Lost souls: William Trevor, The Boarding-House

William Trevor (1928-2016), The Boarding-House. Penguin, 1968. (fp 1965)

In John, 2:18 Jesus said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. He’s predicting his death and resurrection; as such, the words represent a promise, not a threat. In William Trevor’s wickedly funny subversion of the biblical message in his 1965 novel, the proprietor of the eponymous boarding-house, Mr Bird, is more of a satanic than messianic figure, he’s a lord of misrule:

Before he died, an hour or so before the end, Mr Bird had visualized the boarding-house as it would be after his time. He saw a well-run house in the care of his two chosen champions, with all its inmates intact and present, a monument to himself. [He dozed, then woke, imagining the house was dying too] He thought that someone asked him a question, seeking an explanation for his motives and his planning. He heard himself laughing in reply…and he said aloud: ‘I built that I might destroy’. Nurse Clock had looked up from her magazine and told him to take it easy. [My emphasis]

William Trevor, cover of The Boarding-House

My battered, ex-library copy was published in 1968 and it shows

This passage shows the insidious humour of this darkly funny novel. The narrative voice is corrosively, brilliantly ironic. Bird has deliberately chosen as his heirs to the property – a ‘place of my own invention’ as he boasts to a potential inmate – two characters whose mutual hatred and twisted, selfish natures are guaranteed to bring about its dissolution – as he well knows.

Nurse Clock, who was watching over Bird’s deathbed with such bored heartlessness, is a charmless, bitter dragon who terrifies her unfortunate patients and anyone else who meets her. Even the irrepressible Bird, in one of the ‘Notes on residents’ that punctuate the narrative – he keeps a dossier on his residents that reveal his true, disdainful feelings towards them and the sinister reason why he selected them to live in his ark for desperate, lonely outsiders – says this of her:

Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.

His other chosen heir is Studdy, a mean-spirited Irish blackmailer, petty thief and trickster, foul-mouthed, crude and vulgar, a lover of lacerating innuendo – the most misanthropic of this group of lost, superfluous souls.

Bird’s legacy then is the engine of the plot. Each of his desolate residents – selected by him because they resemble him in having ‘neither family nor personal ties’ – is shown with all their foibles and weaknesses.

Bird bragged to one resident, with chilling, smug, calculating detachment, that

he had studied the condition of loneliness, looking at people who were solitary for one reason or another as though examining a thing or an insect beneath a microscope.

Yet Trevor never loses sight of the residents’ faltering humanity and consistent vulnerability. Their faults, frailty and touching desperation in a world they don’t fit in with are exacerbated not just by Bird’s nefarious schemes, succeeded by those of Studdy and Clock (who plan to evict all the residents to turn the house into a home for the elderly – these will be easier to bully and fleece), but because the world was changing:

Boarding-houses were becoming a thing of the past; bed-sitters and shared flats were the mid-century rage in London.

This dingy, decaying house, decorated throughout in the depressing colour of rich gravy, is then a ship of fools, but also a microcosm of the state of the nation at the time. Only Mr Obd, the exiled Nigerian whose faithful love is spurned, finally realises as his sanity disintegrates that Bird’s gathering together of these misfits into his house was a ‘cruel action’. He remembers Bird’s words to him on the day he arrived there; he’d said that

the solitary man is a bitter man, and that bitterness begets cruelty.

Like Barbara Pym, to whose novels this one has been likened, Trevor anatomises the marginalised, solitary souls who’ve lost connection in the modern world. Their God is a deus absconditus – or worse, if bitter, cruel Mr Bird is his incarnation. His name might imply the Holy Ghost, but he’s no Mr Weston dispensing good wine. He deals in something more vitriolic and destructive.

Trevor’s cross-section of a part of English life is darker, more surreal and less genteel than Pym’s (maybe more like Elizabeth Taylor’s darker work). These eccentrics are secretariies, clerks and district nurses, vindictive petty criminals, or a phony ex-Army ‘officers’ who frequents sleazy strip-joints, can’t hold his drink, and specialises in ‘dumb insolence’. Pathetic Miss Clerricot has spent decades waiting to be propositioned but when it appears to happen to her it’s as disastrous and farcical as the rest of her timid life.

The prose style and narrative technique owe more to Beckett and Joyce than Pym. There’s more than a touch of Sterne as well in the bizarre eccentricities of the characters and their actions, and the flitting, shifting nature of the narrative.

I hope I haven’t made the novel sound too dour; it’s outrageously, twistedly funny, but it’s the humour of Beckett’s godless tramps beneath a gallows.

 

 

 

Full of grace- John McGahern, Amongst Women

John McGahern (1934-2006), Amongst Women. Faber and Faber paperback. First published 1990, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus literary award in 1991

Michael Moran, the protagonist of John McGahern’s fine novel Amongst Women, is not an endearing character – on the contrary, he’s a bully and a tyrant in his own household and community. To his three daughters, two sons and second wife, Rose, he’s an emotionally stunted, self-pitying husk of a man. Yet McGahern is able to make us do what all the best novels do, and that is to see and understand this unlovable, tragic figure, and appreciate why his family for the most part love him with such unlikely devotion.

There’s very little plot; instead we get, in just under 190 pages, an epic, unshowy but brilliantly realised portrait of Moran’s character, and an insight into why he’s so bitter, angry and disappointed. This is apparent from the opening paragraph:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.

This opening takes place chronologically near the end of the novel’s action. What follows is a sequence of vivid flashbacks which cumulatively explain the dynamics of this family drama. First Moran’s daughters instigate a revival of Monaghan Day, the saint’s festival in the local town of Mohill (in Co. Leitrim), when he entertained with whiskey and acrid nostalgia his former subordinate, McQuaid, from their ‘column’ in the guerrilla column that fought in the bitter war of independence in Ireland in the 1920s. The girls hope that this will snap their father out of his morbid depression (‘Who cares?’ has become his increasingly frequent complaint as he’s aged). Again McGahern’s unobtrusive, scalpel-sharp prose illustrates the import of this:

McGahern Amongst Women coverThey clung so tenaciously to the idea [of Monaghan Day] that Rose felt she couldn’t stand in their way. Moran was not to be told. They wanted it to come as a sudden surprise – jolt. Against all reason they felt it could turn his slow decline around like a Lourdes’ miracle. Forgotten was the tearful nail-biting exercise Monaghan Day had always been for the whole house; with distance it had become large, heroic, blood-mystical, something from which the impossible could be snatched.

As their father’s life nears its end the daughters grow closer to him and each other:

Apart, they could be breathtakingly sharp on the others’ shortcomings but together their individual selves gathered into something very close to a single presence.

Despite his Lear-like patriarchal tyranny, the girls (more than the two boys) are drawn irresistibly back into the father’s sphere of complicated influence:

Within the house the outside world was shut out. There was only Moran, their beloved father; within his shadow and the walls of his house they felt that they would never die; and each time they came to Great Meadow they grew again into the wholeness of being the unique and separate Morans.

What slowly becomes apparent is that Moran’s problem arises from that common inability of the soldier to adapt himself to life after the war. As a guerrilla commander Moran felt he received the respect and devotion he deserved. When the war ended he was irreparably disappointed; on the one occasion he speaks of his wartime experiences to his family he complains:

“What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.”

He was unable to rise through the ranks and make a career in the army after the Truce because of his irascible, intransigent nature, his truculent incapacity for ‘getting on with people’. In a sense, then, the novel is an allegory of the state of Ireland; Moran’s imperious rule in his own house can be likened to the way his country fared after the terrible divisions of the struggle against England followed by the Civil War. His deep Catholic faith mirrors that of his country; his insistence on the family gathering each night to recite the Rosary together is a scene frequently depicted in the novel as symbolic of this patriarchal, spiritual hold. The novel’s title is taken from the Ave Maria prayer of that Rosary: Hail Mary, full of grace…Blessed art thou amongst women. It’s also amongst the women of his household that Moran holds court; he proves less able to rule his sons.

I’ve said little about the two sons, Luke and Michael, both of whom (unlike their sisters) rebel against their father – Luke more steadfastly than the softer Michael – and it’s sadly apparent that despite their desire to break free of his moody tyranny, they share many of his petulant, self-justifying, misogynistic characteristics. A constant theme in Irish literature from the turn of the 20C has been that struggle to break free of what Joyce called that ‘priest-ridden’ country. Exile and silence is the life Luke (like Stephen Dedalus) chooses over being an acolyte of his baleful father(land).

This is a fine novel, one that I found painfully haunting and enriching.

The Chaucer of Monaghan: Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1975; first published 1938)

This is I suppose an autobiography, but it reads like a novel or loosely linked sequence of short stories or vignettes about the growth of a young poet in rural Ireland.

The frontispiece gives this account of the ‘facts’ about him (in this post-truth world that translates as ‘opinions’):

PK was born in Enniskeen, Co. Monaghan in 1904, the son of a cobbler-cum-small farmer. He left school at the age of thirteen, apparently destined to plough the ‘stony-grey soil’ rather than write about it, but ‘I dabbled in verse’, he said, ‘and it became my life.’ He was ‘discovered’ by the Literary Revival veteran AE (George Russell) in 1929 and his poems began to appear in Irish and English journals. In 1936 his first book of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published.

The Green Fool followed in 1938. He published several more volumes of poetry and prose before his death in 1967.Kavanagh, The Green Fool

So what does his autobiography add to these bald facts? A great deal. We are given an intimate view of what it was like to be raised in relative poverty, from his infancy in a cradle made from an onion box through childhood learning (badly) his father’s trade as cobbler-farmer, to young adulthood as an aspiring poet.

Each of the 32 short chapters relates a different anecdote, building up a sort of collage portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce, Kavanagh is intent on doing so with more wry humour and quirky character sketches than socio-cultural perspectives.

This means the account often veers too close to whimsy. But the warmth and charm of the narrative voice just about prevented me from giving up on it. I liked ch. 6, ‘Pilgrimage’, about Paddy’s first trip to the Lady Well, a sacred pilgrim site for ‘the people of Monaghan and Cavan and Louth. It was one of the many holy wells of Ireland.’ Every year all his neighbours made the journey and returned with bottles of its holy water:

These waters were used in times of sickness whether of human or beast. Some folk went barefoot and many went wearing in their boots the traditional pea or pebble of self-torture.

Kavanagh’s account of the piety of his people is neither patronising nor reverential. This is just the way things were, he suggests – though he maintains a healthy scepticism about the many miracles attested to by the locals – ‘on whatever feeble evidence founded.’

The scene that follows reads like a prose version of Chaucer’s pilgrim tales: some were ‘going on their bare knees’ as in medieval times –

some others were doing a bit of courting under the pilgrim cloak. There was a rowdy element, too, pegging clods at the prayers and shouting. A few knots of men were arguing politics. I overheard two fellows making a deal over a horse.

The priests didn’t like this well or these demonstrations of popular piety:

They said it was a pagan well from which the old Fianians drank in the savage heroic days. The peasant folk didn’t mind the priests. They believed that Saint Bridget washed her feet in it, and not Finn MacCoole.

It’s characteristic of Kavanagh’s generous spirit that the chapter ends with the family so ‘fagged out’ when they return home at 4 a.m. that they forget all about the holy water – but the narrator concludes that Our Lady ‘was not displeased’ despite the ‘doubters’ and ‘cynics’ and ‘vulgar sightseers’ among the pilgrims:

She is kind and no doubt she enjoyed the comic twists in the pageant round Lady Well.

There’s the note of whimsy I mentioned. A shame, because this is an entertaining, heart-warming account of the growth of a poet’s mind (without Wordsworth’s transcendental portents) despite the hardships and human foibles to which young Paddy was exposed. His long walk to the hiring fair, looking for a farmer to take him on helps persuade him he’s maybe not cut out for the agricultural life. But his much longer walk to Dublin to seek out his literary heroes is far more disappointing for him.

He learns to plough his own furrow.

Clothes in Anne Enright’s ‘The Green Road’

I recently discovered the fascinating blog Clothes in Books by Moira: it does as the name suggests: explores the significance of clothes in works of fiction. As a consequence I’ve decided to postpone my intended review of Anne Enright’s excellent novel The Green Road (first published last year) until another time. Instead, hoping to whet your appetite for more, I’ll borrow her approach and look at one aspect of clothing in this family saga set in rural western Ireland, near the cliffs of Moher overlooking the Aran Islands.

My Vintage paperback copy of 'The Green Road'

My Vintage paperback copy of ‘The Green Road’

The matriarch  of the Madigan family, Rosaleen, has four children; Dan, the oldest, states his intention in the opening chapter, to his mother’s horror, of giving up college in Galway after his first year and becoming a priest. He would finish his degree at the seminary, he says.

Apart from the challenge of reconciling his family to the news, there’s the ‘small matter’ of Dan’s girlfriend, who also has to be told. He takes his 12-year-old sister Hanna with him back to Galway and introduces her to the interesting Isabelle:

“Hello,” said the woman, holding out her hand, which was covered in a dark green leather glove. The woman looked very nice. The glove went up her wrist, with a line of covered buttons along the side.

The description is given from Hanna’s viewpoint, hence the childish tone. She’s smitten by what, to her, seems a glamorous chic look. Later we’re told she had ‘a clasp in her hair made of polished wood’, which again seems the epitome of good taste to Hanna. Shortly afterwards Hanna fantasises about her romantically:

Dan’s girlfriend was a tragedy waiting to happen. And yet, those green gloves spoke of a life that would be lovely. She would study in Paris. She would have three children, teach them beautiful Irish and perfect French. She would always mourn for Dan.

When she asks her name and Isabelle tells her Hanna thinks ‘Of course. She had a name that came out of a book.’ Hanna, who grows up to be an actress, sees (or thinks she does) an enviable drama in this beautiful young woman’s appearance and manner.

On her return home she describes Isabelle as ‘beautiful’.

The reader is probably intended to feel less overwhelmed; Isabelle is simply channeling the standard student bohemian look of the period: 1980. Naive country girl Hanna has never seen such urbanity and sophistication before.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the next stage of Dan’s life. It’s New York 1991, and he has not become a priest. Instead he’s part of the gay scene, breaking hearts with his dashing good looks and Irish brogue. Isabelle is there too, and she and Dan are engaged, but the narrative voice is that of an anonymous member of this gay community who views her with cryptic suspicion:

We met the brave little wife-to-be later…She was nice. Skinny, as they often are. Slightly maverick and intense and above all ethical. She had long hair, a lovely accent, and she was writing a book, of course…As beards went, she was a classic beard. A woman of rare quality– because it takes a quality woman to keep a guy like Dan straight.

Interesting that the childish ‘nice’ is used again, but here in a passage of much more perceptive maturity. And of course the narrator is predisposed to be critical, unimpressed, the very opposite response from Hanna’s. The LGBT period slang ‘beard’ is a largely derogatory term for the sham romantic partner used to camouflage a person’s sexual orientation, and its use is sardonic here, with the grudging but comically cynical and ambiguous admission at the end that she was  attractive enough to tempt Dan away from his true destiny.

Billy, who has fallen in love with Dan, meets her for the first time a few pages later, and this description, like Hanna’s, presents his impressions through free indirect style:

…the unreliable little ribcage, with a pair of those flat little triangular breasts like flesh origami: also lumpy bits from waist to hip where her underwear was a bit too pragmatic – she would look better without, he thought, though Isabelle was not the sort of girl who would ever go without. The most surprising thing about her were the shoes, which were black to match the rest of the outfit, but with fabulous, bloody red soles. She walked in them like a child playing dress-up.

This glorious sketch is typical of Enright’s brilliant mastery of the multi-vocal narrative mosaic she constructs. It’s camp and funny, with that bitchy detail about the underwear and how Billy interprets it, and his unstated but implicit criticism of her boho-beatnik-cool black outfit. The grudging admiration of those shoes (presumably Christian Louboutin, though my research shows he didn’t introduce this trademark look until the following year, 1992) is comically, brutally undermined by the final sentence. All of those adjectives are spot on: ‘unreliable’ (ribcage); ‘lumpy bits’, ‘a bit too pragmatic’ (underwear) – I love that – and the gushing ‘fabulous’ – then the crushing, infantilising demolition job. And it’s all to do with how Isabelle looks – here, and in Hanna’s breathless, adoring account. It conveys with ice-green hostility the jealousy Billy feels but doesn’t admit to.

I’m not as good at this analysis of clothing as Moira, but it’s fun to approach a work of fiction in this way. It drew my attention to some details that I’d half noticed on first reading, but which on closer scrutiny brought out what I hoped you’ve found an interesting aspect of Enright’s technical skill, and demonstrated her pitch-perfect ear for subtly nuanced and sharply perceptive humour that works on several different narrative levels.