Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

On Thursday of last week, I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s fight for independence.

Linen hall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.
Linenhall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.

I’ve been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I’m often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn’t bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I didn’t expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies’ room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn’t be peace in Ireland if it weren’t for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn’t exist, of course, if it weren’t for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and “the past.” History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew but without whom no “history” would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and “erasure” of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this “angry diaspora” began making “revolutionary noise” to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was “engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted” at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes for display in the castle, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, and who sat down to write them on “the long evenings of their leave-takings.” She read her poem “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

“…And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?”

***

The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can’t see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I’ve read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín’s remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother’s outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother’s thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland’s poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country’s troubled history won’t let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. “Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother’s womb / A fanatic heart.” It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.

A Good Year for Reading

long2I live and die by my datebook. In fact, since I haven’t marked down a date for my death, it’s likely it’ll never happen.

I use my book to make a note of every event I hear about and want to remember, and I draw up daily lists of tasks I need to do, which I happily cross off as I accomplish each one. Every September I buy myself a new book, since I favor the student ones. Don’t ask me why. I think it may be that I first developed a need for a daily calendar when I was in college, and all these years later I still think in terms of getting a fresh start in the fall.

This year I chose a brand of datebook I’d never used before called Bloom. It’s a really nice book, sprinkled throughout with stirring quotations and “reflections” that are lovely but don’t beat you over the head with their positivity. I’ve just come to a page at the end of the year that prompts you to list new things you tried and places you visited, etc., in 2015, with similar categories to fill in with plans for the coming year. One of the sections is called Best Books I Read in 2015, so I gave that a little thought and came up with these seven. More than half of them were written by men, which surprised me since I don’t tend to be very interested in fiction by or about men. But now that I look at it, two of these four men are gay, and the only fiction writer among them—Colm Tóibín—very often writes about the interiority of women. So there you go. I’ve already said something about most of these books or writers on this blog, so here are just a few brief thoughts on each:

  1. A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam. This may be the best book I’ve ever read, actually. It’s up there with The Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, two other children’s books that I first read as an adult, loved deeply, and understood what makes them “classics.” (A Long Way From Verona was considered a children’s book when it was published in 1971, but like those others the ideas and humor are sophisticated and subtle and make substantive reading for any adult.)
  2. The London Train, by Tessa Hadley. Clever Girl is still my favorite of Tessa Hadley’s novels, but The London Train had the same wonderful affect on me, casting a kind of spell that made the real world drop away as I read. Her characters live in my memory as though they’re real people I once knew. Her new novel, The Past, comes out in the U.S. on January 5th, which will be an excellent way to begin a new year of reading. I plan to finish it in time to see Hadley speak at the main branch of the Free Library at the end of the month. If I work up the nerve I may even stay afterward to speak with her, which is something I never do because I consider it humiliating to wait in line for the privilege of telling someone I admire them. That attitude might belong in the category of “hangups” though, so it’s probably not a bad idea to fight it.
  3. I’d never heard of Helen Garner before I bought a used copy of her novel The Spare Room (which is apparently really a memoir, and quite frankly reads like one too). Fine, vivid writing from a strong and unusual personality brought this sad story to life. I’ll plan to look for more of her stuff in the new year.
  4. I freaking love Jon Ronson. I even concocted a reason to interview him once, years ago, just because I loved one of his books so much (Them: Adventures With Extremists) that I developed a silly crush on him after reading it. In 2015 he’s still at the top of his game, in control of his powers to amaze and amuse. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we all participate in “shaming” people who have had a fall from grace. It makes for crawlingly distressing reading. I even lost a little sleep for a few days there.
  5. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín. I keep reading Tóibín’s fiction and trying to understand how he does what he does, short of witchcraft. I still don’t get it. It really is magic, the way he transports you. I especially love his women protagonists, like the main lady in Nora Webster, Nancy in the short story “The Name of the Game” from the collection Mothers and Sons, and Helen in Blackwater Lightship. All three of them have a certain canniness to the way they approach their lives; a solitary, dignified stoicism; and a wonderful dry sense of humor. They’re some of the realest women I’ve ever read, and their Irishness is both foreign and intimately familiar to me. Blackwater Lightship is about a young gay man who is dying from AIDS, and the family that gathers around him during his final days. It would be heartbreaking except that Tóibín doesn’t seen to want to break your heart. The whole novel is infused with the sadness of the impending loss, but there’s a gritty hopefulness at the heart of the book that bolsters you in the end. Wonderful novel.
  6. Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner. Because I used to review them for the Philly Inquirer, I have read dozens of so-called young adult books, probably more than 100 by now. And I don’t mind telling you that on the whole, these books do not make very interesting reading for adults. Occasionally, though, I’ll come across a YA novel that is more nuanced, surprising, and challenging than the majority. This crime thriller was one of them. It’s gorgeously written, in the vernacular of a poor Southern country boy, and it is scary AS HELL. I got the book a week or so after I moved into the house I live in now, and reading it in a place where I wasn’t yet totally comfortable was enough to keep me awake at night, staring at the ceiling with huge eyes. I hope this guy gets the attention he deserves for this beautiful book.
  7. Gary Indiana is one of a kind. He’s fucking funny and bitter and so smart it’s scary. Read his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, if you’re interested in descriptions of modern-day Havana or San Francisco’s underground art-freak scene of the ’60s and’70s, book recommendations from a huge reader, gossipy accounts of the personal lives of well-known American intellectuals, or in Gary Indiana himself. He’s reason enough on his own, trust me.
    (Incidentally, I wrote about this book for the Utne Reader, and they’re giving away a copy of it as part of a year-end grab bag contest. I see they’ve also got cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s I Was a Child up for grabs, which reminds me that I loved that book too.)

lt3 garner shamed tiobin Ask-the-Dark-cover-e1422388041251 i-can-give-you-anything-but-love

Here are a few more books I read this year and want to tell you about:

  1. How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, by Alison Freer. Charmingly written and incredibly useful. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about their clothing even one iota more than the average person. If it bothers you that store-bought clothes almost always have a slightly imperfect fit, for instance, consult this book for tips on how to alter them yourself—or make better purchasing decisions in the first place. I discovered Alison’s writing on xoJane, a guilty-pleasure website I spend way too much time reading and commenting on. She’s one of the site’s best writers, largely because she hits the right note: she’s unfailingly upbeat without seeming smarmy or fake.
  2. Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. I have a real relationship with Kate Zambreno’s writing. Every time I see she has an essay somewhere, I read it and take it in—she always packs a lot into her writing that takes time to chew and digest … sorry for the disgusting eating metaphors—and I feel oddly proud of her too, as though I’m rooting for her career advancement. Reading her name triggers the same sort of complicated blossoming of associations and feelings that happens when you hear the name of someone you know. I guess that’s a testament to her talent for so-called personal writing; she lets you in, but not all the way, and half of what she says about herself is actually a swirling, heady list of references to books she’s read and films she loves. ANYWAY, I haven’t actually finished this book. I keep it in the bedroom, where I’ve been picking away at it piece by piece. I feel as if the girl in the story is me, when I was in my twenties and confused and pissed off at all the men who stared at me every time I went anywhere. I felt like an empty vessel and I needed their attention as much as I hated it; I mistreated myself and felt afraid all the time, too. I don’t think these are uncommon things for young women to feel, and Green Girl captures that mess of contradictions so well it makes me a little queasy—and, weirdly, wistful—to read it.
  3. Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. Stone cold classic.
  4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook. Still working on this one too. I had to return it to the library before I was finished. I’m a little obsessive in my love for Joy Division, so this book is one of many documentaries I’ve read / watched on the band. I’ve read a lot of “rock biographies” over the years, now that I think about it, from Richard Hell’s pretentious autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (great title though) to Nikki Sixx’s trashy, vivid (and illustrated!!!) book about his celebrity and drug addiction, The Heroin Diaries. My favorites tend to be poorly written, “real” seeming ones like this, come to think of it. Touching From a Distance was written by Ian Curtis’ widow, who is not a writer and was not in the band with him, either: It’s a family story, really, and one that succeeds in telegraphing a certain rawness of emotion and bleakness of personal circumstance precisely because it is so plainly rendered. See also: And I Don’t Want to Live this Life, by Nancy Spungen’s flipping MOM. Holy shit was that a good read. Super scandalous. (And look at the cover! I must have spent hours staring at Nancy’s face in that photo. Mesmerizing.) The mother is so carping and unkind, and her book is so tediously detailed, I find it amazing that it even got published. spungenAnd yet this is the type of junk I most like to read when I’m feeling nostalgic or morbidly curious about one of my music heroes. In contrast, Unknown Pleasures is, well, a true pleasure, mainly because Peter Hook comes across as such a lovely human being. He chose to write his account of the band in a chummy, conversational style (which I can tell you is much harder to do than it looks), and he makes liberal use of funny Northern English slang. He’s hilarious, and unlike some famous scenesters who have commented on other musicians they’ve known and worked with (I’m looking at you, Debbie Harry), he’s able to call someone a complete asshole without sounding bitter or even unkind. If he says it, you can trust that the person acted like a complete asshole. And I mean, sometimes it needs to be said.

Like walking through clear water in a pool painted black

Have I written about Colm Tóibín on this blog before? I don’t think I have. Just a year ago I read his most recent book, Nora Webster, and felt a little crushed inside by how beautiful it was. I reviewed it for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I remember writing that, when I read most novels, I flatter myself that I can see, for the most part, how they were made. That’s not to say that I could WRITE one, mind you. But I read a hell of a lot and I’m a pretty good reader, and of course I’m a writer myself and I have a feeling for how language is used. I can usually see the underpinnings of even very sophisticated pieces of fiction, understand what makes them successful or unsuccessful; I can picture the writer at work.

But I really can’t figure out how Colm Tóibín does what he does. I read The Blackwater Lightship this summer, after Nora Webster. Though it deals with a much sadder and more sensitive subject—the painful death of a young man from AIDS—it doesn’t try to break your heart any more than Nora Webster does. (Her story, in fact, is quietly, gloriously hopeful, the story of a person coming back to life.) Both books are weighty and serious without being solemn, somehow; both exist within the same kind of silence that Tóibín creates with his language, though I can’t see how he creates it. It’s a kind of magic. I mean, each word is perfectly used, and there is never a word to spare. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing. The important, the necessary thing is the way he seems to make the language disappear. It has almost no style, if you will. Tóibín does let a sly, wry wit shine through sometimes (he’s Irish; you get the feeling he can’t help it) but basically he is not interested in making you laugh, or making you cry, or making you anything. He isn’t even an especially visual writer. He just tells us how things are in such an unadorned way that we believe him, trust him, completely. He’s god, and he’s hanging the moon in the sky and putting down a few mountains over here, and then there’s Dublin over there. What he describes becomes real.

There’s another writer I can think of who does this: Edward P. Jones, the American fiction writer. They’re both so good it’s almost scary, though I find I have a very warm feeling for Colm Toibin, while I remember feeling a bit awed and frightened by the skill Jones employs. And as good as, say, Ray Carver was—and he was one of the best—you could imitate his style. It’s distinctive. That’s true of most of the great writers, come to think of it. Think of Flannery O’Connor, for fuck’s sake. She never doesn’t sound like Flannery O’Connor. But I’m not sure you could write a paragraph in the “style” of Colm Tóibín’s prose. You’d have to remake yourself into the best writer who ever lived first, and then I guess you could give it a try.

I started a book of his short stories today, Mothers and Sons. I’m in his world now and I want the feeling to last. I can feel myself moving a little more slowly than usual, noticing more. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? Fiction, art of any kind—it’s supposed to open your eyes, give you a new way of seeing. When it works it’s incredible, the best kind of gift.