John Butler Yeats come alive in this book as Tóibín delves into their triumphs and failings. These men have their own professional and artistic wonders, which are allowed to shine. Further, the author shows the interaction between father and son, and how the son's work was shaped by their particular upbringing. 

A truly fascinating read, and highly recommended to fans of Wilde, Joyce, and Yeats, and fans of engaging history. 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an e-copy of this book for review. All opinions are my own.
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A fascinating collection of authors all in one book. I'll definitely recommend this one to our patrons and friends alike.
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Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know is a collection of lectures given by Colm Toibin on three famous Irish writers, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde. and the roles their fathers played in shaping their lives and careers. I chose to read this book because I have always loved Oscar Wilde and was interested in finding out more about him and his family life. The book is actually so much more than just a historical essay on the authors, though. It really encompasses Irish culture, their relationship with England, and the history of art and writing in that environment.  

The introduction was extremely well written and featured an account of the wanderings of the author through the historically rich streets of Dublin. I found this section fascinating as it really set the stage for what was to come. Personal letters, both to and from the three writers and their fathers, and accounts left behind by contemporaries gave the sections dedicated to the individual writers an unexpected depth. Talking about a subject is one thing, but seeing their experiences through their own words was an added bonus. I really was able to feel Colm Toibin's love for the Irish country, people, and art through this book. In a few instances, the author made mention of a historical event or person, perhaps under the assumption that these would be well known outside of Ireland or literary circles, with little or no explanation of what they were. It left me to Google these points, which interrupted the flow of the book. These were easy to overlook, though, as the overall book was great.

Thank you to the publisher, Scribner, and NetGalley for the advanced copy of the book. It was provided in exchange for an honest review.
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Originally given as lectures, these are vivid essays not just on the father-son relationships that formed the work of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, but also about the precariously positioned knowledge middle class of 19th  and early 20th century Ireland and the closely knit families who tried to parlay wealth or professional status into political leverage and recognition from the larger Anglosphere while remaining Irish.
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