Monday, August 24, 2009

Review of Turlough by Brian Keenan

Review of Turlough by Brian Keenan, Vintage, 2001

This novel is many things at once. It is an exploration of darkness in its many dimensions. On the surface it tells the tale of the life story of the great, famous, or even infamous, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1735), one of the foremost of Irish musicians and composers. It recounts Turlough’s struggle to come to terms with his blindness as a young man after a bad bout of smallpox.

On this level, then, this novel recounts the struggle of Turlough Carolan to make sense of his life now that he has lost the gift of sight. It tells how he painfully learns to come to terms with his blindness with all its trials and tribulations and how he eventually learns to see anew through the interventions of his father and mother, the wise old cailleach, Fionnuala Quinn and his long-standing patroness, Mrs McDermott-Roe.

On another level this is a novel about descending into the blackness of our own individual unconscious and then surfacing with some traces of our own identity as human beings; about learning to cope with the shadow side of our psyche as well as its deep darkness in places. In this sense, we are all troubled creatures like Turlough O’ Carolan.

In reading the acknowledgements, we learn that Brian Keenan took a lot of persuading - by leading musicians - to write this novel. He doubted that he had the musical knowledge to it, but the musicians persuaded him that he had, because Turlough’s struggle was the struggle of all artists in their efforts to forge their creations, whether in word, stone, paints, metals or in music. They also convinced him, that having gone through the sheer hell of four and a half years of captivity at the hands of Shi’ite Muslims in Beirut, he was more than admirably suited for plumbing the depths of Carolan’s struggle, not alone with his hell of blindness, but also with his desire to forge something artistic and liberating from that struggle. Keenan has also told us in his wonderful book An Evil Cradling that during the horrible years of his captivity he was often sustained by the presence of Turlough O’Carolan. Hence, this novel is an intense and very profound one indeed. One senses that one is reading from a mystical work at times as Keenan explores the intricacies of the human soul and its sufferings as it goes on its journey to cobble together some meaning from its experiences in this life.

There is much darkness and blindness in this novel, consequently, but fortunately and inevitably, indeed, there has to be much light and great vision. To this extent, Carolan embodies the struggle between light and dark in himself (and in the nation, and probably in all humankind), and the message of this novel, if one were bold enough to impose such a moralistic stance on it, is that we need the interplay of both to achieve our eventual redemption. For Carolan, that redemption and that healing comes through the beauty and the mystery of music.

There are other forms of darkness in this novel, too. There is the constant darkness of the poverty of the Irish peasantry and even of the old Gaelic Chieftains who are reduced in number and status and are very down at heel indeed. Remember, these were the times of the Penal Laws. Keenan manages, with masterly strokes, to paint for us an atmosphere of contemporary Ireland as one of oppression, poverty, depression and almost complete doom. Almost, because music is not too far away to lift these ills - even momentarily.

O’Carolan is painted as a larger than life character, ugly and pock-marked by smallpox, garrulous, bawdy and a very prickly character indeed, who is easily aroused to anger. He is also an inveterate drinker who praises the benefits of alcohol many times throughout the pages. He is also prone to using bawdy language, replete with curses of a traditional Gaelic stamp. These curses are marvellously imaginative and are a treat to read. In all of this we get a sense of a very rounded character, strong in spirit and in language, always ready for a fight in words - once only with his fists as he punches and nearly chokes an offensive piper in an alehouse - and with a deep attraction to the women.

The strength of this novel lies in all the above characteristics that I have pointed out, but perhaps the overall strength of the work lies in Keenan’s admirable conjuring up of the Ireland of the Penal Laws, of his understanding of Gaelic folklore, of his easy use of native Irish trees and plants and his intuition that Pagan Ireland was and is never far away, even though we may have trumpeted more loudly its Christian or Catholic apparel.

It has been wisely said that Celtic Spirituality owes as much to our Pagan past as it does to our Christian or Catholic roots. Keenan is to be praised and admired for his realisation of this important fact. This reader, at least, loved the way he effortlessly moves from Catholic to Protestant to Pagan ceremonies with an ease only a Celt or Gael can understand. Remember, the holy wells of Ireland had the names of Gaelic deities associated with them before they were “re-baptised” with Christian ones. And indeed, Lough Derg, where Keenan has his O’Carolan pay two visits, was itself a place of Pagan pilgrimage, as was Cruach Phádraig, before they both were rechristened for Christian ears. In a sense, then, there is a lovely, and indeed lively, continuity between the Pagan and the Christian in popular Irish devotion. The priests, as Keenan and O’Carolan, know only too well, have and actually do forget this at their peril.

Keenan’s Carolan is acquainted both with the Rath of the fairies and with the Church of the Christians, though he tells his friend the Bishop that he never had much time for the inside of churches. Again Keenan’s Bishop is no narrow-minded Catholic - he seems very open to everything in nature and has great respect for the Pagan traditions. However, there are some very conservative clerical gentleman also portrayed in the novel.

This novel, of its very nature, is an intense one, to say the least, and its subject matter is very profound - personal and national darkness and blindness and how these may be overcome if only we have the courage of our hidden “lights” as it were. Keenan is saying that Carolan is calling on everyone to let their lights shine, not to keep them hidden under a bushel. He had let his light shine through the power of his music.

There is much heady debate about the nature and role of music in this novel and the debate often occurs between Carolan and his friends and patrons: especially with the O’Connors of Greyfield: The O’Connor Don, his brother-in-law, Bishop Thaddeus O’Rourke, and his son Charles O’Connor. These debates are well researched and are often profound insights into the nature of music, poetry and art. Perhaps one of the most amusing, and at times also astoundingly profound, is the Rabelaisian encounter between Turlough O’Carolan and his great friend the poet Charles McCabe. This type of debate, often fuelled by alcohol as well as learning, is very traditional in Gaelic literature and it is in the tradition of, say, the debate between St Patrick and Oisín.

All in all, this is a well structured and profound offering to the reading public by Brian Keenan. One hopes he will write much more, and indeed, one wonders where his profound imagination will take him.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor

Review 4

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, Harcourt Books, 2004

What we have in this novel is a traditional story as one would get by reading the works of Sir Walter Scott or of the great Charles Dickens. Indeed, this last great novelist actually appears in Star of the Sea. In it, Dickens is portrayed in a small cameo where the antihero Pius Mulvey gives Charles the character of Fagan for Oliver Twist - a clever little cameo indeed.

This novel is set in Black 47 or more precisely in the bitter winter of 1847 and is written in the hand of one contemporary American journalist, G. Grantley Dixon of the New York Times. The book is well written because Joe O’ Connor captures brilliantly the stylistic writing of the time, whether in novels or in the newspapers. If you have read Dickens or Scott or any of the other novelists of that period and previous, you won’t be disappointed as O’Connor has managed to convince this reader at least that the words and phraseology of the mid-nineteenth century are accurate and precise.

Also this novel, like many of those by Charles Dickens, could be serialised in a weekly or monthly magazine because each chapter tells a story that can be read entirely on its own merits, but also contains mysteries which one expects to be revealed in further instalments later. Again, O’Connor shows by this choice of style to understand the literature of the period.

This novel is researched very finely and accurately indeed: the author has read widely the history of the famine and we are convinced that his characters are starving and suffering greatly. He captures both the trials and tribulations of the very poor and, indeed, those of the nobility who are now beginning to be bankrupted. Added to that ,he has mastered the contemporary vocabulary of the marine world from the mid-nineteenth century. Then, his research into prisons and the life of prisoners in 19th century London is also superb. Everything he describes rings true and authentic.

He manages well also to capture the speech patterns of the rural Irish as well as those from rural Wales, Scotland, and, of course, cockney London. All in all, a great feat for a young writer to achieve. In all of the above, I should imagine the fact that he has an M.A. in English Literature from University College Dublin aided him greatly in this convincing scholarship.

Anyway, now to the storyline. It is the bitter winter of 1847 - the blackest year of the Irish potato Famine. A ship called The Star of the Sea sets out from Cobh in County Cork Ireland for the United States of America or as the Irish traditionally called it The New World: An Domhan Nua. Incidentally, O’Connor sets the origins of his main characters in Carna in Connemara, the heart of Gaelic Ireland at the time and even today. Indeed, it is worth pointing out, that while our author is no expert on the Gaelic language, that he has checked out any translations or transliterations with experts in the language from the various universities. He is much to be praised for this sense of accuracy leading to authenticity. Other less pernickety authors would not go to such trouble.

On board The Star of the Sea are hundreds of refugees from the famine-stricken land of Ireland. Among them is a maid with a devastating secret, and a Land Lord, newly bankrupted, with an equally devastating one. Needless to say, I won’t reveal that secret, in case there are any readers of these thoughts who might wish to read the novel. Lord Merridith, the gentleman in question, is travelling with his wife and children. Then, there is an evil, dark and sinister killer who stalks the decks in search of his prey - waiting for the opportune time to kill him.

What we have in this novel is what The Wall Street Journal calls “a hard-to-put-down thriller.” However, while this may draw many readers to purchase this novel, it is not the whole of it. It is also a passionate reading of the saddest event to overcome any land at any time in history, whether past, present or to come, namely that of famine - of millions starving to death and dying in the fields, lanes and country roads. Yes, one can read it as a thriller where “terror stalks the high seas.” However, below the surface we encounter the psyche of a nation which has never forgotten the famine - be it only an unconscious memory at this stage. The present writer of these notes knew one friend, who died recently aged 86 years, who recounted to him that when he was a boy his grandfather took him by the hand to a high point on their farm of land and pointed down to Skibbereen and said: “Remember, boy, that many ships sailed out of that harbour, laden with grain, while people starved to death in the fields.” In short, the memory of the famine, unconscious now for the most part, lives on in the Irish people.

This novel runs the whole gamut of emotions from hatred, jealousy, greed to lust and love. Add in murder, a touch of incest, sadism, torture, drug addiction and prostitution and you have a taste of this “thumping good read” as Gay Byrne used to say in his radio days.

Luckily, the love scenes are drawn realistically and not too melodramatically. They are, in short, believable.

In sum, I felt that this novel is an excellent read with characters drawn who are quite believable. Indeed, we can willingly suspend our disbelief for all of them, given O’Connor’s skill as an author.

The quotations on the frontispiece are well balanced - two from Irish patriots - John Mitchell and James Connolly - and two from British sources - Punch magazine and Charles Trevelyn, Assistant Secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury, 1848.

Finally, to keep with the theme of balance, O’Connor manages to capture human nature in all aspects from its highs to its lows, in all its darkness and all its light. A brilliant read!

This Side of Brightness by Colm McCann

Review 3 This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann (Picador, New York, 1998)

This is a very good book, indeed, though not brilliant. In other words on a scale of 1 to 10 I’d give it somewhere around 6.5 or a possible 7 whereas The Gathering and Moon Tiger would definitely get a 9 or a 9.5 each by my standards. Anyway, now for my thoughts on this novel.

Summer allows me to read novels, something I never seem to manage to do during the school year. Thankfully this year la bella farniente here in Isca Marina is allowing me to read and read, and also to write and write quite simply because I have no other distractions except to be, to exist and to read and write.

This novel is about tunnelling down and tunnelling up. The story on the surface is a simple one: At the turn of the century - 1900 - Nathan Walker (a negro) comes to New York to take one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, that is as a sandhog, a new word in my lexicon, but such an apt one. A sandhog is a labourer who literally digs tunnels after the dynamite has blown the rock to pieces. Anyway, Nathan burrows under the East River and with his co-workers he is digging the tunnel that will carry trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In the bowels of the riverbed, the sandhogs - black, white, Irish, Italian, Polish - dig together in the darkness. In this horrible darkness all racial differences are erased - these men earn their bread by the sweat of their brow - and there is no difference in that sweat. However, at the time, above the ground the men had to keep their distance. However, one day a spectacular accident welds a bond between Walker and his fellow sandhogs that will both bless and curse three generations.

Counterpointing this epic narrative is the present-day story of Treefrog, one of the many homeless who now live a harrowing existence beneath the city streets.

The technique of having two parallel narratives going at one time is brilliant. One is, as it were, invited into the minds of two separate individuals divided over 60 or 70 years. The reader is left to puzzle out what the connection is between the two narratives. However, both are connected by the image or motif of the tunnel which runs through the novel. Tunnels are dark places and are only carved out at great expense both financially and in human terms - historically many labourers have died or been crippled in the effort. However, as a result of their efforts we can get across rivers and through mountains with relatively little effort.

However, the tunnel is also a deeply psychic metaphor - about going down into the unknown aspect of ourselves - into our dark unconscious. The men who worked on the tunnels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were courageous and strong human beings. They descended into two or more darknesses viz., the darkness of the actual tunnel, the darkness of the unconscious as I’ve already explained. Then, there are other possible darknesses also explored in this novel: the darkness of mental illness; the darkness of racial hatred; the darkness of being poor whether white or black; the darkness of violence; the darkness of sexual abuse etc. There are, then, many darknesses explored in this book.

But we all realise that we would not know what the dark is unless we also knew what the light is. Consequently, there are also many bright spots in this novel: old Nathan Walker’s strength both physical and spiritual - one feels he is the steadiest of characters ion the book: in fact the book is skilfully crafted around his character. He gives the light of understanding to his offspring of two generations, whether that light is heeded or not.

One is inspired by this novel because there is a very well honed social conscience at work in This Side of Brightness. Our author is very sympathetic to the poor, be they black or white or any colour in between. Our hero Nathan is befriended by fellow Irish and Italian workers and they become friends in their underground world and they do their best, despite the contemporary racial and social prejudice to continue their friendship up in the “real” world. “Real” is one of those words that is much abused like “truth” and “love.” However, this novel covers such universal themes like justice, truth and love in a very credible way. It deals with inter-racial marriage and describes how hard this was for those involved in such relationships at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This novel also deals with the themes of ageing, oldage, dying, death, violence, rape, prostitution, drug addiction, violence and murder. It is almost all encompassing in its universality. However, there is absolutely no sentimentality or schmaltz in this novel - a level to which such a novel could have reduced itself. In this book, the characters are all too real - all too believable, all too prone to weaknesses, all too aware of their failings and only occasionally of their strengths. In short, these characters ring true to life and we believe in and trust and love them. In turns, we cry and we celebrate with them and even laugh with them.

Now for some quotations from this fine novel. Speaking of equality and social justice through the thoughts of Nathan Walker, Colum McCann states:

“But Walker takes no offense. (sic) He knows there is a democracy beneath the river. In the darkness every man’s blood runs the same colour - a dago the same as a nigger the same as a Polack the same as a mick (sic) - so Walker just laughs, puts the winnings in his pocket, and deals a second hand.” (Op.cit.,9)

The philosophy of life which these sandhogs professed was simple:
“There have been many deaths in the tunnel, but there’s a law the sandhogs accept: you live as long as you do until you don’t.” (Ibid., 9)
As I have already related above the central character of Nathan Walker stands out as courageous, strong and resilient. He has to go through many travails in his life, yet he never gives up. As Bob Dylan puts it in one of his ballads, he is the type of guy who “just keeps on keeping on.” That’s the type of guy our man Nathan Walker is and we feel for him become we can identify with him insofar as he is painted so realistically. Other characters are equally real, but are simply not as strong.
Walker’s philosophy of life is also that of the old negro spirituals. He breaks the darkness with his religious or spiritual verses:

“Lord, I ain’t seen a sunset Since I came on down. No, I ain’t seen nothing like a sunset Since I came on down.” (Ibid., 14)

What appealed to me greatly about this novel was the precision of the historical research into the tunnel building in the 19th and 20th centuries in New York. Not along that but our author has a great sympathy and appreciation for minority communities of all sorts. This is a novel with a sharp and critical social conscience. Also it is a very human and humane novel. It paints all its characters with sympathy and objectivity, scorning all sentimentality. There is also a deep understanding of the traditions and myths that each community lives by whether they be Irish, Polack, Black American or just plain believers or unbelievers. No matter what a character’s stance in life Colum McCann shows a great appreciation for symbol and for ritual whether that be overtly religious or purely humanly significant like Maura getting Nathan Walker to throw her gold wedding band or ring into the tunnel just shortly before its opening in memory of her dear husband who died in its construction. There are some other references to ritual also in the novel and McCann shows his deep understanding of human needs in his accounts thereof.

Before I finish these thoughts, I should like to say a word or two on the title. We should rejoice in this title as it is a hopeful rather than a despairing one. This is a hopeful and positive novel, not a despairing and negative one. Although this novel is replete in violence it is also shot through with the strong rays of love and healing - witness the tenderness expressed between the two homeless characters: Treefrog and Angie. There is a hint of redemption at the end of the novel as the character Treefrog destroys his underground lodging and seems to head for the light of the world about that of the dark tunnels. As the novel’s title suggests he is just a little bit on “this side of brightness” and is struggling to get to the other side. We feel instinctively that he’ll make it, though we also intuitively know that he will have to suffer a lot in so doing.

Finally, this is a good novel quite simply because it refuses to embrace sentimentality or triviality. In short, this is a profoundly human and spiritual novel that shows humanity in all its horror and glory.

The Search for Self in Moon Tiger

Search 2 In today’s post I wish to discuss the theme of search for meaning in the novel Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. I have reviewed this novel in the immediately previous post.

Death in Life: “Fortunate mother. Sensible, expedient mother. On her dressing table stood a photograph of Father, trim in his uniform, eternally young, his hair recently clipped, his moustache a neat shadow on his upper lip; no red hole in his stomach, no shit no screams no white singing pain. Mother dusted this photograph every single morning; what she thought as she did so I never knew.” (Op. cit., 6) History killed Father. I am dying of cancer of the gut, relatively privately. Father died on the Somme, picked off by history. He lay in the mud, I have learned, all one night, screaming, and when at last they came for him he died on the stretcher…. (Ibid., 6-7) People die; bodies disintegrate. But death is intolerable. So you propose, ingeniously, that if the body is preserved either actually or symbolically, if it is hidden away and provided with the equipment of daily living (Lively is here writing about the burial of the ancient Pharaohs), then death will not have happened. Something - soul, ka, memory, whatever you like to call it - will live forever. You give this shadow-thing all it had in corporeal life, its furnishings, its jewellery, its servants, its food and drink, and from time to time it will come from whatever eternity it inhabits to take sustenance from its shell. A complicated interesting idea. You keep the dead with you forever and deny the possibility of your own annihilation.” (Ibid., 114)

Grief: Lively is also good on grief. Her heroine Claudia H. never really does get over the death of her war-time lover Tom. The grief persists throughout her life, even though she had since married and had a daughter. She muses: “Is nausea always a part of Grief? Who am I o know? I have never been thus before. Grief-stricken. Stricken is right; it is as if you had been felled. Knocked to the ground; pitched out of life and into something else.” (Ibid., 129) Claudia lies in bed with the light on and a book in her hand. The book is a pretence that is not working, and presently she lets it fall. Her mind and body howl. All that she can normally keep tamped down springs into life. She aches and howls for Tom. It is not that he is ever forgotten, but mostly emotion is dormant; it lies quiet, biding its time. And then every so often something brings it raging forth, and she is back ten years ago, back in the Cairo summer, back with the raw new truth of it.” (Ibid., 150) …history as illusion. I experienced there (Egypt) the most violent outrage. I lay in bed mourning for Tom, but during the hours of daylight, the hours in which I listened to well-fed complacent men and women designing the future and re-arranging the past, I was infuriated. Now, I would be cynically amused. Then, young - well, relatively young - I wanted to assault them with their own blueprints and statistics and assessments. (Ibid., 152) After recovering from a serious accident Claudia H. reflects: I came back from that Madrid hospital with bruises, a healthier bank account than I had ever had and a wonderfully concentrated mind. The world astonished me. I looked at the green water of the Channel, at the seagulls hanging above the ferry, at the rust of a railing and the curve of a deck chair, and these things had the intensity of great art. In Cairo in 1942 I raged at the continuing universe; I walked, on that appalling day, beside the Nile and the whole beautiful place was an offence - the life, the colour, the smells and sounds, the palms, the feluccas, the kites endlessly circling in the clear blue sky. Now that it was merely myself who was still alive, I forgave the universe its indifference. Magnanimous of me. Expedient also, you may say. (Ibid., 167)

Futility of Control - A Lesson for the Ego Tom, speaking in his war-time diary: I think of how once I was brash enough to believe that I could dictate to life instead of which it has turned on me with its fangs bared. I think of all the things I haven’t done and all the things I intend to do still. I think of C., who features in most of these. (Ibid., 204)

Many voices in Search of an Identity:
I shall use many voices in this history. Not for me the cool level tone of dispassionate narration… why not after all? Beliefs are relative. Our connection with reality is always tenuous… I am by nature sceptical - a questioner, a doubter, an instinctive agnostic. In the frozen stone of the cathedrals of Europe there co-exist the Apostles, Christ and Mary, lamb, fish, gryphons, dragons, sea-serpents and the faces of men with leaves for hair. I approve of that liberality of mind. (Ibid., 9)

Many Selves:
Again, quite in keeping with the contentions of Carl Gustave Jung, Lively comments: Thus, in general, Jasper. In my head, Jasper is fragmented: there are many Jaspers, disordered, without chronology. As there are many Gordons, many Claudias. (Ibid.,10) “I am who I make myself,” says Jasper. (Ibid., 63) And just before her death reflecting on the life and death of Tom, her War-time lover: You are left behind, in another place and another time, and I am someone else, not the C. of whom you thought, the C you remembered, but an unimaginable Claudia from whom you would recoil, perhaps… I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable…But you are also, now, part of me, as immediate and as close as my many other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself… You asked me to make sense of it. I can’t. (Ibid., 206)

Archaeological Imagery:
Almost as if to mirror one of the Freudian preoccupations, Lively sees herself as examining her life in layers or strata: At the moment I’m dealing with strata. (Ibid., 12)

The strata of faces. Mine, now, is an appalling caricature of what it once was. I can see, just, that firm jaw-line, those handsome eyes and a hint of the pale smooth complexion that so nicely set off my hair. But the whole thing is crumpled and sagged and folded, like an expensive garment ruined by the laundry. The eyes have sunk almost to vanishing point, the skin is webbed, reptilian pouches hang from the jaw; the hair is so thin that the pink scalp shines through it. (Ibid., 20)
Or the insight here. I find this an interesting take on life: History is of course crammed with people like Mother, who are just sitting it out. (Ibid., 21)

Language and Meaning:
When Claudia’s daughter tells her that there must have been dragons once, considering that the word for them exists, Claudia muses in her own mind on language and meaning: “Precisely. The power of language. Preserving the ephemeral; giving form to dreams, permanence to sparks of sunlight.” (Ibid., 9)

Mythology and the Human condition:
There is a touch of Camus in Lively’s style, and the following piece is very reminiscent of the French Algerian writer, though, of course, Camus wrote of Sisyphus, not of Prometheus: “So I shall start with the rocks. Appropriately. The rocks from which we sprang and to which we are chained, all of us. Like wretched thingummy, what’s-his-name, him on his rock? “Chained to a rock..” she says, “What’s he called?” And the Doctor pauses, his face a foot from hers, his little silver torch poised… “An eagle,” she states. “Pecking out his liver. The human condition, d’you see?” And the Doctor smiles, indulgently. “Ah,” he says. And he parts her eyelids with care, and peers. Into her soul, perhaps… Prometheus, of course.. Mythology is much better stuff than history…” (Ibid., 7) “Are you all right?” Lisa says. “No,” says Claudia. “But who is?” (Ibid., 61) “Giving presents is one of the most possessive things we do, did you realise that? It’s the way we keep a hold on other people. Plant ourselves in their lives..” (Ibid., 110)

Many truths, not one, and History leads the way:
Lively is philosophically sound; well, at least philosophically up to date: Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested. I well remember the moment in which I discovered that history was not a matter of received opinion. Or, take this understanding (or misunderstanding; unique take on it anyway) of history here: Egocentric Claudia is once again subordinating history to her own puny existence. Well - don’t we all? And in any case what I am doing is to slot myself into the historical process, hitch myself to its coat-tails, see where I come in. the axes and muskets of Plymouth in 1620 reverberate dimly in my own slice of time; they have conditioned my life, in general and in particular. (Ibid., 29) Time and the universe lie around in our minds. We are sleeping histories of the world. (Ibid., 65) I’ve grown old with the century; there’s not much left of either of us. The century of war. All history, of course, is the history of wars, but this hundred years has excelled itself. How many millions shot, maimed, burned, frozen, starved, drowned? (Ibid.,66) My body records also a more impersonal history; it remembers Java Man and Australopithecus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I can share but not apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee… (Ibid 166-167) There are traces here of the mysticism espoused by John Moriarty, RIP. I have written about John in these pages before. John also believed, being a sui-generis Christian mystic - I’m probably being tautologous here as mysticism does imply some certain eccentricities - that our bodies recapitulated in their very essence all of our past from the very origins of life.

On being imprisoned by time:
Because I cannot shed my skin and put on yours, cannot strip my mind of its knowledge and its prejudices, cannot look cleanly at the world with the eyes of a child, am as imprisoned by my time as you are of yours. (Ibid, 31)

Lack of Clarity: Like Camus, Lively is baffled by the lack of clarity in the world:
And suddenly for me the uniform grey pond of history is rent; it is fractured into a thousand contending waves; I hear the babble of voices. I put my pen down and ponder; my headings are not nice and clear in red ink. I get 38% (fail) in the end of term exams. (Ibid., 15)

Language and Meaning:
Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. (Ibid., 41) (Remember Claudia is an old dying woman): I was talking earlier about language I have put my faith in language - hence the panic when a simple word eludes me, when I stare at a piece of flowered material in front of a window and do not know what name to give it. Curtain. Thank God. I control the world as long as I can name it. Which is why children must chase language before they can do anything else, name the wilderness by describing it, challenge God by learning his 100 names. ‘What’s that called?’ Lisa used to ask me. ‘And that? And that?’

On The Church:
“Well,” said Jasper, “it does no positive harm I dare say.” Oh no, none at all; just as well to belong to several clubs, you never know which may come in useful. (Ibid., 55)

On God:
“Let us pray…” says Claudia. “Huh! twice in my life have I prayed, and a fat lot of good it did me. Or anyone! God shall have a starring role in my history of the world. How could it be otherwise? If He exists, then He is responsible for the whole marvellous appalling narrative. If He does not, then the very proposition that He might have killed more people and exercised more minds than anything else. He dominates the stage. In His name have been devised the rack, the thumbscrew, the Iron Maiden, the stake; for Him have people been crucified, flayed alive, fried, boiled, flattened; He has generated Crusades, the pogroms, the Inquisition and more wars than I can remember. But for Him there would not be the St Matthew Passion, the works of Michelangelo and Chartres cathedral. (Ibid., 56-57)

Memory and Imagination:
I remember reading one of the University Sermons of the great John Henry cardinal Newman where he contended that the way we believe is as much as mystery as to how we remember. Interesting contention. However, he never thought that how we remember is quite fickle, and that, consequently, how we believe could be just as fickle. Anyway, Lively is interesting on memory and sees it very much a thing of the imagination. We do not remember childhood - we imagine it. We search for it, in vain, through layers of obscuring dust, and recover some bedraggled shreds of what we think it was… (Ibid., 43.)

Wonder and Astonishment: On the desert:
And I saw the stark textural immensity of the desert, the sand carved by the wind, the glittering mirages. It had the delicacy of a water-colour - all soft grey-greens and pale blues and fawns and bright browns. Beautiful and indifferent; when you began to see it you saw also the sores round the mouths of children, the flies crawling on the sightless eyes of a baby, those sights and those smells. (ibid., 75)

War and Boys
Wars are fought by children. Conceived by their mad demonic elders and fought by boys. I say that now, caught out in surprise at how young people are, forgetting that it is not they who are young but I who am old. Nevertheless, the faces of the Russian Front, the million upon million dead Germans, dead Ukrainians, Georgians, Tartars, Latvians, Siberians are the plump unlined faces of youths and are the faces of the Somme and of Passchendaele. The rest of us grow older and tell each other what really happened; they, of course, will never know, just as they never knew at the time. The files of newspaper libraries are stuffed with these baby faces, grinning cheerfully from the decks of troop ships, from train windows, from stretchers. (Ibid., 104)

On Animals and Humans:
I have quoted my favourite contemporary philosopher, John Gray, many times in these posts. I will quote him again here. Gray prefers to refer to the human being as the human animal. I am in complete agreement with him, because when we use the former expression we tend to inflate and magnify beyond all proportion the importance of humankind vis-à-vis the animal world, forgetting all the while that we firmly belong to that world. I have long believed that the way we treat animals mirrors the value we put on human life or, more correctly, the human animal. Psychiatrists have long reported that many murderers have been animal-abusers at some time in their childhood. And, why aren’t we surprised? I remember my own mother saying things like “You wouldn’t do it to a dog,” when she would have heard reports on the news of man’s inhumanity to man. She’d also say, “You wouldn’t put a dog out in this weather.” We peasant Irish always respected our animals as do peasants everywhere I should imagine. I am using the word peasant in its sense of being a true country person. Anyway to return to Lively’s novel. Here her lover Tom is speaking:
“You can always tell how civilised a country is by its treatment of animals,” says Tom, “The Middle East rates about as low as I’ve seen so far.” (Ibid., 105)

Review of Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Book Review 2 Summer for me this year is a time for reading and reflection. As I am spending a good period of time in Italy this summer, and a lot of it in my own company, what better way is there than to lose oneself in several or more novels.

I have just completed reading a second novel called Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. As it happens Ms Lively won the Man Booker Prize with this novel. I mention this because the last novel I read and reviewed in these pages viz., The Gathering by Anne Enright also won the exact same prize. While the latter won in 2007, the former received her award in 1987, precisely 20 years before.

Both novels have a lot in common. They are written by fiercely intelligent and intense women. Both novels are told in the first person: we are invited into the mind of an all too frail narrator in the sense that both subscribe to the inevitability of fate and to the sheer chance that life is. Both have to learn to accept the hand of cards they are dealt in life and to play that hand as best they can. Also we are left in no doubt as to the intellectual ability of both, coupled with a wonderful wisdom only gained by reflecting on years of lived experience.

Lively is a brilliant writer, but not at all as lyrical as Enright. In reading Enright I was bowled over with the intensity of her language which I felt to be lyrical and poetic in intensity. Lively is more of a prose writer who commands a lot of knowledge from a lot of areas. Her character, Claudia H. is a writer of history books and a Fleet Street journalist and ex-WW II war correspondent. And so Lively describes what it was like to be brought up in Cairo, Egypt before the Second World War and her knowledge of history and desert warfare is deep and indeed convincing: she has done her research very well indeed.

In Enright’s book we meet the narrator around her fortieth year - 39 years old to be pedantically precise. On the other hand, we meet Claudia H. as she enters a hospital to die. We are brought into this old woman’s mind as she surveys all around her and as she seeks to come to terms with all the periods of her long life - pre-war in Egypt, her relationship with her parents and with her brother Gordon to whom she was always close, her life in Egypt during the Second World War and her period as a War correspondent, her husband from whom she had been separated or divorced, her daughter Lisa and grandchildren. We are left in no doubt that she had been somebody as the nurses who admitted her to the hospital mention casually to one another. They believe that she has written books and that she had been quite famous and revered as a good historian and a very good journalist.

Reading Enright reminded me of reading Friedrich Nietzsche because she possesses the same poetic intensity as well as the lack of belief or faith in anything. Then reading Lively reminded me of reading a book by Camus, say The Outsider, because it is far more clinical and scientifically observed and not as caught up in the passions and emotions of things.

I liked a lot Lively’s acknowledgement of the contribution made to the novel by her “alter ego, understanding little but seeing a great deal.” I like this because it is so Freudian insofar as it acknowledges that oftentimes we know more than we are aware of; that truly our unconscious mind has a huge role to play in our behaviours in life.

Initially the nurses think that this old bird who has come into the hospital to die is quite simply “off her rocker.” One of the first things she says to them is: “I’m writing a history of the world… I may as well - no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez…The works this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute - from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine… eclecticism has always been my hallmark…” (Ibid., 1)

Claudia is an ambitious woman, years before her time, one of the first female war correspondents. She is also university educated with a fine mind. She is somewhat cocky and almost too sure of herself at times, but she wins us over by her honesty and sincerity. We intuitively pick up that she is no phoney at all: while she may be strong-willed she is also compassionate - as witness her treatment of her “newly adopted” son from Hungary called Laszlo.

Eclecticism is the hallmark of Claudia Hampton’s work, we are informed. (She is called Claudia H. afterwards in the novel.) As she lies in her deathbed in the hospital she muses on the meaning of history and tries to come up with her own philosophy thereof. Here she is musing on this philosophy:

“The question is shall it or shall it not be a linear history? I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards which I carry around is forever shuffled and reshuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.” (Ibid., 2)

No wonder the nurses think this complex old woman is silly or senile. However, she is far from it. She is merely, in the current bawdy terminology or new cliché, “getting her shit together” before as Shakespeare puts it she “shuffles off this mortal coil.” This old bird would have liked that quotation mixed in with her thoughts, I should imagine.

She muses on the Big bang Theory, the Theory of Evolution, Darwin, fossil hunting with her brother Gordon, the inevitability of wars, Chaos Theory, Illnesses, Cancer of the gut from which she’s dying, Greek mythology which she loves especially the Fates in whom she delights for the fact that they were all women.

Lively appeals to me because her Claudia H. believes that she has many selves. Shades of Freud and most certainly of Carl Gustave Jung here. These psychiatrists and analysts certainly believed in the theory of the many selves which go to make up our person or psyche - call it what you will. Sub-selves, I believe, Jung called them. Well done, Ms Lively, you are not alone widely read but very insightful into human nature and into the human predicament. This latter I think is also a hallmark of all great literature: it always has something meaningful to say about the human condition.

The plot of this novel is simple enough and this belies its great richness and complexity. On the surface it deals with how an old lady faces death; with how an accomplished writer faces death; with how she makes sense of the whole enterprise we humans call life; with her origins, her family, her husband and her daughter and her quasi-adopted son and then in the final lines we have her extinction or death all described in a clinical fashion. Lively is at heart a brilliant scientist and clinical observer of life. She writes a dispassionate prose. However, it is only with her wartime lover Tom that she becomes in anyway passionate in her writing. However, even this too is observed and observing. At the end we are allowed to read entries in her wartime lover Tom’s diary and this too is coolly observed with hints of passion here and there as Tom thinks about Claudia. We read this diary through the eyes of the narrator at the end of the novel.

All in all a brilliant achievement. There is much in this novel that makes one think from the various scientific theories of our origins to the meaning of life and the philosophy of history itself. This is a thinking man’s and a thinking woman’s book. It reminds me in parts of the Russians say the novels by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even the novels of Aldous Huxley. I enjoy such novels as they make the reader think, and that I believe is one of the more important tasks of all decent literature worth its name.

In short, this is a very clever book, provoking of thought at all times, evocative of times past and of other places unknown to the reader and told in hauntingly beautiful if clinical prose.

Above, a picture I took of the cover of the novel.

The Search For Self in The Gathering

With my psychologist’s or psychotherapist’s hat on, I wish to explore this novel exactly as search for self-identity. In our course on Counselling and Psychotherapy one of the main areas of study is Personal Development and Lifespan Learning. When I was researching this area two of the books I read, which have become well-known studies of middle age, were Passages by Gail Sheedy from the mid-nineteen seventies and New Passages by the same author from the early or mid-nineties of the last century. These are two books worth reading as they are written for the general public and fall into the category of pop psychology or self-help very readily. They are exactly about what the title of this post says, viz., the search for Self; the search for meaning in life; the search for purpose; the journey to self-realisation or self-actualization; the working out in an existential rather than an intellectual way of an ability to live comfortably in one’s own skin.

In a way that’s what the novel The Gathering is about. However, as it is a work of art, it is at once that and so much more. To say that it is only that is of course to do a grave injustice to this lovely novel. A work of art or a work of creative imagination is many things at one and the same time. It is, as it were, multidimensional. Here in this little article what I wish to do is only to elucidate some points on the quest to meaning in our lives - that much and no more.

On Her Feelings of Grief at the loss of her brother Liam:
I think the following is a brilliant description of the effect the death of someone close can have on you:
“I am a trembling mess from head hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling - somewhere between diarrhoea and sex - this grief which is almost genital.” (Op.cit., 7)

On Love:
“There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not , at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.” (Ibid., 15) “And what amazes me as I hit the motorway is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy - and we all do it, all the people beetling alone between the white lines, merging, converging, overtaking. We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even though they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.” (Ibid., 28) “…this embarrassment of dead flesh, and the still breathing love that was in Ada’s body, a love that did not know where to go.” (Ibid., 65)

On Old Age, Ageing and Mortality:
“She knows because she is my Granny, and when she put her hand on my cheek I felt the nearness of death and was comforted by it. There is nothing as tentative as an old woman’s touch; as loving or as horrible.” (ibid., 17)
“There is something wonderful about death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest…” (ibid., 28)
“I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out of it, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers, as they pass…” (Ibid., 79)
“… she knows that growing old, with all its disappointments, does not suit Nugent.” (Ibid., 135) “Rebecca comes back to me. Her face is full of unshed tears and I take her outside the room for a minute. The other room is occupied by the coffin so we have nowhere to go except the stairs, where we sit while my gentle drifting daughter weeps in my lap for something she does not understand… She is insulted in her youth, by the proximity of death…” (Ibid., 200)

Loveless Sex:
“Tom had sex with me the night of the wake - as if Liam’s death had blown all the cobwebs away; the fuss and the kids and the big, busy job and the late nights spent strenuously not sleeping with other women. He was getting back to basics: telling me that he loved me…exercising his right. I love my husband, but I lay there with one leg either side of his dancing, country-boy hips and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.” (Ibid., 40-41) “The last time I touched him was the night of Liam’s wake. And I don’t know what is wrong with me since, but I do not believe in my husband’s body anymore.” (Ibid., 73)  

Strength to Cope with Life:,

On Liam‘s suicide: “He was a terrible messer. He was always full of it. He just couldn’t get it together. He had a good heart. He was always there. He was the best of company, we will say. Oh! But the wit. He had a tongue in his head, there’s no doubt about that. But he was very sensitive. It was a sensitivity thing with Liam. You wanted to look after him. He was not able for this world. Not really.” (Ibid., 44)

“I could smell the settler he had before he came in the hospital door. I could smell his lunchtime wine and last night’s beer. But there was also some metabolic shift, a sweetness to his blood and breath that I did not recognize. He didn’t eat much, those last years, his body already cycling on alcohol…” (Ibid., 55)

“The school was named for Dympna, an ancient Irish princess who refused to marry her father. When her mother the Queen died, Dympna’s father looked all over the kingdom but could not find a bride. Then his eyes lit upon his own daughter. Dympna escaped with her father-confessor, all the way to Belgium, where her father-the-king caught up with her and chopped her head off. What a fantastic story. St Dympna is the patron saint of the insane, Sister Benedict said, because her father was insane to want to marry her. Of course.” (Ibid., 128)
“There is a big white house on Lambay Island - Georgian at a guess, and worth gazillions. I saw it first, it must have been from the beach, the day we went with Ada the day we went to visit our mad Uncle Brendan. And it kicks into me, this fact that Ada’s son lost to Largactyl and squalor. How many years of it? He probably died wondering who he actually was.” (Ibid., 156)
“We were always given to understand that our mother’s brother was too good for this world.” (Ibid., 157)

Pain and Suffering:
“Children do not understand pain; they experiment with it, but you could almost say that they don’t feel it, until they are grown. And even then, it seems, we always feel pain for the wrong thing. Or so it has been with me.” (Ibid., 129)

“Liam took his underpants off because they were not clean. He took his socks off because they were not clean. He probably thought, as the cold water flooded his shoes, cleansing thoughts.” (Ibid., 142)
“Your Uncle Liam was not old, Emily. He was sick. Do you hear me? Your Uncle Liam was sick, sick in the head.” (Ibid., 175)

Personal and National Shame:
“My brother had strong ideas about justice, but he was unkind to every single person who tried to love him. ; mostly, and especially, to every woman he ever slept with, and still, after a lifetime of spreading the hurt around, he managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty. Now, why is that? This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family - a whole fucking country - drowning in shame.” (Ibid., 168.)

Chaos and Chance:
“This is what I sense as I look up the stairs to the room where we were all conceived: I sense the chaos of our fate - or not so much a chaos as a vagueness - the way that no one could find a groove. And I remember how proud we were. And how loyal. And they way we all stuck together. And wasn’t that just great!” (Ibid., 187)

…My head twists away from whichever side of the church is more interested in my grief, only to show it to the other side. Here it is. The slow march of the remaining Hegartys. I don’t know what wound we are showing to them all, apart from the wound of family. Because, just at this moment, I find that being a part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.”

The Gathering - A Brilliant Little Novel

Review of The Gathering by Anne Enright

I remember a commentator once remarking that Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was a play where “nothing happens…twice.” Anne Enright’s marvellous novel is similar because the plot is not very complicated at all and really nothing happens in this novel in a way. Let me explain by firstly offering a prosaic summary. After some pages the narrator introduces herself to us as Veronica Hegarty. She is the one who is responsible for gathering all the clan together - there are some twelve siblings in her family - for the funeral and wake of her brother Liam. She had been the closest in age and sympathy to Liam and his death has really shaken her up badly. The novel recounts how she sets about contacting her siblings, breaking the news to her mother and coming to terms with her own ageing and mortality. It also recounts the state of her relationship with her husband and how she copes with being a mother. All the while she is flitting back and forth through three generations of her family. In the end she does manage to get her head together and to achieve some little peace of mind. Now that’s a rather boring prosaic summary.

I have deliberately used the word “prosaic” above because this novel reads almost like a poem. The writing is superb, deep and intense. There is simply not a word to spare. There is absolutely no way one could prune this novel back because every single word is apt and inevitable. In short, there is absolutely no padding in it, and moreover, it rings true to our experience. To use a very much overloaded and perhaps overused description I would call this work an existential one. No sooner do we start the novel than we are drawn into it: we begin to feel with, think with, live with, experience with the narrator. She draws us as it were into her head and into her heart. We become one with her in her quest - her quest for personal identity, her quest to make some sense of what this life is all about. In short this novel is a tour de force and it ranges over the whole gamut of human experiences and emotions connected therewith: from birth to childhood, to adolescence and the burgeoning of sexual desire, to marriage, having children, the ups and downs of the married life, the ageing of the body and to death and dying.

This is an intense and stimulating novel. It is one which disturbs and lifts the spirit in turns. You will take this novel in your hands at your own peril because it simply shakes you to the roots of your being and to the very foundations of your personality. But, my goodness, the challenge is worth it because you will leave this novel down all the better for having grappled for a while with the demons from your past. In short, you will be strengthened to attempt to face them head-on and you know you will emerge therefrom a stronger character indeed.

Now this is no self-help book in novel form - far from it. In fact, it is a disturbing little book which persists in upturning all those mossy old stones of the past to reveal worms that wriggle underneath. However, the real meat of this novel, like all good novels lies in its beauty and depth and precision of language. Anne Enright is a lyrical writer. She writes with a searing beauty and honesty of style. She carries us away with it, in fact. I suppose this is really what makes a good writer - the ability to express things really well. Anne Enright has much of value to tell us - as indeed do most reflective and intelligent people, but Anne has the writer’s gift of expressing it so much better than the rest of us. In short she has a lot of wisdom to share with us and she shares it with us in a style of writing which is superb. In Enright’s hands content and style rhyme and she captures us with the resultant beauty of it all.

I suppose another thing that moved me about this novel as does all good literature move me, namely the sheer honesty of the whole enterprise of good writing. Good writing is never style for style sake. Good writing is never fake or phoney. It is always honest and true. When style weaves into such truth and honesty then the result is often a little masterpiece, and that’s what we have here in The Gathering. It is no wonder that this novel won the Man Booker Prize for 2007.

The start of any novel is always worth reflecting on. Different authors have different ways of opening their works. Good authors capture our interest from the very beginning. The same is true of Anne Enright. I simply love this opening. It is mysterious and oblique and oh so honest. We can believe this narrator because she is not all that sure of things really. When the novel began several hundred years ago now the narrator was often omniscient and so when I studied English Literature this was called the All-Knowing Narrator. Our narrator is confused and searching. In short, she is an honest pilgrim as it were She is a searcher and explorer of life and experiences as we all are. I’ll finish this review by giving you a taste of the author’s style by quoting the very opening paragraph, and perhaps you will want to buy it:

“I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me - this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.” (The Gathering, Anne Enright, Vintage 2008, 1)

Above, my own picture of the cover of the novel.