Murder your darlings

Anita Desai in Prospect:

YeatsColm 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.

PICTURE: WB Yeats and his wife George in 1923: she bought him a tower in which to write and tolerated his mistresses.

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