Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Paying my respects to Anita Brookner - a truly gifted author

I’ve always enjoyed reading about female outsiders on the periphery of society, often set apart by the impulse to question.  The novels of Anita Brookner and Jean Rhys formed a considerable backdrop to the world of my twenties so I was shocked and saddened to learn yesterday, on Facebook, of the death of one of my all-time favourite writers: Anita Brookner. She passed away last week on 10 March and, as the mother of a seven-week old infant, I admit I am slightly out-of-touch these days, so I was late in learning the news.

Anita Brookner (1928-2016)

My first introduction to Brookner’s universe occurred during my teens, in the town library of Carrick-on-Shannon, where I grew up. I chanced upon Providence (1982) on a shelf, opened a random page and was instantly hooked.  Some years later, in 1996, I wrote my MA thesis on Brookner at NUI Galway (then UCG), focusing on Romanticism and Existentialism in her novels and refuting claims, mostly made by male critics, that she wrote ‘romantic novels’ (Bayles dismissed Hotel du Lac (1993) as ‘Harlequin Romance for Highbrows’). Anita Brookner never complied with the conventions of the popular romance, such as fantasy resolution through fusion and marriage. I believe her work is intimately involved, however, with the modes of Romanticism which is characterized, instead, by fragmentation, and also with Existentialism, where separateness and alienation are central to her ‘poetics of loss’. In fact, a typical Brookner ending, with its raised expectations and ironic reversal, approximates more towards ‘anti-romance’. Many of her heroines are prompted, by the stark anti-romanticism of their realities, to re-evaluate expectations of people and the world around them. Often, they may start out looking to literary paradigms to answer their questions about life, then they gradually arrive at new insights about themselves and their environments. So, while 'happy endings' are scarce in her work, Brookner’s protagonists often move beyond delusion to a greater understanding; they are empowered to strive for authenticity in their lives.

Throughout her career, Brookner has been unflinchingly courageous in tackling tricky subjects without whitewashing the grittiness. She herself once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement ‘…there is a truth even more terrible than [we] suppose and it was discovered by certain members of the Romantic generation. The truth is this: reason does not work any better than myth.” Her novels are interested in subjectivity as it is constituted socially, culturally and psychologically. They offer us worlds where diverse themes are explored, such as family relationships, female friendships, bonds between men and women, power struggles, bonds of religion and bonds between life and the aesthetic realm. A joy to read on a linguistic level, as they are so elegantly crafted, they are also refreshingly honest; she does not shirk from the big themes of love, sex, isolation and loneliness, gender, ageing, myth vs ‘reality’ in an absurd universe. Brookner’s hesitancy to inscribe redemption can be taken as a counter-statement – one which exposes the repressive effects of romantic myth in Western culture and highlights how it can so easily worm its way into our lives. In an interview for The Paris Review in 1987 the novelist herself stated: “The true Romantic novel is about delayed happiness, and the pilgrimage you go through to reach that happiness.”

It is some years now since I read her work but, at one point, shortly after I wrote my thesis I was reading her constantly. Then, somewhere along my reading journey, I decided to take a break from her somewhat bleak, yet honest, worldvision and, in particular, from the too neat binary recognizable in some of her female characters: charismatic glamourpuss ('winner') is pitted against the introverted book worm ('loser'). This was one of the very few tics in her corpus that cloyed for me. The rest of the journey was magical and I drank in her prose and stylish syntactical choices, as well as the candour of her psychological insight. For my money, Hotel du Lac was over-hyped and some of her later novels surpassed it, but it has certainly become a deserved classic, and the Booker prize it garnered in 1984 was a rare moment during her long, prolific career, where critics shone a light upon her outstanding talent.

Thinking back to the many quiet moments of reading pleasure she afforded me also carries fond memories of a more carefree time in my life as a postgraduate student in the first flush of love with an ERASMUS exchange student from Belgium. So her passing has opened up more than literary reminiscences and also evoked a happy phase of research, enquiry and personal joy at a formative time in my life. There is much more that could be said about her oeuvre but limitations of time (see reference to new infant above!) and space demand that I keep this post brief and hope to continue the discussion another day. Anita Brookner did not believe in an absolute and, apparently, she chose not to have a funeral. Wherever she is, her literary legacy and the recollection of encountering and relishing her work will continue to occupy a unique place in my heart and mind. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Happy Proclamation Day!

As part of the commemorative events for the one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising today has been declared Proclamation Day or Lá Fhoróga na SaoirseThe delivery, by the Defence Forces, of the Irish flag and a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to all national schools in the country this year is a tangible and potent reminder of the indelible link between the Easter Rising and the Irish tricolour. Today the national flag is being hoisted on flagpoles at schools and institutions around the country and the Proclamation is being recited. 

In spite of all the furore and divided opinion about the way the Centenary of the Rising is being celebrated, I believe this simple initiative is laudable and means that younger generations will understand the historical context and broader implications of the 1916 insurrection. It is refreshing that we are able to move beyond the taciturnity that earlier generations of Irish people upheld around Irish patriotism and the fight for freedom, mainly for fear of being labelled a sympathiser of violent Republicanism. 

Earlier this morning I attended a special ceremony at my son's school to mark the occasion and was moved to hear the children of sixth class reciting Patrick Pearse's poems, 'The Wayfarer', 'The Mother' and reading the Proclamation in Irish. They also sang Irish songs such as 'Oro se do breath bhaile' and Thomas Davis' 'A Nation Once Again' and the school hall was decked with projects about the key figures in the Rising.

Lets hope the values of cherishing equally all Irish women and Irish men, inscribed in the Proclamation, will be fully realised and marginalised groups such as Travellers won't have to endure continued social and legislative exclusion. 

To read the full programme of national events marking the Centenary click here
The Wayfarer
The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way
Patrick Pearse

The Mother
I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho' I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow - And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.
Patrick Pearse 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A poem for International Women's Day

A light-hearted poem from my second collection, IN BETWEEN ANGELS AND ANIMALS, on International Womens Day


What shall I do with this body they gave me,
so much my own, so intimate with me? – Osip Mandelstam

Your lipstick meanders
outside the line of your thinning lips.
You leave the house in your current state,
abandon your eyeliner flick;
your come-to-bed eyes
never-got-to-bed eyes.

Everyone knows a woman must
maintain her youthful good looks.

‘Muscle has memory’, you tell yourself,
panting on the treadmill,
willing your thighs to remember
they were flagrantly slimmer.
Are you two dress sizes
from happiness?
At least you feel no pressure
to schedule a vajazzle.

Everyone knows a woman must
maintain her youthful good looks.

You blend foundation into
sagging contours of your face,
wondering when exactly
your pores became craters.
Blusher is your best friend
now you’re blanched like a
bunch of asparagus spears.

Everyone knows a woman must
maintain her youthful good looks.

Will you ever reclaim that alchemy
when your dress expressed you perfectly?
Your jokes were funnier, your hair glossier:
your tresses billowed – now they’re flyaway.
You moved with élan on the dancefloor,
trod lightly, didn’t spill gravy.

Everyone knows a woman must
maintain her youthful good looks.

You will grow old gracefully
except grace is a myth;
the world ignores women
who slide into invisibility.
They already start to cut you off,
in pre-emptive glances at a watch.
So pop open the serum and primer,
remember to drink ten gallons of water,
learn how to be soignée
or choose opacity.

Because everyone knows a woman must
maintain her youthful good looks.

You who were always diffident
about the male gaze,
who never suspected those catcalls
were directed at you, can enjoy
keeping your thoughts intact;
no worries about being leered at,
nurture what is hidden,
focus on seeing anew.

Screw you.

© Emily Cullen

'Girl in Mirror', Roy Lichtenstein, 1964

Sunday, March 6, 2016

On poet RS Thomas

One of my favourite columnists, the writer known as Barnaby ffrench, contributes an article to The Galway Advertiser each week, which elevates this free local, commercial paper to glorious heights. (Incidentally, the paper boasts some other wonderful journalists and includes fascinating articles on local and national history, etc). This week, in his ‘Through the Glass Darkly’ column, ffrench turned his attention to one of my favourite poets, the Welshman RS Thomas. One of the first poems I read by Thomas was ‘Sick Visits’. This poem literally stopped me in my tracks with its arresting imagery and the peculiar language the poet uses to describe his visits, as an Anglican parson, to the infirm, elderly women of his parish.
Poet, RS Thomas (1913-2000)

Sick Visits

They keep me sober,
The old ladies
Stiff in their beds,
Mostly with pale eyes
Wintering me.
Some are like blonde dolls,
Their joints twisted;
Life in its brief play
Was a bit rough.
Some fumble
With thick tongue for words
And are deaf;
Shouting their faint names
I listen:
They are far off,
The echoes return slow.

But without them,
Without the subdued light
Their smiles kindle,
I would have gone wild,
Drinking earth’s huge draughts
Of joy and woe.

RS Thomas

The artistic detachment required for the poet to manifest such stark, compelling phrases as ‘blonde dolls’ is offset by his attentive kindness to the women he describes. If, as the Russian formalists have argued, literature and art is created when ‘the familiar’ is defamiliarised’ in artful ways, then Thomas’s oeuvre is surely a case in point; his work transfigures the mundane with its startling imagery. The force of the poet’s humanity is powerfully felt in the last stanza where he discloses his debt to these women with gracious humility. Sometimes the 'subdued' illumination we need is kindled by unexpected sources. The poem demonstrates how we can reframe the world around us and make the best of every situation by looking with eyes of love and harnessing the transformative power of the imagination. It calls to mind Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Hospital’ in which the speaker ‘falls in love with the functional ward / Of a chest hospital’. On a linguistic level, I am struck by the syntactical skill of the opening lines where Thomas could have written ‘The old ladies / keep me sober’ but chose a more indirect approach instead, yielding a stronger impact and drawing the reader in. This deliberate ordering of words is reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s opening lines in his ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’: ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / the Old Masters’ (which is included in an earlier post on this blog). The vision of the old ladies ‘Wintering’ the poet is also quietly potent.