Foster – Claire Keegan

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.


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That They May Face The Rising Sun – John McGahern

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.”

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Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

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.

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The New York Review of Books

008The current issue of The New York Review of Books is its 50th anniversary issue.  Without wanting to sound pompous (and failing spectacularly) reading the NYRB is like dipping into a specific moment in the past – fin de siècle Vienna, that period of ideas and debate that spanned the latter years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th.  The NYRB is, for me, an unashamedly Enlightenment publication.  It takes a rather pragmatic (in a philosophical sense) approach to its topics, questioning without being cynical.   Glib is a word that could never be associated with the Review.  And its topics are diverse.  Much of what I know about subjects ranging from art to science comes from having subscribed to the Review since the middle of the last decade and from following up on what I have read between its pages.  Consecutive articles in the 50th anniversary issue discuss, in order: the economic implications of automatization and now digitisation; the rise of creating writing as a taught subject in U.S. universities; police/state repression in China; and a Balthus exhibition.  In terms of contributors, The Review’s scope is wide.  The anniversary issue contains contributions from four Nobel laureates and an essay on Proust by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer.

Typically, an essay in the Review will use a book or exhibition, movie or television series (granted movie and TV series discussions are rare) – as a framing device for a broader discussion of the general topic.  So, for instance, the current issue includes author Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.  Not only does Mendelsohn consider the move from the written page to the TV screen and how that has impacted on the telling of the Game of Thrones story, but he also suggests that what ostensibly seems like ‘a testosterone-fueled swashbuckler’ instead creates ‘alternatives to the narratives of male growth’ in its development into a ‘remarkable feminist epic.’

The Review was founded by Robert E. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, who co-edited it until her death in 2006, at which point Silvers assumed the mantle of sole editor.  It has a belief not so much in humanity per se – its long interest in the obliteration of both everyday and intellectual life in Europe during World War II suggests a questioning of how humane humans can be as a species – but in people (as individuals or in communities) to rise above the fray in search of betterment.  Granted, its letters pages sometimes threaten to reach below the fray – I’m only half kidding.  The Washington Post called the letters page ‘the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing.’  The letters can be vigorous (to put it lightly) but are generally well-considered and vigorously researched – it’s not unusual for a letter/reply to include footnotes.

New York Review Books, the journal’s publishing house, publishes books under the New York Review Books Classics, New York Review Books Collections, The New York Review Children’s Collection and NYRB Lit.  The Classics imprint has released translations of works previously unavailable in English. NYRB Lit is an imprint for e-book only contemporary titles, both fiction and non-fiction.  The intention is to focus on titles deemed too risky or expensive for traditional publishers but which have become publishable thanks to the economics of e-books .

It is difficult to capture the essence of the Review in a single contributor and maybe perhaps unfair, given that it is the dedication of Silvers and the late Epstein that has ensured its longevity.  But I think it’s no coincidence that the anniversary issue contains an excerpt from Tony Judt’s essay “Edge People,” originally published in the March 25, 2010, issue.  Judt, who died in August 2010, was a brilliant historian and essayist, whose easy writing style hid a vigorous form of analysis and an extraordinary intellectual range.  His Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is hard to match as a general history of modern Europe.  In “Edge People,” Judt considered his own identity as an English-born ‘non-Jewish Jew’ teaching in New York but who felt most at home at the ‘edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another – where cosmopolitanism is  not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.’

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Blue Valentine

The imminent release of writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines prompted a re-watch this week of his previous feature, Blue Valentine.  Released in 2010, Blue Valentine charts the relationship between Cindy and Dean, using a cross-cut device to focus on the beginning and seeming end of the relationship.  I say seeming end because the movie’s plot is ambiguous, not least in its refusal to identify fully the reason or reasons why the relationship is failing.   It just is, which is how many relationships in real life fail, is it not?  They just do.  Nonetheless, Cindy’s exhaustion and the extent to which she is exasperated with Dean is obvious.  Furthermore, the couple’s sniping at each other is indicative of a fundamental breakdown in communication.  There is an integrity about both of these characters, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to salvage their relationship.

In a Q&A on the DVD release, Cianfrance references his background in documentary and how it taught him to listen.  And the movie does feel like eavesdropping on the conversation between the two protagonists.  Cianfrance’s documentary experience is also reflected in the hyper-real cinematography and the spontaneous feel of the performances from Williams and Gosling, the result undoubtedly of the actors’ improvisation of dialogue.  For his part, Cianfrance was fortunate to be working with Williams and Gosling, two of Hollywood’s most extraordinary talents.  The scenes of their first date are beautifully rendered, as the two characters awkwardly find their way into getting to know each other.  The movie’s feel is strengthened by Cianfrance’s own approach to its production.  The part of the movie depicting the development of Cindy and Dean’s relationship was shot using Super 16mm, giving it a natural, lived-in and intimate look.  The blue tint of the scenes depicting the relationship as it falls apart washes the vitality out of the camera work, almost as if it has been bleached, and reflects the distressed nature of the marriage.

Blue Valentine became caught up in a ratings controversy when the MPAA rated it NC-17, the category that replaced an X rating in 1989.  The rating was in respect of a cunnilingus scene, prompting Gosling to accuse the ratings association of sexism and misogyny on the grounds that a scene involving oral sex performed on a male would never have received similar censure.  Although the rating was changed to R following an appeal lodged by The Weinstein Company, distributors of the movie, the controversy did highlight the seeming discomfort with depictions of female sexuality in mainstream popular culture.  The NC-17 rating is less about stopping children under 17 from being admitted to movie theatres to watch certain movies than it is about censoring movie content itself.   In the case of Blue Valentine, the retention of the NC-17 rating would have effectively stigmatized the movie for its depiction of oral sex.   At the time, Gosling was quoted as saying:

‘You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.’

 The link below is to a recording of Cianfrance, Williams and Gosling on PBS’ Charlie Rose.  It is well worth watching for the discussion of how Blue Valentine evolved and how different it was in its making compared to other movies.

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Back Story, David Mitchell

This is not going to be one of those critical reviews.  Firstly, I like this book.  It’s funny.  Secondly, I like David Mitchell.  He’s funny.

The title of the book refers not only to Mitchell’s reminiscences on growing up, attending Cambridge University and forging a comedy career, but also to the chronic back problems he’s suffered over the years and how he’s solved those problems by taking up walking.  Queue the opportunity to take a walk through west London, from Mitchell’s bachelor pad in Kilburn to the BBC Television Centre at White City.  Mitchell uses what he sees on the walk to frame his “back story” from childhood to maturity and career success with such programs as Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, both with his long-time comedy partner Robert Webb.  As a reader familiar with Mitchell might expect, there’s no small amount of humorous self-depreciation.

Back Story is terrific at debunking the glamour of television production.  The unreal, or surreal, if you prefer, is what appears on television screens.  The real is endless rounds of production meetings, long shoots, long waits between shoots, even longer waits between commissions and re-commissions.  Mitchell captures the uncertainty that surrounds it all.  What he is also good at is conveying the reality of a career in television, or, dare I say it, life as a celebrity – that for the overwhelming majority, it is not instant X-Factor-type fame but a long, hard slog that doesn’t feel at all inevitable.

The narrative beneath the narrative in this book is Mitchell’s love life, or rather lack of it.  References are made every number of pages to a date or a short-lived relationship or an occasional, guilty one-night stand (Mitchell seems particularly apologetic about them).  Then, in the final chapter, the book takes an unexpected turn when the author describes how he fell in love.  With remarkable candour ( I really can’t emphasise enough how honest he is), Mitchell opens up about how he fell for the columnist Victoria Coren.  Heartbreakingly for him, she didn’t feel the same way and a burgeoning relationship petered out after a few dates.  But rather than move on, Mitchell waited.  He waited three years, during which time she was with someone else.  In the normal course of these things, the spurned lover would eventually cop on and go find someone else.  But Mitchell waited, and waited and then..  Well, then Coren came back.  What?  Yes, she came back and the book ends with the couple engaged (they married in a ceremony last month).

The impression that Mitchell gives, as noted earlier, is that of a nerdy, awkward loner (that his character in Peep Show, Mark Corrigan is desperately unhappy and needy likely adds to Mitchell’s own image).  But the real Mitchell is, I think, a rather purposeful and certainly confident person in that “I’m going to make it in television” sort of way, which, of course, he has.  He crafted a public persona of this rather sad singleton, he says, because he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he’d fallen in love and that it was unrequited.  But anyone who waits three years for another person has to have a certain inner-confidence, don’t they, a conviction that everything will turn out all right?  You’d go mad otherwise! I’m not saying Mitchell is deceiving people, but crafting a public persona is something a person in the public eye might well do, because it allows the private self to remain exactly that – private, separate.  It’s a defence mechanism, and a useful one at that.

The book ends with Mitchell quoting the oft-heard saying “If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards” before admitting that for the first time in a long time, he’s standing still.  Well, as I once heard someone say, there’s nothing wrong with treading water, as long as it’s purposeful treading.  And Mitchell’s is certainly purposeful.


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Reunion, by John Cheever

There has been a trend in recent years for flash fiction, stories of bite-sized proportions akin to food-on-the-go for those whose lifestyles are too busy to stop and consider anything of greater size.  Yet for me, a supreme example of “short” fiction is John Cheever’s Reunion.  At around a thousand words, Reunion is conciseness at its most brilliant.  I wonder how much Cheever pared it down from his original drafts?

Analysing Reunion, it tells the story of a teenage boy’s encounter with his father, a pathetic yet functioning drunk who is divorced from the boy’s mother, during a brief layover in New York between train journeys.  As they go from bar to bar, his father’s rudeness to staff means they are welcome nowhere.  Eventually, the boy signals his need to get back to Grand Central Station for his onwards train, but rather than take a moment to say goodbye to his son properly, the father prefers to indulge in mocking a newsstand seller as he attempts to buy the boy a newspaper.

In the introduction to his the New Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford justifies his inclusion of Reunion on the basis, among other things, of its ‘ferocity and concentration of….formal resources (its formal brevity, dramatic emphasis, word choice, sudden closure).’  On a first reading, Reunion does not appear to be stylistically daring, or anything like it.  How many variations on the word ‘said’ can you come up with is a question a creative-writing tutor might ask of their students, yet in Cheever’s story it is ‘my father said,’ repetitiously.

Consider the following passage:

‘I don’t understand Italian,’ the waiter said.

‘Oh, come off it,’ my father said. ‘You understand Italian, and you know damned well you do.  Vogliamo due cocktail americani.  Subito.

The waiter left us and spoke with the captain, who came over to our table and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but this table is reserved.’

‘All right,’ my father said. ‘Get us another table.’

‘All the tables are reserved,’ the captain said.   

‘I get it,’ my father said. ‘You don’t desire our patronage. Is that it?’

Read the passage aloud and hear its urgency.  The repetition of said, said, said becomes like train cars passing over rolling stock – clack, clack, clack – as the story powers towards its dénouement.  And when that dénouement comes, it comes suddenly, like a train coming to an unforeseen halt, as the reader realises that the father-son relationship can never be repaired after this humiliating reunion – ‘that was the last time I saw my father.’   

Below is a recording by Richard Ford for The New Yorker in which he reads the story.  Reunion was first published in the magazine, in 1962.


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