literature

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Editorial note: I take forever to get around to writing book reviews. This is because of many factors: I like to let a book sit and marinate (metaphorically) for a while; I have paid work to be getting on with; and sometimes I just need to read a book a second time to have anything interesting to say about it. I also read many more books than I ever review for the simple reason that many/most [delete according to how cynical you’re feeling] are pretty vanilla and impossible to remember a week after reading (even if you enjoyed them at the time). Now, I’m not knocking vanilla — it’s my go-to flavor when I fancy an ice cream — a well-told story is often a joy to read, but when I sit down to write a review a month or so later, the details of the vanilla story tend to have melted away. That’s partly why I don’t review more than one book a week.

A great new Irish novel: YOU by Nuala Ni ChonchuirBook review:

One novel I really want to highlight is Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You. For the record, I think Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an amazing writer, mostly known for her short and flash fiction. I’ve read several of her short-story collections, and was blown away each and every time (check out Mother America, if you want to know where to start), but I’ve never reviewed her, so I need to begin putting that right.

You is Galway-writer and poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel. While Ní Chonchúir offers a few historical cues to ground us in the year 1980 (the Olympics, Kate Bush on the radio, The Elephant Man, etc.), the story she tells is quite timeless. (You could be forgiven, glancing at the back of the book, for fearing that You might be a bit vanilla — the publisher’s try not to give too much away in the description. But, believe me, it’s anything but!) On the surface, You is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by a 10-year-old girl being raised by a single mother in poverty. Thankfully, those bare facts are as near to Angela’s Ashes-territory as we get, because for our 10-year-old narrator the family’s life is on-the-whole a happy one, their home a safe space. The father has left his wife and now lives in a Corporation flat with another woman, with whom he has a new family. In contrast, the mother, the narrator, and her siblings live in a small house by the river, with friends nearby, wild places to explore, and the girl feels the ineffable something, the spark, the charge of being alive that comes from being around a river. (The grown-ups, of course, fear it, fear change, and the violence of nature.) In contrast, the girl finds her father’s flat stifling, and is unsettled by the wildness and unpredictable danger of the gangs of local children who roam the estate.

The novel is told in the second person. We never learn the narrator’s name, her family mostly using the nickname “little Miss Prim,” but the second person has the effect of drawing us into her confidence, sharing her world-view. Unlike some novels that use child narrators to ironic effect, relying on adult perception to mock the child’s perspective as painfully naive, Ní Chonchúir’s narrative strategy makes the reader feel like a co-conspirator in her narrator’s interpretation of the world; an interpretation that makes Little Miss Prim feel uncomfortably disloyal to her mother and father, whose actions she is beginning to find wanting.

The narrator’s mother is depressed, and bounces between being a loving parent focused on her children, and resenting them, making rash choices to pursue a little fun at the expense of leaving them to their own devices. It’s an impulse that any parent can relate to, and we easily feel the narrator’s tension rise as her mother falls in thrall to a showy boyfriend who’s not good parental material. Thankfully, her mother has a network of supportive friends, and I detected a mild reproach in the author’s contrast of the slightly-striving discontent of the flat dwellers with the essentially decency and spirit of camaraderie among some of the residents of the terraces by the river.

There’s a central tragedy in the novel, that motivates the narrator into drastic action. It’s perhaps better to say little about this in order to maintain the surprise and suspense for the reader, although the novel is not about shocks or surprises (but you will turn the pages of the second half in somewhat breathless haste). The central pleasure is the exquisitely drawn narrative voice, the viewpoint of the child developing an adult self-awareness, while retaining the innocent impulse to do the right thing even though she can’t think through the consequences.

You is a quiet, surprising novel, that captures a young girl’s growing perception of the world quite beautifully. And, even when you know the twist, this is a novel you’ll enjoy rereading.

 

Notes

Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You does not have a US publisher (shame!). It can, however, be ordered (w/ free international shipping) from Kennys.ie or the Book Depository <affiliate link> (I have used both many times, so can recommend their services.). I scored my copy in the fabulous Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin.

Readers can learn more about Nuala Ní Chonchúir on her website…

 

 

Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, is a triumph, capturing a snapshot of a contemporary Ireland reeling from the economic downturn in a kaleidoscope of different voices.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (US paperback cover)

The Spinning Heart
by Donal Ryan
(US paperback cover)

Set in a small western community, The Spinning Heart paints its picture one voice at a time. Each character is given one chapter, and one chapter only, to give their take on events that affect them all. We start with the story of local boy Bobby Mahon, a tough site foreman whose boss — an unscrupulous developer, one half of the twin demons on whose shoulders are being laid all of the blame for Ireland’s financial crisis (the other half being the bankers, of course) — has just shafted him and all the workers under him, disappearing and leaving houses unfinished, and taking his employee’s stamp money (what would be social security payments in the US) with him. Dealing with the sudden reality of no work, no social security payments, and no prospect of other work after years when even high-school dropouts could earn big money building houses is shattering to Bobby’s confidence. This chapter is almost too hard to read, as it captures the raw emotion, sadness, and desperate sense of not knowing what to do next incredibly well.

As the book goes on we see the community react to him; less-attractive Irish traits like begrudgery and an eagerness to pull the successful down to size come out in revisionism of Bobby’s standing in the community, suspicions are voiced about his faithfulness, his toughness, and his honesty.

We go on to hear from a selection of the leading lights of the community, and also the bystanders: the foreign building workers who loved the country and stayed; the gormless, overgrown boys who find themselves unmarried fathers before they’ve left home; the people left living in the one or two inhabited houses in a ghost estate; and the fundamentally decent father of an unscrupulous son left to face their disapproving community. Some are stories we read in the papers everyday, others have been largely absent from the national dialogue.

The gradual effect of this chorus of voices is to build up the mosaic picture of a community in the throes of immense change; a community grappling with the questions of how they let this calamity happen — not from the point of view of monetary policy and oversight, as the political class has been doing ineffectually for the past several years, but from the personal standpoint: How could these people have let themselves be fooled like that? How could seemingly decent people that were raised within the community turn out to be so untrustworthy? Why didn’t they suspect it was too good to be true all along? Wasn’t it madness to think the good times would continue indefinitely?  And, how are they ever going to get out of this mess?

The structure of Ryan’s novel seems to suggest a third way of analyzing the crisis, halfway between between the impersonal considerations of monetary policy, and the sensationalist chatter of talk radio, eternally searching for scapegoats and single causes on which to focus and lay blame. Despite the sadness and dire straits of many of the characters, Ryan’s skill at developing the different voices and his perceptiveness in articulating the different viewpoints and factors at play makes the novel a joy to read, with new developments forcing us to reexamine our earlier views and sympathies, and keeping the reading experience from becoming formulaic or predictable. Take this passage in which Réaltín, a single mum living in one of the only two occupied houses in one ghost estate, muses on the her desperation to buy a house before it was beyond her ability to get a mortgage:

“When Daddy and me went in to the auctioneers to ask about these houses, they let on that they were nearly all sold. I wanted a corner house with a bigger garden, but the guy started fake-laughing, as if I was after asking for a solid gold toilet or something…. He said he couldn’t promise us any of the houses would still be available the next day. I believed him, even though I should have known better. Daddy got all flustered and worried then, and drove like a madman back to the Credit Union to get me the cash. I’d love to go in to that auctioneer now and kick him in the balls.”

We can feel her frustration at having to live with that catastrophic decision, and also glimpse her father’s nervousness dealing with circumstances that must have been so far removed from his own experience of home buying a generation before.

We gradually come to understand the individual stories, not from one perspective, but from many. Single-mum Réaltín is far from a statistic; hard-nosed business-woman Kate may be giddy that the one good thing to come out of the recession is that “people will work for less than the minimum wage,” but she’s tortured by the fear that her unemployed electrician husband might be looking for a bit on the side because she’s too stressed to be unsympathetic to his situation; and, the much beleaguered local Garda sergeant may not have the over-riding ambition and management savvy of his superiors, but he knows his community and notices the small clues that lead to the right conclusion.

The Spinning Heart is a powerful debut novel from a new Irish writer, and one which bears witness to the current moment in Irish life as only a novel can.
–Rich

Notes
  • The Spinning Heart is available as a paperback or ebook in Ireland and the UK from Transworld.
  • A signed, limited-edition hardcover is also available from Lilliputt Press in Ireland.
  • I ordered my copy of The Spinning Heart from Kennys.ie, and I recommend them for international customers. (I receive no kickbacks for that endorsement.)
  • The Spinning Heart was released in the USA by Steerforth Press in March 2014.

 

Kevin Barry is the must-read Irish writer of the moment, and for good reason: his short stories feature the mad, the bad, and the dangerous to know, and his language is deliciously quotable and musical. I think of him as an Irish Coen Brother, writing dialogue so crisp and perfect you long for people to actually talk like that, even though you know that nobody really does.

Irish Literature Expert

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (US paperback cover)

City of Bohane has done nothing to dispel the cult growing up around its author. Barry’s recent triumph in capturing the Impac Award has capped a string of stellar reviews and ecstatic notices.

At its black, twisted heart, City of Bohane is a gangster noir. Set in an imaginary Irish city some 40 years in the future, City of Bohane tells the story of the struggle for control of a crime family. Logan Hartnett has control of the Hartnett Fancy, the gang who has been in control of the Bohane trace, the quarter containing all the dens of iniquity, and thus effective control of the city, for 25 years, an immense span of years in gangland. At the opening of the novel the first stirrings of gang warfare appears, as rival factions begin to agitate for more power. But as the feud plays out, the real power struggle emerges: which of Logan Hartnett’s deputies is going to succeed him?

The Ireland of Barry’s novel is one that has regressed into rule by local fixers, crime bosses who allow the veneer of society to function as long as the appropriate palms are greased. It’s an Ireland not hard to imagine in light of the country’s current machine politics, dynastic political families, and increasing levels of gangland violence.

Barry’s signature inventive language and vivid characters are on full display, and to these virtues he adds a confident world-building comparable to any first-rank science-fiction or fantasy author. However, over the course of the novel, it’s noticeable that there’s little character development — something that the brevity of a short story rarely allows. We have vivid characters, but they each do one thing well, rather than grow and change with experience. It’s a trait familiar from super-hero movies, where everything you need to know about a character can be seen on the poster.

Harnett is our aging mafia don: tall, immaculately tailored, suave, and striking. He may be getting long in the tooth, but he’s ruthless, and still fit to rumble. In a tight-fitting, white leather jacket, tight black pants, and high, sharp boots, we have Hartnett’s manipulative asian deputy, Jenny Ching. Equally ready to take out a rival with the knife, or use her body to gain an edge; she’s a Tarantino heroine transposed to the rain-soaked streets of the west of Ireland. Logan’s other deputies are tough-guy support roles, and would be played by former teen heart-throbs trying to establish their credentials as tough-guy leading men if this were a movie (and it would make a good one).

Barnes & Noble

Barry uses cinematic effects throughout the novel, to generally good effect: scenes are set with birds-eye views, the camera floating overhead to describe the movement of crowds, the lay of the land, or the emotional state of a city about to erupt into violence.  The antagonists’ clothes are described in lingering detail, sartorial choices being character in many cases. The affect is generally pleasing as spectacle, the mood of menace and inevitable showdown is built beautifully, until the violent denouement.

Here the cinematic influences of the novel fail to reach the same heights on paper as they can on-screen. Barry aims for a Godfather-esque finale of cutting between multiple scenes — there’s even a song that attempts to pull them all together — but the tension can’t be sustained in this way on paper, and truth-be-told, the outcome has long been certain by that point, so much of the hoped-for drama fails to materialize.

However, this over-reliance on cinematic devices does not lessen the novel’s joys or creativity in the slightest. Barry has proven he can sustain the mood and tone of his maddest stories at novel length, and hold the reader rapt. The intricacy of the world of Bohane, and its idiosyncratic dialect is fully realized, and never flags or fails to convince the reader. City of Bohane deserves all the plaudits and awards it’s earned. The most-apt comparisons for City of Bohane may be the fabulist world-building of China Miéville, rather than the usual suspects of Barry’s Irish literary forefathers.  Kevin Barry continues to be a breath of fresh air through the Irish literary landscape, and City of Bohane will provide Irish writers and readers with much to argue over and much to champion.

–Rich

 

Notes

Buy City of Bohane in the US from Barnes & Noble…

Buy City of Bohane in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy City of Bohane in IRL from Kennys.ie…  (free shipping worldwide)

Read my review of Kevin Barry’s second short story collection, Dark Lies the Island

 

I savored every word of Colum McCann’s elegant new novel, TransAtlantic. McCann has always been a writer who aims for a perfect image or a poetic turn of phrase, TransAtlantic is told in a gentle, unhurried style, almost a series of reminiscences, and the format allows McCann to give full play to his poetry.

New Irish fiction, Irish authors

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (US Cover)
–source: www.colummccann.com

The novel is anchored by three historical events (in the order they appear in the novel: Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, Frederick Douglass’s reading tour of Ireland during the great famine, and Senator George Mitchell’s negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement that enabled power-sharing in Northern Ireland and brought about the apparent disarming of paramilitary organizations), but the meat is in the story of four generations of Irish women whose lives intersect with these famous men and events briefly (the herstory to balance the history, if you like).

If any novel can be said to have a single theme, or central focus, perhaps the unifying factor behind the stories in TransAtlantic is the individual’s desire for a freedom from external hinderances. The characters work for the abolition of slavery, the defeat of the Germans in two world wars, the end of religious strife in Ireland, economic independence, equal rights for women, the right of a woman to publish under her own name, the freedom to be accepted as an unmarried mother, the right to have ones’ children and grandchildren grow up safely, and centrally, the abolition of distance (physical and metaphorical): the normalization of crossing the Atlantic and the vast improvement in humanity’s ability to understand and help each other that this represented.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass inadvertently inspires a young woman, a maid named Lily Duggan, to leave Ireland and go to America in search of a better life. Lily survives a horrific passage on a coffin ship, to find life in the teeming streets of New York City much less hospitable than she hoped for. A survivor, Lily eventually marries an ice-farmer in the upper mid-west, and becomes the matriarch of a line of women whose story drives the novel. Her daughter, Emily, who lives to write, yet must publish under a male pseudonym for years; her daughter Lottie, who takes to photography as her art; and finally Hannah, who must deal with both the death of her son during the troubles, and the economic ruin of the current financial crisis.

Irish Fiction Expert

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (UK/Irish cover)
–source: Bloomsbury.com

The novel looks at a long series of characters trying to better themselves and their fellows, often in some way that unites Ireland and America: Douglass raising awareness of the cause of emancipation, Mitchell negotiating for peace, Lily making a better life for her children, Lottie quietly working to support the peace process. But it is the final characters who enter the tale, a very modern Irish family — an inter-racial marriage, never mind an inter-denominational one — that wraps up the story, and brings it firmly into the present day. In this, McCann with his characteristic hope and optimism points out the small but potentially significant seeds of change being sown in modern Ireland: a nation now absorbing an increasing number of immigrants, with new ideas, bonds, and possibilities taking root under the surface. In his more-inclusive conception of family, McCann seems to be observing that the future will depend less on family solidarity and dynastic inheritance (the cornerstone of Irish politics and community), and more on communal support, the exchange of new ideas, and an enlarged sense of community, beyond religion, beyond race, beyond blood ties.

The last lines of his early story “Wood,” (from his excellent book Everything in this Country Must) in which a young boy watches trees “going mad in the wind,” the branches mindlessly “slapping each other around like people,” before the 12th of July marching season, have always struck me as one of the most apt metaphors for the discord in Northern Ireland ever put to paper. That McCann can now write a novel that is so optimistic, and chronicles such change a mere 15 years or so later, speaks volumes for how vast the changes in the political climate in Ireland have been. If novelists truly hold a mirror up to society, then it appears that the society McCann is reflecting in TransAtlantic is becoming a much less polarized one than he had to depict two decades ago. In TransAtlantic, McCann captures the great arc of globalization that increasingly shapes our age through the lens of one family’s history and some of the pivotal events that helped shape it, and leaves the reader with the hope that a corner has been turned, that Lily Duggan’s dream of a better life is finally coming to pass.

— Rich

 

Notes
Visit Colum McCann’s official website
Buy the US edition of TransAtlantic
Buy the UK edition of TransAtlantic from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)
Buy the IRL edition of TransAtlantic from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

The Guardian has a great collection of authors’ annotations on hard copies of some of their books, revealing roads not taken, regrets, and the motivations behind some creative choices. Here are the Irish writers:

 

Irish Writers, Irish authors, Irish literatureSeamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist

John Banville on The Sea

Sebastian Barry on A Long Way Home

Anne Enright on The Gathering

Colm Tóibín on The Heather Blazing

 

And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim so well that we may as well adopt him as honorary Irish:

DBC Pierre on Vernon God Little

 

And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:

J.K. Rowling on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

 

Notes
You may also be interested in these future award-winning Irish authors:
Review of Solace by Belinda McKeon…
Review of The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan…
Review of City of Bohane by Kevin Barry…
Review of You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir…

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is an inventive and very unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it.

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US edition/Soho Press)

On the surface, Notes from a Coma is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

Barnes & Noble

The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.

 

Notes:

Buy Notes from a Coma in the US from Barnes & Noble…

Buy Notes from a Coma in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Support the Irish economy by buying Notes from a Coma from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

 

Best places to visit in Ireland

The Yellow Steeple as seen from King John’s Castle Trim, Co. Meath. This pic has nothing to do with the post below, but it’s a lovely summer scene and that’s better than the dull day currently outside my window.

I’ve been attempting some translation from Irish to English and vice-versa over the past year. The main reason is when writing a novel that takes place partly within a community of native Irish speakers, you need to convey both the flavor of the language and use the actual words in a way that allows non-Irish speakers to understand them. The second reason is that most of my research is now centered on academic texts about Irish history and mythology, texts which frequently use untranslated words and phrases in Gaelic that most non-academics like me are unfamiliar with. I get sent to the dictionary most days, but your average Irish-English dictionary doesn’t always include academic phrases, or if they do it’s a very workmanlike and modern translation. So, I’ve been going off on digressions where I break down an unfamiliar word and work out the meaning of the original parts. The resultant translation is usually more poetic than the more succinct modern dictionary.

Irish History Expert, Irish TravelTake dinnshenchas, the name of a collection of the origin stories of Irish places. I haven’t yet come across a book where familiarity with the word is not assumed — although Dooley and Roe do offer a descriptive approximation in the introduction to their translation of Acallam na Senorach/Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Look up dinnshenchas in the dictionary and you’ll find it rendered as “dinnseanchas” and simply translated as “topography” and would be forgiven for thinking it was a dry technical term.

However, when you break the word down into its parts, you find a much more interesting word:

Dinn —  the preposition “of”, but also seems to be derived from de, which means breath, or “to breathe”

Shen (or sean) — sean means old. As far as I can make out, either the “h” is silent when combined in “sh,” so shen would be pronounced much like sean, or shen is simply an older spelling.

seanchas — dictionary definition: “lore or tradition”

I wonder if chas is related to sceal, a story? I believe, cas is similar to chas phonetically, and cas means a twist or turn. As legends and lore are basically the twists and turns of events, I wonder if an older translation might be something like “turns of old events.” The opening lines of the Odyssey come to mind: “Sing to me , Muse, of the man of twists and turns…”  This feels apt, as many of the places are named for heroes who died there; those heroes might be said to have experienced a twist or turn in their own stories which lead to their deaths, and earned them the dubious notoriety of giving their name to the place they died.

The unifying feature about the dinnshenchas tales is that frequently the price of immortality was death. It seems half the places in Ulster are named after warriors Cù Chulainn defeated. But, I suppose ‘twas ever so: no politician would agree to name anything after a political rival, but once they’re safely dead they fall over themselves to praise them.

So the literal translation of dinnseanchas would seem to be something like “of old lore” or, more poetically, “the breath of old lore.” Yes, the dinnshenchas tales contain the lore of place-names, in other words topography, so the modern use of the word is correct. However, I prefer the suggestive aspects of the poetic translation.

*The above is offered with the caveat that I’m not a fluent Irish speaker, and my school-boy Irish is many years behind me.  This is probably why I enjoy attempting my own translations: those of us who are not fluent may perceive similarities of pronunciation where a native speaker knows there is none, and may end up with a slightly more idiosyncratic and colorful translation because of it. Perhaps some poetry can be gained in translation, and not lost.

The PEN World Voices Festival is one of those New York literary events that look so enticing to those of us who live in places that don’t see many A-list authors come through town. Every year I check out the line-up, briefly daydream about taking a few days to go up and attend some events, and end up doing nothing about it. This year, circumstances came together to allow my better half & I to take a trip to NYC in May. Happily,  it coincided with Christopher Hitchens delivering the Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. As if that wasn’t cool enough, following the lecture Hitchens & Rushdie were to lead a public conversation about worldwide censorship & freedom of expression.

As fate would have it, the night before the event was the failed bombing attempt in Times Square. Hitchens began his remarks by commenting that the festival organizers had noted that attendance seemed to have been down at that day’s events, and if true, that would be a sad reminder that it can be easy to get people to give up the benefits of freedom of speech or assembly out of fear. Indeed, the turnout to hear these two famous writers was smaller than I had expected, so perhaps there was some validity to the organizers’ observation.

Hitchens’ lecture (which I won’t recount in detail, watch the video instead) focused on the latest prominent cases of censorship worldwide. Principally, the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the sad fact that neither American newspapers nor the academic press who published a book on the events would actually show the cartoons. Rushdie, joining Hitchens on stage, observed that we’re seen a reinvention of the idea of respect in recent years. It used to be that respect meant you took people and their views seriously. But, now respect seems to mean politely agreeing w/ someone. It’s become politically incorrect to disagree or debate something when there are cultural differences involved, and this has essentially become an excuse for cowardice, creating a seemingly valid excuse not to speak up when freedoms are threatened.

But that’s already more summary than I intended. In an effort to <sarcasm> minimize the simplifying and deadening attributes of blog culture that people have written several books and articles about recently </sarcasm>, I’ll encourage you to watch the lecture and discussion following, rather than read any inadequate précis I could offer.

The Q&A with Hitchens and Rushdie starts at 24:25.

Sarah Hall’s Booker-nominated How to Paint a Dead Man is brilliant, there’s really no other word for it. It’s also idiosyncratic like only great art can be, and is likely to be something of a love it or hate it novel.

htpdmThe novel intertwines the stories of four artists: Giorgio, a reclusive still life artist in 1960s’ Italy; Peter, an iconoclastic landscape painter who was obsessed by Giorgio’s work in his youth; Susan, Peter’s daughter, a budding photographer; and, Annette, once a talented student of Giorgio’s, now struck blind at a young age.  Hall skillfully employs a different narrative style for each story. Giorgio’s story unfolds in the first person through the translation of a journal kept during his final years; Annette and Peter’s stories are told through traditional third-person narration; but, Susan’s chapters provide the most-impressive stylistic pyrotechnics, as she is the surviving member of a set of twins, and consequently her story is told in the second person. The tone is that of one who has been carrying on a conversation for years, and suddenly finds herself alone, but can’t stop holding up her side of the dialogue:

“You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words; it was then you felt the change, then when you were knocked out of kilter.”

The connecting themes of the narrative strands is how to live as an artist, how to combine your passion and move in the contemporary world, how to combine your inner vision with the often hostile or opposing realities of the outside world. For the non-artist reader, this is of course a metaphor for the oldest theme in literature: how to be, how to move through the world. Giorgio has lived through the fascist years, has seen art twisted to meet the demands of the state and nonconformists punished and killed. His reaction was to reject society and live simply in order to learn to see things as they truly are, and, through repetition and practice, capture this on canvas. His subject matter over the decades was a series of still-lives of blue bottles and other household objects.  Critics have come to be as interested in his privacy as in his seemingly simple art. Giorgio, however, is not a stereotypical recluse, rejecting or overwhelmed by the modern world; instead, he has always been interested in and aware of the changing tides of politics, art and fashion. However, to him they are secondary to the development of his sight, his perspective, his artistic vision:

“Often I tell visitors, who come and who sit uncomfortably in their city garments, to be heedless of the train timetables. I invite them to remain past the hour of their appointment, to take some wine and sit outside and relax. Take your hand from your wrist, I tell them. Listen to this greater pulse, to the lowing of cattle and the beating of wings against the winds.”

Naturally, his wisdom and truth is rarely theirs, and few truly understand what he’s attempting to say.

One who would have understood, had they ever met, is Peter. As an idealistic young artist in the 1960s, Peter writes to Giorgio about his art, and Giorgio recognizes a kindred spirit. Peter walks the path of any self-conscious artist of the time, living the hippie experience to the full, traveling, experimenting with drugs, before settling down in a loving marriage, moving to a remote part of the north of England and devoting himself to landscape painting. Like Giorgio, Peter rejects the pre-packaged comforts of the consumer society in order to expand his own vision, his personal understanding of the world through art.

To me, Peter and Giorgio are interesting, wise and very appealing characters, but both somewhat archetypal: the artist as reclusive visionary – and that’s how I think Sarah Hall intends them to be seen. The most interesting characters and storylines are in the paths taken by the offspring of these artists: Peter’s children Susan and Danny, and Giorgio’s student Annette.

Danny and Susan grow up in very permissive surroundings; there are no boundaries, no rules, and no polite lies for the sake of social conformity. To Danny, this is heaven. He is the life and soul of the party, an incredibly open, trusting and indulgent personality. For him, the question is, having seen how his parents have combined art and life so openly, honestly and successfully, how can he ever leave the fold and go out into the world? Ultimately, he cannot; he is a child who never grows up. Though he becomes a “found” artist, making sculptures out of scrap metal and the detritus of life, his real talent is for living, for friendship. When a road accident takes his life at a young age, hundreds come to his funeral. In the most basic sense, his way of life was his art. It can be argued, or course, that his art is never very deep or meaningful because he doesn’t go through any process of coming to understand what he’s trying to achieve, he doesn’t struggle with the question of what he wants to be, of why he’s an artist. He simply copies the aspects of his father’s unconventional lifestyle that appeal to him and has fun.

The question of reconciling life and art is a very real one for me – and probably for anyone likely to be drawn to this novel. Danny reminds me strongly of my own brother, a musician and artist who has chosen to live simply on his own terms in order to pursue his projects. He may not be famous, but I think he’s very successful in terms of what he sets out to do. In contrast, though I studied writing and film-making, I was far less single-minded. Ultimately, I put my faith in something other than art.

Susan is much more worldly than Danny, although, like him, she doesn’t have a strong concept of her art. She’s a competent photographer, but conscious that she gets attention as much for being her famous father’s daughter as for her work’s merit. She’s dully aware of this, but it doesn’t become an issue until her brother dies, and all her certainties and complacent attitudes towards life die with him.  She embarks on a self-destructive affair as a means of distraction from the pain of separation. Fundamentally, she has nobody to talk to, because Danny was always the one who knew her best, the one whose approval she sought. Her faith wasn’t in the power of art to get her through life, it was in the certainty of Danny’s presence and approval, and she’s utterly unmoored when he dies.

HTPAintBack in the 1960s, Annette is a high-school student whose talent Giorgio thinks highly of before she loses her eyesight. Afterwards, her horizons narrow to the confines of her mother’s fearful Catholicism and the familiar geography of her family’s house and the market where she works. Her mother is another recluse, a fearful woman convinced the devil, which she calls the Bestia, is out to destroy her, and consequently never leaves the house. Annette’s challenge is whether to internalize her mother’s fear and accept a constrained life after she goes blind, or embrace life, continue living in hope and working in the market despite the chance that people might take advantage of her lack of sight.

I find it interesting that some reviewers have omitted Annette from the company of artists struggling to build a life in this novel, or simply skipped over her story in their reviews. She’s a naïve teenager, struggling to reconcile a rather negative religious view of the world with her innate optimism, and the sense of joy, hope and redemption she finds in Christianity. The implicit parallels Hall appears to draw between artistic expression (the faith that a commitment to art as a way of life will see you through) and religious faith (the process of determining the balance point between one’s faith and one’s life) are subtle and not often raised. Should Annette become a nun, as her mother suggests, because the world is too dangerous for a young, blind woman? Should she find a way to live as normal a life as she can, trusting in a just and protective god, or stay at home fearing the ill intentions of the Bestia? [*Blogger KevinfromCanada makes the interesting point that Annette’s artistic endeavor is literally developing her inner vision.]

Annette greets life on her terms, in that sense her story parallels Danny’s, who greets life openly and ‘follows his bliss.’ His choice of found art reflects this laissez-faire attitude, and contrasts with Peter and Giorgio, who go through years of searching and questioning before arriving at their respective understandings of their art.

Ultimately, it’s Susan’s story that opens and closes the book. The question is what can she find to replace Danny as the rock upon which she rebuilds her life? Like her father and Giorgio, she must come to terms with life and art, where one ends and the other begins. What sacrifices will she make to follow her path? The resolution may disappoint some readers because a) it’s something that happens to her, rather than something she chooses consciously, and b) it’s slightly ambiguous. I found it completely believable and very fitting. Again, this is probably due to the circumstances of my life and my choices; I fell in love and got married young (at least by the standards of my peers). So, in a sense, I placed my trust in love, not art. Across time, and without ever being aware of them, Susan comes to trust Giorgio’s words of wisdom, offered decades earlier: “If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.” I completely understood Susan’s feelings and the ending felt natural and justified. One could interpret the conclusion in terms of the parallels between art and religion explored in Annette’s story, but I can’t really go there without giving too much away.

Suffice to say, How to Paint a Dead Man is a beautiful, heartfelt novel. Sarah Hall displays a technical virtuosity and narrative skill that wows you with her words, while her deft weaving of the various stories allows the bigger picture meditation on the difficulties of where to draw the line between art and life – or more simply between work and home – to unfold naturally. Each storyline exists at its own time and place, but each episode subtly enriches the events of the last and highlights different choices, different priorities, and different outcomes.  It all boils down to a rich and perceptive meditation on the choices, accommodations and decisions we make in shaping a life, and is a joyful celebration of the pursuit of art, in whatever form one may choose.

 

 

Links

Sarah Hall’s website…

One of the many websites of my brother, Stephen Rennicks, conceptual artist.

 

I’ve always loved the Booker Prize, and tried to read as many nominees as possible. You could say it’s always been my favorite literary prize.

man booker logoMy annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.

As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction and fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.

What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers –- Hey, it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good, and computers were the thing to study!), I found on the shelves of the local WHSmith and in the discussions on The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.

bkofevidenceMy ‘problem’ was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at the bookstore. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.

Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders, and interviews with authors on The Late Show.

times arrowAt the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee himself, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among the politically awakening students in my circle for a time.

qmWith the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far.  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).

Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.

HTPAintLinks:

The 2009 Longlist

Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist

@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions

Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders

Review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn from the LA Times

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