My family have not always supported me as a writer. But my relationship with my novelist daughter Kiran is peaceful compared to those described in a new bookby Anita Desai / January 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
WB Yeats and his wife George in 1923: she bought him a tower in which to write and tolerated his mistresses
Colm Tóibín’s new book is called New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families (Penguin) but the key is in the subtitle. This collection of essays is by no means restricted to mothers. It is the entire family that needs to be destroyed, it seems, if an artist is to realise his vision.
In India that has been the tradition through the ages. The soul demands the abandonment of family and society in order to achieve another level of being. Hence the Sufi artistic tradition: poets such as Rumi and Hafiz had to retreat into their own worlds to hear the music of another. Such iconoclasts acquired respect, reverence, even awe, not only because of their spiritual transcendence but for their artistic achievements, which are loved because they have no link to society or family, but take one to another realm.
It is something of that secular transcendence one might experience in reading a book: an escape, brief and fleeting but all the more intense and poignant for that, into another life, extinguishing the boredom, failure and despair of one’s own.
The paradox for the writer is that he is trapped—to a much greater extent than the composer or the painter—in the very stuff he wishes to escape. The stuff is, unfortunately, what nourishes his work: society and family. The writer does not have to travel to an office. Generally, his workplace is his home. This is awkward for both writer and family, as we see in Tóibín’s portrait of John Cheever: living in a suburban home in Ossining, New York that he loathed, wishing he could leave, while his family just as ardently wished he would. What is to be done about a writer in the family?
Different families cope in different ways, as Tóibín relates. Not all can be as supportive as WB Yeats’s wife George. She conveniently discovered a talent for channelling the voices of spirits and joined Yeats in séances, which provided the inspiration for much of his poetry and his work on occult astrology, A Vision. She was rich, independent and capable, buying her husband a romantic ruin of a tower at Ballylee in which to write his poetry. With him she endured its lack of electricity and water. She also tolerated his love affairs and accommodated his mistresses with the same stoicism.
At the other extreme is the family of the Irish playwright JM Synge. He was dominated by his mother, a fanatical Methodist who deplored his association with the stage and, even after his success in the Dublin and London theatre, ignored his work and its importance. Yet another contrast is provided by the family of the German writer Thomas Mann—a terrifying witches’ brew of incest, sexual ambiguity and suicide.
After touring this chamber of horrors with Colm Tóibín, I can see that I was a fortunate child. At home I sat at a round green table in a corner of my room through the long, torpid afternoons, filling one notebook after another with my scribbling. I was given the label “the writer in the family,” just as a sister who enjoyed cutting up her dolls and then bandaging and stitching them together was named “the doctor in the family.” Neither of us escaped our designated fates—or ever really considered it.
The writing I did as an adult took place, like my childhood writing, in the midst of a family of four children. I am often asked by the practically-minded, “How did you manage to write all those books while raising your children?” I explain that having them was what allowed me to stay home and write instead of going out to work or, worse, entering Delhi society. I did so by obediently following their routine: going to my desk as soon as they left for school, then putting my papers away before they came home. I kept to this routine all through the school term, then suspended writing during their holidays or when they were in bed with the measles. It instilled a rhythm in me that continued even after they had all left home. It was my discipline, and don’t all writers fall back on just that—discipline? It also became a habit for me, as smoking cigarettes might be for another.
If this makes me sound like an automaton, it was deliberate; something I had to submit to in order not to explode with frustration. I could not have spoken to anyone of what it cost me to put work aside just when it acquired momentum and began to flow with rare, perilous ease, or the struggle to pick up the thread where it had been broken, and mend and make it whole again.
My children later said they never saw me writing. So, when a published book arrived in the post, it was always a surprise, perhaps a shock for them. They would turn their faces away rather than look at it, and it embarrassed them if they saw my name in a review or, worse, a photograph. “How could you?” was the reaction their looks expressed. It made me realise that what I had done was unforgivable: turned myself into a public figure when to them I was a private one and one they owned. Now I had shown I was not that, or not entirely that.
Once when someone said to me “Your children must be proud of you,” I blurted “Oh no, they would much rather I went into the kitchen and baked them a cake.” It hurt to hear how when an eminent male author was given an award, his family arranged a celebration. In my heart I knew no woman would be accorded that by hers. A separate life could not be allowed the person who was supposed to be the centre, the heart of the family.
So I looked on my writing as a secret. Tóibín quotes the Northern Irish novelist Brian Moore saying, “I began to think of myself as someone who was concealing something.” In a way it becomes a guilty secret: this world you escape into, taking no one with you, not revealing it to anyone, partly out of fear their reaction might wreck it and partly because writing is like a photographer’s work in the darkroom. Expose the negative to light too soon and it will be ruined. Also, it is the world outside the darkroom that is your subject—yes, even your family, friends, home and shared experiences. I realise now what the looks from my family expressed: what is she going to make of it, of us, of what is ours? It was true: their lives provided me with my material, their experiences that nourished my work. Without them, what would I have—myself, alone, and emptiness?
What was lacking was any acknowledgement that I was a writer, any admission that it was a worthwhile pursuit. At the most I might encounter someone who had heard that I wrote and said to me “What a nice hobby.” That was all it appeared to be—not a profession. I realised it would not be regarded as such until it was seen to earn something, which gave it its worth. And to begin with, my books had none.
Even to find a publisher for a novel, in the 1960s, was a problem. Indian publishers then favoured reprints of books that already had a reputation: Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse were their favourite authors. They were not interested in publishing Indian authors: who would read them when you could read the “real” thing?
When I was eventually published in Britain, my first two books failed to find an audience and I was dropped. It was a while before I found another publisher, and during that time I felt like I was wandering in the desert. What kept me writing? It had become a habit, my daily dose of opium, and then there was my stubbornness. That was what I learned: how to be stubborn.
When my youngest child, Kiran, began to write—encouraged more by her professors than by my dismal example—I knew it would take time before she could establish herself, and that she would need support. No one questions it now but before she was published and won awards, there was doubt and resentment within the family. Why was she being given time and support when others had to earn a living? That question of money again: only when she earned enough to live on and to continue writing was it seen as a reasonable choice.
Tóibín writes with insight of the rivalries, jealousies and feuds that fester within families between generations. It seems my relationship with Kiran has been mercifully peaceful compared with his case studies.
Both Yeats and Henry James had fathers who failed in the wider world and, clearly envying their sons, turned to writing to recover their standing. Both criticised their sons’ work but appealed for help from them with their own. Little was given but James did edit a selection of his father’s writing after his death, and did him no favour by doing so. Borges too had a father who sent him a novel of his to “re-write;” instead, he wrote a short story, “The Congress,” identical in plot and structure to his father’s work. Much of VS Naipaul’s early work was influenced by the short stories his father sent him for help with publication. The letters that they exchanged are the most painful one could ever read.
But it is Thomas Mann’s family that wins the award for ferocity and destructiveness. When his son Klaus expressed his desire to be a writer, Mann wrote of it as “a folly from which he must be dissuaded.” Klaus refused to comply and Mann sarcastically inscribed a copy of his novel The Magic Mountain with the line “To my respected colleague—his promising father.” While Mann wrote of death and the darker aspects of sexuality, Klaus courted them in person, and committed suicide at 42. His father neither interrupted the lecture tour he was on nor attended the funeral. Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov—who asked “Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?”—would have understood.
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