Mary Morrissy is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. She has taught creative writing at university level in the US and Ireland for the past decade and is also an individual literary mentor.
She has 30 years' experience as a journalist, having worked as a reporter/feature writer/sub-editor on three of Ireland's national dailies. She is a literary critic, reviewing fiction for the Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.
She has won a Lannan Foundation Award and a Hennessy Award for her fiction.
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.
The American poet Robert Lowell is quoted as saying that if a writer lives long enough, he will see his reputation rise and fall – twice. In the case of Carson McCullers, an American writer of the deep South, Lowell’s thesis was never proved because she didn’t live long enough.
McCullers (born Lula Carson Smith) celebrated a double anniversary last year, 2017 – she was born 100 years ago – February 19, 1917 – and died 50 years ago on September 29, 1967 – and it’s probably a measure of her reduced standing now that not much has been written on this significant anniversary. Not least by me, an avid fan, who failed to post in time on this milestone!
McCullers is often twinned with Flannery O’Connor (a fellow Georgian, and close contemporary, born 1925) though O’Connor’s reputation has survived much better, particularly among the writing fraternity. Despite the fact they were contemporaries, O’Connor was scathing about McCullers – in a 1963 letter, she declared how “intensely” she disliked McCullers’ work and she greeted the publication of her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961) as “the worst book I have ever read. It is incredible. . . It must signal the complete disintegration of this woman’s talent”.
That said, McCullers had a meteoric literary trajectory. Her first and most celebrated novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, came out in 1940 when McCullers was only 23. She followed up with Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946). She wrote a play – The Square Root of Wonderful – and produced a novella and short stories – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. She also dictated an unfinished autobiography – Illuminations and Night Glare – which was published in 1999.
All of her major works were filmed which added to her “starry” quality. It was the 1968 film of Hunter, starring Alan Arkin as John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes a pivotal figure in the lives of a group of misfits in a small and segregated Southern town and Sondra Locke (future squeeze of Clint Eastwood who appeared with him in those chimp movies – Trivia Department) as teenager Mick Kelly who befriends Singer, that brought me first to McCullers’ work when I was in my late teens.
The age is significant – I was wide open to be carried away by McCullers’ brand of southern Gothic and I was totally enchanted. Superstitiously, I have never revisited McCullers’ novels because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have the same “mind-blowing” effect on me now.
The young adult tag is often used to denigrate McCullers’ oeuvre, perhaps because she was so young herself when literary fame came knocking. Joyce Carol Oates has remarked that “McCullers may be remembered as a precocious but unevenly gifted writer of fiction for young adults whose work has failed to transcend its time and place”.
But her work has always divided critics. Gore Vidal, usually not an easy man to please, described McCullers’ work as “one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-hand culture” while Graham Greene rated her over that other giant of southern writing, William Faulkner.
Other film adaptations of McCullers’ work include Reflections in a Golden Eye directed by John Huston and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and Fred Zinnemann brought The Member of the Wedding to the screen in 1952 with Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde (the boy actor from Shane – Trivia Department again). Vanessa Redgrave appeared in a Simon Callow-directed version of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1991.
Like many writers – including her nemesis Flannery O’Connor – McCullers suffered ill-health throughout her adult life. Rheumatic fever when she was 15 led to a number of severe strokes in her 20s and by the age of 31, she was paralyzed on the left side of her body.
Despite this she smoked and drank heavily and lived a colourful and varied sexual life, including several rumoured relationships with women, including Gypsy Rose Lee and the Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (formerly the lover of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann). She counted among her friends Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
There’s also an Irish connection – through Carson’s mother, Marguerite Waters. McCullers visited Ireland twice, firstly in 1950, where she stayed at Bowen’s Court, the Cork ancestral home of Elizabeth Bowen, another of her unrequited lesbian attachments. (Earlier, she’d had a crush on Katherine Anne Porter.) McCullers admired Bowen’s reserve, but Bowen reportedly found her a “handful”. McCullers was similarly disappointed in Bowen’s Court – its heating and general comfort and her reception there fell well below her expectations.
She returned to Ireland in April 1967, months before her death, to visit film director John Huston’s Connemara home. By this stage, she was severely paralyzed and had to be transferred by ambulance from Shannon. Huston later said the trip had probably shortened her life, but she was determined to come. During this time she was interviewed by Irish Times literary editor, Terence de Vere White, who was granted a bedside audience with McCullers. She smoked while talking to him and, like others, he was impressed at the contrast between her physique and personality. He had never met anyone “so frail and alive”.
She was married twice to the same man, Reeves McCullers, who committed suicide in the Paris hotel where they lived, in 1953. After her first divorce from Reeves in the early 1940s, McCullers moved into a celebrated commune in Brooklyn called the February House. In its time it attracted luminaries like fiction editor George Davis, W H Auden, Chester Kalman, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles.
This is perhaps the curse of McCullers’ life. Any description invariably peters out into a who’s who catalogue of the famous and influential. But her sexually-fluid identity, her androgynous pen name, her love affair with fame, her “wunderkind” early career, make her seem like an early prototype of a 21st century literary celebrity.
“First houses are the grounds of our first experience. Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large,” the Australian writer, David Malouf, has written in his memoir 12 Edmondstone Street. “The house is a field of dense affinities laid down, each one, with almost physical power, in the life we share with all that in being ‘familiar’ has become essential to us, inseparable from what we are.”
This is the territory of The Vibrant House from Four Courts Press, a new book with contributions from writers and academics on the notion of the Irish domestic space.
I’m in there, not just in the text, but in the visual elements of the book, not least in this beautifully composed cover, photographed by Rhona Richman Keneally, one of the editors of the volume. This image has particular resonance for me because it shows the dining room in my family home in Rathgar – my first and only childhood house – as it was when my mother was alive. (She died earlier this year.)
My mother is not the subject of my contribution to The Vibrant House, which is a speculative memoir of my father (who died in 1970) as glimpsed through the pictures he chose to hang on the walls when we were growing up. The painting of the masted ship on the tossed sea featured on the cover is not one I discuss in the essay but the sideboard itself with all its familiar ornaments and knick-knacks has, since my mother’s death, gained a memorial significance. It’s a shrine to my mother’s aesthetic which has been smuggled into the book like a visual afterthought.
The sideboard stood in the “good” room of the house – i.e. the least used. It hosts an array of objects, each of which carries a memory capsule.
Take the blue-rimmed pheasant jug, for instance. This was only ever used, as I recall, when my uncle came to visit, for dispensing water to go with his whiskey. My uncle was fond of his spirits and my father, a tee-totaller, doled out his ration in small doses. In fact he reserved a separate, marked bottle for his brother, so he could keep track of his consumption. This was in the days where there was little fear of being nabbed for drunk driving; all the same, my father worried about sending my uncle off into the night with too much on board. The pheasant jug was optimistically offered in the hope that dilution might slow the inebriation process. Its contents, more often than not, remained untouched.
The ceremonial candelabra (a wedding present, maybe?) was also only brought out on state occasions – a few Christmas day dinners. It was part of a set – there was a silver platter, also visible on the sideboard, and a tea service that went with it, which is probably still stowed away behind lock and key in the cupboard below, alongside the whiskey, which, after my uncle’s death was only ever used for lacing the Christmas cake mixture.
The white Belleek vase – to the right of the photo frame – encrusted with fat birds perched on thorny branches with china florets, was also a gift, from my aunt. She was my father’s sister and a nun. In those days – the 1960s – nuns often received very expensive presents which they regifted in keeping with the spirit of their vows of poverty. So we got the Belleek vases. Yes, originally a pair. The other one came a cropper when my brothers played football in the house one night when my parents were out and de-perched several of the singing birds. There was some furious gluing activity with sticks of Uhu as we tried to reattach the broken birds, but our repairs were amateurish and the damage was discovered. The vase must have been mortally wounded as there’s now only one left, and this one on show is the unmolested one, I’m pretty sure.
Finally, the framed photograph is not, as you might expect, a family snap, but features a postcard of Bette Davis – sent to my mother by my sister. In it, she’s holding up a cushion on which the words – “Old Age ain’t no place for Sissies” – have been embroidered. My mother really liked this image – so much so that she got it framed. She was an avid film fan, and was partial to Bette. But it was the sentiment of the sardonic message she really identified with. She often cited Bette’s cushion motto in her latter years, when she faced the indignities and disabilities of old age herself with pragmatism, fortitude and implacable good humour.
The Vibrant House: Irish Writing and Domestic Space; edited by Rhona Richman Kenneally and Lucy McDiarmid, will be launched at Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square East, Dublin, on December 9, @ 4pm.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a shamefully under-rated writer. A true polymath, she writes in English and Irish, and across the genres – young adult, crime, and literary fiction in both the short story and the novel forms.
Her second Selected Stories volume, just published by Dalkey Archive Press, demonstrates the range and breadth of her work in the short story form, if proof were needed. It is historical in several senses of the word. It draws chronologically on her five collections of short stories starting in the 1980s, and the stories explore our relationship with history, real and invented.
The first story, “Blood And Water”, is a seminal story in Ní Dhuibhne’s oeuvre, not only on its own terms but because it served as a kind of a rising agent for her outstanding novel The Dancers Dancing ‑ one of the few, or only? – bildungsroman – exploring the Irish College experience.
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1999, The Dancers Dancing follows thirteen-year-old Dubliner Orla of uncertain class as she negotiates the troubled waters of adolescence in the Donegal Gaeltacht of the 1970s. But this episodic, modernist work also embraces the major questions of the day ‑ national identity, the Troubles, the magnetic pull of landscape, Irish versus English, post-colonial cringe, the weight of “native” cultural and female heritage and how to get out from under it. For that reason, “Blood and Water” lacked, for me, the light allusiveness of its novel offspring.
In general, though, lightness is what marks out Ní Dhuibhne’s style; lightness coupled with serious intent. She is a deceptive writer. Deceptively light in tone, deceptively erudite in her references, deceptively irreverent in her treatment of form. Her literariness betrays itself in several stories here where she insists on pulling the narrative rug from under the reader, in “The Flowering” for example (a title that is a deliciously ambiguous word-play on the art of crochet), where Sally Rua, a “real” ancestor of Lennie, the narrator, is given a wholly fictional life as a housemaid and wizard lacemaker by her literary descendant. She is then driven mad by her employer’s refusal to let her practise her craft and is banished to a lunatic asylum. “Of course,” Lennie tells us airily towards the end of the story, “none of that is true. It’s a yarn, spun out of thin air.”
Ní Dhuibhne’s playful subversion extends beyond language and form; the idea of embroidery as a tool of female liberation is another irony that is casually woven into the story. Like The Dancers Dancing, the big themes are smuggled in, while Ní Dhuibhne is busy with the distracting decoration.
There are other stories here that draw attention to their making. Take “Illumination” ‑ spoiler alert – a dream narrative in the first person, featuring another literary type, who spends a week at a writer’s retreat in California and gets embroiled in the lives of a local couple who seem to take to her rather too fiercely.
“Well,” says the narrator just at the point of denouément, “There is only one ending as you who read stories know. The next day I woke, later than usual …” But the real meat of this story is not the trick of the dream and its weird unsettling logic but the notion that we are all haunted by the feeling that just beyond our ken a shimmering of wisdom beckons. “Every day, I believed I was on the brink of finding out something wonderful, something radically important about the meaning of life and the meaning of fiction …” the unnamed narrator writes, “a moment of illumination would come and … it would provide me with the answer I was seeking, the breakthrough I longed for, and needed.” The imminence of this sensation ‑ and its frustrating elusiveness ‑ somehow produces the dream, which could be seen as a stand-in for the glorious if flawed synthesis of fiction-making.
The same unease haunts the narrator of “The Banana Boat” – the mother of dissatisfied teenagers on a summer holiday in Ventry. Despite the perfect weather (“It is so beautiful, in this sunshine, that you would believe it was real.”) she cannot trust to happiness, though she gives the sensation a name.“Death hovers somewhere around, lurking in the corners like the mists that are always somewhere out there on the Atlantic, sweeping towards us on the wind.”
It is a premonition that turns out to be justified in this story, but the tragedy as the narrator sees it is not the near drowning of her son but the constant anxiety about the proximity of disaster even in a safely lived life.(In the midst of her son’s crisis, his mother ‑ another writer? ‑ is considering the “storyness” of the incident, pondering on alternative endings and citing Mary Lavin’s “The Widow’s Son” and Alice Munro’s “Miles City Montana” as templates.)
Despite this broodiness, Ní Dhuibhne’s lightness of tone is never far away and is further sustained by her frequent use of the present continuous, which lends an immediacy to the actions of the story, as if they’re just happening to both us and the characters. It’s almost as if she wishes to tiptoe across the page leaving only faint footprints yet the images and the atmosphere of these stories persist long after reading.
Tense is also crucial in “The Day Elvis Presley Died”, where the narrator, Pat, (who could be an inheritor of Orla’s uncertainty mantle from The Dancers Dancing) is on holiday with her American boyfriend and his parents at a lakeside resort in the US in 1977. Although it is set in the past, Ní Dhuibhne writes the story in the present and then pitches the reader forward to an unspecified future where all is changed though we’re not sure how. But through the tense shifts we see how “live” this seminal summer is in Pat’s memory.
Only an obviously historical story like “The Pale Gold of Alaska”, about an Irish gold rush emigrant’s wife who falls in love with a Blackfoot Indian with punishing consequences, is anchored firmly in the past tense, although even here the narrative tone is, if not light, then sardonically distant, as if history is just a more bizarre version of the present. Ní Dhuibhne’s technique here seems to channel her character Lennie, the narrator of “The Flowering”, who remarks that she does not see much difference between history and fiction.
No discussion of Ní Dhuibhne’s work would be complete without referring to her sense of place, her earthy grounding in the locale of her stories – be it Ireland, the US or Scandinavia – the “lonely tearful” swimming pools of north America, the saffron glow of the New York skyline, the “leonine haunches of sand roll” in the waters of a Donegal lough, the “flower-studded” ditches of Kerry. Although even in the pastoral, irony is never far away.
In “The Day Elvis Presley Died”, Pat finds herself defeated by the majesty of the American scenery and disabused of the landscape myths of recession-ridden home. “Ireland, in compensation for its economic and social failures was … a dumb, and virtuous blonde, among the smarter and uglier nations.”
It is such sly, artful humour that trumps the stories in this collection which announce themselves as satire. “Literary Lunch” and “City of Literature” are romps, poking fun at the expenses-claiming arts establishment, but they seem too declarative for a writer who delights in telling things slant. Still, their presence here testifies to Ní Dhuibhne’s range – her ability to shape-shift within the genre.
One drawback of any selection of Ní Dhuibhne’s short-form work is that those stories divorced from their context can seem robbed of a certain resonance. Her 1997 collection The Inland Ice (from which the stories “The Woman With the Fish” and “Summer Pudding” feature here) is a complex intertextual work, threaded through with a folk tale – invented, of course – that speaks back to the stories surrounding it, creating a symphonic effect. All the more reason for a Collected Ní Dhuibhne that could do justice to her inventiveness in and mastery of the form. Until that happens, this welcome volume from Dalkey Archive whets the appetite.
A version of this review appears in the October edition of the Dublin Review of Books.
Where do stories come from? Most of the time, superstitiously, we don’t ask. And usually, it’s hard to say, because the process is so chaotic when it’s happening, and in retrospect seems too random to catalogue.
But in the case of my story, “Lockjaw”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowdmagazine, the genesis was very clear. (The crowd at Lonely asked me to write a piece about how I wrote the story, and this produced a kind of diary of its making.)
I teach creative writing at University College Cork and several years ago came across a classic writing exercise in American writer John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction. This was the brief: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.
The aim is to write a passage that achieves effect by being indirect. In other words, you know what you want to say and then very deliberately you don’t put it on the page. It’s about restraint, about the power of leaving things out – a power on which the short story is built. The exercise is also about investing description with undeclared emotion.
The result, Gardner said, should be “a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. . . No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details to include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect.”
I don’t like to ask student writers to tackle exercises that I haven’t tried to do myself so I wrote along with them. The description of the barn which appears in the opening of the story is almost word-for-word from the original exercise. I liked the way the prompt forced me to be inventive, made me use language to get around a narrative obstacle. Restriction can often be the mother of invention.
Because it produced a kind of density of description, I was loathe to let the piece sit there as a fragment and in time I developed it into a story breaking all of Gardner’s strictures in the end, since I go on to mention the son, the war and death.
Other threads in the story came in the usual magpie fashion. Because I wanted to keep the war element in the story from the Gardner prompt, I turned to the Irish Army’s peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, the only conventional war I had a connection to – not counting the Northern Ireland troubles, that is. That dictated the time period of the story.
The hurricane – so eerily topical at the moment – belongs to that era too (August 25,1986). It came unbidden into the story because I have a very distinct memory of the night Hurricane Charley hit. I was on the graveyard shift as a newspaper copy editor and got to say those immortal words – stop the press – so that we could update readers on the worsening conditions as the winds howled and the rain beat against the office windows.
At the time of writing the story, a friend of mine had gone into selling stoves in her barn so she found a place in the narrative too.
And finally the photographer, who was a late addition to the story, comes from an unease I have about the artful photographing of abandoned places, particularly people’s homes, with all the poignant mementos of their lives still in place. While loving the images, I distrust my pleasure in them because they seem, somehow, avaricious, feeding off authenticity to create a kind of beautiful-looking artifice. And as I write this, I realise it could be a description of writing itself; so perhaps I’m berating myself in the story at some level.
So. . . not a very coherent process even when remembered in tranquility. Except for John Gardner, that is, who provided the igniting spark.
Gardner was a novelist and essayist (probably best known for his 1971 novel Grendell, based on the Beowulf myth) but he’s remembered more now for his books on writing and the creative process. He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s and was a creative writing professor at several US universities, including Detroit, Southern Illinois and Binghamton. He was admired as a creative writing professor, and a tough mentor of young writers. (Gardner died in a motorcycle accident aged 49 in 1982.)
In 1978, his book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, caused much dissent in the US literary community because it included bracing judgments of contemporaries including John Updike and John Barth.(So many Johns!) It also controversially demanded that fiction should distinguish between right and wrong, a notion I’m not sure I agree with. However, there is something flinty about his certainty of vision.
“Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral,” Gardner declared, “Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake”.
Which, almost 30 years on, has a distinct resonance in the Trump era.