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
Published in February 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.