Saturday, September 29, 2012

Imram bheag ina Havai

Fhilleadh mé go an Cathair na hÁingeal go dtí a-Havai inné (9/25). Go fírinne, bím níos lag leis "jet-lag" fós. Mar sin féin, bhain sult as agam an h-imram bheag.

Ina theannta sin, chuaigh mé ar an h-imram bheag mise féin. Leis mo neacht sa dlí agus a fear chéile, a n-iníon agus a fear chéile freisin, d'imigh go cuan ag dul amach ar an Abhainn Wailua ina gKaua'i leis an dream na ocht gcinn eile (ó gCalifoirnea go léir) agus an treoir áitiúil. Bhí fonn orm, agus ár clann  gan amhras. 

Bheul, shrioch Léna agus mé an bruach na habann le deachracht mór. Níl fhíos againn a rámhaidh cadhc. Ach, rinne muid chun streachailt dhá bhliain go leath míle go an forais bháistí. 

Ansin, shiúil muid suas an rian a eas rúnda do eile míle. Chuaigh Léna snámh sa lochán. Shuigh mé ar an cloch árasán leis na choleachaí os cionn na scardán ar an ceann na abhainn. 

Ar ndóigh, chaitheamh muid ar ais aríst! Bhuail muid gaoth láidir ó dheas. Ar ais go dtí an céibh mar an dhorcaigh a lá i gcuimhne. 

A little sea-voyage in Hawai'i. 

I returned to Los Angeles from Hawai'i yesterday (9/25).  Truly, I'm still very slow with "jet-lag." All the same, I enjoyed the little voyage.

Furthermore, I went on a little sea-voyage myself. With my niece-in-law and her husband, their daughter and her husband too, we left from the harbor to go out on the Wailua River in Kaua'i with a group of eight others (all from California) and a local guide. I was anxious, and our clan no doubt.

Well, Layne and I reached the bank of the river with great difficulty. We did not know how to row a kayak. But, we made the struggle two and a half miles to a rainforest. 

Then, we walked up a trail to a secret waterfall another mile. Layne went swimming in a pond. I sat on a flat rock with the roosters above the cascade at the head of the river. 

Of course, we had to go back again! We hit strong winds southward. We returned to dockside as a memorable day darkened.

(Photo/Grianghraf le Mike Maginot, 9/22/12: Mise, Marlene, Léna, Cari. Bruach ó thíos na Abhainn Wailua ar an bealach go/North Bank of the Wailua River on the way to Uluwehi [Secret] Falls/ Eas [Rúnda] na Uluwehi)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Robert Kanigel's "On an Irish Island": Book Review


A rowboat away, southwest of the westernmost tip of Ireland, the Blasket Islands seemed five hundred years ago in time to those who visited them starting nearly a century ago, and who read the memoirs and accounts written by its natives. These authors, in turn, did not all know even how to read and write in their Irish-language dialect. Yet, they found an international audience through a motley set of mediators, mostly in their twenties, who traveled to the islands after learning Irish themselves. 

Robert Kanigel, a science writer retired from M.I.T., in 2005 visited the interpretative center set up to explain the legacy of the islanders. On his honeymoon, he got into his first “tiff” with his wife, after he could not tear himself away from the bookstore stocked with works by the Great Blasket Island’s writers there. Unsurprisingly, he winds up explaining to us the meeting of European scholars and unschooled fisher-folk, recorded by sophisticated archivists and shrewd islanders, in a rare convergence of intellects.

George Thomson, a Cambridge classicist (and later leader in the British Communist Party), began the popularization of the Blaskets. He wanted to learn modern Irish, and his friendship with Tomás Ó Criomhthain leads to the publication of Island Cross-Talk and The Islandman. These accounts, the latter a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1933, generated mixed reviews. Some then, as with certain critics today, reacted negatively to the manipulation of romantic themes which minimized the repetitive storms and drownings of real island life. Others lauded the “simple, lilting pages” and enjoyed such exuberant pastoralism.

Mr. Kanigel sides with the editors and translators who crafted the storytelling talents of Ó Criomhthain as acceptable compromises to heighten the power of his tales. Robin Flower from the British Museum and Carl Marstrander from Norway join those attracted to what appeared a last bastion of spoken Irish and primitive ways on Europe’s last frontier. Brian Kelly, another mediator, gains a less documented and more shadowy presence as he works with Ó Criomhthain; Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, a brilliant Parisian linguist, brings deft skills to her own work with a raconteur, “Seán a Chóta,” in what may, as Mr. Kanigel suggests, have been an infatuation hatched out of opportunism, or a series of miscues about compatibility. Similarly, Thomson’s own attempt to woo a local girl, he twenty-three and an atheist academic set on doctoral studies in Greek at Cambridge, she fifteen with a big smile, appears fated for failure. Mary Kearney left the island, first for domestic service in the shadow of Ireland’s premier seminary, and then in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she soon entered the convent. 

The mismatch between trained scholars and blunt fishing families challenges both sides. The language barriers, as Mr. Kanigel sums up well, daunt even skilled linguists. Add the shock of leaving Oxford or Paris to land on a barren, treeless rock, so difficult to get to that a priest was rowed over but once a year, and the culture clash intensifies. Mr. Kanigel interweaves the perspectives of Thomson or Sjoestedt intricately into how they approached the islanders. Alternatively, via Maurice O’Sullivan--who while a policeman stationed unhappily among Irish-speakers in Connemara wrote what in English Thomson translated as Twenty Years a-Growing--Mr. Kanigel shifts to allow us to see 1920s Dublin through the eyes of the newly arrived O’Sullivan. 

Emigration by the 1930s accelerated, even as eager readers found more books to read by islanders documenting their now-vanishing folkways and dialect. After the success of The Islandman and Twenty Years in 1933, the reminiscences of Peig Sayers appeared, from a woman who had married into the island but who could neither read nor write in Irish. In the pages of Peig, generations on the Irish mainland labored to learn an “official” national tongue foreign to nearly all schoolchildren. Three works had found success, produced from a community of about 150. More studies and accounts followed, and fame came to Great Blasket.

Yet, a blip of tourism ended with the privations of WWII, and the economy dwindled along with the numbers able to survive in a harsh if sometimes enchanting place. Marriage partners dwindled, and the school taught fewer children. By 1953, the last islanders were evacuated by the Irish government. 

Mr. Kanigel draws upon the research of nearly a hundred years. Assisted in relevant Irish-language materials by his own mediators, he admits collaboration of his own. The results for a wider audience rest on a command of the sources and an understanding of the complexity in translating and rendering one worldview into another aimed at mass consumption. As a professor of science writing, Mr. Kanigel is to be commended for working outside of his natural expertise. He knits together a handsome pattern as he traces the inherent drama within the destinies on the page--and in recollection by themselves and others--of the Blasket Islanders. In their encounters with European intellectuals, this narrative provides an unexpected combination of characters, all treated with dignity and sensitivity.

Concluding with the aftermath of the Blasket encounter upon its interpreters, both schooled and untutored, this history shows how the impact of the island, whether savored in summer by visitors or endured all year by natives, effected the rest of their lives, after nobody was left to hunt rabbits or catch mackerel. Mr. Kanigel compares the setting to the legendary Land of Youth, where writers and mediators combined to capture the essence of their transformed vision of a place. He knows both its allure and the dangers of distortion, but after all, this is the making of a legend as much as it is the chronicling of fact. The mundane makes magic. Mr. Kanigel reminds us of our own longings for a respite from the pressures of civilization and mechanization; all involved in this Blasket saga appear, later in life off the island, to regret to a small or great degree their exile. 

This book efficiently conveys the feel of living in such a place, and the excitement of the intellectuals who lay claim to having found what Thomson marveled over. Of the fifteen or so books from those who grew up or conducted research on the Blaskets, the results were unequalled in any language, “a collective portrait of a pre-capitalist village society, made by the villagers themselves, at the very moment of transition from speech to print.” This Cambridge scholar’s praise for what when he voyaged there was still largely cut off from the early twentieth century today turns poignant, as the Co. Kerry interpretative center faces the depopulated Blaskets, across three miles of rough, choppy sea. (New York Journal of Books 3-6-12)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tim Pat Coogan's "The Famine Plot": Book Review

The subtitle plays into conspiracy theory, a melodramatic touch calculated to attract readers to what's a familiar saga for many who know Irish history. So, how justified is "England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy" by "Ireland's best-known historian" according to his byline? I read this soon after John Kelly's "The Graves Are Walking" which places the "Great Hunger" of the late 1840s in contexts of Europe, North America, as well as Britain regarding its similarities and differences to other famines. Kelly expands the story to show how emigration, privation, and policy combined to bring a near-worst-case scenario to millions of Irish.

Tim Pat Coogan takes the side of the native against the imperialist. His preface compares the Famine with today's austerity imposed upon the Irish Republic, and notes the personal afflictions endured by his fellow citizens--at least where the Irish again have to depend on charity from abroad. Coogan advances the genocidal definition of what happened in the mid-19th century, and he shows in the first chapter about the conditions of his ancestors how his paternal townlands in Co Kilkenny reveal in the archived "Great Book" the appeals of the tenants to their absentee landlord. Throughout, I was impressed by how Coogan navigates between the big explanation and the local detail garnered from such records and scholarship. He has an eye for the detail, such as a Mayo priest's reticent acknowledgement of "a very interesting woman" given that sexual matters were not discussed.

The second main chapter looks at the background, full of "multilayered demonology" as faction fighting, sectarian rivalry, and the repression after the 1798 rebellion struck fear deeper in the minds of the natives. Poor law relief and the Victorian ameliorative attempts to fix what was wrong with the Irish according to the English show in chapter three the responses habitual and experimented by the British Crown to handle what it feared in Malthusian terms as overpopulation and as mass emigration (to England). Relief was seen as helping the poor to survive and so as to procreate even more peasants.

Coogan turns from the masterminds to the "chief actors in the drama. There were, of course, millions of bit players but their lines were not listened to and echoed only in graveyards." Daniel O'Connell, Sir Robert Peel, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Lord John Russell, Disraeli: well-known names who sought to solve the predicament as the potato crop failed. Tory and Whig debated, the Corn Law ironically passed even as another Coercion Bill was implemented for Ireland. Most MPs did not want to spend money on the ungrateful Irish peasants, the subterfuge of party politics aside.

How much money would be spent depended on grain sent over. Indian corn (hominy grits) was notoriously hard to digest. Crops kept failing, workhouses and public works projects meant to keep the poor fed by having them build roads to nowhere met with predictable despair by the natives. As chapters five with evictions and six with work schemes demonstrate, such conditions exacerbated the deteriorating state of millions in the latter part of the '40s. Peel and Trevelyan among others under Queen Victoria's direction attempted to assist the Irish while keeping down costs, and the corrupt and mismanaged whole as Coogan sums up "was a microcosm" of how the island was governed under the colonial power of the 19th century.

When these schemes ran aground, the workhouses (chapter eight) left an awful legacy in the Irish psyche and its landscape. As Coogan relates, in one of his typical asides bringing in current affairs, even in the past decade the reluctance or refusal of some political entities to commemorate the Famine shows the "{s}ensitivity regarding Anglo-Irish relationships." He pays attention to the plight of the young as well as old housed in appalling conditions, and reminds us of the inhumanity that marked many who survived to emigrate or return to poverty, perhaps shunned by neighbors now as unclean after their release from "the last places of resort" intended "for the destitute only."

The Quakers to their credit helped relieve with food and care, but sectarian rivalries poisoned Protestant efforts derided by Catholics as proselytizing. Chapter Nine documents the battle as Vincentian priests countered with parish missions the attempts of other Christians to establish rival denominations to overturn "Romanism" under the guise of a hidden agenda. This intricate feuding, of course, helped connect Catholicism with nationalism even more deeply, as converts from the rosary to the Bible, so to speak, were ostracized in the small towns and communities where most Irish Catholics survived.

Who paid for Irish poverty? The peasants, via the taxes due to landlords who had to fund by property the relief efforts? Or, the workhouses, where no "outdoor relief" outside their walls was permitted? This contention in chapter ten sets up a Poor Law Extension Act. Landlords understandably if not always fairly (some did help and tried to do what they could) were targeted by the natives as blameworthy for the awful conditions of the past few years. Coogan tips more blame to the Crown.

Divine Providence, some leaders argued, coupled with a disdain for the improvident, papist, and brutal Irish peasantry, meted a just punishment on behalf of Protestant Britain. Laissez-faire policies met another rebellion, attempted in 1848 by the Young Ireland movement, and in this year of change and threat over much of the Western world, it failed. "English benevolence" was at a low point.

By 1848, after hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions sought to escape. The landlords under the Poor Law had been charged with increased rates to care for their destitute tenants. So, landlords, emboldened by the Crown's own advice via the Whigs, encouraged emigration. Unrest grew, desperation deepened. Soon, Liverpool, Canada and the U.S. found their ports overloaded with the starving, the sick, the dying, and the dead. Chapter Eleven dips into the highlights of this dramatic event. It's sketchier than other sections as it's such a large topic, but it provides an overview for those new to this.

As a journalist, Coogan's well placed to judge publicity. Chapter Twelve takes on "The PR of Famine." Akin to the stage Irishmen always willing to be hired to grace a play in the West End, Coogan notes how the Irish contributed to their own stereotyping as yahoos and gorillas in the pages of "Punch." How the Whigs managed to control the spin on the Famine relief and keeping the Irish in their role as designated simians and as grateful servants of the Queen (depending on the article) reminds readers of the ease with which the press has manipulated public opinion on Irish affairs for a long time. Coogan in a rambling but justifiable aside looks at how historical revisionists, wishing to accommodate in the 1990s a Britain in the wake of the peace process not to be offended, also colluded in this enterprise as "a certain colonial cringe."

Finally, too brief an epilogue directs the reader to the aftermath. Land reform and more revolt followed, and emigration accelerated. Psychologically, "learned helplessness" may have worsened the prevalence of not only delayed marriages but mental illness and schizophrenia attributed to rural Ireland with its high rates of bachelors and spinsters. (I note that this topic is contested in academia and needs more context than the penultimate paragraph in the advance copy reviewed.) This study, while favoring a top-down approach as it looks at policy from the London perspective, balances it when the record exists by listening to the bit players. It's a helpful short overview of a complicated and still debated theme.

Appendices show some documents from the Crown. The photos in the final version to come were not present, although an index would be advisable. Endnotes show the sources drawn upon but no separate works cited. It remains, as often with Coogan's works, a slightly idiosyncratic approach as he likes to step into the proceedings and as this moves them now and then forward 170 or so years, this can be quirky. However, this also shows the relevance of the strands and threads he pursues, if more loosely than a conventional historical survey. All in all, to nearly cite a cliche, those not killed off by the potato blight and its impacts turned out stronger as a nation, in Coogan's conclusion. (Amazon US 8-28-12 and The Pensive Quill 3-8-13.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

John Kelly's "The Graves Are Walking": Book Review

Telling the tale of how over a million Irish starved and withered to their deaths while another two million emigrated from an already hard-pressed rural population of eight million demands steady control of facts amid so much emotion. Earlier generations relied on Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1964) for this, full of data as well as narrative; I recommend a less-known popular history, Thomas Gallagher’s Paddy’s Lament (1982) as a more compact presentation. The 150th commemoration of the Famine, or An Gorta Mór as Woodham-Smith’s title is rendered from the Irish language, generated new scholarship, some of it revisionist arguing against the nationalist propaganda which since John Mitchel’s The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in 1861 had tilted Irish and their descendants across the post-Famine diaspora to curse a genocidal Crown and a heartless Britain when that kingdom was mentioned. 

Science historian John Kelly comes to this daunting task of conveying in four-hundred pages of text a complicated explanation of the origins of the Famine; its impacts as it spread along two major periods from 1845 to around 1850 in worsening patterns; its entanglement within British principles of charity, Divine Providence, public works, poorhouses, workhouses, legal wrangling, and bungled relief; its effects as the native Irish fled to Liverpool, Canada, and New York City; and if too briefly its resonance for the Land War movements later in the century. He conveys an impressive study of the firsthand accounts, the government reports, and the secondary scholarship within a well-paced, judicious presentation of what too often has been distorted by Irish propaganda—itself marshaled to fend off enduring and cruel British stereotypes of a feckless people.

Mr. Kelly intersperses sharply etched vignettes throughout his text; these play off the volume’s period illustrations of wretched squalor and pompous comfort well. (It lacks, all the same, an index and timeline.) He stresses a European context for widespread crop failure. Contrast this with what in many Irish-authored Famine accounts has remained a parochial blight rather than a continental disaster. Rain pummeled Europe and spread the deadly fungus westward to the islands in the North Atlantic. Comfortable with paraphrasing economic theory and climatic studies, Mr. Kelly early links the humble potato, relied upon far too heavily for its easy cultivation and cheap nutrients, to “the violent odor of decay” that became rapidly its telling smell, for years near the middle of the nineteenth century.

This Victorian era also promoted thrift, diligence, and the notion of a Divine Providence angry at indolent and “papist” Irish who, like their Scots highland predecessors, might better be used as workers elsewhere, their Celtic homeland put to large-scale farming or cleared for grazing to feed the needs of the British Empire. Potatoes were so affordable, so filling, and so simple to cultivate that this left the native Irish with all too abundant an amount of free time to drink, saunter, and procreate. This angered their perceived betters, who governed them from the Big House overseeing the farms, or from the estates in England whose rents were extracted by absentee landlords from such cartoonish, lumpish, simian throwbacks. To their credit, as Mr. Kelly shows, some overseers intervened to try to save their tenants. Many gentry despaired of the decline in rent payers, while others looked forward to a cleansing of the land of its less dedicated inhabitants. 

This practical insistence -- coupled with a relentless exegesis that as a “Visitation of Providence,” the Famine was not a natural disaster but a God’s punishment “for violating His laws on food tariffs” -- shows how the British contentions over the Corn Law and relief of the poor by tax reforms delayed sufficient assistance. This lack doomed many Irish, by the end of 1846, to an early grave or exile’s boat.

Scenes of devastation caught the attention of the London press early; Camus, Conrad, Beckett, Boccaccio, Joyce, and especially Melville’s Liverpool docks shown in his novel Redburn (1849) all gain appropriate context placed by Mr. Kelly alongside the eerie desolation and physical annihilation that appeared to clear life and leave only corpses from many sodden, stinking, howling landscapes. Shallow graves filled and emptied, as packs prowled and feverish bodies, dead or dying, sprawled in dark cabins. Mr. Kelly sums this all up in one of many finely penned passages: “In areas devastated by the blight, the familiar scenes of deep scarcity reappeared: men standing in early-morning fields, sucking the blood from the neck of a living cow, seaweed on the boil; grass-stained mouths and hands; women running an anxious hand over a sleeping child to see if she still breathed.” 

These images found verbal and visual illustration for many readers abroad. This is where Mr. Kelly’s analysis sharpens: he provides necessary context for how the British responded and why. Their “relief policy was never deliberately genocidal, but its effects often were.” This careful distinction applies to the chronology he sets out. What in 1845 began that summer as a tragic harvest worsened after the fumbled and hesitant relief given far too few among far too many afflicted failed. Eighteen months on, the stubborn British moral that God’s hand dealt the improvident Irish natives a blow they deserved for their poverty and superstition contended with those imperial ministers who reckoned that “salutary” change might improve the plight of a people deficient in “initiative, industriousness, and self-reliance.” Meanwhile, who merited handouts as bodies filled mass graves or were dismembered by rats and dogs was far too long debated in Westminster. 

The London Times editorialized: “There are times when something like harshness is the greatest humanity.” Tough love, it appeared for many British lords and landlord, would teach their Irish rent payers timely lessons. Social engineering meant that relief policies could be implemented, and religious principles might align with economic reform. So reasoned, if after long bickering, a few in London.

Queen Victoria in January 1847 spoke of “the dearth of provisions” in her nation’s oldest colony. This spurred “the first celebrity-heavy international charity event” sponsored quasi-officially by a Crown suspicious of public funding when the private sector could raise, by today’s equivalents, about $250 million in relief. 

The Irish, however, could not wait for modernization schemes. Mr. Kelly reminds us how Ireland then compared to Haiti, Somalia, or the Congo now. While Mao and Stalin perpetrated deadlier famines and heavier casualties, the impact of the Famine hit the small island harder, for it lacked enough people or enough alternative resources to sustain the force of mass deaths and social collapse. A battered Ireland lost three million of her people in a few years, even as grain continued, for a while, to be exported while more was imported. The trouble was, as Mr. Kelly shows perhaps too subtly, that the two exchanges of foodstuffs did not synchronize. This followed a second summer, in 1846, with rotting crops, leading to the disastrous year of “Black ‘47” when deaths soared still higher.

That spring, public works—roads to nowhere, hills decapitated, holes filled in—stopped so the Poor Law could start and Alexis Soyer’s Soup #1 (splendidly described in its preparation) could be doled out at kitchens. This shift cut off aid to any small farmer eking out a living on more than a quarter acre. This cut off many already on the edge of starvation. This caused pestilence, scurvy, and disease to exponentially accelerate. This pushed many millions to flee to the ports. The landlords and Crown often hastened their exit, envisioning the success of their social model. Too much charity meant that the victims would rely on it.

Yet, as Liverpool found its conniving, greedy, portside con artists overwhelmed by the often illiterate and often Irish-monoglot emigrants who filled its docks and flophouses, and as London faced a thousand new immigrants a day to sleep in its parks, the Crown’s strategy backfired. Many newcomers were too poor to afford Canadian or American passage. Those who did may have regretted it. 

Grosse Isle lingers ominously in Irish Canada for its precipitous mortality rate; this embarkation station found itself the terminus for what would be 20,000 dead Irishmen, women and children in the dismal summer of 1847. That humid season felled many unused to the drastic weather and weakened further by infested environs after a horrid sea crossing. Down the Atlantic seaboard, nearly half of those arriving in New York City in 1848 were Irish; a few years later, over a fifth of all Gothamites were Hibernian-born. Tammany Hall, “Dagger John” Hughes, and the scams perpetrated on the hapless immigrants, throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters here, gain splendid summary and elegant elaboration. It’s a familiar storyline to those immersed in Irish American study, but Mr. Kelly’s deft control of when to pause and gawk and where to glide by makes for a streamlined, moving, and smoothly conducted tour.

Similarly, his conclusion taking us back to a changed homeland telescopes the failure of the brief 1848 Young Ireland rebellion, the decline of the “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell, Fenians, and Land League reform attempts of the later century understandable for a general readership. The Famine’s legacy led to landlords evicting more tenants. The “poor rate” rose by 1000% between 1847 and 1851.

That latter year, my family’s ancestral farmhouse was rebuilt. I learned from The Graves Are Walking that the Catholic diocese in which it crumbles (as a ruin today) declined in population by 10-17% in a few months of the Famine. I know that the county today has about a fifth of the people who lived there pre-Famine. I also recall how my great-grandfather left that county to agitate in London in 1898 for land reform as part of a local delegation. My family lore has it he was “found drowned in the Thames, in mysterious circumstances”—another reason why I closed Mr. Kelly’s impressive narrative history reminded of why so many Irish, abroad or back home, possess such long memories after such hard times. (New York Journal of Books: Review 8-21-12; see also my take on Tim Pat Coogan's new "The Famine Plot")

Friday, September 21, 2012

Oona Frawley's "Memory Ireland: Vol. 2": Book Review

How do emigrants remember the old sod? Do an immigrant's sons and daughters commemorate their ancestral, often distant, homeland? Can such a place endure as home within a diaspora?

Within the motherland, how do natives transform what was left behind? Both those overseas and those at home perpetuate "memory practices" through souvenirs, stories, song, and celebrations. Images on walls as pictures or photos commemorate traditions and concoct new trinkets, kitsch, and art. These make up the material for the professors and poets who contribute here. 

In my NYJB review of this series' predecessor, I explained: "This first of four volumes explores the replacement of chronological historiography with a more fluid, less rigid approach that investigates what is remembered from the Irish past." Oona Frawley edits eighteen mainly academic submissions to volume two. While "rhizomes" and "chronotopic" feature in two of the first three essay titles, visits to Irish fairs abroad, examinations of tattoos, and excursions to Gaelic games, cooking, and "the eviction photograph" explore more familiar contexts for most readers. Aimed at the Irish Studies and historiographical fields, alternating between theoretical concerns and accessible examples, this collection will intrigue audiences seeking a serious study of Irishness in popular culture--more serious than the blarney and blather which constitutes much of what passes for Irishness in culture. 

Nostalgia, Frawley observes, "has fed into the construction of the cultural memory that Ireland embodies at home as well" as abroad. Until the independence of most of the island, Ireland hid many national ideas through symbolic representation. Therefore, memories themselves "spoke" in acts, words, and emblems.

Aidan Arrowsmith looks at British-Irish writing as "postmemory" and finds many romantic cliches. Chad Habel relates from Irish-Australian novels of ancestral memory more trauma, perhaps due to such immense distance, to separate from the homeland as well as a desire among some to recover relationships and attachments from dormancy and attenuation. Katrin Urschel peers into Irish-Canadian "physical manifestations" of the homeland within the vast, multicultural dominion.

From America, James P. Byrne challenges the usual derivation of nostalgia as "homecoming" + "pain". He locates a revisionist nostalgia which advances political and cultural power for emigrants. While Frawley appears to overstate as "mostly unaddressed" the problem of race in Irish contexts as if able to be confronted or depicted more outside the island, Maureen Reddy uses Jim Sheridan's film In America and Roddy Doyle's novel Oh, Play That Thing and story "Home to Harlem" as case studies that expand the attention given by current Irish Studies scholars to "race-inflected" accounts. Spurgeon Thompson's "The Kitsch of the Dispossessed" excavates as "signifiers" artifacts of "cultural loss" from Irish America alongside Patrick McCabe's and Neil Jordan's versions of The Butcher Boy.

Other objects, as jewelry, souvenirs, and tattoos, Maggie Williams shows, emerge as "icons of Irishness". The great fairs in the 1890s and 1900s in Chicago and St. Louis featured simplified "Irish villages, and such visual displays of a less complex "recent past" endured in the recollections of visitors, along with mementos. Jewelry temporarily and tattoos indelibly show an identification--to the public or to intimates--as "signs of membership in a constructed ethnic and cultural community".

In the early days of New Zealand, St. Patrick's Day celebrations invoked, Tanja Bueltmann reports on varying memberships for the small emigrant community there. For the eminent Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, her shift from childhood among immigrants to Lancashire dramatically changed when she was "fostered out" to her Gaelic-speaking aunt's family in West Kerry. Ní Dhomhnaill feels as if, when she returns to England as an adult, a "doppelganger" hovers, "the person I would have been if I stayed".

Joop Leerssen opens part two. He studies as "internal memory transfer" the gap as the Irish language receded in the nineteenth century and a historic cultural break found partial repair--as with James Joyce's Dublin reconstruction in Ulysses-- through determined active and archival intervention. Of course, Joyce used music as one keen method to evoke memory, and Katie Brown tackles his mid-nineteenth century predecessors, who blended a nationalistic mix of static and dynamic shifts of modes and lyrics which filled Ireland's linguistic breach. Steve Coleman continues with traditional sounds which embody history variously, and which stir contested innovation into musical legacies.

The "eviction photograph" codes a powerfully charged image into this history, as Gail Baylis scrutinizes their arranged depictions of peasant expulsion by landlords and their agents. In the 1890s, one series of "protracted evictions" was exploited for publicity by the Land League for foreign journalists, English politicians, and "radical sympathizers". Baylis compares historical with recent appearances, in the press and on genealogical sites, of "visual coding" from such charged images.

Related images resist the "outsider" condition given to Travellers, opposed to what Mícheál Ó hAodha surveys as its emerging "rearticulations" from within its community to the "anthropological canon". Sara Brady's analysis of Gaelic sports looks at games in Ireland and overseas as a primary marker "to stage identity, ethnicity, and place". Hasia Diner sums up the Irish portion of her book on "foodways in the age of migration" a century and more ago--the Famine may have contributed as well as the dependence on the potato to "disassociation of food from identity, family, and community" but the Irish predilection for alcohol fueled much of their social life--and anti-British subversion as such beverages eluded taxation, so the rationalization developed-- no matter where the bonding transpired.

Cooking at the "traditional Irish cottage" proliferates as a commemorative subject. Rhonda Richman Kenneally seeks to redress the emphasis on the hearth and not the housewife. Cookbooks reveal the incorporation of international and modernizing influences into the island's "gastronomic heritage" as defined and delineated by three cooks' narratives from the past seventy years. 

Paul Muldoon, in typically allusive prose segments, starts with rum and Treasure Island and after forays into matters piratical and puritanical regarding that demon drink and other brands, and skirting the Troubles of his native turf, ends with a confrontation, suppressed in part as in many Irish families, with the coded mention in Robert Louis Stevenson, of alcoholism. With this memory, so frequent in histories recorded or erased by the Irish over the sea or back on the island, this collection closes. 

Frawley--a New Yorker teaching at an Irish university--alludes to the position of not only the caricatured American tourist looking for his or her roots, but the Irish who are tourists in their own country. When Irishness is globalized, what does this do to caricature the natives? Perhaps the third or fourth volume will include an essay on franchised Irish bars with mass-produced "old-fashioned" decor, this unforgettably marketed "kitsch of the dispossessed" as icons of the diaspora and beyond. (NYJB 5-15-12 with minor editing.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Susanna Moore's "The Life of Objects": Book Review

A young lacemaker, in 1938, meets a "foreign lady in Ireland for the hunting." This exotic woman, Cuban-born, proves to be a countess. She invites Beatrice to accompany her back to Germany. So begins this novel, which will transport this girl into womanhood, during the next six dramatic years.

The countess requests Beatrice's passport for safekeeping. Soon they reach the estate of the countess' former lover, Felix Metzenberg. He and his wife, Dorothea, take in Beatrice and soon the events of the war overtake them all. Susanna Moore filters the results of "hundreds of journals and memoirs" into this novel, which keeps Beatrice as its observer, the center of the events in the Metzenbergs' house in Berlin and then their estate, the Yellow Palace, with the Night Wood surrounding its park.

This situation leads Beatrice to wonder if she's been bewitched; she feels as if the Countess Inéz Hartenfels takes her off into "a distant kingdom where I would live in an enchanted forest and spin flax into gold." The next year, one of her first sentences spoken to her Jewish tutor in his native language of German turns out: "It's the beginning of a fairy tale." Herr Elias warns: "Don't think that you'll escape every time, fräulein." Beatrice watches her predicament as the Reich increases in power.

She assists as the lord of the manor, Felix, begins to take advantage of his storehouse of art to help the refugees--escaped slave laborers and prisoners of war, displaced persons, widows, conscripted workers--who begin to gather around the estate. The Yellow Palace in a night of bombing is destroyed: "statues lay in a tumble of arms and heads".  A Berlin visit leaves Beatrice in no steadier surroundings. "Black devils stood in silhouette before the burning buildings." Yet, another dwelling in the Metzenbergs' ancestral demesne of Lowenberg survives for shelter, and the household of Beatrice and those working on the estate finds protection as the Reich totters and the Gestapo hovers.

Each chapter of her tale spans a year. At first, the war remains distant, eerie by its effects more felt by others rather than those on the estate. Gradually, the forces increase in volume and terror until the Nazis flock around the Night Wood and the manse in disarray, and then the Red Army thunders in. The Pavilion, the holdout for the family, succumbs. "Not Ovid, but the Brothers Grimm," Beatrice reflects. "We are rat catchers, bewitched swans, witches." All are reduced to poverty and want.

However, she insists that she has come of age, out of her shell of lacemaking and needlework, by taking the chance to leave Ireland for this chaos. "The war had given me a life," she concludes. She learns why her passport was safeguarded, and the uses to which Felix's treasure trove had been put. Out of these compromises with what war exacts, Beatrice learns the costs of her hard-won maturity.

Susanna Moore employs a spare, stoic tone as Beatrice tells her experiences. The Life of Objects lacks the frenetic, first-person wallowing in triumph, sentiment, or despair which dominates many war narratives. Perhaps Ms. Moore has so thoroughly interspersed the fears of the hundreds in the memoirs she has scoured, filling Beatrice and her comrades with their indirect pain until the anguish eases into scrutiny and calm tones of endurance.

This detached quality may direct its appeal more towards readers of nuanced, careful fiction. A distance remains even as Beatrice tells of a litany of horrors and an erosion of beauty. For that audience, this steady, coolly conveyed report from the collapse of the Reich and the coming of the Communist regime to East Germany will reward a patient, reflective reader. (New York Journal of Books 9-18-12)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Kevin Barry's "Dark Lies the Island": Book Review

This second collection, published by London’s Jonathan Cape in early 2012 after his first novel "City of Bohane" garnered praise, offers thirteen stories dispersed across divergent terrain. “Across the Rooftops” hints at tenderness even as “the man who introduced Detroit techno to the savages of Cork city” fumbles his callow youth away in one last attempt at seduction. As with “Wifey Redux,” the narrators find themselves painfully self-aware. They despise their own lurches between inadequacy and savagery as they grapple with women, lust, and fear.

“Wifey” finds the suburbanized narrator avenging himself and his wife of seventeen years, Saoirse, on the smug suitor of his nubile daughter, Ellie. The narrator will end being arrested, face ground into the bonnet of his Volvo, after pursuing sneering tracksuited Aodhan McAdam into a showdown at a big-box store on the Naas Road, Dublin. Barry channels the self-parodic tale of how this mock-hero came to such a sorry end, and barbecued salmon in vac-packs will be the least of the man’s worries, after he fails to adapt to allow a bold live-in swain into his own granite-topped kitchen, with garden patio and big-screen domain overlooking Dun Laoghaire.

One of his best tales, “The Fjord of Killary,” unfolds in a West of Ireland village as a flood engulfs a jerrybuilt pub-disco which must distract its revelers. It’s as if the Titanic drifted from Belfast into a dream world where surreally it transforms into a tilted symbol of Irish stolidity and ingenious, heedless defiance.  Barry surrounds the narrator with copulating, jabbering Belorussian staff, clichéd locals out of Flann O’Brien, and weather which forces the teller to adapt, learn patience, and to wait storms out.

“A Cruelty” updates Joyce’s “An Encounter” into a disturbing older man who bullies a fragile boy waiting in Boyle for a Sligo-Dublin train. The offhand nature of the violence and the threat of more, in such a daytime, mundane setting, jabs the power of its spare, matter-of-fact relation of sudden cruelty. One wonders if the frightened boy will leave, as many in Barry’s stories do, for another destination. “Beer Trip to Llandudno” follows an ale club’s bibulous band along a formidable pub crawl for real brews, and the North Wales setting allows the members to confide in their abandonment or abandoning Ireland, and when they “came over” to Northern England, to start again. Their earnest efforts to drink away their pain highlight the woes they seek to confront and forget as they pass from pub to pub.

More unraveling of family ties comes via “Ernestine and Kit.” Their Sligo itinerary finds this middle-aged pair baby-napping from an Asda checkout line, as again cruelty is unleashed in ordinary settings, while those around them pay attention to video games, barbecues and wine. “The Mainland Campaign” as its title foreshadows takes us back to England, but the insecurity of the young goth charged with setting the bomb in the Camden Town tube station persists. “Ireland is magical,” he tells his a German woman he courts. “England is ironical.” But, he as many in London, cannot fit in. Meanwhile, the Tipperary teen transplant seethes: “If they were the mainland, we were what?”

Similar discontent lingers in “Wistful England,” as another Irish transplant drinks and walks and broods. “Doctor Sot” conveys the venture of an Irish doctor on an outreach program to treat the “sex diseases” of New Age travelers from Devon holed up one atop Slieve Bo, where he comforts a psychotic woman.  “The Girls and the Dogs” skirts similar territory, winding up in a chemical toilet in a trailer near Gort. Nobody in Barry’s stories seems balanced, and this tilt towards the off-kilter characterizes his sympathy.

Ukrainians with tire irons scare the Co. Roscommon inhabitants living in a “White Hitachi” by the side of the road, and more highway predicaments by this stage do show Barry in a rut he needs to get out of. The title story finds Sara, a fresh graduate and a “cutter,” preparing as she looks over Clew Bay in Co. Mayo to do more of the same to herself. UK Memories is the channel of songs she hears from the 1940s on her laptop, as texts come in from Flagstaff and Bremen, and calls from Granada. Sara hears John Lennon sing “For No One” and thinks of him settling near there on Dorinish Island with Yoko as he’d once planned; Sara muses about her mother who’d left with a Dublin broker who bought a failing vineyard in France. Her ties span the world, but she sits with her soundcloud and messages, to decide what to do with her set of knives.

The final story, “Berlin Arkonaplatz—My Lesbian Summer,” finds the teller in gentrifying but very artsy Berlin. Patrick is told by his Sapphic Slavic companion Silvija that “I was the culmination of Irish literature.” His own displacement in Germany leads the pair to hate the arrival of Americans as the harbinger of the end of any trend, and they rob flats for passports to sell to Ukrainians, while Vietnamese, Croat, and Tasmanian denizens flit about the studios. He fails to write his stories down. But someone does, as the collection closes, leaving him and his unsettled other characters forlorn and adrift. Like his first collection, 2007's "There Are Little Kingdoms," these show promise and reward attention. (8-1-12 to Amazon US)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Aiséiri le Stanley Spencer

Is maith liom an péintéir Stanley Spencer. Chuir mé suas beirt de chuid múrmaisiú faoi An Aiséiri. Tú ábalta fheicéail an sonas de na daoine ar méadú tagtha as an h-uaigheannaí.

Phéintéail Spencer radharcannaí dífríulaí dó sceál seo.  Bá é an téama seo go minic dó sna 1930idí agus 1940idí. Rinne sé leagannacha éagsulaí, mar shampla, le haghaidh reilig im bPort Ghlaschú, an dara le haghaidh séipéil de réir cuimneachan na Cogadh Mór i mBurghclere, agus an eile leis an dúchais reilig aige i gCookham i Sasana.

Ar ndóigh, is bréa liomsa is fearr an dhá seo anseo. Is é an chéad íomhá ó 1945. Measáim go raibh a ceiliúrann "Aiséiri an teacht le chéile" ag deireadh An Dara Cogadh Domhanda.

Is é íomhá an aghaidh thíos "Ardú na h-ínion Jairus" eile í 1947. Ach, sílím go raibh níos sona na an ceann i aice na gCookham. Chuir mé seo ar an Leabhar Aghaidh chomh amlíne íomhá faoi deireadh.

Móraim a dhearcadh agus cumhacht tréithe. Mar sin féin, tá difríocht leis gach na híomhannaí aige ar an ábhar seo.  Mar sin, níl breitheamh é ann.

Resurrection by Stanley Spencer

I like the painter Stanley Spencer. I put a pair of his murals about the Resurrection up. You can see the happiness of the people risen from their graves.

Spencer painted different views of this scenario. This theme happened often between the 1930s and 1940s. He made various versions, for example, at the cemetery in Port Glasgow, a WWI memorial chapel in Burghclere, and another for his native chapel in Cookham in England.

Of course, I love most the two here. The first image is from 1945. I reckon it may be celebrating the  "Resurrection Reunion" closing the Second World War.

The second image below is  "The Resurrection with the Raising of Jairus' Daughter" in 1947. But, I think that one's happier than that at Cookham. I put this on my Facebook as a timeline image recently.

I praise his characteristic perspective and power. Nevertheless, there's a difference with all his images on this topic. That is, there's no judge.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Dream of the Celt": Book Review

After a distinguished career with many historical novels exploring the human toll taken by political idealism, Mario Vargas Llosa follows his 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature with the lightly fictionalized life of Sir Roger Casement. Familiar more to Irish nationalists for his anti-slavery activism and his execution for actions which were judged traitorous to the British crown which had knighted him for his services as consul, Casement's reputation since his 1916 death after the failed Easter Rising has suffered. Before his hanging in a London prison, British intelligence released his "Black Diaries," full of not the humanitarianism which fueled his career uncovering the victims of the African and Amazonian rubber trades, but the "gloomy aureole of homosexuality and pedophilia" still debated from these fevered diaries as true, exaggerated, or invented--planted, grafted, or organic within the secret soul and clandestine identity of a lonely, driven Anglo-Irish activist for justice.

Situated often in Vargas Llosa's native Peru, where the core of this novel burrows into the depredations of colonialism owned by Britain and controlled by Peruvians far from the control of their capital or the law, the placement of Casement within late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century capitalism sharpens the author's portrayals of Latin Americans and Europeans complicit in raping the jungles, its women, and its resources. Vargas Llosa had run for president of his own struggling Third World nation; he shows a keen understanding of all sides in the debate over the fate of the "3 C's" of capitalism, colonialism, and Christianity.

Casement's early conversion-- from servant of the British Empire to at first its representative in uncovering human rights abuses and then its foe allied with the Reich as the Great War-- invited him to meddle in geopolitics where "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity." His transformation nestles this dedicated campaigner within the globalizing struggles of a century ago which spiral (offstage, subtly, and persistently) forward from the 1880s to WWI. Casement prefigures, in his determination to discover the truth, our own guilty complicity with an unjust world's order demand for ever-lower prices, ever-wider markets, and ever-greedier enterprises.

This does not mean the novel's stuffed with set-pieces or talking heads. Substantial portions admittedly feel as if the print equivalent of a docudrama, full of staged re-enactments and voiceovers from letters and journals. While I was very familiar with the Irish content supporting this rather stolid narrative, Vargas Llosa takes a risk in conveying so much data in a rather unrelenting form of indirect first-person recollection to direct Casement's vast recall of names, dates, and events from his prison cell to us. The pace, ably and transparently translated by the skilled Edith Grossman, remains steady, no easy feat. Yet, less devoted readers may feel overwhelmed by the manner chosen to convey the information underlying Casement's missions over twenty years in the Congo, seven in Latin America, with another year in the Amazon and a year and more between rebel Ireland and wartime Germany.

The first section moves between Casement's last days in London and his upbringing in the North of Ireland in an Anglican family.  Working for the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in Africa, Casement realizes the truth behind lies which gloss over the colonization and exploitation of the natives. As British consul, he rallies Europe against the Belgian Free State and inspires Joseph Conrad's exposé.

The Irishman's service for the King of England unsettles him; his Celtic background, stirred by his republican friends, rouses him against colonization closer to his own home. He tells his cousin: "In these jungles I've found not only the true face of Leopold II. I've also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman." Casement reasons that "I've shed the skin of my mind and perhaps my soul."

However, Casement's diplomatic success exposes him to reprisals. He is stationed in Brazil, unhappily. Sir Edward Grey, the Crown's foreign minister, dubs Casement "a specialist in atrocities." Soon, the British-directed Peruvian Amazon Company draws him into another rubber-fueled "mythic cataclysm," as endured by the overwhelmed natives of another tropical realm. Beaten, enslaved, tortured, they suffer a similar fate.

Their stern taskmasters across the Atlantic "denied the obvious with the same boldness because all of them believed that harvesting rubber and making money was a Christian ideal that justified the worst atrocities against pagans who, of course, were always cannibals and killers of their own children." Casement, sent by the Crown, investigates conditions in Putumayo; his 1912 "Blue Book" on Amazonian malfeasance follows his successful African coverage. Revelations from the tropics of Peru precipitate the collapse of the Amazonian rubber industry--although the Western capitalists over in Asia rapidly find another opportunity for exploitation.

The intransigent and then insolvent Company--drawn deftly in its machinations--wants Casement's head, so he must flee Peru. In Washington D.C., he reflects on his sudden lurches from destitution to promotion. "Less than two weeks before he had been a poor devil threatened with death in a run-down hotel in Iquitos, and now, an Irishman who dreamed about the independence of Ireland, he was the embodiment of an official sent by the British Crown to persuade the president of the United States to help the Empire demand that the Peruvian government respond forcefully to the ignominy of Amazonia. Wasn't life an absurdity, a dramatic representation that suddenly turned into farce?"

Soon, arthritic and tired, the middle-aged Casement retires from the Foreign Service. Yet he cannot rest. The burgeoning Irish republican movement excites him, and he donates his wages once given for anti-slavery projects to the pro-Gaelic efforts against the Empire closer to his native land. Casement feels "castrated" by witnessing so much agony caused by native capitulation to imperialism. He determines to help the Irish cause, to ensure that his homeland does not succumb.

The close of the novel takes him to Germany, where he tries to recruit Irish prisoners taken after fighting for the British into a brigade "beside but not inside" the army of the Reich, to aid the German assault on Ireland which Casement is promised will come, given the upheaval of the war. When this invasion does not happen, Casement must rush back to try to stop the premature, doomed rebellion of his Dublin comrades at Easter 1916. His own Good Friday landing the other side of the Irish coast and his capture by the British serve as a sober denouement to his gamble to make history matter.

What is left behind in America, he learns only while facing execution for betraying the Crown, are his personal diaries. "A piece of negligence that the Empire would make very good use of and that for a long time would cloud the truth of his life, his political conduct, and even his death." Vargas Llosa sums up what may be Casement's erotic notations well; in an afterword the novelist reckons from his acumen that Casement "wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn't." 

Vargas Llosa handles Casement's evocations of his moral struggles and the recollections of his sexual predicament with the same sensitivity. He conjures up sympathetic listeners in the priests who advise Casement over his decades of fighting injustice, and in Mr. Stacey, who turns from "fat jailer" to nuanced confidant in Casement's incarceration in Pentonville Jail. There, he is buried in unmarked dirt next to the path of the island's first imperialists, grim legions who marched up Roman Way and Caledonian Road through bear-infested forests two millennia ago. This concludes an epic novel via silent harbingers--recalling Heart of Darkness in its evocative framing story--of the British colonists in the footsteps of Stanley and Dr. Livingstone, among whom Casement's convoluted career began. (Amazon US 6-5-12; PopMatters 6-6-12)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gerard Cappa's "Blood from a Shadow": Book Review

This Belfast writer's thriller incorporates not only the 2012 presidential election, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Al Qaeda's threats. It turns to ancient Ulster mythic figures, Cú Chulainn and his foster-brother and best friend Ferdia, to enrich this presentation of two contemporary veterans from Route Irish and the war for Baghdad. Con Maknazpy (hold on for the spelling; I happened to have guessed correctly its derivation, but it was a long shot!) and Ferdy McIlhane, pals from Yonkers, after a traumatic, pyrrhic first scene of strife in Iraq, meet separation. Con seeks to find out Ferdy's fate.

The mission with which Con's entrusted takes him to Belfast, Rome, Istanbul, and then back to New York City. Without any plot spoilers, suffice to say that Gerard Cappa's pace never lets up. His love for action sustains very brutal showdowns in three out of the four locales. However, he eases up the tension, amid considerable body counts and a massive amount of woe inflicted on and by the mid-thirties Con which seemed indeed to recall his Irish predecessor, that may defy a bit of belief, as required for such tales.

There's an astonishing amount of references--on cultural, political, and what's intriguingly a personal level for the author--packed into its pages. I found this considerably denser in its telling than the genre typically presents, once I noticed character names and places. This intertextuality may overwhelm some readers but entice others, as such dogged, clever, "Easter Egg" construction tends to do. A love of the Irish form of excessive delight in the detail and ramble helps.

Other allusions, to Rostram and Sohrab of Persian lore, to the Peacock Angel of the Yazidi Kurds, owls and crows of Celtic shapeshifting, Columbus, the Crusades, and the 69th Fighting Irish of the US Army--from the Civil War to Operation Enduring Freedom--show Gerry Cappa's wide-ranging interests, as he deftly incorporates them into the espionage and thriller genres. He aims at a diverse readership. One that demands a page-turning violent saga, and another that savors a more polished gloss.

As Gallogly keeps telling our compromised, conflicted hero, Con tends to radiate trouble around himself. He narrates his own story--this does lessen a bit of suspense as happens in such conventions. Wisely, Cappa balances this narrative choice with legendary resonances which play into the Irish, American, and Middle Eastern contentions for heroism, idealism, hubris and folly effectively.

Con surrounds himself with many who try to throw him off his course of investigating what may be a heroin trafficking network from the opium fields through the Middle East to Turkey, into Europe, and over via Ireland to the States. The old Irish republican gun-running trails, it seems, may be to blame. For this reason, Con's singled out, as he learns, to come to Ireland and to begin his frenetic quest.

The author likes to fill you in on the characters, who pop up regularly to try to help or fool the protagonist. Eddie the bartender "once had a grand Roman nose but now it folded under his right eye," while a beefy concierge displays "white bristles wired out of his grainy pore craters of his nose, shoulders made for bouncing the lowlifes and carrying the highlifes." Con tends to meet the lowlifes.

Con's story does get complicated. It can be, as with fast-paced thrillers, hard to keep up with. So much bloodshed can take its toll on a reader as well as its cast of spies, turncoats, and avengers. A cinematic flair in the settings and set-ups that gain vivid depiction shows Cappa's skill. It eases the labyrinthine, disruptive, often dialogue-driven and quicksilver-unpredictable story structure.

Red herrings abound, and false leads. The Turkish sections become markedly intricate, so the busy plot demands patience amidst the threats and mayhem, as in the midst of rapid movements and conversations with which I sought to keep up. Similarly, its New York scenes turn as energetically as a quickly edited sequence from a film such as "The Bourne Identity."

Speaking of parallels, setting this so soon in the future--nearly real time, as it starts October 2012--is a daring choice. It may shorten its shelf life. But even when we know who will be elected as the next president, it's a worthwhile look at the costs that international strife exacts on everyday folks, even if fewer of these exist among the more devious and less honest men and women who fill these pages.

All the same, vivid descriptions of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Belfast breeze, a venerable Roman church, or the brief camaraderie afforded our harried hero in a Bronx pub provide necessary respite among the skulduggery. Con needed a chance to recuperate now and then, considering his record in the ring lashing out against all who try to tame him. Cú Chulainn in the "Táin" translations of Thomas Kinsella underwent "warp-spasms" or Ciaran Carson "torque"; here, Con enters a "red cycle," "dark energy," and "soul plasma" as he faces off against inner ghosts and haunting demons not only on the outside, as his antagonists. This layer deepens the impact of this rousing debut, and I hope to hear more from the hero, once he recovers from his notably bloody routs!  British (British Amazon and + US Amazon 8-8-12)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bill Cole Cliett's "Riverrun to Livy: Lots of Fun Reading Finnegans Wake": Book Review

From a layman's, not a scholar's perspective, this lively explication of the first page of the Wake will entice many into delving deeper. As Bill Cole Cliett tells us, it may become your favorite book, with no other able to match its evocation of the dream-language and the illogical, circular, and echoing structures which comprise its famously daunting contents. He offers a friendly way into the labyrinth.

As Gordon Bowker notes in James Joyce: A New Biography (see my review), Joyce spent a third of his life on this endeavor. Part of what made him so obsessed filters down to the community of those equally maddened and enchanted by the project. As one who found "Ulysses" above any other fiction in terms of the competition, and which after I first read it at twenty-one seemed to ruin all other novels, Cliett's appeal that the Wake represents another, even more astonishing, accomplishment that reverses Bloom's day into HCE and ALP's nighttime carnival, with its reference to both license and limit, celebration and condemnation, may entice new readers. After Bowker, I picked up a reference Cliett naturally cites often (he does from many scholars, skillfully yet casually, not to impress but to explain or elucidate), James Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's pioneering A Skeleton Key to FW (see my review). Even finishing that just before finding Cliett's guide did not convince me.

I've tried, as an admirer of Joyce, but I've found the Wake too tedious. So, how does Cliett try to convince a reader like me otherwise? Chapters One and Two begin with an overview of the intentions of Joyce, the reactions by critics, and the sounds that matter as much as the words. The oral nature key to appreciating Joyce, especially in tricky and allusive passages, emerges. Cliett deftly sums up the previous works and the life of Joyce in chapter three, although I think his passing reference to Nora's free hand with Joyce on the day of their date enshrined as Bloomsday does not need to be so coy, given the evidence from Joyce's letters to her.

Chapter Four takes on the title and the song that inspired it; the fifth looks at "the"--it's that level of depth. Part Two allots a chapter to each sentence of the first page of the Wake. The long thunderword is dissected, we learn about Parnell and Kitty, the use of stuttering, tea, whiskey, and the Liffey among hundreds more observations. He lists at the end many academic studies, and as with words or phrases interspersed from the Wake itself within every page, he integrates his research impressively.

Part Three proved the most rewarding. After a chapter summing up the "rust" of the story deftly, a great one followed on the Wake as a "Hole." That is, as a black hole involving the quantum physics that emerged during the long decades of the composition of what appears perhaps to beam in as if a ten-dimensional, or at least five-dimensional communication into our post-Bang world limited to three and four-dimensions. Cliett sums up a lot of science again in everyday terms with aplomb, and as I read this immediately after Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" (see my review), I admit I learned that conjectural factoid about the five- or ten-d universe before our own origins from Cliett, no small achievement.

It closes with a "ricorso" referring to subsequently published minor works of Joyce; I felt as if Cliett did not want his study to end, and this indeed can accompany a life spent with Joyce. I found this direct, conversational, and accessible guidebook more engaging than much of Campbell and Robinson's handbook, and throughout, references as varied as to Eminem, "The Beverly Hillbillies," a porn star's name, and teaching middle school show how Cliett connects Joyce's revelations to our own pop culture realm and our own daily duties. Cliett writes with enthusiasm and lots of puns, as his subject did, and while a few typos and what seems to me as a student of Irish a few misspelled source words--unless he draws on dialects or earlier spellings from his references--must be acknowledged, all in all, this is an impressively vibrant and enthusiastic account. I recommend it to you. (Kindle review to Amazon US 7/7/12)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Joseph Campbell + Henry Morton Robinson's "A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake": Book Review

There's spirited and vitriolic debate from previous reviewers (see the comments) about the intentions of Joyce and how much Campbell and Robinson either misinterpret FW to fit what became later known as JC's monomyth or don't know anymore than JJ what he spent 600 pp. and a third of his life laboring to give birth to. This fracas is necessary and long-standing. How much JC and HMR can be credited or blamed for their diligent rephrasing and possible oversight of a mindbogglingly challenging work remains open. I do note how the authors at certain stages confess to their own bewilderment, tellingly. I doubt if any sane reader could or should find such admissions any less than forgivable, faced as we all are with the Wake.

I have reviewed June 2012 on Amazon US Gordon Bowker's "James Joyce: A New Biography," and while that encouraging study does not intend to analyze beyond summations the work(s), Bowker uncovers more than Richard Ellmann the inner life of its creator as it dims. The later half was dark often, in pain and guilt, and undercurrents swirl into FW. Perhaps more than these two scholars knew as they wrote this vademecum? Bowker tells of how JJ worked a day on two sentences as he struggled to get the right words in the proper order, and such obsessiveness marks those who come to FW as well as those who comment upon it, I think.

What Edmund L. Epstein adds in the New World Library ed. of JC's collected works are basically a few parenthetical corrections and occasional asides from subsequent scholarship. He incorporates small updates from more recent findings, but not nearly as much as I'd anticipated, given sixty years of later research. He lets JC and HMR have their own abundant say, and he does not interfere with or challenge the substance hardly at all of their attempt at explication and elaboration.

He provides a welcome index, but spot-checking reveals it's incomplete, perhaps inevitably, but still disappointingly. His own addition to the two prefaces (original 1944 ed. and Compass ed. 1961) is slight, although he shares the fascination naturally which attracted him to first hear about the Wake as a young child. All in all, given what I've noted, it's a handsome edition, and as an affordable hardcover it will endure longer than my old Penguin paperback of the Skeleton Key.

While I still contend with my own difficulty with figuring out (despite a life's love of JJ's earlier fiction) the "point" of FW, this new edition provides a helpful reference able to be read on its own as a counterpart or prefatory guide to FW. Roland McHugh's annotations in turn build on Joyceans such as John Gordon and Adaline Glasheen, and those I suppose on this pioneering study. Such an "gigantic progeny" must also be checked, but this first guide remains a handy and sturdily bound accompaniment. I suspect far more of its findings have been superseded or corrected than Epstein lets on, but as his editorial and corrective role is minor, letting Campbell (and Robinson!) take center stage. Epstein stays on the side, just as in turn JC and HRM become prompters for the stars of the show, JJ as MC for ALP and HCE and...? (Amazon US 6-18-12)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Gordon Bowker's "James Joyce: A New Biography": Book Review

Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, published over fifty years ago, has long remained the standard. Shorter studies of Joyce's early years and Trieste experiences appeared a few decades later, as well as archival finds and editorial corrections to his innovative works. Gordon Bowker incorporates this research into his study of Joyce and his circle. It focuses more on his inner life and less on the texts. As a biographer of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker is well-placed to take on those English writers' high-modernist Irish predecessor and contemporary.

The page spread signals the adjusted balance compared to earlier lives of Joyce. About halfway through Bowker's text proper, Joyce is serializing what will soon appear as "Ulysses." He is nearly forty years old. Two-thirds of his life has passed, but the last third--ending with his death in 1941 when the Irish Free State refused to repatriate his body from Zurich for burial--comprises a considerable portion of Bowker's biography. The years of triumph blur into those of guilt, bickering, and tension. After the publication of "Ulysses" in 1921, Joyce descends gradually into pain and darkness as his eyesight diminishes. He struggled with his "Work in Progress" fourteen years. Meanwhile, he battled with Nora Barnacle and their children Lucia, as she faced madness, and Giorgio, as he married a woman whom years earlier his father had attempted to seduce.

At sixteen, he began "to slough off the crust of religious superstition," yet never extricated himself from "a deposit of entrenched sentiment," in Bowker's metaphor. He conveys in the first half of this new biography an efficient pace as many anecdotes demonstrate how Joyce applied everyday details used decades later in his texts. For example, Cranly, Henry Flower, Blazes Boylan, and Mrs. Sinico hover in real life first, before appearing in coded but logical forms of association in his fiction. In later years, this appeared to some observers to hint at madness, for Joyce could not extricate his mind from such a pattern of catching details only to release them, long after, within an appropriate time and space in his writing. He relished coincidence and superstitions, such as a fear of dogs and of thunder.

Along the long way, Bowker corrects common misnomers such as the assumed Jewish identities of Reuben J. Dodd and Alfred Hunter, and he regales readers with bawdy and witty snippets from Joyce and his cronies, notably his "Mephistopheles" Oliver St. John Gogarty. By the time of his residence with Gogarty at the Martello Tower that will open "Ulysses" a few years after the 1904 fact, Joyce tires of his homeland and leaves soon after with his mistress Nora Barnacle, to teach Berlitz English in Trieste. His "air of detached superiority" annoys many, and he cultivates the mystery that will find, in wartime Zurich, another nickname from the chorus girls at the theater: "Herr Satan."

Yet, overseas, he finally learns "to evoke Dublin at long range through the spyglass of tranquil recollection." Bowker's phrase sidesteps the jittery rage and formidable ego, and his study appears to downplay these emotional aspects in favor of what at times proved a more humdrum life than that imagined by other biographers. His tedious life in Trieste precedes a Roman bank translation job as dull if for far longer hours. Soon Joyce with two children to support must survive only on his true talent--and his family and patrons whom he cultivates for funds and duties skillfully and diligently.

However, his bohemian and anarchic spirit fades as the Great War darkens his European haunts. He suspects Nora of betrayal: "Inside the mercurial, articulate intellectual, there still lurked the man from Monto," the red-light district of his youth in Dublin. Insecurities, financial and emotional, compelled him to create in his play "Exiles" as well as "The Dead" and "Ulysses" the works which would secure his reputation as "a genius" as well as enhance his reputation as "a mystery." Both aided his vanity, his self-publicity, and his rise to recognition among the avant-garde and the literati.

Bowker does not delve much into the works themselves, sensibly as many studies proliferate. He does ask astutely of "Portrait" whether it expresses a narrative "directly from" Joyce's "own consciousness," or from Stephen Dedalus as if that stand-in would have written it with his own stylistic shifts charting the evolution of the young man. Overall, the early works gain a nod and a quick summation, as the biographer expects the reader to know them already or to recall them easily.

When "Ulysses" begins to be serialized in its preview chapters in the "Little Review," one batch in January 1919 falls into the hands of the censors at the U.S. Post Office. An official reports to the Chief Postmaster: "The creature who writes this Ulysses stuff should be put under a glass jar. He'd make a lovely exhibit."

As a riposte, when the novel appeared to the disdain of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence but to the acclaim of many fellow writers, Joyce chortled about that great book's opposition: "Puritans, English imperialists, Irish republicans, Catholics--what an alliance!" He reckoned he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.

Such asides pepper the better parts of this large study, enhanced by photographs with sometimes witty captions. Joyce's fraught relations with Nora, hot and cold over so long, find their own typical summation in Joyce's estimation: "My wife's personality is absolutely proof against any influence of mine." The later years, as with many figures once they reach their prime, seem less intriguing.

Accounts accumulate of eye surgeries, drinking bouts, financial tiffs, ornery despairs unsurprisingly precipitated by physical torments and mental anguish at the household of Nora, Lucia, Giorgio and his wife, and the hangers-on and the hanging-on that an often impecunious Joyce depended upon. They all receded compared to his compulsion. This drove him despite near-blindness at times to work eleven hours a day on what became the dream state of "Finnegans Wake." He told his devoted patron Harriet Weaver: "from time to time I lie back and listen to my hair growing white."

Nobody can blame a biographer for attending to such detail over Joyce's final twenty years. It's a necessary contribution to the study of Joyce, to be welcomed by any serious student or scholar. All the same, well over two hundred pages fill with chapters of diminishing personal and familial joy, and they make for sobering instruction. They end the story wearily if poignantly, from a man whose books often brim with the mingled anguish and hopes of his fellow Dubliners and the milieu which paralyzed them first, and then their maker. None formed in that Irish time and place, perhaps, could free themselves from the net cast over them by that city and that culture Joyce evoked powerfully.
(Amazon US 6-12-12; PopMatters 6-15-12, as close to Bloomsday as could be.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape (w/ other monologues)": Audiobook Review

This hour-and-a-half double CD collects shorter works of Samuel Beckett. Like the longer novels of his trilogy on Naxos Audiobooks, it immerses you into his confrontational barrage of language and his moving evocation of emotion. Jim Norton, whose recordings of "Dubliners," "A Portrait of the Artist," and "Ulysses" gained him acclaim for Naxos, here turns to Beckett. In the twenty-nine minutes of "Krapp's Last Tape," we get the noises of the chair in which Krapp sits, the whirr of the tape recorder, and sighs and pauses. Although we must imagine the narrator and not see him, the recording captures sharply the mood of this memory piece.

Krapp recalls his younger self ingeniously. His resigned older self plays the tape of that more smug self, in turn recalling a younger, nearly happy (?) self. I loved how Norton matched the cackle of the older man with the crackle of the younger, and the overlap of the two conjures up a wonderful dramatic moment. It's faithfully produced, with clear fidelity to the creaks and mutters.

Juliet Stevenson, also skilled with Beckett, takes similar paths back into memories and fears in a challenging eighteen-minute, rapidly recited, headlong leap back again into the past by demanding monologue, as the Mouth of "Not I." John Moffatt tackles "That Time," a burst of prose-poetry about a visit in the rain to an art museum's portrait gallery among other places from the past, as well as an A-B-C shuffle of three stages in a man's life similar to the structure of "Krapp." Peter Marinker's quarter-hour "A Piece of Monologue" is difficult, with the speaker confronting how to turn on a lamp (similar to Krapp's tapes?) and then moving into a graveside situation at a funeral--typical terrain for Beckett.

As you can see, or hear, these four selections are well matched. They explore what has happened, and how it's relived relentlessly or slowly by those now older. Looking back, they all approach their end by grasping what had gone before. (Amazon US 8-7-12)

P.S. Click (Windows Media Player and Microsoft Explorer) Naxos for a podcast memoir (71 mins.) with John Calder, Beckett's publisher. Also found: Marcella Riordan, Norton's co-reader for Molly Bloom, on James Joyce's women; Juliet Stevenson on Jane Austen; Haruki Murakami; Sherlock Holmes; Shakespeare; children's literature; John Milton; Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend;" and a great  talk about the media emerging to hear dramatized "War and Peace"--and Joyce--via audiobooks.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Benjamin Black's "Vengeance": Book Review

Dublin pathologist Garrett Quirke's investigations in the dreary 1950s bring him, an orphan, into many situations where families hide secrets of paternity, maternity, loyalty, and betrayal. John Banville's alter ego Benjamin Black shares Banville's acclaimed command of atmosphere from his erudite, dense, and intellectual novels; this fifth installment of "Quirke Mysteries" moves into similarly complex motivations. Yet their focus upon a repressed and dingy Irish city under the grip of economic malaise, political corruption, and ecclesiastical dominance enables Black to craft a explore Quirke's evolution as a flawed character, battling drink and searching for solutions to the lives of others if not his own, which unravels even as he carries on, like all the living.

Not trained as a detective, Quirke relies on Inspector Hackett, the typical up-from-the-country recruit to the police turned supervisor of hapless trainees. The two meet and reckon with the deaths that come their way. This time, in "Vengeance," business tycoon Victor Delahaye, from the Protestant gentry, shoots himself while sailing with his Catholic (on paper equal but in reality subordinate) partner Jack Clancy's son, Davy. Quirke handles Victor's corpse, and probes into why he came to such an end.

"I have a great curiosity," Quirke explains to an uneasy wife. "If I were a cat, I'd have been dead long ago." His travels keep him mainly in Dublin, but a journey shows him the rest of a rundown Ireland: "The huge sky over the Midlands was piled high with luminous wreckage." Even nature looks grim. 

Quirke and Hackett's half-driven, half-detached forays, along with interludes by Quirke's daughter, Phoebe, propel much of the plot. The feline, much younger widow Mona Delahaye, along with Victor's sullen sister Maggie, and Victor's glacial twin sons Jonas and James, complicate the proceedings. So does a woman who hints at a James Joyce allusion or two in the shadows, Bella Wintour. We also meet British-born Sylvia, and her husband, Jack himself.

Without giving away the storyline, this novel moves smoothly, more so than the previous "A Death in Summer." Black as in the best of the series, "The Silver Swan," excels at conjuring up eccentrics. While Quirke's debut, "Christine Falls," set up standard procedure as Quirke faced his own family secrets and learned to untangle those of other Irish caught in their own deceit, it turned so intricate that it lacked energy to sustain its conspiratorial, clerical machinations. Number three, "An Elegy for April," worked better, as it more gracefully told a maturation of Quirke with his reconciled daughter Phoebe, as well as capturing the danger of being an outsider--this time an African student--in insular postwar Dublin.

Similarly, while outliers in "Vengeance" appear more tame if sly, the class distinctions between the gentry and the common folk persist. For instance, the bearish, middle-aged Quirke dallies in these pages with a mistress, the actress Isabel Galloway, whom he had abandoned in a previous novel. "Their lovemaking had felt to him more like a surgical procedure. Isabel had thrust herself angrily against him, all elbows, ribs, and bared teeth. Now she sat there furious in her painted gown like an Oriental empress about to order his beheading."

Black as Banville keeps that writer's ability to indirectly express a character's body and mind, revealing Quirke's unease out of his element, in social situations or in his physical demeanor. After making love with Mona, Quirke on leaving her estate "saw himself as a kind of clown, in outsize trousers and long, bulbous shoes, staggering this way and that between two laughing teams of white-clad players, jumping clumsily, vainly, for the ball they kept lobbing over his head with negligent, mocking ease. Yes, he would find out." It takes him a while, as it always does in the Black mysteries, and often it appears things fall into place around him as he observes or reacts to them, rather than him serving as the catalyst. In his sly way, he determines, with Hackett, to get the twins, and to break the funereal bond that silences those who know among both Delahaye and Clancy clans.

Phoebe, Quirke's reconciled daughter, agrees. But she holds those families, Hackett, reporters, and any--even her own father--who root out the causes of the two deaths which ensue as suspect. "They pretended, all of them, to be after the facts, truth, justice, but what they desired in the end was really just to satisfy their curiosity," As one mordant witness muses after a burial: "The dead get so much more than their share of praise, she thought, and all just for being dead." Jack Clancy's son, Davy, makes the most telling observation: "You don't put a bullet in your heart unless there's something seriously the matter." This acerbic tone sharpens the book in typically Irish fashion, as backbiting shoves into indirection and caroms off of bluntness.

The questions hidden in Delahaye's motives and those of whomever killed off the second character keep three-hundred pages turning smoothly. As with earlier Quirke mysteries, a death opens it, a hundred-odd pages gradually connect those around the cadaver, and at the halfway point fifty pages later, a complication happens. The weakness of certain Quirke tales--of two-hundred pages of coasting past rich settings and engaging conversations yet filled with dead-ends and red-herrings, ending in fifteen pages with a sudden climax and hasty wrap-up--is less present here, if not entirely absent.

While I suspect he played out a well-worn dodge to explain the mystery, this may betray Black's send-up of the genre. The steady pace of this series and the relative detachment of Quirke in this showing may betray his weariness as well as the author's in producing not only his "Banville" Continental-style fiction but his quirky mysteries on a yearly basis. All the same, number five in the series proves, alongside "The Silver Swan," a solid read.

(See my Amazon-linked reviews above to "Christine Falls" and "The Silver Swan" in Sept. 2008; "An Elegy for April" in March 2010 and "A Death in Summer" in July 2011. This slightly altered there 8-7-12. And as here, more or less, at PopMatters 8-27-12)