Monthly Archives: August 2016

John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’

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John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’ is in many ways a typical McGahern short story. It represents a family, touched by tragedy in rural Ireland (albeit off the mainland in Achill), it touches on the darker aspects of human behaviour and the prose remains quiet and unfancy throughout. It even contains a quotation from Jane Austen that might serve as a thesis statement for McGahern’s oeuvre in general. So what is it that distinguishes it from the other short stories in the collection, also entitled Creatures of the Earth? Not a whole lot, either thematically or technically, apart from the title, and it is this, and how it relates to the larger work, that I will now explore in depth.

The text introduces the Waldron family in the aftermath of Mr Waldron’s death. Mr Waldron worked in a hospital, and finds that once he falls ill, his colleagues about town begin to shun him: “They work with sick people and they are not ill. They are outside and above all that. They loom like gods in the eyes of these poor creatures. Now that I am sick I am simply no longer a part of the necessary lie that works. I have to be shut out.”

Here we have the first instance in which the word ‘creature’ is used in the narrative, in the almost endearing sense of ‘poor creature,’ in such a way that acknowledges their fallibility, and perhaps even pities way, for the amalgamation of social snobbery and anxiety about their own deaths that motivates them. Of course, these ‘creatures,’ are not the only ones that appear in the short story, we also have the far more abiding creature, the cat Fats, who waits out Mr Waldron’s illness at the foot of his bed. The other creature, in the conventional sense of the term, is Tommy McHugh’s border collie. Both animals are black and white. This seems important. Eileen Waldron, making use of the now empty house for her work, begins to avoid local character Tommy McHugh, as seeing the dog under his neglectful and cruel ownership distresses her, in much the same way that the hospital staff avoided Mr Waldron once he fell ill. Albeit of course, for completely different reasons.

At one point, Eileen recalls a local doctor named Doorley, who, believing in the healing powers of tar, tarred his children once a year. All of them grew up to be ‘disturbed,’ the narration (the word ‘narrator’ seems to imply a greater degree of agency than one can detect in a McGahern text) informs us. Two have committed suicide.

McGahern’s attention to detail regarding the foibles of human behaviour and to implicitly link these two manifestations of it, almost as if there was a case to be made for their similarity, is what allows him to credibly advance larger, almost cosmic truths in conjunction with the ‘mere’ pastoral realism. The spoonful of pessimism helps the medicine go down too, of course.

The cruelty of people remains a strong fixture in ‘Creatures of the Earth,’ two drifters abduct Fats on a whim and drown her. Tommy McHugh later casually mentions the fact that he threw the border collie off a cliff.

It’s a testament to McGahern’s vitality and consistency of tone as a writer that interpreting him can sometimes feel like over-reading, but there must be something to the persistence of the black and white. One could think of it as McGahern’s version of the Ted Hughes’ view of the natural world, which reveres animals for their animality or apparent simplicity. The cat’s instincts, which incline her to trust people, doesn’t lead her to suspect danger until its too late.

The final paragraph, in which Tommy ominously declares that Eileen is ‘on her effing way out,’ to the ‘absent collie’ offers us this interpretation, it is a peculiar being indeed that can conjure up a prosthesis for an animal they themselves killed in order that they may serve as a sympathetic auditor to justify their own mad theories about another person. It also returns us to the petty behaviour of the medical staff: (“he declared to the absent collie in a voice that sang out that they alone among the creatures of the earth would never have to go that way,”) each and all engaged in a perpetual denial of their own deaths.

The title, at first glance, is a very forensic, apparently objective one, but there is an implication of community in it too, the community of the earth’s inhabitants, at least together and of a part, even if so much of their actions towards the earth, and its other creatures, are destructive. Like the good doctor Waldron of course, there is a sympathy present there too.

Dylan Moran’s Radio Play, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett

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I’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up for as far back as I can remember, since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy got lodged deep into my world view, and influenced me to try stand-up the few times that I did, aswell as slur the way I speak infinitesimally. I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good modifying and improvising local and topical material unlikely to turn up in his one-hour specials, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Roísin Dubh, Galway.

It was during one of these excursions into the vortex of ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addressed his absent girlfriend Isabel, in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings will make it to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, if it is the case that he will play all of them to her when he returns from his hike.

I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on the details which his young self imparts with most fervour, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp is most interested in returning to recollections of his bygone sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.

Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy and passive aggressive with his partner to succumbing to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. Albeit psychosis with comedic intent. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s act enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’

It is a cliché generally observed in Irish comedy journalism that such acts driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms; the performative element.

Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based; we respond to his material in ways that if another, more Apollo Theatre type stand-up were to make them, we wouldn’t, because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. His coming onstage stage in Monster for example features a glass of wine, extravagant arm gestures, a half-hearted audience greeting, and a spot of bother with the mic stand.

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This affectation of partial incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special, and his take on family life in his second and those thereafter so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as he hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. Stand-up, as traditionally practiced, requires repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity.

Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his current critical reputation, which seems to me to depend more on his columns than his novels, The Third Policeman, At-Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his writing style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond the sentience of Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and wondered how it is possible for such an archetypal postmodern stylist to emerge from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet.

This impersonal note sounded in O’Brien’s fiction is almost antithetical to the notion of comedy as practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.

Who is mediating Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls?’

ErnestHemingway.jpgErnest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a peculiar text for a number of reasons. First among which is the tension residing in the novel’s style. Hemmingway’s prose is among the most identifiable of the twentieth century, not just because he’s a canonical mainstay, but because of his commitment to shearing his works of all ‘unnecessary’ verbiage. His work is easily parodied as a result, just avoid adverbs, sub-clauses and never use a poly-syllabic word when a mono- will do.

Hemmingway’s sparse approach is the reason why websites such as http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ exist, which allow you to ‘write like’ Hemmingway, by highlighting complicating phrases that you should trim. We all await the first Booker-prize winning novel written with the help of this tool, I am sure.

It might sound strange to posit that For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about an American, Robert Jordan, volunteering to fight a leftist guerilla war against the Spanish fascists, is a novel about its own stylistic restraint, but this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well please.

But I see your point, Hemmingway does permit himself occasional exuberances, or at least exuberances by his standard. These occasionalities cluster around moments of physical contact between Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it

The Hemmingway app, incidentally, doesn’t like this sentence. It’s easy to see why. The pronouns repeat and clump together, (‘closely,’ ‘closely,’ ‘lonely,’) though perhaps repetition is inaccurate or insufficiently nuanced, they sort of rhyme, rather than repeat, ‘smooth/smoothness’ ‘coolness/cool,’ ‘warm/warmly,’ almost as if the words are working through their various grammatical permutations rather than changing into something more apposite. This results in some hyphenated neologisms that could summon up a Montessori Finnegans Wake, i.e., “happy-making.” So within this veritable explosion of linguistic energy, Hemmingway is still restraining himself by limiting his vocabulary.

The fact that it is at these points, the points at which Jordan is particularly botheredly hot-making is significant, as almost all of Jordan’s time, when in solitude, represents him as tussling with his doubts, subduing his panic about his outward presentation of stoic restraint. His self-recriminations power the narrative’s quieter moments, and make a poignant contrast with the admirably suspenseful shoot-outs that come towards the novel’s end. Therefore, restraint, both in emotion and in prose style serve a coterminous goal, and are mutually raised to the level of a moral imperative.

The elevation of a plain style to a moral realm comes into play also in the novel’s use of language. The dialogue is rendered as clunky and old-fashioned style, making use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ which I think serves at least two purposes. First, it imbues the novel with a old-world grandeur. One’s mind immediately goes to the early modern English of William Shakespeare’s plays, an association that no novelist, however bare they wish their works to be, would resist. Second, Hemmingway wishes to preserve the spirit of demotic Spanish in which the dialogue is putatively being spoken, and therefore has them speak as if their words are being translated literally, which is strange, since the Spanish words which crop up, Inglés, qué va, are italicised, and are written as they are spoken. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the novel reads more naturally.

But it is the treatment of ‘bad’ language that sticks out the most. Rather than having his characters say ‘fuck,’ ‘damn,’ or their continental equivalents, they will say things like ‘I obscenity in the milk of thy shame’ or the narrator will intrude: ‘He said unprintable.’

I confess to ignorance on how difficult or easy it was to print cuss words in novels in the early twentieth century, but this does seem like a particularly convoluted solution, if they did indeed present a problem. I’d rather think of it as another instance of Hemmingway keeping his character’s on a leash, letting the moments in which physical desire and emotion intertwine be the only ones allowed to run rampant on the page, and open up an aspect to Hemmingway’s writng we wouldn’t normally see.

And that’s why a bleedin’ app isn’t the only thing you need to be a good writer.

Patrick Kavanagh: London Poet?

000651cf-1500I’ve never ranked Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry very highly, ‘The Great Hunger’ aside. If I had to generate a fancy reason for why, rather than the simplistic sounding, ‘I don’t like this,’ it would be my consciousness of his biography, as I find him far more engaging as a representative of his era, than as a poet.

If you’ve never read Pat Walsh’s book Patrick Kavanagh and the Leader, for example, do, it gives a thorough account of future Taoiseach John A. Costello’s intensive cross-examination of the poet when he sued the Dublin publication, The Leader, for libelling him. The courtroom drama is begging to be adapted from the page after page of snappy, witty dialogue, with the poet and future Taoiseach arguing over where the irony in a particular line in Shelley resides. Yes, really, they debate this at length. Kavanagh gives as good as he gets I think, and it’s no wonder there were queues outside the courts for the days and days that the trial ran on for.

Notions of Ireland’s cultural stagnancy in the forties and fifties are being rolled back at this point, but there is something bleak that persists about Kavanagh’s generation, himself and Flann O’Brien sitting in Dublin pubs rife with backbiters and destined for varying shades of obscurity and penury.

The RTÉ documentary below complicates the picture we have of Kavanagh quite a bit, giving a detailed account of the years he spent in London, enmeshed in its cultural and artistic scene, which all seems quite a bit more vital and indeed, enjoyable for Kavanagh than his years spent in Dublin. There is a suggestion in the documentary that there are those who prefer Kavanagh in his current state, as a peasant, Dublin-canal poet, but whatever side you fall on interpretively, I think the consciousness of Kavanagh as more metropolitan than most people are aware, can only ameliorate, rather than diminish his reputation.

Listen also for Flann O’Brien’s advice for what to do if an author you’ve never read comes up in conversation.

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2015/0107/670862-fleeting-city-the-london-years-of-patrick-kavanagh/