I was amused by this photograph of the poet Philip Larkin and his mother that appeared in The Guardian last week accompanying a review by Blake Morrison of Larkin’s letters home.
First of all I wondered where on earth it was taken? It couldn’t be at home, surely? If so, what is that white bridal dress doing framed in the background? I’m guessing it must be a university common room or some such given the other period touches on view – the comfy but functional “easy” chairs, the 1970s catering coffee set. Fashion-wise there’s Larkin’s priestly socks and sandals look and his mother’s pert white handbag planted on the floor like a badge of respectability ready to be tripped over.
I’m also fascinated by the low angle of the photograph – was the photographer lying on the floor? Or are the Larkins on a raised dais?
The photograph says a lot about their relationship – Larkin, studiously avoiding the photographer’s eye, appears to be busily writing, while his mother peers wistfully at us vainly trying to make a connection.
Most of the correspondence in the just published Philip Larkin: Letters Home (edited by Anthony Thwaite) were to his mother – and there was a lot of it. For three decades, from his mid-20s to his mid-50s (until she died aged 91) he wrote to her every weekend. Despite that, the relationship was, to say the least, ambiguous.
He described his visits home with piercing and chastening accuracy. I defy any adult child of an ageing parent not to identify with at least a couple of the tropes in this litany of bad behaviour. “I become snappy, ungrateful, ungracious, wounding, inconsiderate and even abusive, longing only to get away, muttering obscenities because I know she can’t hear them, refusing to speak clearly so that she can hear, refusing to make conversation or evince any interest in her ‘news’ or things she has to say.”
I was fascinated to read in Morrison’s review that Larkin’s poem “Reference Back” is all about his mother, although when I read it first, I completely missed that. I quote it here in full: –
That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.
Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique Negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.
Truly, though our element is time,
We’re not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
I discovered Larkin when I was feeling my way into poetry in the mid 1970s, and specifically when I bought Volume Two of Corgi Modern Poets in Focus (1971), a cheap and cheerful series that featured six poets – Wilfrid Owen, Thomas Blackburn, Philip Larkin, William Meredith, Keith Douglas and Seamus Heaney.
Strangely, I don’t remember reading the other poets – although I have turned down the top right corner of the page featuring Heaney’s “Follower” so that must have impressed me at the time – but it was Larkin I was really drawn to, and “Reference Back”, in particular.
I clearly remember believing that the speaker and the “you” in the poem were lovers, not mother and son; lovers where there’s a big age difference. I was at the time “going out” with someone who was 18 months younger than me and I was very touchy about that – two years seems a chasm when you’re 20. So I read – and drew consolation – from “Reference Back” even though I was completely misreading it.
Coincidentally, I was still living at home myself at the time, and going through all those petty defiances with my own mother that Larkin describes above, but I never once saw that this was a poem about the disappointments and pitfalls of parental love. Maybe I couldn’t afford to see it then.
When I read the poem now, I can’t see it any other way than as a paean to lost opportunities. That brief flicker of optimistic, or desperate, contact at the start – that was a pretty one, I heard you call – followed by all the “unsatisfactory” qualities of the home and the relationship – the unsatisfactory hall and room, age and prime. The idle wasting of time playing records which his mother “so much looked forward to”. And of course, the melancholy cadence of the poem that is so quintessentially Larkin – We are not suited to the long perspectives/ Open at each instant of our lives/ They link us to our losses.
I don’t think as a 20-year-old you can understand this kind of regret, so you tailor what you imagine are grandiose feelings to your own situation. On the other hand, it shows the generous open-endedness of a great poem like “Reference Back”. It can be read at any age, and becomes whatever it is the reader needs it to be, because the experience it describes has been rendered so precisely.
Asked in a interview in The Paris Review why he wrote, Larkin said simply: “The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it. As for whom you write for, well, you write for everybody. Or anybody who will listen.”
I’m one of those anybodies still listening to – and maybe still misreading – Larkin after 40 years.
It’s an oil on canvas (31” x 23”), and for many years it hung in the dark dining room of a Victorian-era house you called home. It was a formal room not used much and with a cold northern light. Even in summer you would have to turn the light on to find something in there. The painting was on the chimney breast.
You always liked it; liked but not loved.
Two things changed your mind about the painting. One, you move house. Now “Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain” is in a bright modern living room flooded with light from one wall to floor window (no more property porn descriptions, I promise) and hung on a wide expanse of uncluttered wall and, suddenly, it shines.
A friend of yours, with an artist’s eye, enthuses about it in its new setting and these two factors – a good hanging place and the frank admiration of someone whose taste you trust – makes you re-evaluate it. Suddenly it’s not just love – it’s deep curiosity and fascination. Or are they the same thing?
The first question to ask is where did this painting come from? You know its provenance because the painting was a gift from the artist’s husband to your partner. It was painted in 1959 by a Dublin-born artist, Una Watters (1918–1965), who would be dead six years after it was painted at the untimely age of 47. Its subject matter is modest. It shows a woman in left profile dressed in a red coat gripping an umbrella. Behind her is the stone façade of Trinity College Dublin. (One of the endearing features of the work for you is its depiction of your native city, and of a place you passed daily for more than 20 years, often in the same climactic conditions!)
In the top left-hand of the painting the legs and plinth of the statue of Oliver Goldsmith are just visible. (The 18th century poet, novelist and dramatist – a deeply unhappy student during his stint at Trinity by all accounts – was the author of The Deserted Village, TheVicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer, among others.)
But, title apart, how do we know it’s raining in Una Watters’ painting? Well, there’s the umbrella, for starters. But there’s also the rain made so solid by the artist’s brush-work that it becomes the central element in the work. Moving in sheets from top left to bottom right of the painting’s surface, the artist has depicted the rain in jagged, almost two-dimensional slashes with geometrical shadows that mimic the stonework on the college façade and create the impression of a torrential downpour that the girl of the title has to battle against.
It’s this rain that gives the work its bold modernist appeal. You can sense the physicality of the driving rain, as flinty and unforgiving as the austere frontage of Trinity. Apart from the girl’s bright red coat and umbrella, the only other departure from the sombre palette is a band of luscious Kelly green that bisects the canvas two-thirds of the way down. This gives the work a very low horizon, thus emphasizing the driving diagonals of the rain that already force the eye downward. The effect is downbeat, as if the elements are literally bearing down and oppressing the figure of the woman. And yet, she’s pressing on, a stoic expression on her stylized face.
The painting has other resonances that are more hidden. It contains what might be classed as a feminist sub-text in the form of word-play. The placement of “Goldsmith”, coupled with the rainy theme, has overtones of the mythical shower of Danaë.
In the Greek myth, Danaë was locked away by her father, King Acrisius of Argos, after an oracle informed him that his daughter’s son would kill him. In order to keep her childless, the king banished Danaë to a tower, away from the reach of men. While no mortal could gain access to Danaë, the god Jupiter was able to gain entry to the tower by transforming himself into a shower of golden rain. Jupiter impregnated Danaë conceiving the boy who would become the hero Perseus. Eventually, he would kill Acrisius accidentally, showing the inescapable reach of Fate.
The impregnation of Danaë via Jupiter’s shower of gold was chosen as a subject by many of the great Renaissance artists including Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Orazio Gentileschi, and most interestingly by Gentileschi’s daughter, Artemisia (1593 – c1656) who provided what is regarded by some art historians as a feminist interpretation of the myth. Instead of showing Danaë embracing or being ravished by the raining shower of gold, Artemisia paints her subject’s body language as negative. “Her tightly crossed legs, closed eyes and clenched fist evidence detachment, if not resistance, to the event taking place,” writes Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi. The gold shower is depicted as a bonanza of coins and it is the maidservant in the painting who welcomes the shower with open arms.
Zarucchi sees Artemisia’s rendition of the myth as a comment on the enslaving nature of transactional sex and the lack of choice the woman prostitute had in such encounters. (Gentileschi was herself the centre of a notoriously bitter rape case taken by her father against the painter Agostini Tassi in the early 1600s.)
If the “girl” in Watters’ painting references the Danaë myth, then this Danaë is suited and booted and shielding herself very firmly with her trusty umbrella against the Irish-style shower – read steely, icy grey, rather than golden – that seems to emanate from Goldsmith!
Watters was what we might call these days a part-time artist though this says nothing about her dedication as an artist. She juggled attending the National College of Art – under the mentorship of Maurice MacGonigal – with her day job as a librarian in Dublin’s municipal library system. (One of her paintings, “Four Masters”, is still hanging in Phibsborough branch library where she worked; another “The People’s Gardens” is in the Hugh Lane collection.) She exhibited widely in Dublin in the 50s and 60s. Friends recall her working at her easel set up in the kitchen of the small cottage in Cappagh Cross, Finglas, which she shared with her husband, the Irish language novelist and poet, Eoghan O’Tuarisc. She was also an accomplished designer, illustrator and calligrapher.
There are up to 40 other paintings of Watters extant, mostly in private hands. If anyone knows of, or owns an Una Watters, I’d love to hear about it.
As the 2018 papal visit to Ireland approaches, I’ve been thrown back, like many people, to memories of the last visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979.
I was a papal refusenik on that day. Not on principle exactly, even though I was a recently lapsed female Catholic in favour of contraception, divorce and abortion, but because I had just returned to Ireland – the day before, September 28 – from a year-long stint in Australia and a two-month overland journey from Sydney to Dublin.
Looking back, I realize I was suffering from culture shock. The worst kind of culture shock – culture shock in your own place. So deep was that shock that although I was a regular diary keeper in those days, when I trawled back through my 1979 archive there was no mention of the Pope’s visit – the last entry for September is on a train from Moscow to Ostend on the 24th and the next one wasn’t until Christmas Day.
But what I do remember is the fervour of the preparations for the Pope which took me completely by surprise. I had spent the previous six weeks travelling overland through Asia and Russia so though I was aware the Pope was coming to Ireland, I had no idea what it would actually mean.
The first visible sign of the visit was the large yellow and white papal banners lining the road to the airport like the set for some Cecil B deMille sex and sandals epic. I turned to my family and said you shouldn’t have bothered with the bunting – as a joke – but nobody laughed. The papal paraphernalia proliferated en route. Balloons and billboards and banners coupled with a general air of giddy distraction.
My own fatted calf ritual was short-lived. Within an hour of my return when the Aussie boomerangs and t-shirts had been produced, my “colour” and my new svelte figure courtesy of a bout of dysentery in Thailand had been admired, the family’s attention returned to its true focus – John Paul II.
I watched their feverish papal preparations and learned a new lingo – corrals, papal stools (sounds scatological), rain ponchos, popemobiles. Packed lunches were prepared as for an army on a forced march and then it was early to bed because they had a dawn start the next morning. I heard the house stirring at five, and turned over into sleep.
The family had asked me to join them but I couldn’t face it. It was like coming to a fireworks display when there’s only falling debris left in the sky. I wasn’t able to get in step with the general excitement. So I stayed at home in an empty house, on a deserted suburban Dublin street, and felt almost utterly alone in the world.
I wasn’t completely cut off; I listened to the radio – I was a journalist so my instinct was to be in on historic events. But, otherwise, I felt totally out of step with just about everything that was Irish that day. I was faced with the eternal question of returnees – what in God’s name am I doing here? (Apart from the obvious – my Australian visa had run out.) And another more visceral feeling – let me out!
Twenty years later, I saw a film that reminded me of that papal day. On the eve of the Millennium – December 1999 – in a tiny art deco cinema in Buenos Aires (that trip to Australia had lit an appetite for travel that is still aflame) an Italian film called “A Special Day” (1977) starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, directed by Ettore Scola, brought it all back.
Set on May 8, 1938 in Rome, the film follows a downtrodden mother and housewife, Antonietta, and a (secretly) gay radio broadcaster, Gabriele, who are the sole occupants of a Roman apartment building. Everyone in the neighbourhood, the entire city, it seems – including Antoinetta’s fascist husband Emanuele and their six children – have all gone to a mass parade to mark the visit of Adolf Hitler to the Fascist leader of Italy Benito Mussolini, leaving this unlikely pair alone in the deserted apartment block.
Because he is a homosexual and an anti-fascist, Gabriele has lost his job and is about to be deported to Sardinia. He chooses this day to commit suicide but is inadvertently interrupted in the act by Antoinetta, whose myna bird has escaped from its cage. The two – though poles apart politically and sexually – spend the day together and little by little learn to trust and confide in one another. By day’s end they have made love. (Well, it is the liquid-eyed Marcello Mastroianni, after all!)
Antoinetta’s family comes home triumphant from the parade and that night, Gabriele is arrested and taken away by police.
In the course of the film, both characters are revealed as being prisoners of the regime. Antoinetta is defined by her husband’s fascist loyalties – we learn that she’s aiming for a seventh child so that she’ll get a government bonus. Gabriele, on the other hand, is subject to a bachelor tax because he has no children. (The Mussolini regime equated homosexuality with depopulation.)
But what struck me most about the film was the atmosphere it created. It was that same strange eerie silence of September 29, 1979 in Dublin; the feeling that the world has utterly abandoned you, the very concrete sensation of being an outsider. In “A Special Day” the chants of the crowd and the triumphalist speechmaking can be heard, offstage – just like my transistor at low volume – but despite its hectoring presence, the large public event is reduced and eclipsed by what’s happening inside.
“The film’s understatement works to convey the central theme of a private realm at odds with the bombast of the fascist public sphere,” writes Dr Louis Bayman a film lecturer and enthusiast of director Ettore Scola’s work. “Loren’s housewife’s boredom gradually assumes the small tragedy of a woman condemned to domestic servitude by an official ideology of state-sanctioned male boorishness. Mastroianni’s suave, cultured companionship stands in contrast to the self-assurance of fascist military spectacle, continuously heard as the planes roar overhead while the crowds sing anthems, encouraged by a relentless loudspeaker address that penetrates the soundscape of the film.”
Antoinetta and Gabriele are stranded on an island in time, at a remove from the noisy clamour of daily life, and in that liminal space, find one another across normally insurmountable political and sexual barriers.
Sad to say, no Marcello Mastroianni character appeared on my “special day” in 1979. But I remember that day, too, as an island in time, where far from the madding crowd, I could view the public life of my own country at a distance and realise I didn’t want to be part of it.
Of course, over time you forget these vehement feelings of alienation, or at least you learn to live with them if you opt to stay – as I did.
I won’t be going to this papal celebration either, but I won’t feel the same sense of exclusion because so many of the social issues on which I differed from the Catholic church in 1979 – have now been resolved. That doesn’t mean I’ll be returning to the church any time soon. Like so many others, I abhor the fact of clerical sexual abuse and the abject failure and unwillingness of the institutional church to deal with the sexual predators in its midst.
But I still call myself a cultural Catholic. Though not as recently defined by historian Diarmuid Ferriter who called us “lazy hypocrites who treat Catholic sacraments as festive conveniences and do not engage in any meaningful debate about faith”.
There are many brands of cultural Catholics. I’m a Catholic in my formation; it’s absolutely indivisible from who I am, regardless of how much I disagree with the institutional church. So I don’t resent the endless media coverage of the papal visit, or even the fact of it. It’s a visit by a religious leader to address his faithful. Of which I am not one.
In the spirit of true liberalism, I say live and let live.
Remember Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel The Shining who tells everyone he’s writing a novel but who keeps on typing the same thing every day on his reams of blank paper. All work and no play etc
You know from the beginning that Jack’s novel is never going to happen, that it will remain a figment of his imagination.
I had a kind of inverse Jack Torrance experience recently.
I was doing a newspaper archive trawl for something else entirely when I came across a review of my last novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013). It was the third item down on the list and I could only see the headline which read: “An evocative account of a teacher’s fall from grace” and for a couple of moments, I didn’t recognize the book from this description.
It’s not that this isn’t an accurate synopsis of the plot, it is.
The main character, Bella Casey, sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, was a teacher whose hopes of happiness and success were dashed by circumstances.
But for a moment I was plunged into a kind of alternate universe, where a failed and much rejected novel of mine, my difficult third album – which I would describe in shorthand as an account of a teacher’s fall from grace – actually had been published.
Not only published, but reviewed!
The novel, entitled The Undiscovered Country (I love this title and hope to attach it to another novel at some stage) was set in Ireland and Australia in the 1970s, and was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and a real case of child rape.
I envisaged it as a Humbert Humbert story with the genders reversed.
The real story concerned Mary Kay Letourneau, a 34-year-old school teacher and mother of four, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree rape of 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a pupil at the high school in Washington state where she taught. Letourneau was arrested after a relative of her husband’s contacted the police.
While awaiting sentencing, she gave birth to Fualaau’s child. She spent three months in jail and was banned from any contact with Fualaau – for life.
But shortly after her three-month stint in jail, police discovered Letourneau in flagrante with Fualaau in a parked car. She was re-sentenced to seven years in prison for the original charges and for breaking the court order. Back in prison, she gave birth to a second daughter.
When she was released in 2004, Fualaau was over 18 years old and he asked the court to revoke the no-contact order. The couple were married in May 2005 and are still together.
The Undiscovered Country departed quite a bit from this reality – for the very good reason that reality is sometimes just too strange to be believed. (It was the situation that interested me, the notion of a woman as an abuser of sexual trust, and the different way that is viewed by society. Less predatory, somehow.)
But for a split-second when I saw the headline, I wondered – had it actually been published? Had I slipped into some crease in time and awoken, like someone from a coma, having lost a couple of years somewhere?
Then I checked myself – I knew The Undiscovered Country hadn’t been published. I had the ton of rejections to prove it!
Who knows why some novels never make it into print?
You’re always given reasons when a publisher turns down a work, but they’re usually fairly pat and formulaic – we didn’t fall in love with it, great novel but not for us, too quiet (I’ve got this last one a lot!) Once in a while you’ll get a truly original one; this is one of my favourites – “She has a wonderful sense of language and a great ear but this isn’t really a novel, it’s an emanation.”
The manuscript (or, should I say emanation?) was doing the rounds in 2003 when Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal – a novel with a similar plot line – had just come out, which probably worked against it.
Or maybe it was just a dud!
I’ve always considered The Undiscovered Country as unfinished business, a piece of work I might return to or recast in some other way in the future.
Now I wonder if I need to. Maybe I have told the story of a teacher’s fall from grace, but in another guise and at such a remove, that until I saw it in black and white, I didn’t recognize it myself.
History, Karl Marx said, repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
This year sees the centenary of the assassination of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, Olga, Marie, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexis, who were shot and bayoneted to death by a Bolshevik firing squad in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg, on July 16, 1918.
Fiction writers have always been drawn to the story of the last Romanovs. Anastasia was the subject of my novel, The Pretender, which has recently been reissued as an e-book by Jonathan Cape, while Irish writer John Boyne wrote of the royal family’s last days in his 2009 novel, The House of Special Purpose. (This was how local commissars referred chillingly to the Ipatiev House.)
Ironically, the reputation of Nicholas has enjoyed a rehabilitation under Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin. The process started in August 2000 when the once reviled Nicholas (his moniker was Nicholas the Bloody) and his family were proclaimed martyrs and saints by the Russian Orthodox Church with whom Putin has developed an increasingly symbiotic relationship. He received a special blessing from the church’s Patriarch Kyrill after his inauguration as president in May.
The problem with deifying – or in this case re-deifying Nicholas – is that it sets him once again on a pedestal. Martyrs, surely, can do no wrong. Not so, according to a lavish new historical drama, Matilda, which brings to the screen the story of Nicholas’s affair with prima ballerina Matilda Kschsinskaya in the 1890s.
The affair – in that great royal tradition – was an open secret in imperial circles at the time, so the $25m film, partly sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Culture, was not revealing anything new. But its steamy sex scenes and nudity (Matilda, apparently, has a wardrobe malfunction with her tutu in the middle of Swan Lake) has given scandal to Russian Orthrodox believers and excited accusations of blasphemy. When trailers of the film were shown in Ekaterinburg there was an arson attack on the cinema in question. The studio which produced it was fire-bombed. Protesters flung 30 pieces of silver at one of the actors at the Moscow premiere. One of their placards read – “Matilda slanders the anointed”.
These sentiments were echoed by Russian MP Natalia Poklonskaya who spearheaded the campaign to have the film banned. In a TV interview she said: “You can’t show saints having sex.”
Nicholas is an unlikely choice as a racy romantic lead. He was devoted – or some would say – enslaved to his German-born wife, and her dodgy political opinions formed by her association with the mad monk Rasputin. But apart from his pre-marital affair with Kschsinskaya, he was a faithful family man. As a leader, however, he was disastrously weak and indecisive, while also believing in his divine right to rule. It was a deadly combination. Writer and activist China Miéville, author of October: The Story of a Revolution, described the last official Tsar of Russia as a “well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu” and given to “bovine placidity”.
He was also the subject of the 1977 British biopic, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Romanov myth has excited Hollywood’s interest in the past. Ingrid Bergman played Anastasia in 1956 in the film of the same name, and Disney reprised it with an animated version in 1997.
The fascination with the Russian royals is not just the stuff of film lore. Mr Putin has a personal and political interest in the lost leader since he sees himself as part of Russia’s imperial legacy. Two stated aims of his presidency are to re-establish the pre-eminence Russia enjoyed under Tsarist rule, and to exhort Russians to return to their Orthodox church roots. (This is a far cry from the 1970s when the Ipatiev House seen as a rallying point for monarchists was demolished on the orders of the then local Communist Party boss, Boris Yeltsin.)
Mr Putin has not commented on the film bar noting the director’s Alexei Uchitel’s patriotism. Romantic melodrama aside, Uchitel’s contention is that if the young Tsar in waiting had run off with Kschsinskaya instead of marrying Alexandra and taking on the burden of leadership, Russia’s history might have been very different.
Despite the protests, and Poklonskaya’s vocal campaign, Matilda went on general release in Russia last October and was shown on UK screens in April.
As to the film itself, Viv Groskop writing in the Guardian, described it as “a delightfully watchable romp with many unintentionally funny subplots. (Especially the eccentric German shaman /scientist who appears to be channelling the Nazi commander in Raiders of the Lost Ark.)”.
Now I really want to see it!
But the film itself is almost beside the point, except for those who get their history exclusively via the big screen. The real wonder is that a disgraced and defunct monarchy is still exerting political influence and ruling public opinion in Russia a hundred years after its demise. Lenin will be turning in his grave.
What did you read as a child? I was asked this question recently for an article about the childhood reading of writers; the idea, I suppose, being that what we read as children is telling about what we write as adults.
My earliest experience of reading was being read to. When we were very small, our mother used to read to us at bedtime – nursery books first and, later, classic novels from the Brontës, Dickens, Lewis Carroll. Some of these novels I’ve reread myself – Jane Eyre is a particular favourite – others I haven’t, because they’re so bound up in that primal “being read to” memory.
Then came the Paddington books from Michael Bond followed by the ubiquitous Enid Blyton. When I began reading independently I lived on a staple diet of Blyton. Everything she wrote – The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Malory Towers. These books were like currency. They were traded and swapped like cigarette cards (very few people had a full set) and valued in a culturally acquisitive way – you gained status from how many of the series you could boast of having read.
The drawback of this reading monopoly was, of course, that we were essentially reading in a “foreign culture”, with all its attendant misapprehensions. How in heaven’s name, we wondered, did the kids get away with drinking ginger “beer”? And what exactly was in those “potted meat” sandwiches they were always tucking into?
But Enid Blyton was treated with wariness in our house. We had been raised early on the classics and inculcated with a strong sense of national feeling. In that context, Blyton was regarded as decidedly second-rate.
Now she’s seen as racist, sexist and snobbish, more valued as fodder for parodies, or knowing irony. But she did encourage generations of children to read – in volume and at length. There have been great developments in children’s fiction as a genre – not least the huge growth of Irish children’s authors writing about Irish childhoods. But the Blyton model, though degraded now, is never far away. If you look at the Harry Potter books, for example, they’re really boarding school books – like Malory Towers – but with wizards and magic.
In my early teens I progressed on to historical fiction – Georgette Heyer and Mazo De la Roche – an author almost completely forgotten about these days. De la Roche was a Canadian writer, who penned a 16-volume saga, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, over a 30-year span from the 1930s to 1960s about the eponymous Whiteoak family. They were considered suitable reading for our convent school library in the 1970s. Much like the cult of Enid Blyton, we were evangelists for these books enthusing about them as early teens now do about You Tube clips.
The Jalna novels were what you might call polite bodice-rippers. Lots of heaving bosoms and unrequited love but the bedroom door invariably closed at the opportune time. Georgette Heyer was another acceptable face in our school library. These were solid, middle-brow novels, well-researched and historically accurate with doughty female heroines. Heyer was probably one of the authors who prompted my journey into writing historical fiction
I was into my teens before an Irish writer loomed large in my reading – that was the under-rated Walter Macken and his tales of Cromwellian and Famine Ireland – Rain on the Wind, Seek the Fair Land, The Silent People.
But where is short fiction in all of this? I noticed a complete absence of the short form in my childhood reading. I racked my brains to locate the first time I read a short story – and failed. Then, accidentally, I found it. While clearing my late mother’ house, I came across two forgotten volumes – forgotten by me, that is. They were heavy, large format hardbacks, clearly part of a set, and their portentous title, The World’s Library of Best Books, was emblazoned in gilded letters on the front covers. They date back to the 1920s and came from the hugely successful London publisher George Newnes, originator of an entire stable of populist periodicals of that era – The Strand Magazine, The Westminster Gazette, Country Life and Tidbits – the original, more respectable version that is, not the later tit and bum manifestation
How these orphaned Best Books volumes – numbers two and four – had found their way to our house is a mystery. Given their age, I’m guessing they came via my father and perhaps relate to his own youthful reading; he was a passionate auto-didact and these encylopaedic tomes were aimed at the literary self-improver. The writers featured were an eclectic bunch, among them, Shakespeare, Maupassant, Dumas, George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott and Ambrose Bierce.
The extracts in these compendiums were my first independent forays into adult reading. What exactly was their allure? Well, they represented a literary pathway into the grown-up world. Still, I remember hiding the fact that I was reading them, though presumably, they had been left on the shelves for precisely this reason – to be discovered.
The secrecy lent an illicit charge to their consumption. Their other attraction was that they had superb colour plates showing large and sometimes lurid history scenes – Chaucer at the Court of Edward 111, Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante [a priestess or follower of Bacchus – Helpful Ed], a scantily clad Cleopatra, artfully strewn on her death-bed – and scattered through each piece, there were delicate pen and ink drawings which eased a child’s eye through a lot of dense text.
Which was the case with my favourite story in Volume Two, “The Last Leaf” by O Henry, probably the first short story I ever read. O Henry was the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, an American author of the early 20th century, who wrote over 300 stories for magazines and newspapers, notable for their exploration of commonplace situations and their unexpected plot twists.
In “The Last Leaf” Sue and Johnsy are two young women artists who share an attic studio in Greenwich Village. They are wine-quaffing bohemians who dine out in Delmonico’s: they share a taste for Art with a capital A, and the latest fashion in the form of bishop-sleeves, and in private, use pet-names for one another. In deepest winter Johnsy falls sick with pneumonia and loses all hope of living. Outside the window there’s an ivy vine espaliered against the gable wall of a neighbouring building and she declares she will die when the last leaf falls from it.
Rubbish, says Behrman their neighbour, a failed, gin-swilling elderly painter. Or words to that effect – he has a very bad, stagey German accent. Despite her fatalism, Johnsy struggles through the winter, counting off the leaves, but one leaf clings stubbornly to the branch and because of it, she holds out and recovers.
Behrman is not so lucky. After a severe drenching he succumbs and dies. It is only afterwards Sue and Johnsy discover that he has gone out in the worst of the winter weather and painted an ivy leaf on the wall visible from Johnsy’s sick-bed, thus fooling her into living. They declare the leaf to be the masterpiece he waited all his life to paint.
The nobility of self-sacrifice is a theme O Henry revisited although he wrote many of his tales while serving a five-year jail term for embezzlement in a penitentiary in Ohio.
But apart from this idealism, I can’t really explain why, as a ten-year-old, I loved this rather sombre story so much and kept on returning to it. It was hardly the unlikely hero, the irrascible Behrman, and his unhappy end, although he is an artist whose work does come to something, even though it’s the death of him. The depiction of the two young women certainly made artistic life in a New York garret seem indolently glamorous; maybe I imagined something similar for myself? Now what I see is the lesbian sub-text, the caricaturish rendering of Behrman, and the over-neat geometry of the plot.
It’s true we can’t ever go back – not even in our reading.
When I was a teenage writer, I wrote to the Listowel short story writer Bryan MacMahon looking for literary advice on a story I’d written. I was delighted some weeks later – this was the 70s in the days of handwritten letters – to get a reply, but terribly disappointed with what he said. At the end of the MS I’d sent him, he’d simply written Solvitur scribendo. Luckily, I’d done Latin at school so could translate the words – it is solved by writing.
Even so, I’m not sure that at that young age, I fully understood the significance of his pithy advice.
I was revisiting that time recently when I was commissioned to write an essay for a collection by and about Irish women writers in their 60s. Given the brief, the piece I wrote was, not surprisingly, about the anxieties of being a writer in formation in the latter half of the 20th century, and being a woman in the same era.
Biology has taken care of some of the worries of my young writing life; the pram in the hall is no longer a preoccupation, though regrets remain, of course. Revisiting the pangs of creative doubt and insecurity (these are not exclusively female concerns about writing, I realise, nor confined to the young) coincided with a day-long testimonial seminar on the work of Eilis Ni Dhuibhne at UCD in late January.
A panel of writers was asked to look at Eilis’s short stories and respond to them. I chose three stories from Eilis’s recently published New Selected Stories from Dalkey Archive Press, a volume drawn from 30 years of her short fiction. Perhaps because I was primed, I began to see in Eilis’s stories some of the same anxieties I had been looking at in my own writing life for the essay.
The three stories, “The Flowering”, “The Banana Boat” and “Illuminations” feature the same character, Lennie (who might be seen as a stand-in for the author) and they revisit her, or versions of her, over several decades.
Apart from their qualities as accomplished, stand-alone narratives – which I had enjoyed and admired when they were first published – I discovered looking at these stories together that an intriguing subterranean history emerged; a meta-fictional testament to the anxieties of authorship, and in particular, of female authorship.
“The Flowering” is from the 1991 collection Eating Women is not Recommended. Written mostly in present continuous in close third, it features Lennie, a young woman and fiction writer, we suspect, although that identity is very effaced in the text. The story starts with Lennie having a dream, an habitual dream, where she longs for what she calls a “true discovery”.
“The promise, or rather the hope, of solutions, glows like a lantern in the bottlegreen, the black cave of her mind, where Plato’s shadows sometimes hover but more often than not do not make an appearance at all.”
The non-appearance of even notional shadows reveals Lennie’s deep-seated anxiety about her creativity. “Drunk on questions, she begins to believe that there is one answer, a true all-encompassing resolution which will flood that dim region with brilliant light for once and for all, illuminating all personal conundrums.”
The nature of the discovery she seeks is not made clear (she is not sure of it herself; nothing about this story is sure) but it is related to genealogy and her own identity, a hunger to know her ancestors, and to recognise inherited qualities. Lennie wants to enter the past.
As if on cue, the narration segues into a contemplation of place as an entryway – Lennie is staying in Wavesend, a house with many familial connections. The story veers into past tense and becomes Sally Rua’s story – presented as a “real” ancestor of Lennie’s – a mid 19th century housemaid and wizard crochet and lacemaker who once lived in Wavesend. Sally is sent out to work as a teenager, but is ultimately driven mad by her employer’s refusal to let her practise her lacemaking craft and after some inappropriate behaviour she is banished to a lunatic asylum for the rest of her days.
Sally Rua’s story could be seen as a fiction that Lennie is working on, although this is not made explicit, which fits in with general understatedness of the story. Lennie’s writing and her identity as a writer remain occluded in the narrative.
What is made clear, however, is that Sally Rua’s story within a story, is total invention. “Of course, none of that is true. It is a yarn, spun out of thin air,” Lennie tells us nonchalantly.
In “The Flowering” there is a double stand-in going on. Sally Rua stands in for Lennie, who may stand in for the author, and Sally carries the burden of the thwarted art-maker. The author brings out the big guns in terms of plot to “punish” Sally Rua for her artistic impulses – cheerless servitude and incarceration in an asylum – perhaps an indication of the author’s own interior state vis a vis her literary ambitions in the prevailing conditions.
Eilis has said that Lennie in “The Flowering” mirrors aspects of her life in her thirties. She used the story as the basis of a play in the 1990s. “When I revisited . . . Lennie, she seemed alien to me. I thought, this is a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown; she is half mad. It was strange to go back to that story and that time. The nervous breakdown was like Sally’s, in ‘The Flowering’: desperation at the difficulty Lennie faced in trying to develop as an artist – to write – while holding down a full-time job and being a mother and housewife,” she said in an interview in the Irish Times in September 2017.
But what comes through in the story is not just despair and madness – conveniently relocated to Sally Rua’s story – but something more deep-seated and chronic i.e. Lennie’s uncertainty about her own identity and the place of fiction in her life.
Sally Rua’s story may dominate the narrative, but Lennie reminds us that it is she who has “embroidered” the story about Sally. She does exist, Lennie tells us, but can we believe her? She’s a fiction writer, after all, and she declares that “she does not see much difference between history and fiction, between painting and embroidery, between either of them and literature”.
The story ends on a question – if Sally Rua (Lennie’s fictional construct) does not exist, then “where does that leave Lennie?” Here the anxiety takes on a more existential hue. Fiction in this context is seen as life-saving, as therapy, as granting definition, but even within the fiction, Lennie cannot trust – or believe in? – her own invention, another distinctly authorly preoccupation.
“The Banana Boat” dates from 2000, a decade later. In this story, Lennie is also a decade older, aged 45. She is on a family holiday in Kerry with husband Niall, and two bored teenage sons, John (16) and Ruan (14). Family life is foregrounded in the story. There is no direct mention of Lennie’s writing except when the family stop off en route to Tralee at a furniture shop to buy a table for Niall – and her – to write on. But the table is never bought because the shop is closed.
However, although Lennie’s identity as a writer is barely mentioned, the story is peppered with secondary literary references which clearly reveal Lennie’s writerly sensibility. Authors are constantly name-checked – Peig Sayers, Tomas O Criothain, Erskine Childers. Two short stories, “Miles City Montana” by Alice Munro (from the collection The Progress of Love) and “The Widow’s Son” by Mary Lavin (Tales from Bective Bridge) are cited specifically with relation to the plot.
The story opens in an idyllic setting in west Kerry. Although bad weather has been forecast, it never comes. “It was so beautiful, in this sunshine, that you could believe it was real.” But despite this, Lennie is anxious. The stated reason is that she’s a worrier, by nature.
“The details of the worries vary from time to time but the anxiety remains the same. . . Death hovers somewhere around, lurking in the corners like the mists that are always out there on the Atlantic. Maybe it is because of this that I am always afraid that the rug of my joy can be pulled from under me, that the whole delicate edifice of my domestic happiness will suddenly disappear.”
And then her fears are made manifest. Lennie’s younger son goes into the water and gets into trouble and there is a moment where she sees that this could be a hinge in her life, when she steps away from the normal into tragedy. But even in the midst of the drama, she’s seeing the event in narrative terms, calculating how the story might be told.
“I realise right now that there are two ends to the story, two ends to the story of my day and the story of my life.” Here she refers specifically to the Munro and Lavin stories.
In “The Widow’s Son” by Mary Lavin, the eponymous young man is killed off his bike trying to avoid one of his mother’s chickens; in the second option, he saves himself and kills the chicken, but it causes such a rift between mother and son that he leaves home and is never heard of again. This is a kind of a Hobson’s Choice for the reader – neither of the endings is very palatable.
Whereas both “Miles City Montana” and “The Banana Boat” present only a binary choice – life or death – but explore the choices offered when tragedy has been averted.
In the Munro story, the narrator is a young mother on a long road trip with her husband and two small daughters. It is very hot and the family stops in Miles City for a swim in a public pool, where one of children gets into difficulty. The parents are nearby but are not directly on the scene when the mother, acting on some intuition, senses that something is wrong and luckily manages to save the child. After the crisis is over, the unnamed narrator says:
“That was all we spoke about – luck. But I was compelled to picture the opposite. . . There’s something trashy about this kind of imagining, isn’t there? Something shameful. Laying your finger on the wire to get the safe shock, feeling a bit of what it’s like, then pulling back.”
Lennie’s reaction echoes that of the narrator of the Munro story. While rescuers go out to fetch her son from danger, she questions her instincts as a mother – and perhaps also as a writer? (“I had no intuition. Just anxiety.” )
Both of these narrators are undeclared writers. In the only brief reference to what she does, Munro’s character says: “I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to.”
But the difference between them is that Lennie reaches for fiction in the heat of the drama, while Munro’s character waits until the “post-mortem”.
Tempered with the relief that her son is safe, Lennie’s reaction is primarily literary: “We still belong to real life, the life that is uneventful, the life that does not get described in newspapers or even, now that the days of literary realism are coming to an end, in books.”
Although, paradoxically, this life is being described in a book. When the crisis is over, Lennie tells us she jots down “these thoughts” – which seem to become the story (rather like “The Flowering” where the fictional element is displaced into the telling of Sally Rua’s story). But in this narrative they are only “thoughts” – they don’t even qualify as a story, per se, such is Lennie’s anxiety, or is it superstition? As if it’s a self-reflexive recoil on her part about reacting to the near-drowning of her child, firstly as a writer considering narrative tropes, and only secondly as a mother?
Lennie’s competing anxieties of not being a good enough mother – because she’s a writer? – and not having a life sufficiently interesting to make literature from it – are both crucially feminine dilemmas. Can I be both, the story is asking. Can I be good at both? Is it an either/or choice? Reading this story, I was reminded of Esther Greenwood’s description of the same dilemma in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”
Added to that Lennie is asking – can the domestic ever be the stuff of literature? In this story, Lennie is revealed as even more unresolved about her identity as a writer than in the earlier “The Flowering”.
Eilis has said that “The Banana Boat” is “closer to my idea of what a short story should be like. . . A little stone in a pond, rippling out, or a world in a grain of sand: that’s a good short story.”
For me, the ripples of “The Banana Boat” extend out beyond plot to these underlying doubts that torment Lennie as a character. After reading this story I found myself wondering about her future, outside of the frame of the story, and was waiting for the next instalment.
“Illumination” is written another decade on – in Eilis’s 2012 collection, The Shelter of Neighbours. Written in the first person it features an unnamed writer – for once not in the domestic setting but in a place where her identity as a writer is foregrounded, a Californian writers’ retreat.
She has two children, aged 17 and 15; if this is Lennie (although that is not made explicit in the text), then going by their ages, this experience happens only a year after “The Banana Boat”. But despite having escaped the domestic sphere – although she mentions that her children wonder why she has left them for a month – she can’t quite surrender to the freedom the retreat affords her.
Even her reading – biographies of famous writers in the retreat library – only heightens her feelings of non-entitlement. “Such biographies make me wonder if an ordinary, sane person lacking any stunning eccentricity could be a writer at all?”
Echoing the concerns of the Lennie of “The Flowering”, she writes that crucially, the retreat lacks what she had hoped to find: “Brilliant insights into life and literature. An answer to a question I couldn’t even articulate. I had no answers to offer myself but I had hoped to sit at the feet of philosophers, listen to discussions that Plato might have organised, symposia where the dialogue itself led to the solution of the problem, or to some great discovery. All my life I had been waiting for some answer to come to me, from the conversation of others, or from a book, or from the clouds themselves, or the sunlight on the ocean and this had not happened.”
Here again, even when the exterior conditions are conducive, there are the answers she can’t find, the Plato’s cave denied to her, the world of creativity and authorship she feels locked out of – or unworthy of. And for the first time, the spectre of failure – literary failure – is stated directly:
” . . nor did I mention that my last two books had received terrible reviews, been universally hated, and that my life as a writer was probably over now.”
If this is Lennie, it is the first time we see that, despite the sometime crippling anxieties of authorship, she has been busy writing all along. Yet, the unease remains.
“Some answer about writing is what I wanted. . .What is it for?. . . Every day I felt I was on the brink. That the next day my brain, myself, would fill with light, that something wonderful would happen.”
In effect, something wonderful does happen – an unsettling but transcendent encounter with a family who live in the woods, which may be a dream, or, again, could be the dream-like fugue that accompanies the fictional process. Are we witnessing in the creation of the story of the strange perfect family – and isn’t it interesting that they are a family – what Lennie is actually working on? Another story within a story?
And yet, despite all the literary disappointment, we find that by the end of this latest Lennie instalment – if that’s what it is – that she has gamely adopted the Beckettian hashtag – I’ll Go On.
“I knew I would go back to the beloved fogbound island and struggle towards an answer like a woman who has stepped on the stray sod and will wander around in one field for the rest of her life.”
It seems to me at the end of this trio of stories, Eilis has worked out and perhaps resolved a subtextual, and perhaps subconscious, puzzle she set for herself; how can I be both a woman and a writer. Bryan McMahon’s wise words came back to me then. The writing, your own and other people’s, will solve it for you.