I have come to a sense of place in my writing very slowly. When I started to write – back in the 1970s – I was intent on removing all traces of the “local” from my work. I was afraid of being parochial and I was out of sympathy with the brand of Irish fiction that maundered on about the landscape, the bogs and the mountains. I had grown up in a Dublin suburb and felt there was nothing specifically “Irish” about it – as far as I was concerned, it was like any other suburb in the Western world; a place of quiet desperation where nothing happened.
My debut collection of stories, A Lazy Eye, was shorn of place-names, or where there were names, they were neutralized, generic-sounding. The real names of Irish places didn’t seem “real” to me then; they seemed inauthentic, too Oirishy. Perhaps that was some kind of post-colonial cultural cringe on my behalf. Who knows?
Mother of Pearl, my first novel, continued the trend. Based on a real-life kidnapping in Dublin in the 1950s, I set the action in a made-up city divided by a sectarian conflict – I envisaged the north of the city being Belfast and the south being Dublin. Because the story had a mythic quality I didn’t want it to be grounded too closely in political realities; hence the disguise.
But, I discovered, historical fiction is merciless in its demands about place. With my second novel, The Pretender, set during the First World War and based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed, falsely, to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, the chickens came home to roost, if I can mix my metaphors. Now I was duty-bound to real places – Berlin, Posnan, Charlottesville, Virginia – albeit not home territory, and places altered by time and war. But real places, nonetheless, and demanding faithful re-creation.
Now I’ve come full circle. The Rising of Bella Casey – just published − which dramatizes the life of the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, placed me firmly back on home turf. My own city, Dublin, immortalized by the city’s stage laureate O’Casey in the early 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history. There could be no reaching for disguise this time. The novel is littered with place names – Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Mary Street, East Wall, Mountjoy Square, Fitzgibbon Street, Rutland Place and many more locations with strong O’Casey associations. These names no longer sound fake to me – have I changed, or have they?
I will be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey and discussing a sense of place in fiction as part of the Dublin Books Festival during a Reader’s Day event with Alison Jameson and Jennifer Johnston at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday, November 16, at 10 a.m. See http://www.dublinbookfestival.com
When I was a student journalist in the 1970s, we were given a list of 20 books, which, it was suggested gently, everyone should have read by the age of 20. Shamefully, I had read only a handful, so I determined, with the zeal of the auto-didact, to get through every recommended work on the list. I started with Joyce’s Dubliners and the first story I read was Araby. (The exotic title attracted me). It was love at first read, a fitting response since Araby is about first love. But not simply first love, first unrequited love.
It’s a simple story – it dares to be simple. The narrator, a young boy, nurses a crush on the older sister of his friend Mangan, but is too tongue-tied to declare it. He decides he will demonstrate his love with a gift. There’s a visiting bazaar in the city – from which the story gets its title – which Mangan’s sister wants to go to but can’t. The boy decides he will go for her and buy her a trinket that will make his feelings clear. But first he has to get a promised florin from his uncle. The well-oiled uncle does not come home till late and by the time our hero gets on the train, florin in hand, it is after 8 pm, and the reader (the older, wiser reader) already knows the expedition is doomed. When he gets to the bazaar, the place is virtually closed, the stalls mostly empty and those few that are still trading have nothing that he wants to buy. His disappointment is palpable.
The story ends with one of Joyce’s classic epiphanies. (Joyce described an epiphany as a delicate and evanescent moment, a revelation. But it could also be an error or gesture “by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal”.) “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The voice that finishes the story is an older one, viewing the child through the long lens of time. Or is it that clear-cut? Do we not all know even in the feverish grip of infatuation how ridiculous it makes us? In Araby, Joyce places the reader above the boy in the middle of the deserted bazaar – perhaps gazing down from the gallery described earlier that “girdled” the big hall, but not looking down on him.
Araby is a story popular with the young. When I first read it, it was the pain and exaltation of infatuation that I identified with, perhaps because I was a fellow sufferer. Most teenagers are experts in the pangs of unreturned affection and Araby authenticates the experience and its associated mortifications.
Unrequited love is love at its most noble. It’s untested, certainly, but it allows us to bestow passionate goodwill on someone who may only be barely aware of us. It expects no reward. It is both gloriously selfless and, paradoxically, totally taken up with self.
“Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour myself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I would tell her of my confused adoration.”
Joyce captured the delicious pain, the secret shame and cruel paradoxes of unrequited love – how the sufferer longs to declare herself, while also desperately wanting to hide her affliction, to hug it to herself because it is a tender feeling, too fine for the grubby world.
The other discovery I made reading Araby was to see my own city being mirrored back at me. “We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street singers. . .” In my mind’s eye I pictured Moore Street of my own time, or imagined Henry Street the week before Christmas, and realised how close our Dublins were. The traces of the Edwardian city were much closer to the surface in the 1970s, but even if they hadn’t been, the city Joyce spent his whole writing life trying to recreate in exile, was right there in Araby – the dismal streets, the brown houses, the dark dripping gardens, the empty gloomy rooms, the shuttered lives. When I came to write about Dublin in that era in “The Rising of Bella Casey”, my novel due out with Brandon Press later this month, it was to those memories I returned – as well, of course, as drawing on the atmosphere Joyce rendered so beautifully in “Dubliners”.