Category Archives: Reading Ireland
In Ancient Light, John Banville returns to themes explored in his earlier Booker prize winning novel The Sea: the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies.
Alexander Cleave, a stage actor, looks back to one year during his schoolboy days when he had an affair with his best friend’s mother, a woman 20 years his senior. After their first encounter in the laundry room of her house, the pair graduate to sexual trysts on the back seat of her car and then to a mouldy mattress in a run down cottage. So infatuated is Alexander with Mrs Gray that he spies on her when she takes family trips to the cinema or the seaside, jealous of any time she spends away from him. He wants to possess her fully. Years later when the mature Alexander reflects on these times he recalls them as moments of bliss punctuated by tantrums and petulant behaviour as he sought to bend her to his will.
I should confess that sulking was my chief weapon against her, nasty little tyke that I was and I employed it with the skill and niceness of judgement that only a boy as heartless as I would have been capable of. She would resist me for as long as she was able, as I fumed in silence with my arms calmed across my chest and my chin jammed on my collar-bone and my lower lip stuck out for a good inch, but always it was she who gave in, in the end.
Trying to make sense of his younger self, the mature Alexander doesn’t seek to excuse his petulant behaviour. He accepts also that his memory of certain facts is hazy – he constantly jumbles up the times and the seasons when certain events took place for example. He’s not even certain that his recollection of the first time he saw Mrs Gray is accurate. He remembers seeing a woman freewheel towards him down the hill from the church. As she nears him, the wind catches her skirt and exposes her bare skin all the way to the waist, a sight that of course causes a frisson of excitement for the teenage boy. Alexander recalls how he felt at the time and remembers in detail what the cyclist wore but he cannot conjure up her facial features.
Is he lying to himself or simply being selective about what he will remember? Memory is, after all, he explains, an artificial construct.
Images from the far past crowd into my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions,” he declares as the novel begins. “The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage – and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck – may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nevertheless.
That relationship is not the only aspect of his life causing Alexander to ruminate about the past. He is grieving for the death of his daughter Catherine (Cass) some years earlier. Though we learn she had suffered a form of mental illness, her suicide off the Italian coast still perplexes him. Why was she in Italy? Who was the father of her unborn child? Who is the person called Svidrigailov that was with his daughter when she died? An opportunity to answer those questions arrives when Alexander is given a film role in a biopic about Axel Vander, a famous, now dead, academic who led a double life. Alexander begins to suspect there is a connection between Axel Vander and Cass. He gets his chance to uncover the truth when Dawn Deveonport, the female lead in the film, suffers a mental breakdown. Alexander, who has become a bit of a father figure for her, spirits her away from the media frenzy and the anguish of the film’s producers. Guess where they go? – yep, to Italy to a spot a short distance across the water from where his daughter’s body was found.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit of a convoluted plot relying heavily on coincidences, then you’re not far off the mark. But I forgave Banville for this because Ancient Light is written so beautifully, almost poetically with its use of rhythm, imagery and allusion. He delights in descriptions about the landscape and the weather: rain “sizzles through the leaves”; the sky “was the colour of wetted jute” while a late-autumn afternoon is marked by “scrapings of cloud like bits of crinkled gold leaf.”
Banville sketches characters deftly even when he gives them little more than walk on parts. Dawn Devonport begins as a Marilyn Monroe type figure, a much feted starlet who captivates by making each person feel they’ve been singled out for her special attention. Alexander however sees beneath the veneer to a vulnerable young girl unable to cope with the recent death of her father, a girl in fact much like his own beloved daughter. More notable is Billie Stryker, ostensibly the film’s researcher, whose “sad and sweetly” demeanour lulls Alexander into revelations about his life. “There must be more to her than meets the eye” he concludes after their first meeting.
In fact the same thing could be said for many of the characters in a novel which is in essence about the way people lie to others and themselves about who they are. Nothing is as it seems at first glance. One of the recurring ideas of the novel is the effect of light on perception – Alexander for example recollects one day how he saw Mrs Gray reflected in two mirrors simultaneously, the resulting image turned into fragments of the whole. In another scene he lies on his bed and through a tiny crack in the curtains sees an upside -down projection of the secret. What enables him to ‘see’ himself, to understand his actions and make sense of the fragments and distortions, is an ancient light that comes from distant galleries, taking billions of miles to reach earth. But the same light also provides a form of consolation by the end of the novel, seeming to “shake within itself even as it strengthened, … as if some radiant being were advancing.”
The Book: Ancient Light by John Banville was published in 2012 by Viking. It’s a sequel to Eclipse and Shroud which all feature Alexander Cleave. I haven’t read either of the two earlier novels but didnt feel I was at a disadvantage as a result – Ancient Light to me was easily able to stand on its own merit.
The Author: John Banville comes from Wexford in Ireland. In addition to more than 10 novels written under the name of John Banville, he also writes a crime fiction series in the persona of Benjamin Black. At the Hay Festival in 2013 he explained that he adopts completely different writing practices for each persona. As John Banville he writes long hand with fountain pen and agonises over each word (the process is a long and protracted one he revealed). As Benjamin Black he uses a typewriter.
Why I read this book: I loved reading The Sea (see my review here) and enjoyed the talk Banville gave at the Hay Festival. Signed copies of Ancient Light were available at the festival and I couldn’t resist buying. Reading Ireland 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging was the prompt I needed to get it out of the bookcase.
It’s March and time for Ireland Reading month hosted by Cathy at 746.com. Full details of the activities Cathy has up her sleeve can be found via the announcement post We Celts need to stick together so I’ll be joining in as much as possible.
But what to read is the question – Cathy has put a list of 100 Irish Novels as a good starting point for anyone unsure where to begin. For my own preparations I delved into my personal library at the weekend and came up with six options.
- The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
- Ancient Light by John Banville
- The Absolutionist by John Boyne
- Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
- The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
- Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
It’s unlikely I’ll read more than two before the month given some other commitments.On of those is likely to be Ancient Light by John Banville which I bought as a signed copy after hearing him speak at the Hay Book Festival about three years ago. I loved the lyricism of his Booker Prize winning novel The Sea so I’m hoping Ancient Light will deliver more of the same. The synopsis sounds promising:
… a brilliant, profoundly moving new novel about an actor in the twilight of his life and his career: a meditation on love and loss, and on the inscrutable immediacy of the past in our present lives.
I’m not going to decide in advance on my second choice yet – maybe it’s time to give Molly Keane another try – I’ve read only one by her so far (Devoted Ladies under her pen name of M. J Farrell) – but then I’ve been meaning to get around to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney ever since it won the Bailey’s prize in 2016. The chairman of the judges described it as “a superbly original, compassionate novel that delivers insights into the very darkest of lives through humour and skilful storytelling.” Skilfull storytelling sounds just the ticket..
Are any of you planning to join Reading Ireland month – if so what are you planning to read? In the meantime, I shall raise my glass of Guinness and wish you “Sláinte” (good health).
We’re off to South Africa for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. We’ll be in the capable hands of Penny who blogs at 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only.
Let’s meet Penny
I work at one of South Africa’s major retailers. Over the years, I’ve taken on many different roles mainly relating to the buying/planning space. However my passions lie in reading, hiking and birding. My blog is called 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. I didn’t even know reading challenges were a thing then. In 2014, I read a chance remark, on a reading Facebook group, to the effect that there is so much South African Fiction now, one could go a whole year and read nothing else. I thought it would be fun to try that out; I keep year lists for birds in the Southern African region, so why not books? At the same time, I decided to write a review on every book I read and start a blog.
Q. Authors like Andre Brink, Alan Paton and Doris Lessing are names that many people outside of SA would recognise. Is their work the reading experience considered to be ‘classic literature’? If not, what are some of the classics of fiction from S.A?
These writers (Doris Lessing to a lesser extent) could be regarded as classics of SA Literature, if not ‘classic literature’. It depends what is meant by classic literature; if this is meant to refer to works that, in some way, emulate works of the Western canon, then possibly not. I do not necessarily believe ‘classic literature’ to be an ideal to which our writers should be aspiring. Good writing, literary writing are very subjective terms; more important to me is if I have a quality reading experience in which I am engaged, in which characters are multi-dimensional, plot is intriguing and I learn more about the human condition.
There are many novels that meet these criteria, amongst them Afrikaans writers translated into English. These are amongst some of my favourite novels and include writers such as Karel Schoemann, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk and Ingrid Winterbach. Another ‘classic’ is Down Second Ave by Es’kia Mphahlele, a marvellous work that, though autobiographical, experiments with form and reads as fiction. It is set in the 1930s in a township in Pretoria and illuminates how much discrimination was endured by black people even before apartheid. Anyone interested in SA Literature should also make sure they read Bessie Head’s work, even though she may well be considered as a Botswana writer.
Q. Would you consider there are some distinct differences between literature from South Africa and those from some of the other African countries like Nigeria for example?
I am no expert on literature from other African countries so this is merely my opinion. Until very recently, I had only read a few Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Flora Nwapa. I would say they are far ahead of South Africa, having experienced their independence from colonial rule much earlier. We have only been a democracy since 1994 and prior to this, we were not producing much fiction. Possibly Nigeria have been marketing themselves as the African Lit for longer and more widely too.
With respect to the reading experience, I find SA Fiction quite different. Not so much with contemporary writers, but the classic Heinemann novels are often quite dense and heavy going.
South African writing is drawn from many different cultural communities that add variety to our topics, characters and interactions. This I see as a distinct difference. We have Black, White, Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) and mixed race communities (so-called ‘coloured’ people) all writing fiction. South African writers explore many genres too, like crime fiction and speculative fiction.
Q. South Africa has produced two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and J M Coetzee in 2003. How far do you think their work is representative of the issues and challenges of the country?
I cannot comment on Gordimer as I have only read one of her books, The House Gun, published in 1998. I did not like it much as I found it cold and detached. Personally, I found JM Coetzee’s pre-Disgrace (published 1998) novels to be more representative of the country then, allegorical as they might have been. The writer I believe to be truly representative of South Africa is Zakes Mda. Although both Coetzee and Mda live in other countries now, Mda’s topics are still strongly South African while Coetzee seems to have focussed on being a stranger in a new country (isolation has always been an underlying theme in nearly every book he has written).
Since I was in my early twenties, I was hungry to read books set in my own country that, in some way, might reflect my lived experience and my surroundings; books in which I would recognise the environment but be introduced to aspects that were hidden from me. The first novels of this nature that I discovered were Andre Brink’s novels written in the seventies; the next was J.M. Coetzee’s, The Life and times of Michael K. published in 1983 (for which he won the Booker prize; still my favourite Coetzee). Then in the nineties, I discovered Zakes Mda’s She Plays With the Darkness published in 1995. I love all his novels; particularly The Madonna of the Excelsior and Heart of Redness. One of the things I love about Mda’s novels are the way they are grounded in history and also explore contemporary life. He has also written many plays but I am not familiar with them.
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books that show a more contemporary side to life in South Africa – how it is dealing with life post-apartheid for example?
I have so many recommendations for books written post-apartheid, I could never list them all here (check my blog for some of them). I have already mentioned Zakes Mda and some Afrikaans writers. Add Eben Venter to that list (especially for his most recent novel, Wolf, Wolf). Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home and short story collection, Affluenza) does a great job of representing ‘township’ life; (during apartheid, black people were prohibited from choosing where to live and were not allowed to live in areas designated as white; these areas were called townships or in vernacular slang; eKasi).
Thando Mqolozana tackles the taboo subject of Xhosa initiation rites in A Man who is Not a Man, as well as student politics in Unimportance. Nthikeng Mohlele, writes in a cerebral, philosophical style – try Small Things, Rusty Bell and Pleasure. Henrietta Rose-Innes is another favourite of mine; I particularly enjoyed The Rock Alphabet, Nineveh and The Green Lion. K. Sello Duiker, who committed suicide at the age of 30, produced two brilliant novels in Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams. These two books are tough reads; not for the faint-hearted.
On a lighter note, our crime fiction is excellent (it says something that I regard crime as ‘lighter’, I suppose). Deon Meyer is our most well-known crime fiction writer. He writes in Afrikaans and is translated into English. A lover of this genre should read all his books; start at the beginning with Dead Before Dying and continue to the 10thand latest, Icarus. This is not necessary as they do stand-alone but I always enjoy knowing what characters had done before.
Q. What would you recommend to someone who has never read any S African authors? Where would you suggest they start?
This is a tough one because the answer depends on the readers’ preference with regard to topic, genre and style. An extremely serious reader may want to trace the development of SA fiction by beginning in the last century while another may be more interested in South Africa today.
If the latter, Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is as good a place to start as any as it dips into every decade since the seventies. Zoe Wicomb writes of a ‘Coloured’ family that ‘tries for white’ during apartheid in Playing With the Light. Although I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, there are several books that are written in the fictional style that I have really enjoyed; anything by Jonny Steinberg who has covered topics that vary from farm murders (Midlands) to prison gangs (The Number) to HIV and Aids (Three Letter Plague). He investigates his areas of interest through in-depth, intimate interviews with individuals and teases out information that fascinates as much as it shocks.
Zukiswa Wanner’s, London Cape Town Joburg, moves between these three cities and with her protagonist, uses an outsider’s voice to illuminate the ins and outs of aspects of SA life in the business, political and personal world. Lauren Beukes is our darling of speculative fiction; inventive, imaginative and highly readable. Her second novel, Zoo City, is set in a Johannesburg that, though imagined, is strangely familiar. Then there is Finuala Dowling, said to be the ‘home-grown Jane Austen’ of SA Lit. In The Fetch and Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, she writes of the minutiae of life with wit and sparkle and a strand of pathos.
This is merely a taste and there are many more.
Q. How important are prizes like Caine Prize for African writing to contemporary authors?
My feeling is that they are important as they do bring previously unknown writers to the attention of both publishers and readers.
Another prize which is important is the Etisalat Prize for Literature which is awarded to first time African writers of published books. It was inaugurated in 2013 and books by South African writers have been short-listed each year. The 2014 winner, Penumbra was by South African novelist, Songeziwe Mahlangu. One of my favourite novels of last year,What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw, was short-listed last year. I highly recommend this novel; set in the Cape Flats, it is a heart-breaking tale of parents trying to do the best for their children in an environment dominated by gangs, drugs and politics at the time of the State of Emergency during the eighties.
Q. Which contemporary S African authors do you think we could be hearing more from in the future – people who may be at an early stage of their career?
Names to watch out for are Mohale Mashigo whose first novel, The Yearning, was published this year. It is an accomplished debut, well-written and with a compelling plot. The Reactive by Mashande Ntshanga gives the reader a glimpse into the disaffectedness of youth who live in a world of trauma, untimely death and limited opportunities. Yewande Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door is a great read. I think it is quite a feat to capture the personalities of two women in their eighties, as she does here. Nakahane Toure and Panashe Chigumadzi have both published debut novels in the last year.
We’re staying with the Celtic nations for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Ireland and who better to give us the insight on this country’s literature than the blogger who has co-hosted Reading Ireland month for the past few years: Cathy at 746books
Let’s meet Cathy
Just over two years ago, as I went to buy yet another book, I decided to do a count and see how many unread books I had to hand – on my shelves, my iPad and my Kindle. It came to 746 and I was so shocked! I was reading around 30 books a year and worked out that if I didn’t buy any more books, it would still take me about 25 years to read all the books I had in the house! So, I set myself the challenge to not buy any more books, read all 746 and blog about it along the way.
I’ve rediscovered my love of Irish literature in particular, so I also blog about the Irish literary scene and review new books by Irish authors.
Outside of blogging, I am a mother of 5 year old twins and work in an Arts Centre in Northern Ireland so I’m kept pretty busy!
Q. Who are your favourite authors from Ireland (north and south)?
This is a really hard question, because I love so many! My favourite novelists would be Bernard McLaverty, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Colum McCann and Nuala NiChonchuir, but I also love playwrights like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh and poets like Paul Durcan and Sinead Morrissey.
Q. Why did you start the Reading Ireland Month?
I had spotted a few reading months relating to Germany and Japan and just thought, why not?! March seemed like the perfect month for it and I decided to team up with my old friend and fellow blogger Niall at The Fluff is Raging to broaden the scope of the month to include posts on movies, music, TV and travel as well as books. I see it as a real celebration of all Irish culture and I love spreading the word about all the great writers that have come from this tiny island! Last year we had over 100 posts and we are hoping for even more this year!
Q. Does literature from Ireland have a particular atmosphere or style, something that maybe makes it stand out as distinctively “Irish”?
This is an interesting question that I think about it a lot. What is it about a small island like Ireland that has produced 4 Nobel Prize winners and a host of world class writers, playwrights and poets? Alongside Greek and Latin, Ireland had one of the earliest ‘languages’ Ogham which dates back to the 4th century AD. There is a great oral tradition of storytelling and myth making that carries on throughout Irish history. In ancient Irish society, the poet was revered and was second only to the chieftain and I think we still carry that reverence today. Add to that a turbulent history of invasion, immigration, famine and war and you have a fertile ground for literature to flourish in.
For me, Irish writing is lyrical and poetic, with a real sense of vitality, always with an eye to the past and to the tradition from which it has come.
Q. What books are creating a buzz in Ireland at the moment?
There is a great range of young authors making a buzz in Ireland at the moment. Writers like Colin Barrett, Danielle McLaughlin, Belinda McKeon, Rob Doyle, Anakana Schofield, Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume and Eimear McBride are all being talked about on a national level. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Guardian First Novel Award and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the 2014 Bailey’s Prize for Women.
The buzz isn’t only about writers though – there are lots of fantastic literary magazines from Ireland exploring new work, like Banshee and The Stinging Fly and Tramp Press is an exciting new publisher working to promote the voices of women in Ireland, old and new. A fabulous book to check out is Dubliners 100, published by Tramp Press where new and established writers from Ireland created a ‘cover version’ of their favourite stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s a great introduction to Irish writers you may not have heard of!
There is also a great surge in crime writing coming out of Ireland, Tana French is an obvious example of this, but writers like Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville and Jane Casey are writing very interesting Celtic Noir!
Q. Who are the authors you would consider ‘must read’ for people who wanted to deepen their knowledge of Irish literature?
This is a hard question to answer as the breadth of work there is to choose from is vast. There are the classic writers like Swift, Wilde and Stoker and the modernists like Beckett, Joyce and Yeats. I have a list of 100 Irish Novels on my blog which is a great starting point for anyone interested in Irish Literature. It is in chronological order and spans from 1729 to 2014 and really highlights the diversity and quality of Irish Literature. There were so many books I wanted to include, that I could have made the list go up to 200!
Q. Most keen readers will know of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Are there any authors you think deserve more attention?
There are a lot of women writers who deserve attention and have been in the shadows for too many years. Writers like Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien can more than hold their own with the titans of Irish literature. There is a famous Irish Writers poster, which was very popular in Ireland and featured only male writers. Last year the Irish Times recreated the poster with only female writers and there is a real feeling that readers are starting to hear and to listen to these voices. I would recommend The Long Gaze Back which is an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers edited by Sinead Gleeson. It is a fascinating collection of work featuring writers like Maria Edgeworth, Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen alongside less well known writers like Norah Hoult.
Q. Talking of Joyce … he seems to divide readers. Where do you stand on the love him/hate him debate?
I feel like a wee bit of a fraud at this point, as I haven’t read Ulysses! I know, it’s embarrassing, but it is in the 746 so I will be reading it at some point. I have read Finnegan’s Wake and The Dead and would some down on the ‘love’ side, solely for the short story ‘The Dead’ which is a perfect short story and contains one of the most beautiful passages ever written:
‘A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
Hope Cathy’s guest post has given you a taste for Irish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further now is a good time to join Reading Ireland Month which runs until end of March. Find out more info on the sign up page on Cathy’s blog. Follow the Facebook page here or join in the discussion on Twitter using #readireland16.
After a few days musing on authors from Wales I’m now going to hop across the sea to do homage to my Celtic cousins via Reading Ireland Month. I missed the event hosted by Cathy of 746books and Niall of The Fluff is Raging last year but am geared up for this year’s month long event.
I have three books in mind but will probably only manage one of them. I’m just not sure which of them to pick.
Do I go for….
Ancient Light by John Banville. In it an old actor recalls his schoolboy affair with a woman twice his age. I bought this in 2013 on my first visit to the Hay Book Festival where he was one of the featured authors He was a wonderful interviewee, full of anecdotes about the craft of writing (with a fountain pen if he is writing a John Banville novel but a biro when he writes as Benjamin Black). I’d only read The Sea by him previously but loved its lyricism so immediately the session finished I sped over to the bookshop and got a signed copy of Ancient Light. But its stayed on my shelf all this time.
Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane. This is her fifth novel but will be my first experience. I’ve seen her lauded by so many bloggers I simply have to explore her work. This one is set in fashionable, chic London rather than her usual world in Ireland. It shocked readers at the time because it dealt with a a stormy relationship between a lesbian couple.
or my final choice ..
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. If this is anywhere as good as Nora Webster which was one of my favourite books from 2015, then it will be a joyful experience. I’m deliberately choosing to ignore the film until I read the book.
All good options I think but which to I choose? Anyone care to make a recommendation???