The white speck just visible in the rock here is the church of San Martino near the village of Griante on Lake Como, Italy. When I say it’s on the lake, that’s a misnomer, as the church stands on a cleft in a mountain outcrop about 600ft above the water. I’m really lucky to be spending a couple of weeks on a writing residency here and after several cold and wet days, the sky cleared this morning and my partner in crime and I decided now was the time to do the San Martino climb.
We’ve been eyeing the sanctuary church from where we’re staying for a while, psyching ourselves up for what looked like a daunting trek. It was a stiff walk on a country track first across Alpine meadows, then a rough cobbled path leading to a serpentine stone stairway until close to the summit, the path levelled out again in a bridge across a gorge and we reached our destination. It was worth the puffing and panting!
The view from up there was a symphony in blue, the pooled shadows on the lake, the pellucid sky, the craggy striated peaks, still snow-capped, wrapped around by a cyclorama of cloud. You can understand why tourists of old came here for their health – the rinsed air and the painterly vistas are certainly balm to the mind, if not always to the creaking body! (And when I say of old, we’re talking back to the time of Pliny the Younger, who fancied the lovely village of Bellagio, which we can see from our windows, and is now a very swish resort for the well-heeled.) Also need I mention George Clooney’s pad, a short bus ride away? Nespressos, anyone?
One of the things about travelling – and of any experience when you get to a certain age -is that places constantly echo other places, new days resurrect old ones. As I sat in the portico of this simple pilgrimage church – built in 1938 by a grateful Griante community in honour of the Blessed Virgin – I was thinking two things. One practical, one wistful. How did they actually build this church so high up, moving all the materials up the sheer rock face when there wasn’t even a rudimentary path to follow? And I was remembering my very first trip to Italy when I was 19, indeed my first trip abroad ever, to another lake.
In the summer of 1976, I volunteered with VSI, Voluntary Service International, to go for a month on a workcamp to Switzerland. The deal was this. You got yourself there under your own steam, and they gave you bed and board and a very modest allowance in return for your labour. And in this case, it was hard labour.
The project was to help build a holiday retreat for deprived children in Ticino, the Italian province of Switzerland (where I could scarcely believe any lack of privilege could exist.) The home was the brainchild of a tough, wiry 80-year-old Swiss German named Gerold (surname lost in the mists of time) who was extending his own modest, cut-stone home to provide facilities for urban kids who never got a holiday.
Gerold lived in Brione sopra Minusio, a small village close to Locarno, similarly overlooking a lake, but the other one, Lago di Maggiore. I remember my first view of that lake, at about the same altitude as San Martino today, and thinking I’d passed into another dimension. The lake itself looked ethereal with plumes of cloud lazily idling in mid-air, while the clusters of villages nestling in the folds of slopes and shore – ochre, white and terracotta – and the sturdy ferries ploughing through the water like needles pulling frothy thread, looked concrete and prettily real. Add to that, since it was high summer, the sizzling heat and the sense of an exotic otherness was complete..
Tireless himself and zealously energetic, Gerold was a hard taskmaster – we toiled from 7 in the morning going to the quarry where we loaded rocks into the back of his Renault 4 and then heaved them on site with wheelbarrows and then proceeded to lodge them in cement to to make what was going to be the wall of a dormitory house. We mixed cement, we chiselled and plastered and we sweated. (Thankfully, when the sun rose high in the sky, we followed Italian custom and had a siesta, going back to it at 4 for another three to four hours’ work.)
My companions were a Swedish student called Mats from Gothenburg, and a married Indian doctor in his 30s working in Tanzania who called himself Nikki, though he said that wasn’t his real name. He indicated that his own name was too difficult to pronounce for Europeans. Mats and I wondered what he was doing so far from home, working for peanuts in Ticino.
Our meagre living expenses did not go very far in hideously expensive Switzerland. We could only afford to go out once a week on a Saturday night to the local pub, for two glasses of Stella Artois, which was hardly going to turn us into roaring drunks. (Though we did discover, if you hopped on a ferry to lakeside Cannobio, just across the border into Italy, both food and drink got cheaper and better!)
But it cost nothing to sit on the terrace in Brione, day or night, and just drink in that superb view. The refined beauty of the north of Italy’s lake district that I was looking out at, was my first “foreign” scenic experience and it set the bar high for future travel expectations.
There were two other legacies of that sojourn. One, I discovered new food – I became addicted to yogurt and oatflakes as a breakfast cereal (this was pre-muesli Ireland). When I started eating this concoction at home, my mother was incredulous. Yogurt was the equivalent of buttermilk for her, good only for baking bread, and as for pinhead oats, she said, we fed that to the chickens.
The other legacy was that several months after I returned, I got a letter from Tanzanian Nikki, asking me to sponsor him, his wife and three children for a visa to come to Ireland to live and work, and maybe give them a place to stay? You can imagine the reception that got at home! But it partially explained what he was doing slaving away in Switzerland with two teenagers like Mats and me, building stone walls with his bare hands. He was trying to set up a track record of work in Europe to strengthen his case to migrate.
I wasn’t in a position to help him, and I didn’t hear from him again after that.
Before I left Brione, I remember signing my name in the wet cement of the wall I was working on and Gerold saying some day when you’re old you’ll come back and see it there. As proof, he said. Of what I’m not sure. That I was there, that I’d done my bit? As a teenager still, I didn’t think of long perspectives, as Gerold did. I couldn’t even imagine being old. Now that I am, and am geographically close to Lago di Maggiore for the first time in 43 years, I’m in the position to testing the hypothesis.
I’ve looked at images of Brione online but none of it looks even vaguely familiar. Would I be able to find Gerold’s house now in what seems a much more developed and upmarket Brione? And even if I did find the house, I’m pretty sure that in 2019’s super-monetized tourist economy, the place is no longer his, no longer the rustic haven it was, and is most unlikely to still be a children’s home for the deserving poor. Plus my initials have probably been obliterated by several architectural makeovers in the intervening 40 odd years. Would I want to be reminded how time alters and destroys?
Perhaps I’d be better off staying away and instead leaving the memories of that other lake, that other time, that other me, as they are, to be recollected in tranquility.
If you’re a writer words are your tools, your world-building blocks, and sometimes you think of them as merely functional, there to serve. You don’t spend much time wondering how or when they came into being, you just reach and use. Or reach and fail to find.
As another birthday has just recently passed, I took to wondering about the words that are as old as I am.
If there’s a defining word for the year of my birth, it has to be Sputnik – but more of that later.
Thanks to a fascinating and informative website – www.wordorigins.org – I found a long list of words and terms that were recorded in print for the first time during my first year on the planet.
Some were a surprise. Headage – as in headage payment (getting paid for each head of livestock in your herd for those Brexiteers with short memories) which I thought must surely have been a 1970s term so firmly associated is it in my mind with EU quotas and butter mountains. Frisbee entered the lexicon the same year – who knew that it was so old? Its etymology comes from the Frisbie bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose pie tins had the perfect aerodynamic qualities required for the impromptu park game that became an international phenomenon, and was trademarked using the bakery’s name, with some minor spelling alterations.
As a student journo in Dublin, also in the 1970s, we produced a newspaper from our classroom called the Rathmines Reporter – hands up who remembers? – which was a Getstetner production (an early duplicating machine, a crank-operated forerunner to the photocopier) preceded by a sticky layout process using Cow Gum (great fumes!) and Letraset, which for the uninitiated, was sheets of alphabetic transfers which appeared in 1957, and stuck around.
There are some signs of the political times in the words registered during this year– Cold War terms abound. Overkill, Non-aligned. Now familiar geographical identifiers also came into being. The West Bank was cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Jan Morris’s 1957 book, The Market of Seleukia: “It is difficult to see the west bank, which includes the magnificent Old City of Jerusalem, ever being prised away from Jordan,” Morris wrote.
The word may have survived, but not the world it describes.
The Viet-Cong made their first appearance in English language reporting – in Vietnamese it means Vietnamese Communist. Other journalistic terms crept in too – a backgrounder, straight from the world of public relations, apparently. Likewise the Mad Men-inspired Marlboro Man was created and named in 1957. Believe it or not, Marlboro was originally branded as a woman’s cigarette in the 1920s, so the iconic cowboy image was quite a gender shift.
Lego was first trademarked – from the Danish leg godt (play well) as was Play-Doh. And for the older kids, the term pothead.
Airport jargon came into being with the now monetized pre-boarding, a circumlocution, surely. Before boarding, a passenger is simply waiting or queuing. But originally, it referred to a range of activities undertaken by the crew and airport staff before the flight took off. And maybe still does?
Colonoscopy was first termed in 1957 – how I wish I didn’t know what that word means!
I always thought Spanglish was the first English and foreign language blend to be used, but no, apparently the first cited of the ” -lish” hybrids was Chinglish (Chinese/English), also in 1957.
Ahistorical and reverse engineering made their debuts, as did sandfracing (or sandfracking) – a forerunner of today’s plain old fracking. Transexuals were first discussed in psychology journals. Off-off Broadway became a new destination for your debut play. Moisturiser replaced plain old face cream.
But if any word typified the flavour of 1957, it’s the Russian, Sputnik, the name of the first artificial space satellite which was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. “Sputnik” orbited the earth for three weeks before its batteries died; two months later it crashed back into the atmosphere. The launch of Sputnik (literally translated as fellow-traveller of the Earth) triggered the Space Race between the Soviets and the US, and ushered in another phase of the Cold War.
Ironically, the phrase “fellow-traveller”came to be a pejorative term in the US during the 1940s and the 1950s for a person who was sympathetic to, but not a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party.
This deer doesn’t just run—it springs. Away out of the frame of your windscreen, leading your eye off the main road, into the wild unknown. This isn’t a slowly meandering deer, or one of a grazing herd; it’s alone, head held high, antlers up. It’s always seemed to you that those tree-like branches that sprout from its head must be too heavy to be borne. Surely the deer should topple, carrying this cathedral of bone aloft, but it doesn’t. Particularly now as it’s become bipedal, pushing off its hind legs, its front legs powerfully tense. Sure-footed, isn’t that what they say? This is the idea deer. The i-deer. Your turn to pounce. You feel the excitement of that first reckless leap…
But as soon as you surrender to the i-deer, you lose that air-borne sensation, the feeling of being in another element. You feel more earth-bound than ever. You’re pretty sure the i-deer came this way so you faithfully follow and find yourself in a dark tunnel. Alone. No light ahead or behind. You abandon the car and go on foot. You have a pit helmet with a torch attached so you can just about see where you’re going once you’ve adjusted to the night blindness. You feel your way with your feet, one ragged step at a time. There’s no sign of that i-deer, of course—it’s as if he’s evaporated. If you stretch out your arms you’re sure you’ll feel the encrusted walls of the tunnel, but when you do there’s nothing solid there. Only the sooty darkness and the faint light of your own head to guide you.
Back in the car, you careen out into an unfamiliar landscape made hazy and insubstantial by the sun’s brilliance. The brightness makes it hard to get your bearings. You’re tempted to take in the views, such as you can make them out. There are distant unfamiliar mountains shrouded in heat haze and you seem to be in the foothills. There are trees and, in the zebra sun dazzle, you think you see something move out of the corner of your eye—the i-deer? Is it? It might be but it looks different now and you can only get a sidelong view as it flees into the undergrowth. You’ve no idea where you are. Is there a map in the car? You reach out to scrabble in the glove compartment, one hand clutching the steering wheel. Suddenly the car swerves as if the road is icy, but it can’t be, it’s high summer outside. Or was a minute ago. Now you’re a bull rider trying to control the car as it bucks and sways trying to throw you off. Remembering old advice, you resist the temptation to apply the brakes. You hold your writing nerve.
Oh God, what is this, a hump-backed bridge? You’re travelling too fast now. You see yourself and the car airborne like in those movie car chases, all four wheels off the road; the kind of airborne you don’t want. The car will never withstand this treatment, the shock absorbers will be shot. This is high voltage stuff and your car, well it’s a bit ramshackle and bears the marks of several other journeys of this kind. A dent here, a scrape there, a shattered windscreen once. You’re not sure how much more it can take. You lean into the bend before the bridge and make it over.
After all the alarums and excursions, it’s quiet for a bit. You travel on through a featureless valley. The dull, flat country of mid-project. The speedometer doesn’t seem to eat the miles as before. You get to wondering, why are you doing this? All for an i-deer you only got a fleeting glimpse of. And what’s this coming up? The red triangle, the exclamation mark warns you of danger ahead, something you can’t see. But everything about this journey is unseeable.
The road turns into motorway. Thank god you’re done with those small by-roads, with their twists and turns. The signs tell you that queues are likely, but at least the motorway is straight, the road surface is good. All you have to do is cruise now, stay in lane and you’ll get to your destination, though you’re not even sure what that is. But you feel you must be on the right track. There are so many other drivers here. But is that a good thing? Are they all like you, following i-deers of their own? The i-deers may travel in herds and you may think you see them all over the place, but, in fact, they’re an endangered species and, of course, there are culls from time to time. Some regard the i-deer as a pest. And there’s another worry. Will some other hunter end up snagging your i-deer? But you can’t think about that now.
The motorway exit signs whizz by and you look at them longingly. Everything off road looks so attractive. A cup of tea, oh yes, and a nice meal, plus a ready-made escort to keep you company. This is what the rest of the world is doing while you’re running after an i-deer. Refuelling—that’s what you badly need now. You’re tempted but if you stop now you might never return to the chase. You press on, running on empty.
Oh look, an airport! On a whim, you take the exit. Maybe this is your destination? The sense of lift-off reminds you of the start of the journey, airy escape combined with a terminal, an end-point. Once, when you were having your eyes tested for a driving licence, the doctor held up his left hand above your head. How many fingers am I twiddling, he asked. You couldn’t say. You’ve a blind spot, he said. Is that going to be a problem, you asked. Not unless you encounter low-flying aircraft, he said. You can hear the rumble of jet engines overhead but they’re hidden in cloud. Or are they travelling in your blind spot? You duck, just in case.
The road narrows. You brake, then check in the rear-view mirror. But look, look what’s on the back seat. It’s a doe. How did that happen? It’s not the i-deer you spotted earlier. It’s smaller and it doesn’t have those magnificent antlers but its eyes are brown and intelligent and it has some lovely white markings that the i-deer didn’t have. It’s not what you imagined and if it were a dress you bought on the internet you’d send it back. On the other hand, it’s your very own i-deer, you can reach out and touch her, and she’s safely inside your car. She seems extraordinarily tame. But is that a good thing?
There’s a roundabout coming up. It’s decision time. Which exit to take? The doe is fast asleep in the back seat. Will she do the trick? You’ve grown fond of her, you have to admit, and a bird in the hand etcetera. Or could you do better? Is she just a wee bit too tame? Not the wild creature you saw initially. Should you cut your losses? Go all the way around, repeat the journey—maybe get a bigger, better I-deer, closer to the first one you saw? Or can you have both? Keep this one AND go back?
This post was written for a new website hosted by EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) called writers@work that features Irish writers talking about their process – go to : http://kaleidoscope.efacis.com
We all know that fiction has faltered in the face of the reality of the Trump presidency – but it’s politics that fails in the final season of House of Cards, as Grand Guignol runs rampant. There is blood and tears, with lots of runny mascara! Sweat? A little less so, unless you count the scriptwriters’ demented efforts to keep running a plot when the tank is dry.
The finale of the addictive series (I’m a total fan) reached our screens in early November via Netflix. It has always grabbed from the headlines. In fact, it’s been one of the series’ strengths that it has managed to mimic breaking news by altering reality ever so slightly. But this time around, House of Cards was making the news not following it.
Lead actor Kevin Spacey playing impeached President Francis Underwood, who at the end of Season 5 had ceded power to his loyal (?) wife and vice-president Claire, became the news when in October 2017 he was accused by Star Trek Discovery actor Anthony Rapp of making unwanted sexual advances in 1986, when Rapp was 14.
It was just a week after the Harvey Weinstein story had broken, and the House of Cards writing team – led by show-runners Frank Pugliese and Melissa Gibson – was in the middle of shaping the final season and had filmed the first two episodes.
“It was very surreal because, at the time, it was the very beginning of the #Me Too movement which was influencing our story and [within it,] what it was like to be president and female,” story editor Sharon Hoffman told Vulture.com.
Within a week, a dozen men had accused Spacey of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and attempted rape and Netflix halted production. By November 3, it had severed all connections with him. That left the future of the series up in the air.
Season 5 had ended with Claire’s declaration to viewers that it was “her turn” to rule. The writers had been fashioning a finale where a female president confronts misogyny head-on. Melissa Gibson thought it would be especially “perverse” for the story of a woman in power to be denied because of the actions of a man and in the end Netflix decided to go ahead with a Spacey-less finale.
So does it work? Or is the series mortally wounded without Frank Underwood? The answer to that is yes, and no.
The foreshortened 8-episode last series feels like a very different beast to the previous five. Why? Because if House of Cards was about anything, it was about the gritty world of politics i.e. the cut and thrust of democratic politics — caucuses, back-rooms, horse-trading and dirty deals.
The early seasons were fueled by set pieces of high-octane politics; it was the oxygen that drove Frank Underwood on, hustling in the corridors of power, leaning on the worthy but dull Education Secretary Donald Blythe, playing hard-ball with Jackie Sharp, the flakey Deputy House Minority Whip, setting up the vulnerable alcoholic governor-hopeful Peter Russo. The titles tell it all. We remember them because of their relative positions of power. Because that was important to the plot.
Not any more.
Season 6 is all murder and vengeance as Claire inherits presidential power after Frank dies in mysterious circumstances. As she cuts a swathe through her enemies, we’re treated to little pockets of flashback, which show how the cruel damaged little girl becomes the chilly, amoral woman. (Personally, I preferred it when no excuses were made for these characters and they were allowed to be plain bad in their own right.)
This final series is no longer about politics, it’s about settling personal scores. And that makes it very reductive. House of Cards always had its operatic excesses, but this time it’s gone for pure soap. Also, is the message that with a female president, politics inevitably gets shrunk to the personal?
The body count is staggeringly high. Doughty reporter Tom Hammerschmidt, Catherine Durant, the former Secretary of State, and Jane Davis, shady Foreign Department operative all meet untimely ends, as does Frank Underwood’s right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who’s done in with the treasured letter-opener Frank Underwood had once presented to him. Is this a dagger I see before me etc?
It’s wrong to expect old-fashioned justice from a show that has celebrated downright cynicism and rampant political ambition. But the final season throws all of its sacrificial lambs under the bus, to mix my metaphors. What about Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner and Lucas Goodwin? If nothing else, the narrative arc of fiction demands that their deaths be revisited, rather than simply name-checked perfunctorily when Tom Hammerschmidt finally pins Doug Stamper down for an off-the-record interview.
But the message of the final flawed season seems to be that not only does every bad deed go unpunished, but every good one must be obliterated. It’s nuclear option politics.
And ironically, by a circuitous route, that makes Season 6 the perfect replica of the current White House, rather than a token flagpole for the #Me Too movement as the scriptwriters seemed to intend.
Claire’s presidency is undermined by new characters Annette and Bill Shepherd, a power-brokering pair of billionaire oligarchs (brother and sister rather than husband and wife) with influential business interests, whom we’re led to believe had Frank in their pockets before his untimely death.
This is fictionally very dubious – here are characters who’ve never featured before, not even by name, but they’re rolled on to centre-stage now like evil twins to force her to stop undoing Frank’s promises. So it’s Frank Underwood’s legacy that’s being battled over. Not so feminist then.
And did I mention The Baby? What baby, you ask. No one in the cast seems to bat an eyelid when the distinctly middle-aged Claire (Robin Wright who plays her is an extremely lithe 52) suddenly manifests a six-month bump. Who’s the father? Tom Yates, the writer and Underwood biographer, who until the end of Season 5, was having regular, cuckolding rumpy-pumpy with Claire is the obvious paternity candidate. However, Claire’s already seen to him and she insists to anyone bold enough to ask, that this is Frank’s baby.
Remember back in Season 2 when she was flirting with the idea of getting fertility treatment – well, it appears good old Frank gave a sperm specimen back then which has been frozen conveniently and Claire has called in his deposit. But none of this is made explicit, so as a punter you have to have a very good memory, and a very gullible nature, to believe that one.
My theory is that this is a “fake news” baby – a phantom pregnancy created by Claire to soften her image. But just when you’ve got used to the idea of a pregnant Claire, the female metaphors start to proliferate. Her wardrobe and her brittle demeanour scream Black Widow, another role she’s busily playing. Is she mad? Or is she mad with grief?
Is that why her dress sense has gone AWOL? Gone now the subtle neutrals, the stylish creams and taupes and the figure-hugging dresses of seasons gone by. Now she’s suited in Mao-like ensembles in mourning black and muddy green, or when she’s being political, royal blues or primary reds – a kitsch embodiment of the Stars and Stripes.
The ironic thing about Claire’s reign as ice queen is that she – along with the final series – seems to have dispensed with the day-to-day politics altogether, once the show’s hallmark. She may be presented as a feminist icon with her all-female cabinet, but Claire Underwood plays out an exact replica of Donald Trump’s first year in power.
Season 6 joins her when she’s 100 days in, which probably chimes exactly with the early days of the Trump presidency during which the scriptwriters were desperately tearing their hair out trying to reshape the show without Spacey.
They might want you to believe that Claire Underwood – sorry, Hale; she’s reverted to her maiden name – is a feminist icon having sacked a cabinet full of old white men and replaced them with an all-female team. They might even want you to ponder whether she’s a feminist gone rogue; could she be a version of what might have been if Hilary Clinton had won the presidency? Or is she meant simply as a warning of the dangers of any woman, let alone feminist, getting into the White House?
Claire rules with an iron fist – and an even sharper hair cut. (Hair is important in US politics.) But she doesn’t seem to bother with pesky politicians. Executive orders are the plat du jour. The House of Representatives and the Senate barely get a look in. She has emasculated her vice-president with withering looks and school-marmish manner.
Where have all the politicians gone? The answer? Claire Hale has drained the swamp all on her own. Don’t let the gender agenda fool you. The last word from House of Cards is that Claire Hale is Donald Trump.
A version of this post appeared on Headstuff. See – https://www.headstuff.org/entertainment/film/house-of-cards-season-6-review/
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.
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.
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.