Wednesday 19 June 2019

At home with the Joyces

Fiction: The Woodcutter and His Family, Frank McGuinness, Brandon, €14.99

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

Deirdre Conroy

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 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.

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