Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS -

JAMES Joyce died in Zurich on Jan­uary 13, 1941 at the age of 59. In Frank Mcguin­ness’s sec­ond novel — a fan­tasy his­tory of Joyce and his fam­ily — the writer is in his fi­nal hours. The Joyce voices re­count their love, hate and mis­ery in four mono­logues, de­pict­ing the aber­rant clus­ter of a fam­ily.

Mcguin­ness com­bines an in­terim stream of con­scious­ness and clas­sic Joycean di­a­logue to evoke a tragic, ob­ses­sive parental ar­range­ment be­tween a ge­nius writer and his ma­nip­u­la­tive, yet in­spir­ing, wife. The nar­ra­tive is an im­plo­sion into the Bar­na­cle-joyce union; demon­strat­ing how their flip­pancy in poverty is over­come by lust and man­i­fes­ta­tions of love, with a unique abil­ity to en­gage in vi­cious oral com­bat, then laugh it off.

The fam­ily is re­named, us­ing the char­ac­ters from Joyce’s first play, Ex­iles. Hence, Nora is Bertha, Gior­gio is Archie, Lu­cia is Beatrice and Joyce is Him­self or Dick.

The “dirty Dublin rogue” and the Gal­way girl, as “hard as Con­nemara gran­ite”, are, in ef­fect, par­ents to an Ital­ian boy and girl. While they could not get far enough away from an Ire­land they loathed, ‘a nest of vipers’ as the wife called it, they have ended up in a dis­placed en­vi­ron­ment, mid-world War II, liv­ing in a ‘pigsty’, ex­iled, but not re­leased from the sanc­ti­mony of Ir­ish cler­i­cal cul­ture.

The open­ing is weighed down by Archie’s sad­ness and be­wil­der­ment at his fail­ure. At his fa­ther’s bed­side, he rec­ol­lects his pre­ma­ture birth, trig­gered by his mother’s de­vour­ing of rot­ten ham, and elu­ci­dates the birth pangs of her long labour, as if he was des­tined to suf­fer.

His child­hood is fraught with low self-es­teem — at his birth­day party a class­mate de­scribes his home as a pigsty. But his mother is ab­sorbed by him, they keep se­crets from his fa­ther, who main­tains a dis­tance from his son, as if he is too flac­cid to in­spire the ge­nius writer. Whereas, the spir­ited dancer-daugh­ter ap­pears to in­habit the mind of her fa­ther and pro­vide him with ex­cep­tional lit­er­ary ma­te­rial.

Bertha’s mono­logue is vit­ri­olic, she blames the “famine for ev­ery­thing that af­fects us as a race”. Be­ing set in 1941, it is hardly sur­pris­ing that she has noth­ing but bru­tal mem­o­ries of Ire­land, and de­spite the in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of war in Europe, it is only the war with her daugh­ter that oc­cu­pies her mind.

She is con­vinced that Beatrice is some­one “let­ting on they need spe­cial at­ten­tion”. Bertha has a ran­cid tongue filled with viper­ous envy of her daugh­ter’s syn­ergy with her fa­ther, and con­stantly over-analy­ses Beatrice’s ec­cen­tric be­hav­iour. But Beatrice is an Ital­ian girl, be­ing judged by an em­bit­tered Gal­way girl

The Wood­cut­ter and His Fam­ily

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who per­sis­tently re­calls the para­dox of her an­ces­try and its fear of the su­per­nat­u­ral and the Ir­ish Catholic Church, with the power to chas­tise and pun­ish.

We meet Beatrice in a sana­to­rium, await­ing a visit from her mother who, in re­al­ity, never vis­ited. Aside from the histri­onic re­la­tion­ship with her mother, she has a trau­matic ro­mance with a Foxrock protes­tant, cricket player, clearly Sa­muel Beck­ett, her fa­ther’s pro­tege.

The uri­nary ref­er­ences through­out the book spill over in this mono­logue. Be­ing mis­un­der­stood by her mother and very pos­si­bly heart­bro­ken by the failed ro­mance, her men­tal health de­te­ri­o­rated and she was con­fined to a sana­to­rium, in re­al­ity un­til 1982.

This book feels like an en­quiry into the re­spon­si­bil­ity of par­ent­hood and the like­li­hood of two peo­ple in­fect­ing each other and their chil­dren with their mer­ci­less, cursed his­tory.

Bertha and Dick are well prac­ticed at play­ing each other; Bertha has tricks up her sleeve, mind games to nur­ture her love life. Dick is an avant-garde writer, cel­e­brated in Europe’s cul­tural elite.

Bertha con­tem­plates her back­ground so in­tently, ac­knowl­edg­ing that her DNA in­her­i­tance is ir­re­sistible, and a new en­vi­ron­ment and learn­ing can not im­prove what you pro­duce in a child, they will in­herit the ghosts and curses of your past. Like it or not, it comes with you and you mark them with it.

The fa­ther sim­i­larly re­flects on this lin­eage trait, “My son be­trayed me. It is a fam­ily tra­di­tion. Didn’t I do the same to my fa­ther?”

In this mono­logue, Mcguin­ness in­tro­duces Car­di­nal Henry New­man in the guise of a quasi Bud­dhist nun, Sis­ter Hen­ri­etta Good­man, founder of the new univer­sity at­tended by Joyce. It is where he re­calls Dublin, a shal­low grave out of which he could not flee fast enough. Fi­nally, the fa­ther de­liv­ers a fiery fa­ble to the fam­ily as his part­ing shot.

Mcguin­ness is best known as an award-win­ning play­wright, par­tic­u­larly for his highly ac­claimed Ob­serve The Sons Of Ul­ster March­ing To­wards The Somme. As Pro­fes­sor of Creative Writ­ing at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin, this novel sug­gests he must bring ex­cep­tional learn­ing and in­spi­ra­tion to his students.

The Joyce fam­ily in Paris, 1924. Left to right: James, his future wife Nora, and their chil­dren Lu­cia and Gior­gio

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