William Trevor, The dressmaker’s child (#Review)

I knew, when Kim (Reading Matters) and Cathy (746 Books) announced their “A year with William Trevor” project, that I had a little book containing some William Trevor short stories but, could I find it? Nope. It was a little book after all. And then, voilà, just the other day while I was doing my book decluttering and packing, I came across it. It’s Pocket Penguin 22 from Penguin’s 70 Years celebration, and is called The dressmaker’s child, but it contains three short stories, so these will be my (very willing) contribution to the project. Two of the stories were chosen by the author from previous collections, but for the titular story this is its first appearance in book form.

Most of you will know of Trevor (1928-2016) but, in a nutshell, he’s an Irish writer of novels and novellas, short stories and plays. He won many literary awards in his life, and was particularly well regarded as a short story writer – making him right up my alley. In fact I have read one of his short stories before, early in this blog.

In her most recent Trevor review (of a novel titled The children of Dynmouth) kimbofo writes that it didn’t take her long to feel that she was in “familiar William Trevor turf in which he takes a seemingly ordinary character with eccentric traits and lets them loose in a confined setting”. This could apply to the short story, “The dressmaker’s child”, as it is about a young nineteen-year-old motor mechanic, Cahal, working for his father in a small town. He’s the only son in a family of girls – all of whom have left – and he is “scrawny” with a “long face usually unsmiling”. The story opens on him applying WD-40 “to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift”, which sets a tone that perhaps other things are, or might be, locked up for our protagonist.

As he continues to work on the car, a young Spanish couple appears, wanting to be driven out to see the Sacred Virgin (Our Lady of Tears) who they believed – that is, they had been told so by a barman – would bless their marriage. Now Cahal knows the statue’s special spiritual status had been disproved and thus rejected by the church, but with a 50-euros job in the offing, he doesn’t actively dissuade them from their mission.

Trevor describes the trip, complete with hints of self-delusions, until on the way home Cahal’s car hits a child – the dressmaker’s child – who is known to run at cars and who, up till then at least, had never been hurt. With the Spanish couple kissing in the back of the car, and choosing avoidance over action, Cahal continues driving despite being aware of “something white lying” on the road behind him. Back in town, nothing is said about the dressmaker’s daughter for a few days, but Cahal remains uncertain. It affects his relationship with his young woman, and when the dressmaker herself starts to appear in town at his side, hinting that she knows what had happened, but is not reporting him, his fears and uncertainty increase.

This is not a thriller, but there is a plot and an ending (of course) so I will leave the story here. It’s nightmarish stuff, but very real too.

Trevor’s writing, his unfolding of story and character, is a pleasure to read. Take Cahal’s character, for example. From the stuck bolt (albeit does start to loosen, hinting at possibilities), he is depicted as rather gormless, bowling along, taking opportunities as they come without a lot of consideration – and somewhat different to his father who, during a conversation about the Swedish couple, shakes his head “as if he doubted his son, which he often did and usually with reason.”

This brings me to the point of the story which, as we are slowly brought to see, is the impact on Cahal of what he did or didn’t do – and the almost catatonic fear it engenders:

Continuing his familiar daily routine of repairs and servicing and answering the petrol bell, Cahal found himself unable to dismiss the connection between them that the dressmaker had made him aware of when she’d walked behind him in the night, and knew that the roots it came from spread and gathered strength and were nurtured, in himself, by fear. Cahal was afraid without knowing what he was afraid of, and when he tried to work this out he was bewildered. 

It changes his life – not in the way we might expect but in a way that shows with absolute clarity how avoidance and inaction can be as potent as anything else. Trevor, like my favourite short story writers, is less about drama and more about the complex realities of human interaction in which accommodations rather than simple resolutions are more often the go. I look forward to the next story.

William Trevor
“The dressmaker’s child”
in William Trevor, The dressmaker’s child
London: Penguin Books, 2005
pp. 1-20
ISBN: 9780141022536
(First published in The New Yorker magazine, October 4, 2004: available online)

Audrey Magee, The colony (#BookReview)

Irish novelist Audrey Magee’s second novel, The colony, was my reading group’s August book, and it proved an excellent choice. Literary and highly readable, with vivid characters and a sophisticated exploration of its subject matter, The colony engaged us on all levels. It was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize (and may yet be shortlisted. We will know next week.)

The novel’s overall subject is, as the title implies, colonisation – and Magee teases out its personal, cultural and political ramifications through a small island colony off the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. The word colony, like much in this book, is multi-layered. The novel is set over the summer of 1979, easily dated for readers by reporting of the assassination of Louis Mountbatten in August 1979.

“the battle of the colonisers”

The colony is carefully structured, with chapters about what’s happening on the island alternated with reports of sectarian killings from the Troubles in the north. These reports are brief, stark, and devastating, and serve as a constant reminder of what colonisation can do. But these reports are just one of the layers in the novel, which starts with the arrival of the ambitious British artist Lloyd (whose name is not random. He has plenty of money!)

Lloyd is coming to the island to make his name. He is a modern colonialist in the way he assumes he can buy what he needs, and manipulate others, to achieve his goal. He promises, for example, to respect the islanders’ wishes that he not paint them, but this doesn’t last. The way Magee unfolds his role is clever and subtle, because the islanders, whose numbers have dwindled to twelve families, want and need his money to survive. His perspective is told through terse, poetic language.

Arriving soon after Lloyd is the French linguist, JP Masson. He has been visiting this Gaelic-speaking island for years, undertaking a longitudinal study of the island’s linguistic patterns for his PhD. JP is fierce about the need for the islanders’ language to preserved as is. He resents the infiltration of any English into the island, so Lloyd’s appearance is the last straw. It will, he believes, force a “sudden and violent ” shift to English, instead of the slow “linguistic evolution” to bilingualism that was under way:

The Irish here was almost pure, Lloyd, tainted only by the schoolchildren learning English, by the intermittent visits of emigrants returning from Boston and London with their sophisticated otherness, and by mercenaries in linguistic mediation, men like [islander] Micheál who want only to communicate, indifferent to the medium or its need for protection  …

JP’s perspective is told through the carefully thought prose of a writer, though when he is writing his paper on colonisation and language, I found it a bit heavy-handed, a bit too much of the telling not showing.

However, this issue of maintaining language – and its relationship to the colonial project – is intelligently explored. JP argues uncompromisingly for preserving the language, because it “carries their history, their thinking, their being”, and resists the fact that languages change. He rides roughshod over the islanders, insisting that they must use their language. Lloyd, on the other hand, wipes his hands of the issue, “not my concern” he says. Meanwhile, the islanders go about their business, continuing to speak their language with each other, while being willing to use English where it benefits them. They are no fools, for all JP’s exhortations:

What do you think, Micheál? said Masson. Are you less Irish when you speak English?
I don’t talk politics, Masson. You know that.
We’re talking about language, Micheál.
Same thing

Just this topic alone, and how Magee uses it to expose colonialism’s short, medium and long tail, could take up a whole review.

Throughout the novel, the islanders are caught in the middle, but maintain a healthy perspective:

Imagine that, said Mairéad. A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf. 
They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis. 

There is a wonderful, dry humour in this novel. And much of it comes from the islanders, who have their own way of dealing with things. But they, too, are not united. The matriarch, 89-year-old Bean Uí Fhloinn supports the old ways, and is a perfect subject for JP’s research, while her granddaughter Mairéad tends to be the voice of humane or sometimes just resigned reason. Her son James sees Lloyd as his way out. He doesn’t want to be a fisherman, as all the men before him have been (including his drowned father, grandfather and uncle). He shows real talent as an artist, and believes Lloyd’s promise to take him back to England at the end of summer.

And so, as summer progresses, tensions increase, between Lloyd and JP (who both come from colonising nations, for all JPs attempts to ignore his own complicated origins), but also between the islanders as they respond to what’s happening on the island and up north. They comment on the violence in the news reports. In one telling moment, Mairéad and her brother-in-law Francis discuss the Mountbatten assassination in which two teenage boys were also killed. For Mairéad this is wrong, whilst for Francis it’s “collateral damage”:

Where does this end, Francis?
In a united Ireland, Mairéad. One free of British rule.
And you’ll blow up innocent children to get it. Mairéad swallowed the last of her whiskey. You’re pathetic, Francis Gillan.

Violence is a constant presence in the book, from the relentless news reports to young James’ brutal killing of rabbits for food. Francis hangs over the novel ominously. What does he do on the mainland? What will he do to “get” Mairéad, for whom, she knows, he is “Waiting. In the long grass. Waiting for me to fall flat on my face so that he can pick me up and make me his.”

I am interested in this issue of violence and how it permeates society. It’s what I think Tsiolkas was on about in The slap (my review). When people are confronted with violence on a regular basis, how do they respond? How should they respond?

Another issue Magee explores is art. While Lloyd hides away, painting his magnum opus – which draws inspiration from Gauguin (another artist who worked in a colonial, exploitative environment) – the islanders discuss whether they should be worried. Is it “just” art, or something else?

James clearly understands that art has meaning, and recognises the message in Lloyd’s final painting:

It’s me as you want me to be seen, Mr Lloyd. As you want me to be interpreted.

It’s certainly not James as he wants to be seen. It’s a cruel scene, particularly given Lloyd’s earlier lofty dreams of showing “that art is greater than politics. Art as peacemaker, as bridge builder.”

Truly, The colony is, to use a favourite word of the islanders, a “grand” book. The writing is expressive, with various motifs running through it – like rabbits, apples, smells – and refrains, like “young widow island woman”. There are gorgeous descriptions of landscape and nature, and of daily life. There’s rhythmic variation, finely evoking different characters and tones. And there’s the shifting of perspectives, sometimes within paragraphs, which brought to mind Damon Galgut’s The promise (my review).

The colony recognises some of the fundamental ironies in the situation the islanders find themselves in. Both JP and Lloyd, who look like they might (or, at least could) do good, are ultimately there for their own aggrandisement. The little island colony, to which they come, functions then as a perfect microcosm of the colonised. With dwindling numbers, those remaining need to do what they can to survive, but the odds are stacked against them. It’s an all too common story, and Magee tells it skilfully, giving her novel an ending which makes its point without going for the high drama I half expected. It’s all the more powerful for that.

Coincidentally, Lisa and Jacqui (JacquiWine’sJournal) both reviewed this book last month, and both are worth reading.

Audrey Magee
The colony
London: Faber & Faber, 2022
ISBN: 9780571367627 (Kindle ed.)

Maria Edgeworth, Leonora (#BookReview)

My Jane Austen group decided to start the year by discussing one of Austen’s precursors, not to mention favourite writers, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). Edgeworth was born eight years before Austen and lived much longer than Austen’s not quite 42 years – lucky her! She was also prolific, so we had plenty to choose from. According to Wikipedia, she was “during the period 1800–1814 (when Walter Scott‘s Waverley was published) … the most celebrated and successful living English novelist.” Australian academic Dale Spender supports this in her Mothers of the novel*, writing that:

If ever there was a period in the history of letters when women unquestionably led the way it was in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century when the only challenges to the pre-eminence of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth came from other women – like Elizabeth Inchbald and Ann Radcliffe.

So, Edgeworth is well worth looking at, and my group gave it a good shot. Some books were read by more than one member, and some members read more than one book, but I was the only one to read Leonora. In case you are interested, here are the books we read:

  • Letters for literary ladies (1795)
  • Castle Rackrent (1800)
  • Belinda (1801)
  • Leonora (1806)
  • The absentee (part of Tales of a fashionable life) (1812)
  • Harrington (1817)
  • Helen (1834)

Now, Leonora

Its plot is essentially this: kind, newly married, well-to-do Leonora invites to her English home, Olivia, who had been exiled to France because of her unconventional, shall we say, behaviour in marriage. This was a time when divorce was shocking and required “guilt”. Sensation-seeking Olivia’s ideas about marriage are romantic:

I married early, in the fond expectation of meeting a heart suited to my own. Cruelly disappointed, I found—merely a husband.

Poor Olivia!

Maria Edgeworth, LeonoraIn Leonora, Edgeworth leaves aside her Anglo-Irish themes for an English-French one. She pits English common-sense, through Lady Leonora guided by her mother the Duchess, against French “sensibility”,  through Olivia, an English woman who behaves like a French “coquette” under the guidance of her friend Gabrielle. The novel anticipates Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility (1811), but while Marianne’s “sensibility” can be seen as teenage silliness and idealism, Olivia’s is self-centred, lacking in morality – and, unlike Marianne, she’s unlikely to change. The book critiques this sort of over-dramatic, over-blown behaviour, and makes a case for steady love based on early passion developing into deep respect and friendship!

Leonora, it must be said, does not exhibit the subtlety nor the realism that makes Austen so special. The characters tend to the black-and-white, and the discussion of sense versus sensibility lacks the nuance that Austen brings to it. Austen’s characters are more “rounded”, with sensible Elinor also capable of feeling, and emotional Marianne not being completely devoid of sense. In Leonora, sense and sensibility are presented very much as dichotomies, though Leonora is shown to have strong feelings in addition to sense, which works, of course, to her advantage in the end. Despite this lack of subtlety, the book is worth reading, for several reasons.

To start with, it’s an epistolary novel, a form which, Wikipedia says, has been around since the 15th/16th centuries. I don’t always like these novels, mainly because the letter form can break the narrative flow. I did find it a little challenging at first to work out who was who – until sorting that out became part of the fun. Given there’s no one authorial voice, it also took me a little while to work out which character/s, if any, Edgeworth, was aligning with. Was she, an Irish-sympathiser by-and-large, supporting British “sense” or French “sensibility”? However, the form provided Edgeworth with a neat way of presenting multiple first person points of view. It gave a freshness to the narrative, and enabled her to easily present different perspectives and characters. (By their own mouths shall they be known!)

Of course, I enjoyed the sense versus sensibility theme, not only because of the Austen comparison, but also because Edgeworth aligns them with national characteristics. Leonora was published during the Napoleonic Wars when England (the United Kingdom) was fearful of French invasion. It’s not surprising then that anything “French” was viewed askance. Leonora’s mother writes to her that a

taste for the elegant profligacy of French gallantry was, I remember, introduced into this country before the destruction of the French monarchy. Since that time, some sentimental writers and pretended philosophers of our own and foreign countries have endeavoured to confound all our ideas of morality.

Sensibility, then, is aligned with France and lack of morality – and, of course, vice versa for sense and England.

There is also some commentary on fiction and the novel, and that always interests me. Austen is, of course, famous for it in Northanger Abbey. (Indeed, one of the novels she references in her defence of the novel is Edgeworth’s Belinda.) Here, for example, is Leonora’s response to her mother, who had Olivia tagged at the outset. Leonora’s mother criticises Gothic novels, which Olivia reads: “they must have scènes and a coup de théâtre; and ranting, and raving, and stabbing, and drowning, and poisoning; for with them there is no love without murder”. Sensible Leonora has a more generous take:

Many people read ordinary novels as others take snuff, merely from habit, from the want of petty excitation; and not, as you suppose, from the want of exorbitant or improper stimulus. Those who are unhappy have recourse to any trifling amusement that can change the course of their thoughts. I do not justify Olivia for having chosen such comforters as certain novels, but I pity her and impute this choice to want of fortitude, not to depravity of taste. Before she married, a strict injunction was laid upon her not to read any book that was called a novel: this raised in her mind a sort of perverse curiosity. By making any books or opinions contraband, the desire to read and circulate them is increased.

Haha, I love the comment on the effect of banning books! Anyhow, interestingly, Olivia’s mentor Gabrielle, who later in the novel urges more dastardly plotting, tells her that such novels do not provide good advice for life:

Permit me to tell you, that you have been a little spoiled by sentimental novels, which are good only to talk of when one must show sensibility, but destructive as rules of action.

(And she goes on to say that “Love has been with you the sole end of love; whereas it ought to be the beginning of power.”)

I’ve been pretty brief here – really?, you say! – because each of the points I’ve touched upon could make a post in themselves. Leonora is not a subtle book, but I enjoyed reading it, partly for its place in literary history and culture, partly for its commentaries, and partly because it has a liveliness that I found engaging despite myself.

* Bill (The Australian Legend) is making a study of Mothers of the novel, starting here.)

Maria Edgeworth
Library of Alexandria, 2012 (Orig. pub. 1806)
ASIN: B0073UNBJC (Kindle ed.)
Available online at Project Gutenberg

Delicious descriptions: Eimear McBride is not all grim

Reactions to Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing, which I reviewed recently, vary greatly. It is, overall, a bleak read and its style is idiosyncratic, which makes it a double whammy. So, for example, it has been called “brutal” (by Sunday Times Ireland) and a “joyous thing” (by Michael Cathcart, RN’s Books and Arts Daily). Both of these make sense to me – the story is “brutal” but the writing is “a joyous thing”, because it’s alive, it wakes you up, it compels you on.

In 2013, as you may have already heard, it was the inaugural winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, which was “established to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form. Accordingly, the annual prize of £10,000 will be awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best”.

Like most “brutal” works of art, though, A girl is a half-formed thing does have light or chuckle-inducing moments. I wanted to share one with you. Reviewers, I’ve noticed, have tended to choose a scene from the grandfather’s wake to illustrate this so I thought I’d choose something different, a description of Mammy being visited by her church friends early in the novel. Here goes:

Some most are women. In a blue moon a man. I like to eye. Sitting in the corner jugging as I can for all they say is interesting. Dress undressing no-neck cindy. Not stopping or I get look at little lugs there listening in. Oh taking it all in that one. Doesn’t miss a thing. Spelling I know but too iquick to understand r.u.n.o.f.f with the s.a.c.r.i.s.t.a.n and they are living in s.i.n down in such and such a place. There’s stink girl’s mother and her sister with women’s troubles so peculiar all pointed down and asked and how’s ahem? Ah she’ll not sit down for years. Apparently the smell of it is something wicked but god knows it’s not her fault. Their brother’s second wife — ach the first died leaving five behind. Tell me where’s the sense? They’re wild as wild. As bold as brats. The P.P’s housekeeper — God rest her late husband. A lovely man. She gave him a hard life but sure. Mrs one whose husband ran the AIB. Uppity up in herself — behind palms in the scullery they whisper adding a splash to warm the pot. Great red hat she wears to mass. So we have a look at her and where’s the humility in that? Ah each to their own, they say. Then your woman who bought a knitting machine. A hundred and twenty pounds now where did she … Her little boy. Downs. God love him. She does school jumpers so she can get him toys that are ed-u-cat-ional nod nod. That’s right for God helps those who help themselves. The politician’s wife they’d normally spite but God help us her heart is broke. He’s running about with this one and that one. She can’t look down on them. Her vows were sacred and he’ll not get her in mortal sin. Her heart may be pierced with a thousand spears but she’ll offer it as a penance that’s a bit proud don’t you think? And the one whose husband’s a desperate drunk. Like his father before him you know the type, vicious. That’d kill you in it by mistake. Her blue eyes. Her black eyes. Is he on the bottle? they say and pray for sometimes giving up and the forgiveness of his sins.

Go with it – and it’s perfect, a funny, biting rendition of women’s gossip. Stop to unpack the “sentences” – and you’re lost.

Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thing (Review)

Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thingI try very hard when writing reviews to avoid clichés and superlatives, like, say, “achingly beautiful” or “masterful”. But I think I’m going to use one for Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning debut novel A girl is a half-formed thing when I describe it as “searing”. I can’t think of a more apposite word. Yet I fear it too has been over-used to the point of meaninglessness. So, let’s try something else …

Once again I’m coming late to the read, and once again this is partly because it was scheduled by my reading group. All I can say is, wow. I’m not sure I’d go so far as Eleanor Catton’s “read it and be changed” commendation on the front of my edition, but I do agree with her  “virtuosic” and “subversive”. It’s a gut-wrenching read.

The plot itself is simple enough. It’s the story of a family – a pious one-could-say-religiously-fanatical mother, a son who survived a serious brain tumour as a toddler, and the younger daughter. The tumour leaves the son somewhat brain-damaged and, of course, it returns. This tumour, the trauma of it, shapes their behaviour and defines their relationships. The story, which spans around 20 years, is told through the daughter and could, in one sense, be seen as coming-of-age. But. This. Tells. You. Nothing. Because …

This is not your typical first-person voice. Instead, we are in the head of the unnamed “girl”. We are there in her conscious unconsciousness (or, is it her semi-consciousness?) in which we hear what she’s experiencing in language that is – here’s another cliché – raw. By this I mean that the language is stripped of the mediation of a formalising narrator’s intellect. Instead it captures the immediate emotional truth of the girl’s experience as she grapples to make sense of her world. This is a book in which the style conveys the meaning as much as the words do.

How does McBride do this you are probably wondering (unless, of course, you’ve already read the book). Well, mostly by breaking, consistently, the rules of grammar and syntax. We are in the girl’s head, a place where, I believe McBride is saying, we rarely think in coherently formed sentences but in what I would call “impressions”. Take, for example, this description, on the first page, of the brother before his diagnosis:

I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.

To orient you, “she” is Mammy, “he” is the father who disappears two pages later, and “you” are the little boy, the girl’s brother. Most of the novel is addressed to him (that is “you”). One of the challenges of reading this book, and it is a challenge to read, is its pronouns. Once you’ve got a handle on them, and once you realise that they are all from the perspective of the girl, you are half way there.

Anyhow, there is easier syntax than the above when life is relatively calm but, when our “girl” is distressed such as when the truth of her brother’s situation can no longer be avoided, it collapses almost completely:

I walk the street. City. Running through my mouth. Running in my teeth the. My eyes are. All the things. The said the done what there what’s all this? That stuff. I could do. My. I walk the street. Who’s him there having a look at me he. Look at my. Tits. Ssss. Fuck word. No don’t. Fuck that. No. Will. Not that. Not. That. But. If I want to then I can do.

This is not the most extreme example – I don’t want to spoil too much – but it should demonstrate what I mean by the language mirroring/enacting/even being her state of mind.

In addition to the idiosyncratic syntax, McBride draws on wide range of literary techniques to keep us focused on, grounded in the emotions of the here and now. The imagery is visceral, returning again and again to  “muck”, “dirt”, “blood”, and “puke”. She alters her rhythms to match the tone, not only through the syntax as evident in the examples above, but through allusions to and repetitions of prayers and hymns, lines from children’s games, literary works and sayings. She makes up new words (“I trup trup off behind her”), mangles existing words (“swoll” for “swollen”), and twists common expressions (“There’s a foul there’s a wind where’s the air”). McBride was inspired by Joyce she says, but her fresh, fearless, urgent language reminded me too at times of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The novel is clearly set in Ireland and there are odd references to 1980s technology like Game Boys, but overall place and time are unspecified, and none of the characters are named. All this keeps the focus squarely on the emotional core of a family in pain, and the girl in particular. She is abused by her uncle at the age of thirteen and begins a strange love-hate, violent-tender, but sick, relationship with him. Sex becomes for her a weapon, a tool and a punishment. But the book is not about this, that is, it’s not yet another book about abuse. It is about the girl’s inability to handle her emotional pain, and her family’s inability to see her need, it’s about growing up unsupported. She is complicit in her own degradation because for her physical pain is better than the emotional. Like those who self-harm, she seeks out abuse again and again because

… what’s wrong here is me me me. Me the thing but I. Think I know. Is that the reason for what’s happened? Me? The thing. Wrong.

I know this all sounds unremittingly bleak and it largely is, but there are light touches – blackly comic scenes, surprising word plays, and chuckle-inducing descriptions (like her mother’s friends, “they polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue”).

A girl is a half-formed thing is hard to read style-wise and painful to read content-wise. But it is a book that, if you let it, reaches deep into your core and makes you understand the lives of others in a way that only the best literature can. I’m so very glad I read it.

John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante also liked it.

Eimear McBride
A girl is a half-formed thing
London: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571317165

John Banville, The infinities

Hermes, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie. ...

Hermes, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia

This is what Benny loves, what all the gods love, to eavesdrop on the secret lives of others.

Hmm … this is also, I think, what readers love! Readers after all are, surely, the ultimate voyeurs. And yet the god Hermes, who narrates John Banville‘s The infinities, also admits to the gods interfering in people’s lives, which is, in a way, what authors do. Is this double whammy – voyeur and meddler – one of the reasons why Banville chose a Greek god as his narrator?

The infinities is one of those books that takes place in a day, and it has a fairly small cast of characters. Adam Sr has had a stroke and is ostensibly on his deathbed. He is being cared for by his much younger second wife Ursula and his somewhat “loony” daughter, Petra. Also living on Adam’s Irish estate are the middle-aged employees Ivy Blount and Duffy.  The novel starts in the morning with the arrival of son, also Adam, and his wife, the aptly named Helen. During the day two more people arrive, separately, Roddy Wagstaff and Benny Grace. The only other characters are two Greek Gods, the narrator Hermes and his “father” Zeus.

You might presume from this that the novel is one of those traditional deathbed stories about a family which gathers to await the death of a loved one and lets loose their pent-up conflicts, but it’s not so. This is a more interior novel in which the interaction between the characters is less important than their individual responses to their rather messy lives. They are overseen by Hermes who watches with amusement and not a little envy while also trying to keep his father, the “randy” Zeus, in check.

Unlike The sea, that more sombre novel of Banville’s, this one has a light if not downright funny touch. The gods roam at will around the estate, occasionally taking the form of other characters in order to meddle a bit in their lives, or, in the case of Zeus in particular, experience a little human pleasure with the luscious Helen (“‘Oh’, she says laughing, ‘it was divine, surely'”). Some of the names are symbolic – Helen, of course, recalls Helen of Troy; Adam reminds us of the “first” man; Adam’s last name is Godley. But this isn’t overdone. Not all names are so laden with meaning – and those that are have a more playful than serious import. Added to this is the delightful humanising informality of Hermes talking of Zeus as “Dad”.

So, what is it all about? Adam Sr is (was) a mathematician who explored Quantum theory and developed his own theory of multiple infinities. By contrast, the gods of course are infinite (or, more accurately, immortal), but they envy humans their mortality. Hermes says of his father’s flirtations with women:

Each time he dips his beak into the essence of a girl he takes, so he believes, another enchanting sip of death, pure and precious. For of course he wants to die, as do all of us immortals, that is well known.

Towards the end Adam realises what the gods already know, that “somehow, extension brought not increase but dissipation”. He says:

I still do not understand it. The hitherto unimagined realm that I revealed beyond the infinities was a new world for which no bristling caravels would set sail. We hung back from it, exhausted in advance by the mere fact of its suddenly being there. It was, in a word, too much for us. This is what we discovered, to our chagrin and shame: that we had enough, more than enough, already, in the bewildering diversities of our old and overabundant world. Let the gods live at peace in that far, new place.

Ha! Except the gods already know what Adam and Benny learnt, which is why they keep hanging around the humans. They know that it is death that somehow gives life its meaning. This makes the ending, which I will not give away here, doubly ironic.

It feels impossible to do justice to this superficially simple but rather astonishing book and I have already laboured over my post far too long, so I’ll just make a couple more comments. One is the shifting POV from our narrator Hermes to interior monologues from others, particularly Adam Sr. It seems, at times, that Adam is Hermes, something both disconcerting yet also oddly logical. And there is the tight, evocative language. Take, for example, his use of colour. There’s a lot of blue-black-grey which expresses well the hovering death and its associated mystery, but there are also hints of the more earthy of-the-world green-brown colours and, in the cushion clutched by Ursula, a touch of passionate red. Banville’s intent can almost be read by simply tracking the colours.

In the end, the book is a hymn to the mortal world, in all the messiness that’s been laid before us:

This is the mortal world. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed for ever in a luminous, unending instant.

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

John Banville
The infinities
London: Picador, 2009
ISBN: 978033045025

Kevin Barry, Fjord of Killary

Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society, London

A propos of nothing really, except it's Irish and makes me laugh ruefully like Barry's story

I hadn’t heard of Kevin Barry when his short story published in The New Yorker this month, “Fjord of Killary“, was brought to my attention. Kevin Barry is an Irish writer, born in Limerick in 1969, and this makes him 40 (or 41 this year). The first person narrator of the story is the same age, which rather suggests an autobiographical element, but … that’s for Barry to say! On turning 40, he (the narrator that is, a poet and a self-confessed “hopeless romantic”) did the sea-change thing, that is, he bought a pub on the west coast of Ireland and left his city life behind:

I had made – despite it all – a mild success of myself in life. But on turning forty, the previous year, I had sensed exhaustion rising up in me, like rot. Before forty, you think that exhaustion is something like a long-lasting hang-over. But at forty you learn all about it. Even your passions exhaust you. I found that to be alone with the work all day was increasingly difficult. And the city had become a jag on my nerves – there was too much young flesh around.

This is, it turns out, a mid-life crisis story. It takes place one night, in his pub. There is a storm raging outside and the waters from the fjord threatened to flood the pub … as indeed they do to the point that our narrator, with his customers and staff, retreat to the upper floor. Despite the reference to the cannibalistic black-backed gull eating its mate, this is not a gothic tale (of “the night was dark and stormy” ilk), or one of those tragic Irish sea stories. Rather it is a somewhat comic, somewhat satirical tale, about a publican whose sea-change doesn’t quite seem to be working.

The satire is conveyed in language which is both mock-heroic and melodramatic: the skies are “disgracefully gray “, the locals are prone to “magnificent mood swings”, and the downpour is “hysterical”. Our narrator self-deprecatingly equates himself with the many poets who have tried to escape to the countryside, the, as he describes it, “hypochondriacal epiphany-seeker”. He even manages a sly dig at the English occupation – yet another disaster the pub has had to withstand! There is straight-tending-to-the-absurd humour too. If you have ever spent a few hours in an Irish pub on a rainy, rainy day, as Mr Gums and I did in Avoca three decades ago (can it really be so?), Barry’s description of the drinkers and their ability to keep talking regardless of what’s going on around them or who is listening will ring true! As our narrator says of his customers:

They were all nut jobs. This is what it comes down to. This is the thing you learn about habitual country drinkers. They suffer all manner of delusions, paranoia and warped fantasies…

And he doesn’t? The joke in many ways is on him, because while these people are getting on with their odd, messy, unique lives, he is floundering.

This is a wonderfully Irish story in its wry and sly but also rather absurd take on life.  As for the ending? Well, I won’t give that away, except to say that, with my little blue pen, I wrote against the last line, “Love it!”. Read it here, and see what you think.

William Trevor, The woman of the house

[WARNING: SPOILERS, if you think it matters]

According to Wikipedia,William Trevor’s characters “are usually marginalised members of society: children, old people, single middle-aged men and women, or the unhappily married.” This is certainly the case with Trevor’s short story, The woman of the house, which was published last year in The New Yorker. All four characters in the story are marginalised, two are middle-aged to old, and two are young, but all live on the edge of society struggling to survive in one way or another. In fact it is said of the two young men that:

Survival as they were was their immediate purpose, their hope that there might somewhere be a life that was more than they yet knew.

Pretty grim stuff. The plot is simple. Two young men of “stateless” origin  are employed to paint the house of an old disabled man whose carer/companion is his nearing 50-year-old cousin, Martina. By the end of the story the old man has disappeared from view … we have a pretty good idea of what has happened to him and it ain’t pretty.

The story is perfectly set up. The two strange men who appear to know little about painting – and who we are told are somewhat like “gypsies” – have clearly been shown where the money of the house is kept. The woman, Martina, is (to be euphemistic) taken advantage of by the local butcher and in return receives some special meats. Aha, we think, here is a case of two con-men facing some easy pickings…but, this would clearly be too cliched for Trevor. They don’t steal the money and she is not so down-trodden as it seems. Trevor makes no judgement – just tells it like it is when life is hard and people make pragmatic decisions in order to survive.

And that’s all I’m going to say about this tight little story…except of course that it has inspired me more than ever to read a Trevor novel.

Vale Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

Frank McCourt, 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

I’ve only read one of Frank McCourt’s books, his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s ashes. I loved it, but for some reason didn’t really feel the need to read more, though I’m sure I would have enjoyed them if I had!

Angela’s ashes was such a visceral read. I’ve never read quite such a vivid description of poverty as I found in this book. I know there are some who claim that he exaggerated it but who cares? My sense is that what he described was “real” – real either because it “really” did happen that way or because it genuinely conveyed what deep poverty “feels” like. And, the fact that he could describe such poverty in a way that could make you laugh and cry at the same time marked him out as a true storyteller. One of the, little really, scenes I remember is when he was in hospital and isolated in a ward on his own. The nurse wouldn’t let him talk to the equally lonely and isolated girl in the ward next door. The nurse would yell out to them, “Diphtheria can’t talk to Typhoid” (or vice versa). Oh dear! Just as well he had a sense of humour I reckon.

I saw the film, too, of course. As I recollect it was true to the facts but it somehow managed to convey the grimness without the accompanying humour. That was a shame really.

Anyhow, now McCourt has died. I’m sure his death will result in a resurgence of interest in his books. Commercial, yes, but why should new readers not have his books brought to their attention? There are far worse books they could be reading! Just ask Tom Keneally, who knew McCourt and was interviewed on the radio today. He said :

He is the only man I’ve known who in his mid-60s went from a school teacher pension to being a multi-millionaire and also remaining the same bloke he’d been before it all happened to him. The same whimsical, ironic, very Australian sense of humour he had. …

In the first paragraph [of Angela’s ashes] he mentions the fact that in Limerick the churches were full but he says that was because it rained all the time. It was not piety but hypothermia that filled the benches and I think you would have to search a long way back into Irish history to find such a funny line as that.

I am missing him even now. I have to say starting, as old men do, to get teary that such a grand spirit has departed this earth …