Tag Archives: vladimir nabokov

Modernism, Post-Modernism and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Psychology’

katherine-mansfield

I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.

So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.

My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.

All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?

It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.

Answer the First

‘After modernism.’

Answer the Second

‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’

What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.

My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.

As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.

But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.

One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.

The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:

‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’

Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:

‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’

In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.

The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)

It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.

Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.

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Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ ‘Vermin’ or ‘Cockroach’

Folk who know nothing else about the Czech novelist Franz Kafka know that he wrote a short story in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is turned into a cockroach. The irony is that this is more a function of illustrations of the novella than it is derived from the text. In the below talk on translating Kafka from the London Review of Books, (featuring Will Self, translators Anthea Bell, Joyce Crick, Karen Seago and Amanda Hopkinson) one topic of conversation is the fact that this boils down to a mistranslation of the first sentence of The Metamorphosis from the original German.

 

The word ungeziefer is more accurately traduced as ‘vermin,’ ‘pest’ or ‘insect,’ than ‘cockroach.’ Although trying to get a firm grasp on what kind of insect Gregor Samsa has become, not to denigrate Vladimir Nabokov’s efforts, is irrelevant. Kafka specifically directed his publisher to not provide any illustrations of Gregor post-metamorphosis: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” Retaining indeterminacy = the order of the day.

Some anatomical features that are reported – lots of adhesive legs, a sensitive head, a hard back, suggestive of a thorax or carapace, indicates that has become insectoid, but exactly what kind is never said directly. The chambermaid addressing Samsa, almost fondly, as a ‘dung-beetle’ shouldn’t be trusted; it is more suggestive of her idiosyncrasies than suggestive of Samsa’s new form.

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‘Vermin’ would seem to be a far more resonant translation in this case, as I would argue that it conveys another layer of meaning, beyond the surface monstrosity of Samsa’s condition. ‘Vermin’ amounts also to a subtle condemnation of his environment. In the same way that the word ‘weed’ refers to a plant growing where it is unwelcome, a ‘vermin’ is an animal in an environment where one judges it to be intruding. ‘Vermin,’ could just as easily refer to rats, foxes or even dogs.

The word ‘vermin’ in the first sentence therefore anticipates the Samsa family’s attitude to Gregor, as they becoming increasingly unwilling to share their household with him, no matter how certain they are that the insect is their son, though how they come to believe this is never outlined. The Samsas take action to euthanize him, ironically, after Gregor is tempted out of his room by the sounds of his sister playing the violin, appealing to his inner, very human, self. In some ways this is surprising; as the story continues, our sense of Samsa’s interiority recedes. Although on the other hand, he has been kept in a room for a few months and has been reduced to overhearing his family’s conversations in the other room. One shouldn’t necessarily blame him for withdrawing into himself, away from the reader’s vantage point.

In another sense, Gregor’s loss of personality traits or human characteristics has also begun long before the narrative proper begins. On awaking to this new state of affairs, he seems utterly unperturbed, regarding it as a mere inconvenience, and is far more troubled by the time that the train he intends to catch to work leaves the station, how much time he must allow himself if he is to catch it etc, rather than finding himself no longer in his own body. The tone of commonsense pragmatism with which he attempts to placate his freaking out family members, (he has lost the ability to speak) is one of the most horrifying aspects of the text, and points to how alienated Gregor is from himself:

“Do you want to let me set out, do you? You see Chief Clerk, you see, I’m not stubborn, I like my work; the travel is arduous but I couldn’t live without it.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is the menial nature of Gregor’s occupation as a travelling salesman; based on how quickly his supervisor turns up at his home to reprimand him, one might conceive this text as a fabulist critique of the dehumanising nature of modern work.

One should also remember also that the word ‘vermin,’ and words like it, were used in the Nuremberg rallies, and the belief that the Jewish people were unwelcome within the lebensraum in the same way that Samsa is in his own home, was to have disastrous consequences in the decades following Kafka’s death.

John Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and Anglo-Irish Nostalgia

Every time I read a John Banville novel, I wish that it were the first time that I was reading a John Banville novel because, taken in a vacuum, each one is a work of great invention. Banville has a capacity to infuse into his high narratives of failed epistemology features of non-high literature (an impulse that Banville now channels into his Benjamin Black persona), and his post-Nabokovian reveries are surely among the most compelling of their kind but, having read about four them, a pattern begins to stand out and here we come to the less appealing aspects of his writing.

  • The perpetually waning, ethereal, always-described-relative-to-their-physical-features female ‘characters.’
  • The aging, reprehensibly lecherous but aesthetically-atuned middle-aged or old men at each of the novel’s centres.
  • The deconstruction of the novel’s artifice every page or so.
  • Four or five points at which it is suggested that the plot in its entirety is contrived.
  • The quiet twist in the text’s last four or five pages.

I could go on, and say a lot of other things that annoy me but the London Review of Books pretty well covered it in its review of his most recent novel The Blue Guitar. So I’ll just say that The Infinities featuring an omniscient God-narrator rather rather than a mortal one, allowed the usual course of his writings to be unsettled and re-vitalised in a way. Still a shame about Helen Godley, as sketchily characterised as she is attractive. Similarly, Banville remains a good sentencer, with a firm grasp on underplayed humour and The Book of Evidence had more than the average amount of good phrases and the momentary diversions of his baroque prose style is generally enough to get me through one of his books.

However, there was more than just this to keep my interest throughout The Book of Evidence, and that was the main character’s apparent nostalgia for the departed world of Georgian Dublin, through the prism of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Freddie Montgomery is of upper-middle class Catholic stock, though his household, when he returns to Ireland, seems to have Gone Down, as big houses in Irish books will do. Montgomery remembers his father’s attitude to modern Irish history in the following terms: ‘the world, the only worthwhile world, had ended with the last viceroy’s departure from these shores. After that it was all just a wrangle among peasants.’ He even calls Dún Laoghaire Kingstown. This nostalgic treatment of seventeenth-century Ireland is familiar within Irish literature, as one can see from the works of W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen. One can perhaps just about glimpse the emergent rhythms of Banville’s prose style in the following quote from Bowen’s Court:

‘The great bold rooms, the high doors imposed an order on life. Sun blazed in at the windows, fires roared in the grates. There was a sweet, fresh-paned smell from the floors. Life still kept a touch of colonial vigour; at the same time, because of the glory of everything, it was bound up in the quality of a dream.’

Some of Banville’s thematic preoccupations seem to be gestured towards here also, the faint oscillation of unreality beneath appearance, the intensity of things just in their raw being-ness and the wealth on the backs of colonial subjects without the compromising fact of their existence relates to Banville’s capacity to keep his distance from the interiority of others, and perhaps from the interiority of protagonists themselves. We see also an attraction to surface and a repudiation of tacky actualness.

Roy Foster sees the eighteenth-century pursuit of a high-style in all things from buildings, public works and overwrought, intricate furbelows in their neo-classical architecture as a try-hard pathology in response to their self-perception, a recognition of their colonial status with the attempt to construct a better capital with better public buildings than the English. Foster writes that many contemporary visitors to Dublin expected a provincial town and were confronted with a totally inappropriate level of architectural and civic grandeur. One, in a mode that is not entirely un-Banvillean mode writes that visiting Dublin was like being ‘at table with a man who serves me Burgundy, but whose attendant is a bailiff disguised in livery.’ This pretentiousness emerges from Georgian Dublin’s precarious sense of itself and relates meaningfully to Banville’s high style, as a compensation for the insufficiency of one’s identity. Montgomery’s dreams, his notions, his self are even more dream like, than they at first seem, as they are constructed on a misinterpretation of history.

Too Many Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’

 

Before doing what it is that these posts do, whether it be parsing texts for political shortcomings, justifying my own intelligence in a work’s margins or talking about myself at a remove, I want to say that Infinite Jest is staggeringly good. Of all the achievement lit. I’ve read, books where the length or relative difficulty of the text becomes a kind of perverse selling point (“look at me, I’m reading this book!”), it apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre. William H. Gass’ The Tunnel could’ve lost 150 some pages towards the end, I shift into skimming mode for two-three of the episodes towards the end of Ulysses, and I could go on just about as long as Proust does about memory expressing the level of antipathy I have for at least two of the volumes of á la recherche. Infinite Jest is almost non-stop reward for the work you put in. Know this.

In comparison to Proust, there’s very few parts of Infinite Jest that are a slog, and many of the parts that critics have identified as slog-like, such as the Eschaton sequence, in which Foster Wallace lets us know that he can out-Gravity’s Rainbow Gravity’s Rainbow, I actually had as much fun as I’ve ever had reading a book. Eschaton, by the by, is a complex geo-political strategy game played across tennis courts with an apparently endless proliferation of equations delimiting the state of play and tennis balls as nuclear warheads, something that references the V-2 rockets of Gravity’s Rainbow’s plot, while reducing them within the context of on international war-games picaresque of a picaresque.

In initial mind-drafts of this overlong thing, I had invectives against the Québecois separatist sections, convinced that I was of a mind with Foster Wallace’s editor, who deemed it a harangued and haranguing ‘huggermugger,’ lobbed in to prove that Foster Wallace is among the big boys, literarily speaking and is just tedious and incongruous. However, after finishing the book and coming in retrospect to assemble its foreshadowings, elisions and manifold, manifold hints about the structure of its plot, one comes to some sense of its indispensability, which is either a testament to Foster Wallace’s heightened levels of novelistic craftsmanship or an example of literary Stockholm syndrome, the month and a half you spend immersed in Inifinite Jest’s mass, the more mesmerised you become by the compulsive noticing and tortured asymmetry of the narrator’s voice. I would, maybe, take exception to some of the lengthy phone conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin. Their reckless and often hilarious badinage can’t disguise the leaden and expository tendencies beneath their dialogue, during which Foster Wallace feels compelled to lay out a setpiece about Hal finding his father after he has committed suicide and the resulting co-dependent relationships Hal establishes with a therapist he didn’t really need to see but felt the need to impress. It is characteristically funny and vivid, but credulity is stretched and sundered by having the two brothers rake over details they are certain to have covered at some point before. Why Foster Wallace didn’t establish this in some other mode, tense or with some other narrator is a bit mysterious, to say nothing of their for no reason anatomising of the nutty history of Québecois separatism.

Coming to the sixty or so page home stretch, and finding Effy Dubbs mid-swing in crafting an account of Donald Gately’s dabblings in the criminal underworld of Boston Massachusetts, I began to doodle idle pleas in the margins for the narrative to get to wrapping up, before it gave way to an utterly stellar scene in which Gately binges on a stash of Substances with a felony-committing friend over a number of days, interspersed with Hal Incandenza’s childhood memories, hashing them over as vividly as your best sepia drenching word artists of nostalgia (like, dunno, Nabokov) while addressing their uncertain origin in a way that is not pretentious, overdone or hackneyed, but in a way that is not a little bit devastating.

But yes, Infinite Jest is really class, fun, funny and profound, and more than repays the amount of attention and time that it demands. It’s a shame that its twenty year anniversary (its set towards the end of last year, one of the background characters sports a Sinn Féin t-shirt, suggesting their prospects in the general election prospects sont bonnes) coincides with a film so devoted to explicating Foster Wallace as a person rather than the book(s) he has produced, because regardless of how complex, interesting he was, (and he was, he really was) having read Infinite Jest I really feel like his persona, let alone his actual, real-world personality, cannot compare with the complexity and intricacy of the questions thrown up by his novel. But, the book is very long and Foster Wallace is an incredibly entertaining speaker and short-form non-fiction writer, so there tis.

 

The beginning of Foster Wallace’s literary career, so the chronology has it, begins with him alienating creative writing professors with Thomas Pynchon influenced post-minimalism, which made use of the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida. This was all done, Foster Wallace later said, in order to project his intelligence onto others and make manifest his academic brilliance. It was also done, he said less often, in order to best Pynchon, and stage an Oedipal confrontation with his most significant influence. But Foster Wallace managed to make something novel of his maximalist pretensions, by subverting one of the key tenants of postmodernism, irony itself. He believed that it had exhausted its usefulness in making meaningful critiques of corporatist, mass-media hegemony (read: ‘The Man’). As he said:

“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

In this attempt to get past irony, Foster Wallace is also earnestly working through his aesthetic framework. How is he to approach writing after a novel as expansive and ambitious as Gravity’s Rainbow? How was one to write with moral certainty after the Great Cultural Decentre-ing of the sixties, seventies and eighties?

The sobriety meetings that he attended for his alcoholism provided him with the answer, and allowed him to write with moral seriousness in a post-ironic milieu. As such, he shares a literary generation with that other great white male of post-postmodernism, Jonathan Franzen. In him and his scepticism regarding all things internet we behold the place Foster Wallace may well have occupied were he alive today, as a punchline for literary thinkpieces. D.T. Max, author of Foster Wallace’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, writes that Alcoholics Anonymous, with its platitudes, pseudo-religiosity and lack of engagingly abstract, intellectual schemae initially alienated Foster Wallace. ‘One day at a time,’ ‘higher power’ and ‘just do what is front of you to do,’ seemed insufficient, but as he later said in This is Water: “in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.” From this willingness to relax his over-active intellect, comes the impulse of post-postmodernism, the attempt to modulate a note of sincerity in a post-Reaganomics America. This tension is also played out in the some of the most engaging sections of Infinite Jest, through the eyes of the Bloomian decent-guy addict Don Gately.

From this impulse comes one of the more even more self-reflexive prose styles of the last few decades. While postmodernism brought us texts bristling with self-conscious possibilities, aware of book as book and author and reader as personae, post-postmodernism represents the author’s attempts to step outside of all this, take the reader aside, rub our shoulders and whisper words like ‘no,’ ‘actually,’ ‘yes,’ ‘please,’ and ‘sad’ in our ears. If you have ever read a recent piece of writing which steps out of its predominant mode to implore you on a point or other, that is Foster Wallace’s legacy. But, what David Foster Wallace didn’t understand about capitalism (he definitely does, in his Charlie Rose interview he discusses the ways in which Burger King sells burgers with the slogan “Sometimes you gotta break the rules”) is that, contrary to what Karl Marx thought, it is endlessly capable of dealing with contradiction. Rather than having contradictions overwhelm it, capitalism might be said to thrive on contradiction. Like the blob monster of many science fiction narratives, capitalism is capable of consuming something which may have posed an existential threat and take on its shape for the furtherance of its vile and tacky enterprise. As such, in the wake of the new sincerity, we get Wackaging ( http://wackaging.tumblr.com/ ) and the blurbs on Innocent Smoothies labels.  There is a section in Infinite Jest which addresses this, in which the reasons why video-calling is not a viable commercial enterprise and how the market steps in to solve the problem it creates. People don’t want video-calling because it requires maintaining one’s appearance on phone-calls, therefore a company begins producing custom-made masks of people at their most attractive. It’s a prescient metaphor for social media and reminds me of how much I wish I could stop marketing myself on various outlets and how transparent and awful all of this stuff is.

(As with all things, there is a PhD to be written on Foster Wallace’s use of the word ‘sad.’ Normally eschewed, I’m sure, by writers of serious literature as being too three-lettered to shoulder the burden of melancholy, depression or despair, far more robust embodiments of human misery; Foster Wallace makes frequent use of it. He was a highly self-conscious user of words, going so far as to begin writing a personal dictionary, and his use of the word ‘sad’ is part of his attempt to rehabilitate sincerity of expression in avant-garde literature.)

There is, furthermore, an extended interview in the footnotes with a former teammate of Orin Incandenza, in which details are provided of Orin’s behaviour in the early stages of his short-term relationships. The interviewee deposes that Orin: “is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone, -And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Away-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittility-Transcendentally-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole opennes-demeanour thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness; Orin Incandenza is the least open man I know.” In case you haven’t been paying attention so far (no judgement), this sounds eerily congruent with Foster Wallace’s own aesthetic.

And it’s difficult to shake this sense of irony, particularly when it is flagged by the author himself so frequently. For every time honesty, genuineness, moment-being is proposed as ultimate solution, we get an extended, improbable picaresque almost right out of Candide about the various misfortunes that have befallen any given addict/tennis player, albeit with far more instances of sexual assault played for laughs.  Which gets cloying, predictable and yucky. He addresses this intractability in his dishonesty granting him a greater verisimilitude via the film career of Jim O. Incandenza, but it doesn’t bring resolve the short circuit, it only perpetuates it further. To be expected.

In an earlier thing written on The Pale King, I mentioned how conservative Foster Wallace’s vision of generational gaps are, which is all the more surprising considering how much more reflexive his treatment of it is in Infinite Jest. The usual party line of Generation X as a generation of enfeoffed pastry people (in comparison to the Greatest Generation who survived the Depression and fought Hitler, ergo it would be best if Generation X get the opportunity to confront a catastrophe of a similar ilk) is in Infinite Jest, expressed by a disappointed and alcoholic father. I’m willing to attribute the hardening of this perspective into dogmatism by virtue of The Pale King being unfinished. At just under six-hundred pages it had barely started, and easily could have been two and a half times that length, ample time for Foster Wallace to ambiguate his position. At least I hope so.

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.

 

Anne Enright Sesh 7: ‘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.

Anne Enright Sesh Part 5: ‘Yesterday’s Weather’ and the shortness of the short story

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.”