Killing Off Mothers

‘The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. […] A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.’

So says Colm Tóibín in his new collection of essays New Ways To Kill Your Mother; Writers and their Families. The excerpt comes from the opening essay on Jane Austen and Henry James, writers whom Tóibín points to as excellent examples, not just of intriguing approaches to stories about families, but masterful novelists who had an instinctual appreciation of how to give a story interest and depth. Tóibín reads their work as a colleague, understanding the choices they made to be responses to technical problems in storytelling, not merely semi-autobiographical promptings, or unconscious urges. The result is both fascinating and insightful.

So, if mothers are notably absent from the novels of Austen and James, it isn’t just because Jane Austen herself was scarcely mothered and never became a mother herself; it isn’t just because James had a complicated relationship to his mother, in which he loved her more the further he got away from her geographically. No, it’s because these writers are interested in breaking down conventional structures and seeing what they can do with the pieces. This is what novels are about: they destroy or subvert calm and stable situations in order to set inventive and exploratory energies in motion. The unorthodox family units that are described in their works are the consequences of wilful creative conflict, where the old is torn down to allow space for new things to grow and develop, and in particular to leave main protagonists free to define themselves beyond the usual boundaries.

Tóibín tells us that the heroes and heroines of James’ work ‘enact a drama of self-reliance, self-invention; they live alone and unnurtured in their minds.’ And Austen’s Fanny Price is brilliantly described not as the tediously virtuous, dislikeably passive heroine she is so often understood to be, but as the pervasive and peculiar source of energy that drives her story. ‘She has a way of noticing and registering that has nothing to do with virtue, but everything to do with narrative impetus, holding the reader. It is uncertain how she will live in the book, thus filling the book with momentum.’ Readers love to read about dramas of identity, about the challenges the characters face as they grow and develop in situations that lack the usual resources. We can identify more closely with them, get tighter into their perspective, when they are winkled out of a network and forced to go it alone.

James and Austen were also products of the times in which they wrote, times when the novel itself was not yet sure of what it could, or should be. Tóibín points out that the early novel drew heavily on two different models: the confessional memoir, in which one voice leads us through a complex account of an inner life, and the play, in which a tantalising drama is enacted through many voices. Against that lone voice of the main protagonist there needs to be a background of other voices, ones whose responses and actions we cannot easily guess. If mothers are cut out of fiction, it must be because their motives are too boringly easy to anticipate. Aunts, however, are an altogether different matter. When they become surrogate parents their motives must necessarily be curiously complex. Tóibín enacts a series of delightful reading around aunts in 19th century fiction, exploring the way that their entrances and exits are often dramatic and disarming, how they can be foolish and frivolous, or power-hungry and duplicitous, causing all sorts of horrors for the heroes and thrills for the reader, their displaced positioning in the family drama leaving them wriggle-room for wild acts of subversion. An aunt, says Tóibín is ‘a figure capable of moving at will from one role to another, causing havoc within the narrative system created for her.’

Where we ultimately end up in these narratives is in the recognition that our main protagonists have found a power within themselves that can both manipulate and resist, a strength of mind that produces genuine autonomy, liberation not just from the families that are thrust upon them, but from the families they have sought to create. The climax of the story is also the celebration of the individual and the act of self-definition. Tóibín doesn’t say so, but I wonder whether such a conclusion is particularly satisfying to the reader who sits alone in reality and who must fly solo into the world of imagination where the story lies. Maybe readers are particularly interested in self-invention because each book they read is a small private drama of identification with another life, one lived in safety and explored without risk. Readers can reinvent themselves time and time again by vicarious living. What Tóibín does say is quite fascinating, though, about the way stories are constructed as a system of weights and balances, of energy distribution that creates dynamic movement, both in the plot and the reading experience. I felt I was being offered a new way to look at books, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the essays in this volume.

This was my (rather last minute) contribution to Irish Short Story Week. I confess I am loving the fact that the week goes from the 12th  to the 22nd of March – that’s really getting into the Irish spirit of things! Still having trouble with commenting, though – I can’t even comment on my own posts! So frustating.

28 thoughts on “Killing Off Mothers

  1. Litlove, that was an interesting review!

    “What Tóibín does say is quite fascinating, though, about the way stories are constructed as a system of weights and balances, of energy distribution that creates dynamic movement, both in the plot and the reading experience.”
    So now I wonder: what makes Austen and James so masterful, is it their ability to drive a story and balance it out without making all the necessary twists feel unnatural to the reader? Is a good novel then a novel that neither feels trite (trite, because it is a mere copy of reality without any “special drive”) nor artificial?

    • Chris, to your questions, I think the answers are Yes! and Yes! Toibin talks at one point about the naturalness that Austen and James infuse into their accounts, but also the way that James in particular spots ways that relatives can hop out of their prescribed categories and trouble readerly expectations about them. And I do think that a good story, a classic story, is one that is well balanced, and where the plot develops out of the characters as well as offering a general commentary on life. It was a very interesting chapter in the book, and I hope this week I will have time to read some more.

  2. Lovely account, sounds fascinting, but will you stop this! My book buying account has been hammered enough by you lately! I wouldn’t mind but my local library system hasn’t purchased this – must be the cutbacks. Just to make matters worse you bring in Jane Austen. It’s a conspiracy!
    On a more serious note I think the pendulum is swinging and this is one of a few pieces and books I’ve noticed recently which are looking at fiction as works of art and not entrees into the wider culture as so much theory did. Personally I like both approaches, except when the language used becomes so ludicrous as to need decoding like DNA. The comments on aunts bring to mind Betsy Trottwood, David Copperfield’s aunt, who obtrudes wonderfully in the opening chapters, taking umbrage with attitude when David is born a boy and not the neice which Betsy somehow believed she had more or less ordered. Turns out fine in end, though she never fits into the outside world’s normal definitions. Sounds like I’ll have to read this after all!

    • Bookboxed – I was really interested to read this because it’s an intriguing departure for a novelist to write general literary criticism, and for a publisher to publish it! Up until recently, there have been crossover critics like John Sutherland and James Wood (neither of whom particularly thrill me) who have held a stranglehold on the lit crit for the public. I felt that having a writer write about the technicalities of storytelling was a really interesting departure, and I was very intrigued to hear you say you felt it might be a new trend too. And yes, Toibin talks about aunts in George Eliot and argh someone else (memory suddenly gives out), possibly Dickens. It all sounded very plausible though, as theories go!

  3. Fascinating way of looking at writing! I’m not sure I entirely agree with the quote at the top. Noticing how the novel works is one thing we can do, but I also frequently like or dislike characters in fiction, and learn things from them about how to live (or not). I suppose I’m not clear on who the “we” is that he’s referring to. If it’s readers in general, then I think he’s being too narrow in closing off the possibility of drawing moral lessons from fiction. To use his example, I believe Jane Austen had a lot to say about the individual’s role in society, and it seems quite perverse to deny that. But maybe I’m misunderstanding something. I certainly find a lot of his other arguments very interesting, and sounds like a fascinating collection of essays.

    • Andrew – I posted the quote because I felt it was provocative, and it’s over the ‘we’ (which is entirely unexplained) that controversy hovers. Although if Toibin means either readers or writers, both would apply to you, wouldn’t they? I expect he expressed himself so strongly because the idea of moral lessons from literature is so orthodox, so prevalent, and he felt he had to fight hard to get readers to pay attention to the alternative. It hits you between the eyes as a sentence when you read the book. But I like being offered other perspectives. There is no one ‘right’ way to read, and thank the dear Lord there never will be, as it would be a form of thought police that would indeed be excessively restrictive.

  4. ‘A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. […] A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology.’

    That is such a well-made point. It’s so easy to get drawn into the characters and particular narratives and overlook the whole. I’d love to read this. I’d particularly love to read about the aunts. A great choice, considering how limited in reality many of these women’s power must have been (I’m thinking of the spinster aunts).

    Great review litlove, you’ve given me lots to think about, thank you.

    • Helen, I loved the bit about the aunts and it’s a point he backs up with all sorts of interesting examples. I also enjoyed thinking about the novel from that engineering point of view – it was really interesting to have my perspective shaken up a bit! Now I really must get on with the rest of the book to see if it’s as interesting! 🙂

  5. I remember in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, she noted that Austen’s physical and social situation did not allow her to actually meet the kind of characters she wrote. And I quote “…essentially she is inventing, absorbed by the form and possibilities of the novel… The world of her imagination was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited.” From your review, I can hear Tóibín echoing Tomalin’s view. We celebrate literature as that’s where our imagination takes flight. Thanks for an excellent review, litlove. Lots to ponder.

    • Ooh, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen is something I very much want to read – I find Tomalin an outstanding biographer. Your quote does indeed support what Toibin is saying, which makes me even more interested to read it, if that were possible!

  6. “‘The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history.”

    With respect to Tóibín, that’s idealistic and flawed. To the flaw: who can say that figures from history, or your next door neighbour, are well known? Think of all the “quiet men” who commit scarifying crimes that shock other residents of the same area. We don’t know, fully, the mind-set of Alexander the Great or Wyndham Lewis or Nick Clegg, and we must speculate on what they meant or felt. So that’s no good. For many people, choosing some character out of fiction (I assume he means novels and plays and all else) is more precise (in our minds) and evocative than plucking someone we know; and they are more fixed (albeit they may still, so to speak, rotate) than a friend, cousin, or colleague.

    There’ll always be people who look upon novels as moral or immoral. The number of books that are banned or burned each year prove that morality is indeed in play. Tóibín can wish it otherwise, and speak sternly to anyone who disagrees, but those are the stark facts that he can deny but will have to accept one day.

    • Well I think he means we can consider historical figures in the light of morality as they were obliged to deal with real events and actual ethical conundrums, uncertain of what the next day or the next person would bring. Novelists in some respects have it easy because they get to create the situations the want, rather like being in control of both the questions and the answers. But I did put the quote there because I thought it was rather provocative. I don’t think there is any one ‘right’ way to read and any such bid for one is inevitably a nonsense. Though I found it an interesting exercise to consider narrative purely through its weights and balances, and it seemed an unusual ploy. Oh and yes, I agree, history is not without its fictional dimension too.

  7. What an interesting essay! I love the bit about aunts! Even if real life aunts have so much more wiggle room in terms of family roles than do parents and grandparents. I look forward to hearing whether the rest of the book is as good as its beginning!

    • As ever, it’s got rather buried beneath an avalanche of novels that I need to be reading for one reason or another. But it looks like a fascinating book – one section on Irish writers and the other on writers from beyond Ireland, with a delicious mix of biography and criticism. I do think you’d enjoy it!

    • Oh Courtney, that’s such a nice comment, thank you! It was about time that the old place got a new lick of paint, and actually it was a lot of fun doing it. I’m so glad you like it!

  8. To take off on what Jeff said, when we learn how to live from someone historical — or even, in a sense, from the people we know — it is also a bit fictional, isn’t it? We can’t really know Napoleon any more than we can know Fanny Price; we have to make it up to some degree.

    But I also see what he’s getting at. Reading Ford’s Parade’s End was a miracle in terms of structure and weave, and the likability of the characters was a distant second to the gorgeousness of the prose and the way the book was fitted for the immense task Ford had taken on. Though I do believe it was a moral task, so there’s that dimension, too.

    • Jenny, yes I quite agree, history has a fictional dimension. Although as I said to Jeff, I think Toibin’s meaning here is that morality and ethics are fundamentally about the choices we make, and those are perhaps more poignant and stark when we see real people forced to confront real situations. And often we are quite clear about their choices from the consequences they bring. But that doesn’t deny the fictionality, or perhaps better to say the narrativisation of much history.

      Oh I do want to read Parade’s End. Your posts have been a wonderful temptation. Perhaps in the summer I will have a whole fortnight to devote to it.

  9. Interesting. Rich. Bears a reread (I do so many, too many things too quickly, not the least of which is reading! I have been stuck in Austen world for many months. And during the winter months, sat through three different filmed versions of Pride & Prejudice where I DID note the differences in how Mrs. Bennett was played and had much to say about it. But there wasn’t that much, after all. How had I not noticed this? (or did I, subliminally?) And now reading one of those creative fiction pieces about Jane Austen’s life and noting that her parents were really in love with one another ….. according to this fictitious rendering, dangerous in itself because one could come away from it, thinking the stuff in it was truth and biographical, like one of those Philippa Gregory novels about the various queens.

    So, you’re writing is a breath of fresh air; i love/enjoy seeing the more academic knife being applied (that’s a compliment!) and truths drawn. I’ll be on next to SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and then I have the book by a man who was raised according to the lessons taught by Austen. (have completely forgotten the book title as I sit here typing madly) but onward.

    And next, to Colm Toibin, of whom I know nothing!

    • A winter of Austen sounds wonderful, Oh! I think I could quite easily bear three different versions of Pride and Prejudice (particularly the one with Colin Firth in it!). There’s something about Austen, isn’t there, that spawns all sorts of fictions and hopeful fantasies. I think this is in the best light – her quiet life and her magnificent imagination provoke us to wonder. But no one else creates spin-offs quite like she does. I confess this is my first outing with Colm Toibin, but I am enjoying it very much indeed. It’s lovely to see a novelist tackle lit crit!

  10. I’m really excited to read this collection of essays. I hope but do not expect that it will maybe make me give Colm Toibin’s fiction a try — in any case I love the title and am very very interested in the contents. All you say about the James/Austen essay (half of which I fear will sail over my head because I’ve never read Henry James) sounds very hopeful for the awesomeness of the book entire.

    • Jenny, I confess I have read very little Henry James, just the short ones – Washington Square, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw. The first two I can thoroughly recommend if you are looking for a place to start. But in any case, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve read anything by him or not. Toibin is very good at doing that interesting discussion plus delicious teasers sort of thing. I am definitely thinking this book will end up in the awesome camp!

  11. Thank you for this very interesting and intriguing contribution to Irish Short Story Week-which by the way is now extended until April 11-the next few days I will be posting in emerging Irish Women Writers. I have found some simply brilliant stories published in low circulation literary journals.

    Speaking of writers and their mothers, I read a couple of stories by Oscar Wilde’s mother. I bet there is a story there! What authors did Toibin, I will start Brooklyn soon and have read three of his short stories, feature.

    again thanks so much for joining in.
    To participate one need only post on one Irish Short Story or something related to that and let me know about it by April 11. I am open to guests posts also

    • Mel, I hope the extension of the deadline is because you are having such a good time with this! You’d appreciate Toibin’s book because a whole section is dedicated to Irish authors. I don’t feel particularly well read in this area, so I am expecting to learn a great deal. The Irish authors he writes about are: Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton. Interesting selection, no?

  12. I think what you say about readers and reinvention of their lives is true for me and how and why I like to read. It’s certainly a safe way to approach things! 🙂

  13. Thanks for adding this one to my reading list; I bet it’s going to be cluttered with flags for passages to type out and muse upon.

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