A 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?
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.
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
Although I’ve never met the American novelist Julianna Baggott, she has championed my work from afar and blurbed my most recent novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, enthusiastically. Here’s a blog she wrote about discovering a hardback US edition of my first novel, Mother of Pearl, by fluke in a New England campground. A lucky coincidence, as it happens, and not the first time it’s happened.
She generously credits Mother of Pearl with influencing the writing of her recently published novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which for any writer is a great tribute.
Julianna’s done me another favour by introducing me to the AGNI blog, where this post first appeared. It’s a site that boasts an eclectic mix of writerly concerns, founded as a magazine way back in the 1970s. I’m now an avid follower.
Meanwhile, I’m glad to report that both Mother of Pearl and The Pretender will shortly be available as e-books and in print on demand editions from Jonathan Cape.
A Bookish Love Story
by Julianna Baggott
My relationship with Mary Morrissy’s little-known debut novel, Mother of Pearl, is starting to feel like a love affair—a chance meeting, a lost love, then we find each other again. Or perhaps, I could put it more simply: girl finds book; girl loses book; girl gets book back again when she least expects it.
Morrissy’s novel first found me completely by chance, following me home from a London book-tour. This weekend, fourteen years later, it found me again by chance in a campground rec hall in North Egremont, Massachusetts.
This is how it began. In 2001, I was on tour for my first novel, giving an interview at a London publishing house. My husband Dave was with me and, while I answered questions, Dave was left to wander around and take any book he liked. The offices were lined with bookshelves with thousands of books on display.
My interview went long, and when I found Dave again, he had taken a ridiculous amount of books. I would have been embarrassed by his greed at a New York City publishing house, but was completely humiliated among the ever-polite British editors who seemed nervously bemused by the situation. Dave was beaming.
As we left, I let off steam and then eventually asked the obvious: how the hell are you going to pack all of these books and get them home?
I remember watching, for the first time, the British television show The Weakest Link, while, as a point of pride, Dave shoved every last book into our suitcases, which we hauled around for another week or so.
Once home, it took me a while to warm up to the books. But, eventually, I looked through them. One, in particular, caught my attention—Mary Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl. There are a bunch of novels with this title, including one Oprah pick, but to get to Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl on Amazon, you have to misspell her name, Morrissey. It was not widely circulated. It didn’t receive broad review attention in the U.S.. It didn’t pop up on any bestsellers lists.
I loved the first sentence. “It had started as a shadow as Irene Rivers’ lung.” Then I disliked a word in the first paragraph (cheekily—she was describing the wind). I was a very picky reader back then, harsher than I am now, and almost put the book down. But I kept going and I loved every word thereafter. In fact, Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl became one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It formed my foundation as a novelist.
A half dozen years later, I was teaching a novel seminar to graduate students and assigned the book. The students quickly brought to my attention that it was out of print and very hard to find. I held tight to my sole paperback, which by now was dog-eared and underlined madly.
I started mentioning Morrissy’s novel to my editors along the way, hoping one would want to reprint it. When I heard of presses doing reprints, I’d mention the novel to them.
Eventually, I decided to track down Morrissy herself. I found her on LinkedIn in 2010. I never use LinkedIn, by the way, but she wrote me back the next day. “Many thanks for your message—so YOU are my reader out there!” We corresponded some in 2010. I was urging her to get the book in print again and connecting her here and there along the way. Again, we connected in 2013 and I blurbed her new novel, The Rising of Bella Casey.
Over the last eight years, my husband and I and our kids have lived in six houses. I lost track of my paperback, sadly. In our last big move, I suffered a Buddhist impulse to give the vast majority of my collection of books back to the universe. Then there was some confusion about my priority numbering system of boxing books and many of my most cherished novels were also given away. I can’t even talk about how much I miss my specific copies of so many books. Just last night, I was rereading King of the Jews and The Hours, two books that have stayed with me, and it’s fascinating to see the open pages at the beginnings and endings cluttered with notes about the characters I’ve worked on over the years while turning to Epstein and Cunningham. And then the notes in which you can see how I’m teaching myself how to write. Notes in the margins are lessons in how to do ambivalence, how to do absurd image in realism, how to love your characters, or, more vaguely, a note that reads, simply, “time.”
This past weekend, I found myself in an old New England rec hall at a campground. All four of my kids were with me and Dave and my folks. Amid the chewed up ping pong table and the whirring air hockey, there were a few shelves of used books. I headed over to them just to see what was there; I love the strange stain left from random collections. As I was looking through, I saw Mother of Pearl written on a dark binding.
It couldn’t be Morrissy’s book. Not possible. I pulled it out and found that it was, in fact, her book in hardback, which I’d never seen before. It was wrapped in a library-use protective jacket and had once been part of the Ardsley Public Library’s collection then seemingly sold off, it became part of the BookCrossing.com program, which encourages people to label then let loose a book into the wilds after which they can follow it, virtually, wherever it goes. On Tuesday March 10th, 2009, someone from Wingdale, New York, set Mother of Pearl free and, one way or another, this copy landed with me, possibly the most ardent Mary Morrissy fan in the country.
I’m not one to over-hype coincidence, to read life’s quirkiness as signs from the universe, but this feels like an opportunity to take stock. Now, with some distance, I can see why Morrissy’s debut novel was so important and influential to me. Mother-daughter relationships are enduring themes in my work and the obsessive theme in Mother of Pearl. Her novel opens in an Irish sanatorium in 1947, a place Irene refuses to leave because of her fear of the outside world even after she’s cured of tuberculosis. And it is my most recent novel, which I started working on eighteen years ago, Harriet Wolf’s 7th Book ofWonders, that is the most closely tied to Mother of Pearl. Opening in 1900, my main character, Harriet Wolf, grows up in a place that was known as The Maryland School for Feeble-minded Children and spends some time in the psychiatric hospital, Sheppard Pratt. After an illustrious career as a novelist, she becomes a recluse once again later in life, and her granddaughter, Tilton, also lives in fear of the outside world, much like Irene.
However, the more important influence of Morrissy’s novel happens line by line. Morrissy’s language is what moved me. Her vocabulary is unapologetically rich. And the beauty in her most brutal imagery is something I’ve strived for in so many of my novels. I’ve never been able to come close to her ability to expose the vivid interior imaginations of her characters, the worlds within that go unexpressed.
Now looking at this pristine copy—free from the marginalia of the earlier versions of my writerly self—I get to sit down with this novel again, hoping that I’m stirred anew while rediscovering what once tethered me more tightly to my craft. I begin again with a shadow on a lung.
The cover of Surge is fiery looking, as befits an anthology of new writing. The volume from Brandon Press is a celebration of the old and the new; its publication marks the 40th anniversary year of O’Brien Press and is named after a Dublin literary magazine of the 1930s/40s established by Thomas O’Brien, among others. (Thomas founded O’Brien Press in 1974.) The name may be old but the content is all new. It contains work hot off the keyboards of a dozen or so student writers from all over Ireland.
If you want to know what’s happening in creative writing at UCD,Trinity, Queens Belfast, UCC and NUIG, then this volume is a showcase of new names in the fiction firmament. But there’s more. The anthology represents, more than any dry university curriculum listing could, the ethos of creative writing scholarship – about which there is often skepticism. (Can writing be taught etc etc. . . ) For along with the newbies, there are also fresh stories from established writers who tutor and mentor on these courses such as Frank McGuinness, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Mike McCormack – and yours truly. (For obvious reasons, I’m particularly proud of the students who represent UCC’s inaugural MA in Creative Writing – Madeleine d’Arcy and Bridget Sprouls.)
The idea of the fiction workshop is to mimic the medieval craft guild, in which tyro writers get together with old hands to learn the trade. What this volume represents is a composite picture of that process. If you want to see who’s learning from whom, don’t look to the index at the back before reading the stories and maybe you’ll be surprised to find you often can’t tell the master from the apprentice. Rather like looking in on a fiction workshop, where it’s often not clear who’s in charge. And all the better for it.
Surge will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on November 15
I’ve just done one of those quickie questionnaires on the Irish Times website. I love reading these things but it’s a strange sensation to read your own! And, of course, you get troubled by esprit d’escalier – all the cool and impressive answers you should have given… But the spirit of the exercise is not to think too much about the questions, I think, and not to brood too much about your answers. And , above all, to remember that it’s newspapers, folks; it’ll soon be wrapping up someone’s virtual fish. Or lurking behind a pay wall.
I’m really thrilled with this review by John Boland in the Irish Independent of Dubliners 100, which gives special mention to An Encounter, my take on Joyce’s story of the same name. The book, from newcomers Tramp Press – run by the indefatigable Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff – showcases the work of 15 contemporary Irish writers who recast Joyce’s stories a hundred years after they first appeared in 1914.
‘It is not my fault,” James Joyce told his London publisher, Grant Richards, “that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”
Less vehemently, he also told Richards that his intention was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life”.
He wrote those words more than a 100 years ago and now, on the centenary of the first publication of Dubliners, we are offered 15 new stories bearing the same titles that Joyce used, each of them written by a contemporary irish author, and each of them purporting to offer modern ‘cover versions’ of the original.
That, at any rate, is the phrase used by Thomas Morris, who has edited the book for Tramp Press, which was founded in the past year by Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, both of whom met when when they worked at Antony Farrell’s Lilliput Press – where the former discovered Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, which was previously rejected by more than 40 publishers.
It’s unclear, though, what Morris (who recently took up editorship of The Stinging Fly magazine) means by “cover versions” – indeed, his blithely offhand introduction, which is more about himself than the project in hand, suggests not only that he’s unsure himself, but also that he’s not really too bothered about it anyway.
This may explain why he includes a story by Paul Murray that was originally published in 2011 under the name Saint Silence and that’s here been retitled A Painful Case, even though its account of the strange relationship that evolves between a contemptuous (and implausible) restaurant critic and a contemplative monk bears only the most tenuous connection, whether in scenario or tone, to Joyce’s tale about Mr James Duffy.
Nor can it easily be discerned how Patrick McCabe’s raucously fanciful The Sisters bears any relation to Joyce’s opening story, or Peter Murphy’s laboriously contrived The Dead to its majestic antecedent.
And a few other stories are simply too poorly conceived and executed to have merited inclusion in any serious collection. But there are some intriguing – and, indeed, a few outstanding – stories here by writers who have sought to imagine current correspondences to their assigned originals – even if very obliquely in the case of Donal Ryan’s take on Eveline and Eimear McBride’s on Ivy Day in the Committee Room.
Yet while Ryan and McBride have been the two greatest recent discoveries in Irish fiction, the finest stories here – and also the truest to the spirit of the enterprise – are by less acclaimed writers, though mention should also be made of John Boyne’s Araby, in which a boy’s crush on a rugby-playing older boy evokes some of the desolation to be found in Joyce’s original beautiful story. John Kelly’s A Little Cloud, which recasts the condescending Ignatius Gallaher as a New York-based novelist and has him meeting the hapless Little Chandler (here Inky Chandler) in the Merrion Hotel, is also persuasive, as is Andrew Fox’s After the Race, set in Manhattan and involving boasting businessmen as the embodiments of paralytic malaise. Joyce would have known them for what they are.
And he would have appreciated Michelle Forbes’s affecting version of Clay, in which Maria has become the overweight and innocent Conor making his way home to the bleak domestic outpost of Cherrywood, where he’s mocked by a group of trick-or-treating teenage girls.
He would have recognised, too, the hollowness of housewife Kathleen’s existence in Elske Rahill’s A Mother. The story falters towards the end, but the desperation of the loveless Kathleen as she contrives a ghastly social evening is poignantly captured.
Finest of all, though, is Mary Morrissy’s reimagining of that great story, An Encounter, with mitching schoolboy Joe Dillon now becoming schoolgirl Jo Dillon as she and the narrator embark on a mundane though ultimately life-changing jaunt through the middle-class peacefulness of Churchtown and Dartry. The story stands on its own but it’s also true to the spirit of Joyce, who would have applauded its lovingly detailed evocation of place.