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Thursday, August 25, 2011


My post on Shetland and Norn was full of mistakes. Fixed now. I uploaded the wrong version. Apologies!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On an Illiterate Writer, Compared to a Bonxie Bird

Bonxie, you’re in line for a meal
anywhere this gowk’s bukes are on sale.

The pair o’ yiz come as close as damn-it:
aa ye encoonter ye mak vomit.

It’s dreich enough wark each day by the traa,
but here you’re ane wee daunder awa

from the dour bampot who’ll pick up his buke
and unleash a maukit rainbow o’ boke.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More Delicate Than the Historians' Are the Map-Makers' Colors

With the concluding part of Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy due from Penguin Ireland next month, I thought I might post my review here of part two by way of an amuse-bouche (béal-sásaitheoir?) while we’re waiting. The review originally appeared in The Stinging Fly.

The epigraph to Geography III¸ Elizabeth Bishop’s last collection of poetry, reads: ‘What is geography? /A description of the earth’s surface. /What is the earth? /The planet or body on which we live. /What is the shape of the earth? /Round, like a ball. /Of what is the Earth’s surface composed? /Land and water.’ The world is everything that is the case, as another sometime Irish literary tourist, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it in the first sentence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s time in Ireland has long fascinated Irish writers, beginning with Richard Murphy, who stayed in the same cottage as the moody Austrian in Rosroe just two years after his departure, finding some of his correspondence stuffed under a rafter. For Wittgenstein, Connemara was ‘the last pool of darkness’ in Europe, the one place left in which he might think. ‘The world, though, is also so much more’, writes Derek Mahon in his riposte to Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus’:

Tacitus believed mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising wherever the edge may be?

Tim Robinson is not the type to neglect an audible sunset, but nor is he about to relinquish his obligations to the ‘everything’ that is the case, according a scrupulous parity of esteem to the topographical and the fantastical. As he writes in ‘Refloating Inishbofin’: ‘The foundation myth of Inishbofin may seem ancient foolishness, unfounded in reality, but it is well and wisely founded in the unfoundedness of reality itself.’ Connemara’s is a boggy landscape, a quaking sod, and Robinson’s writing, while never less than pellucid, knows all about mapping the amorphous and the vanished.

The second volume of Robinson’s projected Connemara trilogy finds him principally in the Clifden/Cleggan corner of northwest Galway, and for much of the time either by the shore or at sea. He revisits the Cleggan disaster of 1927 and the subsequent depopulation of the fishing hamlet of Rossadillisk, visits High and Omey Islands (Richard Murphy connections all round), and remembers the piratical exploits, much barnacled with mythology, of Granuaile and Captain George O’Malley of Ballynakill. As the book’s title suggests, the figure of Wittgenstein presides symbolically. The philosopher’s time in Rosroe was not entirely successful: he struggled with grief over the recent loss of his friend Francis Skinner and his neighbours considered him mad, forbidding him access to their land. He tamed the village birds to the point where they fed from his hand, only for the local cats to eat them all on his departure.

The land and its shifting history of ownership make for an ever-contentious backdrop. Gaelic chieftains come and go, shrewdly cultivating the English and put to the sword when their usefulness expires. The great estates of Kylemore and Renvyle are chronicled, with the usual supporting cast of landlords, from benevolent industrialists to rack-renting absentees. ‘I think, just for the principle of the thing, you should fuck off my land!’ a belligerent farmer informs him at one point, though he then tells Robinson he agreed with his stance against a proposed airport in Clifden (a saga described in the 2001 essay collection My Time in Space).

Robinson’s commitment to the ground beneath his feet is boundless. His search for an elusive lake, Loch na Niadh, leads him into the rough on a golf course in Aillebrack, where he thrashes about like a benighted titan doing battle with decadent modernity. Readers who remember his account of mapping the Burren and the frequency of his descents into overgrown passage tombs may see him as a kind of topographical Lazarus, resurrecting the land about him as he goes. As the reference to the Clifden airport suggests, however, Robinson is no museum curator or mere antiquarian. The changing fortunes of the land he surveys are the changing texture of Irish reality itself, something he sifts all the way down to the subatomic level explored in ‘Photons in the Bog’.

When I pore over antique maps, I always feel a slight disappointment on entering the modern era of mere accuracy, leaving behind those pustular approximations to the shape of Donegal and crocodile-teeth renderings of the Galway-Mayo coastline beloved of the Elizabethans. Dennis O’Driscoll has quipped that misprints should occur in poetry as rarely as misprints in legislation, though with maps things are slightly different: the Ordnance Survey deliberately incorporates mistakes as a deterrent to copyright violations. Even without such practical jokes, cartography knows how to play tricks on us: tramping around Wicklow recently, I noticed that Sally Gap, that belly-button of the Wicklow mountains, was no longer Bearnas na diallaite (‘saddle gap’) on the road-signs, but Bearna bhealach sailearnáin (‘The gap of the way of the sally-trees’). Why the change? And why the error, for all those years, if indeed it was an error? I’m rambling here, not necessarily a bad thing in the circumstances, and only wish I’d had a volume by some Wicklow Tim Robinson to hand to settle the matter. Maps are designed to be taken back into the landscape they chart, and the same emphatically goes for The Last Pool of Darkness: the experience of travelling around northwest Galway as I read the book added a whole new dimension to my appreciation of its achievement. It was as though Robinson’s map of Connemara (first published in 1990) was folding itself back onto the earth before my eyes, in some fantastical realization of Jorge Luis Borges’s dream of a one-to-one map, the size of the landscape.

In the course of his memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands applies his theory of ‘externalism’ to a pet wolf he kept called Brenin. Rowlands believes that mental processes happen not just in the head, but are embedded in our surroundings. Thoughts are a vector, generated not just by the thinker but the object of contemplation too: ‘there are certain thoughts that can emerge only in the space between a wolf and a man.’ Robinson thinks in, with and through the landscapes he describes. Taking his maps, the two volumes of The Stones of Aran, his other essays and fiction, and now this trilogy as one unified whole (and they seem to me to benefit from being read as such), these separate units add up to perhaps the single most impressive writing project undertaken in Ireland in the last several decades. James Joyce liked to boast that if Dublin were destroyed it could be rebuilt brick by brick from his books, a peculiar boast for (in many ways) so unvisual a writer. It would be flippant and inaccurate to apply the same boast to Tim Robinson’s Connemara, given that so much of what he renders is already gone, but how peerlessly luminous do those shadows and absences become in his hands, and how mystically luminous too the pools of darkness that remain. I began with Elizabeth Bishop, and will end by circling back to where I began, this time to quote the last line of her poem ‘The Map’: ‘More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.’

Di, Soal, Tove, Hak, Burrik, Bod, Brim

‘Broal’, ‘daed-traa’, ‘gimmer’, ‘loopick’, ‘mootie’: just some of the Shetland words listed by Jen Hadfield at the end of her Nigh-No-Place. I might fancy I hear the echo of the Irish trá in daed-traa but I assume not, since Gaelic has not never been spoken on Shetland, which in any case was Norwegian until the fifteenth century. Norn was still spoken in Shetland, on Unst and Foula, as late as the nineteenth century, and its influence on the English spoken there today was the subject of a radio programme by Kathleen Jamie a while back. Wikipedia gives the following text of the Our Father in Shetland Norn:

Fyvor or er i Chimeri. Halaght vara nam dit. La Konungdum din cumma. La vill din vera guerde i vrildin sindaeri chimeri. Gav vus dagh u dagloght brau. Forgive sindorwara sin vi forgiva gem ao sinda gainst wus. Lia wus ikè o vera tempa, but delivra wus fro adlu idlu. For do i ir Kongungdum, u puri, u glori. Amen.

It’s been pretty much the year of Myles na gCopaleen in this household, so far, so imagine how pleased I was to find my interest in Norn acquire a Mylesian dimension, in the form of the Shetland words of Nornish extraction listed by Hugh MacDiarmid in that charming piece of hack-work, The Islands of Scotland. Are these words genuine? Cue a research trip, coming up, oh any day now, to find a thistly old crofter still using them in conversation with his one and only companion, a three-legged pig called Morag (some animals are too good to eat all at once). MacDiarmid gives three sets of words, the first of which refers to ‘sounds made by a cow’:

Brol – the ordinary, natural sound. [No wait, I just said Jen Hadfield uses this one!]
Gul-brol – an emphatic or excited brol.
Skrol – a frightened sound.
Umble – a throat sound, as if choking.
Njoag – a nasal sound.
Drund – a moaning sound.

The second set is of words ‘applicable to the wind’:

Gro or Sto – wind in general.
Ungasto – contrary wind.
Daggasto – wet wind.
Guzzel – a dry, parching wind.
Pirr – light airs in patches.
Laar – light airs more diffused.
Stoor – a breeze.
Gooster – a strong breeze.
Gyndagooster – a storm.
Flan or Tud - a sudden squall.
Dackin – a lull.
Hain – to cease raining.
Runk – a break between showers.
Dagg – wet fog.

In one of Myles’s 1940s columns discussed at the centenary conference in his honour in Vienna the other week the subject comes up of animals’ names in different languages: ‘If an Irish terrier is called Jack, is his true name Seán?’, he asks. ‘Is he a shoneen-dog if he doesn’t respond to “Seán”?’ Elsewhere he ponders whether Irish-speakers and English-speakers share identical silences, as though even the absence of words needs to be translated between languages. All very appropriately Wittgensteinian for Vienna, I thought.

Words coming in and going out of the language have been in the news of late, with lots of twitter users parading their undying love of the word ‘aerodrome’, which appears to be have been given the heave-ho by ‘sexting’ or some such barbarous neologism. Where neologisms are concerned we tend to start with need, then an existing but unwieldy way of expressing it, then the invented contraction. How many times, I wonder, did the Earl of Sandwich, refusing to break off gambling for his tea, call for his favourite piece of sweetmeat betwixt two slices of bread before the Garrick Club’s resident Baldrick suggested calling it something else instead, such as Sandwich. But much depends on the degree of felt need, does it not. Consider what manner of life you’d need to be living before it occurred to you to invent the following words, list three from MacDiarmid, sea-related this time:

Di – a wave.
Soal – swell occasioned by a breeze.
Tove – a short, cross, heavy sea.
Hak – broken water.
Burrik – a sharp sea, or ‘tide lumps’.
Bod – a heavy wave breaking on the shore.
Brim – sound of sea breaking on the shore, especially when land could not be seen, as in a fog.
Brim-fooster – sea breaking on a sunken reef.
Faxin – a baa threatening to break.
Overskund or Ootrug – broken or spent water or backwash.
Gruttik – ebb-tide.
Grimster – ebb during spring tide.
Draag – the drift of a current.
Sokin or Saagin – short period of still water between tides.
Snaar – a turn or whirl in a current.
Roost – a rapid, flowing current.
Haf – the outer fishing ground.
Klak – inshore fishing ground.
Fram – to seaward.

What the Norn for ‘sexting’ is, however, I fear we will never now. Though I did learn once from the Portadown News that the Ulster-Scots for paedophile is ‘wean-worrier’.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Toadstool

Cat as Sign: Kitteh Semiotics

Keep Out (This Means You)

‘An Untilled Field’: George Moore’s Influence on Joyce and Beckett

At the heart of much discussion of the Celtic revival is the eternal opposition of exile and home. Joyce chose exile, Yeats stayed at home. Where the opposite of ‘national’, for Joyce, was ‘international’, its opposite for Yeats was ‘provincial’. One chose Shakespeare & Co. for his stage, the other the Abbey Theatre. What George Moore represents, in a way that is both his strength and possibly his downfall too, where his reputation has been concerned, is something altogether different: exile and return, and it is with such themes in mind that I propose to discuss him here. The Moore I’d like to talk about is the short story writer and author of The Untilled Field, which I’d also like to situate in relation to the short fiction of Joyce and Beckett.

The tally of biographical material linking Moore to Joyce and Beckett is small. Edouard Dujardin, pioneering interior monologist, forms an important link between Moore and Joyce, and it was his knowledge of the Moore connection that alerted Joyce to Dujardin in the first place. Moore condescended to Ulysses with frightful snobbery, as well as on artistic grounds (‘There are no appearances in Joyce; it is all syllogism’, he wrote to Louis Gillet), and Joyce pooh-poohed the slovenliness, he thought, of Moore’s stories, though in later years the two men kept up a ping-pong of elaborate politeness in their letters, and Moore was one of the four authors Joyce recommended his step-grandson should read (the others were Tolstoy and the Goncourts). Another connection, unveiled only to be brushed aside by Richard Ellmann, is Joyce’s borrowing, for the end of ‘The Dead’ from a book ‘that nobody reads any more, George Moore’s Vain Fortune’, a novel he describes the young Joyce as having ‘overpraised’. Where Beckett, is concerned, the connection may be altogether more personal: Nancy Cunard, publisher of Beckett’s Whoroscope and The Negro Anthology may have been George Moore’s daughter. Where comparisons are drawn to Beckett’s Irish contemporaries they are usually to Joyce, unsurprisingly, and to his 1930s poetic modernist confrères; no one, to my knowledge, has suggested a link to Moore. There is a well-known poster of Irish writers to be found in many Irish pubs, Moore’s absence from which has been lamented by Adrian Frazier (he should replace Brendan Behan, Frazier has argued), and in this absence the connections between and other writers such as Beckett are all too often an ‘untilled field’, but as the affinities I hope to outline suggest, one whose cultivation is long overdue.

However under-acknowledged, the influence of The Untilled Field on the naturalism of Dubliners is obvious and unmistakable. In terms of the two authors’ careers, the volumes come at contrasting points. Joyce’s ‘scrupulous meanness’ in his stories, and wrangle with Grant Richards to get them into print, are very much of a piece with Stephen Dedalus agonistes, and the predicament of the young Joyce yet to achieve the expansive freedoms of exile. In Moore’s case, by contrast, The Untilled Field is the record of a return to Ireland after long residency in Paris and London, and a would-be contribution to the Celtic Revival, though with hindsight his subsequent falling out with Yeats looks only too inevitable. Prepared for a country as backward as the one he left, the returning Moore was more than a little taken aback by what he found. Frazier casts the returned émigré as a ‘Rip van Winkle, open[ing] his eyes to find homeland utterly changed.’ Had the creative fruits of this period, namely The Untilled Field, gone according to plan, they could have provided a virtual text-book definition of the phrase ‘reverse-engineered’: not only was the book first published in Tadhg Ó Donnchadha and Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin’s Irish translation as An t-Úr Ghort, in 1902, Moore originally intended to destroy the English version. In the end he did no such thing, and the Irish version, credited to one ‘Seorsa Ó Mordha’, could not even make it into the window of the Gaelic League’s Dublin office. All that Moore got out of the experience was the delightful self-estrangement of seeing himself translated back into English, by T.W. Rolleston, from his translators’ Irish, deeming his lines ‘much improved after their bath in Irish.’

Joyce was not so open to Revivalist infatuations. Throughout Dubliners, turn-of-the-century Revivalism, as a branch of Irish nationalism, is associated with narrowness, inadequacy and failure. If Little Chandler fancies himself as a Celtic Twilight poet, with his daydreams of what a reviewer might make of a book of his fey little verses (‘A wistful sadness pervades these poems... The Celtic note’), he has found the perfect fantasy outlet for his priggish, timid soul. We can scarcely read the opening words of ‘A Mother’ (‘Mr Holohan, assistant secretary of the Eire Abu Society’) without guessing, correctly, that the world we are about to enter is one of petty snobbery and one-upmanship. ‘When the Irish Revival began to be appreciable Mrs Kearney determined to take advantage of her daughter’s name and brought an Irish teacher to the house’, begins another sentence. So much starchy self-righteousness is a difficult act to keep up, and when Mrs Kearney snaps, over a disputed payment for her daughter’s singing, her loss of face is extreme.

Looking for points of connection to The Untilled Field, we must first face an obvious contrast, that of city (Joyce) and countryside (Moore). Rare forays to Mullingar aside, Joyce was exclusively a writer of the Irish metropolis, and it is probably just as well that his plan for a companion volume to Dubliners, Provincials, never came to anything. In the geography of rural Ireland, it can seem in an odd way from Moore’s stories that America is closer than Dublin; it is to America, not Dublin, that love-lorn bachelors, fallen women, or the would-be self-made man instinctively turn. Yet, to push my theme of exile and return, it is notable that Moore’s small-town world appears to allow for more mobility than Joyce’s. None of Joyce’s Dubliners is permitted to leave the city, and when Eveline gets the chance to board a ship for far-off Buenos Aires, she physically cannot. In Moore, however, the trope of American exile is given an original spin in ‘Home Sickness’, as return to the Irish countryside turns out to be the wrong move for Bryden, who ends up missing and returning to the home-from-home of the States, abandoning his bride-to-be. This makes for an interesting reversal, but Moore goes further and gives Bryden a kind of home sickness to the power of two when, returned to the States, he once again indulges dreams of his home village. As he writes in the story’s concluding lines:

There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself, and his unchanging, silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it, and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes about it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills.

As his aborted return home showed, Bryden could have had his wandering hills if he wished. Having lost them out of economic necessity, the first time round, it is as though he needs to return to lose them all over again, the better to enshrine them as symbolic hills of the mind’s eye. But where is home and where is abroad in all of this it becomes almost impossible to say.

Writing to his brother Stanislaus of his hopes for ‘The Dead’, Joyce registered a note of remorse for the excessive cruelty in his representations of Ireland elsewhere in Dubliners (‘it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh’), and his failure to honour its warmth and hospitality. If ‘The Dead’ softens the harshness we find elsewhere in Dubliners, Moore succeeds throughout The Untilled Field in offering his blighted characters some small consolations, even if these comforts turn out to be self-deluding or even self-destructive. Compare Joyce’s ‘Counterparts’ and Moore’s ‘The Clerk’s Quest’: the former ends in a brutal epiphany of failure and impotence, whereas Moore’s clerk, Mr Dempsey, succumbs to a Bartlebyesque distraction and very unBartlebyesque erotomania for a woman he knows only from the perfume that clings to the letters she sends to his office. He dies in a ditch in a state of blissful delusion, a tragic enough fate, but one that at least succeeds in snapping him out of his awful routine, whereas Joyce’s Farrington, we sense, has many more years of the same numbing work ahead of him.

The role of the church, needless to say, is central to both collections. Moore’s ‘The Window’ is an ambivalent portrait of the role of Catholicism with a strong genetic link to Joyce, through the person of Flaubert and his novella Un coeur simple, in which the simple-minded Félicité mistakes her parrot for a vision of the holy spirit. The religious enthusiasm, tipping into mania, of Biddy M’Hale, allows Moore a delicious study in the authoritarian-bureaucratic side of the church, and its deep distrust of those who would substitute the visionary’s irrationalism for these staider qualities. In Joyce’s ‘The Sisters’, the old priest is reduced to a walking zombie by the blankness of his personality and his cringing enforcement of clerical law, yet it is only when his physical ability to administer this law is threatened – as represented by the chalice slipping from his hand – that anyone suspects something might be wrong. The paralysis is as much the sisters’ as it is the priest’s, for their inability to see that his whole life has been one long prostration. Biddy’s devotion tips into madness, or social pariahdom at least, when she interrupts Fr Maguire as he says mass.

Moore’s most extended treatment of exile and return comes in the magnificent and longest story in The Untilled Field, ‘The Wild Goose’, its title an Irish by-word for exile. Its protagonist, the Irish-American Carmady, a figure with more than a touch of Charles Stewart Parnell about him, travels to Ireland, where he hopes to carve out a political career. He marries the sensitive, intelligent and wealthy Ellen, but their marriage founders on her Catholic horror at his anti-clericalism. Here Moore is very much in step with Joyce, and we are left in no doubt that her scruples are born of a fatal cocktail of fear, ignorance, repression and cowardice. But for Carmady, there is no going back and no remorse: as he clears Howth head in the ferry, he feels himself a ‘free soul’:

If he had stayed he would have come to accept all the base moral coinage in circulation; and he stood watching the green waves tossing in the mist, at one moment ashamed of what he had done, at the next overjoyed that he had done it.

If I am arguing that Moore allows his characters more relief from the straitjacket of Irish paralysis than Joyce, this is not to say he is writing at a lesser pitch of honesty or intensity. The great exception to this rule, once again, is ‘The Dead’, in which Gabriel’s imaginative flight of fancy to the West of Ireland acts as both an escape from the constricting world of Dublin but an embrace, too, of the deathly, snow-bound world he finds there. Gabriel has artistic pretensions but not the strength of character to make of his journey the successful route into exile taken by Joyce himself. Carmady is neither one thing nor the other; and it would be entirely against the spirit of ‘The Wild Goose’ for him to feel bested or unmanned by the power of religion, a force for which he feels nothing but contempt. He simply comes and goes, inhabiting the trope of exile and return with a lightness of heart not permitted to Joyce’s more constricted Dubliners. And this too is to Moore’s credit in my comparison, since least of all do I want to suggest that The Untilled Field is merely a precursor text and nothing besides.

Moving on to Beckett, a handy starting point might be his 1934 essay ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, in which he launches a full-frontal assault on ‘the altitudinous complacency of Victorian Gael’, and the ‘cut-and-dried sanctity and loveliness’ recycled by Revivalist poetasters. As has long been apparent, there is something wilful about Beckett’s assault on Austin Clarke: Clarke’s investment in Irishness and Irish myth are grounds enough for damnation in Beckett’s eyes, it seems, though his recent experiences had sharpened Beckett’s prejudices on that score. His short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks was banned by the Irish censor, allegedly on the strength of its title alone, prompting Beckett to another satirical broadside, ‘Censorship in the Saorstat’. But even before this, the stories themselves are full of satirical jibes at the ‘haemorrhoidal isle’, as Beckett called it, and a lingering Revivalist culture that Moore would have recognised with ease.

Belacqua is anomalous among Beckett’s anti-heroes for both his definable social background and sociability, making his way haplessly and helplessly through a succession of unlucky women. Reference to his ‘grand old family Huguenot guts’ and his self-designation as a ‘dirty low-down Low Church Protestant high-brow’ mark him out as a déclassé Protestant horrified by his philistine caste and its doltish rites, more at ease among the proletarian drinkers of ‘Ding-Dong’, but quick to sneer at a street renamed for Patrick Pearse and the antics of a drawing-room Revivalist at the party that forms the centrepiece of ‘A Wet Night’. A good test of the Beckett-Moore comparison is how Beckett fares with characters drawn from outside his own social sphere, and here we are reminded that, of the three books I am considering, More Pricks Than Kicks is by far the most youthful and immature. Belacqua’s fellow Dubliners are in the main a gallery of grotesques and comic foils, who struggle to penetrate his (anti-)heroic self-absorption, but there are nevertheless moments of tenderness and empathy, as when the little girl gets run down in ‘Ding-Dong’, and for the woman selling ‘tickets for heaven’ in the pub at the end of the same story:

Her speech was that of a woman of the people, but of a gentlewoman of the people. Her gown had served its time, but yet contrived to be respectable. (...) But her face, ah her face, was what Belacqua had rather refer to as her countenance, it was so full of light. (...) Brimful of light and serene, serenissime, it bore no trace of suffering, and in this alone it might be said to be a notable face.

His momentary high-mindedness is not enough, however, to prevent him departing for the kips in Railway Street several lines later. The ‘homespun poet’ Belacqua flees in the pub in ‘A Wet Night’ could be any of the minor poets excoriated in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, and the poem he recites is a piece of delightfully absurdist dross. Yet a comparison of ‘Calvary by Night’, the poem he recites, and a contemporary poem of Beckett’s, such as ‘Alba’, reveals an unusual level of stylistic overlap: both poems adopt a halting, fractured style, a quasi-sacramental tone, and any number of proxy images for matters sexual. While conducted on the level of knockabout farce rather than anything as subtle as ‘The Dead’, the party in ‘A Wet Night’ stages its own confrontation between progressive and conservative opinion, echoing Gabriel’s tussle with Miss Ivors, in the persons of the Polar Bear and the Jesuit, though the latter is not without a touch of snobbery for his own side (‘I am not a parish priest’).

As Adrian Frazier reminds us, Moore’s portrait of the idealistic priest in ‘The Way Back’ and ‘In the Clay’ drew on Fr Gerald O’Donovan, whose views on church architecture often brought him into conflict with the hierarchy of the day, but who illustrates that Catholic life was far from the uniform drabness and conformity we might imagine. The church produced genuine intellectuals such as Monsignor Pádraig de Brún, uncle of the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi and translator of Homer and Dante into Irish. Beckett’s great friend Thomas MacGreevy, another exemplar of Moore’s flight-path of exile and return, combined fervent Catholicism with modernist experiment in his poetry, and ended his life editing the Capuchin Annual.

The combination of spiritual vocation and quixotic artistic vision on the part of another priest, Fr MacTurnan (based on one Fr Peter Finlay), finds expression in fantastical plans for a Co. Mayo Oberammergau, in ‘A Play-House in the Waste’. Here Moore deftly avoids apportioning the blame solely to religion for Ireland’s culture of failure and paralysis; or to the extent that religion is responsible, Moore shows it conducting its experiments on a populace so enfeebled by poverty and emigration as to make the process almost tragicomic in its futility. The same Fr MacTurnan becomes obsessed with rescinding clerical celibacy, to avoid the awful fate of Ireland becoming a Protestant nation, as described in ‘A Letter to Rome’. While ‘A Play-House in the Waste’ reminded me of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film about a mad Irishman trying to build an opera house in the Peruvian rainforest, there is also an irresistible Beckett intertext, in the form of ‘First Love’:

What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will found our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire. Elysium of the roofless.

Moore provides his own image of Irish desolation in ‘Julia Cahill’s Curse’, where a passionate young woman rebels against a controlling priest, not just by leaving her parish but placing it under a curse as she goes, that every year a roof in the village would fall. At moments like these, with their suggestion of dark pagan powers lying beyond any priestly control, Moore allows his characters a measure of connection to dark and passionate forces, so that Julia Cahill is a representative both of modern Ireland, rejecting the authority of the church, yet a figure of the Hidden Ireland too, which the church has struggled in vain to keep down.

Moore’s ‘Alms-Giving’ has a strongly Beckettian savour, winkling out the core of unacknowledged cruelty behind our concern for the handicapped, just as Beckett does in Endgame or Rough for Theatre I, with its brilliantly drawn sadistic beggars (an early version of whom appears in the paralysed beggar of ‘A Wet Night’). But even more Beckettian yet is ‘So on he Fares’, a small masterpiece of a story about a boy feeling unloved by his mother who runs away to sea. Beckett returns several times in his fiction to the scene of a child requesting reassurance from his mother, and being coldly put in his place (‘A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said’), and in ‘So on he fares’ the sadistic mother slaps a bee against her son’s neck, stinging him. He begs a lift from a passing bargeman at the end of his garden (readers of Beckett’s novellas will remember their fondness for canals), and, to keep to his story rather than be returned home, claims to know where he is when he asks to be set down near the mouth of the Shannon. Here he meets a kindly woman who takes him in. On her death several years later he goes to work as a sailor, but eventually decides to go home. What happens next is a brilliant inflection of the theme of exile and return: he encounters none other than himself as a young boy: a boy who bears his name, Ulick Burke. His mother had given him up for drowned and recycled his name with her next child by his father, who has returned during Ulick’s absence but is now away again, not to return for another three years. Initial joy at being home quickly gives way to the realisation that his mother still doesn’t much care for him, so down he goes to the end of the garden again and hitches a ride with the same boat that had brought him home. The circle of exile is completed in a return that has brought with it no great confrontation or reconciliation, and no great lessons: life has simply continued as before, and the narrator departs as before, for more or less the same reasons. The story’s last words could come from one of Beckett’s 40s novellas, in their beautiful equanimity and acceptance of homelessness, rambling and loss:

The evening sky opened calm and benedictive, and the green country flowed on, the boat passed by ruins, castles and churches, and every day was alike until they reached the Shannon.

The proleptic echo of the end of ‘The Dead’ here compounds my sense of this as a key text in the nodal connection between the three writers. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of exile and home, Moore’s fiction steers a unique and undercharted course, and one whose rewards are there for the taking, if we choose to follow.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Monday, August 01, 2011

Very Old Joke (Return of Keats and Chapman, cont.)

Keats had been feeling under the weather, and Chapman decided what his friend needed to restore his spirits was a spot of camping in the Glen of Imaal. But it was the middle of December and Keats had never cared for this form of recreation. Along he traipsed in a foul mood as Chapman went from shop to shop in search of equipment and supplies. Only when it became apparent how prohibitively expensive the equipment was did Keats’s spirits begin to pick up. Perhaps the trip might be avoided after all. But as they approached what would have been their final port of call, Chapman yelped triumphantly at the sight of a large poster inscribed ‘Sale’. All camping equipment had been reduced by fifty per cent! ‘Now is the winter of our discount tents’, groaned Keats.