Novella a Day in May #23

Two Pints – Roddy Doyle (2012, 89 pages)

Two Pints is a series of conversations between two men who meet in a pub. Doyle has an excellent ear for dialogue and his first novel, The Commitments, was very dialogue-heavy. This is even more so, with no description at all. It’s set on specific dates and documents the characters’ reactions to events in 2011 and 2012.

Before some examples, a trigger warning for language. Roddy Doyle presents authentic voices, and those voices are sweary. Something he is quite renowned for (I’ve included this clip before, but g’wan, you will!):

There is an ongoing conversation as to the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi:

“…An’ anyway, that’s when I see him.

– Who?

– Gaddafi.

– From the chipper?

– No the other one. From Libya.

– In Dublin Airport?

– Terminal 2.

– Fuck off.

– Swear to God. That’s where he’s hidin’.

[…]

– You’re sure it was him?

– Course I am. I winked at him.

– Wha’ did he do?

– He winked back.”

There are also discussions of cultural issues, both high and low:

“- D’yeh ever read poetry?

– Wha’?!

– D’you ever –

– I heard yeh. I just can’t fuckin’ believe I heard yeh.

-Well look it –

– G’wan upstairs to the lounge if yeh want to talk abou’ poetry.”

 

“- Wha’ does ‘thinkin’ outside the box’ mean?

– You were watchin’ The Apprentice last night, weren’t yeh?”

By the end I really felt as if I’d been in a pub overhearing two old friends talking. The simplicity of Two Pints doesn’t mean it’s prosaic though: the stories regarding a young member of the family, Damien, become increasingly surreal, with an escalating collection of exotic animals and his fracking in the back garden using a magimix. You’re never quite sure what will happen next.

“ – See the Queen’s goin’ to mention Ireland in her Christmas speech.

– Ah, great. I might mention her in mine.

-It’s a big deal.

– Not really. I just say a few words to the family.”

Warm, witty and wonderful.

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“We’ll have to put a stop to this bookworming. No future in that.” (Molly Keane, Good Behaviour)

This is my final contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2018, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff. Do check out the posts from the month, it’s been great 😊

I had 2 Molly Keane novels in my substantial TBR, so this seemed a perfect opportunity to get to know an author so many seem to enjoy. I began with her first novel, the wonderfully titled The Knight of Cheerful Countenance (1926). Unbelievably, she wrote this at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance (!) and chose the pseudonym MJ Farrell to hide what she was doing from her friends, who were all huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ types. Molly Keane wrote the introduction to my Virago edition and it’s well worth a read, to hear tales of friends with uncles called Major Hyacinth Devereaux and the butler shrouding the parrot before morning prayers. I’d love to know if she ever met the Mitfords.

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Image from here

The plot of The Knight of Cheerful Countenance is slight: Allan comes to visit his Irish cousins, falls in love with one who loves another, while his other cousin falls in love with him. It’s full of horses and slightly less full of bloodsports, thankfully. There were about 2 passages I skipped because I just really don’t want to read about such things. And yet despite these unpromising qualities, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.

In her introduction Keane fully acknowledges that the incredibly privileged, oblivious existence of her childhood and young adulthood is gone forever. The novel makes passing reference to the political situation of the time, but Allan and his cousins Ann and Sybil are walled up on an estate away from it all:

“Deeds of unbelievable foulness and treachery were still – judging by the newspapers – of almost daily occurrence in the land, but they seemed to leave untouched the district of Bungarvin. Yet wrecked police barracks and courthouses, country houses standing empty, and the charred walls of what had once been country houses, all went to show how little of a myth was the state of civil war in Ireland.”

As the title suggests, the novel is a romance and there is most certainly an escapist quality to it (the first publishers were Mills & Boon, although I think they published a wider range then than they do now).

“Dennys St Lawrence presented as good a picture of young manhood as one could wish to see on any glorious summer morning. With his bare dark head and his grey eyes, his handsome horse, and his easy seat in the saddle, he belonged to this Irish morning with complete entirety.”

This isn’t straight romance though. Keane views the events and the people with a fond, humorous eye:

“Silence, however, never reigned for long when Allan was anywhere about.

‘Jolly little successful what-not, what?’ he observed affably, by way of starting the conversation.”

The Knight of Cheerful Countenance is a short novel (272 pages) and so it doesn’t flag, and I would never have guessed it was written by a 17 year old. It’s not the most accomplished piece, but it’s not juvenilia either. I don’t really feel I’ve done it justice here. It’s very readable and good fun, and it certainly made me want to read more by Molly Keane.

Which is exactly what I did. Loving Without Tears (1951) was Keane’s tenth novel and she was also a successful dramatist by this time, so it is a much more sophisticated novel than her first. It is much darker than The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, centring around a wholly manipulative matriarch, the inappropriately monikered Angel, who bends her children, niece and faithful retainers to her will.

“Each worshipped her and each lamp should have its due portion of oil to feed that flame of worship, and from each she would obtain the maximum of that slave labour which is the expression of such a love.”

She is an absolute tyrant, all the more despicable because her tyranny is couched in expressions of maternal love and concern. But things are about to change. Her son Julian has returned from the war with a fiancée who is (shock!) American, and a woman of the world. She sees through Angel and will not be manipulated, unlike Angel’s daughter Slaney, who is oblivious to her mother trying to split her up from the man she loves:

“As a gardener tends nectarines, so did Angel minister anxiously to skin and hair and health of body. As well, she disciplined the beautiful body towards an excellence in the sports best calculated for its exhibition – a garlanded, shampooed young heifer, her looks a miracle, her thoughts unknown, Angel led her daughter by a ribbon towards the supreme sacrifice and glory of the right marriage.”

There’s also a niece, Tiddley, who Angel abuses despicably, bribing her to help with her plans to disrupt her children’s lives. The nanny Birdie, sees things as they are:

 “the love she’s pinching out from each of us, same as I’d disbud a rose”

Yet the brilliance of Keane’s writing means that while I desperately wanted everyone to wake-up to what Angel was up to, and for her to get her comeuppance, I didn’t want her punished too badly. Loving Without Tears is an astute psychological study of a woman who behaves appallingly, but it is done without heavy judgement and you are left to fill in some gaps as to why Angel behaves as she does. To some extent it is a comedy of manners; if only everyone can cast aside convention and have an honest conversation, everything will work out. So it is funny, but with a cynical undertone running through it which stops it being fluffy. I enjoyed watching it all play out pretty much as I expected (not a criticism, I enjoy Austen for the same reason) and the ending was entirely satisfying.

To end, a song about another famous Irish Molly:

“I only take a drink on two occasions – when I’m thirsty and when I’m not.” (Brendan Behan)

This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2018, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff. Do join in!

As with my previous Reading Ireland 2018 post, I picked two books at random from the TBR, but they turned out to be thematically linked. They are both about the impact of alcohol dependency on families, and both achieve the difficult balance of not being depressing yet not shying away from the damage alcohol can cause. Orange juices all round everyone – or maybe a cup of tea?

Firstly, Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle (2006), a sequel to his 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. I thought TWWWID was brilliantly written, and I was looking forward to catching up with Paula again and finding out what she’d made of her life beyond her abusive husband. At the start of the novel Paula is 4 months sober.

“She’s tired at night and that’s the way it should be. A hard day’s work and that. She likes being tired. Tired and sober – it’s different. The sleep is different – it’s sleep. Although she doesn’t always sleep. But it’s grand; it’s fine. She’s not complaining.

Who’d listen?

She brushes her teeth. The important ones are there. The ones at the front. The missing ones aren’t seen, unless she smiles too wide. Then the gaps appear.”

We don’t learn what prompted Paula to commit to sobriety this time but she’s sticking with it. She’s worried about her kids: Nicola has grown up too quickly, caring for Paula and her siblings; John Paul has given up drugs but is in a relationship with a woman Paula’s not keen on; Jack is fine, but Leanne seems to be following in her mother’s footsteps:

“What does an alcoholic mother say to her alcoholic daughter? It’s shocking. It’s terrible. But Paula’s not falling down on the ground. She’s not running away or pretending it’s not there, or screaming and making it worse, All the things she’s done before and will probably do again.

I am an alcoholic.

She’s facing it.

She drinks her tea standing up. She needs the energy that standing up gives her, the alertness.”

Paula facing it was what I really liked about the characterisation in this novel. She feels guilty about the past, but she doesn’t beat herself up over it – if anyone’s had enough beatings it’s Paula. She allows that she’s human, and she never pities herself. She’s a remarkable woman, a strong woman, although she doesn’t see it.

“Maybe it’s the way the brain works to protect itself. It invents a new woman who can look back and wonder, instead of look back and howl. Maybe it happens to everyone. But it’s definitely the drink, or life without it. It’s a different world. She’s not sure she likes it that much. But she’s a new-old woman, learning how to live.”

This is the problem for addicts: often by the time they’re ready to be sober, there’s very little to be sober for. But Paula takes the life she has, her problematic relationship with her kids, her low-paid, hard-graft job and she gets on with it. This isn’t bleak or depressing, it’s actually a believable and life-affirming story of human endurance and resilience.

“She sits back and it sits beside her. The need, the thirst – it’s there, here.”

As with TWWWID, I was absolutely rooting for Paula. It’s her story and as it was in TWWWID her voice is crystal clear and so real. But it’s also a story of modern Ireland: the Celtic Tiger, being part of the EU – Paula is the only Irish cleaner at her work – and contemporary music that Paula takes joy in, learning what came after Thin Lizzy. It’s about redemption, personal and national (the IRA disarm towards the end), but a redemption that carries the past with it:

“All of Paula’s past is in her back. It’s there, ready, breathing. One last kick from a man who died twelve years ago.”

Secondly, Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey (2004). In Paula Spencer, the question is posed: “Alcoholics can stop drinking but what is there for the children of alcoholics? Is it always too late? Probably. She doesn’t know.” and this is what Tatty is concerned with. It follows Tatty over 10 years as the child of at least one alcoholic, possibly two. Hickey manages a remarkable feat in capturing both a child’s point of view and writing in the second person in a way that isn’t annoying:

“And you can feel your face wobbling like jelly when the car goes out of town and over the cobblestones, and you can see all the dark houses on all the dark roads; then you can lie down and look at the orange street lights, pulling you home on a long orange string.”

Tatty is an observant, confused, conflicted child. She lives in a world where men and women live clearly delineated lives, separate from one another. Tatty adores her roguish father and this adds to her isolation from her mother:

“They stay in the kitchen; they sit at the table and smoke cigarettes and drink tea and give out stink about men and that’s a bit mean because the men never give out about them. The men never say anything about them at all.”

Tatty is a bright child and she finds solace and companionship in books:

“They’re nearly as good as real friends anyway, because she can go places with them and talk to them and they talk back and include her in. Sometimes they’re even better than real friends, because you just don’t just know what they look like and where they live; you know as well what they’re thinking and how they feel about things. A real friend mightn’t tell you something like that.”

Hickey brilliantly captures the pain of childhood even when it is barely acknowledged by the child. Tatty and her siblings have markers of difference that are picked up on by the other children. Her sister ditches her milk on the way to school because it’s in a whiskey bottle. The fact that the family have little money and the children are neglected is perfectly obvious to the other children at school:

“Sometimes you can match the girls to their lunches. The best lunches belong to the same sort of girls. Girls with lace socks and black patent shoes. Girls like Geraldine Draper. She gets a Club Milk and a bottle of Coca-Cola that she opens with her own proper opener, She gets triangle sandwiches packed into her lunch box and King crisps her Dad buys in a shop near his work…She has bouncy ringlets squirting all over her head and a different ribbon for every day of the year…She has lovely plastic covers on her schoolbooks; her pencil case is always packed.”

Tatty is offered an escape when she goes away to boarding school. We don’t know why she is going because Tatty doesn’t know, but it may be because she is her father’s favourite and the brightest. She finds the separation from family not remotely traumatic:

“Tatty tries to think what homesick means and why it makes you cry. When Mam goes mental she might start shouting, I’m sick of this bloody house! I’m sick of it! Sick of it!

But she knows that can’t be the same thing.”

Tatty is a subtle novel. We can see the damage being caused by the parents but it is never hammered home, because Tatty herself is not aware of it. It stops the novel from being unrelenting bleak, but it doesn’t obscure the damage that is being done to a family by the alcohol dependency. The final image in the novel is truly heart-breaking and it left me reeling.

To end, another clip from Father Ted, and a reminder that reading Roddy Doyle can have side effects:

“I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland.” (Lady Gregory)

Here’s a contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2018, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff. I hope to get a couple more in before the month is out 😊 Do join in!

These first 2 choices I picked pretty much at random, but they actually have a lot in common. Both published in the last few years and both set in the 1990s, documenting a young woman’s time at university. This was the era when I went away to uni for the first time (embarassingly there have been many times since, I am the eternal student) and both absolutely captured that period spot on. To help take us back, here’s a 1990s ad break – Levi adverts were huuuuge in the 90s and this was my favourite, probably because I like being in water:

On with books. Firstly, Tender by Belinda McKeon (2015) which I read after being convinced by Cathy’s excellent review. Told from the point of view of Catherine, Tender details her relationship with James, a funny, delightful man who bowls her over from the start:

“Everything about him was so lit up by this brilliant, glinting comedy”

Their friendship becomes very intense, very quickly. Catherine has arrived in Dublin having led a sheltered life where her every move is reported back to her parents by neighbours. James has just returned from Berlin, whereas Catherine has never been on a plane.

“She had never heard a boy talk so sincerely, so emotionally, before. She had actually squirmed, listening to him. If he had been joking, if he had been being ironic, that would have been one thing, but this was not irony, this was strange, unafraid openness.”

However, James is not quite as open as he first appears. While Catherine comes out of her shell at uni, having sex, drinking, having fun, she gradually realises that glittering James has a secret. It’s unlikely that any reader will be as naïve and inexperienced as Catherine, so I don’t think its much of a spoiler to say James is gay, and he eventually comes out to her. McKeon brilliantly captures how this announcement causes Catherine-as-she-used-to-be to hit against Catherine-as-she-is-becoming:

“Widen her eyes; force them full of brightness. Show none of the riot going on inside; the bafflement, the confusion with all its stupid roars and plumettings, the astonishment, the weird temptation to stare….Nothing was more urgent now than to keep all of this out, to keep her face soft with calm and with intelligence and with openness, the face of someone wiser, someone better, the face of someone that she wanted, so badly, to be.”

James’ struggles may have (thankfully) dated, but his hurt and pain are fresh:

“I watch everyone Catherine, I watch them live their lives, and I watch them meet the people they can love, and I watch them go on their dates, and take over sitting rooms to have sex with them, and I – what am I supposed to do?”

The real strength of the novel is how McKeon captures the vulnerability, confusion and intensity of young adult lives without losing older, cynical readers like me. Catherine is immature, selfish and behaves appallingly at one point. And yet I really felt for her. However misguided, however possessive and unreasonable she is, she’s a young woman struggling to find her way:

“She wanted the brilliant, funny, vibrant James, lit up with enjoyment, teeming with it, and she wanted him to be only her friend. She did not want him to love the others this much, to take such unbridled pleasure in their presence.”

Tender brilliantly captures a specific time in the 1990s – all the pop culture references brought it flooding back to me – and a time in people’s lives that transcends the specific circumstances. McKeon’s psychological observations are acute but the novel never falters under the weight of this. The characters with all their flaws, their brilliance and their mundanities, have really stayed with me. Tender is a  moving novel, recognisable and touching.

Secondly, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (2016). McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, used stream of consciousness and struggled for years to find a publisher as it was seen as non-commercial. It went on to have gratifyingly huge success. This, her second novel, also breaks down language and syntax, but I thought it was a bit less deconstructed than her first, possibly more approachable. Eily arrives at drama school in London from Ireland, terrified and excited:

“Remember people are blind to under your skin or. Under my skin now.”

“All the speculative friendships I, jealous, observe. It’s just space but I have so much distance to make and this seems a wistful world.”

McBride’s style perfectly suits the overwhelming confusion of feelings that come with being young, in a new city and reeling from all the new experiences and opportunities that are landing at your feet.

“Sun of the morning. London day. The banjaxed exhuming themselves from doorways. Buses and music. Spivs and Goths. New Age Travellers and leather coats and too-tight jeans and diamond whites. Everywhere heaves of fighting in the streets. This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily I am in it now.”

She meets Stephen, an actor 20 years her senior, and the two of them begin a relationship. It is a long time before it is articulated as such, and in the meantime there are misunderstandings, jealousies and horrible sex with other people. Eily and Stephen are both deeply damaged and McBride picks apart their individual pain and the loving, difficult relationship they create together with perfectly paced plotting and telling detail. It is a heavy-going story at times without doubt, but there is humour there too, such as Eily’s speculation as to Stephen’s dating life:

“They’ll speak interestingly of the Royal Court at some elegant restaurant where he’ll footsie her up. Then go back to her flat. Pet her Siamese cat and spend the night inside because he’s the type who knows what’s good for him – women who give men what they want. Not me, with a band-aid in the hook of my bra, unable even to fake it and no idea.”

The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, but absolutely not romanticised in any way. Eily and Stephen come from deeply disturbed backgrounds and they both keep messing up, frequently. They are also both likeable, and so much more than their pasts. They are trying to move forward into rewarding, fulfilling lives individually and together. They have found each other and they love each other.

“I’ve pushed my fingers right through his skin, caught hold of his ribs and must now fall with him.”

McBride is a stunning writer and she can craft sentences of breathtaking beauty. Anything by her is a must-read.

To end, when I first went to uni I only had a few CDs (yes kids, my music was stored on discs!), one of which was Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? by Limerick band The Cranberries, featuring the beautiful voice of lead singer Dolores O’Riordan, who sadly died this year:

“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” (Michelle Obama)

A little while ago I went to see Edward St Aubyn interviewed and he was every bit as witty and compelling as I’d hoped. He mentioned that he finds dialogue the easiest part of writing, and an audience member asked him if he’d consider writing a play. St Aubyn said he didn’t really enjoy theatre (something along the lines of “I always seem to be in the middle of row M”) but that playwriting might be a bit of a holiday from novel writing, which I’m sure must have pissed off any playwrights in the audience sweating blood and ink over their drama.

Also, for any fellow Patrick Melrose series fans, and I know we are a precious bunch who don’t want to see TV mess up such novelistic perfection, he said he’d been on set to see the production that’s being made with Benedict Cumberbatch and he was very happy with it.

So, a long preamble to say that this is why I decided to look at playwrights writing prose this week.

Firstly, Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Other Novellas (1954-73, trans. Samuel Beckett and Richard Seaver) which I would argue aren’t novellas at all, they are all short stories (there are 4 stories in the collection and the 2 longest are only just over 20 pages). Pedantry aside, I would say if you like Beckett’s dramas you’ll like his short stories. It’s all here: existential crisis, bleak absurdism, humour and despair.

In The End, the first-person narrator is down on his luck, clothed in badly fitting clothes that ‘they’ have given him from a dead man, having burnt his (presumably to avoid disease). He eventually finds lodgings, but is turfed out and returns to an itinerant life:

“One day I witnessed a strange scene. Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere. But that day I must have come back.”

Pretty Beckettian, no? I know he’s not for everyone, but what I like about Beckett is that all the absurdism and word-play is not an intellectual exercise only, but is underpinned by a great humanity and acute awareness of suffering which makes his work bleakly beautiful:

“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

The idea of choosing the story we tell is continued in the next two stories, The Expelled where the narrator, having taken us through a day in his life concludes:

“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.”

And also in The Calmative, where the narrator tells himself a story to assuage the fear of death:

“So I’ll tell myself a story. I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and its there I feel I’ll be old, old, even older than the day I fell, calling for help and it came. Or is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.”

The final, titular story is needless to say, not a rose-tinted view of innocence and longing.

“I didn’t understand women at that period. I still don’t for that matter. Nor men either. Nor animals either. What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains. I think them through daily, it doesn’t take long, thought  moves so fast, but they are not only in my thought, not all.”

So, business as usual for Beckett despite the change in the form from drama 😀 If you’re not sure about Beckett but want to give him a go, you could do worse than start here; you’ll get a good flavour without having to pay extortionate theatre ticket prices only to find yourself stuck in the middle of row M.

Obligatory picture of Beckett’s amazing face:

Samuel_Beckett,_Pic,_1

Secondly, About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. Rosamund Bartlett, OUP 2004). I’m being a bit cheeky claiming Chekhov primarily as a playwright for the purposes of this blog post, given that the back of my edition of these stories has a quote from Raymond Carver proclaiming Chekhov “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived”.

Anton Chekhov, who took up writing after One Direction split up

Having read this collection, I would say he really is a master. Beautiful writing, not a word out of place (as you’d expect given the famous ‘gun’ instruction regarding not having any superfluous detail) and he is able to take the miniature and make it epic. In The Lady with the Little Dog, Chekhov takes a well-worn story of a bounder seducing an unhappy woman and turns it into a tragedy, without it ever becoming sentimental or overblown.

“She pressed his hand and started walking down the stairs, looking back at him  all the time, and you could see from her eyes that she really was not happy. Gurov stood for a while, listening, and then when everything had gone quiet he looked for his coat-peg and left the theatre.”

It is the story not of a great love affair, but a love that sneaks up on two people who were not looking for it and how it seems to bring nothing but misery, but with an ever-present promise of unrealised happiness.

The stories are ambitious in theme and they are truly profound, but that doesn’t mean they are without humour. Rothschild’s Violin begins:

The town was very small – worse than a village really – and the people who lived in it were mostly old folk who died so rarely it was quite annoying.”

Yakov is the unfortunate coffin maker in this healthy town and he is grumpy and horrible to his wife. When his wife dies, he expresses his unexpected feelings through his violin playing, to great effect:

“Rothschild listened intently, standing to one side, his arms folded on his chest. The frightened, confused expression on his face gradually changed to one of grief and suffering. He rolled his eyes, as if experiencing exquisite pain”

A story about the universality of pain and the expression of feeling beyond words is explored with a lightness of touch that almost borders magic realism. Chekhov writes with such subtlety and never patronises the reader.

It’s really hard to write about Chekhov’s short stories. They are so rich, so full of telling detail and so beautifully evoked that I have not done any justice to them here. I only hope that I’ve convinced you to pick up one of his short story collections and read the treasures for yourself.

To end, following my last post’s comment by Lucy, a festive video of 2 men stepping out of their comfort zones and looking slightly baffled about it all (“I’m David Bowie, I live down the road” 😀 ):

“Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

Firstly, in breaking news (in the sense that it’s not news and of zero interest or urgency) I’ve finally joined the cool kids over at twitter so please validate my fragile sense of self and join me @madame_bibi. More importantly, I’ve tried to follow as many of my bloggy friends as possible but if I’ve missed you please let me know & I will rectify the situation forthwith 🙂

On with the post! This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff. I’m hoping to just get this posted in time, as I was sick for a week and while this meant I could finally watch the entire series of Taboo that I had stacked up, I was incapable of reading the printed word  (my capacity for dribbling over Tom Hardy remained unaffected).  If I’m too late, I hereby proclaim that there are at least 32 days in March 😉

So, its Elizabeth Bowen all round as I look at two of her novels, simply because I was lucky enough to find these lovely hardbacks in my favourite charity bookshop a wee while ago:

Firstly, The Death of the Heart (1938), which I pounced on as soon as I saw it, remembering Jacqui’s wonderful review.  Portia, a sixteen year old orphan, moves to London following a transitory life in hotels with her parents, to live with her half-brother and his wife who she barely knows. Wiki quotes Bowen as describing the novel thusly:

“a novel which reflects the time , the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.”

Certainly the individuals in the novel are self-conscious, but they’re not really aware of one another. Poor Portia finds herself part of a society of selfish individuals who don’t know what they want and so end up tormenting each other while they try and work it out. Portia’s step-mother Anna is unhappy, as is her brother, but neither are sure it is the marriage to one another that is making them miserable. A rejected lover of Anna’s, Eddie, seduces Portia to alleviate his boredom, not realising that to do so to a naïve and loving 16 year old is cruel and damaging. There is an all-round lack of intimacy:

“But something that should have been going on had not gone on: something had not happened. They had sat round a painted, not a burning, fire, at which you tried in vain to warm your hands.”

Portia is temporarily packed off to the seaside to stay with a family that the London set look down as being a bit common, but they are at least lively:

“Mrs Heccomb took off her hat for tea and Portia saw that her hair, like part of an artichoke, seemed to have an upgrowing tendency…This, for some reason, added to Mrs Heccomb’s expression of surprise.”

However, while the Heccombs see Eddie for the cad and bounder he is, they are neither able to convey this adequately to Portia, nor is she willing to listen.  What emerges as Portia tries to find her place in the world and warm relationships within it, is how deeply inadequate human beings can be at communicating with one another. Bowen is interested in the fantasies that are constructed in lieu of real understanding and how these can be sustaining but ultimately empty.

“Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in the long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours.”

The novel lacks any sentimentality and is a sharply observed portrait of interwar society.  What stops it from being depressing is Bowen’s glorious prose, her dry sense of humour (I don’t think we are supposed to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves) and the sense that love – imperfect and in many different guises – is there to be found, sometimes in the oddest of places.

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Apparently hair like an artichoke was an actual thing, although I think Bowen had something more flamboyant in mind…

Image from here

Secondly, A World of Love (1955), which I thought absolutely stunning. Bowen has matured between these two novels and is telling less, showing more, to once again explore the complexities of human relationships with great subtlety. Lilia owns Montefort, a country house in County Cork, and her dead cousin Guy’s fiancé Antonia, lives there with her husband Fred, an illegitimate member of the family, who runs the estate so they live rent-free.

“Of this arrangement it had not yet been decided whether it worked or did not work, still less if it equitable or, if not so, at whose expense.”

Over the course of a few claustrophobically hot days in summer, Antonia and Fred’s daughter, Jane, finds love letters written by Guy to an unnamed woman which is assumed to be Antonia. This will act as a catalyst to bring the unspoken tensions between the adults into sharp relief:

“Almost no experience, other than Guy and their own dissonance, could they be said to have had in common; and yet it was what they had had in common which riveted them. For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”

Meanwhile, Jane is on the edge of burgeoning adulthood:

 “Not a straw stirred, or was there to stir, in the kennel; and above her something other than clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.  Nothing was to be known. One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more.”

I really adored this novel. Again, it was sharply observed, psychologically astute, and with a wonderful undercurrent of dry humour. Bowen minutely dissects human relationships and exposes all their contradictions and conflict, but also how compromise and understanding can be reached. A World of Love felt tighter than The Death of the Heart, the containment of a few days in pretty much one place effectively conveying the claustrophobia that exists for the characters in their various ways, even as they roam a huge estate. Yet Bowen is almost baroque at times, her descriptions rich and layered and filled with meaning:

“No part of the night was not breathless breathing, no part of the quickened stillness not running feet. A call or calling, now nearby, now from behind the skyline, was unlocatable as a corncrakes in the uncut grass. Arising this was, on the part of the two who like hundreds, seemed to be teeming over the land, carrying all before them. The night, ridden by pure excitement, was seized by hope. .. All they had ever touched still now physically held its charge – everything that had been stepped on, scaled up, crept under, brushed against or leaped from now gave out, touched by so much as air, a tingling continuous sweet shock, which the air suffered as though it were half laughing, as was Antonia.”

I realise I may have lost some of you there. But if you don’t mind that sort of prose at times, especially when it’s surrounded by an astute unblinking eye for human foibles and a compassion for our frailties, please do given Bowen a try!

So that’s the end of a very hurriedly written post, please excuse all typos and general incoherence! Now to end with an Irish musician and a blatant grovel to my mother (as he is one of her favourites and I failed on Mother’s Day last weekend):