Monday 24 June 2019

The full Montague

He prefers not to engage in emotional striptease, but John Montague says he may 'do a Frank McCourt' on his childhood. The rest of his life is equally interesting, as his memoir, Company, illustrates. The poet tells Patricia Deevy about his work, his women and his feelings abo

He prefers not to engage in emotional striptease, but John Montague says he may 'do a Frank McCourt' on his childhood. The rest of his life is equally interesting, as his memoir, Company, illustrates. The poet tells Patricia Deevy about his work, his women and his feelings about Seamus Heaney.

THIS is the story of two books: the one John Montague has written and the one he hasn't. Company: A Chosen Life is about his life and the people he knew between his college years in the late 1940s and his teaching years in the mid-1960s. It is a literary life with a private life threaded through, and there will be a similar volume to follow it. But there should be a volume to precede it too; and that unwritten one, which would tell of Montague's early years, is one he is both compelled and repelled by. For that reason, it may never be written.

"It intrudes on the ground of A Portrait of the Artist and also on 'the Frank McCourts', so I want to keep away from that until I can do it in a special way."

Before I leave, he digs out a file on his childhood and produces an American picture of three little boys himself, a four-year-old tot with a mop of curls, and his older brothers, Turlough and Seamus just before their struggling Irish parents sent them back to Tyrone in 1933. He would live with his father's sisters Winifred and Brigid in Garvaghey and never with his family again.

The stories of his childhood are documented with ferocious tenderness in poems such a A Flowering Absence, but there may be a prose book in them. More than once he mentions this doing of "a Frank McCourt".

"That's a bit of a temptation, of course, but I've resisted that one."

In a previous interview with me, he said his mother dated all her misfortunes from his difficult birth: "Everything fell through after I refused to come out." Though his aunts were good to him, they were not his parents. Three years later, his mother returned to her home place, and her older sons, seven miles from Garvaghey. Her youngest saw her once a year.

"What do you do if your life completely ... if the gate shuts at the age of four? It was extraordinary. The people who lived across the road in Garvaghey, the Lynch family, they used to hear me crying at night and the father Lynch came over to see what was wrong. I just said that I'd been reading comics which had upset me. But I seem to have cried a lot. But I haven't gone into that. I'll make one last stab at it.

"There are times when I am glad that I had no parents. That seems a harsh thing to say, but when I think of what parents can do ... On the other hand I think that's a kind of trying to put a good face on it. A rationalisation. And to some extent I did have them, especially in my 20s, but I had to go to them.

"I think that you're supposed to lay your ghosts and I don't seem to ". The line is not completed.

ALL of this is later. At first, Montague is determined not to let the interview go off at a tangent. He says he didn't wanted to write a confessional book. "Because I'm not that interested in myself, except as an example of somebody who tries to write poetry at that time and place."

Between us is a pile of books he has assembled for this interview. Included are George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man, one part of Moore's later biographical trilogy, Hail and Farewell, and a volume from WB Yeats's Autobiographies. They are by way of illustrating what Montague is about in Company.

Discreetly, he consults a little white card with tiny pencilled notes when we stray from the purpose and structure of Company. For Montague, the point is to talk about the ongoing flow of the Irish literary conversation rather than to engage in an emotional striptease.

"At the time of what they call the revival, you had these autobiographies, especially by George Moore and also Yeats. And since we have an extremely thriving literature now, so there should be a few autobiographies. It's time to get going on them."

Company opens with Montague, then in his mid-20s, calling on George Yeats, WB's widow. "An ignorant young man of Ulster-Catholic background, I did not have the equipment to really profit from the acquaintance of this marvellous woman," he writes. But the fact is, he did it; he wanted to insert himself into literary society.

The book goes on to document everyone who was anyone in or passing through Dublin in the Fifties, Paris in the early Sixties and California in the mid-Sixties. The roll call is impressive: writers Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Tom Kinsella, Samuel Beckett, Benedict Kiely, Nelson Algren, Doris Lessing, Octavio Paz, Theodore Roethke and Allen Ginsberg; the Dolmen Press publisher, Liam Miller; musicians Paddy Moloney and Sean O Riada; and Garech Browne of Claddagh Records with whom Montague started a spoken-word series. (Even the exiled Duke of Windsor "Eddie Windsor" gets a mention.)

"I stress at one point that because I didn't have an ordinary family or ordinary parents that I embraced the literary life or bohemian life," he says. "So Austin was a father figure and Beckett was an uncle figure. I was casting them in roles which they seemed to enjoy.

"I've got few grudges. I've a few, but I won't parade them yet. In general, I would take a genial view of my contemporaries because I can see how things weren't easy for them. Like in the case of Kavanagh he didn't have a chance. And also Behan was very distressed by the fact that we were all from the university and he'd educated himself, and also been educated by jail which seems to be have been a spartan kind of university."

Behan, I say, seems to live on in the public imagination maybe that's what we mean when we talk about the afterlife.

"We can't really talk about the afterlife. I'm coming closer to it," he says, laughing.

Does he feel old?

"No, I don't. I feel surprisingly young. But of course you look up at the speedometer, all the miles that have been done, and you realise that you can't go on for, let's say, more than 20 years. That's a difficult subject."

Where would he like to be buried?

"The family plot in Garvaghey seems to be full. We have a lovely graveyard in Schull which overlooks the sea, but you can't buy a plot before you're dead. Then, to be quite ironical about the whole thing, death is the last career move so you'd have to place yourself where you could be a summer school. I haven't worked that one out either.

"I think Elizabeth would have to decide because hopefully she'd be in charge of the obsequies."

'Elizabeth' is Elizabeth Wassell, Montague's partner for the past eight years. She is an American in her mid-40s but so delicate and precise in her movement and demeanour and speech, so elfin in her appearance, that age seems inapplicable. She is like an airy presence from another dimension, though no doubt she is deeply practical: her third novel since 1997 appears this autumn.

The couple met in New York when she was pouring drinks at a poetry-reading organised by her friend, the mystery writer Walter Mosley.

"He [Montague] walked in and I felt something that I can only describe as a kind of shock of recognition, as though I recognised him. I knew him as though an invisible cord was spun from me to him and the tug of it," she told me in a previous interview, while Montague squirmed beside her. It was not his kind of public language.

Four years on from that interview, they are cosy together in their idyllic Ballydehob hideaway.

They plan to marry eventually but Montague is still married to his second wife. "There's still a profound reluctance in relation to divorce in this country," he says. "It's slow."

Though largely a literary memoir, Company is also the story of Montague's first marriage to Madeleine de Brauer, a blue-blooded French woman, the granddaughter of a duke, whom he met at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1954. Two years later they were married in the chapel of her family's "nondescript" chateau in Normandy.

Though he writes of being bedazzled by her pedigree, he was not intimidated, he says.

"There's a certain age when the young artist when he can't be daunted because he believes he's better than anybody. So I was I can't say cocky, that's not quite the word I was sufficiently aware of my own future gifts that I didn't feel that I had to apologise to any of them. They were quite nice to me and they hadn't had a writer in the family, so they found me intriguing."

They lived in a basement in Dublin's Herbert Street in the late Fifties, with Brendan Behan as their neighbour. Montague had a job in Bord Fáilte looking after the foreign press and he was deeply involved in the literary life. Dolmen published his first collection, Forms of Exile, in 1958. By 1961, Madeleine had had enough of Dublin.

"She just found it quite depressing, which it was. She couldn't quite see how it was changing, which I could feel."

He has Madeleine to thank for getting him past the guilt which was his birthright as an Irish Catholic but is absent from much of his writing about love.

"She would have been for me a liberating force because it seemed that sex for her seemed to be completely natural. It was something that should happen and the oftener the better."

The liberation became a source of internal conflict and Company ends on a troubled note. In the mid-Sixties Montague worked in Berkeley for a year and during that year he fell into a serious affair. He discovered that he had not adopted the French man's casual attitudes.

"I don't think I was quite up to the French mode. It's quite extraordinary: one can see adultery as a way of life. It is more accepted, it seems. They think there are three main pleasures. You shouldn't take any of them [in excess] you shouldn't overeat, you shouldn't over-drink, and presumably you know how to handle your love affairs."

The marriage to Madeleine ended in divorce in the early Seventies. In 1973, he married Evelyn Robson and they have two daughters, Oonagh and Sibyl. The family lived in Cork and Montague taught in UCC for 16 years.

With Madeleine, there were no children. In the "chosen" life he writes about, that was something he couldn't choose. "It's a wound inside a marriage, I think, until [you] come to terms with it in different ways."

His daughters have not met Madeleine.

"I think they'll be fascinated by this book, to see that Daddy had a life before. The rather beautiful and eerie thing is that she [Madeleine] did get married again and he was a widower who had a daughter and she's just become a step-grandmother. She's quite pleased with the book, I think. She comes out rather well."

He says he and Wassell have begun "to ease back towards France".

"I find it easier to work there. The structure of life seems much easier."

They go to Nice in the off-season. Now that he has a writing companion he says he is much more productive. The next volume is already sketched out: Berkeley at the time of the riots, Paris at the time of the riots and, of course, the North.

THE NORTH of the Sixties reminds me of the Tiger Woods of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney. Montague likes it: "That's a good one: the Tiger Woods of Irish poetry."

Famously, the day Montague's Collected Poems came out, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature and so eclipsed him. Again.

The Heaney thing is "complicated", he says.

"There's no parallel for it and we won't really know until the whole thing is over. It's not the same as Yeats, because I think Mahon, and to some degree Longley, and myself, and also Tom Kinsella, are certainly in the same rank. But we don't get the same attention.

"He is very good. Well, he was the right man in the right place. I was the first young Ulster Catholic poet, but I wasn't up in Belfast at the time of the Civil Rights. So he was the available taig.

"Also, the Faber machine is quite extraordinary. We shouldn't really be on to all this. Seamus was almost immediately into an international orbit and Faber had this powerful machine behind him. When the last book came out I was in Dublin went down to the Abbey Theatre. There was a reception which went on for an hour. And then Seamus read for an hour. And then there was a paying bar afterwards. How could anybody have any critical judgement after that?

"This is something that no other Irish poet has had and I know it rankles on all and it's not really that the rising tide lifts all boats. But this time I've got this and I've also got the Penguin."

'The Penguin' is the new edition of his Selected Poems, a Poetry Society Recommendation, which coincides with the publication of the memoir by the London publisher, Duckworth. He is delighted, at 72, finally to be taken seriously by an English publisher. Getting notice outside of Ireland is something he mentions more than once. For instance, he says that for a long time if Irish poets were not like Kavanagh, writing of country matters, the English were not interested. Last month, he completed his three-year term as the first Ireland Professor of Poetry, the chair set up in partnership between the two arts councils, north and south, Trinity College, University College Dublin and Queen's University in Belfast.

"Quite fascinatingly, there was no reference in the English press to it. They'd be sending out press releases but the English didn't want to hear about it."

Somehow, being seen is a preoccupation. It is an understandable one. Before I leave, when he brings down the file on his childhood and produces the picture of himself and his brothers, he jokes that it would make a great book cover and that if Company doesn't do well, he'll definitely "have to do a Frank McCourt": "And then there won't be a dry eye in the house."

* Company: A Chosen Life is published by Duck Editions at stg£14.99.

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