Category Archives: Irish fiction

“There’s a crippled gentleman at the door. And he wants to see you!”

Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood

Corrigan is a blackly comic novel about an encounter between a bereaved old woman and a persuasive but somewhat untrustworthy fast-talking Irishman in a wheelchair. I expected to love it. I didn’t.

corrigan

Mrs Blunt is adrift after the death three years past of her husband, the Colonel. Her life revolved around him and depended on him; so much so that after he died she even had to learn how to write a cheque. She still can’t drive.

She lives quietly with the only highlight of her week being her visit to his grave. She barely eats. Her daughter, Nadine, lives in London in a seemingly perfect marriage. The two rarely talk.

Mrs Blunt’s life ended with the Colonel’s death. Now she’s just waiting for her own death – an inconveniently delayed coda.

She sees nobody save her working class Irish housekeeper Mrs Murphy. If Mrs Blunt is nearly a ghost, Mrs Blunt is all too alive:

Mrs Murphy never climbed Mrs Blunt’s stairs, she always stormed them like a military unit making a headlong charge to gain some useful vantage-point. She was very short and her squat body carried enormous weight. Yet she still moved around the house with a pointless but frenetic speed. When she charged up Mrs Blunt’s staircase, she always managed to make the carpet slippers that she wore, since shoes hurt her swollen feet, sound just as menacing as the running tread of regimental boots.

This drab and declining status quo changes one day when a thin Irishman comes wheeling up to the house raising funds for St Crispin’s care home. He explains that when he lost the use of his legs St Crispin’s looked after him and gave him a sense of purpose, as it does for others left maimed or disfigured. He now wheels door-to-door raising collections as while the home’s staff are skilled and compassionate its facilities are depressingly run-down and decrepit.

Corrigan is a persuasive fellow, loquacious and passionate. He refuses to take money from Mrs Blunt saying that he can’t take donations from a widow who must be struggling herself. It’s obvious though that she’s rich, and from that moment he cannily refuses her Mrs Blunt is hooked.

Nadine meanwhile has her own problems. Her husband Justin writes newspaper opinion pieces and appears at times on TV again spouting out his great and good opinions. Her two young children are wild and spoiled. Her life is a facade. She hardly ever speaks to her mother now, feeling excluded by the intensity of her mother’s grief:

[Nadine] felt that her mother was depriving her of her father in death, just as she had always seemed to deprive her of her father in life. The Colonel had always been very kind to Nadine. She couldn’t remember a single occasion when he’d ever been angry with her. But although he had treated her with courtesy and gentleness, he had given her a sense of defeat. All through her childhood she had endlessly striven to become the centre of his affections, and she had always failed.

Isn’t that last sentence devastating?

Corrigan gets Mrs Blunt writing to another crippled man still resident at St Crispin’s, and she finds herself sharing her thoughts and feelings with this never-met correspondent in a way she’s so far been quite unable to do with anyone in person. She starts to question how little she does with her money and her remaining time, and decides that if Corrigan with nothing can wheel himself from house to house why can’t she with so much do something?

Soon she’s having the downstairs of her home converted so Corrigan can move in; is turning the garden into a vegetable allotment to provide fresh produce for the home; she learns to drive and discovers that she has a sharp eye for spotting bargains in antique sales, reselling her finds to raise yet more money; she and Corrigan eat richly, drink champagne and quote poetry to each other. Before him she’d barely read a book. She takes up painting and discovers a talent for it.

To the reader (and you don’t have to be an attentive reader) Corrigan is plainly not quite all he seems. He’s appeared from nowhere and now everything Mrs Blunt does seems to be about him. She sends large amounts of money as he directs. But Mrs Blunt is alive again, and what price isn’t worth paying for that?

What works here is the characters. Corrigan may be a con-man, but he’s one who at least in part believes his own fiction. He’s living off Mrs Blunt’s generosity, but he clearly genuinely likes her too and he’s desperately jealous of her showing loyalty or affection for anyone else. He’s a passionate rogue; a likeable villain; controlling and insecure yet somehow forgivable all the same.

Mrs Blunt could feel the champagne fizzing in her brain. Corrigan’s voice was mellifluous. She was mesmerised by the intensity of the stare of his blue-green eyes.

Nadine by contrast is a desperately sad figure, marginalised in her own life. Here she’s shocked near-senseless by an unexpected letter from her mother describing how Mrs Blunt has started buying up neighbours’ land on which to grow even more vegetables for the disabled:

Justin came into the kitchen while Nadine was trying to absorb the unexpected contents of her mother’s letter. He sat down at the pine breakfast table and started to read the papers with the nonchalance of a man in a restaurant waiting to be brought a meal.

Nadine made him some coffee and fried him some eggs.

Mrs Murphy is a bit of a cliché, but she’s a likable one and the descriptions of her war-whooping with Nadine’s children or dropping cigarette ash into her baking were small details that brought much needed (and skilfully inserted) life to the scenes where Nadine visits Mrs Blunt. I thought the depiction of her a bit patronising, but like Corrigan she’s a vital force set against the sterile insularity of Nadine and Justin and (initially at least) Mrs Blunt.

So why didn’t I like it? In short, it over-explained. With the notable exception of Corrigan the text constantly told me what people felt and why they felt it. Look back to that quote above regarding Nadine and her parents. It’s well written, but it’s basically exposition. Most of it is much more obvious than that.

If I’m reading some plot-driven thriller then I don’t mind if the author explains everything because it’s all about the story and I’m just looking to be entertained. With serious fiction though I like to have something to do, something to contribute. Here I felt extraneous.

As the book nears its close Nadine’s best friend gets involved trying to resolve the situation and is there to see how things finally shake out. She then sits down with Nadine and literally explains how she sees the other characters’ motivations and how Nadine should view them all. Of course, the friend is just another character in the fiction, but there was no unreliability in her and it seemed very much that Blackwood was essentially telling me what to think about what had happened. I didn’t disagree, but I’d have liked the chance to form my own conclusions.

Corrigan leaves nothing for the reader to do. There’s nothing to interpret and no ambiguities – most motivations are bluntly described as they arise and those that aren’t are summed up by the friend at the end. It’s obvious that Corrigan’s not what he appears and it’s equally obvious that ultimately his lies don’t matter against the new life he gives Mrs Blunt. Blackwood though spells all that out, and in doing so makes this a lesser book.

The afterword and other reviews I’ve read make a great deal of the fact that nobody here turns out to be quite what we expect; that relationships may not be as they appear. I think that’s oversold. Corrigan’s twisted dishonesty with genuine affection is clearly better than Justin’s pompous honesty with genuine indifference, but that’s obvious and I thought the book was too.

Other reviews

Only this one that I’ve seen, from Seraillon, who says absolutely loves this and says that only the “most rigid of teetotalers” might not find it enjoyable. Hopefully for most that’s right, but I was bored.

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Blackwood, Caroline, Irish fiction

A place should never for too long go against its nature.

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.

City of Bohane is a swaggerer of a novel. It opens with that paragraph above, with one of the punchiest first lines I’ve read in a while, then we’re into prose with the rhythms of spoken word. That’s how you open a novel. No argument.

City-of-Bohane

City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. It won him the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and favourable reviews nearly across the board. Not bad for what on paper at least is a fairly straightforward and highly cinematic noir-sf novel. It’s a reminder of a truth that always bears repeating. It doesn’t matter what a book’s about, what genres you can box it into or influences you can point to. What matters is if it’s any good.

The year is 2053 and we’re in the (fictional) Irish city of Bohane, named after the Bohane river and sitting on the edge of the Big Nothing bog. Ostensibly anyway, but in a sense none of that is true. In some ways the novel could just as well have been set in 1950s’ Cork, but then Barry would have had less freedom to invent, to make the familiar strange and new.

City of Bohane is set in 2053 because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular time (people use typewriters, not computers, nothing’s digital). It’s set in the City of Bohane because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular place (apparently he based the geography on Porto, in Portugal). This isn’t then a novel of time or place in the usual way, but rather it’s a dream Ireland, a movie Ireland. Barry is avoiding the limits of fact so that he can create a contemporary myth.

As I write this, it’s been around six weeks since I read Bohane. Since then I’ve read some poetry, a Kate Wilhelm SF novel, a Charles Willeford crime novel, an Elena Ferrante, a William Gibson and a volume of Proust. Even after all that, as soon as I turn my mind to it the characters and style of Bohane come rushing back to me, still vivid, still alive.

Logan Hartnett leads the Hartnett Fancy, a criminal gang that run much of Bohane with the bought complicity of the local politicians and press. He’s a tall and slender man, known as “the Long Fella”, dapper and deadly.

There’s been peace in Bohane, or as much peace as it sees, for a good few years now. That’s about to end. There’s trouble with the Northside Rises, slum estates run by their own semi-feudal gangs. They’re eyeing Logan and his territory with growing ambition.

At the same time, word has it that the Gant has returned, Logan’s old rival from decades back. Logan ousted the Gant from the city, and took the Gant’s girlfriend as his wife. Now Logan’s own lieutenants, Wolfie and Fucker Burke, and the inimitable but much-imitated Jenni Ching, are starting to wonder if his heart’s in it any more and if not if there might soon be room at the top.

Think HBO. Think series like Deadwood or The Shield or Boardwalk Empire. Those are the influences here. It’s that classic set-up of the aging boss pressed on all sides and from below at the same time. Set up the box-set next to the DVD player, sit back and watch the peace explode.

If City of Bohane were just a highly cinematic novel of gang politics and violence in a fictionalised Ireland it might still be very good, but it probably wouldn’t be winning literary prizes. The reason it did is the language, which crackles.

Above De Valera Street the sun climbed and caught on each of the street’s high windows and each whited out and was blinded by the glare; each became a brilliant, unseeing eye. The light seemed to atomise the very air of the place. The air was rich, maritime, nutritious. It was as if you could reach up and grab a handful of the stuff. The evil-eyed gulls were antic on the air as they cawed and quarrelled and the street beneath them was thick with afternoon life.
Yes and here they came, all the big-armed women and all the low-sized butty fellas. Here came the sullen Polacks and the Back Trace crones. Here came the natty Africans and the big lunks of bog-spawn polis. Here came the pikey blow-ins and the washed-up Madagascars. Here came the women of the Rises down the 98 Steps to buy tabs and tights and mackerel – of such combinations was life in the flatblock circles sustained. Here came the Endeavour Avenue suits for a sconce at ruder life. The Smoketown tushies were between trick-cycles and had crossed the footbridge to take joe and cake in their gossiping covens. The Fancy-boy wannabes swanned about in their finery and tip-tapped a rhythm with their clicker’d heels. De Valera Street was where all converged, was where all trails tangled and knotted, and yes, here came Logan Hartnett in the afternoon swell. He was …
Gubernatorial.

That’s a long quote, but I included it because it captures the cinematic (the defining word of this review) feel of the book. Like a David Simon series there’s little explanation here, the reader has to work out the language and the slang from context as they go along. Where are the Back Traces? What exactly is Smoketown? Where is Endeavour Avenue in relation to all this? None of it is explained, but then none of it needs to be because as you settle into the rhythms of Bohane it all starts to come together and after a while the slang of Bohane, like the slang of Baltimore, feels natural.

Let’s take another example. Here a secular prayer by the unnamed narrator:

Oh give us a grim Tuesday of December, with the hardwind taking schleps at our heads, and the rain coming slantways off that hideous fucking ocean, and the grapes nearly frozen off us, and dirty ice caked up top of the puddles, and we are not happy, exactly, but satisfied in our despair.
It is as though we can say …
Now!
D’ye see, now, what it is we are dealing with?

No wonder Irvine Welsh liked it.

The book thrums with beautiful turns of phrase, though beautiful isn’t quite the right word, perhaps resonant would be better. Take a sentence like “A pair of goons were arranged in violent lethargy by its stairwell entrance.” I love that use of “violent lethargy”. It sounds contradictory, but it’s no mere linguistic trick because I can picture exactly what he means: A brooding intent, a casual inherent violence ready to be unleashed at the smallest provocation.

At times Barry almost takes it too far. I noted this sentence: “Emptied wine sacks filled every gutter and diamonds of broken glass – Bohane gemstones – sparkled on the sidewalks.” At the time I read it I was impressed by the imagery. Reading it cold now it looks overblown and dangerously close to bathos, but in context it worked.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz Alfred Döblin used then contemporary cinematic techniques to inform his fiction (particularly montage). Barry does something similar. That first quote above is essentially a wide-angle take. Barry also makes frequent use of freeze-frame close-ups, particularly when describing clothing:

Wolfie wore: A neatly cut Crombie of confederate grey above green tweed peg pants, straight-legged, a starched white shirt, collar open to show a harlequin-patterned cravat, and a pair of tan-coloured arsekickers on the hooves that’d been imported from far Zagreb (them boys knew how to make a boot, was the Fancy’s reckon; if the Long Fella wasn’t walkin’ Portuguese, he was walkin’ Croat).

That’s fairly typical. When characters have been off-screen for a while, or something dramatic is about to happen, the action pauses and the text focuses in, describes in detail their clothes, boots, jewellery. Barry builds his world through accessories. What the characters wear is as important as what they do.

As you’d expect there’s some tremendous set-pieces. A gangland execution by Logan Hartnett is almost difficult to watch (sorry, read). A pitched battle between rival gangs is described entirely through photos being developed after the fact by a local journalist. The plot builds and thickens and as you get used to the characters in play Barry introduces a few more, each sharply drawn, so that by the end there’s a full and memorable cast.

The one drawback with Barry’s intensely cinematic world is that visual dramas tend to use shorthand, and shorthand tends towards stereotypes. People here are largely as you’d expect them to be. The Northside Rises are inhabited by semi-feral sink-estate dwellers straight out of a Daily Mail headline. The police are lunk-headed farmboys from the Irish interior. That’s all fine and works pretty well, but I was a little troubled by the “sand-pikeys”, a caricature of a traveller community straight out of a Mad Max movie speaking in cod-Jamaican patois and steeped in superstition and violence.

Ireland has a long history of discrimination against traveller communities, and “pikey” for those who don’t know it is a seriously offensive (and arguably racist) word. To have it used here for a group who seem to follow the stereotype is questionable, a little like a US novel featuring a group of casually violent but not very bright African-Americans. It’s not that you can’t do it, Chester Himes’ excellent Harlem Noir series has characters exactly like that (but not only like that). It’s just that when you put those characters in your book you are tapping in to some very unpleasant history and, potentially, prejudice.

Even with that potential sour note, this is still one of the freshest books I’ve read this year. It takes elements of SF, noir, and contemporary US drama and mixes them together as Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner back in the ’80s to create something new yet strangely familiar. I’ll end with one final quote:

A demon vision was to be seen come nightfall. From atop the high dunes, led by Prince Tubby, came a line four-dozen strong of sand-pikeys, and they were armed for Feudin’.
Carried hatchets and iron bars and lengths of ancient fender and blackthorn sticks soaked in brine for the hardness and bricks and shkelps and rocks and hammers and screwdrivers and they carried these items with a lovely … insouciance.
Fucker Burke and Logan Hartnett kept to the rear of the line.
Fucker carried a forlorn and puzzled air.
Logan carried a length of rope.

Other reviews

Oddly I’ve not seen much in the blogosphere. If you know of any please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, there’s a great review at the Guardian here though, and a fairly critical review from novelist Keith Ridgway in the Irish Times here.

19 Comments

Filed under Barry, Kevin, Irish fiction, SF, Vernacular

It is a small town and it will guard you.

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

Back in 2011 I loved Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. He managed the remarkable feat of writing an engaging novel about a rather passive young woman who encounters essentially nothing but help as she makes her way through life. In lesser hands it would have been excruciatingly dull, but in fact it made my best of 2011 list.

In Nora Webster, Tóibín returns to the territory he staked out in Brooklyn. The time now is the late ’60s/early ’70s rather than the ’50s, but we’re back in the town of Enniscorthy and characters who first appeared in Brooklyn crop up in minor parts here too. Tóibín is creating his own fictional geography, as Hardy and others did before him.

NoraWebster

Isn’t that just the most godawful cover? Mercifully I read this on kindle. That Observer quote by the way is a paraphrase, and actually fairly misleading. It’s not a love story.

Nora Webster is a fortysomething widow, with two daughters each of whom has left home and two younger sons both of whom still depend on her. Her husband, Maurice, was the love of her life and died relatively young. Now she’s steeped in grief and trying to find a life without him.

Enniscorthy is a small town, one where everybody knows everybody and they all know each other’s business. As the novel opens Maurice is newly dead and Nora spends her evenings receiving visitors who are well-meaning but also nosy, each demanding her time so they can express their condolences.

Nora’s eldest son, Donal, has developed a stutter since his father’s death. The younger, Conor, seems less obviously affected but with his brother is ever-watchful and suspicious of any potential threat of further change. Both boys have been hit hard, and Nora doesn’t know how to speak to them of what’s happened or even to what extent she should.

Nora Webster shares with Brooklyn an emphasis on ordinary drama in normal lives. It soon becomes clear that Nora largely neglected the boys while Maurice was dying, so intent on trying to be there for him that she forgot they needed her too. She’s a conscientious mother though, one who has made mistakes but who cares deeply for her children.

She thought back to that time, but certain images were so filled with detail, certain hours so filled with pure, unforgettable moments, that the remaining time seemed as though it had been watched through glass covered with rainwater. Walking with Maurice into the lobby of the hospital in the knowledge that he might not come out of there alive. The moment when he had said he would like to go one more time to look at the sky and that she was to wait for him in the lobby, let him do it alone. And then the watching as he began to cry when he reached the door.

Without Maurice, Nora needs to return to work. As in Brooklyn those around the central character are largely keen to help. A friendly nun to help her back to an old job, left when she married all those years ago. She runs into a petty and domineering office manager who proves something of a small-scale enemy, but there are hints that even this foe has a humanity beyond that Nora sees. Again as in Brooklyn, there are people who may not be easily likable, but no villains.

What follows then is a gradual tale of Nora adjusting to life without Maurice. She sells their holiday home, as much because she can’t bear to return to it without Maurice as because she needs the money. She works, looks after the boys, starts to socialise again with friends and family. Nothing particularly unusual.

Eilis in Brooklyn is young and has choices. Nora has far fewer. She’s older, she’s not emigrating to a new country, she has children. She’s constantly aware of the judgements of those around her, concerned when she buys new clothes or has her hair dyed of what people will think and whether it’s too soon since Maurice’s death to consider such things. It’s not that she’s easily cowed, she’s distinctly not, but she’s one of these people and she has to live with them.

For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her [daughter]. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

What works wonderfully here is the sense that Nora and Maurice had a rich and fulfilling marriage. It’s evident she loved him deeply, and him her. A lesser novelist would make her finding her own way a voyage of self-realisation, in which she puts aside the limitations he’d placed on her so as to find her true self. Tóibín instead shows that where she had chosen one life, which meant leaving other possible lives behind, now she has to choose another life; not better or truer, merely different.

Later in the novel Nora takes up an interest in music, joining an appreciation society and taking singing lessons. Maurice had no interest in such things and would have found them pretentious, a suitable subject for gentle mocking. For all his many merits, he was a conservative man born of a conservative time and culture. One of the many threads running through this novel is the sense of small-town Ireland as a provincial place suspicious of culture or interests everyone else doesn’t already share.

Nora remembered a night in the new Assembly Hall of the Presentation Convent when Maurice and herself and Jim had gone to a fund-raising concert for the St Vincent de Paul Society. Laurie O’Keefe was conducting an orchestra. As her style grew more vigorous and expressive, Maurice and Jim began to laugh quietly and she had nudged Maurice in disapproval. Halfway through the concert Jim had to make his way to the toilet, all the while silently shaking with laughter. Nora had given Maurice a fierce look before he had to follow Jim. Neither of them returned to their seats. Afterwards, she remembered, she had found them both standing sheepishly at the back of the hall.

Tóibín is particularly brilliant in his quiet portrayal of depression, of Nora’s deep glacial grief; the impossibility of conversation after the enormity of a death.

At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived under water and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened?

Slowly though she does of course return to life. As the book progresses Nora’s character reasserts itself. It becomes apparent that in fact she’s a fairly formidable woman, determined and intelligent and held in a certain amount of fear and respect by most of those who know her. She’s too independent-minded to be easy company, with ironically her marriage to Maurice having perhaps made her more approachable with his easy manner making social inroads for the both of them.

The book becomes shot through with a certain humour, not least as Nora realises how much of what goes on around her she’s left out of because people are too intimidated by her to tell her about it. She learns of a sister’s engagement by accident through her own daughter, the sister having been too scared of Nora’s disapproval to tell her. She starts to express political opinions, something she’d previously left to Maurice and which decidedly discomfits the men around her.

Unfortunately, while there’s much here to praise, this isn’t as successful a book as Brooklyn. Partly that’s because with Nora as self-contained and closed-off as she is she tends not to talk much with the other characters, which meant that at times they became hard to distinguish. Nora and the boys are sharply defined, but her sisters and aunts blurred together for me and from time to time I had to flick back to check who someone was. That’s forgivable in something like The Luminaries, but not really in a novel as small screen as this one is.

Worse, I became utterly confused at one point by the chronology. Tóibín uses the age-old technique of having the characters establish period by reference to tv news reports that Nora or the children watch. That’s fine, except that unfortunately my knowledge of late 1960s/early 1970s Irish politics is near non-existent. At one point I thought the action had moved on by a decade or so, only realising I was wrong by the fact the boys were still in school. I had to resort to google in the end to work out what year it was.

Looking back at my comments on Brooklyn I see that I mention that I spent the first half of that thinking it was set in the 1930s rather than the 1950s. Tóibín is tremendous at evoking space, sound, how light plays in a room, but he’s frankly terrible at period. His characters exist in a timeless Ireland of memory. Both Brooklyn and Nora Webster are ostensibly set in specific decades against a specific backdrop of events, really though they’re set in the endless years of Tóibín’s own childhood.

It’ll be interesting to see how Nora Webster settles into memory. There’s much to love in it, not least Tóibín’s incredible prose which remains an utter joy to me. He can describe an empty room in a way that fills it with utter beauty.

The problems though of characterisation for the supporting cast and the muddy sense of time weakened it for me considerably. Still, Nora Webster herself is an incredible creation, an utterly credible and flawed human being who though quite ordinary is extraordinary in the way only real people can be.

Other reviews

Plenty in the press, mostly much more favourable than I’ve been above. None I’ve seen so far in the blogosphere. If I’ve missed some though please do let me know in the comments.

15 Comments

Filed under Irish fiction, Tóibín, Colm

the wild heart of life

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man2

Generally I avoid reading forewords before reading the book itself. All too often they contain massive plot spoilers, and even where spoilers aren’t an issue they can give so much direction on a book’s themes and ideas that you’re not left with the freedom to meet it on its own terms, without the weight of someone else’s scholarship. I always read them after the book, but almost never before.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Portrait has a great foreword, by Jeri Johnson. She’s a lecturer in English literature at Oxford University, a specialist on British and American Modernist literature. Her expertise shows. If you read Portrait, and it’s worth reading, read the foreword first. Yes, it tells you the ending, but frankly that doesn’t matter and you’ll avoid some of the utterly avoidable frustration I had with the book.

As I write this I’m going to share first my thoughts from my initial cold reading of the book, then I’ll talk a little about what the foreword showed me that I’d missed. Only a little, because I missed so much that the book demands a second reading. Besides, I don’t think it does books like this any favours if we all pretend we understood everything on a first read, it makes them too daunting, too much a challenge rather than a pleasure. As I sometimes say, literature isn’t like Pokemon, you don’t have to catch it all.

The quote above is the opening lines of the book, and they have probably on their own done more to put people off this than any reputation for difficulty. Portrait is divided into five chapters, each a snapshot of a period in the life of Stephen Daedalus, the artist as a young man. The first is him as a small child being sent off to school for the first time, tiny and uncertain. Of course, that’s a story you could tell in a very traditional way with a nice clear omniscient narrator telling us about Stephen’s thoughts and experiences, but Joyce opens with something much more interesting. It’s third person narration, but written with the vocabulary and understanding of Stephen Daedalus as a baby, as a small child.

This is the stream of consciousness often alluded to when people discuss Joyce, but it’s not quite that simple. This isn’t an internal narrative stream, as for example in Arthur Schnitzler’s marvellous Fraülein Else. That book is stream of consciousness, the entire text is the interior monologue of its central character. Here though it’s “His father told him that story” – his and him, but in his own language. It’s as if the tools Joyce has to tell his tale are those Stephen has to voice his own thoughts, and following that the language gets more sophisticated in each chapter so reflecting Stephen’s own development.

If you can get past that first paragraph, the shock of it, what follows is brilliantly written. Stephen’s mind jumps about from topic to topic, questioning a world he barely understands and making connections an adult might well struggle to follow. The language is playful, fun even, and once I’d got a sense for the style it was a pleasure to read (the rhythm of the text works better by the way if you read it with an assumed Irish accent).

The bell rang and then the classes began to file out of the rooms and along the corridors towards the refectory. He sat looking at the two prints of butter on his plate but could not eat the damp bread. The tablecloth was damp and limp. But he drank off the hot weak tea which the clumsy scullion, girt with a white apron, poured into his cup. He wondered whether the scullion’s apron was damp too or whether all white things were cold and damp. Nasty Roche and Saurin drank cocoa that their people sent them in tins. They said they could not drink the tea; that it was hogwash. Their fathers were magistrates, the fellows said.

I was particularly impressed by a bravura scene of a Christmas dinner where the adults fall to arguing about politics, a discussion Stephen doesn’t understand at all but which imprints itself on him in all its fury and increasing bitterness. It’s one of the best depictions of an argument I’ve read in fiction. It ebbs and flows. People try to make peace, then one makes one final remark and sets it off again. It grows out of all proportion and relates to matters that nobody at the table has any influence over at all. Here it’s an argument about Parnell and Kitty O’ Shea, but it could just as well be an argument about the merits of the Iraq war or government austerity measures. The details differ, the emotions don’t.

It was there though that I started to run into problems, in particular the fact that Joyce clearly expects the reader to follow the argument even if Stephen can’t. My knowledge however of early 20th Century Irish history is scant, I’d vaguely heard of Parnell though without context and never of Kitty O’ Shea, and I had to put the book down and check wikipedia to work out what the hell they were all talking about. Naturally, Jeri Johnson explains that context neatly in her foreword, which I hadn’t read.

That summarises what for me was a key difficulty with this book, one that led to me taking to twitter half-way through asking who else had read it and if they’d actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of assumed contemporary knowledge here. Joyce assumes a broad familiarity with what would have been the Irish current affairs of the day, as well as with the broad principles of the Catholic faith.

Since half my family are Catholic and I have links to Ireland I’m probably a bit more aware of some of those currents than the average contemporary non-Irish reader, but not by much. The simple fact is that without notes there’s an awful lot in this book that’s obscure now not by virtue of the language, which is actually much easier than you’d imagine, or because of the structure or anything else a reader would normally associate with a supposedly difficult book, but simply because the world it’s set in is so very specific and so very long ago. It’s a key reason I think why this is a book more studied than read.

Once I accepted that there was simply going to be a fair bit going on that I wouldn’t understand the significance of my enjoyment of the book picked up again. Are there frequent allusions to Dante’s Inferno? There are? A shame I haven’t read it then. Are there subtleties in terms of the competing philosophies and demands of the Church and Irish nationalism? Well, even I can see that there are, even if the particulars are now as obscure to me as the debate between the big-endians and little-endians of Lilliput and Blefuscu.

The chapters that follow seem almost random in their choice of subjects, but that’s because life isn’t merely a series of this happened then that happened then something else happened. The chapters focus on key moments of Stephen’s youth, eliding over the links and gaps between one episode and the other. Generally you can fill in what’s left out, because generally it’s clear that what’s been left out is fairly ordinary. We don’t see Stephen progressing through his schools – he’s a junior at one school and next chapter a senior at another, his family having moved as their fortunes have declined, but we hardly need Joyce to tell us what it’s like to go through a few years of education particularly since the first chapter established the nature of the priest-run schools Stephen attends; the manner of tuition, the meals, routines, crimes and punishments.

Always though Joyce’s observations are acute. I’ve not felt myself inside the head of a small boy so persuasively since I was one, when of course I gave it no thought at all.

Chapter 3 contains perhaps the most obviously impressive example of Joyce’s writing. By this point in the narrative Stephen is a teenager who has taken to sleeping with prostitutes and to focusing more on his appetites than his mind. He is sent with the rest of his class to a Catholic retreat, where he is treated to an extended sermon on the properties of Hell. The speech is intended to terrify the boys, to drive them back into the protective embrace of orthodoxy and the Church. It works, Stephen is terrified, and I wasn’t surprised because it’s so well written I felt chilled myself. Here’s two long, but in the context of the whole sequence very short, excerpts:

Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

And

—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words: ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O what a dreadful punishment!

It’s impossible though with a couple of quotes to capture the power of this section. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, detailed near-forensic description of the sufferings of Hell. It’s claustrophic to read, a mid-book harrowing of Stephen. For a while he even considers entering the Church himself, becoming a priest, but of course as the title of the book itself tells us that isn’t where his true vocation lies.

Language is a recurring theme in the book, even from the first chapter when Stephen is too young to be aware of how he uses it. As the book advances though he becomes more conscious of it, of words themselves and the meanings and associations they carry and of how they may be used.

Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

He falls into debates, with friends, with his dean of studies, as to the nature of art and the role of the artist. They’re often rather pretentious and adolescent conversations (Stephen at one point inwardly considers himself as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”, a wonderful but rather portentous phrase), but then when he was a baby the text reflected that so is it so strange it should reflect also the grand sweeping certainties of adolescence? Whatever its level though the language remains beautiful. Here are some more scattered quotes, lines I thought worth sharing lest anyone reading this thinks the book just a clever puzzle requiring intellectual but not emotional response:

From under the wide falling leaf of a soft hat Cranly’s dark eyes were watching him.

Or

Cranly pushed solemnly through the throng of students, linking Stephen and Temple like a celebrant attended by his ministers on his way to the altar.

Or indeed:

The park trees were heavy with rain and rain fell still and ever in the lake, lying grey like a shield.

You can see the religious imagery that runs through the book very clearly in that second quote there (and the Eucharist metaphor in the quote above about the priest of the eternal imagination). The first and third quote though, those are simply lovely, words made supple and evocative.

Portrait is a novel of an artist emerging. Stephen faces claims of nationalism, religion, bonds of family and friendship and the body’s own insistent demands and through it all devotes himself to his ideal of art. That makes it sound worthy, but it’s not because the physical is always present, because those other claims and demands are so real and vital.  I’ll include one final quote:

It was not thought nor vision though he knew vaguely that her figure was passing homeward through the city. Vaguely first and then more sharply he smelt her body. A conscious unrest seethed in his blood. Yes, it was her body he smelt: a wild and languid smell: the tepid limbs over which his music had flowed desirously and the secret soft linen upon which her flesh distilled odour and a dew. A louse crawled over the nape of his neck and, putting his thumb and forefinger deftly beneath his loose collar, he caught it.

There’s a tremendous sensuality there in those first few lines, as Stephen contemplates the girl’s smell, her “tepid limbs” and “secret soft linen” (and no prizes for guessing where his thoughts are trending when he imagines her distilling “odour and a dew” onto that linen). Suddenly though there’s that louse, a quotidian irritant intruding on his flight of desire. For me that passage contained a heart of the book (not its only heart, but certainly a heart). It’s that clash between the mind and the body, between fantasy and reality, theory and practicality. These are the issues Stephen is grappling with here, and which Joyce is addressing of course through him.

Right, I said I’d say a bit at the end about the foreword. Well, firstly I entirely failed to notice when reading the book that, as Johnson says, “Within each chapter a similar pattern of rising action can be seen: each opens with Stephen in humility and ends with him triumphant.” I’m sure it can be seen, but I didn’t see it. This is an immensely carefully structured book, and I largely didn’t pick up on that structure as I got too bogged down in unfamiliar details of faith or politics.

The foreword brings out too quite how shocking much of the book’s content would have been when first published. Joyce touches at various points on bedwetting, masturbation, family squabbles, sex, the louse of course in that final quote above, an exuberant and vulgar physicality and normality. Of course life is physical, but when this came out none of that was seen as suitable subject matter for fiction. You don’t need to know that to appreciate the book, but it’s interesting and shows one of the ways in which Joyce pushed boundaries.

More than those specific details though, Johnson gives enough background that the context makes sense to the modern reader. As I said above I’d never have run into problems with that family argument if I’d read the foreword first, Johnson gives you what you need to know to make sense of it. She analyses how the chapters fit together, how the themes emerge and develop, but not in a way that suffocates the text but rather to illuminate it. She shows how the chapters relate to phases of Stephen’s life, why those chapters are here and not other chapters that could have been included (were included it seems in an earlier unpublished version of the book). She’s like a guide pointing out the landmarks to you before you set off on a hike, telling you to look out for this river, that unusual rock.

This is a book now somewhat obscured by its own weight and history. Partly that’s because of its reputation as being difficult, as being Joyce, is now a barrier to simply reading it. Partly too though it’s because the world Joyce sets his novel in is so very particular in time and space that it can be hard sometimes simply to understand the significance to the characters within the fiction of what’s being said. The foreword helps you past that, and when I reread this (which I hope to do) it’ll be bearing those insights in mind so that next time I’m not wandering through the territory squinting at a map trying to work out which way up to hold it and wondering if I’m still on the right trail.

25 Comments

Filed under Irish fiction, Joyce, James, Modernist fiction

nothing makes you jealous like something you didn’t actually want in the first place

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright

On its face (and by its cover) The Forgotten Waltz really isn’t my sort of novel. It’s a story of an affair and the impact it has on the marriages and families of those affected. Middle class adultery – Hampstead Novel territory, everything I dislike in what too often passes for literary fiction in the UK.

The truth is, if it hadn’t been for my #readwomen2014 project (see my post on it here) I might well never have read this – the subject matter has so little interest that it would likely have deterred me (even despite great reviews from bloggers such as Kevinfromcanada, John Self’s Asylum, Reading Matters and others).

Here’s the cover, with an attractive younger woman looking wistful and sad. The narrator by contrast is in her mid-30s, plump, cheerful and funny.

97d2f99a-f29d-418e-a606-6eb7a73a13bd

“Achingly brilliant”, “Tender”, “A love story for our times”. God it sounds awful. All that and Enright won the Booker too, could it be made to seem any more tasteful?

Mercifully, what follows isn’t tasteful at all. Instead it’s a story of a fairly banal affair, but told in a refreshingly spiky and unrepentant way, peppered with sharp observations and asides. It opens disquietingly:

IF IT HADN’T been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive.

The narrator is Gina, who anyway isn’t particularly looking to be forgiven. The child belongs to Seán, the man she had an affair with, the man she’s now living with. The story is how that happened, what it did to Gina’s husband, Seán’s wife, to the child too. It’s not really a story though, more just some things that happened, some lives:

I can’t be too bothered here, with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

You’ll see below what looks like some massive spoilers in terms of what happens. They’re not – as the quote above indicates this isn’t a story where you read to find out what happens. You know what happens from the beginning, just not how it happened. Every chapter somehow seems to contain the whole thing, just from different angles as Gina turns it all around in her mind.

The backdrop is the recent Irish boom and collapse (the events in the book span roughly 2002 to 2009). Gina works for an internet company, her husband Conor works online from home, Seán is a consultant, Ireland’s a Celtic Tiger and everyone’s making money even if nobody’s actually doing anything particularly concrete. It’s a heady time.

Gina first meets Seán at a party hosted by her sister. Nothing comes of that first meeting. Gina moves on, marries Conor whom she loves though not with any deep passion, but she and Seán are part of the same circle and they’ll meet again. Later Gina will invest significance in that first meeting, but there really doesn’t seem to be any. If it hadn’t been Seán it might well have been someone else, and she’s definitely not Seán’s first affair – just the first to be made public.

Gina and Seán are products of their time, a buoyant seemingly consequence-free time where nobody looks too hard at the underlying fundamentals and everything’s fine as long so the markets keep heading up. Gina’s smart, but she’s not reflective, and anyway why should she be when everything’s going so well? She’s a lucky woman at a lucky time. Enright captures brilliantly that sense of finding yourself somehow having become independent, responsible, in your 30s even, when inside you’re the same as you ever were. She captures equally well the artificiality of ordinary life:

Fiona keeps expecting me to help because I am her sister. She passes with an armful of plates and shoots me a dark look. Then she remembers that I am a guest and offers me some Chardonnay. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I’d love some, thanks,’ and we chat like grown-ups. The glass she fills me is the size of a swimming pool.

Of course they are grown-ups, all of them. The only person who isn’t is Evie, Seán and Aileen’s child, who has ongoing health issues and is about to see her parents break up through all this. That isn’t to say the adults all share the fault here, if there’s fault to be handed out it belongs squarely with Gina and Seán. Conor is the only genuinely sympathetic character in the book (and even he’s a bit of a man-child) and Aileen’s worst feature is perhaps being a bit boring, a bit staid.

[Aileen] wasn’t as old as I remembered, though she sported some very middle-aged lipstick, pinkish and pearlised, on her unprepossessing, useful face. She was wearing a black Issey Miyake pleats dress edged with turquoise, and the collar stood up around her neck in a sharp frill. It made her look like some soft creature, poking out of its beautiful, hard shell.

The pleats dress is typical of Gina’s/Enright’s eye for detail. It’s exactly what a successful middle class woman might wear – it’s professional, conservative yet still innovative (I have to admit here I’m actually rather fond of Miyake’s stuff which I think treads the careful balance between creativity and wearability particularly well). It leads too though into that wonderful image of Aileen as some kind of lovely but fragile animal, perfect but too easily broken.

There isn’t a particularly good reason for the affair. Gina runs into Seán at an overseas conference. They have a one-night stand. Later, back in Ireland, he works for a while as a consultant to her company and they meet again. Their affair is ordinary. It’s not love, it’s sex. The angriest she gets with him is when she sees an internal management report he’s written where he says that she’s “‘most ideally suited to a secondary role'”. We’re not in Romeo and Juliet territory here.

What’s works here is precisely what in a less well written novel might have had me throw the book aside. The utter ordinariness, banality even, of it all. Gina has no real insight into her own motives, she contradicts herself constantly on how she feels, what she desires. She knows she does this and she doesn’t care, her gaze is focused outwards. For me this made her all the more convincing and often rather likeable (I said she wasn’t sympathetic, but then I don’t think she’d want sympathy much). Here she is after the affair has started

At home, I was cross with Conor all the time. How could he be with me all evening, eat Indian takeaway, watch ‘The Sopranos’, and not realise the turmoil I was in? If love was a kind of knowledge then he could not love me, because he hadn’t the faintest clue. It was a strange feeling. Some fundamental force had been removed from our love; like telling the world there was no such thing as gravity, after all. He did not know me. He did not know his own bed.

Seán isn’t particularly attractive, imaginative or funny. His best feature is his confidence, often manifested rather unpleasantly in his controlling behaviour, but Gina’s hardly a passive and easily-swayed victim. He’s actually not much of a catch – successful but a married man with a child and a history of infidelity. If he cheated on Aileen there’s no reason to believe he won’t do the same to Gina. Again, he’s ordinary. If you’ve worked in an office you’ve worked with men like him.

The economic backdrop of course adds interest to all this. These characters are headed for a reckoning, but it’s not really a reckoning of their own doing and it comes for Gina’s sister or for Aileen as much as it does for anyone else. Later in the book Gina and Seán are struggling for money, the economy’s collapsed and they’re trying to sell Gina’s mother’s house but nobody’s buying anymore no matter how much they drop the price. Everyone’s hurting though, not just them.

It would be easy to see all that as a consequence of what’s gone before, and of course at the macroeconomic level it sort of is – a national hangover after a too-long party where nobody asked the right questions.At the level of individual lives though that’s reading too much in. Rather it’s just stuff that happens – Gina has a great job and a successful marriage; Gina has an affair; the Irish economy collapses; Gina and Seán leave their respective partners for each other; Gina ends up looking part-time after Seán’s kid that she never had any great interest in or rapport with. You can connect it all if you wish, draw some moral implication, but Enright isn’t that facile. It’s just life.

It’s also thoroughly, delightfully, unromantic. Each chapter is titled with a love song, but the sentiment that suggests is utterly undermined by the practicality of hotel room hookups and arrangements over childcare. Love songs anyway don’t fit with Gina’s gleeful sense of the absurd, of the ludicrousness of it all:

“I just can’t believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.”

Except, of course, that it’s not ludicrous. It’s not ultimately all that funny. A child was involved after all, a fact which underlines that actually all this does matter, that there are consequences after all, that there is fallout for Evie and for Aileen and Conor and many others. In the end, the fact that a child was involved makes everything that much harder to forgive.

18 Comments

Filed under Enright, Anne, Irish fiction

a style of scrupulous meanness

Dubliners, by James Joyce

Dubliners is a portrait of paralysis. In the first story it’s a literal paralysis, the last illness of a dying priest. It extends beyond him though, to a much wider moral, political and national paralysis. Both the entire collection and each story within it is superbly written and observed. It’s a book with a mammoth reputation, that even so isn’t praised as much as it should be.

Dublinersactual

Dubliners consists of fifteen short stories, told from the perspectives of increasingly mature protagonists (moving from children eventually to married adults). Some are easily read by anyone, with only perhaps the odd word of period slang to cause any difficulties. Some (particularly Ivy Day in the Committee Room) are hard to follow without at least some knowledge of 1914 Irish current affairs (which I distinctly don’t have).

This isn’t a collection where you should read one story, pause for a few days then return later to read another, spacing them out and perhaps interspersing them with other books. While there are no real links from one tale to the next there is a cumulative effect here which is greater than any of the individual parts. Each story stands alone, each is exceptional, in combination though they form a masterpiece.

Joyce’s Dublin is a colonised city, an occupied city. It’s a provincial place, not yet the Dublin of international literary fame that decades later this book in part helped it become.

Lives here revolve around three key Ps: priests, pubs and propriety. By priests I don’t mean faith – the Church is simply another social institution that provides rules to live by but no vision to be inspired by. Over the course of the stories Joyce turns his eyes to religion, politics and literature among other things, but none of it offers any real escape from a timid and tawdry Ireland.

To an extent then this is state of the nation stuff, but if that’s all it were nobody would read it now. Who cares after all about the state of a nation a century past, before its independence, before it found its own identity? Part of Joyce’s brilliance is that he shows that a nation is simply its people, and here it’s his focus on his characters’ inner experience that makes this timeless. Well, that and the writing.

Joyce enters the thoughts of children, of drunks and scoundrels, of young men and women both, of mothers ambitious for their daughters and husbands jealous of their wives’ past loves. There’s a fierce interiority here, literature as a profound telepathy taking us inside another’s experience and through it illuminating something wider.

Often much of the content of a story is left unsaid. In one, An Encounter, two boys out for the day meet a man who seems more interested in them than is entirely natural. He leaves them briefly, the strong implication being that he goes off to masturbate nearby, then he returns and the conversation moves into uncomfortable territory:

He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him.

Nothing really happens. Once or twice as a child myself I met men like that. Men who seemed to have an odd interest in talking to me, and whose chosen subjects of conversation weren’t those you’d normally raise with children. One once worried me so much I went into the nearest shop and asked the manager to hide me until he’d gone. After a while he went, so I went on my way.

The Encounter opens with children playing wild west games and reading pulp western and detective novels. The two boys go in search of real adventure, the narrator saying that “The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”

Dublin though has no real adventure. Instead it has poverty, sectarian division, sailors who do travel to distant places but to whom the boys never speak, and a random pervert.

I could easily write 2,000 words or more just on An Encounter, and countless academics of course have. These are stories that are as rich as the time you want to give them – every one of them could easily have an essay written on it that would be much longer than the story itself. It isn’t necessary though, and arguably isn’t desirable, to approach them with antennae alert for symbolism and technique.

This quote is from the story A Little Cloud. In it a dissatisfied man with a young family meets up again with an old friend who’s made a success of himself in London since they last met.

He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.

I found that paragraph almost unbearably painful. There’s a whole marriage-full of needless incomprehension captured there. A popular theme in pre-pill literature was the writer’s (male writer’s, they were always men) fear of the pram in the hall; of domesticity as enemy to art and of wives who cared more about paying for the weekly shop than they did about literature or music or whatever. A Little Cloud explores that fear, but questions it too because that pram is an easy thing to blame.

Looking back at that quote, is it the wife that’s holding the protagonist back? He’s chosen family, there’s no sense here that his wife somehow trapped him. His friend made a different choice, chose adventure (overseas, again there’s no adventure to be had in Ireland). The protagonist’s wife isn’t why he isn’t living his dreams, rather he simply didn’t have the courage to live them.

Dubliners is full of these moments of private doubt and disappointment. The drama here is not some narrative arc (many, most, of the stories end without clear resolution), instead it’s born of the intensity of private emotions – emotions all the more intense for most of them never being expressed.

Joyce has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and many of these tales would work particularly well as audiobooks. In this excerpt, from the first story The Sisters, two women discuss a priest’s recent death:

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:

—Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world.

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.

—Did he . . . peacefully? she asked.

—O, quite peacefully, ma’am, said Eliza. You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.

—And everything . . .?

—Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.

—He knew then?

—He was quite resigned.

—He looks quite resigned, said my aunt.

—That’s what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and resigned. No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.

—Yes, indeed, said my aunt.

The awkwardness of the conversation, the skipping over words too sensitive to say (—Did he . . . peacefully?), the sheer banality of the sentiments expressed, it’s all of it utterly credible and utterly dispiriting because so credible. The story shows the priest as a learned man (not something you could assume of clergy back then, I’ve no idea as to now). This though is his congregation. This is what Ireland had to offer his education. There is no mystery here, no sense of some great beyond for which he was the gatekeeper. Just sherry in front rooms and the importance of things being done properly, whatever that might mean.

As I hope that quote also showed, there’s nothing stylistically daunting here. We’re not into the wilder experimental territory of Joyce’s later works. There’s depth, but accessible depth. Joyce’s descriptions are clean and matter of fact:

He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table on which lay a double desk. A bookcase had been made in an alcove by means of shelves of white wood. The bed was clothed with white bed-clothes and a black and scarlet rug covered the foot. A little hand-mirror hung above the washstand and during the day a white-shaded lamp stood as the sole ornament of the mantelpiece.

He’s also a master at capturing people or places in a single telling, but often also very funny, sentence or phrase. These are from a range of stories:

He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders of the company until he was included in a round.

The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.

More interestingly though, even when I didn’t understand the context of a story I often found I’d still understood the mood it was aiming for. I mentioned up front that the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room was hard to follow without a knowledge of then-contemporary politics. The story deals in issues of stillborn nationalism and the gap between current politicians and the semi-mythologised Charles Stewart Parnell who died in 1891. Parnell may well be a major figure in Irish history, but I barely recognised the name and had no idea what it meant to people in the 1910s or today.

Even so, take a look at the following paragraph:

The old man left the hearth and, after stumbling about the room returned with two candlesticks which he thrust one after the other into the fire and carried to the table. A denuded room came into view and the fire lost all its cheerful colour. The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address. In the middle of the room was a small table on which papers were heaped.

I wrote a note against that which simply said “Britain after Rome”. It reminded me of the dark ages, of the sense of civilisation having left and of barbarians making fires in ruins left by better men. I’ve read up since, and it’s fair to say that’s part of what Joyce was going for. He’s a good enough writer that even though I recognised none of his references, I still felt the significance of what he was trying to convey.

It would be easy to continue, but I’m already over the 2,000 words I said I could could spend just on An Encounter, so it’s time to stop. I’ll end with a quick note on editions. I have two, the Canongate one above with the Colm Toibin introduction and a Penguin Modern Classics edition.

If you’re studying Joyce, or you’re not from the UK or Ireland and want help with what may be a lot of obscure references, then you want the Penguin version. If you’re reading as I was for pleasure then you don’t, because it has such a density of endnotes that they become an interruption to the text. The Canongate was note free, which arguably is going too far the other way. Of the two approaches I prefer the Canongate, but the Penguin notes are very helpful even if there are far too many of them (at one point an endnote explains what RIP means, which I don’t think is that difficult for most readers).

The Toibin introduction in the Canongate is exceptionally good. It has some wonderful insights (“The characters in Dubliners were consumers before they were citizens.”) and is as beautifully written as you’d expect of Toibin. The foreword is legitimately available for free at the Guardian here.

Edit: I forgot to link to Emma of Book Around the Corner’s review, which is well worth reading and which comes with an excellent discussion in the comments. It’s here.

22 Comments

Filed under Irish fiction, Joyce, James, Modernist fiction

I don’t know my husband.

The New Perspective by K Arnold Price

There is a sense in which committing to another human being is among the bravest things any of us do. What if we make a life with someone, spend irrevocable decades with them, and then discover it was a mistake? What if come middle age they suddenly have a change of heart, decide to trade us in for a younger or more successful model, or we discover that for years theyve been having an affair or had hidden some deep part of themselves?

I have a fondness for horror movies, but zombies and predatory aliens aren’t real. The true terrors of our lives are much closer to home.

The New Perspective is an 84 page novella, mostly told in the first person though occasionally in third. That first person is Pattie, married to Cormac and after 26 years together in the same house they’ve finally just seen their second son married. After decades, their home is just theirs again, their children are embarked on their own lives and Pattie and Cormac are free to just enjoy each other’s company.

Their marriage has been a strong one. They have few arguments, they are still physically attracted to each other (though sex is never directly described in the novel Pattie’s sheer desire for Cormac, undimmed over the years and children, is powerfully evoked), they don’t talk much but then they hardly seem to need to because they agree so easily.

Returning home, after the wedding of their son (“a dull boy” who “has married a dull girl” reflects Pattie, somewhat against her will) Pattie is suddenly shocked to see the home they had made for themselves over all those years. How little it now fits her:

What checks and chills me is that I come home unexpectingly, and suddenly it is not home, it is an unlikeable house stamped with mediocrity and choked with trivia.

This isn’t a home fit for their new life. It’s born of a more timid Pattie, furnished when she was young and uncertain. Now she’s a mature woman with years ahead of her. It won’t do.

They move (the novel is structured into three sections, around three homes they live in). They agree to buy their new home without even needing really to discuss it – they visit it and inspect the rooms and consider what they would do to it and without need of direct discussion know that they will buy it. Once there they begin to transform it, and it them.

Internal walls are knocked down, rooms are decorated sparingly yet tastefully, the garden is planned and planted. Pattie comes to it all with colour charts for the rooms and images of heather atop stone garden walls but the reality is frustratingly obdurate – there are too many choices of colour and each changes its appearance as the day progresses, heather won’t grow where she wills it to – but in the end it is done and it is beautiful.

This quote is, I think, quite heartbreaking:

At the beginning of the summer Pattie decided that they would eat Sunday morning breakfast in the courtyard when the weather was suitable. She gloats over her garden furniture. The young trees she has bought are still very young but the tubs they stand in are freshly painted and look very nice. One bright Sunday morning when the sun is dazzling on the white walls and the white table, Pattie puts some of her dark crockery on the table and a bowl of fruit. She brings from the kitchen a tray containing brown bread, butter, honey and tea. Then she stands under the window of the landing and calls to Cormac. After an interval Cormac puts a tousled head out the window, smells the sharp morning air and disappears.

Pattie sits at the table and begins to eat brown bread and honey. After some minutes she hears movements in the kitchen and then domestic noises – a mile clatter of utensils and crockery. She finishes her light breakfast and walks into the kitchen. Cormac is seated at the table in his dressing-gown with a plate of fried eggs and bacon in front of him.

It’s not a flawless piece of prose (the young trees are still very young, not sure the first “young” is needed there) but it’s immensely powerful. The scene is beautifully painted – the light, the freshness, the bread and honey. Then the noise from the kitchen and the keen disappointment. Indifference is much worse than arguments.

Pattie thought she and Cormac didn’t need to speak because they knew what each other were thinking, but what if he simply never cared that much what she was thinking? She thought they reached the same decisions without need of discussion, but what if Cormac just didn’t care about the things she decided on? She thought they were in love because they still regularly have sex, but does that necessarily follow?

Once in the new house, Cormac buys a violin and reveals that he played as a youth but had to give up due to a family crisis. He had never mentioned any of this, in all their long years together. If that, if Cormac plays the violin, what else is there in Cormac’s past that was never shared? Pattie thought their life without children would be about each other, but Cormac wants to rediscover his long-delayed love of music. Where does Pattie fit into that? She talks of wanting to learn Italian to read Dante, but nothing comes of it (really I think it’s there because of the extraordinary appositeness of the opening lines, about being in the middle of life and finding oneself lost in a dark forest with the straight path lost).

That’s a lot for 84 pages, and it’s absolutely to this novella’s credit that it packs so much in. It’s a devastating book in its way. A discovery that the heart of a marriage may be missing, may never have been there. Fiction by female authors on this sort of topic is sometimes categorised as women’s fiction, a category I find actually fairly objectionable because really what about this isn’t universal? It’s fiction which goes to the worst fears we can really face, rather than those fears which comfort us because they will never happen.

The New Perspective isn’t without flaws. Pattie is supposed to be a small town librarian in rural Ireland, and she describes herself and her husband as “ordinary” and “not intellectual”. Despite that she uses words like “parousia” (I don’t know, I’ll google it at some point), references Plato and reads Svevo and Moravia. Those feel to me more the interests of someone who is say a student and occasional scholar of modern literature and a published poet and author, which is what K Arnold Price was.

Worse, Price makes heavy use of italics for emphasis, of exclamation marks and of ellipses and the result of all these is frequently to tell the reader how to read the sentence. I found them intrusive, and given her skill unnecessary. I admit I have a particular dislike of overused exclamation marks, but it did feel like the book wasn’t giving me space to interpret it, but rather insisting on a sole authorial interpretation. A book though which is capable of only one interpretation ultimately struggles to merit rereading.

Despite those criticisms there is still a lot to recommend here and I’m grateful to Will of Just William’s Luck for alerting me to it. His review is here, and it also made his end of year list for that year. Colm Toibin, whom I hold in huge regard, is also a fan and talks about it some way down the page on this Guardian article.

12 Comments

Filed under Irish fiction, Novellas, Price, K Arnold

It was like difficult music heard for the first time.

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett

Murphy has one of the most arresting opening sentences I’ve read.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

I’ve barely started the book and already there’s a sense of futility, of inevitability. It’s a jarring sentence, both in terms of content and structure. It left me immediately unsettled.

What follows is no more comforting. Here’s the entire first paragraph of Murphy:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.

Already Beckett is ignoring many of the customary rules of fiction. The paragraph is deeply repetitive. It takes a fairly long time to tell us very little in terms of solid information. Murphy lives in West Brompton in a condemned mews in a residential area. Shortly he will have to move. That’s it. You could pull out a little more, but in terms of bare fact there’s not a lot more to say.

Dig a little deeper though and there’s something more interesting. There is the phrase “Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free”. What does that mean? Is he not free? Is there something special in how he sits? When Murphy sits “out of it” is that just out of the sun or out of it in some wider sense?

Murphy lives “in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.” The only distinction between one set of cages and another is Murphy’s presence in one and in the differing aspects. But who cares what aspects they have? As a reader what use is knowing an aspect?

Then too there is the sense of routine which is created by the words “eaten, drunk, slept and put his clothes on and off”. It’s a routine that’s shortly to be transplanted to “quite alien surroundings.” If though this mews is so indistinguishable from its surroundings what does it matter if Murphy is transplanted?

So many questions from just one paragraph. The book’s barely begun.

The story here is both notional and absurd. Murphy is an Irishman living in London. He is attractive to women, though there’s no reason he should be. He and various other characters pursue each other and are pursued while holding conversations of quite remarkable irreality. Incidents may make sense in isolation, but in combination give rise to a plot which is both simple and yet hard to follow. The characters are barely distinguishable and make no attempt at credibility.

Beckett delights in language. He delights too in playing with the reader. Early on Murphy is on his own, tied hand and foot to a rocking chair. He tied himself to it, naked, and he enjoys sitting and rocking until his mind becomes quite separated from his body.

If Murphy is tied hand and foot though, and tied himself, how did he tie his last hand? He couldn’t have. Someone else must have. But nobody else is present.

Of course that’s not true. Someone else is present. Two people in fact. Beckett and me. If Murphy’s hand is tied and he couldn’t have done it and I didn’t do it logically Beckett must have done it. The author is within the book, not explicitly but necessarily.

There wasn’t a page in Murphy that didn’t contain words I didn’t know. Most books don’t have any words I don’t know. I’m a lawyer. Words are my business. Here many were deeply obscure, but I came to realise some were also just plain made up. I could stop every few sentences and research what something meant, or I could just go with the flow and accept that the language would stream around me part understood and part bearing an implied meaning from context. Sometimes the meaning, if it existed, would be (was) wholly unclear.

So then, thin characters, a flimsy plot, frequently opaque language, events that couldn’t happen as described, it’s no surprise Beckett’s not topping the bestseller lists. The traditional novel is essentially realist, and this decidedly isn’t.

What it is though is well written. Beckett apparently did better later, but there’s plenty here to enjoy. By way of example, in one passage a woman runs out on to the street having discovered a violent suicide. Beckett reflects: “Her mind was so collected that she saw clearly the impropriety of letting it appear so.”

That’s tremendously astute and for me very funny. It’s absurd that it should matter how one reacts, that one should think of such a thing at all when someone has just died. As Meursault finds out in The Stranger though how one reacts to a death can be very important indeed.

As jokes go it’s a particularly tragic one. Beckett has a vicious sense of humour. It’s not so much that he’s cruel (though at times he does tip over into cruelty) as that existence is cruel and he’s laughing at it or at us (or both) and so the laughs become uncomfortable.

Murphy is full of humour. In fact that’s mostly what makes it ultimately enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s mordant (I do love that word) observations such as in the quote above. Other times the comedy is less straightforward. I found the following paragraph again extremely funny, but I’ve read Plato. If I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d have got the joke:

Thus Murphy felt himself spit in two, a body and a mind. They had intercourse apparently, otherwise he could not have known that they had anything in common. But he felt his mind to be bodytight and did not understand through what channel the intercourse was effected nor how the two experiences came to overlap. He was satisfied that neither followed from the other. He neither thought a kick because he felt one nor felt a kick because he thought one. Perhaps the knowledge was related to the fact of the kick as two magnitudes to a third. Perhaps there was, outside space and time, a non-mental non-physical kick from all eternity, dimly revealed to Murphy in its correlated modes of consciousness and extension, the kick in intellectu and the kick in re. But where was the supreme caress?

Later there is a reference to the “beatific idols of [Murphy’s] cave”, underlining the Platonic motif. Descartes is another frequent reference point here with his famed mind-body duality (which it’s fair to say Beckett here seems unpersuaded by). I’ve read too that Spinoza is referenced, but I’ve not read Spinoza so can’t speak to that.

I’m going to digress for a moment. Murphy is a book containing an awful lot of references. I got the ones to Plato and Descartes, I didn’t get the ones to Spinoza (if they’re there). I’ve no doubt there were some I didn’t even realise I wasn’t getting.

That’s obvious here, but it’s potentially true of any book. Apparently Lee Rourke’s The Canal on some views has references in it to Leda and the Swan. If you read my review you won’t find any mention of that – I didn’t notice them. So it goes. I like to see the currents beneath a book’s surface, but I have to accept I won’t always do so. That’s not a problem. It’s a good thing. If we saw everything what room would there be for rereading? For later consideration?

Beckett plays then with language, with propriety and with philosophy. He plays too with his own role as author and with the reader’s as reader:

Miss Counihan sat on Wylie’s knees, not in Wynn’s hotel lest an action for libel should lie, and oyster kisses passed between them. Wylie did not often kiss, but when he did it was a serious matter. He was not one of those lugubrious persons who insist on removing the clapper from the bell of passion. A kiss from Wylie was like a breve tied, in a long slow amorous phrase, over bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers. Miss Counihan had never enjoyed anything quite so much as this slowmotion osmosis of love’s spittle.
The above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader.

That last sentence breaks out of the fiction. The book becomes curiously self-aware. It recognises its own artificiality. It blocks the possibility of escape into the text because as reader you cannot pass through the text into the story. Even if you could get past the tied breve (no idea) and the bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers (seriously, no idea) that final sentence makes it quite apparent that none of this is real.

I wouldn’t call Murphy an easy read. I had to think about each paragraph, often each sentence. I had to pause to consider what words meant, or might mean here. Beckett uses intentional misspellings, created vocabulary, motives so alien as to be near horrific (Murphy becomes an attendant in an insane asylum and dreams of one day himself becoming a catatonic).

At times in fact Beckett rather overdoes all this. One conversation between three characters goes on for several pages (several too many) with everything almost making sense but none of it ever quite doing so (except apparently to them, but they don’t exist and the sense they make of nonsense underlines their impossibility). Pynchon pulls that sort of thing off well. I wasn’t wholly sure Beckett did. Often the book is a delight, but occasionally one has to eat some linguistic Brussels sprouts to get to the playful literary chocolate mousse.

As the novel continues Murphy seeks to separate the mental and the physical. To retreat from the shared world into his own internal world. There is though no lasting retreat possible. If you’ve seen Waiting for Godot you know the territory. There is literally nothing to wait for. There is literally nowhere to escape to.

I said above that I understand Beckett went on to write better books. Here there is still some recognisable version of our world. There are hospitals, cafes, parks. Beckett is at his best though when playing with language and thought alone. None of his characters are, or are intended to be, sympathetic but that doesn’t excuse his rather doubtful (distasteful even) observations on, and portrayals of, women. If Murphy were to be improved it would be by less contact with Beckett’s external reality. Ironically it is when it attempts to show our world that it is least convincing.

Murphy as a character is in a sense engaged in a quest for meaning, for self-realisation even. The problem is that there is no meaning to be found. The mind is not in fact separate from the body. The world of forms does not exist. There is nothing to be realised.

Murphy the book struggles to break free from the inherent constraints of its own form (as Murphy the character tries to break free from his). The author’s invisible hand implied in tying Murphy to the chair, the asides direct to the reader, the made-up words, all of it acts to tear the novel down from within. Perhaps the last joke of Murphy though is on Beckett.

Murphy tries to undermine its own authority as a text, but ultimately it can’t do so because it relies on that very authority to make the attempt. Perhaps in the end Murphy says too much to be able to talk about nothing. Godot says less, and so more.

26 Comments

Filed under Beckett, Samuel, Irish fiction, Modernist fiction

a random collection of desperate acts

Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Troubles is perhaps the bleakest comic novel I’ve read. It opens with the narrator, unidentified, talking about the Majestic hotel which once stood on a peninsula in rural Ireland. Today, whenever that is, it’s a burnt out ruin littered with unusual numbers of small animal bones and great quantities of cast-iron bathtubs, bed-frames and lavatory bowls all showing how grand the hotel must once have been.

The unknown narrator comments that the Majestic had been in decline for some time before its end. A man named Edward Spencer had taken ownership of the hotel and managed it with the aid of a threadbare staff who catered to the limited needs of his guests and family. Those guests were a dwindling number of elderly ladies who had visited for years. Many of them had no other home. The Majestic then was a decaying hulk with only a few rooms of weak life left within it.

Troubles is the story of how a man known as the Major came to the Majestic, and what happened to him there. It’s also the story of how the British Empire lost Ireland and how ultimately it lost its empire.

This is a longer quote than I’d usually wish to include, but it gives an excellent feel for the style of language used and the sly humour that permeates the novel:

In the summer of 1919, not long before the great Victory Parade marched up Whitehall, the Major left hospital and went to Ireland to claim his bride, Angela Spencer. At least he fancied that the claiming of her as a bride might come into it. But nothing definite had been settled.

Home on leave in 1916 the Major had met Angela in Brighton where she had been staying with relations. He now only retained a dim recollection of that time, dazed as he was by the incessant, titanic thunder of artillery that cushioned it thickly, before and after. They had been somewhat hysterical – Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving. He remembered declaring that he would come back to her, but not very much else. Indeed, the only other thing he recalled quite distinctly was saying goodbye to her at an afternoon thé dansant in a Brighton Hotel. They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere. The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings.

Although he was sure he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged: a certainty fostered by the fact that from the very beginning she had signed her letters ‘Your loving fiancée, Angela’. This had surprised him at first. But, with the odour of death drifting from the dug-out in which he scratched out his replies by the light of a candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.

That quote comes from very early on and it created certain expectations for me. I had a sense of where the book was going. Yes, I wondered who the mysterious narrator was and what part they’d have to play, but I expected a certain kind of story. A story about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. Anyone reading this probably already knows the broad outline of that story as its usually told. I just thought that here it would be well written.

Troubles is well written. It’s not though simply a novel about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. That does happen, but this is no tale of Irish whimsy.

The Major is taken to the Majestic by Angela’s brother, and then left in the hotel’s echoing lobby. Nobody greets him. Nobody takes his bag. Eventually he finds his way to the Palm Court where Angela, her father and some friends of the family are taking tea.

The Palm Court proved to be a vast, shadowy cavern in which dusty white chairs stood in silent, empty groups, just visible here and there amid the gloomy foliage. For the palms had completely run riot, shooting out of their wooden tubs (some of which had cracked open to trickle little cones of black soil on to the tiled floor) towards the distant murky skylight, hammering and interweaving themselves against the greenish glass that sullenly glowed overhead. Here and there between the tables beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines. In places there was a hollow ring to the tiles – there must be some underground irrigation system, the Major reasoned, to provide water for all this vegetation. But now, here he was.

When I talked about my expectations for the novel what I was really talking about was my expectations for its plot, and by plot I mean a sequence of events with narrative coherence and logic. A story with a beginning, middle and end.

Troubles has a beginning (the arrival of the major) and it has an end (the opening page tells the reader that the Majestic burnt down). A lot happens between those two points in time so it has a middle. Does it have a plot though? Is there narrative coherence and logic? Or is it rather a sequence of meaningless events conveniently bracketed by moments that have no ultimately greater significance than any others?

That’s one sense in which this is not a straightforward novel (though it’s not a difficult one either), and one I’ll return to. The other is that of course all this acts as metaphor. For the Majestic read British rule in Ireland, or even the British Empire itself. For Edward, his family, friends and guests read the English in Ireland, ruling over a local populace they neither understand nor respect.

As the book progresses the lines between masters and servants become blurred. The local villagers grow hostile. The Majestic sales on – a bubble of decaying order ruled by assumptions of status that the world increasingly no longer recognises.

I’ll put my cards on the table. Troubles is brilliant. In 2010 it won the “Lost Booker” prize (a retrospective prize for the year 1970 designed to cover books which lost eligibility due to a change in the prize’s rules around that time). I haven’t read every book that was eligible for the Lost Booker, but given the extraordinary quality of Troubles I’m not at all surprised that it won.

The Major gets drawn deeper and deeper into the life of the Majestic but seeing its decline does not mean he can stop it. The hotel’s structure crumbles while it becomes overrun with feral creatures: tribes of cats; soldiers serving in the black-and-tans; a pair of pretty and wilful twins who couldn’t care less for propriety as long as there are dances and new dresses to be had (Resolute Reader in his review sees them as a harbinger of the 1920s and I think he’s absolutely right).

The old order, both in the Majestic and in Ireland, is being swept away. It’s disappearing not gently, but in violence and brutality. The young are indifferent to its passing and the old barely notice it. In between are those like the Major who are old enough to be part of how things were but young enough that they still have to live in the world as it now is.

As well as all this Farrell has a marvellous turn of phrase. The Major attends family dinners where “… silence collected between the tables in layers like drifts of a snow.” Later the Major sadly observes a “… bath of peeling gilt and black marble in which, no doubt, many a bride of the last century had washed away her illusions of love.”

I wrote recently about how the comic novel fails to get the literary respect it deserves (I was inspired by a post to that effect at Tomcat in the Red Room’s blog). Troubles is the best example I could imagine of how a comic novel can also be a piece of genuinely exciting literature. It’s superbly written and operates on a number of levels but at the same time it’s extremely funny.

Farrell never loses sight of the human among the unravelling of Empire. He describes how the old ladies gain new energy putting up Christmas decorations and mounting little expeditions into the nearby village, fleeting moments of purpose. He brings out the Major’s bitterness brought back from the Great War and tamped down just out of sight. There is warmth here in the writing so that even in the face of the despair and tragedy that pervades the novel it’s possible to laugh while seeing quite plainly that really there’s nothing to laugh about.

I said I’d return to the question of whether Troubles has a plot, or just things that happen. It’s not actually the easiest question to answer. Ultimately though Troubles is subversive in part because it uses traditional narrative techniques but undermines them from within. The novel is a form of history. Like history it has a narrative, it has major characters and minor ones, it has a direction.

In truth though all that is a lie. History has only the narrative we give it. Historical periods start and end where we choose them to do so. Which individuals stand out is dependent not just on who did what but on what records remain and on the agendas of the historians researching them. The only direction history truly has is forward and that is mere fact – it isn’t a direction with purpose. History is written with narrative coherence and logic, but that’s just because that’s the only way we can understand it.

Troubles then as a historical novel reflects how history is created. Things happen, and from them a beginning is chosen and an ending. Certain characters are emphasised, certain parts of what occurs are given prominence while others remain in the backdrop. In the end though it’s all what Edward in an appeal to faith desperately wants it not to be. A random collection of desperate acts.

The Resolute Reader review I referred to is here. John Self reviewed Troubles here and wasn’t nearly as taken by it. Obviously I disagree with his view but a John Self review is never to be sniffed at. Sam Jordison of the Guardian also wrote about it here.

16 Comments

Filed under Booker, Comic fiction, Farrell, J.G., Irish fiction, UK fiction

… the kindness of strangers

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Years ago when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing I was blown away by it. It was well plotted and had interesting characters but that wasn’t what really impressed me. It was the writing. The sheer quality of it.

It’s odd then that it was years before I read another Tóibín – his first novel titled The South. I didn’t love as much but I still enjoyed it. Years passed again though and I still didn’t read more by him. I can’t say why.

A little while back now I bought a Kindle. When I loaded it up with books for some recent holidays I noticed that Brooklyn was available. I’d read a lot about it and on a whim bought and downloaded a copy. I then largely forgot about it as I always seem to forget about Tóibín. When I finished my recent Gerald Kersh though I decided I wanted something quiet and beautifully written.

Quiet and beautifully written are words I associate with Tóibín’s work. Brooklyn isn’t an exception. It’s a simple and arguably dull tale with a rather passive central character who largely goes with the flow of (not particularly eventful) events. If not for the writing it would be unreadable.

Eilis Lacey is a sensible young woman living in rural Ireland in the 1950s (and not the 1930s as I thought for the first half or so of the novel) with her mother and her older and more sophisticated sister. There are few job opportunities. Her brothers have both moved to England where they seem to be doing well but they rarely get to visit home. Eilis is studying bookkeeping, but the only job she gets is working on the floor of a local shop.

Father Flood, over from the US, notices Eilis and is unhappy that there’s nothing better available for her. After discussions with Eilis’s mother and sister they all decide that the best thing for her is emigration. Father Flood can help set her up in Brooklyn, and while she won’t be a bookkeeper immediately there either with time anything could happen.

Father Flood wrote a formal letter sponsoring Eilis and guaranteeing to take care of her accommodation as well as her general and financial welfare, and on headed notepaper came a letter from Bartocci & Company, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, offering her a permanent position in their main store at the same address and mentioning her bookkeeping skills and general experience. It was signed Laura Fortini; the handwriting, Eilis noted, was clear and beautiful, and even the notepaper itself, its light blue colour, the embossed drawing of a large building over the letterhead, seemed heavier, more expensive, more promising than anything of its kind she had seen before.

Eilis moves to Brooklyn. She stays in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house with other Irish girls and gets a job in local department store Bartocci & Company (again on the shop floor). She gets homesick, but gets over it and in time meets a local boy with whom she falls in love. As their romance develops problems back home in Ireland require her attention and that’s largely as much plot as I’ll summarise.

In terms of an individual life these are big events. Leaving Enniscorthy. Crossing the Atlantic third class in the bowels of a ship. Adapting to life in a new country. Meeting new and foreign people. Falling in love. This is what life is made of. Few of us bust crime cartels wide open, discover cures to rare diseases, race against time to save a city from disaster. Personal dramas tend to be small and private in nature and not the stuff of gripping fiction.

Tóibín then has written a novel in which things that would only really be exciting to those living them happen to a woman who though pleasant isn’t very interesting. Eilis admires her sister and respects and loves her mother. She gets along well enough with her housemates at Mrs. Kehoe’s and with the people at work. She doesn’t make waves and is happy to fit in with other’s plans.

Occasionally Eilis’s passivity backfires (there’s a tense changing room scene where it becomes apparent that the person helping her change has an interest that is more than professional in ensuring Eilis fits into a bathing costume she’s trying on). In the main though it’s not a problem because almost everyone she meets is decent and helpful.

Father Flood has no ulterior motive here. He’s just doing his best to help out someone he thought needed help. Mrs. Kehoe has her foibles, but she’s basically a good woman. Some of Eilis’s housemates are silly and some prudish but there’s little harm in them (little, but not none – I’ll come back to that). Even Eilis’s boyfriend is kind, patient and funny and wants mostly to make her happy.

Tóibín uses all this to examine the contrasts between life in rural Ireland and life in the US. Enniscorthy is small and gossipy where Brooklyn is large and anonymous. Propriety is important to people back home and there are rigid social codes and a clear heirarchy all of which seems missing in the US. When Bartocci & Company decides to allow “colored” shoppers through its doors though it becomes apparent that Brooklyn has its own heirarchies and codes which just weren’t as immediately apparent.

Brooklyn is a novel of emigration. On her way to Brooklyn Eilis stays briefly in England with one of her brothers. Her mother and sister haven’t laughed much at home since he left and it’s a joy to Eilis to see him. He has no plans to return home to a jobless Ireland but life in England isn’t easy either.

‘What are they like?’ she asked. ‘Who?’ ‘The English.’ ‘They’re fair, they’re decent,’ Jack said. ‘If you do your job, then they appreciate that. It’s all they care about, most of them. You get shouted at a bit on the street, but that’s just Saturday night. You pay no attention to it.’ ‘What do they shout?’ ‘Nothing for the ears of a nice girl going to America.’ ‘Tell me!’ ‘I certainly will not.’ ‘Bad words?’ ‘Yes, but you learn to pay no attention and we have our own pubs so anything that would happen would be just on the way home. The rule is never to shout back, pretend nothing is happening.’

In Brooklyn Mrs. Kehoe’s seems to be Enniscorthy in miniature. Father Flood’s church with its Christmas dinner for destitute Irish men is another export of home. The Irish in Brooklyn live with other Irish, look to the church for charity and succour, date and marry within their own community.

There’s a broader point being made here. The emigrant Irish try to recreate Ireland in their new home. They try in a sense not to be emigrants, which given how few of them seem to have wanted to leave isn’t really surprising. Despite their efforts though they’re not home any more. Mrs. Kehoe’s house and Father Flood’s church are surrounded by another world. The Irish keep to the Irish, but around them are the Blacks, the Jews, the Italians. All of them keep to a degree to themselves, but as they move past each other in the pot the edges of all of them are melting.

When Eilis has to return to Ireland on family business she’s become a different person. To the people she left behind she’s now glamorous and tanned. Her clothes are more fashionable and more expensive. She seems more confident, but how could she not? Emigration has changed her as it’s changed waves of emigrant Irish over generations.

This is a novel about the emigrant experience then, but it’s not just that and it’s not at all heavy handed in making its points. Tóibín has a marvellous knack for crafting dialogue and also a good eye for comedy. The scenes in the transatlantic crossing as Eilis and her bunkmate battle their neighbours for a shared bathroom are tremendous and the exchanges at Mrs. Kehoe’s dining table are vivid and neatly observed:

‘Where I’m from,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘we didn’t go out at all and none of us were any the worse for it.’ ‘And how did you meet fellows?’ Diana asked. ‘Will you look at her?’ Patty interjected. ‘She’s never met a fellow in her life.’ ‘Well, when I do,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘it will not be in a saloon bar.’

There are occasional dark undertones. I mentioned earlier that the women at Mrs. Kehoe’s weren’t entirely harmless. Nor is Eilis. The Irish community is supportive and helpful, but it’s also judgemental and snobbish and the treatment Eilis and the rest dish out to a new housemate who by their standards is of a lower class to them is ugly and petty. Eilis herself receives similar treatment from the woman who owns the shop she works in back in Enniscorthy. None of this is ultimately much more than harsh words and a bit of meanness. Like so much else here it’s significant to the person it happens to but not much more than that.

Brooklyn is a novel almost without conflict. The small rivalries in Enniscorthy and Mrs. Kehoe’s aren’t ones that are going to have any real impact on Eilis’s life. The challenges she faces are eminently surmountable. Eilis’s acceptance of what others do and plan for her means she meets little resistance along her way. All this should make it dull and I think for some readers it probably would be dull. Not for me though.

Tóibín takes an ordinary life facing ordinary issues and makes it real and compelling. It’s the prose which sells it. Brooklyn is just so well written that the lack of event was not only not a problem for me – it became a strength. What’s important at the individual level isn’t the sweep of history. That’s our backdrop. It’s those things which would interest nobody else that really matter.

Brooklyn. This has been heavily reviewed already of course. Here’s some takes on it by Kevinfromcanada, The Asylum, Themookseandthegripes and Hungry Like the Woolf. Kerry’s review at that last link knowingly contains spoilers on essentially the entire plot which allows Kerry to craft a very fine analysis of Eilis’s character – if you’ve already read the book or know you won’t it’s well worth reading. If you haven’t read it but might it’s probably best left for later. Trevor’s particularly good on a major theme of the book which I’ve not even touched on here – separation and distance.

27 Comments

Filed under Booker, Irish fiction, Tóibín, Colm