Saturday 24 February 2018

Books: Novel forgotten in an attic sheds light on state of the nation

Fiction: The Master's Choice, John A Nix, Drombeg Books, pbk, 256 pages, €12.50

John A Nix: A 1930s state-of-the-nation discourse.
John A Nix: A 1930s state-of-the-nation discourse.
John A Nix

Hilary A White

To think what would have happened had Des Nix not scaled the ladder into his late aunt Rachel's New Ross attic that day. There, among the boxes and piles that life consigns to oblivion, Nix discovered a manuscript. It had been penned sometime around 1931 by one John A Nix, grandfather of Des and father to Rachel.

Des, a former sub-editor with this parish, dusted off the pages and found a fully-formed novel pleading to see the light of day after years in hiding. He may not have done so had what he read not been so illuminating.

John A Nix had a reputation as a man of letters, a "gentleman-journalist" schooled in Latin and literature and a fluent French speaker. This capacity for language is evident in The Master's Choice, where a rich Hiberno-English provides its own rhythm and melody.

It tells the story of Marley Swanton, a school teacher in 1930s rural Ireland. Preyed upon by two rascals in his class and dawdling at the age of 40, he takes up an offer to write for local paper The Weekly Recorder and reconfigures himself as a journalist. This comes alongside his growing affections for Finola Macara, the daughter of a local farmer. Winning her hand and the blessing of her parents becomes Marley's goal, but it won't be easy given the Macaras have their own dramas to contend with.

It is through the cast of characters orbiting Marley that Nix (writing with flecks of semi-autobiography) delivers a state-of-the-nation discourse. It is a marvellous thing to behold how he does so, using the ebbs and flows of Marley's fortunes to raise questions about how fledgling Ireland is faring while channelling an almost Yeatsian disillusionment. These range from matters of agrarian and economic policy to pub culture and small-town gossip. In Quinburn - a local money-grubbing publican who ends up buying out the owner of Marley's beloved Weekly Recorder - Nix depicts what he sees as Ireland's worst tendencies towards self-interest.

An opportunity is even found to discuss the environment and the plight of Ireland's trees, as well as the disintegration of language: "The dialect now heard in the country is no more the lilting, lyrical lingo of the first Abbey plays; it is leavened with the rags and tatters of American slang."

When there is mention of farmers struggling to repay banks following "boom years", a shudder of plus ça change recognition strikes you. Symbolism is also Nix's friend as he takes to the soapbox. An impromptu jaunting-car race between Finola and a retired British colonel is New Ireland in control of a high-spirited mare and dismantling the arrogance of landed gentry. Another exciting set piece sees Marley subdue a raging bull through wits rather than brawn, a prescient invocation for a nation in flux.

The sentiments ring as true today as they would have all those decades ago. That said, you wonder of the minds that could have been moved had this unassuming novel been released in Nix's own lifetime.

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