Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Enright's Gathering

This 2007 Booker Prize winner is maybe a little over-hyped, but that's the only bad thing I'll say about it. Anne Enright's style is both flowing naturalism and clipped impatience, psychological insight is achieved through a fearless candor and character development set on the frame of a very simple story. Veronica Hegarty is the eighth of twelve children of a lower-middle class Dublin family, born across the upwardly-mobile 50s and 60s from Ada and Charlie, the parents who grew up in another world.

It is a story about the anger of a modern Irish woman who sees a family of twelve children as, if not a crime, a towering negligence. Her mother's lack of self-determination, and therefore of responsibility towards her children, is what the daughter cannot forgive, and the central event of the story, now long past, adds a concrete dimension to Ada's guilt even as it reveals her as a victim of classic injustice. Now Veronica is in her late 30s, the wife of a professional man and a mother of two daughters of her own. The death of her brother Liam, next older than her in birth order and her childhood companion, precipitates her own confrontation with her unhappiness and disappointment as she retrieves his body from England and works through the reunion of her mother and the nine remaining siblings for Liam's wake and funeral.

Veronica is thoroughly modern, at least she certainly seems to be, but one is soon struck by how she epitomizes basic themes of twentieth-century Irish life. She is conflicted about and fixated on sex and particularly the sexual nature of the male, her consciousness of the male body around her brings to mind Molly Bloom's awful hatrack. There are even observations of rich and carefree Americans that could have been made thirty years before (I thought of The Quiet Man). A long-ago relationship with an American during her college years still haunts her as she wonders if he was her true love, but as with all such totems of memory this one has more to do with her present dissatisfaction than with anything else. The legacy of Irish history and the legacy of Catholicism cannot be left behind for her generation; she will leave her marriage but she will not leave Dublin or her family, although she is constantly physically acting out escape (her husband is by now used to her simply driving off after a fight).

This book is part of a discernible trend in recent Irish writing, an insistence that the Irish gaze must be turned now forward, a resistance to the traditional Irish trope of a longing backwards for a lost world and a new determination for reinvention. Another example published this year is Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home, also see Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland (2004), a thorough history of the emergence of Ireland as a modern nation that also documents a forward evolution.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Farrell's Troubles

J. G. Farrell's Troubles (1970)is the first novel in his so-called "Empire Trilogy," followed by The Siege of Krishnapur (1973, Booker Prize winner) and The Singapore Grip (1978). Of course "Troubles" refers to the ongoing violence between Irish republicans and British security forces (the notorious "Black and Tans") in the early 20th century after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and during the subsequent Irish civil war, and then later between Protestant Unionists and the IRA in the middle decades of the century and sporadically until the present day.

Farrell, meanwhile, sees the fall of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in the wider context of the general collapse of the British Empire starting with World War I. Troubles is written from the perspective of these Englishmen whose world is rapidly collapsing, the "native Irish" are here seemingly passive but unmistakably menacing townsfolk, mostly offstage. The central allegory, and a brilliant concept it is, is the Hotel Majestic, a Victorian-era grand hotel on the Irish Sea coast near Wexford, the southeastern coast of Ireland (that is, looking towards England). The hotel is huge and was once magnificent, the scene of generations of memories of the grand old days of Anglo dominance, and the abode of a coterie of elderly ladies who have been there so long that they are part of the legacy.

The building, however, is falling down around their heads, as Edward Spencer, the proprietor, hasn't been able to summon either the money or the will to maintain it for years. Algae-filled swimming pools, handball courts used as pig sties, long-empty rooms full of mouldering furniture, and mysterious recesses known only to malingering, half-mad servants and feral cats: the crumbling old pile is the star of the book. Not that the book isn't filled with excellent human characters, in fact there is a large eccentric cast of people, centered around Major Archer, a veteran of the trenches who wanders out to Ireland at loose ends and drops himself off of the earth by becoming Edward's best friend and installing himself at the Majestic, where he whiles away the weeks playing whist with the "old ladies," as they are invariably called.

Of course this is a world out of time, drifting towards the falls, and things are going to end badly. The genius of the book (and this is one of the best Irish novels I've read, and if you look over this blog you'll see that I've read quite a few) is that it is, page after page, hilarious. It's so funny that one laughs out loud again and again. This humor is what makes the book powerful. It brings out the essence of tragedy, that is that it's the simple foibles and limitations of human nature that slowly lead us into inevitable moments of violent upheaval. The imperial madness of the English, defiantly asserting their cultural prerogatives against the background of a subjugated but overwhelming local culture that is only dimly understood, is brilliantly rendered.

I've Amazoned up a copy of The Siege of Krishnapur and will put it in the Stack.