Reading Ireland Month: Erskine, O’Farrell, Quinn and Tóibín
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each year by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m sneaking in on the final day of March (there’s a surprise snow squall out the window as I write this) with four short reviews and feeling rather smug that my post covers lots of bases: short stories, a novel, a book of autobiographical pieces, and a poetry collection.
Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)
The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium.
Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. In “Nostalgie,” a washed-up rocker is asked to perform his hit song at a battalion’s party. A woman and her lodger are welded together by a violent secret in “Bildungsroman,” which reminded me of a tale from Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories. “Gloria and Max” struck me most of all: a drive to a film festival becomes a traumatic flashback when they’re first on the scene of an accident.
Erskine’s writing is blunt and edgy, the kind that might be stereotyped as male but nowadays is also, inevitably for Irish authors, associated with Sally Rooney: matter-of-fact; no speech marks, flat dialogue and slang. A couple of other favourites: “Mathematics,” in which a cleaner finds an abandoned child in a hotel room and tries to do right by her; and “Memento Mori,” about two deaths, one drawn out and one sudden; both equally unexpected; and only enough compassion to cope with one. (Public library)
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)
In form this is similar to O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us, one of my Reading Ireland selections from last year: short sections of a few pages flit between times and perspectives. (There’s also an impulsive trip from London to Scotland in both.) But whereas in her third novel I found the jump cuts confusing and unnecessary, here they just work, and elegantly, to build a portrait of Alice Raikes, in a coma after what may have been a suicide attempt. That day she’d taken a train from London to Edinburgh at the last minute, met her sisters at the station, seen something that threw her, and gotten right on a return train. Back in London and on the way to the shop for cat food, she stepped off the kerb and into the path of a car.
Scenes from Alice’s childhood in Scotland are interspersed with her love affairs; her parents’ disappointing marriage serves as a counterpoint to her great passion for John. The setup of three female generations in North Berwick and the question of sexual autonomy reminded me strongly of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock.
This is a bold debut novel, refusing to hold readers’ hands through shifts from now to near past to further ago, from third to second to first person (even Alice from her coma: “my body still clings to life, and I find myself suspended like Persephone between two states … I am somewhere. Drifting. Hiding.”). Loss, secrets and family inheritance may be familiar themes, but when this was published at the millennium it must have seemed thrillingly fresh; it still does now.
I only have one unread O’Farrell novel awaiting me now, My Lover’s Lover. I’ll be saving that up, maybe for this time next year. Having not much enjoyed Hamnet, I’m disappointed that her forthcoming novel will also be historical and will probably skip it; I miss her stylish contemporary commentary. (Secondhand from a charity shop)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, ed. John Quinn (1986)
These autobiographical essays were compiled by Quinn based on interviews he conducted with nine women writers for an RTE Radio series in 1985. I’d read bits of Dervla Murphy’s and Edna O’Brien’s work before, but the other authors were new to me (Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin and Joan Lingard). The focus is on childhood: what their family was like, what drove these women to write, and what fragments of real life have made it into their books.
I read the first couple of pieces but then started to find the format repetitive and didn’t want to read out-of-context illustrative passages from novels I’d never heard of, so only skimmed through the rest. You can work out what Quinn’s questions were based on how the essays spin out: What is your earliest memory? What was your relationship with your parents? What was your schooling? Were you lonely? What part did books and writing play in your childhood? Distant fathers, a strict Catholic upbringing, solitude/boredom and escaping into novels are common elements. Some had happier childhoods than others, but all are grateful for the life of the mind: A solid base of familial love and the freedom to explore were vital.
The best passage comes from Seamus Heaney’s foreword: “The woman writer, like everybody else, is in pursuit of coherence, attempting to bring into significant alignment the creature she was and the being she is striving to become.” (Secondhand from Bookbarn International)
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (2022)
I didn’t realize when I started it that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse that I assumed he’s been publishing poetry for decades. He’s one of those polymaths who’s written in many genres – contemporary fiction, literary criticism, travel memoir, historical fiction – and impresses in all. I’ve been finding his recent Folio Prize winner, The Magician, a little too dry and biography-by-rote for someone with no particular interest in Thomas Mann (I’ve only ever read Death in Venice), so I will likely just skim it before returning it to the library, but I can highly recommend his poems as an alternative.
There’s such a range of tone, structures and topics here. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background, as in “Lines Written After the Second Moderna Vaccine at Dodgers’ Stadium Los Angeles, 27 February 2021.” Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates the very witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” You can come along on some armchair travels: “In Washington DC,” “In San Clemente,” “Canal Water” (Venice), “Jericho,” and so on. The poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations; there are both short phrases and prose paragraphs. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating (any other enjambment geeks out there?). I particularly loved “Kennedy in Wexford,” “In the White House,” “Eccles Street” and “Eve.”
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Have you read any Irish literature this month?
Alive, Alive Oh!: Diana Athill in Person
Last night I was lucky enough to see 98-year-old literary legend Diana Athill in conversation with Erica Wagner at Foyles bookstore in London. Athill, born in 1917, has been an inspiration to me ever since I discovered her work five or so years ago. She didn’t publish anything until she was in her forties, and didn’t reach true acclaim until her eighties, when she released an incredible series of memoirs. Hers is an encouraging story of late-life success and what can be achieved with diligence and good fortune.
What strikes you immediately about Athill is her elegance. Although her hair is thinning and she speaks with a slight slur out of the left side of her mouth, she retains her eagle eye and hawkish profile. That cut-glass BBC pronunciation is not just “the Queen’s English” but a voice just like the Queen’s – she even occasionally used “One” to speak about her own experience. Her look, too, was perfectly put together: a beautiful, multicolored Nehru jacket over a blue silk blouse, accessorized with chunky blue and silver jewelry. Though she was brought in by wheelchair and needed a lot of help getting on the podium – she apologized for her belabored entry – she hardly seems on the brink of death.
Erica Wagner, too, is one of my heroes: an American expat who served as literary editor of the London Times from 1996 to 2013 and is now a contributing writer with New Statesman and a Harper’s Bazaar consulting literary editor. She drew Athill out on many of the topics from her latest memoir, Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things that Matter, including the unexpected pregnancy and miscarriage she experienced in her forties, memories of visiting Tobago, and the downsizing that preceded her move into a retirement home.
Athill recalled the absolute joy she felt upon waking up from her miscarriage, a medical emergency that could well have ended in her death. It was a feeling that started in her stomach and rose up through her body – “I’m alive!” she remembered exulting. Losing her chance at motherhood was not a haunting sadness for her, she remarked; to her surprise, she got over it easily. Part of it was that she had never felt maternal yearning; she vividly pictures being 19, looking at someone’s baby lying on a bed and wondering to herself how she should feel about this creature. Ultimately, she decided, “I’d much rather pick up a puppy!”
That sort of forthrightness was evident in a number of pithy responses Athill gave to audience members’ questions. Asked “is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved?” she replied with a simple, emphatic “YES!” Does she have anything planned for her 100th birthday? “I choose not to think about it,” she quipped. Has age mellowed her? “A bit,” she hedged, before adding that she is now more tolerant and minds less what others think of her.
One of her key pieces of advice is to avoid romanticism and possessiveness. That certainly played out in her unconventional personal life: she never married but was with her partner, a black man, for some four decades, and after he divorced his wife they formed an unusual household arrangement with his new lover and her family.
If Athill was never possessive in love affairs, however, she did struggle with it in terms of belongings. It was agonizing, she noted, to give up most of her things – especially her books – when moving into a tiny room in a Highgate retirement home. Now, though, she doesn’t mind at all. “When you get very old you really don’t need much,” she insisted. Early on she adopted Montaigne’s practice of thinking about death once a day to get used to the idea. None of the 40 residents at her home minds the thought of being dead; what they don’t like is the idea of dying. Each one hopes to bypass the horrid death and have the easy one instead.
Writing started as a therapeutic exercise for Athill. She wrote Instead of a Letter, about a painful love affair from her youth, because she had a deep sense of failure as a woman. After writing about it, though, she felt completely better, like a new person. Several of her other nonfiction books had a similar motivation: they were a way of getting rid of sad experiences, her own or others’ that she was close to.
When encouraged to write about her long career as a literary editor, she initially thought she couldn’t do it; she only wrote to “cure nasty things” by getting to the bottom of them as honestly as possible. However, she managed to convince herself she could also write for fun, and Stet, about her work with André Deutsch, was the delightful result. Asked for some of her favorite authors, she named Molly Keane (as a person as well as a writer), Jean Rhys, and Philip Roth (not as a person, she hastened to add!). Rhys and V.S. Naipaul, two of her illustrious clients, never needed a word editing, she recalled; however, they did occasionally need a nanny.
Having seen publishing from the other side now, as an author, Athill believes that being read with absolute attention by an editor – as opposed to getting halfway through a review and finding one’s work hasn’t been understood at all – is heaven. So although she was initially surprised that she would be given an editor, she joked, in the end she was grateful. Publishing is now much more of a business, she acknowledges, but she still feels that many people are in it for the right reason: simply because they love books.
In the wider world, so much has changed for the worse over the past near-century she’s been alive, but medicine and education are two things that have gotten better. “Long live the National Health!” she cried. (Hear, hear!) On the other hand, it was particularly interesting to hear Athill sigh that she hasn’t been a very good feminist; although she supports the idea, she feels she should have been more engaged. For example, she knew very well that she earned less than a man in her position would have at André Deutsch, but never made anything of it.
In the end, Athill thinks of luck as what’s given to you rather than something you make. “On the whole, I have been so lucky in my life,” she marveled towards the close of last night’s wonderful event. “I can’t really complain about anything.”
I’ve now read all Athill’s work, even her rather obscure novel and short story collection. Her latest book doesn’t live up to her few best memoirs, but it’s an essential read for a devoted fan. For readers new to her work, I’d recommend starting with Somewhere Towards the End, followed by Stet. From there you might try her book of correspondence with American poet Edward Field, Instead of a Book, or her memoir of childhood, Yesterday Morning.
Psssssst! I have the dirt on a forthcoming Athill publication – and here I thought Alive, Alive Oh! would be her last book for sure. It will be the diary of a trip she took to Florence in 1948. Italy seemed to have bounced back from six years of wartime much more quickly than England, so after that sense of imprisonment it was a chance to enjoy life once again. I’ll be keen to read this rare ‘found document’.