Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLavery, Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape, London, hardback. 2017

Another novel read in a day while I convalesced after recent medical treatment. It takes some getting into, with a rather bleak pair of central characters. The married couple, retired architect Gerald and teacher, Stella, are in the midwinter of their relationship. Will it survive their cathartic post-Christmas short break in Amsterdam, where the cracks in their marriage, and in their individual lives, widen, and the painful secrets in their past threaten to explode their outward calm?

MacLaverty W Break coverGerald is a drinker; Stella is searching for solace after an earlier terrible trauma. He’s either unaware of her pain, or has drunk himself into numbness to avoid confronting and dealing with it – and his own. She sees this in him, and is tired of watching him drink. She wonders if she still loves or needs him.

That’s about it as far as plot goes. It’s a slowly accreting, sympathetically and delicately observed portrait of two people clinging on to the wreckage of their relationship, damaged by the Troubles in N. Ireland from the 70s onward, where their Catholic faith marked them obtrusively in the conflict they deplored. Events in this violent past nearly destroyed them.

In deceptively plain prose, MacLaverty pieces together an impression of a marriage full of unspoken grief and deeply felt, barely suppressed emotion. It’s one of the most haunting accounts I’ve read of the ways people strive to communicate but often fail to connect – even when they’re desperate to do so.

He’s particularly adept at selecting and delineating the minutiae of their daily lives as they age and try to face their new, retired life without the stimuli of work or bringing up family – their only son has grown up and moved abroad with their much missed grandson (it’s fairly clear why).

The way the novel opens is typical of this narrative technique: Stella and Gerald are in their home in Scotland (they’d long since left Ireland), preparing for bed. He’s finished in the bathroom and leaves the shaving mirror at the magnifying face. Why are we given that detail? Was he being considerate, knowing she’d need the magnified side of the mirror to carry out her facial restoration regime? Or was he simply examining his own face, heedless of her own? MacLaverty leaves the options open.

This passage continues:

She licked the tip of her index finger and smoothed both of them [her eyebrows]. Then turned to her eyelids. She was sick of it all – the circles of cotton wool, the boiled and sterilised water in the saucer, the ointments, the waste bin full of cotton buds.

At first sight this is just a list of banal details – but MacLaverty is sharp-eyed enough to notice how Stella feels the need to try to hold back the ageing process, with particular emphasis on the eyes – the windows of the soul. More importantly, that final sentence reveals her simmering impatience. The symbolic waste-bin represents perhaps her life, and her life with Gerald. Yet the point isn’t laboured; on the contrary, it’s unobtrusive – just there, like Stella and her pain. And what exactly is the ‘all’ that she’s sick of: the attempts to hold back the effects on her face of ageing, or Gerald and her life with him – or life in general? MacLaverty delicately refrains from telling us, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s wrong here, what’s going on in these troubled lives.

Her bedtime routine is completed when she gets into her pyjamas quickly, because the room is cold: ‘She saw no point in paying good money to heat a room all day for a minute’s comfort last thing at night.’ This penny-pinching at the expense of her own comfort indicates her self-castigating, frugal nature, her inability to expand, indulge. The slow drip of such details through the narrative gradually, like an accumulating stalagmite, shows why she’s like that, so pinched, self-denying.

As she basks in bed, warmed by her only, limited indulgences – hot water bottle and electric blanket — we are privy to her thoughts: she loves this ritual hour of ‘separation at the end of every day’. Gerry (as she would call her husband; these are clearly her thoughts, relayed through free indirect discourse) ‘out of action, in another room…Having a nightcap, no doubt. Or two or three.’

Even in this rare moment of sensual abandonment in her solitary bed, she can’t help this frisson of judgemental scorn and bitterness. What’s so poignant is that the behaviour of each of them precipitates such reactions in the other; the ways they deal with their own personal demons drives the other one away, at the very points when they need each other most, like magnets of the same polarity.

It’s easy to dislike Stella and Gerald, but gradually he’s seen to be guided by his wife’s star; redemption flickers and fades before them. I found myself hoping they’d not let it extinguish.

Trelissick and Carrick Roads

View over Carrick Roads from Trelissick gardens

Mrs TD read this after me, and struggled with the first third or so of the novel, but told me she was glad she persevered to the end – it picked up considerably.

Just to finish, a picture taken yesterday during our first walk at this local National Trust property in six months. One of our favourite views. Had to book a slot and maintain hygiene/social distancing measures, but worth it. And the sun shone.

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky, Sandycove/Penguin Books, 2020

This was another recommendation of Mrs TD’s. I was sceptical during the first thirty or so pages, as a novel written from the point of view of a recently widowed middle-aged man, grieving for his wife of nearly twenty years, didn’t seem a particularly alluring topic.

MacMahon Blue Sky coverOnce the narrative hit its stride, however, the Irish author’s ability to create well-rounded central characters (many of the minor ones are more shadowy) won me over. I found myself warming to this emotionally bruised narrator, David. His childhood in Dublin had been hard: his father was what would now be called a coercive controller, who bullied and humiliated his children and forced his wife into submissive complicity.

The cold atmosphere of his house contrasted completely with the love and happiness he found in his friend Deborah’s, and later in that of his late wife, Mary Rose. He’d never heard members of his own family tell each other they loved anyone.

David and Mary Rose spent two weeks every summer in the Catalan seaside resort of Aiguaclara. They loved frequenting the same few bars and restaurants, where they were treated like locals. They enjoyed making up stories about the people on the beach.

After Mary Rose’s untimely death in a plane crash, David resolves to continue their tradition of these summer holidays. That is how a kind of healing process begins to take place.

What I found well done in this novel was the author’s ability to make David a quite unlikeable character. He’s cynical and buttoned-up, has a bit of a cruel streak, and can be enormously selfish. Mary Rose is the opposite: spontaneous, optimistic, extravert. David is so self-absorbed he fails to see how deeply upset she is at their inability to have children.

As he reflects on their marriage, the layers of insulation with which he had shielded himself from abrasive contact with emotional reality with Mary Rose and others are stripped away, and he’s able to discover the depths of humanity and love that he’d largely suppressed or rationed out during the marriage.

What prevents him from being unsympathetic is our being made privy to the stultifying upbringing inflicted on him by his callous, narrow-minded father. David’s emotional development was etiolated; this novel is about the ways in which it begins to flourish under the influence first of his late wife, and then by others who come into his life.

There isn’t much else in the way of plot – instead there are set pieces full of telling details. Like his old friend Deborah’s household when they were teenagers. Deborah had several sisters, and they all treated him like another girl: wrapping their damp towels round their drying hair after a shower and wandering in and out of siblings’ rooms to paint their toenails (using what David thought peculiar devices to separate the toes), paying no heed to his presence. In this way he learnt how to be around women. Also how to live as a social human being.

It’s an accomplished, slow-burning novel, told in an unadorned style (and with necessary touches of humour) that suits the subject. Mrs TD finished it, appropriately enough, as we sat on a beach in south Devon, watching our grandchildren romp in the sea, and surrounded by family. This novel is about the importance those kinds of experience represent, even when times like these are so hard, and what’s happened in our past has perhaps bent us a little out of shape.

Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes. Vintage, 1999. First published 1968

I thought Irish-born Elizabeth Bowen’s final novel Eva Trout would be amusing/light relief after slogging through the hefty Trollope novel Phineas Finn. I was wrong.

Bowen, Eva Trout cover

The handsome 1950s Jaguar on the cover is similar to one Eva drives in the novel.

The writing style I found excessively mannered and florid. Characters are theatrical or caricatures (like the clergyman with dodgy sinuses). The syntax is often tortuous: there are oddly placed adverbs and clashing tones and registers. Purple descriptive passages intrude and interrupt the flow; random examples:

[Eva is in Paris] Viridian shadow clothed such trees as were not in the sun’s path.

Fresh-cut grass is said to have had its roots ‘exacerbated’ – a strangely fastidious usage; portraits of grand figures in an art gallery look out ‘lordlily’ – what a silly and awkward choice.

I’d concede that there are plenty of Bowen’s more familiar deft touches – there are also signs of her wittiness and humour, as when a bisexual game of cricket is proposed by Eva’s camp love interest Henry to his tomboy motor-cycle riding young sister, Catrina:

‘”Mixed,”‘ she corrected, ‘sex does not enter into cricket.’ ‘That is painfully evident.’ ‘If you’re so cross, why don’t you go to Italy?’

Too often the humour misfires.

The narrative takes us through the eponymous Eva’s life, from lonely, disrupted childhood to her sexually fluid thirties. She was orphaned at a young age when both parents died violently (partly as a consequence of their sexual incompatibility and dalliances). Her louche guardian Constantine shows little empathy towards his ward; she’s moved from country to country, school to school, and never learns to make friends or achieve emotional closeness with others. When she inherits her late father’s immense wealth at the age of 25 she becomes even more vulnerable and adrift, and more able to indulge her whims, secrets and fantasies.

This emotional immaturity and deficiency and sexual fuzziness is the cause of most of what subsequently happens to her – yet she’s also strangely innocent. She becomes fiercely attracted to several female figures, while most of the males who influence her are sexually ambiguous. She indulges in fantasies and deception to try to construct some kind of relationship out of these deceptive fragments. She’s unable to distinguish surface appearance from depth of character or authenticity of feeling. All this confusion gives rise to more disruption and pain for her and those near to her.

The most egregious of Eva’s deceptions involves the baby boy she claims to have given birth to illegitimately. The consequences of this are catastrophic for all she’s involved with.

Although Eva’s damaged personality has some psychological interest, I found her ultimately tiresome. The characters she’s drawn to are largely fey, affected, selfish and pompous.

It’s quite a while since I read her 1929 novel The Last September, set in the Irish war of independence, but I remember it being powerful and moving. The Heat of the Day I recall had a vivid evocation of wartime London. Last year I posted briefly on her novel Friends and Relations, and disliked it.  Eva Trout also left me unmoved and disappointed. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 1970 and won the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1969.

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.

 

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey

William Trevor (1928-2016), Felicia’s Journey. Viking, 1964

Last autumn I posted about William Trevor’s 1965 novel The Boarding House. Thirty years later Felicia’s Journey also takes as its central theme the preying upon lonely and desolate souls by sinister, duplicitous monsters with secrets in the murky basements of their souls. In the earlier novel, however, Trevor’s predators are motivated mostly by mediocre, secular avarice and envy; here he ramps up the psychomachy – mortal, not venial sinfulness.

William Trevor, Felicia's Journey: coverFelicia is an innocent (but not entirely naïve) young woman from a sheltered, conservative small town in Ireland, made pregnant by a predatory chancer named Johnny who abandons her with a transparently fictitious account of his leaving for a job in a factory in the industrial English midlands. She sets out on a hapless quest to find her errant lover – who she only half believes is a decent man. Her journey slowly reveals itself, largely without her fully realising it, to be a struggle for her very survival.

She falls into the path of Mr Hilditch, an obese catering manager at another anonymous midland factory. We know from his first offer to help this ingenuous waif, adrift in the heartless wastelands of post-Thatcher England, that he is not motivated by kindness.

The present-tense, third-person narrative draws us inexorably into the fiendishness of Hilditch’s plan: he cunningly restrains himself from showing his hand too soon, knowing when to back off and leave fragile, needy Felicia to flounder in a heedless world, and to turn in her desperation to his apparent beneficence.

What makes the novel almost unbearable to read is the tension and dread that build as Felicia falls more inescapably into his clutches as he circles round her faltering, impaired waif’s downward progress.

Signed title page of Felicia's Journey

I bought my hardback first edition in a craft sale in Penwith, Cornwall. It’s signed by the author – which clinched the sale for me!

Trevor is too subtle a writer and too astute and precise a psychologist to reveal too soon Hilditch’s capacity for duplicity and evil. One desperately wants to cry out a warning to Felicia as she reluctantly enters deeper into his lair and her danger becomes more apparent. The narrator gives us access, dimly but increasingly clearly delineated, to the cruelty that he’s been capable of the past, and is meticulously preparing for again. Felicia, whose name is so ironically inappropriate for her sad, unfortunate life, is suspicious but friendless, and desperately unprotected.

Trevor’s other player in this struggle for a floundering soul is the unlikely figure of Miss Calligary, a member of a bizarre Christian evangelical group who doorstep homeowners to try to ‘gather’ them to the Lord, promising a paradisal new life for ‘one who dies’. Hilditch writes them off as ‘nutters’. It’s a typical Trevor feat, to manage grim, sardonic humour in a plot that begins with such gothic premises. For these evangelists appear to long for death, albeit symbolically, in order to be reborn; Mr Hilditch offers the real thing, with no spiritual intent at all – his menacing mission arises out of his own damaged psychopathy. (The narrative gradually reveals, through flashbacks in his memory, the probable traumatic causes for his affectless depravity – even he has a certain redeeming pain).

With narrative deftness, Trevor causes Miss Calligary’s mission inadvertently to intrude upon Hilditch’s, with devastating consequences.

As in Trevor’s other fiction, his sympathy is with the lost and marginalised, those deemed by society – and maybe themselves – to be superfluous (homeless people feature with increasing significance in this novel), those who render themselves attractive to life’s predators by their human frailty and a profound but unfulfilled need for love that disables their defence mechanisms. Somehow they usually stumble into redemption, or their world reveals itself capable of a grim, oblique kind of grace.

A lesser writer would have failed to create such nuanced characters who could have been portrayed as simply monsters and victims. Trevor imbues them with complexities and unexpected depths of humanity that take this novel into heights (and depths) undreamt of by the anonymous authors of the medieval allegories.

 

 

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Sally Rooney Normal People. Faber and Faber hardback, 2018

This is going to be controversial.

Two young people are finding their feet in post-crash Ireland as they leave sixth form for university and beyond. Published when she was just 27, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People has had a sensational success. Costa Winner, Waterstones book of the something – year? Month? I know when I bought a copy for Mrs TD they had it stacked high everywhere, and the staff at checkout were all wearing Normal People badges. At first I thought it was an off-colour statement about their view of their customers.

When she’d finished it Mrs TD insisted I read it to compare notes. I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic than she was, and certainly less than most of the gushing reviews in the media.

Sally Rooney Normal People coverIt’s been hailed as a zeitgeist novel, capturing the ‘collective precariousness’ (Guardian) of our times – not just personal but economic and political. I can’t say that’s what I took from the novel. And Rooney is said to have got into the heads of her two love-lorn protagonists, Connell and Marianne as they learn to come to terms with their sexual and emotional hangups.

That same Guardian piece by Sian Cain added the rider that these two are ‘over-educated, neurotic, and slightly too self-aware’ – Connell sees himself early on as politically astute and feels poised to engage in intelligent, sophisticated discussions about the Greek crisis at smart dinner parties when he leaves home. But, Cain concludes, Rooney avoids the pitfalls of ‘hysterical realism’ by showing, for example, how sincerely engrossed Connell becomes in his reading of Jane Austen. She insists we’re less concerned with the overblown context and focus on whether these two insecure adolescents will manage to find happiness together as they do their damnedest to break up.

I never became that invested in their fate, I’m afraid. I found them rather irritating – a sort of Roddy Doyle version of The Inbetweeners (both of which, I think, do what they do in a less ambitious way, but more successfully). Maybe because I taught that age group for so long. It was like reading an account of a normal day at work.

The dialogue is brilliantly handled, as others have said – but to what end? Sure, this is a sensitive and deftly done examination of maturing sensibilities, learning to realise that love is complicated and often painful, and sex is more than recreation.

There’s a lot of graphic sex, angst and teen slang and syntax – Yeah, he says. No – is one of Connell’s habitual contradictory responses to questions (Rooney dispenses with punctuation of direct speech, for some reason). I suppose he’s so shy and messed up he can’t commit to even the simplest of prompts, let alone negotiate owning up to his laddish mates that he’s having sex with a girl thought to be a weirdo, and who harbours masochistic tendencies as a consequence of her abusive upbringing.

I know this response sounds a bit harsh, and I did find the emerging horrors of the cruel treatment Marianne endured from childhood at the hands of her brutal father and brother almost unbearably moving. Normal People does give an unusually frank and (so far as I can tell) honest and accurate portrayal of young love’s traumas, mistakes and betrayals.

But I still prefer Jane Austen’s approach in Emma.

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.