Friday, March 27, 2015

Three from Ireland: Boylan, Donovan, and MacLaverty

I have long had a special fondness for Ireland.  My wife's mother was born in Belfast and met a young Yankee stationed there during WWII and said yes when he asked her to marry him and come live in California. My wife, although born in Los Angeles, is thus an Irish citizen and has a soft Irish accent that, among many other beauteous features of mood and mien made me fall in love with her over thirty-five years ago.  

In 1996 and 97, I was fortunate enough to get a senior Fellowship at University College, Dublin, teaching the short story, which has always been a special talent for the Irish. I was also asked to teach a class on the American short story at Trinity.  We lived near Blackrock just to the south of Dublin, close to University College, Dublin, to which I could walk. Once a week, I took the Dublin Area Rapid Transit into the city to Trinity to teach at that iconic campus. 

I loved that year in Dublin—loved the city, loved the people, loved the Guiness.  I enjoyed going to the historic Abbey Theatre to see Irish plays. And I loved taking the bus with my wife and daughter to Belfast to visit relatives. I love both the North and the South and hope the current peaceful co-existence between them continues.

After my retirement, I arranged to teach a three-week summer class in Dublin on James Joyce. I took twenty American students to the city, and we walked the walk of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, and we read all the stories in the Dubliners and we read Ulysses.  I did this twice, once with my daughter attending, which was a joy, and once, when I contracted a terrible lung disease that almost killed me. I remember the chilling simple comment of one of my student evaluations: "I think he is dying."  I haven't been back since, sad to say, but I hope to return, bearing no hard feelings.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my take on three Irish short-story writers—one from Dublin, one from Galway, and one from Belfast.

Clare Boylan

            If you come to Clare Boylan’s stories looking for gritty realism about dirty old Dublin or folklore spun by a traditional storyteller, then be prepared to change your expectations about Irish fiction.  The booming Irish economy, called the Celtic Tiger by other members of the European Union, although short-lived, changed the cultural landscape of the old country.

Except for one character calling a man a “shifty wee shite” or another skeptically inquiring, “are you coddin,” Boylan’s stories bear few tale-tell cultural markers; most could have taken place in any mid-sized western city or the suburbs thereof.

And, the only traditional oral tale is “Concerning Virgins,” a fascinating yarn about a terrible old man named Narcissus Fitzgerald living with two daughters, who advertises for a virgin with whom to have a son and gets a predictably surprising, poetically just, response.

Boylan collects thirty-eight stories in her Collected Stories (2002) from her previous three short story collections published originally between 1983 and 1995, ranging from her first, “Appearances,” in which a young girl is ominously enticed into a secluded area by a man promising to show her a special secret (which turns out to be his prized collection of religious medals) to the title story of her last collection “That Bad Woman,” in which a married woman facing menopause merrily has an affair with a shocked and reluctant lover.

            Granted, some of these stories are just clever bits of ironic reversal, for example “My Son the Hero” in which a mother who suspects her son of murder discovers that he was telling the truth when he said he got scratched saving a cat from a tree, or “The Stolen Child,” in which a childless woman steals a baby, tries to abandon it, saves it from drowning, and finally discovers that the mother was glad to get rid of it for a while. 

            Don’t look for political or economic criticism here; the closest candidate is “Thatcher’s Britain,” a phrase which makes a character think of England as a pleasant place with thatched houses, fields of hay, and employment for all, only to discover that many Irish there live in derelict houses. 

Don’t look for easy satires about the Catholic Church either, except in the story “Confession,” which deals lightly with lying to the priest about sex. 

            Boylan’s best stories are those which deal perceptively with the secret life of women, regardless of what society they live in. “A Nail on the Head” is a sad story about a woman whose husband brings strangers home to dinner.  In “A Particular Calling,” a traveling electrolysis lady who visits various towns advertising “the usual service” is coarsely misunderstood by five drunken farmers.  And “The Little Madonna” sensitively links a woman facing menopause with a sixteen-year old mother. 

            Clare Boylan is a sophisticated, witty writer who can spear the cocky and the condescending with biting barbs.   She knows men well enough to make them uncomfortable, and women well enough to bring them shocks of recognition.   She is too good a writer to remain one of Ireland’s best-kept cultural secrets.

Gerard Donovan

Ireland’s past is marked by quixotic revolts and ignominious failures.  In 1848, during the Potato Famine, a small band of idealistic poets known as the Young Irelanders tried to convince starving farmers to rebel against the British.  The uprising petered out in a garden, and is still known as “the siege of Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch.” However, since 1973, when Ireland joined the European Union, a booming economy and a youthful population has given the country its greatest success story.

Gerard Donovan, who grew up in Galway, is well aware of the social and cultural effects of this success.  The characters in his book Young Irelanders (2009), far from poetic rebels, are more like John Cheever’s prosaic American suburbanites. “Archeologists” juxtaposes the new Ireland of shopping centers and housing tracts with the old Ireland that lies just beneath the surface. A couple hired by a company to look for artifacts before development discover the bones of a female child—a young Irelander—and find their own relationship torn between old and new expectations.

            Several stories deal with couples whose marriages are threatened by changing values in a country where people no longer fear the wrath of the village priest. In “Morning Swimmers,” three middle-aged men go for morning swims in Galway Bay.  On this particular morning one overhears the other two talking about an affair his wife is having.  In typical Cheever fashion in “How Long Until,” a man asks his wife how long she would wait after his death before she slept with someone else.  As the story cranks up to a crisis, the man lamely says, “It was just a question.” Many of the stories unearth secrets between husbands and wives.  When in “Shoplifting in the USA” a man who works for an American storeowner tells his wife that his employer is obsessed with catching thieves, she confesses that she has been a thief all her life.

             In “Another Life,” a woman discovers after her husband’s death that he owns a home in another town, in which he has been supporting a woman who has had his child. The most Cheever-like story, with echoes of “The Swimmer,” is “Country of the Grand,” in which a man makes a tortured symbolic journey though his past. “Harry Dietz” is a similar hallucinatory story in which an Irish man living in the United States takes a drive to Chicago in his pajamas because he has lately “run out of life,” and the “emptiness is pouring into his head.” Although new to Ireland, the subject of these stories will seem familiar to American readers who know the work of Updike and Cheever. 

Bernard MacLaverty

The first story in Bernard MacLaverty’s collection Matters of Life and Death (2006) is an emblematic introit that he says he hopes encapsulates many of the horrors of Northern Ireland since Bloody Friday.  Metaphorically titled “On the Roundabout,” to suggest the never-ending dizzyingly circularity of sectarian violence in the North, the story takes place soon after the beginnings of the so-called Troubles in the early seventies.  A man driving into a traffic circle with what he calls his Norman Rockwell family rescues a young man being savagely beaten by two laughing assailants.  That’s all that happens, but in its restrained elegance, the story epitomizes the deep-seated hatred that has crippled the country for years.

Three additional stories derive either directly or indirectly from the Troubles. In “A Trusted Neighbor,” a Protestant policeman seems like a friend to his Catholic neighbor, until, with something of a shock at the end, we learn that he is setting him up for a vicious attack. “The Trojan Sofa” is a comic tour-de-force told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old boy whose Catholic father sews him up in a sofa, which he then sells to a British Major.  Once the boy is in the house, he is to let his father in to loot it--a robbery his father justifies by saying that the wrong done to Ireland by the British is so great that anything done to them in retaliation is honorable.

“Learning to Dance” is a sad and subtle sonata about two young boys who are placed in the temporary care of a childless doctor and his wife when their father, a prominent man, is killed in what we assume was an act of sectarian violence.  As usual in a MacLaverty story, nothing much happens, but the story is a moving elegiac evocation of loss, sadness, and perplexity.

Like many others, MacLaverty learned to write this kind of subtle atmospheric story from Chekhov—a mentor to whom he pays tribute in “The Clinic,” in which a man passes the time in a doctor’s office while anxiously waiting to hear if he has diabetes by reading a Chekhov story entitled “The Beauties.”  The man’s experience with his fear and his experience with the story merge in the end when love and beauty are reaffirmed as both the man in Chekhov’s story and the man in MacLaverty’s story feel the “wind blow across [their] soul.”

 In  “Visiting Takabuti,” another Chekhovian story, a maiden aunt takes her two nephews to see a famous female mummy in a Belfast museum.  On the bus ride home, she thinks about a traditional Irish tale in which, at the moment of death, the soul tiptoes to the door but then turns back and kisses the body that has sheltered it all these years.  Although the story’s ending may seem a bit too symbolically pat and predictable, MacLaverty creates the woman so delicately that the reader cannot help but be moved. 

The longest story in the collection, “Up the Coast,” moves back and forth between the point of view of a young woman who has gone to a remote area to paint and a young man who hunts her down and rapes her.  MacLaverty refuses to sensationalize or politicize the act, choosing instead to focus on the understated artistic means by which the woman transcends the violation. Although Bernard MacLaverty is probably best known to Americans because of the film versions of two of his novels, Cal and Lamb, he is a very fine short-story writer in a tradition of Irish masters of the form from James Joyce to Frank O’Connor to William Trevor.


Karl said...

An excellent article, as always. Have you read Colin Barrett's debut collection "Young Skins"? It's won several awards, and I thought it was great; deeply-felt and beautifully written stories. (And very working-class Irish; I kept going to the Web to look up various bits of Irish slang.)

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Karl. See my blog post on Colin Barrett on Oct. 30, 2013.

Karl said...

Oops, and duh. I should have checked your archive first, Charles. I loved your discussion of Barrett's "Kindly Forget My Existence"; it made me realize that I should re-read the story (as one should with all good short stories).

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Charles, and great to see three lesser lights of Irish literature get some exposure.

I haven't read Young Irelanders, but one of my favourite novels of recent years was Donovan's Julius Winsome, which isn't "Irish" at all, but is excellent nonetheless.

The wonders of the web - I run a <a href=">blog on Irish writing</a> but I ended up on your site via your 2010 blog on David Means's "The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934", which featured on the New Yorker fiction podcast this week and which I enjoyed very, very much.

I'm delighted to have found your blog, Charles, even more so because I was in first year English literature in 1996-97. I can't recall whether I attended any of your classes, but it's strangely nice to know our paths crossed so.

Anonymous said...

Apologies, I forgot to sign off.

It's Shane here in Ireland.

Charles E. May said...

Good to hear from you, Shane. I miss Ireland. I enjoyed the students I had both at UCD and Trinity when I was there, although I had some difficulty getting them riled up enough to engage with me--too much large lecture experience, I reckon. I remember once I wrote the word "sex" on the board and said this was the subject of the story under study. One fellow said, a bit wryly, "We can't talk about that. We're Irish."

Unknown said...

Thanks for your interesting discussion of these 3 fine writers, Charles. I had the enormous pleasure of hosting a reading by Bernard MacLaverty (in which he reads 'The Clinic' among other stories beautifully) here at Birmingham. Here's the video-stream if you're interested:
best wishes, Michael