CITY OF LITERATURE
CITY OF LITERATURE
The Board for Artists’ Money Etc. had gathered for its AGM in the Dublin Literary Club. ‘We’ll pay above the going rate.’ Two hundred Euro. ‘It’s a friendly gesture’. Simon hoped the friendly gesture would compensate for the reduction of the Literary Club’s grant from half a million Euro per annum to zero. This cut had been Simon’s first decision as chair of The Board. The action had won wide admiration. Internet commentators and callers to Liveline, who seemed to believe that a fascist dictator would solve all Ireland’s problems, regretted that Simon was not in politics, noting that he possessed in abundance the leadership qualities that our government lacked. The secretary of one political party had rung him up and asked him to consider running for president, an offer which he declined, believing he had more power at the centre of Ireland’s cultural life. As everyone knew, the one asset Ireland still possessed, untrammelled by debt or mortgage, was its creativity. Financially Ireland was bankrupt but in its spiritual coffers a million cultural goldbars confirmed the real sovereignty of the nation. Simon liked to think of himself as Governor of the Bank of the Irish Imagination.
The room they were in, like all those in the Dublin Literary Club, was very beautiful. But it was also very cold. Wintry rain battered the lovely windowpanes.
‘Victoria is looking for an electric heater,’ said Simon cheerfully. Victoria was the secretary. ‘We’ll soon be as warm as toast. Just keep your coats on.’
Simon had replaced Alan as chair following Alan’s tragic demise just after the AGM of 2007, the last meeting before the Bank Guarantee. Alan had been murdered by a disaffected novelist, Francie Briody, whose application for an award had been rejected in a year when dozens and dozens of writers – all of them useless, in Francie’s view - had got pots of money. Understandably disappointed, he’d blamed Alan, and shot him. But in a way, Francie had given Alan a lucky break, Pam, a Board member and old friend of Francie, thought. He would never have survived in the era of austerity, given his aristocratic fondness for dispensing absurd largesse to those members of the artistic community who met with his approval, and of vintage wines and gourmet food to practically everybody.
‘I won’t detain you for long,’ smiled Simon. He never detained anyone for long. Complementing that brilliant decisiveness which could guillotine a local drama society or condemn an emerging poet to a life of chick lit or bar-tending in Australia, was a talent for speed. Simon could get through an ordinary meeting in thirty minutes and an AGM in under an hour. He was much in demand as a chairperson.
‘ Where’s Victoria? Never mind. I assume you’ve all read and agreed with the Minutes?’
He assumed right. They all had read the Minutes, since they were less than half a page long. Correspondence too was swiftly dispatched, whereupon Victoria returned. She sidled in next to Simon. ‘They can’t find the heater,’ she whispered. ‘They’re going to borrow one from the Chinese take-away.’
‘Question, through the chair,’ Pam raised her hand.
Simon glared at her.
‘I believe you have a letter from Francis Briody?’
‘Yes, Pamela,’ Simon smiled. ‘And we’ll discuss that Item Five on the agenda. Is that OK with you?’
Pamela nodded humbly. She had learnt from Alan, before he died, that the key to survival was to always agree with the person in the seat of power.
It is one of life’s many ironies that night is always darkest before the dawn. His murder of the Chairman of the Board for Artists’ Money Etc. had brought Francie Briody the celebrity he had craved, as he wrote long experimental novels at his kitchen table and collected rejection slips by the hundred. He spent the first six years of the recession locked up in prison. This was not a bad place to be in the era of austerity. According to his cell mate, Marty, a drug baron implicated in the murder of more men than he could count, ‘Boom or bust, it’s all the same behind bars.’ The diet hadn’t changed, or the condition of the cells – neither of them had ever been good. The only difference, Marty asserted, was that there were fewer classes, due to cutbacks in funding. ‘It used to be brutal. You’d be up half the night writing plays and memoirs and god knows what. We had one young one who was mad for sonnets. Sonnets, fucking sonnets, she couldn’t get enough of them. That,’ Marty asserted, ‘was the worst.’ He thought for a minute, as he rummaged in his mattress for one of his mobile phones. ‘Apart from the sestinas. Are you into sestinas yourself?’
Francie assured him that he was not. ‘I am a writer of prose,’ he said quietly.
‘Oh good,’ said Marty.
Thanks to the lack of undue pressure from teachers of creative writing and art, Francie had plenty of time to do his own thing, namely write long experimental novels. Within a week of his arrival behind bars, Marty, whose ingenuity was indefatigible and contacts in and outside the walls innumerable, procured him a nice little laptop. All he asked in return was that his new pal should augment his supplies of his favourite substance by getting all his visitors to bring some in whenever they dropped by. (Francie’s mother, sister, his friend Pam, and five of his former girlfriends, visited with some regularity. He was rather handsome.)
‘What’s that?’ Francie wondered which of them would be most likely to get her hands on heroin. Even his mother would be able to get some hash, he imagined, from the people who sold it at their local railway station, but he doubted if that would be enough for Marty.
Fry’s Chocolate Cream. Marty could not get enough of it. He never touched drugs himself, and drank beer only on his birthday and at Christmas. He was a regular Holy Communicant and during the Abortion thing had founded a Pro-Life group in the men’s prison (called ‘Jail For Life’, the venture had not been a success. As soon as the group was denied day release to participate in a Rosary for Life demonstration outside Leinster House, most of the members stopped attending meetings.)
Now, however, Marty had a new interest. Literature. In addition to supplying his cellmate with a computer, he offered his services as reader and editor to Francie. Every novelist should have a special friend whose literary judgment they trust totally, Marty explained. Since he had attended dozens of creative writing classes in the course of his penitential career he knew things like that. Francie had never been to a writing workshop – too full of himself - and didn’t know the most elementary tricks of the trade. In the forced conviviality of his shared cell the concept of the friendly first reader made sense. Marty is not the friendly first reader he would have selected, perhaps, but there wasn’t much choice. Nolan the warder did not seem literary. Lugs Beag next door couldn’t read or write because after his first day at school he had spent his entire life on the mitch, and apprenticed himself to a drug dealer when he was four years old. ‘He can text,’ Marty explained. Texting was an essential skill in the drug business, Francie gathered. ‘But he can’t do ordinary writing. Pity. The lad’s bright as a bullet.’
Marty himself had never been a great reader. As he was the first to admit, he was a workaholic, and in the limited spare time he permitted himself liked to watch football matches or television dramas. But he had been in prison on and off now over a period of ten years, usually incarcarated in a cell which lacked not only a toilet, but a television set. During this time he had developed a fondess for Scandinivian crime fiction. Henning Mankell was his favourite.
‘Mankell always uses short sentences,’ Marty said thoughtfully, when he had read the first chapter of Francie’s novel. ‘And you can understand what it is he’s trying to say.’
He broke off a chunk of Chocolate Cream and offered it to Francie. ‘I love the bit about the fly on the cornflake.’ Francie smiled shyly. It was one of his own favourite passages: he had devoted two pages to an indepth account of the flight of the bluebottle from the rim of the milk jug to the middle of his bowl of breakfast cereal, where – after six further pages – said insect eventually met his death by drowning. ‘But it’s too long.’ Marty’s voice rose. He warmed to his theme and stood up the better to emphasise his point. ‘Twenty pages about a chap eating a bowl of cornflakes is too much.’ A tear rolled down Francie’s cheek. Marty sat down again. ‘That’s what I think anyhow, but sure what do I know about ... um... literary fiction?’
‘Joyce devotes a lot of time to Bloom’s breakfast,’ Francie defended himself. ‘And then to Stephen’s.’
A polite shrug was all the acknowledgment this insight received.
With the repugnance of the genuine connoisseur forced to consume literary swill, Francie agreed to have a go at Marty’s favourite novel. To his surprise he was up all night reading it by the light of the torch his cell mate provided to all prisoners (in exchange for two bars of Fry’s Chocolate Cream.)
Simon arrived at the main item on the agenda: MONEY. The electric heater had not yet been produced. Pamela snuggled more deeply into her coat and wondered if it would be bad manners to put on her gloves.
‘We’ll soon be out of here,’ Simon glanced at her disapprovingly. Victoria, a pale girl who lurked behind large round spectacles like a rabbit peering over the edge of a burrow, pushed a mountain of papers in his direction.
‘We’re in a very healthy position, I’m glad to say,’ Simon laughed. ‘This year, we’ve received a record number of applications for Awards and Prizes. Ten thousand, one hundred and fifty seven, to be exact.’
The Board applauded. They went on and on clapping, once they noticed it got their circulation going again.
‘Is there any pattern to their writing?’ asked Pamela,
Simon looked at Victoria. Under the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement, she had had to read all ten thousand applications on top of her normal day’s work as a clerical officer.
‘I did a breakdown, ’ She seemed delighted to share her breakdown with the Board. It was nice to see her excited about something, Pam thought. Victoria always looked sad and exhausted, which she was, since she commuted every day from Portarlington to Kildare Street. She was one of those youngsters who had nabbed a job in the Civil Service in the nickof time, days before all recruitment stopped. Pam’s own daughter, Saoirse Aine, had not been so lucky. Just a few years younger than Victoria, she considered herself fortunate to be employed as an indentured labourer in a uranium mine outside Calgary. (And she with a First Class degree in Civil Engineering.)
Victoria was reading her report with gusto: ‘Twenty percent are memoirs of childhood, fifteen percent are about cancer, twenty percent are historical novels dealing with the Famine or the First World War, and thirty per cent are first person narratives told by half witted people with funny accents.’
The Board clapped loudly again, and some stamped their feet. Laura frowned. Pam knew she was adding up the percentages to see if they came to a hundred.
‘Anything on the Recession?’
‘One or two.’
‘We’re too close to it.’ Laura had an opinion about everything. Her sort of nunnish Anglo Irish accent made her seem even more of a know-all than she was. ‘Writers need distance from an event in order to imagine the truth of it.’
‘Indeed,’ mused Paul. ‘Still, you’d think it’d be easier for them to imagine how it feels to live through the Recession than how it felt to live during, say, the Famine.Or the First World War.’
‘This is very interesting, folks, but let’s not go off on tangents.’
The one thing the Board never discussed was literature.
‘We have ten thousand applicants. The bad news is that we have only two grants to award .’
The Board sighed dutifully.
‘Naturally we’ll blame the Troika,’ Simon paused. ‘I am proposing that we give the first award to Francis E Briody.’
There was a silence for which stunned is the only reasonable description.
‘But Francie Briody murdered our previous chairman.’
‘That is not a consideration. Francie Briody has served his sentence. He has written a novel which has been highly acclaimed. He has already won three prizes.’Simon glanced at the application form. ‘And a chapter was published last month in the New Yorker.’
‘So why does he need a grant from us?’ Laura again.
It was time for Pamela to atone for previous pusillanimity in defending Francie’s cause.
‘Francis Briody longs for our endorsement. This is his twelfth application for an award. We know how disappointed he was, last time we rejected him.’ She gave them time to consider this. ‘Speculation about his economic circumstances should not affect our decision. We should judge him on his literary merit.’
Merit was always a good word to use, at meetings.
‘So you second my proposal? ’
‘Excellent. And I propose we award our second grant to the poet Michael D Higgins.’
‘The President?’ Laura, of course. ‘Of Ireland?’
She scanned the form. ‘It doesn’t say.’
‘Is there an address?’
‘1 Chesterfield Avenue, Dublin 7.’
‘It’s him alright.’
‘Is he even allowed to apply for an award?’
‘Victoria? Is there any regulation stipulating that Presidents of the country may not apply?’
Victoria shook her head firmly.
‘In that case I propose we give it to him. He is a great poet.’ The Board stared at him. ‘Do I have a seconder?’
Laura found her voice, which was never lost for long.
‘What if some pest of a journalist decides to make a big deal of it? The Sindo? Or Vincent Brown or Fintan O’Toole?’
Simon had a solution. He always had. They would ask the president to use a pseudonym. Michael D Yeats or Seamus Biggins. Whatever. Victoria would think of something.
‘Don’t minute any of this, by the way.’ said Simon.
Victoria laid down her biro.
‘OK, meeting adjourned,’ said Simon. ‘Thank you once again for all your hard work.’ They grinned uneasily. ‘And now may I invite you to a little light refreshment? Victoria? Can you fetch the gourmet sandwiches?’
Victoria pattered downstairs. She had been up all night making sandwiches, as required under the terms of the Haddington Road agreement.
‘Remember when we used to go to L’Ecrivain!’
‘And Chapter One!’
‘And The Playwright!’
‘But these sandwiches will be special,’ Simon licked his lips loudly, even though he knew perfectly well what was in the sandwiches. Some were ham, some tomato, and some ham and tomato. ‘And I’ve got a nice little wine here, to wash them down. My own treat, of course – Victoria, record that in the minutes. Where is she?’
‘Remember Alan and his vintage wines!’
‘This is a Barolo’ said Simon. ‘As good a little Barolo as I’ve ever tasted. Pamela?’
The wine flowed gently, chesnut and amber, into her glass. She walked to the window. It had stopped raining. The bare trees spread their branches wide, like the arms of sad ballerinas, or beggars in paintings. Beyond, acres of roofs and steeples were stacked against the Dublin mountains, a sort of sombre purple colour in the fading light. How tranquil everything looked! For centuries – so it must be - people had stood at this window as evening closed in and gazed at the city, stretched out before them like a child who has fallen into a sweet sleep.
The city was dreaming. Its people dreamt, and its poets and novelists and playwrights. Hundreds of them. It had always been so, and now there were more writers than ever. In studios by the river and town-houses in the suburbs, in artisan cottages rotten with negative equity and shiny canal bank apartments with mortgages which could never be paid, they sat at their laptops, wondering and analysing, pondering and pounding. Documenting the present, imagining the past and the future. Some were out to make a quick buck, others busy forging in the smithies of their souls the uncreated conscience of their race, or tracing the beauty of the individual in the nightmare of history. All trying, like poor Francie, like Pamela herself, to scratch one inky mark on the patient, wrinkled face of the city.
The shadows thickened in the Garden of Remembrance. One of the stone swans, the banished children of Lir, started to flap its wings. She heard them, the great wings, beating softly, softly, a whisper in the dusk. And then a sliver of moon, thin as a cobweb, slid from the clouds, and swan was stone again.
I am a child of the earth, and of the starry heavens.
She went back to the table to grab a sandwich before they were all gone. She sipped her wine. Velvety as the distant mountains. Plus ça change. (She often thought in French when she drank red wine. Even when the wine was Italian.) It was, she knew, the Barolo you get in Lidl. That’s not la même chose as the Barolo from the cellars of the fine restaurants they frequented in the good years , when a perk was a five course lunch in a five-star restaurant, not a ham sandwich made by an overworked civil servant. It’s still a Barolo, though. Much had changed, since the night of the Bank Guarantee. But some things had not changed all that much.
They wouldn’t feel it now till Christmas. And she’d be flying out to Canada to visit Saoirse Aine.
(1st published Irish Times, 'Legends of the Fall', August 2013.
Review of Michael Harding's Staring at Lakes
Michael Harding, Staring at Lakes. A memoir of love, melancholy and ‘Magical Thinking’. Dublin, Hachette, 2013.
Memoir has become one of the most popular literary genres of recent times , vying with the novel for readers. As the genre flourishes, its writers are challenged to find new techniques for presenting their biographical information. The traditional formula, which is to begin with childhood and move along chronologically, is replaced by more selective patterns. Memoir writers focus on a theme, or build the memories around selected places or objects. Eibhear Walshe structured the story his own childhood around images of his grandmother, Cissie, and her abattoir. The Hare with the Amber Eyes uses objets d’art as the scaffolding on which to pin a family history. Michael Harding attaches his life story to lakes, for metaphorical and factual reasons.
He doesn’t begin at the beginning, but close to the end, from which he hops to the middle : the moment in 1984 when he met his future wife, sculptor Cathy Carman, in the artistic centre of Ireland, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Co Monaghan. She was at a summer picnic on the lawn above Annaghmakerrig Lake . From this romantic nucleus Michael Harding brings us on his roundabout quest for meaning back to his childhood, alighting here and there on telling episodes in his life as a priest, playwright, actor, and writer, husband, father, and traveller. As I read the book, my mind was perseverated by lines from a song, ‘I’m a rambler, I’m a rover, I’m a long way from home’, and from an Irish song on the same theme, ‘An Spailpín Fánach’. Michael Harding is a sort of philosophical spalpeen, but he’s a rambler with a fixed abode – a house he loves, a marriage to someone he always refers to as ‘My Beloved’, and a productive career as an actor and as a writer – about which latter he tells us surprisingly little. A blurb on the back of the volume declares with fine blurbese disregard for what’s actually in the book :‘This frank and unflinching memoir offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the author of two of the finest Irish novels of the eighties.’ Although Harding has written almost twenty plays, three novels, as well innumerable newspaper columns, there’s hardly any exploration of his writing in this book. References to his reading are likewise scanty. It’s a curious omission.
After their marriage Michael and Carthy Carman moved to Leitrim. If you’ve ever wondered how the artists and writers of Leitrim live you’ll find Harding’s descriptions interesting though probably not surprising. He spends his time writing, going for walks, observing donkeys and lakes, going to the Buddhisitic centre of Jampa Ling (in Cavan), doing up sheds in which to write, and wishing he could be somewhere else. He loves Leitrim, and his wife, but when the couple’s only child, Sophia, a horse-crazy girl ( who has since become a successful show jumper ) reached the age for secondary school, she and her father decided in a split second that Loreto in Mullingar was the right place, since it was a school with a good stable and equestrian team. Cathy agreed that Sophie and her father should make the move, while she remained in Leitrim:
‘It was one of those moments in my life when I rejoiced in the fact that I had married an artist; a woman open to all kinds of crazy ideas and possibilities.’ (9)
As readers of his column in the Irish Times know, MIchael rented a flat and then a big house in Mullingar, and lived there for five or six years. He loved the cosmopolitan feel of the midland town, its lattes and the Goths, ‘ I liked having coffee in Café Le Monde on Harbour Square... watching all the people going in and out of Dunnes Stores.’ (178)
There are many moments of such disarming unpretentiousness in the book, as it flits from one topic to another with all the strategic planning of a mayfly on Lough Ennel. Attractively light in tone,it deals with some serious personal issues. . Although his pilgrimage in search of identity and truth – and lakes and women – bring him to many wonderful places, he is tripped up by his own demons:
‘A dark brooding shadow within watches me with indifference, or wants to wander in the past along laneways of regret and remorse. That is depression.’ (2)
There is also a a good bit about the symptoms of a physical problems – colitis, enlargement of the prostate - which dogged the author for some of his later years. It is testimony to his charming frankness that he shares the details of these ailments, which happily were not life-threatening, with us – but although I am entirely sympathetic, there’s a limit to what I want to know about another person’s toilet troubles, however artistically justifiable the account is.
Amid all the amusing chat about lattés and donkeys, fundamental questions about ‘magical thinking’ – about the point of life, religion, and mortality - are posed. He never plunges deeply into any analysis or exploration, but he offers good answers on the wing. One we find already in the opening chapter: ‘In the end I was forced to let go of magical thinking altogether’.
At Lake Khovsgol, he had his most important epiphany: ‘I realised ... why I had clung to religion for so many years. It was fear. And it is fear’. 280
But then, in the closing chapter, he seems less sure: ‘Perhaps a brave new world is coming where people will accept that life ends in the grave and heaven is a poppycock of the unconscious mind... I don’t know.’
In the end magical thinking seems to be replaced by what anthroplogists call ‘quasi-magical thinking’ -which we engage in, for instance, when we don’t walk under a ladder or buy a car with ‘13’ in the registration number, even though we know the superstitions are rubbish. A sort of spalpeen, Irish, ‘maybe and then again maybe not’ reply to the big philosophical questions?
This book is difficult to pin down but also difficult to put down. It’s very amusing and very readable. Harding closes with a paean to nature and love, and to the reward which everyone who is anyone in Ireland seems to get when they’re fifty or sixty: a new double-glazed extension. That the courageous bohemian pilgrimage on the road less travelled ends in the same place as the suburban bus-ride – at home on a new patio – seems curiously appropriate for this unusual, sometimes frustrating, but mainly delightful, memoir.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.
(PUBLISHED IN THE IRISH TIMES, 2 MARCH, 2013)
REVIEW OF ALICE MUNRO'S DEAR LIFE
Alice Munro, Dear Life.London, Chatto and Windus, 2012. 319 pp. £18.99
‘Who can ever say the perfect thing to the poet about his poetry? And not too much and not too little, just enough?’ (p. 253)
‘The perfect thing’ is what reviewers hope to say about Alice Munro’s short stories, as they strive to articulate the most fitting accolades for this most beloved of writers. ‘The best fiction writer now working in North America’. ‘Her name is spoken in hushed tones.’ A sort of magic.’ Jonathan Franzen in his review of Runaway, the collection published in 2004, famously refused to review the new work at all, but instead ‘circled around her latest marvel of a book’, and offered eight reasons why ‘her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.’ She is too entertaining. Her fiction does not show off. She writes short stories. She doesn’t look like the anguished artist. And so on.
By now she has gained world-wide recognition – many prizes, including the Man Booker International Prize. She was the bookies’ favourite for the Nobel this year (although unfortunately she did not get it.) Maybe she does wear her genius too lightly (for the Swedish crowd)? Often richly metaphorical, her work is so beguiling at the level of story that it’s only on a third or fourth reading you begin to notice subtextual layers, the poetic subsoil. This is perhaps what readers sense when they fall back on those rather lazy words, ‘magic’, ‘mystery’ and ‘alchemy’. Is the magic is in the metaphors which affect the readers without their knowing it? Yes. And it’s also in the compelling rhythm of Munro’s prose, as she she leads you along a winding woodland path into the depths of the human psyche. And it’s in her humour, her intelligence, her knack for storytelling. What is ‘magic’, in literature, if it is not a weaving together of many strong and subtle threads to form a perfect tapestry, the impact of which leaves one speechless? Like the effect of an autumn tree, or the light of evening. This is what her stories do. These stories, and almost all her stories.
Dear Life is Munro’s thirteenth collection. It includes ten stories, and four autobiographical sketches. Favourite Munrovian themes are explored: ‘the persistence of desire’ (to use John Updike’s pithy term); the conflict between the impulse to self-fulfilment and parental, mostly maternal, duty; the challenging love lives of the physically or psychologically damaged. The settings are familiar: Toronto and Vancouver, small towns in Ontario, the trans-Canadian train. Character types we have met in other books recur, like old acquaintances whose faces we half recognize: the reliable husband, with his crew cut hair and neatly trimmed opinions, who, against all good sense, cannot compete with the attractions of a more complex, riskier lover. (We met him first in The Beggar Maid. Patrick. This time, Peter is his name. He has had others.) The baby-faced, disingenuous siren, whose childish beauty men cannot resist (Leah here. Queenie? and Nina.) The self contained, authoritative, intermittently attainable, lover, also looks familiar. Did I last bump into him in ‘Simon’s Luck’, or ‘Hold me Fast, Don’t Let me Pass’? Sometimes he is an airman – Munro has talked about this favourite metaphor, inspired to some extent by a childhood crush. In ‘What is Remembered’, he was a medical doctor who flew a plane (and crashed). This time he’s a surgeon in a TB sanitorium: Alister ‘Reddy’ Fox, irresistable precisely because of his capacity not to give all the heart (or, finally, any of it):
‘This is the longest drive we have taken and I am aroused by his male unawareness of me – which I know now can quickly shift to its opposite – and his casual skill as a driver’ (p.59)
The character of the man may be vaguelly familiar. But he has some new traits, and is placed in a new plot, another time and place. Above all, he is viewed from a new angle. Although he retains his life- long attractiveness to the narrator (‘Nothing changes really about love’), he has qualities in common with his fourfooted namesake, and not just the colour of his hair.
Other stories in this collection deal with characters who turn out to be far from what they seem – notably Corrie’s lover, in the story of that name, who behaves with cunning that most would find intolerable. But not Corrie. Her big epiphany does not actually change anything in her life, apart from her understanding of it – and our epiphany is to see that that is enough. Insight. She sees. She forgives. She survives.
‘Honest’ is an adjective often applied to Munro’s fiction. To be honest is to be moral. The other great morality of her fiction is that it is compassionate and non-judgmental- more than ever, now that she is an octogenerian. Not that she has ever been bitter or angry. But she is far from evasive. Frank reflection on the politics of gender, of reproduction (including abortion), of religion (including fundamentalism and atheism), and above all of class, informs her writing. This has been achieved so gently, in such engaging stories, that it can go unnoticed. In this collection, too, her abiding concerns with class, gender and religion continue to find expression.
‘Then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia...’ (p.6)
As her moral vision has matured, so has the prose – it has lost the flambouyance, the glittering comedy, so vivid in say Lives of Girls and Women, or The Beggar Maid, or The Moons of Jupiter. When you’re as good – and as successful – as Munro, you don’t need to dance on the tightrope in a sequined dress, as younger writers must do, partly because they are energetic and just want to romp, but also to attract attention. All that ‘look at me’ writing – and hers was great- is finished. For long she has written in a calm tone, using a quiet palette – although the humour is still there. It is a delight to observe this development, towards as much wisdom as anyone can hope for, to a kind of literary serenity, which accepts even what is most unacceptable to all of us.
Her circus animals have not deserted Alice Munro, and there is a new one in the ring. One story in this collection seems to me completely new. ‘Train.’ Unusually, though not uniquelly, it is told from the point of view of a man, Jackson. In her train stories, a man often gets off, and we remain on board, with the woman. But in this one we jump the train with Jackson - the competent self reliant type, a former soldier, with whom women fall in love. But a rolling stone, unable to root or connect. It is one of the best, most understated, story of child abuse ever – though it deals with many other aspects of life.
This is a fresh masterpiece, surrounded by stories which are simultaneously old and new. Implicit in this volume is an invitation to view Alice Munro’s life work as a unity, an evolving work, almost like one very long novel. The epicurean pleasure of revisiting certain situations and characters is enhanced by her inclusion, at the close of the book, of four sketches. Heartbreakingly, they are entitled ‘Finale’.’
‘They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and the last – and the closest- things I have to say about my own life.’ (255)
These sketches seem less fictional than the stories that appeared in her previous ‘sort of memoir’, A View From Castle Rock. In them she shares her earliest memories, of life on the family farm in Wingham, of the birth of her siblings, of her adored, if disturblingly disciplinarian, father, her brilliant, chronically ill, mother. We Munrovians recognize the raw material of countless stories – and what we learn is how artfully the ‘truth’ was sculpted into fiction. At the hand of the master baker, the raw ingredients, the eggs and the flour became perfect cakes. To read these relatively unshaped pieces, and compare them to the stories they begot, is as good a lesson in creative writing as anyone will ever get. It was wonderfully generous of Munro to provide us with this snippet of autobiography – the same openness and generosity was shown by John McGahern when, late in life, he wrote his memoir, and by Edna O’Brien, in those sections of her recent memoir which deal with her childhood. And like many generous gifts this one rewards the giver. The ‘final’ sketches reveal not just the sources, but the extent, of Alice Munro’s art. From very simple stuff she has created very great literature.
Maybe, after all, the perfect word, the only word that says just enough, about the writer and her stories, is that last resort of the speechless: magic.
(PUBLISHED IN THE IRISH TIMES, DECEMBER 2012)