Anne Cunningham on Anne Enright

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Anne Enright interviewed by Niall McMonagle

Smock Alley Theatre, Saturday 23rd May

On the day that Ireland voted yes, I found myself wading through the jubilant crowds outside Dublin Castle, trying to weave a path to Smock Alley theatre. It’s tough, attempting to muscle your way through a crowd in full party mode. But I bravely resisted the urge to simply give in and party on down – I had work to do. And I’m so glad I did it.

Listening to Anne Enright wasn’t work at all, as it happened. She is as much of a joy to listen to as she is to read, and has as much presence on the stage as she has on the page. She made us laugh and smirk and remember and try to forget in a short space of time that seemed longer, somehow, as she crammed so much of herself – with rare honesty and integrity – into a mere 90 minutes.

Niall McMonagle, asking her about her new novel The Green Road, wanted to know if this is a Mother Ireland book? (The matriarch of the family in her novel is called Rosaleen.)

“No, I do it for laughs really – to annoy people!” she smiled, adding that her book is about separation and connection and the Big Separation for everyone is surely that of leaving one’s mother. “We leave our mother and return to find the human being” she said.

In that case, was it simply a modern twist on the King Lear story?

“It’s actually through the writing of two books – one on compassion and the other on a kind of female King Lear that this book came about” explained Enright.

Somewhat surprised, her interviewer asked did she not have the ending of those books in mind, how could two books end up becoming one? He quoted John Fowles’ always knowing the end of his novels before he begins (although it’s John Irving who is famous for that quote), and Anne Enright described how she “travels blind” through the writing process. She has a vague idea of shape and plot but says her books are not narrative driven, she doesn’t suffer from “narrative adrenalin” and prefers to think of them as “taking a bath”.

And then the old turkey came out – a mandatory question for women writers, I’ve heard it asked again and again and again: Had she ever considered writing in the opposite gender…yawn…? Really, you gentlemen interviewers, you should know better. Who asks male writers that question?

Ms Enright seemed to consider the question to be as tiresome as any woman would, and since most of the interview was about The Green Road, I could see her oncoming answer like a train down the track at top speed. “Two of the characters in the book are men” she replied.

“I write 3rd person in the past tense, both male and female. It’s not a question of gender at all, it’s a question of character and that character’s place in the story.”

Being a generous-spirited woman, she showed not one teeny sign of being irked, but the annoyance among the females in the audience was palpable. On the very day we voted for equality on an inherently gender-based issue, that such a question could be asked – and not of an MA writing student, but of a Man Booker prize-winning author, a woman whose prose stands alongside the finest living writers… I found it preposterous.

A question from a member of the audience during the Q & A prompted Enright to give us her frank opinion on the “preciousness” of some writers.

“I’m a professor myself”, stated the audience member, “And Virginia Woolf insisted that writers need a room to themselves – a room dedicated only to writing.”

Ms Enright was gracious as always in her response: “If you’re going to be a good writer, then you need to understand that you’ll never make much money. So you need to cut your cloth and get used to living modestly. Good writing is not about having a dedicated writing room. It’s about the page. It is always – always – about the words on the page.”

By Anne Cunningham

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Anne Cunningham on her Relationship with Poetry

Poetry

Poetry has waned somewhat in its importance for me in the last year or so,  and I’m the poorer for it.  Perhaps it’s because of my father’s sudden death late in 2013, perhaps it’s the “running to stand still” process with which I wrestle in order to meet the day. It’s more likely, though, that I’m submerged in a prolonged spell of grief avoidance. That which cannot be named can always take a back seat, while the spuds have to be peeled or the school uniform needs washing the dog has to be walked.  Can’t it?

And yet it is in poetry – the poetry of others, I hasten to add – that I have found those words which prompt me to exclaim “Aha! There it is! That’s what I’ve always thought, too – wish I’d said it like that!” It is in poetry that I’ve discovered words for love, for anger, for disdain, for bliss. But I shudder to think of exploring the poetry of loss.

Who hasn’t turned to Yeats in the first flush of yet another bout of “true love”? Who hasn’t thought of spreading their dreams underneath another’s feet, and who hasn’t asked the love object to tread softly, having them stomping all over our dreams?  But of course love isn’t the only song that poetry sings.

As the centenary commemorations of WW1 rumble on, the voices of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon come back to haunt us, describing military battle as “…obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud”. Lest we forget, everyone keeps saying. But we did forget, of course. We keep forgetting, again and again, and we keep imposing military “solutions” on questions which cannot be answered by might and force.

I can’t think back on my hectic single days, my own personal “Roaring Twenties” – and their abrupt ending – without thinking of Louis McNeice’s wonderful, sing-song  “Bagpipe Music”.  There’s something about what someone called its “tremendously exhilarating pessimism” that describes perfectly my youthful experience of a tired and depressed Dublin in the eighties.

And who hasn’t turned to the poetry of Leonard Cohen, albeit set to music, when rejection makes its inevitable call?  I remember the drink-addled fug of many a night, those delicious troughs of whiskey-sodden wallowing, with Laughing Lennie in the background, crooning about climbing a mountain “…to wash my eyelids in rain”.

Ultimately I must of course face grief instead of dodging it. But rather than listen to the platitudes of some well-meaning but misguided  therapist who would tell me that time heals everything,  I know instead I will return to poetry to find some dimension of consolation. Auden’s much-quoted “Funeral Blues” no longer fits the bill. I need to find poetry which explores the long-reverberating aftershocks of bereavement, rather than its immediate crippling impact.  And in the meantime, while walking the dog and mopping the floor, I can console myself with Patrick Kavanagh’s lines about unacknowledged sorrow, while “Every old man I see reminds me of my father”.

‘The Story of Alice’ – review by Anne Cunningham

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THE STORY OF ALICE Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The Reverend Charles Dodgson was an Oxford don, a mathematician in Christ Church college, a keen amateur photographer, and was known as a shy, stammering bachelor. Under his nom-de-plume, Lewis Carroll, he was the zaniest and most inventive of children’s fiction writers who elasticated and masticated language and logic far beyond anyone else’s imagination before or since. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still as fresh and perennial
as the grass, and its artistic and cultural influence over the last 150 years is probably unquantifiable.

Alice Lidell was the daughter of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. One afternoon in 1862, Alice and her two sisters took a boat trip with Dodgson and a colleague. The girls were bored and asked Dodgson to tell them a story. On that afternoon, the seeds of Alice in Wonderland – and of Lewis Carroll the author – were sewn.
As a child, Alice Lidell was a subject for many of Carroll’s photographs. Other children – other people’s children, that is – populate his photographs, too, in fact half of the 3,000 images he captured were of children. While this screams at our 21st century sensibilities of Carroll being a repressed or barely-concealed paedophile, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst insists that “…It is far easier to condemn Carroll than it is to decide exactly what he should be accused of”. Context is everything, it seems, and Douglas-Fairhurst has exhaustively researched the context in which the Anglican deacon would spend much of his adult life making what he called his “child-friends”. But why would he want to? In one of his letters he writes “how much nearer to God…is the soul of a little child”. Taking photographs of nude children is something Carroll never explains, although Douglas-Fairhurst warns us early in this book that Carroll’s diaries are “a triumph of self-avoidance”. The nude shots, amounting to just 1% of his total collection, were nonetheless hidden in an envelope marked “honi soit” (‘shame on he who thinks evil of it’), and this, Douglas-Fairhurst writes, “acknowledged the existence of bad thoughts while denying they had any place in his own mind”. Really?

The historical and cultural backdrop to Carroll’s disturbing peccadilloes was rapidly changing. Darwin’s Origin of The Species was causing a considerable stir, and although a clergyman, Carroll was fascinated. He visited the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace and was a fiendish collector of gadgets. The first London tube station was opened. An undercover investigation of child prostitution by the Pall Mall Gazette resulted in the age of consent being hurriedly raised from 13 to 16. And of course the industrial revolution trundled on.
The biographer quotes Julian Barnes, in attempting to explore the psyche of Lewis Carroll. From Flaubert’s Parrot, he quotes “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books.” He follows this quote with; “A story reflects life but also redeems it: assembled on the page, even unpredictable events can be plotted, and their random
scatter made part of a meaningful design”. I don’t believe that he has sought to redeem Lewis Carroll in this masterful biography. But he has searched exhaustively for meaning, not only in Carroll’s skewed head, but in how Carroll related to the rapidly-changing world around him, by freezing a little girl in time and accidentally creating not one but two great works of literature.

Harvill Secker
HB & eBook
488 pages
£25.00
2nd April 2015