News Analysis

Saturday 20 September 2014

The who and which of Desmond Hogan

Published 05/11/2005 | 00:11

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John Boland Last year in The Observer, the paper's literary editor Robert McCrum wrote a rhapsodic profile of Desmond Hogan, whom he saw as a troubled genius, and on the dust jacket of this volume of stories McCrum compares Hogan to a seanachai.

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Larks' Eggs New & Selected Stories

By Desmond Hogan Lilliput Press, ?17.99

John Boland Last year in The Observer, the paper's literary editor Robert McCrum wrote a rhapsodic profile of Desmond Hogan, whom he saw as a troubled genius, and on the dust jacket of this volume of stories McCrum compares Hogan to a seanachai.

"For Hogan," he says, "the primitive story, expressed in the oral tradition, is the key to human existence." Also quoted on the dust jacket, Hilary Bailey, marvelling that the stories are "like wonderful ten-page novels", declares that Hogan "writes to the last drop of his blood" - whatever that means.

These encomiums are puzzling because in some very basic ways Desmond Hogan is not a good writer. His sentences are often very sloppy - crammed with redundant adjectives and unlikely metaphors - and sometimes downright ungrammatical.

In the second story here, we're told of an elderly woman: "She was a reminder of the Protestant stratum who once dominated the town, a remnant of it." That 'who' should be 'which' or 'that' while the last clause is entirely superfluous, as what it says has already been conveyed in the rest of the sentence.

This may sound like nit-picking but these linguistic errors and stylistic tics - what admirers would probably call 'distinctive idiosyncrasies' - run through most of the thirty-four stories here and act as a deterrent to the reader's absorption in them.

Hogan's protagonists are almost invariably marginalised and exiled figures, whether in small-town Ireland or among travelling and displaced communities in England, and he's to be commended for the fidelity and affection he shows to the lonely and the downtrodden, but his characters seem to be caught in a curious time-warp - even in the more recent stories, there's no sense of the changing Ireland that we've all experienced in the last couple of decades. It's as if time stopped still, not in Shangri-La, but in Ballinasloe in the early 1960s. The Celtic Tiger doesn't exist, not even as an absence from people's lives.

The writer's admirers obviously don't see this as odd. And clearly they've no problem, either, with the showy, self-regarding lyricism of the prose or with its ungainly straining towards poetic epiphanies that seem to this reader unearned.

John Boland is a journalist and critic

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