Wednesday, October 17, 2007

So Death Isn't Daring Enough?

How interesting that Sam Jordison can say that Anne Enright is a conservative choice for the Booker. Well I haven't read Darkmans or Animal's People, one of which he says should have won instead, but they must be pretty brilliant linguistically to top Enright, in my opinion.

I'm not surprised by one of Jordison's objections: that Enright sticks to 'familiar themes'. It's a complaint which is even more familiar than those themes, and is a troubling approach to literature. We can know the theme of a novel without reading it - from the blurb, from what people tell us about it etc. It's what a writer does with that theme which is important - via structure, for instance, and above all language. Language can make us look at a familiar theme in a new way, can disrupt our preconceptions and give us new insights about a subject we may have assumed we've got taped. And this is what I think Anne Enright does here, with the familiar theme of the Irish family.

Not Jordison, though: this is his other objection (as well as that of some of his commenters): he says that The Gathering is 'skilful, but never really daring writing'.

I beg to differ. I have to say that I have been pretty shocked by the readiness of people to comment on the Guardian books blog on things they haven't actually read (as they do in this thread) - a contemporary practice which is indeed linked, I think, to the readiness to dismiss a book for its theme. However, in spite of this modern reluctance to bother with the fuddy-duddiness of scrutiny, I crave your indulgence in asking you to look at this part of a section from The Gathering, quoted in the Guardian today:
My mother had 12 children and - as she told me one hard day - seven miscarriages. The holes in her head are not her fault. But even so, I have never forgive her any of it. I just can't.

I have not forgiven her for my sister Margaret who we called Midge, until she died, aged forty-two, from pancreatic cancer.

I do not forgive her my beautiful, drifting sister Bea. I do not forgive her my first brother Ernest, who was priest in Peru, until he became a lapsed priest in Peru.

I do not forgive her my brother Stevie, who is a little angel in heaven. I do not forgive her the whole tedious litany of Midge, Bea, Ernest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice and the twins, Ivor and Jem.
This is subtle, complex writing, a palimpsest of voices which is not just 'clever' as Jordison writes, but passionate yet controlled. Note the way that Enright incorporates the family consensus language into the individual voice of the narrator: the ironic quoting of the family's phrase for Stevie: 'a little angel in heaven', and this: 'Margaret, who we called Midge, until she died,' conjuring in a stroke the terrible time when the family stopped referring to Margaret as Midge and telling a whole story of how death altered the family's attitude to her and wiped an aspect of her personality. It is the tension between the irony of the narrator's voice and the scenarios she thus conjures which belie her avowed lack of forgiveness (for these were after all the mother's tragedies) and which give this passage real emotional power. And those repetitions: they are, after all, daring, and their rhythm adds to the emotional impact. (Another stunning irony: in criticising her family's 'litany' the narrator creates a litany of her own and subtly demonstrates her own implication in their psychology.)

This is not just a passage about an Irish family. It's a passage about the terrible power of love and its close relationship to hatred. And if you think you don't need to read about that because, yawn, it's been done, then god help you.

Last week Anne Enright read this very passage to a packed room in Manchester's Whitworth Gallery. The audience was utterly spellbound, and I know I wasn't the only one weeping. As far as I'm concerned, if the words were simply clever, I wouldn't be remembering them as vividly as I have since.
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