Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Joseph O'Connor's "Ghost Light": Book Review

This dramatizes the engagement of Molly Allgood, aka Maire O'Neill, an actress, to John Millington Synge. It does so with warmth, wit, and sadness. Synge died young, although when he met Molly, she was still eighteen and he thirty-seven, so the fear of scandal, according to Joseph O'Connor's version, kept him from marrying her. O'Connor attributes, in his version, Synge's hesitation to a habitual, perhaps half-calculated, sense of "eccentric ineptitude" cultivated by the shy, awkward playwright.

Great scenes highlight Molly's rows with Synge and with Yeats at the Abbey Theatre during rehearsals. "Yeats and Lady Gregory had been tense, exchanging inscrutable looks, like Easter Island statues contemplating adultery or murder." (48) Other episodes touchingly portray their clandestine love, while a sort of stage-Irishry enlivens an imagined scene in which Synge's family has Molly over to meet his fearsome mother. Played for laughs and poignancy, it reveals a deft hand by O'Connor in celebrating and sending-up the stereotyped speech as well as deeper class distinctions, colored by O'Connor's familiarity with critical debate on this dramatist by later Irish post-colonial critics. His endnotes show what he has invented and what he embellished; we only have Synge's letters to Molly saved, and not hers to him.

"There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly. It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Liliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embarrassing stains on the mattress." (16) O'Connor imagines what transpired, more behind the scenes as we rarely witness here what happens on stage. He conveys both 1907 Dublin and 1952 post-Blitz London as unsurprisingly often grim and dank cities, but glimpses of Synge's beloved Wicklow provide a respite from the scrutiny of their fellow Irish and the transports later of what Molly views at the National Portrait Gallery in London allow the imagination freer rein.

Kindness also eases pain, and the novel can be extremely moving in the way it shows the affection of an old bookseller for Molly, as well as very comic in the way Synge's mother on the outside and Molly on the inside mutter imprecations and bitterly funny curses at all around them. One of the first sentences the imperious widowed mother utters to her bohemian son: "Have I not been wounded and cut at sufficiently to placate the wicked selfishness you appear to regard as a devoted parent's due?" Yet, O'Connor, skilled at characterization and careful to be fair, makes her eventually understandable in her mortal fears, no less than the BBC producer whom Molly meets again, Synge's uncle who mourns for him in his own clumsy way, or her hilarious, yet affectionate somehow, recollections of her fat old seducer J. Seamus Shannon.

O'Connor as a native Dubliner knows his city well. He has an ear for its speech: as he speaks of one citizen's "ability to express disapproval by the giving of compliments" as a municipal facility and professional advantage. He also incorporates American scenes, no surprise to readers of his previous pair of historical novels, "Star of the Sea" and (reviewed by me) "Redemption Falls" along with an earlier travelogue in search of wherever was named Dublin in the U.S., "Sweet Liberty" (also reviewed, as was "The Salesman," a thriller set in suburban Dublin). A hint of Joyce flitters by in a trio of references, and the density of prose, although a bit lighter in tone than the historical novels set in the post-Civil War era with impressive narrative structure and complex plots, still makes for a novel that demands close attention, for the action filtered nearly entirely through Molly's consciousness across a day and over decades does reward concentration.

I found one chapter near the end, although it expands and may wrap up strands left open, slightly digressive compared to the earlier focus on Molly's relationship and its memorialized echoes in London forty-five years later. Still, I understand its inclusion even if it slowed the pace markedly. Overall, quite a humane testament to dignity, generosity, and courage lived out however humbly, off stage and under duress.

The novel ends with a reminder of another fictional Molly from Dublin in a chatty letter, perhaps what might "bloom" if Joyce caught the vernacular a generation or so after his own classic conclusion to another Irish novel. You also find out what the title means. Over all of its range within a short span, we appreciate not only Molly but her lover, in his bold attempt, along with the unnamed Joyce and the inspiring if maddening Yeats as shown here, to enter via language and the pauses within it our own private "Eden, the inner realm of silence" that separates man from beasts, and gives humanity some salvation from "the filthy undermurmur of living."(Posted to Amazon US 12-30-10 & 2-20-11. Featured at Pop Matters 1-31-11.)

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