These winter days
their darkness bring
Pale of thought
No hope to spring
These winter days
their darkness bring
Pale of thought
No hope to spring
The two greatest living Irish short-story writers are William Trevor and Claire Keegan. Foster won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009 and was subsequently expanded for publication as a stand-alone story.
In his original study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor wrote that “the short story has never had a hero” but instead has what O’Connor called a “submerged population group,” dreaming always of escape.
The dream of escape in Foster is the dream of a small girl brought to stay on a farm belonging to her “mother’s people,” away from the benign neglect of her own parents. Over the months of her stay, the girl becomes closer to the married couple she’s staying with and learns of a secret that has eaten away at both of their lives.
There is a richness and deep lyricism to Keegan’s writing. I picture her aching over her choice of words and the order in which to put them. Her stories are delicate and they are exquisite. There is a quietness to them also. Such is its preciseness that Keegan’s writing gives the impression that if a word was misplaced or removed the entire story would lose its meaning and shatter – a fragility matched by the vulnerability of her characters’ thoughts. Early in Foster, the girl is greeted by “the woman” (she is never referred to by name):
‘The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,’ she says, and stands back, expecting an answer.
‘The pram’s broken.’
‘What happened at all?’
‘My brother used it for a wheelbarrow and the wheel fell off.’
She laughs and licks her thumb and wipes something off my face. I can feel her thumb, softer than my mother’s, wiping whatever it is away. When she looks at my clothes, I see my thin, cotton dress, my dusty sandals through her eyes. There’s a moment when neither one of us knows what to say. A queer, ripe breeze is crossing the yard.
Frank O’Connor was correct when he stated that someone can be a great novelist yet an inferior writer, but that a great storyteller cannot be so. I would argue that many attempts at the story are mere vignettes – ‘days out’ for the writer concerned, if you like – and therefore fail in their intent as stories, although they may be pleasant enough to read. I differentiate between deliberate and accidental vignettes, of course. Margaret Atwood’s vignettes are a fine and deliberate example of the form.
What Claire Keegan demonstrates is the ability, as Frank O’Connor described it, to combine exposition and development in a way that overcomes the challenge of time – that challenge being a frame of reference that can never be the totality of a human life but rather selective point of entry into that life. The difference between a great storyteller and a novelist masquerading as a storyteller is that the storyteller understands that narrative is mere pattern and that the pattern is human life as universally experienced, “nostalgia and disillusionment and a fresh nostalgia sharpened by experience.”
There can be no fantastical event in the story – no slaying of dragons, to put it simply – because the form doesn’t allow it. But neither is the short story restrictive. Each new generation of storyteller is not so tied to convention as to prevent them from writing anything fresh. O’Connor argued, correctly, that the story has no essential form, that the point of entry into a life is different each time and that the submerged population of one storyteller – Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, to give an example – differ vastly from the submerged population of another – Maupassant’s prostitutes, by contrast.
The shorter version of Foster appears on The New Yorker website. Claire Keegan’s collections of stories are Antarctica and Walk The Blue Fields. To mark the publication of Foster, Keegan gave an interesting interview to The Guardian.
Amongst Women (1991) is broadly considered to be McGahern’s masterpiece, but the quieter That They May Face The Rising Sun, from 2002, is the greater triumph, not least in its ability to depict the passing of time in the absence of traditional narrative. And how is that depiction achieved? Repetition. In McGahern’s hands, the triumph of the ordinary life lies in the ability of repetition to provide meaning. It is this repetition – more than character or narrative, both of which are secondary – that gives the novel its punch. A lesser writer would have been unable to make this work, but McGahern draws on his experience and his inspirations to create something extraordinary.
Writing about McGahern’s book in The Good of the Novel, Ray Ryan suggests that “…what ritual tacitly communicates are the deepest values of all the individuals performing it. Ritual expresses wishes at odds with conscious experience.”
Without rhythm, the conveying of routine would be difficult. As a younger writer, McGahern was influenced by Proust, and the French writer’s nonfiction in particular. Proust wrote of George Sand’s prose that “beneath the everyday incidents, the commonplace thoughts and hackneyed words, I could hear, or overhear, an intonation, a rhythmic utterance fine and strange.”
Favourite books are subjective, of course, and That They May Face the Rising Sun is a favourite of mine not least because it depicts a rural community not unlike the one that my late uncle, Joe, lived in for almost the entirety of his life. John McGahern’s contention that the local is the universal was reflected in Joe’s own belief that why should he travel the world when it would come to him, as it invariably did.
In the book of collected essays, Love of the World, McGahern writes about his native Leitrim and how expansive small areas can become in people’s minds: ‘It is each single, enclosed locality that matters, and everything that happens within it is of passionate interest to those who live there.”
McGahern also tells the story of a young man from Fenagh – the nearest town to where McGahern lived – who on arrival in New York sought out a relative who had joined the NYPD and found him patrolling the East River. As a January gale blew off the river, the boy turned his back on the water and remarked to his cousin “Michael, there’s no escaping the wind from Drumshanbo.”
”If you don’t know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free” – Sister Wendy Beckett, contemplative nun/writer/art historian.
Marilynne Robinson’s novel reads like something almost outside of time – not so much dog-eared or yellowed but as if it’s written in stone. So it comes as something of a shock to realise the story is set in 1957, as revealed by its narrator, the Congregationalist pastor the Reverend Jon Ames, a native of the small, fictional Iowa town from which the novel takes its title. Gilead is Ames’ account of his life and those of his father and grandfather (also pastors) for the benefit of his seven-year-old son, to be passed to him after the elderly Ames finally succumbs to a heart condition.
Ames makes frequent reference to Gilead’s status as a centre for abolitionist agitation – the campaign to end slavery in the U.S. (Congregational churches, independent in governance and spirit, were to the fore in many American social reform movements). But otherwise, Gilead gives the impression of being away from where the real action takes place. Not that the lack of action seems to perturb Jon Ames, whose enthusiasm for a life lived ordinary nonetheless embraces the rich extraordinariness of the landscape around him:
“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”
The rich lyricism of Robinson’s language is almost like scripture and Gilead’s narrative seems deliberate its separateness from time, as if it has an almost eternal quality, its belief in the goodness of human nature uncorrupted by any temporal slips into violence or corruption (sin). There is nothing secular about Robinson or her writing – she is a deeply Christian writer. Yet this is not the Christianity of closed minds or harsh judgment of the other. It is meditative, gentle and humble. In her essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide,” which appears in When I was a Child I Read Books (2012), Robinson asserts her own liberal Christianity and argues for a reinterpretation in particular of Calvinism (a theme close to her heart) to remember Calvin’s own assertion that Paul’s message ‘not to be weary in well-doing’ be embraced as Christian imperative. Jon Ames is frequently hard on himself throughout Gilead’s narrative but no reader of this book will meet a selfish narrator.
Gilead is also a writer’s book. Ames’ vocation and his thoughts about it mirror that of a writer – something that is difficult to fulfil yet cannot be ignored.
“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” ― Letters of Ted Hughes
“That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.”