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

 

Under the influence

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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. 

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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 of Wonders, 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.

https://agnimag.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/a-bookish-love-story/

Writing on fire

surge

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

Brought to Book

paintings in proust

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.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. It was one of many classics read to me when I was very young.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Too hard to be definitive about this as favourites keep on changing, don’t they? But I would count Alice Munro as one of my favourite writers and I happily revisit her dozen or so volumes of short stories regularly.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Fail again, fail better” – Samuel Beckett

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Can I say Jane Eyre again?

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Eilis Ní Dhuibhne. Her range is amazing. She writes in Irish and English, across several different genres. Her short fiction, in particular, is formally inventive and often wryly funny. The Dancers Dancing, her novel about the Irish college experience, should be a classic.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

I read both. I prefer traditional print, as I love the book as object, but am attracted by the ease and lightness of ebooks.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

Paintings in Proust by Erik Karpeles – this is a companion book to Proust’s A La Recherche de Temps Perdu with reproductions of all the art Proust mentions in his text. It’s a beautiful to hold, the reproductions are exquisite, and it’s a fascinating sidelong view of Proust’s masterpiece.

I write at home in a small study that used to be the spare bedroom until I jettisoned the bed and forced guests to sleep on a sofabed in the living room. I do a first draft in long-hand – an old habit which I’m too superstitious to depart from now.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

The Broken Estate by James Wood. Or anything by James Wood – he’s a literary critic who constantly forces me to re-evaluate reactions to books I’ve read. I don’t always agree with him, but he always makes me think twice.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Probably for my most recent novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, about Sean O’Casey’s sister. I was awarded a research fellowship at the New York Public Library as I was starting the novel so I was in residence in one of the most extensive libraries in the world. Usually, I write the novel first, then do the research afterwards – but for this novel, the procedure was reversed. I researched Sean O’Casey’s papers (housed in the NYPL), read his letters and the various biographies of him, as well as foraging through testimonies of tenement life, the effects of syphilis, the first World War and the social history of the early 20th century. All of this was at hand and I ended up with more material than I knew what to do with – for that novel and for others yet to be written.

What book influenced you the most?

Again, it’s hard to answer this. As a writer, the books that have influenced me most – though probably subliminally – are the novels I read in my mid-teens, an age when you’re wide open to being carried away. Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor both had that effect on me at that age. I felt I had stumbled on a great secret finding them and I think they hover still around my writing somehow.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Oh God, I’d probably give them a book token and let them choose. Otherwise I’d give them Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell which I read at 18. I was mesmerised by it because it was about Paris, where I’d never been, and because it was so dark, raw and edgy and a million miles from my own very sheltered existence.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Ulysses by James Joyce

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Write – a little and often. Read a lot.

What weight do you give reviews?

Enormous if they’re good.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

If I knew the answer to that. . .

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The predominance of present-tense narratives in short fiction and the large number of polyphonic novels.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I don’t look to reading to teach me about life; I use it to escape life.

What has being a writer taught you?

Dogged persistence.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I would like to invite the residents of The February House, a literary commune set up in Brooklyn in the early 40s, which counted among its many members Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, W H Auden, George Davis, Paul and Jane Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee, Klaus and Erika Mann, along with a host of famous visitors, including Anais Nin and Louis Mc Neice. Rather than be the host of the dinner party, I’d like to be a fly on the wall during one of their gatherings.

Brought to Book: Mary Morrissy on Alice Munro, Jane Eyre and James Wood.

True to the spirit of Joyce

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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.

Germany calling

 audrey cover 2

Audrey Magee is a name you might not have heard of,  but you will. Her debut novel, The Undertaking, is coming out with Atlantic Books early in February. It’s a novel set in Germany and Russia during the Second World War about an arranged marriage between a soldier on the front and a woman who wants to secure a financially independent future with a war widow’s pension. It features harrowing accounts of the Eastern Front, and Stalingrad in particular, as well as the dire privations on the home front in Berlin.

I had the treat of getting a sneak preview of this novel over a year ago in MS form and I was blown away. Watching the German TV series, Generation War, shown on RTE recently, set in the same locations and covering the same territory, I was reminded of how much more powerful Audrey’s book was in terms of concentrated emotional heft.  And while her focus is narrow – Peter Faber and his wife, Katherina – the philisophical scope of the novel is enormous, touching on themes of betrayal, patriotism, denial, survival guilt and retribution.

This is a fierce and fearsome novel and doesn’t read at all like historical fiction.  First of all, much of it is in dialogue. Audrey banishes the retrospective view, and makes the siege of Stalingrad sound like it’s happening right now and you’re in it. She takes her reader by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. The writing is elegant, spare and lean and carries a powerful emotional clout you won’t forget.  I haven’t.

Audrey talks about the inspiration for the novel in this interview:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOJquB4TgCQ

Caroline Kennedy Photograph: nycprowler.com
Caroline Kennedy Photograph: nycprowler.com

Christina Hunt Mahoney reviewed The Rising of Bella Casey in last week’s Irish Times.  Here’s her take on the novel complete with Caroline Kennedy reference!

O’Brien Press continues its impressive revival of the Brandon imprint with Mary Morrissy’s first novel in more than a decade. The Rising of Bella Casey is the imaginative afterlife of an historical person, not the first time Morrissy has constructed such a fiction. The Pretender is the postmodern tale of a Polish factory worker who claimed to have been the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Morrissy’s new book partakes of a related tradition: a fictive life of a family member who was a satellite to a great writer. We’ve had Rameau’s Niece, by Cathleen Schine, and several incarnations of Shakespeare’s sister, so why not an Irish entry into the genre?

Morrissy’s oeuvre is small but fine, also including the metafictional Mother of Pearl and a disturbing collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye (the protagonist of the title story, in a timely detail, envies Caroline Kennedy’s good fortune to have had a father worthy of assassination). Morrissy’s work has been recognised with a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library and a prestigious Lannan Literary Award. She is truly a writer’s writer, but one with an avid following.

Isabella Casey was Seán O’Casey’s sister, a minor figure in his multivolume autobiography. Fifteen years her brother Jack’s senior, Bella was a second mother to the boy who would “rise” to fame years later. The real Bella married beneath her and seems to have fallen out of the family narrative. Morrissy recreates for her a life that fills the gaps in her story.

Dodging bullets

As the novel opens, on Easter Monday, 1916, we see an obsessed, middle-aged Bella risking her life, and that of her young son, dodging bullets on Dublin’s streets to drag an abandoned piano back to their house. (This is a book in which keyboard instruments come and go, indicating changes in the family’s fortunes.) Bella’s rescue of the piano is a symbolic act, restitution for years of deprivation with an abusive English soldier. The novel then returns to Bella’s early days as the promising scholarship girl, the proud new teacher in Dominick Street, and finally the victim of the violent act that brought an end to her dreams.

The geography shifts twice to England – signalled by a change in font – and the reader encounters a blocked Seán, working on his life’s story, first in Battersea and later in Totnes. Here the novel becomes more complex, also more akin to the writer’s earlier style. Not only is she creating Bella’s lost years, she is simultaneously crafting a fiction to explain Seán’s reluctance to deal with Bella’s life in print, told from his perspective. O’Casey, in Morrissy’s rendering, is a complex portrait, part socialist activist, part judgmental Edwardian brother.

His character is also hampered by being in possession of only some of the “facts” of Bella’s downfall, facts that are totally of Morrissy’s devising. There is thus something of a Chinese puzzle here, suitably couched in the melodramatic rhetoric of the period. The tone mimics some of O’Casey’s own writerly language, influenced as it was by his early exposure to the music hall and popular theatre. His characters also appear regularly, and he is given to thinking of his sister’s life as theatre.

Bella’s predicament is Dickensian, down to Morrissy’s decision to name the villain of the piece Reverend Leeper. Dickens or no, the crime committed within her pages is so brutal the nearly comical name and representation of Leeper seems to undercut the author’s intent. Similarly, with so many women in the novel who seem perfectly capable of defending themselves, one wonders at Bella’s continued naivete, pretension and timidity.

But The Rising of Bella Casey is a welcome volume, especially as we commemorate a formative stage in Ireland’s history and those who helped to make that history.