Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day. Faber, 2023

 Earlier this year I posted on Irish author Claire Keegan’s recent novella, Small Things Like These, describing it as ‘intense and profoundly moving’. I’d say the same for So Late in the Day, but in a different way (link HERE). The earlier book is set in the 80s when the Magdalene laundries were still posing as refuges for young women who were classed as sinful or undesirable by their families, but which were far more sinister and dangerous places run by nuns with retribution and exploitation as their prime objective, rather than the charity and loving kindness that was their ostensible mission. This new publication is a short story – less than 50 pages long – and is set in the present, and deals with the end of a relationship.

I approached this with a bit of scepticism, thinking that Faber were taking advantage of the buzz that’s grown around Keegan’s work over the last few years by publishing in hardback something so slight and brief. My suspicions dissipated rapidly.

Very little happens. Cathal finishes work and takes the bus home to spend the weekend alone. As the lonely hours pass, we are given access to his thoughts and preoccupations. It becomes apparent that this was to be his wedding weekend, but his fiancée, Sabine, has called it off ‘so late in the day’. We gradually learn why.

The brilliance of Keegan’s fiction is that so much is shown in very economical, beautifully written prose, with no extraneous explanation or analysis. She trusts her reader to tune in to the subtle implications of what Cathal thinks – or, quite often, pushes away from his thoughts, as he finds it too much like hard work to establish why Sabine behaved as she did, or found his behaviour unacceptable.

He emerges as an emotionally frigid, ungenerous young man. Through a sequence of past events that are sketched out through free indirect thought and oblique, dispassionately narrated scenes, we see how Cathal’s lack of emotional acuity, his tendency to meanness (in the sense of tight-fistedness as well as behaviourally), gradually wore down Sabine’s capacity to turn a blind eye to his shortcomings.

This bland summary doesn’t do justice to the superb poise and restraint with which Keegan pieces together this portrait of a man adrift. He has a vague sense that something is amiss in his character, but finds it easier to fall back on misogynistic, macho attitudes and evasions. To attempt to analyse and explore why this apparently loving relationship was wrecked would require a kind of emotional courage, insight and honesty that Cathal lacks.

Strangely, because perhaps of a few slyly positioned hints about his upbringing, I felt a small twinge of sympathy for him. As a man myself, I guiltily recognised some of those stereotypically dismissive masculine tendencies in myself and many of the men I know.

I’ve found it very hard to say much about this story without giving too much away. It depends almost entirely on its quiet accretion of small details that come together to form an immensely powerful profile of a human being who’s almost lost sight of his humanity. Here’s one example of Keegan’s method; this is Cathal reflecting on an event where his demeanour caused friction between the lovers:

That was part of the trouble: the fact that she would not listen, and wanted to do a good half of things her own way.

It’s no surprise when soon after she moves in with him, Sabine tells him what a female colleague of his had told her over a bottle of Chablis:

A good half of [Irish] men your age just want us to shut up and give you what you want, that you’re spoilt and turn contemptible when things don’t go your way.

When Sabine adds some of the shockingly vile words such men use about women, he dismisses them, saying:

‘Ah, that’s just the way we talk here…It’s just an Irish thing and means nothing half the time.’

That’s the second time the use of ‘half’ reveals all.

In the same post earlier this year where I wrote about Keegan’s Small Things, I also commented on Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait. I’d say that Keegan’s 47 pages represent a more sustaining, artistically successful account of the human condition than O’Farrell’s 438 sprawling pages.

New York noir: Paul Auster, Invisible

Paul Auster, Invisible (Faber, 2009) I must have bought this hardback edition when it came out in the UK at a time when I was still enthusiastic about Auster’s fiction. Since then, I’ve had disappointing experiences with his work (so much so that I haven’t posted about them here – except for one, noted below). This, however, is one of his better efforts – despite some over-fussy tricksiness that has become rather a cliché in his narrative approach.

The first part, for example, is a first-person narrative in the voice of the protagonist, Adam Walker, a second-year undergrad at Columbia, NYC, and an aspiring poet. It’s 1967, and he meets at a party a fascinating but sinister Franco-German professor of politics called Rudolf Born (that’s another of PA’s not-so-subtle mannerisms: the suggestive names), and his lovely partner, Margot. This being Auster, Adam is angelically handsome (like his sister), Born is terrifyingly clever (and worryingly bigoted and a tad aggressive and sarcastic), while beautiful Margot is a bit of a cipher in the role of sort-of femme fatale.

Born makes Adam an unlikely offer of literary work. The young man, who has reservations about Born’s motives, is naïve and ambitious enough to accept. He has the inevitable and over-signposted affair with Margot (who’s ten years older than him, so even more of a young man’s fantasy figure), and then things go decidedly pear-shaped. Adam’s sense of morality is severely tested.

The second part, as our narrator intrusively points out, is in the second person – a device that doesn’t really work here. Adam has gone to Paris, and the plot with Born and Margot becomes even more noirish. The third part, set thirty years later, has a different (third-person) narrator. Here most of the loose ends of the unlikely plot are tied up. The final part is focused on one of the Parisian characters Adam had met, who has now also become entangled in Born’s schemes.

Invisible is almost a success. It’s quite an exciting (if highly implausible and over-crafted) plot, and there are some genuine, quite shocking surprises and revelations. This managed to hold my attention sufficiently not to give up. I found the foregrounded artifice off-putting. It all became a bit too ‘See how cleverly I deploy the post-modern tropes, while keeping a complex story on course?’

Interesting, then, and entertaining, but not great. And Adam Walker, as his name is perhaps meant to suggest, is just too pedestrian and plodding. Like the demonic Born and most of the women characters, he’s two-dimensional.

Invisible is nevertheless more rewarding than the only other Auster novel I’ve posted on here at TDays: Mr Vertigo.