Who is mediating Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls?’

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Ernest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a peculiar text for a number of reasons. First among which is the tension residing in the novel’s style. Hemmingway’s prose is among the most identifiable of the twentieth century, not just because he’s a canonical mainstay, but because of his commitment to shearing his works of all ‘unnecessary’ verbiage. His work is easily parodied as a result, just avoid adverbs, sub-clauses and never use a poly-syllabic word when a mono- will do.

Hemmingway’s sparse approach is the reason why websites such ashttp://www.hemingwayapp.com/ exist, which allow you to ‘write like’ Hemmingway, by highlighting complicating phrases that you should trim. We all await the first Booker-prize winning novel written with the help of this tool, I am sure.

It might sound strange to posit that For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about an American, Robert Jordan, volunteering to fight a leftist guerilla war against the Spanish fascists, is a novel about its own stylistic restraint, but this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well please.

But I see your point, Hemmingway does permit himself occasional exuberances, or at least exuberances by his standard. These occasionalities cluster around moments of physical contact between Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it

The Hemmingway app, incidentally, doesn’t like this sentence. It’s easy to see why. The pronouns repeat and clump together, (‘closely,’ ‘closely,’ ‘lonely,’) though perhaps repetition is inaccurate or insufficiently nuanced, they sort of rhyme, rather than repeat, ‘smooth/smoothness’ ‘coolness/cool,’ ‘warm/warmly,’ almost as if the words are working through their various grammatical permutations rather than changing into something more apposite. This results in some hyphenated neologisms that could summon up a Montessori Finnegans Wake, i.e., “happy-making.” So within this veritable explosion of linguistic energy, Hemmingway is still restraining himself by limiting his vocabulary.

The fact that it is at these points, the points at which Jordan is particularly botheredly hot-making is significant, as almost all of Jordan’s time, when in solitude, represents him as tussling with his doubts, subduing his panic about his outward presentation of stoic restraint. His self-recriminations power the narrative’s quieter moments, and make a poignant contrast with the admirably suspenseful shoot-outs that come towards the novel’s end. Therefore, restraint, both in emotion and in prose style serve a coterminous goal, and are mutually raised to the level of a moral imperative.

The elevation of a plain style to a moral realm comes into play also in the novel’s use of language. The dialogue is rendered as clunky and old-fashioned style, making use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ which I think serves at least two purposes. First, it imbues the novel with a old-world grandeur. One’s mind immediately goes to the early modern English of William Shakespeare’s plays, an association that no novelist, however bare they wish their works to be, would resist. Second, Hemmingway wishes to preserve the spirit of demotic Spanish in which the dialogue is putatively being spoken, and therefore has them speak as if their words are being translated literally, which is strange, since the Spanish words which crop up, Inglés, qué va, are italicised, and are written as they are spoken. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the novel reads more naturally.

But it is the treatment of ‘bad’ language that sticks out the most. Rather than having his characters say ‘fuck,’ ‘damn,’ or their continental equivalents, they will say things like ‘I obscenity in the milk of thy shame’ or the narrator will intrude: ‘He said unprintable.’

I confess to ignorance on how difficult or easy it was to print cuss words in novels in the early twentieth century, but this does seem like a particularly convoluted solution, if they did indeed present a problem. I’d rather think of it as another instance of Hemmingway keeping his character’s on a leash, letting the moments in which physical desire and emotion intertwine be the only ones allowed to run rampant on the page, and open up an aspect to Hemmingway’s writng we wouldn’t normally see.

And that’s why a bleedin’ app isn’t the only thing you need to be a good writer.

Joseph Lennon on the origins of the hunger strike

Good lecture out of the UCD Humanities Institute on the field of memory studies, which takes a genealogical look at the nature of the hunger strike, excavating its significance from its place within the Brehon laws => suffragettes => modern republicanism.

Colm Tóibín on Easter 1916

A lecture delivered by Colm Tóibín which paints a picture of the historical background from which the vivid faces of the Easter Rising emerged; with particular focus on Padraig Pearse, his poetry, his religious beliefs and how his pedagogical theories relate to his nationalism.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n07/colm-toibin/after-i-am-hanged-my-portrait-will-be-interesting

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ and the difficulty of endings

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For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.

For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions onUlysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.

The final lines of the Wake read as follows:

“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”

The beginning reads:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.

Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.

“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’

Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.

The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,

Though thy Glass to day be run,

Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low

Find the last poor Pret’rite one…

Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,

All through our crippl’d Zone,

With a face on ev’ry mountainside,

And a soul in ev’ry stone…

Now everybody-“

I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:

“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”

which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:

“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball…

Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die…”

This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.

Patrick Kavanagh: London Poet?

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I’ve never ranked Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry very highly, ‘The Great Hunger’ aside. If I had to generate a fancy reason for why, rather than the simplistic sounding, ‘I don’t like this,’ it would be my consciousness of his biography, as I find him far more engaging as a representative of his era, than as a poet.

If you’ve never read Pat Walsh’s book Patrick Kavanagh and the Leader, for example, do, it gives a thorough account of future Taoiseach John A. Costello’s intensive cross-examination of the poet when he sued the Dublin publication, The Leader, for libelling him. The courtroom drama is begging to be adapted from the page after page of snappy, witty dialogue, with the poet and future Taoiseach arguing over where the irony in a particular line in Shelley resides. Yes, really, they debate this at length. Kavanagh gives as good as he gets I think, and it’s no wonder there were queues outside the courts for the days and days that the trial ran on for.

Notions of Ireland’s cultural stagnancy in the forties and fifties are being rolled back at this point, but there is something bleak that persists about Kavanagh’s generation, himself and Flann O’Brien sitting in Dublin pubs rife with backbiters and destined for varying shades of obscurity and penury.

The RTÉ documentary below complicates the picture we have of Kavanagh quite a bit, giving a detailed account of the years he spent in London, enmeshed in its cultural and artistic scene, which all seems quite a bit more vital and indeed, enjoyable for Kavanagh than his years spent in Dublin. There is a suggestion in the documentary that there are those who prefer Kavanagh in his current state, as a peasant, Dublin-canal poet, but whatever side you fall on interpretively, I think the consciousness of Kavanagh as more metropolitan than most people are aware, can only ameliorate, rather than diminish his reputation.

Listen also for Flann O’Brien’s advice for what to do if an author you’ve never read comes up in conversation.

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2015/0107/670862-fleeting-city-the-london-years-of-patrick-kavanagh/

Two Scenes from Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’

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For about seventeen minutes, we have the same shot of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham on either side of a small table in a private room in Prison Maze. Fassbender is leaning forward for most of it, sitting back only at one point, when Cunningham accuses him of political nihilism and criticises his political strategy for its insufficient valuation of his life and those of his fellow Republican prisoners. Other than that, motion is minimal; it is only the blue smoke from their cigarettes that provide any sense of movement, whirling about in the darkened room in the infinite number of slightly haunting ways that smoke does, only serving to highlight the men’s static, almost silhouetted, figures.

From a thematic perspective, representing the two as mostly immutable has the effect of visually stating the irreconcilability of their viewpoints, Fassbender representing Bobby Sands’ commitment to starve himself, the rock to the hard place of Cunningham, as Father Dominic Moran, advocating the nitty-gritty, unsexy work of community building. It could be said that what we have here is a visual thesis and antithesis, an argument between life and death.

The metaphor never stultifies the scene of course — the most notable thing about it is its dynamic exchange of dialogue, which is naturalistic and casual. For its first half it is devoted to what resembles mere patter or small talk, as the two spar over their early lives in the two very different Northern Irelands that they grew up in. The scene is uncompromising for potential outsiders to the conflict and its history; casual references to Northern Irish geography and the various factions within the IRA and the British state abound.

The shot change, when it does eventually come, results in a close-up of Fassbender, in which, over the course of four and a half minutes, he tells a story from his childhood. His narrative involves putting dying foal out of its misery in front of a number of boys taking part in a cross-border cross-country running initiative. He tells the story as a means of impressing upon the priest his level of commitment to the cause, and his justification for refusing to compromise. Once the camera has followed Fassbender’s cigarette, it once again becomes still, and remains fixed, and Fassbender looks at a point just beyond it. The fixity of his gaze is starkly unstinting, at only one point at the start of the story does he look away, point having misspoken.

twoThe consequence of having such a tight focus on Fassbender, particularly wearing the expression that he does, is that we are brought right into the remit of his intensity. The immovability of his gaze, the taunting angle of his eyes, just bisecting the camera, and by association the viewer, makes clear the irrelevancy of circumstance to his character and his strength of will. The shot is intended to cow us, as is attested to by the countershaft that contains Cunningham. He does not maintain his gaze as Fassbender does, but looks around, turning over the implications of the narrative, his realisation of his inability to change Sands’ mind. His capitulation is just as haunting as anything else in the scene, “Couldn’t have that on my conscience, no.”

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He also doesn’t speak any dialogue in his close-up, Fassbender dominates his frame, but Cunningham seems trapped, uncomfortable.

Another scene of significance to the film, and our understanding of Sands, is the polysemous ending, in which Sands dies, which appears to be interspersed with fragments of memory from the cross-border cross-country running he tells Father Moran about. But there is a problem of interpreting the scene as just a manifestation of Sands’ memory, or merely an instance of life flashing before his eyes. For one, would the priest that beat Sands for drawing the foal have allowed him to participate in the event afterwards, second, his friends aren’t singing pop songs, as Sands remembers, but a Belfast variation on the ’Everywhere We Go’ song. We could put this down to Sands’ faulty memory, the loss of a somewhat unimportant detail, but it seems like a slip that shouldn’t be ignored, based perhaps off the vividness of the foal episode.

fourNext we have Sands running through the Goath Dobhair countryside, apparently by himself, having long outrun his friends, referring to his speed in his conversation with Father Moran. The overt connection of Sands in a darkened wood, following unclear path with his death shouldn’t require too much unpacking, but what could have been a very of-itself closing sequence rises to something a lot more evocative and almost supernatural, when we recall Sands’ belief that in his next life, he’d find himself closer to the land in some way, and that Gaoth Dobhair is, in his eyes, paradise.

fiveThe sudden looseness of the camera, the quick edits from the birds on the tree to their departure and sudden drunken veering in the night sky, not to mention the apotheosis and abrupt bathos of the score, is probably beyond my ability to wholly digest and reproduce, and it is in the resonance of the inferences and loose ends that the power of the shots reside.

Roy Foster, Colm Tóibín and Fintan O’Toole in conversation

I am an unabashed fan of learned old men having conversations about stuffy subjects, though microphone hogging makes me deeply uncomfortable. This one might be the gold-standard, with Roy Foster speaking on his book Vivid Faces indebtedness to the novel form, Colm Tóibín’s indebtedness to the craft of the historian, with Fintan O’Toole directing it all.

Declan Kiberd at the Theatre of Memory Symposium

Declan Kiberd giving a rather brilliant talk on the state of Ireland, memory and its relationship to culture. Great readings of Yeats, Joyce and the revolutionary generation abound, albeit greenwashed slightly. Also has a dig at the revisionist historians, which I would make more of if it wasn’t for his great idea for a new, radical arts policy.

The Radio Drama of Samuel Beckett and Dylan Moran

dylanI’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up for as far back as I can remember, since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy got lodged deep into my world view, and influenced me to try stand-up the few times that I did, aswell as slur the way I speak infinitesimally. I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good modifying and improvising local and topical material unlikely to turn up in his one-hour specials, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Roísin Dubh, Galway.

It was during one of these excursions into the vortex of ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addressed his absent girlfriend Isabel, in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings will make it to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, if it is the case that he will play all of them to her when he returns from his hike.

I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on the details which his young self imparts with most fervour, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp is most interested in returning to recollections of his bygone sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.

Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy and passive aggressive with his partner to succumbing to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. Albeit psychosis with comedic intent. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s act enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’

It is a cliché generally observed in Irish comedy journalism that such acts driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms; the performative element.

Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based; we respond to his material in ways that if another, more Apollo Theatre type stand-up were to make them, we wouldn’t, because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. His coming onstage stage in Monster for example features a glass of wine, extravagant arm gestures, a half-hearted audience greeting, and a spot of bother with the mic stand.

This affectation of partial incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special, and his take on family life in his second and those thereafter so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as he hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. Stand-up, as traditionally practiced, requires repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity.

Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his current critical reputation, which seems to me to depend more on his columns than his novels, The Third Policeman, At-Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his writing style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond the sentience of Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and wondered how it is possible for such an archetypal postmodern stylist to emerge from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet.

This impersonal note sounded in O’Brien’s fiction is almost antithetical to the notion of comedy as practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.

 

 

John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’

10.4.03. Foxfield, Mohill, County Leitrim, Ireland. JOHN McGAHERN writer at his home. ©Photo by Derek Speirs
10.4.03. Foxfield, Mohill, County Leitrim, Ireland. JOHN McGAHERN writer at his home. ©Photo by Derek Speirs

John McGahern’s ‘Creatures of the Earth’ is in many ways a typical McGahern short story. It represents a family, touched by tragedy in rural Ireland (albeit off the mainland in Achill), it touches on the darker aspects of human behaviour and the prose remains quiet and unfancy throughout. It even contains a quotation from Jane Austen that might serve as a thesis statement for McGahern’s oeuvre in general. So what is it that distinguishes it from the other short stories in the collection, also entitled Creatures of the Earth? Not a whole lot, either thematically or technically, apart from the title, and it is this, and how it relates to the larger work, that I will now explore in depth.

The text introduces the Waldron family in the aftermath of Mr Waldron’s death. Mr Waldron worked in a hospital, and finds that once he falls ill, his colleagues about town begin to shun him: “They work with sick people and they are not ill. They are outside and above all that. They loom like gods in the eyes of these poor creatures. Now that I am sick I am simply no longer a part of the necessary lie that works. I have to be shut out.”

Here we have the first instance in which the word ‘creature’ is used in the narrative, in the almost endearing sense of ‘poor creature,’ in such a way that acknowledges their fallibility, for the amalgamation of social snobbery and anxiety about their own deaths that motivates them. Of course, these ‘creatures,’ are not the only ones that appear in the short story, we also have the far more abiding creature, the cat Fats, who waits out Mr Waldron’s illness at the foot of his bed. The other creature, in the conventional sense of the term, is Tommy McHugh’s border collie. Both animals are black and white. This seems important. Eileen Waldron, making use of the now empty house for her work, begins to avoid local character Tommy McHugh, as seeing the dog under his neglectful and cruel ownership distresses her, in much the same way that the hospital staff avoided Mr Waldron once he fell ill. Albeit of course, for completely different reasons.

At one point, Eileen recalls a local doctor named Doorley, who, believing in the healing powers of tar, tarred his children once a year. All of them grew up to be ‘disturbed,’ the narration (the word ‘narrator’ seems to imply a greater degree of agency than one can detect in one of McGahern’s texts) informs us. Two have committed suicide.

McGahern’s attention to detail regarding the foibles of human behaviour and to implicitly link these two manifestations of it, almost as if there was a case to be made for their similarity, is what allows him to credibly advance larger, almost cosmic truths in conjunction with the ‘mere’ pastoral realism. The spoonful of pessimism helps the medicine go down too, of course.

The cruelty of people remains a strong fixture in ‘Creatures of the Earth,’ two drifters abduct Fats on a whim and drown her. Tommy McHugh later casually mentions the fact that he threw the border collie off a cliff.

It’s a testament to McGahern’s vitality and consistency of tone as a writer that interpreting him can sometimes feel like over-reading, but there must be something to the persistence of the black and white. One could think of it as McGahern’s version of Ted Hughes’ view of the natural world, which reveres animals for their animalit-ness; their apparent simplicity. The cat’s instincts, which incline her to trust people, doesn’t lead her to suspect danger until its too late.

The final paragraph, in which Tommy ominously declares that Eileen is ‘on her effing way out,’ to the ‘absent collie’ offers us this interpretation, it is a peculiar being indeed that can conjure up a prosthesis for an animal they themselves killed in order that they may serve as a sympathetic auditor to justify their own mad theories about another person. It also returns us to the petty behaviour of the medical staff: (“he declared to the absent collie in a voice that sang out that they alone among the creatures of the earth would never have to go that way,”) each and all engaged in a perpetual denial of their own deaths.

The title, at first glance, is a very forensic, apparently objective one, but there is an implication of community in it too, the community of the earth’s inhabitants, at least together and of a part, even if so much of their actions towards the earth, and its other creatures, are destructive. Like the good doctor Waldron of course, there is a sympathy present there too.