The supreme stylist plucks at the strings of his own oeuvre

Here is a review I wrote for the Irish Examiner a few months ago…

Blue.pngThe Blue Guitar
John Banville
Viking; €19.99
Review: Val Nolan

John Banville returns to the art world in the quietly absorbing referential puzzle box which is his first novel in three years. The story may be slight but then one reads Banville for the prose and not the plot: Oliver Otway Orme – “O O O. An absurdity” – is a professional painter and an amateur thief. He “steals” the wife of a friend, is discovered, retreats to various shabby boltholes to pen an address to an “inexistent confessor”, and eventually submits to the messy fallout of his affair.

In Banville’s hands, this simple tale becomes a darkly comic vehicle for digressive colour: Orme tell us the history of “a few hundred acres of passable land”, of “a fatal accident I witnessed as a young man” (in Paris, naturally), and on and on, while merely glossing over the specifics of his infidelity. “There must,” he says, “surely be something or somewhere I don’t want to get to, hence all these seemingly innocent meanderings down dusty by-roads”. Of course, each incident is weighed heavily with meaning but then the structure of The Blue Guitar is strong enough to bear it all.

Strong enough too to carry the magpieish aspect of Banville’s own intellect. This is after all a novel which takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem while opening by simultaneously invoking a minor Greek deity of theft and echoing one of literature’s most famous opening lines – “Call me Autolycus,” Orme wryly says by way of introduction – and thus the book announces its referential nature from the get-go. Later Orme adds that “a large part of the pleasure of stealing derives from the possibility of being caught” and, for the reader as well, there is considerable enjoyment to be found in catching the novel’s endless allusions.

References to art and literature predominate, yet, more often than not, the most overt are to texts of a fantastical nature. These include Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and even (via “Omnium”, that “fundamental substance of the universe”) Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Further call-backs conjure Banville’s own back-catalogue and fans of the author will recognize, for instance, the name Vandeleur from The Untouchable (1997) and the character of Adam Godly from The Infinities (2009).

Banville’s light touch in this regard offers a reflective and nostalgic backwards glance which aligns with the depiction of Orme himself. In that regard, character, text and, yes, even author blur together in satisfying fashion (with even the protagonist’s own sister thinking that he is a writer and not a painter). From a certain angle it is as though Banville is conducting a self-interrogation of sorts. One wonders, is he actually talking about a character named Orme… or me, meaning the writer himself?

For cloaked in Orme’s asides about art are insights equally applicable to the craft and practice of writing. “Everyone thinks it must be easy” if “you have some skill and master a few basic rules,” Banville-as-Orme says. He seems to be discussing not just writing in general but speaking to the authors of beautifully wrought but unimaginative and destined-to-be-forgotten literary writing in particular. Because “technique you can acquire, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it, the bit that really counts”? Indeed, on occasion he seems to go for the jugular of misery fiction specifically: “I’m tired of brooding,” he says, “it availeth naught”.

By contrast, the pre-eminent stylist of his generation leavens the “new-old world” of The Blue Guitar with ideas more at home in speculative writing (and one should not be surprised given that he is also the author of some of the most notable European science novels, among them Doctor Copernicus, 1976, and Kepler, 1982). A kind of vague apocalypticism thus pervades the backdrop of this book. Eerie airships ply the skies between “spectacular showers of meteorites”. Meanwhile conversations are peppered with offhand remarks about “nasty new germs coming from outer space” and solar storms which show “no sign of abating”.

Moreover, clues sprinkled throughout indicate that Banville has set The Blue Guitar in the same physics-wise world as The Infinities. It is the seminal work of that novel’s patriarch, Godly’s “famous Brahma Postulate”, which has led to “the new science” and its acknowledgement of “intersecting universes”. All very intriguing, though Banville never allows it to overshadow the ordinary. He deploys it sparingly as the basis of hallucinatory moments of insight whereby Orme seems to glimpse the possibilities of other lives in mirrors and reflections.

Beyond that, however, the “technological wizardry” said to have changed the world has not had much impact on the dishevelment of the novel’s resolutely old-fashioned cast. Everyone here has a glass eye or a “Merovingian mother”. Everyone exudes a “lonely hauteur” within the “charmed if sombre realm of the half-mad”. It feels, if anything, like the rural 1980s, and it is in the dissonance between that threadbare ambiance and talk of “Godly particles” that the peculiar flavour of The Blue Guitar – the unmistakable Banvillianism of the novel – is at its most apparent.

That Orme inhabits the headspace of so many Banville protagonists before him – the outsider, the thief, the autobiographer – only reinforces this effect. As a narrator he is not strictly reliable and admits to changing people’s names for his own amusement, yet he is all too aware that “when I’m gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way I do”. Again Orme might well be speaking for his creator, a distinctive talent capable of finding meaning in the most banal of images: a cup of undrunk tea; the fogged-up windows of a car; an artist’s dispassionate gaze.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 19 September 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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‘Swallowing stout and feeling vaguely blasphemous…’

Flann O'Brien: Contesting LegaciesFlann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies
Eds. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan, and Werner Huber
Cork University Press; £39.99
Review: Val Nolan

‘Flanneurs’ and ‘Mylesians’ rejoice! A hefty volume of essays originating in 100 Myles: The International Flann O’Brien Centenary Conference (Vienna, 2011) has recently been published and is an intelligent, rigorous collection whose contributors rise to the occasion of tackling one of the most scattershot bodies of work in Irish literature. As the editors put it in their introduction, Brian O’Nolan AKA Myles na gCopaleen AKA Flann O’Brien was an author who ‘combines the tags of “incomparable comic genius” and “avant-garde innovator” with that of “wasted talent”.’ A ‘polymorphic legacy’ if ever there was one, however it is from just these disputed spaces that Borg, Fagan, and Huber’s volume draws both its title and its critical focus.

The aim of the project is to rescue O’Nolan’s anarchic and absurdist commentaries on the strangeness of mid-twentieth century life from ‘the margins of Irish literary studies’. While the author’s best known work receives appropriate attention here, the real strength of Contesting Legacies comes from the attention payed to things that aren’t The Third Policeman (1967). This engagement with the breadth of O’Nolan’s stories, plays, journalism, and miscellaneous writings gives Contesting Legacies the kind of scope and authority which a study of an author as multi-faceted as O’Nolan demands. Moreover, and with only one or two exceptions, the individual essays of the book happily confound the stereotype of dry, unengaging scholarly prose and so the volume largely avoids the unevenness which is liable to tarnish any edited collection.

Keith Hopper begins the book by looking at the ‘submerged intertextual elements’ of O’Nolan’s story ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ (1940) as well as the author’s anxiety of Joycean influence (specifically how ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ mirrors Joyce’s ‘A Painful Case’). Anyone familiar with Hopper’s Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (revised edition 2009) will recognise the no-nonsense delivery of shrewd, insightful readings which he again supplies in this essay. Though the bicycle is the vehicle most frequently associated with O’Nolan’s work as O’Brien, Hopper here draws our attention to the frequent appearance of trains as “symbols of frustrated modernity and thwarted desire” (in the case of ‘John Duffy’s Brother’, the protagonist is overtaken by the belief that he actually is a train). It is, in many ways, the ideal opening for Contesting Legacies in that it distils from the too-easily dismissed nonsensical aspects of O’Nolan’s writing a tendency towards tales of ‘power and danger’, of the imagination, of language and literature, of de Valera’s Ireland, and of sexual uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts stronger than facts or reason. After reading it, one is certainly primed for the multitudes which O’Nolan’s work contains and which the rest of this volume explores.

Co-editor Paul Fagan also looks at the before, during, and after of the ‘psychotic episode’ which is ‘John Duffy’s Brother’. Taking his cue from houses leaning ‘outward as if to study themselves in the water’ in The Dalkey Archive (1964), Fagan examines O’Nolan’s use of metafictional strategies associated with Ovid’s Narcissus myth in the story, as well as the author’s ‘project of testing the Narcissus scene and the literary event as interchangeable sites for thinking through “an evanescent identity which is lost even as it is grasped”.’ It is effectively done, particularly with regard to the instances of failed recognition and misreading on the part of O’Nolan’s characters. What’s more, by tracing the evolution of these strategies in the macabre comedy of the story ‘Two in One’ (wherein the protagonist murders his boss and then wears the victim’s skin in order to hide the crime) Fagan convincingly identifies a different kind of ‘encounter with the self’ in O’Nolan’s work, one which develops into the more radical and unsettling portrayal of narcissism recognisable in the later writing.

Jack Fennell discusses Brian O’Nolan’s ‘familiarity with, and creative exploration of, the motifs and clichés of science fiction’, a topic of considerable interest to this reader. His focus is on two comic stories as Gaeilge from 1932, ‘Díoghaltais Ar Ghallaibh ’sa Bhliain 2032!’ (‘Revenge on the English in the year 2032!’) and ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’ (‘The Arrival and Departure of John Bull’), as well as on The Dalkey Archive. The biggest surprise here comes from the stories, which were published in the Fianna Fáil organ The Irish Press and so in about as unexpected a venue for parodies of pulp science fiction tales as ever there was. Both depict a future nation where Irish is the spoken language of the citizenry (and in the case of ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’, the language of the western world) and both hinge on the search for anyone who still speaks English. Fennell draws on theorists and theories well established within the science fiction field, such as Marc Angenot’s ‘Absent Paradigm’ and Darko Suvin’s ‘cognitive estrangement’, and his application of these to some of the most Irish literature imaginable makes me excited to start his recently published Irish Science Fiction (2014), a book which is currently on my desk.

The conflict that Fennell mentions between religion and science is but one aspect of the tension between tradition and modernity which recurs throughout O’Nolan’s work. Indeed, it is at the heart of another very strong offering here, Alana Gillespie’s examination of how O’Nolan depicted ‘the role of science in shaping a modernising, independent Ireland’. Gillespie looks specifically at the Cruiskeen Lawn columns from the Irish Times which address the intersection of ‘religion, science, education, tradition, and anxieties about Ireland’s international reputation’. Beginning with a consideration of O’Nolan’s infamous mockery of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS issued a writ for libel against the Irish Times), Gillespie’s essay expands into a wide, intriguing discussion of how science was regarded by the government and by the people of Ireland at the time (‘What has St. Patrick got against theoretical physics?’ she asks). It’s a fair and balanced essay too, bringing in key players from both the scientific and theological sides of the divide.

Your only man...

Your only man…

A different approach to plausibility and possibility is provided by Ondřej Pilný, who looks at the similarity of O’Nolan’s writing to the ‘anti-discourse’ of ‘pataphysics’ (the ‘science of imaginary solutions’) as put forward by Alfred Jarry. In essence it is another way of looking at Flann O’Brien as a link between fantasy and science fiction in an Irish context, however Pilný argues that what makes The Third Policeman pataphysical in nature is the wedding of ‘frightening inventions’ and enigmatic machinery’ to ‘unique linguistic creativity’. He builds his essay around an intriguing version of O’Nolan’s imagination whereby real-life scientists like Erwin Schrödinger (with whom O’Nolan was familiar during the physicist’s time at DIAS) inspire fictional counterparts such as de Selby and Policeman MacCruiskeen, and, in turn, the fantastic developments in science by all parties become indistinguishable from one another. Pilný’s essay forms a loose trilogy with the Fennell and Gillespie contributions (with all in turn building on previous work by Hopper, Neil Murphy, and so on) which, more than providing a strong backbone to Contesting Legacies, suggests the continuing fruitfulness of O’Nolan and science as a field of study within the larger Flannian discourse.

That said, two of the most engrossing and interesting essays here are focused on O’Nolan’s relationship with very identifiable aspects of Irish literature and, regrettably, life. The first, by John McCourt, considers O’Nolan (in his na gCopaleen guise) as a ‘Joyce scholar’ (something he says would have made O’Nolan ‘brindle’) and serves nicely to knit the author more closely into those aspects of Irish writing regarded as more conventional and which are more widely studied, especially aboard. The second, by Tom Walker, is a standout in Contesting Legacies. It details The Third Policeman’s fascinating debt to the true story of a Garda officer killed in Clare in 1929 and so to ‘a further Irish historical context: terror’. Walker’s essay is this lapsed historian’s favourite of the volume and is no doubt going to be quite popular with those teaching the novel in that, like McCourt’s contribution, it underlines how O’Nolan was perhaps not such an outlier in Irish writing after all.

Of course there is far too much in this book to cover in a short review (wait, this is a short review?!). Maebh Long analyses ‘the ontological implications of “Jams O’Donnell” and the position of the name and the Irish language’ in An Béal Bocht (1941). Thomas Jackson Rice questions why ‘marriage, sexual life, and women’ are frequently presented as sources of ‘high anxiety’ in O’Nolan’s work. Marion Quirici looks at the way O’Nolan ‘calls attention so freely and so frequently’ to the framing aspects of his narratives as well as to the ‘role of the narrator as both listener and teller of stories’. Jennika Baines smartly examines the ways ‘O’Nolan uses murder to convey notions of justice’. Thierry Robin – informed very much by the work of Linda Hutcheon – takes an interesting look at the ‘proto-postmodern philosophy of history throughout O’Nolan’s typically ironic representation’ of actual Irish history in ‘The Martyr’s Crown’ and the playlet Thirst. Ute Anna Mittermaier contributes a hugely entertaining look at O’Nolan’s pseudonymous letters to the Irish Times (particularly concerning The Spanish Civil War) and the question of whether or not he was the enigmatic figure ‘Oscar Love’. Meanwhile, Neil Murphy covers a lot of ground in intelligent fashion by examining the degree to which An Béal Bocht parodies canonical Irish language texts in a manner which combines a satirical impulse and genuine admiration.

It is true that there is a lot going on in this volume, but that is inevitable (one might even say responsible on the part of the editors) given the still astonishing multiplicity of modes and genres – let alone authorial identities and publication contexts – which characterize O’Nolan’s writings (The O’Nolan O’Euvre, anyone? No? Okay.). By re-evaluating O’Nolan’s ‘lesser-known works and personae’, investigating his debts and influences on an international level, and probing his canon with such a varied range of critical perspectives, Contesting Legacies is very much the volume which the author’s work deserves. It is furthermore a model of an edited collection of essays, not just in the quality of its contents or its enjoyability as a reading experience (how often does one get to hail a volume of academic essays for that?) but for its wide appeal. Flann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies is to be praised for its avoidance of the distancing and alienating academese which turns so many of, if I may borrow a Mylesism, ‘the Plain People of Ireland’ off contemporary literary scholarship. It is, in the end, a book which will be of interest (even delight!) to those Flanneurs beyond the academy as much as to those within.

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Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirty-First Annual Collection

Year's Best Science FictionThis week sees the publication of Gardner Dozois’s thirty-first annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). I’m honoured to say that this year’s selection includes my Sturgeon-nominated story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ alongside work from the likes of Ian R. MacLeod, Sunny Moraine, the late Jay Lake, Geoff Ryman, Karl Bunker, Carrie Vaughn, Greg Egan, Allen M. Steele, Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Martin L. Shoemaker, Jake Kerr, Sandra McDonald, Michael Swanwick, Stephen Baxter, Alexander Jablokov, Neal Asher, Lavie Tidhar, Sean McMullen, Ian McDonald, Melissa Scott, Brendan DuBois, and James Patrick Kelly (I’ve previously blogged a full breakdown of the contents here).

From the blurb: ‘The world of science fiction has long been a porthole into the realities of tomorrow, blurring the line between life and art. Now, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection the very best SF authors explore ideas of a new world in the year’s best short stories. This venerable collection brings together award winning authors and masters of the field such as Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Damien Broderick, Elizabeth Bear, Paul McAuley and John Barnes. And with an extensive recommended reading guide and a summation of the year in science fiction, this annual compilation has become the definitive must-read anthology for all science fiction fans.’

Weighing in at 750 pages, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty First Annual Collection can be purchased at all good bookshops or direct from the publisher here.

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Like a Hand on the Shoulder…

Always a pleasure to engage with the work of the late John McGahern. Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner on the newest edition of his Collected Stories

John McGahern - Collected Stories

John McGahern – Collected Stories

Collected Stories
John McGahern
Faber; £10.99
Review: Val Nolan

Even in death, John McGahern remains Ireland’s greatest living writer. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but then, as an author known for decade-long silences, it does not feel as if he has truly left us. We might have expected a new novel from him by now if he were still alive but, in place of that, comes this reminder that he is in fact gone. It provokes sadness, yes, but also gratitude for the powerful work which he gifted us in the time available to him.

Famously, McGahern believed that Ireland was less a coherent state than a mosaic of ‘little republics called families’. Something similar can be said of his Collected Stories. It is a volume which exceeds the sum of its varied contents; a selection which both echoes and enhances McGahern’s long form prose in terms of its symbolism and its use of local reference. The stories here speak to the author’s working through – or, to borrow the title of his second collection, perhaps Getting Through – of the themes and architectures which have ultimately come to define him.

But McGahern’s stories are far more than exercises in narrative style or structure; they are masterpieces in their own right. ‘Korea’ surely ranks with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’ as one of the greatest Irish short stories. ‘Eddie Mac’ and ‘The Conversion of William Kirkwood’ deliver fresh angles on the well-worn ground of Anglo-Irish decline. The striking but atypical ‘Peaches’ plumbs McGahern’s own autobiography while ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ unravels the impact of the Irish emigrant experience.

Of course, there are differences between this volume and the previous edition, styled Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories and chosen by McGahern before his death. The contents here return to those of the 1992 Collected Stories and so, while the fine valedictory offerings ‘Creatures of the Earth’ and ‘Love of the World’ are absent, a number of key pieces are reinstated. These include not just the Spain-set ‘Peaches’, but also ‘Coming into his Kingdom’, in which a young boy discovers the adult world, ‘Doorways’, an urbane, and at times satirical novella of romantic entanglement, as well as the haunting ‘The Beginning of an Idea’.

The result is a stronger collection in that it presents more facets of McGahern, especially the work of the 1970s and 1980s. It foregrounds his outsider perspective at the time, something which allowed him to articulate the harshness of Ireland in a way few others have achieved. Indeed, it is debateable whether McGahern would have produced such striking short fiction had he not been sacked from his teaching job at the insistence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and forced into exile after publishing The Dark in 1965.

And yet McGahern forgave the Church. Although he ceased to be a believer, his maturity – evidenced by his Memoir and by his decorum in general – makes him a very Christian writer at a time when the clergy were embarrassing themselves or, worse, actively harming the vulnerable. The complex relationship he developed with Irish Catholicism is apparent when one compares the sympathetic portraits of priests in stories like ‘The Wine Breath’ to his uncompromising critiques of the nation’s mid-century theocracy in pieces such as ‘The Recruiting Officer’.

What would McGahern have made of the ruinous state of the country today? Of the economic crash? Of the clerical sex-abuse scandals? In a way it doesn’t matter. ‘It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences. Nothing more,’ he once said, and when he broached such subjects in his work it was out of an interest in the way external forces squeezed the lives carved out by Everyman and Everywoman figures.

It is therefore the privilege of the reader and the scholar to explore his life and work anew with every passing year. For instance, Peter Guy, writing in Studies, has ably read McGahern’s fiction through the lens of the Murphy Report. Denis Sampson has recently published a volume on the author’s early, formative years and the influences which led to his fiction. Meanwhile academics such as Antoinette Quinn and David Malcolm have given detailed attention to the stories collected here.

Writers too continue to look to McGahern in an effort to emulate his credible depiction of Ireland’s conflicted heart and tortured soul. As he told Sampson in 1979, ‘Fiction always has to be believable, I mean that you have to convince the reader that it happened’. A corollary, perhaps, is that life is not just misery; life is going on despite the misery, as the characters of ‘Crossing the Line’ and ‘All Sorts of Impossible Things’ do. Though that said, the central, Chekhovian third of this volume can be hard going.

Those heavier pieces contribute to the impression that McGahern’s writing is mostly concerned with the old and the dying and the dead, but in fact young people predominate throughout the Collected Stories. Likewise, work such as ‘Gold Watch’ and ‘Bank Holiday’ is downright optimistic when compared to McGahern’s early novels. Sex, in particular, is acknowledged as an essential part of life. Its musk infuses the figuring-out of relationships in the twin vignettes of ‘Along the Edges’, the bittersweet comedy of ‘My Love, My Umbrella’, and the dagger pangs of want which stab at the heart of ‘Sierra Leone’ amongst others.

Thus these are stories about bodies as much as about characters. There is a physicality to the work collected here, and the timeless vitality of McGahern’s writing derives from the impact of just this weight upon the reader. The pieces here often arrive violently – Anne Enright has rightly called them ‘the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor’ – but they also linger long after the initial jolt. They lodge imaginative shrapnel, slivers of difficult choices, deep within the mind of the reader.

Such an effect ensures that the Collected Stories is less a time-capsule to be sealed and buried than it is a box of vivid memories to be opened and experienced again and again. The book possesses an instructional quality, this is true, but it never becomes didactic. Instead the pieces here are reassuring like a hand on the shoulder. They comprise a volume in which pragmatism is spiked with ambition, pleasure is tempered by realism, and out of which a unique vision of an Ireland in transition emerges. Reissued eight years after his death, McGahern’s Collected Stories presents us with the opportunity not for reassessment – his reputation is secure – but for reengagement. It is the work of a writer who will no doubt live forever.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches at NUI Galway. His work includes the definitive account of the McGahern banning, “If it was Just Th’ol Book”, published in
Irish Studies Review.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 July 2014 (Weekend, pp.24-25).

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‘Experiment or Die’: an Interview with Mike McCormack

Mike McCormackJust a quick update to say that ‘Experiment or Die’, my interview with Irish novelist Mike McCormack has just been published in Canada’s ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature.

Mike McCormack is the author of Getting it in the Head (1996), a book of stories awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has also published two novels, Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes From a Coma (2005). The latter was short-listed for The Sunday Independent/Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award, hailed by The Irish Times as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade just ended”, and deemed by this author in the Irish Examiner to be “the only interesting Irish novel of the 21st Century”. His new collection of stories, Forensic Songs, has recently been published.

In this interview, McCormack discusses the influences and experiences which led him to writing, the ubiquity of technology and the fragility of identity in 21st century Ireland (particularly with regard to its depiction in Notes From a Coma), along with the vital, experimental ethos which he believes contemporary Irish fiction must reclaim if it is to maintain relevance in this globalized age.

As ever, anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via their electronic resources, though if you’re having trouble with that or are beyond the paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, of course, but society and economics aren’t exactly there yet.

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