Category: Reviews and articles

House of Trump cards

claire uwoodWe 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/

 

 

 

 

 

The light hand of history

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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. 

 

 

 

Beating the raw chicken blues

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Elvis Presley. . . . . chicken á la King.  Photograph: Getty Images

 

When people ask me what I was doing when Elvis Presley died  – 40 years ago on August 16 , I can remember precisely.  I was cooking – or failing to cook  – my first chicken.  I had just moved into a tiny bedsit in Tralee, where I was working as a cub reporter,  and was trying out the dwarf oven in the place.  After several hours, I was ready to tuck in when the news came on the radio.  The King was dead.  So was my chicken, but only barely.  When I cut into it, it resisted.  I picked up the half-raw carcass and dumped it in the bin. (Luckily, I hadn’t inflicted my culinary experiment on guests.)

I decided I needed to learn how to cook.  I had moved out of home about two months previously, a home where I’d never learned to boil an egg, despite, or perhaps because, my mother was an accomplished cook.  I had enjoyed a brief interest in baking in my teens and produced industrial amounts of ginger cake but I couldn’t live my life by the Marie Antoinette maxim, now could I?

That’s when I found The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book by Peg Bracken.  Published originally by Harcourt Brace in 1960, my edition is a Corgi reprint dating from 1977.  In a recent house move I rediscovered it, dog-eared, grease-stained, the pages turning to mottled yellow.  (Corgi Books used very cheap paper.) Despite that, it had the look of a cherished item.

peg bracken

My copy fell open naturally to page 17 – Skid Row Stroganoff –  a recipe I’d clearly returned to many times.  “Brown the garlic, onion and beef in the oil,” Peg instructs me.  “Add the flour, salt, paprika, mushrooms, stir, and let it cook for five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”

For her Hootenholler Whisky Cake, the first instruction is this: “Take the whisky out of the cupboard and have a small noggin for medicinal purposes.”  Later on, when the cake is sitting in the fridge, where she said it would keep forever, you could buck it up by “stabbing it with an ice pick and injecting a little more whisky into it with an eye-dropper”.

Ah yes, that’s why I loved this book – not just for the recipes but for the writing.

The book was aimed at the woman who considered cooking a chore not an art, the housewife who had to dish up meals every day of the week on demand. “Never compute the number of meals you have to cook and set before the shining little faces of your loved ones in the course of a lifetime,” she advised.  “This only staggers the imagination and raises the blood pressure.  The way to face the future is to take it as Alcoholics Anonymous does; one day at a time.”

Drink is a constant motif.

Bracken acknowledged the social pressures attached to being the hostess with the mostest. “When the sun has set and the party starts to bounce, you want to be in there bouncing too, not stuck all by yourself out in the kitchen, deep-fat frying small objects or wrapping oysters in bacon strips.”

She had little time for canapés: “. . . though I don’t like to pick on something so much smaller than I am, it is hard to say a kind word about the Canapé.  If canapés are good, they are usually fattening; and they are also expensive, not only in themselves, but in the way they can skyrocket your liquor bill.”

She had an allergy to “big fat cookbooks” full of what she called “terrible explicitness”.

“Pour mixture into 2½ qt saucepan,” they’ll say, she complained.  “Well, when you hate to cook, you’ve no idea what size your saucepans are, except big, middle-sized and little.  Indeed, the less attention called to your cooking equipment the better. You buy the minimum, grudgingly, and you use it till it falls apart.”

Bracken tried half-a-dozen editors, all men, before the book was accepted by a female editor at Harcourt Brace.  It sold 3 million copies in its time and Bracken went on to write 11 more books including I Try to Behave Myself on etiquette and A Window Over the Sink, a memoir.

The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book was reissued in 2010, 50 years after its original publication, but to more modest success.  The reason is simple. The 180-odd recipes depended on their quickness and easiness on a lot of “shop-bought stuff”  –  predominantly canned and processed ingredients.

Half the recipes featured tinned, condensed or creamed soups  – mushroom, onion, shrimp, chicken, tomato, celery.  There was usually one canned vegetable or more involved – mushrooms again, baked beans and peas and oodles of processed cheese.  For desserts, evaporated milk and whipped cream featured as well as a high dependency on cake mixtures, rather than baking from scratch.

“We don’t get our creative kicks from adding an egg, we get them from painting pictures or bathrooms, or potting geraniums or babies. . .” Bracken wrote.

Starting out as an advertising copywriter,  a sort of Peggy Olson of her time, Bracken belonged to a generation of post-war American female writers – the I Love Lucys of journalism – who were essentially humourists who happened to write about women and the home.  A contemporary of hers, was Erma Bombeck whose column was syndicated world-wide, including in Dublin’s Evening Press, and whom I read and admired as a teenager.

Both revelled in the domestic sphere.  They were queens of the sassy bon mot, inheritors of the wisecracking Dorothy Parker mantle.

Housework, Bombeck declared, will kill you, if you do it right.  If the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire or block the refrigerator door, let it be, she suggested. My idea of housework, she told her readers, is to sweep the room with a glance.

Bombeck came late to fame.  “I decided that it wasn’t fulfilling to clean chrome faucets with a toothbrush.  At 37, I decided it was time to strike out. ” When the last of her three children started school in 1964, she began to write.  She was, she said, “too old for a paper route, too young for social security, too tired for an affair”.

Even at the pinnacle of her success – earning up to a $1million a year –  she still did her own grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. “If I didn’t do my own housework,” she said, “then I have no business writing about it.  I spend 90% of my time living scripts and 10% writing them.”

Neither Bracken nor Bombeck could be described as proto-feminists.  Bracken, especially, was subversive only in the way she usurped the assumption that all women actually liked cooking.  She wasn’t advocating that they walk away from it; she was merely suggesting ways of faking it.  But in their writing, if not their personal politics, both writers paved the way for sharply comic successors like Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher who had that easy, breezy comic talent that scored highly with their female readers.

As Erma Bombeck remarked: “My type of humour is almost pure identification.  A housewife reads my column and says, But that’s happened to me!  I know just what she’s talking about!’ ”

Peg Bracken had the same quality, a way of including her reader, making her part of the club. “This book,” she declared in the introduction to The ‘I Hate To Cook’ Book, “is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”

She also extended the genre, making it not simply a compilation of recipes but a  witty exploration of the zeitgeist.

That said,  I’m off to make Stayabed Stew ( p15) – “for those days when you’re en negligé, en bed, with a murder story and a box of chocolates”.

 

The ghost of the good priest

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A scene from The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw

Must all clergy automatically be distrusted because of the Catholic church’s abominable record of sexual and physical abuse?  What about the good priest? Don’t honorable nuns exist? That’s the question Conor O’Callaghan implicitly asks in his recently paperbacked novel, Nothing on Earth.  (It’s a very pertinent question given the heated controversy of recent days about the new national maternity hospital and who should own it.)

The first person narrator in Nothing on Earth is a priest – or was one. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. (And perhaps that’s a telling ambiguity.) It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge.

The unnamed narrator is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her.

The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge. He goes through a dark night of the soul during which he is haunted by ghosts.

Is he in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration?

There are obvious comparisons here to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career and also a ghost story. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house.  Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers.

We see the events through the governess’s eyes. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces.  If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call.

As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence,”

Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him?  This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. Is he a “good” priest?  Or is he a sexual predator? Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood?  – “I will not be the man they want me to be. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt?  “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”

Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. Should we trust any priest?

Like all great fiction, Nothing on Earth begs the question, but doesn’t answer it. That’s up to the reader.

 

Being 59

elephant-1526695_960_720A survey conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK found that most people believe that old age starts at 59, while youth ends at 41. Last week – September 27, to be exact – I reached the age my father was when he died – 59 years, 8 months and 2 days.

Although this may seem a precise calibration,  I can’t say it’s something that has haunted me, except perhaps in the last few months as the deadline (and never has a word been so apt) neared. In fact, for many years, what haunted me more was a prediction by an amateur palm-reader  – is there any other kind? – who, upon looking at my lifeline when I was 18,  told me with insouciant certainty, that I would die at 55.

What strikes me having reached my father’s age is that I now have the same volume of life experience as he had.

He was a self-contained, kind of man – probably shy –  a product of his era (born 1910) who had come late, aged 41, to married life and to fatherhood. He was a devout Catholic, a devoted public servant, a stern father who disciplined his children by withdrawing his approval.

When he knew he was dying – and he knew for much longer than we did – he gave his three elder children (my brothers and I, aged 17,16 and 13 respectively; my younger sister was only 4) a valedictory speech.  Speech makes it sound more formal than it was. He told us of his pride in us, his sorrow at what he was going to miss.  He tried to cram a lifetime’s fatherly advice into ten short minutes.

He did this without breaking down, without giving into his own emotions. How dignified and composed he was talking about our life without him in it, particularly for a man, whom I suspect, found it hard to declare his feelings. In retrospect, he seems so damned grown-up whereas I don’t know if I would have the same command facing the ultimate loss.

Having passed this personal landmark, I’m left wondering if perhaps I’ve inherited my mother’s age gene – she’s 92.  If so, how do I prepare for the next three decades? Can I ?

If the general perception is that passing into one’s sixties is a landmark, a shift into the third age, I also have to ask, like an impatient child in the back of the car – am I there yet? Am I now  – officially – old?

On the brink of the absolutely forbidden

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The main building of the University of Sassari, Sardinia.

Once in a blue moon, I am asked to do an interview with an academic journal. It’s a treat for a writer, particularly someone like me who’s writing in a minor key, to have her work given close attention by someone in the serious business of reading. Beyond a spurt of reviews on publication – if you’re lucky – there are few outlets in mainstream journalism for thoughtful consideration of creative work. Which is where the academic journal comes in. Sadly, though, most academic journals have tiny readerships which means that intelligent and accessible writing on creative work often languishes unseen.

Dr Loredana Salis of the University of Sassari interviewed me last year when I was visiting Sardinia on an EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) reading tour of Italy. Dr Salis is a passionate Irish Studies scholar and a most perceptive reader of my work. (The headline above is hers – revealing a canny internal sub-editor trying to get out.)  Her questions made me think and made me question how and why I write.

The following is an edited version of that interview which appeared in Studi Irlandesi earlier this year. The full text can be accessed here: http://www.fupress.com/bsfm-sijis

L: Let us begin from the end, and from your most recent literary effort – a collection of short stories entitled Prosperity Drive – that is where I came across that wonderful line, “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden”, which seems to be a perfect description of where your writing and your characters are.

M: Yes, I’d agree that the territory I’m exploring in Prosperity Drive is close to the transgressive, particularly the sexually transgressive. The characters to whom this line refers – a teenage couple overcome by lust – draw back from the forbidden but many of the characters in these stories go into the area of taboo.

L: Indeed, your characters often and deliberately challenge and break taboos. It has to do with curiosity and courage, and with being true to one’s self too. I wonder whether this also applies to you as a creative writer?

M: I don’t know about that big word, courage. I think the rather downbeat nature of a lot of my fiction is being true to my view of the world, although off the page I’m more cheery. When I look back over my work I see a curiosity about form, about playing with form. The linked short stories in Prosperity Drive are about seeing how you can push the boundaries of the short story form while the novels, inspired by real people and events, play with fictional biography or biographical fiction.

L: The line – “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden” – is taken from a short story entitled “Diaspora”. Would you say something about the genesis of your  collection?

M: Well, the stories started as separate, discrete entities and then as I waswriting them, several of the characters reappeared and so I thought I’d make a short story cycle out of them i.e. a collection where all the stories could stand on their own but that when read together, they would have a cumulative effect. The stories spring from a fictional suburban street in Dublin but,of course, it’s impossible to write about Ireland without coming up against the theme of emigration. And some of the stories are set during the Celtic Tiger,so you have the experience of immigration as well, mostly from Eastern Europe. Not exactly a new phenomenon – in my childhood in the 60s therewere refugees from Hungary, followed by the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s – though people tend to forget that now. So the ‘diaspora’ theme is built into the content, and also reflects the form of the stories which is like a scattering from a fixed point.

L: That is a delicate issue, especially now, across the European continent.And yes, we seem to have forgotten what it used to be like in the past. History repeats itself, but… what strikes me in your description of the new stories is that somehow the architecture of the narrative has changed: in The Rising of Bella Casey the form of the story is cyclical – it ends where it begins. Now the stories ‘scatter’ from the centre. How does this reflect your own experience with writing?

 

 M: After writing three novels, returning to the short story was a great relief. There is the relatively instant gratification of working the short form,though the main difference between the stories in A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive is that my stories have got much longer. Also I, suppose with a short story cycle I was trying to stretch the form, see how elastic it could be, how it might mimic the characteristics of the novel in some respects.

L: And the result was?

M: Well, my editor at Jonathan Cape called the result an “exploded novel” – I quite like that. It implies the shattering of both forms.

L: The idea of giving women visibility lies at the heart of your reconstruction of Bella’s life in The Rising of Bella Casey. Your writing about her seems to be an act of just retribution: you rescue her from the murderous hands of her brother Séan, and yet your insight into O’Casey’s troubled conscience makes him, in the eyes of the reader, a disturbing but also a captivating presence in the novel.

M: Sean O’Casey wrote harshly about his sister Bella in his autobiography and then killed her off ten years before her time. This literary sororicide was what prompted me to write The Rising of Bella Casey. I felt his was a failure of the imagination; he couldn’t understand what had prompted her downfall and he hadn’t the capacity to see beyond appearances. That disappointed me but in the writing of the novel I realised that O’Casey was also writing out of disappointment – the disappointment of his very elevated and unrealistic expectations of his bright, clever sister. He’d placed her on a pedestal and couldn’t bear to witness her fall, so he opted for silence.

L: He was also very disappointed at himself, though. I am thinking at that wonderful scene at the end of chapter 10 where he gets very frustrated with his work, but then he starts all over again. Writing must have been extenuating for him, painstaking even, almost as much as being Bella’s brother.

M: The way I depict O’Casey’s writing process is pure fiction. I think, in reality, he probably found writing a great release of pent-up feeling and conviction. Certainly the autobiographies – all six volumes of them – appear on the page as an unstoppable outpouring of exuberant language. The point I was making in the novel was that contrary to the rest of his work, writing about Bella might have been a real difficulty for him.

L: The Rising of Bella Casey is a contemporary historical novel set between fact and fiction. How do you combine the two, what inspires the encounter of real and imaginary worlds?

M: I think of The Rising of Bella Casey – and my other novels, Mother of Pearl and The Pretender – as inhabiting the grey area between biography and fiction. So though I write about real people, there are inevitably gaps in the narrative, and in those gaps, the fiction happens. I often think I must be very unimaginative because in my novel-writing I’m generally working with ready-made plots and a laid-down story. The ‘real’ story is a blueprint from which I depart when one of these gaps in the narrative appears. The trouble with a lot of historical characters – like Bella Casey or Anna Anderson, the fraudulent Anastasia Romanov whom I wrote about in my second novel The Pretender– is that they often appear unknowable. We have external evidence of them, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine their interior lives.

The key word here is imagine. I see that as what I do, imagining myself beyond the official record, and into the interior of these characters’ lives.

With historical figures, particularly those pre-20th century, that requires two willed acts – an imaginative leap into a pre-modern world and a creative kind of forgetting – forgetting about Freud and Jung etc., whose psychology has become part of the mainstream, part of everyday thinking.

On a practical level and to aid that imaginative process, I generally write the story first and then do the research so that the research doesn’t swamp the imaginative process. Also I’m lazy about research; I only do as much as I need to. I’m not one of those authors who gets distracted by the minutiae of history. A lot of the time research is a chore; something in service to the narrative, the story, which is primary for me.

L: I find this particular aspect interesting, Mary. You use gaps – spaces in between, empty areas – creatively. Beaver [Bella Casey’s husband], for instance. His GPI (Joyce again?)causes him a fatal loss of memory and he eventually is “lost, somewhere, in the folds of time”. That line is absolutely marvellous, powerful in its capacity to define Bella’s condition too, before you “rise” her and rescue her from oblivion.

M: One of the things about writing about real people is that I feel I owe it to them to be true to the facts of their lives, as they are known. So, in real life, Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, contracted syphilis and died of GPI,so all of this is true, rather than a novelistic trope. Of course, the novelist can invest emotional and symbolic resonance in the facts. People lost in the folds in time; yes that’s a good description of my creative territory – women caught in the shadow of history.

L: The shadow of History, a place where untold and forgotten stories are found. And The Rising is also about stories located “in the underneath of History”, to use Nancy Cunard’s words. The private and the public intertwine in your novel. “The Easter Rising”, for instance, is seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners, and of women belonging to the Protestant minority whose children went fighting in the Great War abroad. Is that past an open wound, too painful to be remembered? And is this part of the reason why it is so prominent in the novel?

M: For many years, this was, not so much a wound as a silence. At the time, Irish soldiers who survived the Great War and came home were often treated as traitors and outcasts in nationalist communities because they were seen as having supported an Empire that was oppressing their countrymen. (It’s important to note, however, that thousands of Irishmen from both sides of the divide – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant – fought and died together in the trenches). In the past decade there has been huge healing around the Irish contribution to the Great War. In 2011, for example, Queen Elizabeth made an official visit to Ireland – itself an historic occasion – and visited the National War Monument in Islandbridge in Dublin (which for many years, tellingly, was left abandoned and derelict) which commemorates the Irish fallen in the First World War. On the same visit she also paid her respects at the Garden of Remembrance which honours the Republican men and women who fought to end British rule in Ireland.

This was one of the most important public gestures of recent times that recognized the wound of divided loyalties that has lain at the heart of historical Irish identity. So I suppose all of this was in the ether as I was writing the novel.

The depiction of the Rising in the novel from the view of Bella and her family – Protestant, working class, loyal to the Crown – who don’t support the revolution and don’t understand it, is unusual, and deliberate. The Rising was a glorious failure, mismanaged and favoured by only a small minority of the population; what turned it into a success was the fact that the leaders were executed by the British – and it was this act that turned popular opinion. But even at that stage, it’s unlikely that Bella Casey would have changed her loyalties.

For her, the Rising would still have been an illegal challenge to what she would have considered legitimate British rule. (Unlike Sean O’Casey, her brother, who absolutely supported the break with Britain so you could say the Casey family is a microcosm for all the political divisions of the country at that time).

L: You teach Creative Writing to MA students at UCC: are those young writers also prompted to play with and engage with the ‘what ifs’? Does your academic experience somehow contribute to the workings of your imagination? In other words, would you say that your work lies between fact, fiction and the artifice of writing? 

M: Teaching creative writing keeps you in touch with what’s happening now in writing. You get to learn what enthuses young writers and you see new styles and genres opening up. You see students bursting with ideas and some of that energy brushes off on the teacher. As to where my own stories lie – maybe that’s for others to decide. For me they’re a mix of truth and lies. Emotionally true, factually suspect. Isn’t that the alchemy of writing? Unlike my novels, my short fiction often starts with something very small – an image, something witnessed, even a first line. In that sense the short story is much closer to the poem in conception. Then it’s a process of following your nose, so to speak. Seeing where the narrative takes you. In that sense it’s a lot freer as a process than the novels, where the trajectory of the narrative is often laid out. For the most part, my stories are contemporary, rather than historical, although I have been tinkering of late with some historical short stories. But even those concern fictional characters, not real people. I want to maintain that freedom to be absolutely fictional in the short form.

L: Since you mention “what is happening now in writing”, I’ d like to know your view on how Irish literature has changed in recent years from when you started writing fiction.

M: There are many more women writing and being published – exciting and ground-breaking new voices like Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Sara Baume, Danielle McLaughlin. Daring, thoughtful, savage and unashamedly female. The breaking open of this female voice is very exciting to witness as when I started out, you were often singled out as being a ‘woman writer’ as if it was a special category apart from the mainstream. (I’m of the generation of Irish women writers who were famously excluded from the Field Day Anthology in the 1990s, only to be afterwards included in the extra ‘women’s’volume published in 2003). And for women themselves, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what it meant to be a ‘woman writer’ as if it bore special responsibilities because we were so few. So by sheer numbers, those gender distinctions and that identity anxiety has been swept away.

 

The forgotten dead

anne enright

When Ireland’s Fiction Laureate, novelist Anne Enright, (above) gave a lecture in late November with the title “Giving Voice: Antigone and the Dishonoured Dead”, the unwary might have believed she was going to talk about Greek tragedy in general, and Sophocles’ play, Antigone, specifically.

But the real subject of Enright’s lecture lay in the dis-honouring of the dead that is at the heart of the play. (Briefly, the plot goes as follows: Creon, the ruler of Thebes, dishonours the body of his nephew, Polynices, by refusing to allow his burial. The untended corpse is used as a warning to other potential enemies of the state. Creon decrees that Polynices must lie “unwept and unburied”, until his sister, Antigone, decides to ignore Creon’s edict and buries him. Her actions lead to her own execution.)

So far, so Greek.

But Enright brought the theme of dishonour back home to the Irish context. It made her lecture a gripping and, it has to be said, an uncomfortable experience. (I mean this in a good way.) For this was a sustained and thoughtful polemic on the legacy of institutional child sexual abuse in Ireland. And for the audience in Cork, where I heard Enright’s lecture, many of the references were very close to home ─ the Bessborough mother and baby home, the Sunday’s Well convent.

Enright’s focus was less on the living victims of child abuse, than the dead ones.  The 796 babies and children who died in the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, whose bodies are unaccounted for; the bodies of 22 anonymous Magdalenes exhumed at High Park convent in  Drumcondra, Dublin, where more than one third of the 155 deaths were uncertified; the 102 babies who died in the Mother and Baby home in Bessborough, Cork in 1944 – a death rate of 82 per cent ─ of which only 76 are recorded officially.

Where are these missing children?  Where are they buried and why is there no record of them?

In this season of centenary commemorations, Enright tellingly compared the treatment of these dead with the state funeral accorded to Thomas Kent, one of the 1916 signatories, last September.  Kent’s body was exhumed from the yard of Cork Prison and reinterred with full honours in the family plot in Castlelyons, where the Taoiseach gave the graveside oration.

Enright’s brief as Ireland’s inaugural Fiction Laureate is to promote Irish literature nationally and internationally. But her first public engagement has given a clear signal that she intends not to confine herself to Ireland’s literary identity. What a pity then that the Irish media chose to ignore her lecture almost entirely. True, there wasn’t anything “new” in it. These facts have all been laid out in the public sphere before. (Enright paid tribute to two women who have been been tireless in their efforts in this regard – local historian Catherine Corless and the late journalist, Mary Raftery.)

What was new was Enright’s collation and patterning of the facts into a powerful testament to the forgotten dead.  Lest we forget.

The full text of Enright’s lecture has been published  in the London Review of Books. While welcome, its publication there speaks of another kind of burial, in an English literary graveyard.  It can be accessed at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n24/anne-enright/antigone-in-galway