Old age ain’t no place for sissies

vibrant house cover

“First houses are the grounds of our first experience.  Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large,” the Australian writer, David Malouf, has written in his memoir 12 Edmondstone Street.  “The house is a field of dense affinities laid down, each one, with almost physical power, in the life we share with all that in being ‘familiar’ has become essential to us, inseparable from what we are.”

This is the territory of The Vibrant House from Four Courts Press, a new book with contributions from writers  and academics on the notion of the Irish domestic space.

I’m in there, not just in the text, but in the visual elements of the book, not least in this beautifully composed cover, photographed by Rhona Richman Keneally, one of the editors of the volume.  This image has particular resonance for me because it shows the dining room in my family home in Rathgar – my first and only childhood house – as it was when my mother was alive. (She died earlier this year.)

My mother is not the subject of my contribution to The Vibrant House, which is a speculative memoir of my father (who died in 1970) as glimpsed through the pictures he chose to hang on the walls when we were growing up. The painting of the masted ship on the tossed sea featured on the cover is not one I discuss in the essay but the sideboard itself with all its familiar ornaments and knick-knacks has, since my mother’s death, gained a memorial significance. It’s a shrine to my mother’s aesthetic which has been smuggled into the book like a visual afterthought.

The sideboard stood in the “good” room of the house – i.e. the least used. It hosts an array of objects, each of which carries a memory capsule.

Take the blue-rimmed pheasant jug, for instance.  This was only ever used, as I recall, when my uncle came to visit, for dispensing water to go with his whiskey.  My uncle was fond of his spirits and my father, a tee-totaller, doled out his ration in small doses.  In fact he reserved a separate, marked bottle for his brother, so he could keep track of his consumption.  This was in the days where there was little fear of being nabbed for drunk driving; all the same, my father worried about sending my uncle off into the night with too much on board. The pheasant jug was optimistically offered in the hope that dilution might slow the inebriation process.  Its contents, more often than not, remained untouched.

The ceremonial candelabra (a wedding present, maybe?) was also only brought out on state occasions – a few Christmas day dinners.  It was part of a set  – there was a silver platter, also visible on the sideboard, and a tea service that went with it, which is probably still stowed away behind lock and key in the cupboard below, alongside the whiskey, which, after my uncle’s death was only ever used for lacing the Christmas cake mixture.

The white Belleek vase – to the right of the photo frame – encrusted with fat birds perched on thorny branches with china florets, was also a gift,  from my aunt.  She was my father’s sister and a nun.  In those days – the 1960s – nuns often received very expensive presents which they regifted in keeping with the spirit of their vows of poverty.  So we got the Belleek vases. Yes, originally a pair.  The other one came a cropper when my brothers played football in the house one night when my parents were out and de-perched several of the singing birds.  There was some furious gluing activity with sticks of Uhu as we tried to reattach the broken birds, but our repairs were amateurish and the damage was discovered. The vase must have been mortally wounded as there’s now only one left, and this one on show is the unmolested one, I’m pretty sure.

Finally, the framed photograph is not, as you might expect, a family snap, but features a postcard of Bette Davis – sent to my mother by my sister.  In it, she’s holding up a cushion on which the words – “Old Age ain’t no place for Sissies” – have been embroidered. My mother really liked this image – so much so that she got it framed. She was an avid film fan, and was partial to Bette. But it was the sentiment of the sardonic message she really identified with. She often cited Bette’s cushion motto in her latter years, when she faced the indignities and disabilities of old age herself with pragmatism, fortitude and implacable good humour.

 

The Vibrant House: Irish Writing and Domestic Space; edited by Rhona Richman Kenneally and Lucy McDiarmid, will be launched at Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square East, Dublin, on December 9, @ 4pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The light hand of history

eilis book

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. 

 

 

 

Igniting sparks

 

Where do stories come from?  Most of the time, superstitiously, we don’t ask. And usually, it’s hard to say, because the process is so chaotic when it’s happening, and in retrospect seems too random to catalogue.

But in the case of  my story, “Lockjaw”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd magazine, the genesis was very clear. (The crowd at Lonely asked me to write a piece about how I wrote the story, and this produced a kind of diary of its making.)

I teach creative writing at University College Cork and several years ago came across a classic writing exercise in American writer John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction. This was the brief: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.

The aim is to write a passage that achieves effect by being indirect.  In other words, you know what you want to say and then very deliberately you don’t put it on the page.  It’s about restraint, about the power of leaving things out – a power on which the short story is built. The exercise is also about investing description with undeclared emotion.

The result, Gardner said, should be “a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. . . No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details to include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect.”

I don’t like to ask student writers to tackle exercises that I haven’t tried to do myself so I wrote along with them.  The description of the barn which appears in the opening of the story is almost word-for-word from the original exercise. I liked the way the prompt forced me to be inventive, made me use language to get around a narrative obstacle. Restriction can often be the mother of invention.

Because it produced a kind of density of description, I was loathe to let the piece sit there as a fragment and in time I developed it into a story breaking all of Gardner’s strictures in the end, since I go on to mention the son, the war and death.

Other threads in the story came in the usual magpie fashion. Because I wanted to keep the war element in the story from the Gardner prompt, I turned to the Irish Army’s peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, the only conventional war I had a connection to   – not counting the Northern Ireland troubles, that is.  That dictated the time period of the story.

The hurricane – so eerily topical at the moment – belongs to that era too (August 25,1986).  It came unbidden into the story because I have a very distinct memory of  the night Hurricane Charley hit. I was on the graveyard shift as a newspaper copy editor and got to say those immortal words – stop the press – so that we could update readers on the worsening conditions as the winds howled and the rain beat against the office windows.

At the time of writing the story, a friend of mine had gone into selling stoves in her barn so she found a place in the narrative too.

And finally the photographer, who was a late addition to the story, comes from an unease I have about the artful photographing of abandoned places, particularly people’s homes, with all the poignant mementos of their lives still in place. While loving the images, I distrust my pleasure in them because they seem, somehow, avaricious, feeding off authenticity to create a kind of beautiful-looking artifice. And as I write this, I realise it could be a description of writing itself; so perhaps I’m berating myself in the story at some level.

So. . . not a very coherent process even when remembered in tranquility. Except for John Gardner, that is, who provided the igniting spark.

Gardner was a novelist and essayist (probably best known for his 1971 novel Grendell, based on the Beowulf myth) but he’s remembered more now for his books on writing and the creative process.  He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s and was a creative writing professor at several US universities, including Detroit, Southern Illinois and Binghamton.  He was admired as a creative writing professor, and a tough mentor of young writers.  (Gardner died in a motorcycle accident aged 49 in 1982.)

In 1978, his book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, caused much dissent in the US literary community because it included bracing judgments of contemporaries including John Updike and John Barth.(So many Johns!)  It also controversially demanded that fiction should distinguish between right and wrong, a notion I’m not sure I agree with.  However, there is something flinty about his certainty of vision.

“Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral,” Gardner declared, “Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake”.

Which, almost 30 years on, has a distinct resonance in the Trump era.

 

 

 

 

An empire going up in smoke

tsar and anastasia

A father and daughter joshing for the camera, the father giving the daughter a “go” of his pipe. Not the sort of thing we would celebrate in the politically correct 21st century.  But this is a 20th century image, probably taken around 1913 and the father in the photograph is Tsar Nicholas 11, known as bloody Nicholas for his inept handling of the Russian empire, pictured with his daughter,the then 12-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia.

(Anastasia was the subject of my novel, The Pretender, which has just been reissued as an e-book by Jonathan Cape.)

The Romanov family were inveterate photograph-takers – Nicholas himself was an amateur snapper – and this image belongs to a time just before the outbreak of the First World War when the Tsar’s hold on power began to unravel. (As the above photo demonstrates, Nicholas was a devoted family man, though a weak, deluded and vacillating ruler.)

The experience of war for Russians was catastrophic. Millions of men were removed to the front, farms began to fail and what food there was, was being used to fuel the army. Prices rose, and there was famine in the winter of 1916/17.

The military handling of the war led to huge Russian defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes and matters took a turn for the worse when in late 1915, Nicholas insisted on taking personal charge of the army, leaving government affairs in the hands of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra.  (The Tsar had reluctantly agreed to the setting-up of an elected legislative body, the Duma, in 1906.)  The religious Tsarina, however, was completely under the sway of the disreputable, self-proclaimed monk, Rasputin, whom she fervently believed could save their son, Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. This concatination of the personal and political was ruinous.

In March 1917, workers in St Petersburg went on strike protesting against the war and the prevailing conditions.  The marches turned into full-scale riots in which over 1,000 people were killed.  At first troops fired on the crowds, but after several days they mutinied and joined the rioters.   The Duma, under Alexander Kerensky, took power into their own hands and set up a ‘provisional government’.

The Tsar, hoping to wrest back control, left the front for St Petersburg but his train was stopped en route by members of the Duma who forced him to abdicate in March 1917.

Despite the abolition of the monarchy, the provisional government came under pressure almost immediately because of its decision to carry on with the war.  In April, the exiled Bolshevik leader Lenin returned to Russia and promised the people ‘Peace, Bread and Land’; by September the Bolsheviks could claim two million members and the stage was set for revolution.

Meanwhile, the Romanovs had been detained at the Alexander Palace, their summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo on the outskirts of St Petersburg.   Their life in captivity was a far cry from their previous gilded existence as an imperial family.  Under armed guard, they spent their time, according to family sources, in religious activities and walks in the grounds of the palace.

Some photos from this time are believed to have been taken by Pierre Gilliard, the royal children’s tutor, and are accompanied by a narrative that describes the Romanovs’ daily life from March to August 1917 at Tsarskoe Selo.

“On the 13th day of May,” Pierre Gilliard wrote, “the family decided to change the lawn, near the residence, into a kitchen garden. All were enthusiastic and everybody, family retinue, servants, and even several soldiers of the guard joined the work. . . . In June, the results of their labour were clearly shown, for all kinds of vegetables had grown, including 500 cabbages.”

romaovs tsarkoe selo
In captivity at Tsarskoe Selo – the Grand Duchesses Tatiana, Anastasia and Marie and the Tsarevich Alexei.

However, their existence in the Alexander Palace – built for Catherine the Great, in 1796, and considered one of the finest neo-classical buildings in Russia – if constrained and more pared back than what they had been used to, was a great deal more comfortable than what was to come and they still had the benefit of a large household staff and a certain civility from their captors.

As law and order began to break down outside the palace walls, however, and the provisional government faltered, it was decided to move the Romanovs out of St Petersburg because, as Kerensky informed the Tsar, he could no longer guarantee the family’s safety.

A hundred years ago this month, they began their fateful journey eastwards. On August 14, at 6.10 in the morning, they set out for Tobolsk in Siberia.   It took two trains to accommodate the retinue (53 in all), their baggage, the government representatives, the jailers and soldiers. The trip took five days –  by rail to Tiumen, and then by river steamer to Tobolsk.

Ironically, on August 18, the boat passed Pokrovskoie, the birthplace of Rasputin, where they could see clearly the humble house where the so-called holy man had been raised. Rasputin was, by this stage, dead. He had been murdered in December 1916 by distant relations of the Tsar’s, but years previously he had warned the Tsarina – “My death will be your death”  –  words that must have haunted this most superstitious of women standing on the boat deck.

The next day, August 19, 1917, they arrived in Tobolsk.  They would be held there in the Governor’s Mansion behind a stockade, until April 1918, when they were moved for the last time – to the site of their execution.

Beating the raw chicken blues

elvis - gettyimages
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 eyes have it

hearn_portrait

Is having bad eyesight a pre-requisite for being a celebrated Irish writer?  Certainly James Joyce had his troubles often having to resort to wearing a patch to spare his eyes.  Throughout his life, he suffered from a catalogue of eye-related conditions –  iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and cataracts. Some suggest his eye troubles were a by-product of syphilis, though this has never been confirmed.

Playwright Sean O’Casey was similarly afflicted, though it’s unlikely he had syphilis.  From the age of five he had continuous crippling bouts of conjunctivitis which in latter years developed into trachoma. In a letter to the American critic Brooks Atkinson in 1964, the year of his death, he wrote heartbreakingly of the plight of a writer going blind:

“I could read an illuminated sign out­doors,” he replied. “But not ordinary newsprint or the letter text in a book. All the hundreds of books around me are dumb. I can write a little, largely by sense of touch. But I cannot read back what I have put down.”

But perhaps the blindest of all was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) – an Irish writer who is all but forgotten here now but who was a household name in Japan where he wrote a dozen or so books between 1891 and his death in 1904.

I discovered Hearn during an extended stay in Tokyo in 2010 where to be Irish meant you were automatically connected to the fame of Lafcadio Hearn. We visited Matsue, a city in the western Shimani region – a 16-hour journey by train from Tokyo where Hearn is the cornerstone of the city’s cultural tourism, although he only stayed there a little over a year.  There’s a Hearn memorial museum and his home is open to the public.  The city quarter where he lived in Matsue now bears his name and his stylised logo appears on the street lamps in the cobbled streets.  In souvenir shops you can even buy Lafcadio Hearn tea.

Hearn is considered a laureate in Japan, the single greatest foreign interpreter of the country at a time when the old Japanese ways and traditions were being abandoned.

But 20 years before he made his name in Japan, Hearn was a newly arrived emigrant in America, penniless and down on his luck.  From this lowly start he embarked on a career as a pioneering journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, specializing in closely observed depictions of the underbelly of society – grotesque murders, hangings, slaughter houses, dissection rooms, city dumps, and the lives lived in the poor black quarters of the city.  This despite the fact that he was blind in one eye, and the sight in the other was severely compromised as a result of an accident during a tug of war competition when he was a schoolboy.

Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850.  His mother, Rosa Kassimati, was a native of the island; his father, an Irish surgeon stationed on Lefkas with the British Army. They called their first child after the island, hence Hearn’s exotic-sounding second name.  When he was two, his mother, Rosa, brought him to Dublin to live with the extended Hearn family, while his father was posted abroad.  But after a short period, Rosa, homesick and pregnant with a second child, decided to return to Lefkas, leaving Hearn in the care of his great-aunt, Sarah Brenane, in a house in Rathmines. (There is a plaque commemorating his time in this house on Prince Edward Terrace.) The little boy was never to see either parent again – they divorced when he was six.

Hearn’s education at a boarding school in England was brought to an abrupt end when his great-aunt Sarah’s finances crashed and at the age of 16 he had to start making his own way in the world.  It was the beginning of a peripatetic and picaresque existence that took him first to London, then Ohio, where he emerged aged 24 as a crime reporter and scandal chaser on the Cincinnati Enquirer and Commercial.

Hearn was one of the earliest exponents of the New Journalism, that is the original new journalism – the muck-rakers who dominated the American journalism scene in the late 1890s. (The term was resurrected again for the revolutionary immersive journalism of the 1960s).  Like his successors, Hearn used fictional techniques  – dialogue, literary description and placing himself as a character in the story –  that later exemplified the work of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson.

‘Gibbetted’, his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish youth was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hearn’s report contains some eye-watering details (forgive the pun) that must have been more imagined and felt then actually seen given the state of his eyesight. In the New Journalism style Hearn steeps himself in the story. He explores the background of the prisoner, visits the young man before the execution and examines the gallows as they are being constructed. He even gets to feel the pulse of the prisoner when the first hanging fails.

“The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap veiling his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse.  It was beating slowly and regularly.  Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead – dead in darkness, for his eyes were veiled – dead and blind to this world but about to open his eyes upon another.  The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea.  But then came the gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of the Deputy Freeman calling ‘For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!!’  Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.

‘My god.  Oh my god!’

‘I ain’t dead – I ain’t dead!’

The insistent use of other senses in the piece – hearing and touch – speak of a man determined to compensate for his deficient eyesight. And his feel for atmosphere and his human empathy – essential for any journalist writing colour – is unquestionable.  His appetite for colour writing may have sprung from his personal life which was also extremely bohemian, to say the least, but that’s a story for another day.

Lafcadio Hearn was born on this day, June 27, 167 years ago.

 

The ghost of the good priest

the-innocents-1961
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.