The Temporary Gentleman

the temporary gentlemanJack McNulty, the hero and villain of Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Temporary Gentleman, which tells the story of a doomed marriage in the first half of the twentieth century, is not the first of his kind to love his wife in a fatal fashion.

No, he has illustrious literary ancestors that include the haplessly persistent Chevalier des Grieux with his Manon Lescaut, and Charles Bovary whose terminal dullness and inability to give his wife, Emma, any emotional satisfaction leads to her sex-and-shopping fuelled rush to the grave. What’s perhaps most interesting in all three cases is that a showily gorgeous prose style is supposed to balance things out in the man’s favour.

If the story is told beautifully enough, the reader will forgive all? It’s an interesting equation, and one that crops up time and again. I think Edgar Allen Poe may have to stand up for some of the blame, having declared in 1846 that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ (Though I’ll let him off the hook for Manon Lescaut which was written just over a century earlier.) This is essentially the impetus behind Barry’s latest novel which is narrated by Jack McNulty towards the end of his life, as he contemplates his marriage to his late, troubled wife, Mai, and begins to perceive maybe the glimmer of a suspicion that he carries a heavy burden of guilt for her tempestuous life and her untimely demise. It was a question that I struggled with time and again across the pages of exquisitely crafted prose: how much did the beauty of the writing compensate for the utter frustrating stupidity of the irritating, denial-ridden, drink-sodden hopelessly oblivious Jack?

Hmm, still not sure.

So, if you are a veteran of Sebastian Barry’s books (which I was not; this was my first) you will apparently have come across Jack already in other stories in which he has been a bit-player. In this novel we begin in 1957, with Jack a ‘balding, ageing Irish ex-major’, hanging about in Accra in Africa, afraid to go home to Sligo. We’re aware pretty early on that back he is going to have to go, as the local authorities have caught up with him for a spot of gun-running. While he waits in limbo, knowing he must leave but unable to shift himself (a pretty common state of affairs for our man), he begins writing about his past:

Maybe now when I think I am understanding, I am instead mistaking everything, but at least I am perceiving something in the place of the great fog that has persisted through my life. A fog that no light apparently could properly pierce. There is a great mountain, and high ravines, and great danger, but the fog says nothing about that, the fog only talks on and on about itself. It is not interested in any fashion in clarity, naturally. But now and then, the fog disperses, and in little gloamings of clear light I seem to see the figures, my parents, Mai, my children, standing or sitting, talking, prosecuting you might say their lives and days.’

When he was a young man in University College, Galway, training to be an engineer and a hard drinker, Jack fell in love with Mai Kirwan, a ‘woman replete, laden with gifts, musical, athletic, clever as a general’. She also happens to be a leg up the social class and therefore out of his reach, theoretically. But Jack displays unusual persistence, and aided by the early deaths of her parents, persuades her to marry him. A teeny clue that something might be up is given when Mai flees the wedding ceremony and runs in the drenching rain to her parents’ house where Jack will find her, half-demented, telling him she ‘wants to go back’. Jack decides to carry on as if nothing odd has happened, and when Mai is given her parents’ home by her brother (a gift that hints at a broader family awareness of the couple’s fragility) they do seem to live the high life in it for a while. Until, that is, the bank manager comes to take away the deeds and the furniture to pay Jack’s gambling debts. We have kept pace with Mai’s awareness of this situation, and so it comes as much of a shock to the reader as to Mai, who rushes upstairs to her hidden bag of coins, convinced she can save the day, only to find it empty, too. They move to more squalid housing, Mai falls victim to post-natal depression, Jack essentially runs away to fight in the Second World War (entirely unnecessary for him, being Irish) in order to escape the situation at home and Mai takes to drink. Jack has already provided an effective example in how to drink, after all.

Oh it’s not like he hasn’t been told. Mai’s friend, Ursula, summons all her courage to make Mai’s mental state known to Jack (‘Whatever you can hear of this, pay no heed, pay no heed.’), and the doctor tries to take him aside too: ‘”Might I just make the observation that your own drinking is very considerable, and not a help to her, especially if you would like her to stop.”‘ To which Jack replies: “‘Well I only drink sociably to be sociable,” I said to my discredit. I think I must call that a lie.’ So what we have here is really a portrait of denial – knowing that is firmly pushed to one side – and also a portrait of guilt. Jack repeatedly tells us how much he loves his wife, and he behaves as if mystified by the collapse of their relationship into abuse and drunkenness, but running through the narrative stealthily and quietly there is this undeniable chain of events and consequences that reveal the ugly truth.

But if Jack can’t help but reveal his guilt, the reader can’t help but be impressed by Barry’s writing. He is a quite brilliant producer of metaphor and simile. Describing his own father in the best clothes he could find to attend the funeral of Mai’s father, Jack says that ‘he looked like one of those old photographs of executed train robbers in America, put out somewhere as a warning to the frontier populace.’ Just a casual description of the days after the monsoon rains have stopped in Africa tells us ‘the mosquitoes are now in a fervent of happiness and hang about everywhere after dark like a crowd of cornerboys in Sligo’. And two of the most striking passages in the entire novel concern extended, extraordinary descriptions of war bombings, both of which spare Jack his life. The first opens the novel, when he is on a supply ship heading out to Accra which gets torpedoed; many good men go down but by sheer luck, Jack survives. The other is when he is training men in bomb disposal in Yorkshire. A random air bombardment destroys the building they are training in, a supposedly safe place for them to be, and kills his company of men, while Jack sits in the bar with a pint of beer.

Perhaps, at the end of the novel, it’s these two scenes of near-misses which stick with me more than the unsurprising decline of his marriage. Why is Jack’s life saved? Is the message of the book that we keep being given second chances until, finally, we manage to see ourselves clearly? Or is it that existence is driven forward by an arbitrariness touched with cynicism, that good men die while the wasters live on to continue creating havoc? In this beautiful, enraging novel maybe it’s that question that ultimately makes it more than the poetic rendering of yet another unnecessary female death.

 

Gabriel Josipovici Interview

gabriel-josipoviciI had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Gabriel Josipovici for Numero Cinq magazine; what came out of the weeks we spoke together was a profound, moving meditation on the life of an artist. Josipovici has not had things easy, facing almost a critical vendetta against his works. He’s never really had the renown that he deserves, either. If you haven’t read him, I suggest you start where I did, with the short novel, Everything Passes.

Or of course you could begin with our interview, which you can find here.

Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

bigmagicI am a fully paid-up card-carrying fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, but there is often a moment at the start of her books where I feel like I might have sat next to the wrong person on the overnight bus and will live to regret it. Big Magic was no different as Gilbert begins it in kooky, mystical mode with injunctions to find my inner treasure and believe in the big magic of creativity. It felt at first like the quinetessence of self-help with a big dose of my daily horoscope.

I have read a lot of books about creativity, finding it a fascinating topic, and many books about the lives of authors. The relentless, upbeat positivity of Gilbert’s prose was initially a little grating. I couldn’t help but remember the story about Hans Christian Andersen, when he was visiting Charles Dickens and overstaying his welcome by about two months. Dickens came home one day and said to the kids, where’s Hans? And they said, he’s outside, face down on the grass sobbing because he got a bad review.

I remember poor old Hermann Hesse, champion hypochondriac of the early 20th century who, during WW1, wrote a very mild little article about how nice peace might be, only to find himself facing widespread condemnation for his unpatriotic attitude and blackballed by all the booksellers in Germany.

I remember Dodie Smith, who reluctantly agreed to spend the duration of the Second World War in America because her husband really badly wanted to go, and when they finally returned twenty years later everything Dodie feared had come to pass: she was completely out of touch with the London theatre scene and never staged another successful play (after an unparalleled five in a row before the outbreak of war).

When I read about these authors I admit I was comforted by them; they felt like my tribe. I cherished the idea that you might suck at life but create wonderful things nevertheless. And I thought that creativity was not an easy road to choose, that it was full of pitholes and that inevitably, you might end up alongside Hans Christian Andersen, face down on the lawn and weeping.

Well, Elizabeth Gilbert is having none of that. Creativity isn’t necessarily an easy choice, she agrees, but it’s the most interesting thing you’ll do and it’s open to each and every one of us. Her perspective is tailored to encourage everyone just to have a jolly good go at it, regardless of the outcome. All you need for creative living on her terms is courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust. Each of these qualities heads up a chunk of her text, and each is explored with her customary kindness and wisdom and lots of really good anecdotes.

I particularly enjoyed the story she tells about a novel she so nearly wrote concerning the Brazilian rain forest. Years later, when that book had withered away to nothing, she met and befriended Ann Patchett, who was astonished to hear about Elizabeth’s near-miss and confessed she was writing the exact same story that Elizabeth had passed over. It became State of Wonder and won Patchett the (then) Orange prize for fiction. Gilbert points out that she could have been downcast or upset by this turn of affairs, she could have decided that the universe was against her. Instead, she felt a little miracle had happened and that she was absolutely right to turn up at her desk every day waiting for inspiration. Because ideas really do come knocking with some insistence, and they’ll move on if you can’t bring them to fruition quickly enough.

Gilbert’s premise is that the world of creativity is a very strange one and it functions by unusual laws. You might work for years without recognition, or watch less gifted people pick up all the awards. It isn’t a clear meritocracy, and you can’t control the outcome. She tells a story I loved about asking her new husband, Felipe, if he minded her writing about him in a little thing called Eat, Pray, Love she was working on. Well, he said, what was at stake? And she laughed and said, nothing at all, no one ever reads my books. In a way, that’s why Gilbert is a very good person to be writing this guide. She’s had one massive bestseller and five other books, and she says she could not tell you what was different; it’s purely about chance.

She is actually very good on overcoming one’s fears and giving oneself permission even to try (‘Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly but firmly. Most of all, never back down.’) And on dismissing the reception, good, bad and ugly, that results from taking the plunge and putting stuff out there (‘I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.’) She is also against perfectionism, even if this leads her into a slightly eyebrow-raising anecdote about letting The Signature of All Things out into the world imperfect, because it was good enough.

This reminded me of another book on creativity I read by the social scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (I’m typing that once and never again, okay?). His thesis is that something can only be deemed creative by the experts in the field, not by the person doing the creating, which probably works for science but is a real dog’s dinner in the arts where no one ever agrees on these things. He also says that only time can tell – what might seem creative at first turns out not to be creative if opinion decides against it in later years. Which means poor old Swedenborg, for instance – ridiculed in his native Sweden, a hit a century later in Europe and now more or less sunk into obscurity – was creative posthumously for a hundred or so discountable years. It’s madness, right? Though if we accept that Gilbert’s Big Magic is a strange beast indeed, it does seem to be the case that we don’t know what we are creating and we don’t know what ‘perfect’ looks like. Certainly down here at amoeba level, the posts I slave over for this blog get the smallest amount of traffic, and those I toss out simply because I have to put something up can sometimes attract lots of comments and likes.

So Gilbert, as ever, won me around to her way of thinking, which is that if you’re going to try and be creative, you do it only ever because the process is fun. And the more you can get your head around the obstacles and problems that befall you, the more fun you can have. We all use delusions to make sense of what we do, she argues, isn’t it best to have life-enhancing, sensible ones? In the end I couldn’t imagine anyone reading this book and not feeling heartened, encouraged and braced for the challenges ahead. Though I can’t quite get out of my mind an image of Filipe holding the telephone receiver and calling, ‘Liz, I’ve got Hans Christian Anderson on the phone and he says he’s still feeling miserable. Will you come and talk to him?’