Review: Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín

Erich Mayer

By picking the fathers he did, Tóibín has made a brilliant choice and has produced an exceptional biographic work.
Review: Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín's Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know.

In his charming introduction to the biography Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, Colm Tóibín escorts you through some of the streets of Dublin. In memory he meanders from the corner of Pearse and Lombard Street East via South Leicester Street to Lincoln Place and then back to Westland Row. As he does so, he reminisces about the buildings that are still there and those long gone. He muses on where the Wildes lived in Westland Row and where their son Oscar was born, which happens to be in the same street to which James Joyce’s father moved his offices some 20 years later. The Wildes later moved to Marrion Square where WB Yeats lived in the years after his marriage. By the time the reader has finished the introduction, they are not only eager to visit Dublin but keen to immerse themselves in the stories of the three fathers of three very famous people.

Tóibín presents the three men, one at a time, in the three main sections of the book. The headings of these section serve as a pointer to an important aspect of the father involved. Thus we have ‘An eminent Victorian: Sir William White’ for the extraordinarily talented and successful father of Oscar Wilde. John B Yeats gets ‘The Playboy of West Twenty-Ninth Street’ for a man who chose ‘to be poor and bohemian in Dublin and then in New York’ and John Stanislaus Joyce is crowned with ‘The Two Tenors: James Joyce and His Father’ as both father and son had very good tenor voices. As James Joyce wrote, ‘I got from [my father] his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition’.

But headings are merely pointers, direction signs, labels, if you will – they do not tell the whole story though they may set a mood. To capture the essence of someone’s life in a few hundred pages is probably impossible. However, Tóibín does extremely well by the clever approach he uses. He recounts important facts about the father he is describing and sketches in some of the relevant historical background. Tóibín intersperses these facts with apposite anecdotes from a variety of acknowledged sources. And he shows us what the sons thought of their fathers and what the fathers thought of their sons. Thus the reader gets a multifaceted insight into the character of each of the three fathers. As a bonus the reader also learns more about the three sons.

It does not follow that the fathers of famous and successful people are automatically of any special interest. Steve Jobs of Apple fame had a father who gave him up for adoption shortly after Jobs was born. Albert Einstein’s father was a mildly successful business man; Abraham Lincoln was born in a wood cabin, the son of illiterate parents. To the contrary the fathers of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce are three highly gifted, fascinating, and to a remarkable extent irritating people worthy of historical interest in their own right. By picking the fathers he did, Tóibín has made a brilliant choice and has produced an exceptional biographic work.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce 
Colm Toibin
ISBN: 9781760781149
Format: Hardback
Pub Date: 30/10/2018
Category: Literature & literary studies / Literature: history & criticism
Imprint: Picador Australia
Pages: 224
Price: $29.99

 
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info