Tag Archives: The Green Road

Re-Reading Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’

When it comes to reading Anne Enright’s novels, I am guilty of teleological thinking. This is because I believe her most recent novel, The Green Road, to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read and until I’d read that, I believed The Gathering to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. So, there is an extent to which I have come to view her oeuvre as an inexorable movement towards the twin apotheoses of these two works.

What is interesting then, about the history of The Gathering’s composition, is that is seems to have begun almost as a run-up to The Green Road. It was initially Enright’s intention to make The Gathering a Faulknerian 500-some page novel that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the whole family is gathered for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to emulate the set-piece of The Green Road’s Christmas dinner, albeit with substantially less information given about each family member. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is at war with its own historical consciousness, an allegory of modern Irish history which acts as the novel’s framework.

Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families in a more general sense:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. There are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift.

Take, also, Veronica’s name. The biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face witha piece of cloth, and took its imprint. A heavily freighted name, and one which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality on the page which Veronica mostly fails to live up to. Veronica is conscious of all this, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’

The allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of the hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s general fucked-up-edness, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.

Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle, (institutionalised due to his being abused), are not victims in isolation, they are part of a far broader generation of victims over the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, rape victims institutionalised on the suggestion of their rapists (who were often family members) or children molested and beaten in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.

Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.

Of course, The Gathering is just one attempted explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to take the burden of just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:

Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.

Throughout the text, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying their symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.

To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or Enright’s; she is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that would prevent us from taking this reading up wholly, but Enright’s subtlety. (The one scene we might quibble with is one set in an asylum named St. Ita’s, a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is given also).

Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise, the extent of the suffering will be passed over, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to remain stingy with the provision of compensation or the bodies responsible continue to ‘deny till they die’.

I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.

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Anne Enright on BBC Radio 3

A brief appearance by Anne Enright on BBC Radio 3, but gets a lot in regarding The Green RoadThe Gathering and owning a sense of her Irishness when writing her most recent novel.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02tn489

Ten Year Anniversary of Garrett Phelan’s Black Brain Radio @IMMA

Content warning: Post contains excessive, undue use of the first person pronoun.

I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Time aside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should be read. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs (feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.

Kevin Barry reading Brian Friel’s ‘The Saucer of Larks’

I saw Kevin Barry read the first few pages of his novel Beatlebone at Imagining Home: The Literary Imagination. It was one of the better readings I’ve ever seen, not that the evening was short of them, with Anne Enright reading from the climax of The Green Road, Colm Tóibín from The Heather Blazing and John Banville from a biography of Roger Casement. Nevertheless, Barry’s selection was the one most easily categorised as a performance; he do the police in different voices. So I was happy when I saw that Barry read a Brian Friel short story for the New Yorker Fiction podcast. It, it meaning the story, Barry’s performance and the post-story discussion, is very good.

http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/kevin-barry-reads-brian-friel

Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and dialogue

Around the halfway point of Colm Tóibín’s novel The Blackwater Lightship, the text undergoes a strange shift; for about a chapter or so, it becomes very dialogue-driven. This has thematic significance aswell as formally relevance, as it relates to the novel’s main character, Helen, becoming increasingly expressive regarding her feelings. She, and the characters around her, begin to speak more often, and at greater length. This has the effect of ensuring that the quiet, descriptive prose that usually characterises Tóibín’s fiction takes a back seat for a while, letting Helen and the others in Helen’s grandmother’s remote house in Wexford (her mother Lily, Helen’s brother Declan, and Declan’s friends, Larry and Paul), talk and talk.

And I sort of missed it, firstly because I think this uncomplicated, transparent writing is what Tóibín does best. He’s one of the few contemporary novelists I can read who isn’t being even slightly stylistically innovative without getting deeply, deeply bored. His capacity to dial down irony, which is usually caustically deployed by almost every other writer I read, to a barely detectable zero-level, and inhabit the same mental space as his characters, with all the deprivation of information that the writer usually lords over their creatures, is unparalleled, as far as the novels I’ve read go, but secondly because the dialogue in The Blackwater Lightship is decidedly ropey.

Exhibit A

“When my father died, half my world collapsed, but I did not know this had happened. It was as though half my face had been blown away and I kept talking and smiling, thinking that it had not happened, or that it would grow back.”

Exhibit B

“Yes, it must have been very frightening.”

The dialogue comes to be as rife as it does in order that Helen and everyone else in the house can bypass their prejudices, insecurities and hurts from the past. Everyone has an origin story, a reason why they erected their walls against the others, and everyone gets to tell it, with no small amount of self-reflection. One wonders if these characters are really so sealed off, how it was that they come to be so capable of outlining their interior landscapes in such white and black terms, and especially with a group of relative strangers (the family is a distant, estranged from one another type of family) in the gaff. I think they’re all holed up together for less than a working week, yet they’re all hugging it out by the third dinnertime.

This has the effect of purging each character of what might make them interesting. At a few points in the novel Helen fantasises about leaving her husband and flirts with other men. There’s even a rueful note to her thought that Paul, because of his homosexuality, is unlikely to be attracted to her. This is fun, and interesting characterisation, that makes Helen compelling and complicated, especially when it is sat next to the tension that exists between her and her mother and her father’s absence, until, it is revealed to be a cause of her mother and grandmother being cartoonish autocrats, straight outta Dickens. Even Paul, the hard-bitten and antisocial cynic, turns out be a lovesick lad with a heart of gold; his hard exterior is purely manufactured.

This is all part of The Blackwater Lightship’s belief in the talking cure of the Viennese School, attested to by the moment where Declan, in the last stages of succumbing to AIDS, calls out for his mother: ‘Mammy, mammy help me.’

‘He’s been wanting to say that for a long time,’ one character helpfully diagnoses, ‘or something like it. It’ll be a big relief for him.’ In case the significance of this is passing you by, Lily goes on to sing Declan a selection of lullabies. Declan, by the by, has spent the eighties as a gay man in London and I so desperately would have preferred to read a novel about his life. My mistake was perhaps reading this after the glory that was the defiantly unresolved family unit rendered in Anne Enright’s The Green Road. Read that again.

Anne Enright in conversation with Fintan O’Toole

Anne Enright in an extended, great conversation with Fintan O’Toole, giving interesting info on the structural aspects of her 2015 novel The Green Road, how it moved from a King Lear re-write to what it is and how she grappled with its geographical wide-rangingness. She does a couple of readings also, and they’re class.

http://www.podcastchart.com/podcasts/irish-arts-center-podcast/episodes/anne-enright-in-conversation-with-fintan-o-toole

Anne Enright Sesh

The Portable Virgin

From the first line in The Portable Virgin, I was reminded of why Anne Enright is so much fun to read. If David Foster Wallace proceeds via disclaimer, Enright proceeds via negation. As successfully as any writer I’m aware of, she makes the reader conscious of what she is not saying, what is withheld. The first paragraph of the first page of the first short story, ‘(She Owns) Every Thing,’ is a time that many other authors would have seen a good opportunity to orientate the reader, set them down, let them know what they’re in for, like many of Enright’s contemporaries do in their own short story collections, like one I recently chucked that I won’t name. Enright, instead, is determined to keep the reader off-balance:

“Cathy was often wrong, she found it more interesting. She was wrong about the taste of bananas. She was wrong about the future of the bob. She was wrong about where her life ended up. She loved corners, surprises, changes of light.”

I think Cathy might have some kind of emblematic significance, as Enright frequently orientates her fiction relative to corners, surprises, changes of light and the hows and whys of people being wrong about them. In pursuit of this, much of what Enright does is based around immersing of the reader within a partial perspective in which words are rarely the words alone, while never being gratuitously fancy about it. In this case, one begins to wonder what corners, surprises and changes of light mean for Cathy, what her interest in rather mundane things in life tells us about her, if this interest relates to how wrong she often is, and, wrong according to who, is she wrong to like corners, surprises and changes of light, and if so, why, if they appeal to her as an individual, how can this preference be, of itself, incorrect, and then before you know where you’re at, corners, surprises and changes of light become invested with some half-metaphorical sheen.

Another example: “the bag of dicks escapes, rolls down a flight of steps, shuffles over to the beautiful young girl and starts to whine. She sets them free.

‘What a peculiar language you speak,’ she said mentally, with a half-smile and a nod, as if her own were normal. ‘Normal’ usually implied American. I am Canadian, she used to say, it may be a very boring country, but who needs history when we have so much weather?”

It might take me about half an hour to parse exactly what I think is happening in the above, and the many different directions in which it cuts, which is not, exclusively what I look for in what I read, but it definitely helps.

The Portable Virgin is riven with these sorts of sentences, fun, impossible, witty sentences. Enright is drawn to and elucidates with undeniable skill things like a ‘quiet disgrace’ (not the kind of volume one would expect to attach itself to disgrace), instances of not having sex with an architect (seventeen instances, by the by) and the zero men on a bus.

 

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

A lot of Anne Enright’s critics opine the supposed lack of interiority in her novels. James Wood, writing on What Are You Like?, says that the characters appear as “neurasthenic clowns” and in a review of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, Julie Myerson writes that the protagonist, “doesn’t feel so much like a person as a collection of brilliantly dashed off observations, arch comments and frayed titbits of Celto-Latin nymphomania.”

Yes, if you are in pursuit of the Cartesian notion of a human mind, a whirring cog in a clockwork universe, don’t read Enright. Eliza Lynch is not necessarily present in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch in the way that the title, a very sensual, individually focalised and suggestive one, might lead you to believe. I like to think that Enright might be writing against a particular strain in historical novels which could be evident in novelisations of the life of say, Marie Antoinette, adverb-heavy, YA novelism-laden.

One thing that I think a lot of historical novels which take women as their subjects leave out, probably for commercial reasons, are just how grim, to put it mildly, the past was for women. What we often have is a largely sanitised protagonist and milieu, with one eye to the BBC mini-series, who often tells us more about our contemporary concerns than those of the past. Though I can’t really speak on the exact differences between the two, being alive now, and not having read very many commercially successful historical novels.

Enright does not go in for such sentimentalising of female subjects lost in the mists of time; instead, we have frequent suggestions that none of what we are reading is real. And I don’t mean that in the old-standard postmodernist way, where the author-prosthesis footnotes a text and makes frequent references to how tiresome the endless re-hashing of discordant signifiers are, Enright’s use of this technique is far more radical. At one point the narrator states (with contextual clarifiers, admittedly) that “she cannot relax, because she is not real.” This itching at the reality of Lynch persists with: “Eliza was never alone.” (the tree falling in the forest with no one to perceive it argument) or in the following bald riposte to a narrative event, which appears in parentheses “it was not true.”

This is because in order to survive in the time in which she did, Lynch was forced to ceaselessly reinvent and outfit her self relative to the caprices of male power. A key component of this theme is Lynch’s intermittent descriptions of particular outfits, given witty names such as ‘The Bluebottle,’ (“a grey so dark it is black. Tablier of dull peacock sheen.”) ‘The Housey Housey,’ (“otter-coloured taffeta trimmed with black silk moss”) and ‘The Medea’ (“to be worn with diamonds, when I get them.”).

This awareness of how fraught her life with the Francisco Solano López, president of Paraguay is, how required she is to be always ‘on the move,’ exhausts her, at one point she becomes convinced that there has been a mutiny on the ship on which she is travelling and walks from her cabin “to see who the new masters of my fate might be.” It stands to reason that few reviewers would appreciate the ‘lack’ of Eliza’s identity. Apart from the spectacular language, it is a historical novel that reads like actual an actual history book, where the personages therein have no free will and are determined wholly by circumstance.

 

The Green Road

 

When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.

When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.

I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.

I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.

I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.

‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.

‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’

‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’

So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.

 

enright

 

There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.

Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:

“anything, anything at all

To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”

It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).

I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and therebyThe Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.

One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also,Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:

“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’

‘And?’

‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”

This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:

“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”

The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.

It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue inThe Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:

“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?

Nothing happened. That is what happened.”

I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.

Read this book.

 

The Wig My Father Wore

 

1) Lists, generally, are neither sexy nor fun.

2) As far as literary genre goes, I think it’d be safe to say that they are non-entities.

3) They more often serve utilitarian, rather than aesthetic purposes: shopping lists, to-do lists, lists of enemies, etc.

4) This is why it’s fun when writers do them.

5) I’m getting tired of mentioning Big J, but, he probably started it in the following from the twelfth episode of Ulysses, however much, when reading it, we may wish that he did not:

“Thither the extremely large wains bring foison of the fields, flaskets of cauliflowers, floats of spinach, pineapple chunks, Rangoon beans, strikes of tomatoes, drums of figs, drills of Swedes, spherical potatoes and tallies of iridescent kale, York and Savoy, and trays of onions, pearls of the earth, and punnets of mushrooms and custard marrows and fat vetches and bere and rape and red green yellow brown russet sweet big bitter ripe pomellated apples and chips of strawberries and sieves of gooseberries, pulpy and pelurious, and strawberries fit for princes and raspberries from their canes.”

6) On a soon-to-be related note, Anne Enright is very funny.

7) Her novels are among the few that make me laugh in public.

8) When that happens, I read back over it and figure out what it was exactly about that joke that made it work.

9) Bathos and anti-climax are probably the most effective way for a littérateuseto get the laughs in, sudden switches from high falutin’ registers to the colloquial sets up a fairly straightforward atonality, from which hilarity can often result.

10) How reductive is that?

11) Here’s an example because I can’t stand myself:

“’You know what I think,’ she said as I showed her out, ‘about you and men?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Now fuck off Ma and leave me alone.’”

12) Yes, the vulgarity is carrying a lot of the weight in the case, but here’s another to serve what I’m building to:

“It did not agree with Stephen. He ended up calling God on the big white telephone. ‘Gawhhd!’ he said. I slept well.”

13) There is something very definitive about these.

14) Enright’s funniest lines are almost like full stops turned into sentences. Bluntness, finality, terminus, whatever you want to call it.

15) This is why her usage of lists is so fun, the deadening stopgaps of bullet points, finality, off/on, all the places that good art goes to die, are enlivened, mostly because she refuses to use lists for what they are supposedly for.

16) The Wig My Father Wore has a number of lists, which is good, because it allows me to talk about my favourite parts of What Are You Like?, which also uses lists.

17) The Wig My Father Wore is about a lot of things, but one of those things is Grace, who has an angel named Stephen show up on her doorstep, presumably to improve her life.

18) If this all sounds a bit daytime TV, it is, deliberately.

19) I think a lot of Enright’s early fiction was built on taking apparently silly premises, (The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch as a BBC bodice-ripper, or twins separated at birth, and eventually finding one another in What Are You Like?) and making them good.

20) Stephen is a bit of a hopeless case, and doesn’t really do much apart from watch daytime TV and complain about his love life, back when he did have a life in which love was a part.

21) When first making Grace’s acquaintance, he produces a list of questions to ask, which presumably a standard issue for life-coaching angels.

22) From what higher authority they are provided is not made clear.

 

“THE LIST

Did my mother weep, did my father die, did the two happen around the same time and which one caused the other.

Did I leave lightbulbs burning alone, did I draw the curtains at night, did I ever put a plug in a socket just to make it feel happy.

Had I ever pissed myself in public, did I take pleasure in it.

Did I suffer from the feeling that I had left something behind on a train. Is that why I smoked, so I could check my pockets for cigarettes.

Had I ever been overheard in a private conversation. Had I ever put blood on a mirror. During the sexual act did I suffer from regret.

Did beauty disgust me.

Did Jesus Christ die for me.

Did I ever hoard parts of another person’s body, for example a lock of hair.

Had I ever seen a pregnant woman swimming on her back.”

23) As you can well imagine, this doesn’t do a whole lot to help assuage whatever sense of lostness that Stephen is supposed to be there to cure.

24) What Are You Like? is, as said above, about twins, separated at birth. While waiting for the end of the book, which brings their reunion, they spend it trying to find out who they are and get some sort of grasp on their identities.

25) Funnily enough, they both use lists for this purpose.

26) Rose’s first attempt reads as follows:

“She was twenty-one years old. (Probably)

She was studying music. (More or less)

She was a woman. (?)

She was in bed with William/Will/Bill.

She was too full of things.

She was born with a hole in her head, a hole in her life.

Everything fell into it.”

27) In case the punctuative disclaimers didn’t alert you to it already, this attempt is unsuccessful and she tries a second time:

“She started again.

She was Irish.

Her favourite colour was blue.

Her favourite colour was actually a deep yellow, but she couldn’t live with it.

She was English.

She was tidy. She was polite. She hated Margaret Thatcher.

She was a mess.

She was someone who gave things up.

She was someone who tried to give things up and failed all the time.”

28) If lists are generally dry, making one interesting could serve as a sort of a challenge for an author to set themselves, there’s a lot in both of the above examples, in the first, basic punctuation is sufficient in introducing tension.

29) In the second, it is shown how little of who we are reside in basic facts about ourselves.

 

Yesterday’s Weather

 

Critical categorising, academic quibbling over short stories tends to discomfit me more often than not. Convincing sociological explanations for novels proliferate endlessly, but seem a little more paltry when it comes to the short story, which unfortunately seems to depend a bit too often on essentialism and even worse, on national essentialism. It is an obligation, it seems, for authors on the publicity trail of a new short story collection to have to answer some vague, abstract, mealy sort of question about why they think people like short stories, which prompts some vague, abstract mealy sort of response, which rarely defers to more obvious reasons, that people like short stories because they like stories, and perhaps their shortness has something to do with it also.

Descriptions of Irish short stories discomfit me in similar ways, all too often there are things like ‘the Bardic tradition,’ mentioned, seanchaí and, god help us all, Frank O’Connor’s ‘lonely voice in the wilderness,’ as if submerging population groups are less likely to write short stories than the population groups that they submerge. Such delineations were invented, I think, to fluff out the xiii or so required pages to not another anthology of Irish writing.

So, synecdoches of the short story form are essentialising constructs that serve the ends of marketeers, hack critics and writers. Fine. With that in mind, I’m going to try to encapsulate what it is that Enright does with her short stories, based on my reading of Yesterday’s Weather which collects stories from Taking Pictures, The Portable Virgin and one or two that appear in neither.

Enright arranges them in reverse chronological order, as a kind of overt piss-take: “I may be the only one who is laughing, but it is a great and private joke to see myself getting younger – shedding pounds and wrinkles, gaining in innocence and affectation – as the pages turn.” So there is already a kind of retrospective, reverse-lens quality to the collection, even without the title being what it is. As the writing continues, it’s fascinating to watch the style increasingly de-stabilised, as the Nabokovian subversion of artifice, usually kept on the margins of Enright’s overtones, come into conflict with her usual mode, before overwhelming it altogether in the final story, ‘Felix,’ a writing against Lolita: “Felix, my secret, my angel boy, my dark felicity. Felix: the sibilant hiss of the final x a teasing breath on the tip of the tongue…You can always count on a suicide for a clichéd prose style.” That final sentence is a nice touch also, considering The Gathering, written eighteen years later, is about a suicide and is anything but clichéd.

‘Yesterday’s Weather,’ the story this time, not the collection, describes a young couple, Hazel and John, with a newborn. “John. Divorce! Now,’ Hazel, not really joking, jokes at one point. Hazel’s tendency to anticipate the behaviour, thoughts and potential danger the baby (who I think stays unnamed) may end up in all serve as preludes to an argument which ultimately defines their blurry, anxious weekend in Clonmel with John’s parents.

The final paragraph has them making peace: “John drove as though the road could feel his tyres; the tyres could feel the road. The whole world seemed as tender as they were. At Monasterevin, he reached this hand to touch her cheek, and she held it there with the flat of her own hand while, in the back of the car, the baby still slept.” Peace of a sort. I say so because of the baby’s ominous presence, such moments of tranquillity and contemplation are evidently rare and arguments are likely to erupt again once that changes. Such is early parenthood. I think. Hazel and John will only be born ceaselessly forwards, and it in this case that the short story’s shortness serves an imperative function. At ten pages long, it is hyper-compressed to the kind of length that people as harried as Hazel and John are could feasibly assimilate, a moment of stock-taking and retrospection, within the context of the short story: “She tried to think of a number she could ring, or a site online, but there was nowhere she could find out what she needed to know. It was all about tomorrow: warm fronts, cold snaps, showers expected. No one ever stopped to describe yesterday’s weather.”

 

Taking Pictures

Just below there, I talked about Anne Enright’s use of the short story forms as a means of affording space for thought and/or contemplation, signalled by Enright’s self-consciously retrospective focalising. I didn’t mean for this to sound too mindfulness-y, but that’s perhaps inevitable when talking about such things. The reason I think this is relevant to Enright, all the same, is for a particular reason.

When I was reading one of the stories, the salaciously entitled ‘In The Bed Department,’ Kitty, manages to find time between her two adolescent sons and her job to have a brief relationship with a man she meets in a local theatre group. Reading this story, I was reminded of what the poet Marianne Moore once said about unfair aspects of life to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “One is always having to go to market or drive the children somewhere. There isn’t time to wonder, is this right or isn’t it?” Kitty is trying to work that out for herself, the escalators in the department store in which she works are a striking metaphor for how we order experience and how we categorise what happens to us as good or bad:

“Kitty was suspicious of the escalator, or more properly the escalators, as there were two of them, one falling and one rising…She disliked the push of the motor, and under that, the loose, light clacking sound of something she could not analyse. A chain perhaps, that ran freely deep in the machine.”

David Foster Wallace, speaking on surrealism in the David Lynch film Blue Velvetand in his own writing once said:

“being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them…whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real…most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra realism, it’s something on top of realism.”

In this schema, surrealism is a super-imposed topos, hovering just above the realness of the world, which bears most of the burden of proof.

In Enright’s fiction, it’s almost the other way around, as if Dali-esque archetypes, abstract interiors without individuation find themselves in relatively affluent South Dublin suburbs and “normal” family environments, or at least, in family environments where normality is expected.

As is her wont, Enright returns to the escalator metaphor:

“She could not bear the lopsided sight of the stalled steps, like someone endlessly limping at the other end of the shop floor…They packed around the central pivot like big slices of metal pie, then separated out on the way up, dangling their triangular bases into space.”

She then buttresses it further with boisterous working-class repair men who leave Kitty ambivalent. Such seemingly extraneous detail takes the rather straightforward escalator/categorising of experience metaphor from us and leaves us with a far more intricate and over determined vehicle, never mind all the interrelations of the organic/inorganic in the metal pie, or the radicalism of using such a pedestrian (literally, pedestrian) machine to characterise an inner state.

But Kitty is never stifled by all this. She becomes pregnant as a result of the aforementioned fling, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Most importantly, she deliberately doesn’t tell the man, who makes an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to follow up on their affair in a bungled phone call.

The final paragraph reverses the trajectory of Veronica at the end of The Gathering, who rather spectacularly concludes with: “I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

Kitty: “Her life was changing, that was for sure, though she seemed to be standing still. But, ‘Up or down?’ she wondered. ‘Up or down?’ The children threw the plane back in the air and circled again on the end of its wire. Kitty walked on. It had been a baby, she knew it. She had been visited. How could it be down, when she felt such joy.”

 

The Forgotten Waltz

 

The Forgotten Waltz is narrated by one Gina Moynihan, writing about an affair she embarks on with Seán, a man she meets both through her sister and in her ‘in IT, sort of’ job. Most reviewers have this pegged as a sort of post-Celtic Tiger novel, narrated as it is in the first person in the winter of 2009 in retrospect, when ‘things’ had well and truly ‘slowed down’ and there was a lot of bad snow and the guy slipped on the news.

From Gina’s stately viewpoint, the era of the Celtic Tiger becomes a time of lost innocence. Each chapter is named after a saccharine, nostalgia infused ballads from the fifties, ‘There Will be Peace in the Valley,’ ‘Love is Like a Cigarette,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow.’

There is a kind of irony in this proscribed soundtrack, not least because Gina’s acerbic tone is present throughout, (despite her professed love for Seán, she never seems to have fallen for him), because the Celtic Tiger doesn’t usually get represented as a bygone day of innocence, so much as a tacky era of indulgence and reckless deregulation for which deserved punishment was received. ‘We all partied,’ etc.

With a Bret Easton-Ellis-esque turn, designer label names are sprinkled throughout. Gina’s sister Fiona notices the brand of shoe a lawyer is wearing and Seán’s wife is at one point referred to as ‘Missus Issey Miyake.’ I panicked when I read it as I remembered no character named something so distinctive.

Another thing to notice is how prevalent alcoholism is. In a recent interview, with Miriam O’Callaghan, Enright, speaking on the past quarter-century, says that she hopes that the Irish will one day develop a grown-up view of themselves. I reckon that the prevalence of booze in  The Forgotten Waltz bears this at least partially adolescent quality to Irish society out. No matter how fancy the shoes, tiled kitchens and holiday homes in Ballymoney get, alcohol as hobby remains. It is generally fancy, European booze though, like Campari, Krug and ‘Canadian ice-wine.’ When people drink at the time in the book that I presume in the eighties, it’s just generic naggins of gin or vodka. Guinness never appears, which is progress, I suppose.

Published as The Forgotten Waltz was between The Gathering and The Green Road, its content straddles both. Like The Gathering it takes the form of a sort of an extended justification or witness statement, with the same narratorial self-consciousness that Veronica has. Gina sees the world a lot like Veronica does, but interacts with it very differently. I can’t see Veronica ever saying “Those mango slices are a crime!” at a New Year’s party or anywhere else.

Scenes like the party at Fiona’s house are new territory for Enright, a movement into less claustrophobic environs, from the tortured Nabokovian first person, to third-person comedy set-piece, like the Christmas dinner in The Green Road and its fallout.

Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood

First, I’ll say that the reason I did not read this text in the initial Enright sesh of late 2015, is not because I was dismissive of Enright’s non-fiction. Nor was I dismissive of the parts of her non-fiction which deal with the conceiving, bearing and raising of her babies. I tried to obtain the book when I was making my way through her entire novelistic oeuvre, but after waiting for almost a year on the order waiting list in Hodges & Figgis, I decided to buy a digital copy, as it would seem that Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, is out of print. My having to wait to long is, as is the case with so many other things, everyone else’s fault.

And I’m glad I got to it eventually, as it is every bit as illuminating, funny and well-written as any of her novels. This is unsurprising. What is surprising, if you picked this book up without knowing who Anne Enright is (which, at the time of the book’s publication, in 2004, might be more likely than not) is what the book is doing on the level of genre. I am, I admit, mostly unfamiliar with books on baby-bearing/child-rearing, but over the course of the two decades I’ve spent in the houses of people who buy newspapers, I’d take a look at lifestyle sections, coldset magazines, and this, coupled with an obsessive devotion to a number agony aunt columns, gives me a sense of the kind of ‘market’ that Enright has side-eyed here.

The book opens with aporia, an apology for its existence; the motivation to collect and expand the smattering of essays which form its backbone seems to have sprung from an outraged sequence of reactions in the Guardian letters page to a few of her thoughts on motherhood. Enright caustically observes that she probably “should be talking dimple, gurgle, puke-down-the-back-of-my-Armani-jacket.” Enright knows better than anyone how political it is to insist on when, where and how a woman should be speaking.

It is a hybrid work, in a sense, and sits on the boundaries between memoir/essay/fiction at a number of points, particularly when Enright’s Woolfian sensibility, attention to perception, light and the flux-y relationship between subject and object, shines through. The freshness which seems to attend to the way in which her children see the world empower these descriptive passages quite a bit, and give Making Babies some of its best moments:

“I wonder if this is the way that the baby sees things: vaguely and all at once. I imagine it to be a very emotional way to exist in the world…I imagine colour leaking into her head like a slowly adjusted screen — tremendously slow…the world simple and new as we all stop to admire the baby admiring a wrought-ion candelabra with peculiar dangly bits and five — yes five! — glowing, tulip-shaped bulbs.”

There wouldn’t be a great profusion of family journalism imaginatively dealing with the phenomenology of perception, he says in his ignorance, certainly not as much as there is judgemental tut-tut literature, that reprimand mothers for their impulse control, or not buying enough stuff. This too, Enright rails against, and its tremendously refreshing. As there is one massive oversight that this sub-genre overlooks, and that is class, something that Enright skirts around at many points in the text, building to the last chapter/essay, when Enright discusses her depression, and attempted suicide. She finds it difficult to see it as an event separable from her growing up as a young woman in Ireland in the eighties, a time when Ireland ‘broke apart:’

“The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties…the constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes…with unfathomable bitterness.”

The current trend in The Discourse is to make the political personal, but intellectual, probing and vivid works such as Enright’s, remind us that it cuts both ways, that the personal too, is political.