Sunday 22 October 2017

That they may face the beauty of Leitrim...

The landscape of Leitrim and Roscommon so permeates the novels and short stories of John McGahern that it becomes almost a human character in his books. It's fitting, then, that this year's John McGahern Seminar should take landscape and the environment as its general theme.

The much-loved writer, who died six years ago last March, also wrote vividly of the Dublin in which he lived for some years, but it's the fields and townlands of his native north-western place that he most ardently and scrupulously evoked.

UCD's professor of modern history, Diarmaid Ferriter, will be speaking of this when he gives the seminar's keynote lecture in Carrick-on-Shannon this coming Thursday evening.

Other speakers at the three-day session will include acclaimed Chinese writer Yiyun Li, who will discuss McGahern's work and read from the fiction that won her the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and Denis Sampson, whose fine biographical study, Young John McGahern, was recently published.

Information about the seminar can be found online at arts@ leitrimcoco.ie.

*****

The annual Walter Scott prize defines a historical novel as being set at least 60 years before its publication, but that didn't stop the Observer's books editor, William Skidelsky, last Sunday from including Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn among the Ten Best Historical Novels.

Tóibín's novel, set in the 1950s, thus took an honoured place among such more obvious Skidelsky choices as Tolstoy's War and Peace, George Eliot's Romola, Graves's I Claudius and Lampedusa's The Leopard -- though his quirky list also featured such surprising nominees as Andrew Miller's Pure (set in pre-revolutionary Paris) and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, concerning an 18th Century German romantic poet.

He opted for the Tóibín novel because he thought it "a stunningly controlled account of an important historical phenomenon: Irish emigration to America" and because the author succeeded in making heroine Eilis's experiences "fresh and real".

Let's hope the forthcoming movie adaptation enlists an actress who can convey this freshness. Saoirse Ronan, perhaps.

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