All the world as seen from the point of view of Oscar Wilde – reviews of books touching on Ireland
Dear readers of my blog,
retiring into the countryside, going off-line, albeit it for just a few days at a time or whenever you are on your way from A to B, all this allows for time to read and reflect what you have read.
Literarische Notizen zum 121. Todestag von Oscar Wilde (deutsch)
Once you are free from the pressure you feel when sitting in your own study or surrounded by all you possess and cannot get rid of at short notice, reading becomes a pastime that links your present to the past in many ways. So I also felt when arriving in our customary flat for the one-week holiday we took in this year’s autumn recess. Reading the proofs of this year’s seventh edition of the Oscar Wilde Calendar projected for 2022 was easy when I could concentrate on the sheaf of twelve leaves of paper alone. Nothing to distract me – not even the sounds of the windmill placed about two hundred metres from the farm where we stay.
This is why I felt like taking along books to review – partly translated from the English and in French – and dealing with Ireland from different points of view would be a good idea – also to try and think where contemporary literature and Oscar Wilde have a common ground. Never since doing my doctoral dissertation in the late 1980s and early 1990s have I been able to focus for a sustained period on just one topic.
Doing so once again with Wilde as the centre of my studies, however, provides me with a déjà-vu showing, that is, the phenomenon of selective perception. Once you examine a topic at great detail, you see it crop up everywhere you look. So when I emerged from my first spell in Joyce studies – what did I see in any nook of literature I looked into? – you have rightly guessed. I saw quotations and situations from Joyce’s works in almost any book I bothered to read for the next two or three years. It was like an obsession I sought to work through by writing and publishing extensively on Joyce from 1994 through 2004.
Having studied Irish literature with Wilde and Joyce as points of vantage for over thirty years now, I do feel free, though, to roam both into other fields and into other languages – including translations of works by Irish writers into German. Since I have been receiving catalogues as well as the odd review copy from Steidl Verlag Göttingen – the publishers of Günter Grass (1927-2015), among others – for almost a quarter century, I have also been following their policy of issuing novels by Irish writers. Two of such novels were part of the parcel they sent out to potential reviewers in the summer. I have just finished reading what is termed a “slow thriller” by Una Mannion, entitled A Crooked Tree and first published by Faber and Faber, London, in 2021.
The literary label of “thriller” was first applied to a novel many of you might know: The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers (1870-1922), the man who wrote a single piece of fiction but had a career of writing books on British Imperial Wars until the First World War as well as journalism and propaganda pieces for the Irish cause of Independence after 1916.
His life was such that one day in 1919 he moved all his family from London to Dublin. I mention Childers here because his return to Ireland where he had only spent some years on his aunt and uncle’s farm who had served as foster parents to him and his siblings after his father’s early death in fact accelerated his involvement with the Irish cause – his “progress” towards early death was, in fact, as logical and relentless as the movement of his only novel which, and that needs to be mentioned here, is set basically in the sands off the East Frisian North Sea coast.
Childers takes his readers into the present of a fictionalized world of a log of letters and diary entries composed by his protagonists Carruthers and Davies, whereas the two novels under consideration here, A Crooked Tree, on the one hand, and Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe (1930-2020) on the other hand both take the readers into a more past of either the late 1970s and early 1980s or the past of one day, 3 and 4 May 1883, that is, and its prehistory.
Since it is my intention to include audio files in German improvised as a kind of viva voce when sitting in front of my computer’s microphone, so as to meet the expectations of those amongst you who like to have some German in this blog, I shall try to be brief in the reviews themselves. Death and Nightingales being a re-issue of an edition published in 2011 which I did not find time to have a look at, which I do regret now, it deserves pride of place, not least since the plot takes us into Wilde’s lifetime.
This novel, translated into German by Hans-Christian Oeser, is told from the point of view of Beth who decides to leave her father ’s house on the night following her 25th birthday. She is not Billy Winters’ daughter – a fact he after her mother’s tragic death has a tendence to make her feel through various sorts of abuse either verbal or physical unworthy of any kind of father, foster father or step-father. This is also the point where the novel leaves its reader after a couple of sittings full of suspense. It is the kind of novel allowing us to see how the North of Ireland came to be such a centre of conflicts in the 20th century. At the same time, it shows Ireland when Oscar Wilde still visited Dublin, until the autumn of 1883, that is, and when the Land War was at its height. It is the Ireland of James Joyce when a very young boy, the aftermath of the “Invincibles ’” murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish in Phoenix Park in May 1882, the time when people like William Percy French (1854-1920), born intriguingly in the same year as Oscar Wilde, toured the Irish countryside both North and South with their songs and poems seeking to unite a country already heading for partition. While the reader welcomes most pieces of information provided by the translator, enlarging their horizon of Irish history, some notes in fact highlight the way Eugene McCabe did not in fact stick to history as much as write his fictionalized account of what may have been historical events. If I am not entirely mistaken, the historical chronology of events that emerges from the notes does not conform to what is said in the novel itself. This is slightly irritating since so many other observations on both nature and nurture of Irish country life in the late 19th century have an authentic ring – even in the almost perfect translation into German: while there were “cabs” in 19th century England and Ireland, the German word “taxi” is not immediately read as to be one first used already in the 1880s – as a research on the Internet tells me. Initially, I thought the translation of “taxi” by “Droschke” would be preferable since for today’s German ears it would preserve the idea of a horse-drawn carriage – as does cab in the historical context to this day (p. 13).
Besides, there are two straight-forward typos on pp. 130 and 183 as well as an interesting mistake showing that the spelling of “battalion” does not only puzzle me: in French it is “bataillon”, but in German it must be “Bataillon” (p. 124) – something I needed to check and cross-check threetimes in order to be sure. I sincerely hope there is another edition of this novel soon, so that these mistakes can be corrected. Incidentally, having translated, edited, and annotated Capinero. A Bird, a memoir by Tanya Josefowitz earlier this year, I have come to find traces of romantic poetry everywhere, for not only does she refer to “The Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, the same poem also features prominently in this novel. (2 and 24 November 2021)
Translated by Tanja Handels, this novel renders the story of an Irish-American family whose father first separated from the mother before the divorce and then died prematurely. The first-person narrator, one of his three daughters, the fourth sister seems to have been fathered by the mother’s absentee boy-friend, tells the story of how their family slowly fell apart, beginning with a moment that some, if not many readers might find a reason to put this book back on the shelf: the narrator’s mother is so unnerved that she takes several children to a deserted area leaving one of her daughter out there alone. This triggers the present action of the novel because not only does this daughter return injured and traumatized, her other siblings as well as a bystander, Wilson, who eventually becomes a friend, feel motivated to look into the affair. It is a novel where I again and again note references to Ireland in the margin beginning with those to the father’s family, their earlier family visits in Europe and to the differences between America and Ireland, including, above all, the discrepancy between the prominence the Royal Wedding of July 1981 as opposed to the Hunger Strike in the North of Ireland at the same time. Since my memories of that time are pretty exact, I more than once felt trapped by the fact that I seem not to have paid too much attention to the “Troubles” at age nineteen. I am sure not have watched the Royal Wedding, for in Norway at the latter end of July 1981, there was no TV at hand.
Admittedly, I would not have bought this book in the first place, for neither the cover, nor the story adumbrated in additional materials appeared attractive enough. That said, I think it was worth my while as it made me aware of how shaky any view of life is and how difficult it is to have even a shared view of one event in only the closest family. Questions of home, identity, personal and national, as well as of friendship and of trust vs. betrayal are universal ones, so that I hope this book finds a large audience.
So one might go on and on, but time is limited, and I have returned to more intense study of Wilde’s works as a relaunch of my critically edited translation of uncensored text of The Picture of Dorian Gray needs to be prepared for May 2022. Normally, sales of a book go down from an early high, unless they are both best- and long-selling ones. Here, it is a fact, though, that they have picked up and that Elsinor has become more visible in the German book market. As for the calendars, it is Ulrich Hoepfner who has designed the cover and prepared collages for various scenes. And based on the critically edited translation, all the other editions in paperback in English, German, and Italian are going to be re-issued, too, so that by the end of the first half of 2022, hopefully, after ten years, the outlines of a Wilde edition as published by Elsinor are going to be perceived.
With this, I leave you for now, perhaps to go and enjoy a read in English, French or German of books by Irish writers.
All best wishes, and do not hesitate to leave a comment,
Jörg W. Rademacher
30 November 2021
Now, for the last book I read on holiday, the story of how I received is perhaps as important as my review.
First, it is in French, and when a friend of the Relais de la mémoire group from Paris gave it to me he insisted on its being set in Ireland. At the time I did not see his point. Only on returning to Westermarsch where in October 2015 and in November 2019 I had been host to several friends from that international association, did I realize that by giving me this very book he wanted me to understand that he at least agreed with the presence as keynote speaker of Danny Morrison at Norden in October 2013. By some members of the association, this was considered a faux-pas on my part, and the story simmered for over a year in the background. The incident told me, however, that such associations are not just international clubs and that irrespective of how ill-chosen certain arguments are you need to be able to take them into consideration. It also showed that being on speaking terms with British people is something that excludes certain topics – and this was half-way between the Scottish Referendum and the Brexit vote.
Intriguingly, while Morrison is not mentioned in the book, the story of the Hunger Strikers, which most importantly gave him a public profile in 1981, when he was still only 28 years old, is here told from the point of view of a French violin-maker who falls in love with Ireland, its literature, reading Wilde for sure, trying to read Joyce as well and who, as on a more private level in The Crooked Tree and in Death and Nightingales is trapped between trust and betrayal.
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