February 28, 2016

V.S. Pritchett on living and writing in Ireland

V.S. Pritchett by André Carrilho

At twenty Pritchett went to Paris (1920/1921), where he "lived an abysmal bohemian life and wrote a terribly pretentious and mannered prose." Later he was a correspondent on the Irish rebellion for The Christian Science Monitor. Later again, a journalist in Spain.  When he joined the Christian Science Monitor the editor sent him to Ireland to write a series of articles. It was during the troubles of 1921–1924 he was asked to travel all over the country and write, not about the war, but about how ordinary Irish people lived and coped with the situation.


Pritchett spent to long periods in Ireland. The first saw him arrive in 1921 where he remained until 1924. He then returned to Ireland in 1926.

Pritchett’s stories have been compared to those of Joyce and Chekhov. Yet Pritchett claims it was Irish writers such as Sean O’Faolin, Liam O’Flaherty and Frank O’Connor who taught him what a short story could be. He said to the New York Times in 1977:
"Out of an old-fashioned conviction of wanting to be a writer I went to Paris in the 20's. I didn't know other writers, though I met Man Ray and I chatted a number of times with him and his mistress. It wasn't until I went to Spain and Ireland that I met writers and serious intellects, and of course by going abroad I completely bypassed the English class system. In Ireland I wasn't bound by any code. You must know the saying- "I never missed not having an English education"."
V.S. Pritchett was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1990, The Art of Fiction (No. 122). He spoke with Shusha Guppy and Anthony Weller. At the time of the interview he was living with his wife of fifty years, Dorothy, near Primrose Hill, London, in a narrow Georgian house.

On Ulysses, published in 1922 when he was in Paris, Pritchett said:
"I read it. Although it was an expensive book and I couldn’t afford it, someone loaned me a copy and I struggled through it. I thought it was frightful! The first chapters, written in that staccato, adjectival manner were especially off-putting. It was on later readings that I realized how important a book it was. It is a study in style, and some of the later chapters are marvelous—the famous one about the old woman sitting on a chamber pot and having a stream of consciousness, for example."
Pritchett was in Ireland at the time when Yeats and Lady Gregory had a literary coterie around the Abbey Theatre. Asked if, being a journalist, he had given him a door to them?
"It did. I wrote to Yeats and went to interview him. He was very impressive—tall, handsome, with dramatic gestures and a fine voice. I was having tea with him one day, and I remember he picked up a pot of tea and, finding that it was already full of old tea, he opened the window of his Georgian house and flung the contents into the square! Rhetoric poured out of him all the while."
More on the literary scene in Dublin and on Sean O’Casey:
"Fortunately, Dublin is a small city, and it was not difficult to seek people out and see them, but I never went to their salons. There was a hotel by the sea where James Stephens used to go and watch the boats come in, and I went there often to see him. He was a very good talker—they all were. I saw Sean O’Casey many times. I remember he had written above his desk, Get on with the bloody play! Apart from writers, I met a number of interesting people just traveling around the country, including my first wife. That marriage was short-lived."
Jeremy Treglown, Pritchett's authorised biographer, gave some context:
"In 1924, Pritchett married a young Anglo-Irish woman, Evelyn Vigors, daughter of Major Philip Vigors and Hyacinth Vigors (née D'Arcy). The marriage took place at 2 Elgin Road, Dublin - then the address of Alexander H. Porter and the Hon Frances Porter. It lasted for 12 years. The couple travelled widely, and eventually settled in England, but in the mid-1920s they were at various addresses in Dublin, including 28 Pembroke Street and 44 Waterloo Road. In 1936 they were divorced, and both soon remarried: Victor, to Dorothy Roberts (later Lady Pritchett, who died last year); Evelyn, to a Donald E. Maxwell. There were no children from the first marriage."
On another member of the Yeats’ group, George Russell the Irish poet AE, V.S. Pritchett said:
"AE was a mystic and a comfortable old chap. He was immensely talkative, and he was then editing the Irish Statesman. I sent him my first story, which was about a gypsy who gets into a fight and accidentally stabs his own donkey and kills him instead of his adversary. It was over-written and florid—I had never been with gypsies—and oddly enough AE accepted it. He kept it for two years and finally didn’t publish it. He said it got squeezed out by Irish politics! Later he did publish a story of mine, but he never paid me!"
He then said:
"Ireland hadn’t changed my mind about life, but Spain did. I learned Spanish, traveled widely around the country, and read a great deal of Spanish literature. Spain was fascinating because it was a Catholic country, but many of the intellectuals were free thinkers. They didn’t like the Jesuits who controlled education… I learned more from Spain than any other country, and I met most of the important contemporary writers."
Asked how the idea of a story come to him, he gave the example of a story he wrote while in Eniskille, Ireland:
"It is usually given to me by meeting people. The first story of mine that was very much praised was “Sense of Humor.” It came about while I was in Eniskille, a small place in Ireland. I used to go to a bar where I met a commercial traveler who talked non-stop, and the interesting thing about him was that he had a car, but it was not an ordinary car, it was a hearse. It emerged that his girlfriend was the daughter of an undertaker, so he drove around in this hearse. But I don’t necessarily write the stories of the people I meet; it’s rather that something about them gives me an idea."
V.S. Pritchett, who lived in Dublin in two periods (1923 and 1926) said:
"If Ireland moved me, it also instructed me. As a political education, the experience was excellent. One was observing a revolution: a country set free, a new young state, the first modern defeat of colonialism. Sitting in the press gallery of the Dail day after day, listening to the laughing, fighting voice of Cosgrave, the irony of Kevin O’Higgins, or the tirades of the defeated Redmond—the old Redmond’s son—was like being at school taking a course in the foundation of states. I realized what a social revolution was, although I was (inevitably as an Englishman and Protestant) much more in the old Anglo-Irish society, the majority of whom reluctantly accepted the new regime, than among the rising Catholic middle class."
V.S. Pritchett was interviewed by Ben Forkner and Philippe Séjourné on July 18 1985 at Pritchett’s home in Camdem Town, London. They began by asking about his early life and the way it stimulated an interest in the short story, as it was in Ireland where he began reading and writing short stories. Pritchett explained:
"My beginning life was quite outside writing. I was a journalist and I was sent to Ireland during the Irish Civil War in the 20’s after the Treaty when the two sides in the Rebellion fought each other, and I read a great deal of the Irish writers then such as Yeats, George Russell (A.E.), Liam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, in fact all those remarkable writers. They had all read the Russians, and there was a tremendous interest in literature in Ireland, Dublin has got splendid bookshops…"
He explained meeting Liam O'Flaherty:
"I met him, I knew him fairly well. I admired his stories and from that it seemed to me that this is the form of writing I should try and do myself, because up till then I had written nothing else but sketches, descriptions of places, that kind of thing, but not a complete story. He was of course very interested in Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence, so there was a double entry into the short story via Ireland. In England, I don’t think I had even read any Kipling in my twenties, though all my elders knew him by heart. In fact it was much later that I read English short stories. But Hemingway’s dialogue attracted me.”
It was a good period to begin writing short stories, as he explained:
"Well, everywhere. There was in England — D.H. Lawrence, for example and Katherine Mansfield — and of course in France. In Ireland, there was a link with the Abbey Theatre where they produced a large number of one‑act plays, and the one‑act play was the thing which was becoming extremely popular in Europe outside Ireland. Really the idea had come to Ireland from Europe. Such plays are of course a step to the writing of short stories: it’s adjacent to it. That was my beginning. However what I wrote then was very short, not much more than anecdotes, with a slight poetic tendency to them, but still anecdotes. Even the plainest short story is a poem."
He wrote them for publication:
"I tried to get them published. Indeed I wrote one “Rain in the Sierra,“ which was accepted in the paper called the Irish Statesman but never published. The paper went bust (laughter). Actually, I had travelled a good deal, you know, I had worked and lived in France, I then went to Dublin and to Spain. My first real published story of any scale: “Tragedy in Greek Theatre“ was published in the Cornhill and it was thought well of. I thought, well, I must be getting better because I can get a long story published. This story was set in Taormina."
Pritchett had written about about national character, the American South and about the French character, the Spanish character, and the Irish character. People are often identified by their national character in his stories, as he explained:
"Theories of national character are very shaky. When I was young I was enormously opposed to the notion that other nations were alien, therefore they were “wrong,“ or that is to say, they had mistaken ideas and habits which, as a matter of fact, quite a large number of my very young contemporaries — especially schoolboys — firmly believed. The kind of Englishman I didn’t much care for in those days was the kind who automatically went out to Europe, to India, to places abroad. They had such conventional and distorted views of the people they were living among. And I thought that the only thing that would interest me if I went to these places were the people themselves, and not the English colony. I tend to think all foreigners are right. Ireland was a great test because after all the Ireland of that period had been fighting the British up to then. Like many English people I loved being in Ireland, and the British and the Irish privately got on enormously well together, and that was quite a revelation to me."
Asked if the Irish were welcoming he said:
"Oh, enormously, enormously. I didn’t know Yeats beforehand, I’d read him of course. I didn’t know any Irish people. [James Stephens] and Frank O'Connor later on. I didn’t know any of these people before. But Dublin is a small city, it had an intellectual society; if you were a journalist, as I was then, it was very easy to know them, and I was passionately interested in them, and I found even the most anti‑British Irish (nominally anti‑British Irish) in Ireland, just after the war, were far from hostile; we were on the friendliest terms at once. I am capable of a little blarney myself — the Cockney kind!"
He gave more context:
"It was actually during the Civil War, after the Treaty when Sinn Fein split… That was in early 1922. The Rebellion was in 1916 and I had got to know some of the people in the Rebellion who were the most congenial company, especially the father of the present Prime Minister."
In his autobiography Pritchett said that the Irish are especially gifted in the short story, and in that way they’re similar to American Southerners. He said:
"The two societies [Irish and the American southerners] had certain resemblances… It’s a very hard question to answer. I think there’s a similarity between a certain kind of person in the American South who is very much like the Anglo‑Irish gentry, and in fact there was something like an Anglo‑Irish situation in the South really. It is another version of a similar situation, of people who had large houses and estates, who ruled, or have been dominant, being suddenly dislodged, or gradually dislodged from their position. And especially Ireland and the South seem to me, from my reading too, as it were, colonies. They had known defeat. There had been large estates or plantations and their capital disappeared year after year. They say if you leave your capital still, it dies away in three to nine years."
He continued:
"I am fascinated by the theory. One of the best Anglo‑Irish writers, Elizabeth Bowen, was herself the daughter of a colonial Irish family who became extremely poor in the south of Ireland, not so far from Limerick. It was a time when one met plenty of these people and their manners were delightful, they were very amusing, they were intelligent, but they were quite clearly crumbling as a social element.”
Asked how that would that lend itself to the short story form he said:
"Well, I would have thought that it lent itself because the novel depends enormously upon its sense of a stable social structure and the short story does not really depend on there being a social structure at all. Perhaps there is one of some sort, but it can direct itself to life outside the theoretical, or practical interest of the country. One of the problems I think that Chekhov had when he wanted to write a novel was that he did not quite have the breath for it: the society he lived in was despotic and anarchic. He had his opinions about it but that is another matter. He was detached from ideological politics."
Pritchett had quoted Frank O'Connor saying that some of the Irish, less the Anglo-Irish and more the Catholic Irish, are in a similar situation — though looking from down up, rather than from up down — but they live in a rather anarchic society. He said:
"It is rather an anarchic society, yes. Or it was. I would have thought anyhow, there is a basic oral gift of story‑telling in Ireland; in fact one might even go as far as to say it’s their substitute for a morality, that’s to say moral and ethical arguments soon turn into anecdotal and narrative ones. Telling a story as it were is partly a form of evasion, or it’s a form of getting around serious difficulties by not propounding."
He continued:
"I think the Irish particularly like their situations enlivened, whatever they are. In Britain there is on the whole, the general tendency to play down situations as much as possible. All countries have their hypocrisies… The thing we hate is situation. The Irish love situation (laughter)."
And some more
"It becomes as it were a legend in the making. The other thing is there was at that time in Ireland, and I think there still is despite the pedantry, a very strong poetic gift. Sometimes just a mere ballad, at other times much more sophisticated, but it is there. The same gift exists in England but in an utterly different way; it comes out in quite a different form. But in Ireland it is very spontaneous, like Irish ballads. And as they sing it you feel that the ballad has come straight out of a lasting situation and the legend has grown around it."
More on the Irish writers:
"One thing that always struck me, if I may say so, about Liam O'Flaherty was a story of his in which — it’s a summery day and it’s by the sea and a butterfly’s flying over the land, flying out to sea, and there it is going across the English Channel and you can see it for a long time and eventually it will disappear. Where does it disappear, does it cross the sea, does it fall down into the sea or what? The observer on the scene identifies himself as it were with the butterfly going across the sea. Of course it is a very slight idea but it’s a very curious one, and a real one."
In ‘Midnight Oil’, his prize-winning memoir, V.S. Pritchett recounts how the Christian Science Monitor sent him to Ireland early in 1923 to write about the Irish civil war. The Anglo-Irish treaty had been signed, the Irish politicians split, and the two were locked in conflict. When Pritchett arrived the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin was over and the fighting was drifting away to the south and west. He described his trip to Dublin:
"On a misleadingly sunny day on the first of February, 1923, I took the train from London to Holyhead. In a heavy leather suitcase I carried a volume of Yeats’s poems, an anthology of Irish poetry, Boyd’s Irish Literary Renaissance, Synge’s Plays, and a fanatical book called Priests and People in Ireland by McCabe, lent to me by a malign Irish stationer in Streatham who told me I would get on all right in Ireland so long as I did not talk religion or politics to anyone and kept the book out of sight. Unknown to myself I was headed for the seventeenth century. 
The Irish Sea was calm—thank God—and I saw at last that unearthly sight of the Dublin mountains rising with beautiful false innocence in their violets, greens, and golden rust of grasses and bracken from the sea, with heavy rain clouds leaning like a huge umbrella over the northern end of them. My breath went thin: I was feeling again the first symptoms of my liability to spells. I remember wondering, as young men do, whether somewhere in this city was walking a girl with whom I would fall in love: the harbors of Denmark gave way to Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills. The French had planted a little of their sense of limits and reason in me, but already I could feel these vanishing. 
Once through customs I was frisked for guns by a Free State soldier with pink face and mackerel-colored eyes. I got out of the local train at Westland Row, into that smell of horse manure and stout which were the ruling Dublin odors, and was driven on an outside car with a smart little pony to (of all things, in Ireland!) a temperance hotel on Harcourt Street. It was on this first trot across the city that I had my first experience of things in Ireland not being what they seem. I have described this in a book on Dublin which I wrote a few years ago. The jarvey whipped along, talking his head off about the state of the “unfortunate country,” in a cloud of Bedads, Begobs, God-help-us-es, but turned out to be a Cockney. The Cockney and Dublin accents are united by adenoids. Cab drivers are, perhaps, the same everywhere. It was now dark and I went out into the wet streets. Troops were patrolling them and I was soon stopped by a patrol and frisked once more. More friskings followed as I got to the Liffey. It was enjoyable. I didn’t realize that my green velour hat from the Boulevard des Italiens, with its wide, turned-down brim, was an item of the uniform of the IRA. I went straight to the Abbey Theater. In the shabby foyer, a small middle-aged woman with gray hair and looking like a cottage loaf was talking to a very tall man. He was unbelievably thin. He seemed to be even more elongated by having a very long nose with a cherry red tip to it. The woman’s voice was quiet and decided. His fell from his height as waveringly as a snowflake. The pair were Lady Gregory and Lennox Robinson. He took me to his office for an hour and then we went into the theater. To an audience of a dozen or so people (for the civil war kept people away), the company were going through the last act of The Countess Cathleen, in sorrowing voices. They went on to the horseplay of The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. Both plays had caused riots years before when they were first put on. Now the little audience was apathetic. 
Soot came down the chimney in my room at the hotel when a bomb or two went off that night. * * * The spell got a decisive hold of me in the next two days as I walked about the comfortable little Georgian and early Victorian city where the red brick and brown were fresher and less circumspect than the brick of London. The place seemed to be inhabited only by lawyers and doctors. The mists of the bog on which it is built softened the air. Complexions were delicate, eyes were alive with questions. As you passed people in the street they seemed to pause with expectation, hoping for company, and with the passing gaiety of hail and farewell, with the emphasis particularly on the latter. There was a longing for passing acquaintance; and an even stronger longing for your back to be turned, to give a bit of malice a chance. The civil war was moving to the southwest; now de Valera’s men—called with beautiful verbal logic the “Irregulars”—had been driven out of Dublin. I had seen the sandbags and barbed wire around the government offices and the ruins of O’Connell Street. Now I took a morning train in cold wet weather to Cork from Kingsbridge, the best of Dublin’s monumental railway stations, a station that indeed looked like a fantastic château. A journey that normally takes two or three hours took close on fourteen, for at Mary-borough (now called Port Laoise) we stopped for the middle of the day, while they got an armored engine and troops to escort us. I had seen pictures of these extraordinary engines in books about the Boer War: I suppose the British had dumped a lot of them in Ireland. One of the exquisite pleasures of the Irish (I was soon to find out) is pedantry: a few of us, including a priest, left the train and went into the town for a drink, sure of finding the train still there after a couple of hours. It was. It gave a jolt. “Are we starting?” someone asked. “Sure, we haven’t started starting yet,” the porter said. The afternoon faded as we went across the bogland; at Mallow it was dark, and there we got into cars to join another train across the valley. The viaduct had been blown up. We eventually arrived in Cork in a racket of machine gun fire. I hesitated. But the passengers took it for granted and a barefooted urchin who took my case said: “‘Tis only the boys from the hills.” The firing went on, from time to time, into the small hours, and patrol lorries drove up and down. One stopped at the hotel and after a lot of shouting and banging of doors a posse of soldiers came into my room, got me out of bed, and searched the bedding and my luggage. They looked respectfully at my books and one of them started reading a poem of Yeats and said if I kept to that I would be all right. Cork is a pretty city, particularly in the dappled buildings of its riverside quays and estuary. By this time my mind was singing with Irish poetry. I went out into the countryside to see how Blarney was surviving the revolution. It was surviving in the best of its tradition. I plodded around with a farmer whose chief ejaculation was a shout of “Blood and hounds,” when his narrative needed it. It often did. Back in Cork, I went to the theater where Doran’s touring company were playing a different Shakespeare tragedy every night: my earliest experience of Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet. Doran’s company had been slogging away in England and Ireland for years. He himself was a studied ham with a huge voice. He hogged the plays, of course, and put such a stamp on his roles that it was pretty well impossible to distinguish Hamlet from Macbeth, or Macbeth from Othello. The theater was always packed. When Hamlet said his line about everyone being mad in England, the house cheered. I had gone with a commercial traveler from Kerry who came back to the hotel and then he and one or two other commercials recited Shakespeare to one another for the rest of the evening. I couldn’t understand a word the torrential Kerryman said, but Shakespeare was tempestuously Elizabethan in a Kerry accent. I traveled across Tipperary to Limerick, arriving there in one of those long soft brown and yellow sunsets of the west, with the white mists rising from the Shannon. The Celtic twilight was working on me. I sat up drinking with a satanic engineer; and, thinking it was about time, I tried that night to write one of my articles. I found that after two or three whiskies my pen swept across the paper. When I read the thing in the morning I saw it was chaotic and I tore it up. That is the last time I ever wrote on alcohol. Limerick was in an edgy state. It had just been relieved of a siege and there was still a crack or two of sniping at night. There was a strike on at the bacon factories; and there was an attempt to start a soviet. I went to see the committee and politely took my hat off and made a small French bow when I went into their room. The leader told me to put my hat on: they had finished, he said, with bourgeois manners. We had a wrangle about this because, although I am shy, I am touchy and argued back. We had a rapid duel of sarcasms. He was one of those “black” Irishmen one occasionally comes across; there was another, a waiter at the hotel in Limerick, who threw a plate of bacon and eggs at a customer. He was a big fellow who looked murderous every time he came into the dining room with a plate. There occurred in Limerick one of those encounters which—looking back on it—I see as a portent. I found there a very serious young Englishman, in fact a Quaker, who took me to a house outside the town. As we climbed up on an outside car, he whispered to me not to talk on the long ride out because, he said, his situation was delicate. He had caught the Irish love of conspiracy, even the whisper. When we got to his house he told me he had been in the fighting against the Sinn Feiners, but had lately married an Irish girl. I think he had been in the Auxiliary Police. Except for having his tennis court shot up now and then, he said, when he and his wife were playing in the afternoons, there was not much trouble now. The English have stubborn natures but, I saw, could get lightheaded in Ireland. Into the sitting room, which was furnished in faded Victorian style, with pictures of lakes and vegetation on the walls and the general Irish smell of rising damp, came an elderly woman wearing a wig of black curls and with a sharp, painted face; and with her a pale little girl of twelve—I thought—one of those fey, unreal Irish children with empty blue eyes and untidy russet hair. She looked as if she had been blown down from the sky as, in her tiny skirt, she sat barelegged on the floor in front of the fire. She was not a child of twelve; she was the Quaker’s wife, and very excitable. The shooting, she said, livened up the tennis but they were afraid for the strings of their rackets, because in these times you might have to send them to Dublin to be restrung. A brother-in-law came in, a man who sat in silence breathing sociably, as Guinness after Guinness went down. I gazed from the old lady to the girl, from the brother-in-law to the ascetic-looking young Quaker soldier, and could not see how they could be together in the same house. In how many Irish families was it to seem to me that the people had all appeared accidentally from the wheel of fortune, rather than in the course of nature. The old lady chattered about balls and parties, about Lord this and Lady that, about the stage—was she an actress? In her wig, paint, and her rings, bracelets, and necklace, and her old-fashioned dress of twenty years before, she was nimble and witchlike. Indeed, she got out a pack of cards and told my fortune. I dropped the Queen of Spades. She sprang on it with glee: “You will be surrounded by women who intend to harm you.” I walked back to Limerick late, feeling, as I was so often to do in Ireland, that I had stepped into a chapter of a Russian novel. The smell of turf smoke curled among the river fogs and I was not sure of the way in the dark. I waited for a shot or two, for the Irregulars liked to loose off at night to keep the feeling of war alive, from behind a friendly hedge. There were no shots that night. It was an eerie and pleasant walk, like a ghost story told in the dark. I went on to Enniskillen, the border town, all drapers, hardware stores, and useful shops, brisker in trade than the towns of the south, a place half Orange, half Catholic. The town clerk, a twentieth-century man, was the kind who enjoyed the comedies of fanaticism, but the jokes rippled over the surface of the incurable seventeenth-century bitterness. It is often said that Irish laughter is without mirth, but rather a guerrilla activity of the mind. I was struck in Enniskillen for another cold wet Sunday when the only other guest in the hotel was a glum commercial traveler from the English Midlands, a man with one of the flattest minds I had met up to then. Careful with his money, too; his father was an undertaker and the son used the motor hearse on the weekends to give his girl a ride. He was to be—from my point of view as a writer—the most important man I met in Ireland, but it took me ten years to realize this. I wrote down every word of his I could remember.  
I look back upon this Irish expedition with an embarrassed but forgiving eye. I see the empty mountains, the bog and the succulent marshy valleys, the thin, awkward roads through a steam of strong tea. The sun came and went, the rain dripped and dried on my hat. I stuffed myself with fried cod, potatoes, potato cakes, scones and butter as I read my Yeats and Synge; the air, even when cold, was lazy and I couldn’t get up until eleven in the morning. I was thick in the head, with no idea of what to write about until, in despair, I was driven to write flatly everything I saw and heard. The “everything” was a torture for I discovered that places overwhelmed me. Every movement of light, every turn of leaf, every person seemed to occupy me physically, so that I had no self left. But perhaps this means I was all self. It was with a conviction of failure that I sent my first four articles to the paper and sat staring into a “jar” of Guinness. I was dumfounded to get a telegram from London saying my articles were excellent. Alas, I have seen them since. They are very small beer. They are thin and sentimental; but here and there is a sentence that shows I was moved and had an eye. They were signed by my initials and that is why from then on people dropped my Christian name—to my relief—and I was called VSP or RSVP. My literary name developed from this. I preferred the impersonal, and to have added the “t” of Victor to a name that already had three, and was made more fidgety by a crush of consonants and two short vowels, seemed ridiculous. In this short trip I had easily rid myself of the common English idea that Ireland was a piece of England that for some reason or other would not settle down and had run to seed. I had heard at school of “the curse of Cromwell.” I ardently identified Irish freedom with my own personal freedom which had been hard to come by. A revolutionary break? I was for it. Until you are free you do not know who you are. It was a basic belief of the Twenties, it permeated all young minds, and though we became puritanically drastic, gauche, and insensitive in our rebellions against everything we called Victorianism, we were elated. I was appointed the Irish correspondent of the paper. This was momentous. I had a career. This was no time for living the dilapidated day to day life I had lived in Paris. And there was the religious question: I had lapsed in Paris where I had been the average sensual young man. Now I found myself employed by the paper from whose religion I had lapsed. It seemed to be my duty to reform. The shadiness of Puritans! I threw my last cigarette into the Liffey, gave up drinking wine, beer, and whisky, though my tastes there were youthfully moderate. I was really more austerely the Romantic idealist than the Puritan, for I soon found the Calvinism of Ireland—scarcely buried under Irish high spirits—distasteful and indeed dull; my nature rebelled against it. I lived in Dublin in two periods—1923 and 1926—and I write now mostly of my first year there when, far more than in Paris, I lived in my imagination. When I reread nowadays the German court episode in Meredith’s Harry Richmond and of the ordeal through which Meredith’s young romantic passes, I recognize something close to my Irish experience and indeed to other experiences in my youth; like Stendhal, Meredith is outstanding in his observation of easily inflamed young men. If Ireland moved me, it also instructed me. As a political education, the experience was excellent. One was observing a revolution: a country set free, a new young state, the first modern defeat of colonialism. Sitting in the press gallery of the Dail day after day, listening to the laughing, fighting voice of Cosgrave, the irony of Kevin O’Higgins, or the tirades of the defeated Redmond—the old Redmond’s son—was like being at school taking a course in the foundation of states. I realized what a social revolution was, although I was (inevitably as an Englishman and Protestant) much more in the old Anglo-Irish society, the majority of whom reluctantly accepted the new regime, than among the rising Catholic middle class. I did not really know them until many years later. I was carried away by Irish sociability and nervous scorn of England into thinking I was in the contemporary European world, I was not, but there was the beguiling insinuation that Ireland was in temperamental contact with Paris and Italy and had by-passed the complex social preoccupations of industrial England. (Joyce’s flight from Dublin to the Continent was an example of the Irish tradition.) The snobberies of the Ascendancy were very colonial—as I now see—though not as loud as the Anglo-Indian, nor as prim as the Bostonian: they came closer to those of the American southern states. (There is a bond between Anglo-Irish writing and the literature of the American south.) In Ireland, shortage of capital and decaying estates had given these snobberies a lazy but acid quality; in many people there was a suggestion of concealed and bloodless spiritual superiority. English snobbery was based firmly on vulgar wealth, and a class system energized by contention and very mobile; the Irish was based on kinship, without wealth. The subject is perfectly displayed—though in an earlier generation—in The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross. Noses were kept raised by boisterous and tenuous claims to cousinage. Ireland is really a collection of secret societies. For a rootless young man like myself, this had a strong allure. I was slow to see that I was meeting an upper class in decay and at the point when it was disappearing in boatloads from Dun Laoghaire every day; and that I was really living in a social world far more like that of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels in the prim and genteel England of, say, 1840 to 1860 (except that old ladies had been using the word “bloody” in company freely for a couple of hundred years). Genealogy, as one could tell from the libraries and the number of societies given to it, was the national passion. The easygoing life in this Victorian lagoon was delightful to me. It is often said that in Ireland there is an excess of genius unsustained by talent; but there is talent in the tongues and Irish manners are engaging. I sat in my office in St. Stephens Green, a cheerful outsider in Irish quarrels, turning myself into the idlest of newspaper correspondents. I lodged with two Protestant spinsters in a sedate early Victorian terrace house on Waterloo Road, where they left me cold meat and pickles and a pot of strong tea for my supper; and popped up every quarter of an hour, if I had a young woman to visit me, to see that nothing was “going on.” Dublin was a city so gregariously domestic that the sexes did not care to meet without other company. The English were deplored as coarse sensualists who ate too much, were sex-mad and conventional. The pleasant wide eighteenth-century streets of Georgian Dublin were easing to the mind, and the wild mountains over which the weather changed every hour excited the fancy. And there was Dublin Bay, so often enameled and Italianate. More and more I was idling at Blackrock or Dalkey, with a crowd of young men and girls, watching the sea or walking across the mountains as far as Glendalough or the Vale of Avoca or scooping a kettle of water out of a stream in the heather, for a picnic. My mind fed on scenery. The sight of lakes, slatey in the rain, or like blue eyes looking out of the earth in the changing Irish light; the Atlantic wind always silvering the leaves of beech and oak and elm on the road to Galway, empty except for a turf cart or a long funeral; the Twelve Pins in Connemara now gleaming like glass in the drizzle, now bald, green and dazzling; the long sea inlets that on hot days burn their way deeply inland beyond Clifden where the sands are white and the kelp burns on them; the Atlantic coming in stormily below the white cliffs of Moher; and the curious tropic of Kerry. My brother came over from England and with two girls we borrowed a horse and cart and went slowly across to the west and back; and in Clare, which was still in a disorganized state, we attracted the “boys from the hills” who kept us up dancing half-sets, singing all the rebel songs and finishing up with Nancy Hogan’s Goose. Two young Englishmen with two unmarried girls! The scandal of it! There was a lot of talk in Dublin. I do not think only of landscape but of the wide disheartening streets of the long villages and the ruined farms of the west; and the elaborately disguised curiosity of the impulsively kind but guarded people, looking into your eyes for a chance of capping your fantasy with one of theirs, in long ceremonies of well-mannered evasion, craving for the guesswork of acquaintance and diversion. The darker side of this was blurred and muddied and stinking; the dramatic character of the misery. In Dublin, the tenements were shocking; the women still wore the long black shawl, the children were often barefooted. You picked up lice and fleas in the warm weather in the Dublin trams as you went to the north side to the wrecked mansions of the eighteenth century. The poor looked not simply poor, but savagely poor, though they were rich in speech and temperament. There were always ragged processions of protesters, on the general Irish ground that one must keep on screaming against life itself. There were nasty sights: a man led down a mountain road with his wrists tied behind his back, by a couple of soldiers. I think of the story of the house close to a lonely cottage I had in my second Irish period at the sea’s edge near Clifden. It was no more than a two-roomed cabin with a loft and, with the Irish love of grand names, was called Mount Freer and had once belonged to an English painter. (A pensioned-off sailor owned it.) Near it was the manor or farm, a ruinous place of rusty gates and scarcely habitable, occupied by a bank manager from some inland town. He was very ill and was still suffering from the shock of having been badly beaten up in a raid on his bank in the civil war. He was not alone at this time. His brother, a cropped Australian ex-soldier, had come over to look after him for a while. I used to go shooting rabbits with the Australian in a deserted graveyard. It had belonged, the Australian said, to the ferocious O’Flahertys from whom the people in Galway had in the far past called on God to protect them. He was trying to persuade his dim sick brother to go back with him. If the sick man saw anyone in the road he would climb gingerly over the stone wall and dodge away in a wide, lonely circle across the rocky fields to the house. I knew the Australian well. He was a good fisherman. We used to go out and spear plaice in the sands and catch mackerel. Many a fry we had. Often I walked, as night fell, to look at the wink of light on Slyne Head, America the next parish. He told me the brother refused to go near anyone. “The poor bloody brother, he has the idea he stinks. He thinks he’s got a bloody smell on him. He’ll never come near you.” His house had almost no furniture—simply a couple of beds, a table, and two chairs—and if I went there, the sick man slipped away and hid in another room. Eventually the Australian had to leave and when he did the “mad feller,” as he was called, cut his throat or hanged himself. Thank God I’d left before that happened. It has been said that the Irish live in a state of perplexity. The poet Patrick Kavanagh has written that the newborn child screams because it cannot bear the light of the real world. Yet from Shaw onward one finds the Irish saying they are not dreamers, but are realists. Not in the literary sense of the word “realism,” but in the sense of seeing with cold detachment where exact practical advantage lies. I would have said their instincts are tribal. They evade the moral worries of settled societies and there is a strain of anarchy in them: they can be charitable and cruel at the same time. It is self-indulgent to generalize like this and, anyway, the Irish do that more coolly than we English do. But one has to make something of the way they turn tragedy to farce and farce back into tragedy; and when in the Thirties I wrote a story called “Sense of Humour,” a piece of premature black comedy which was set going by the meeting with that glum commercial traveler I had met in Enniskillen, it expressed something of the effect of an Irish experience on myself. "
He also said elsewhere:
"If I were to write an account of my education the city of Dublin would have to appear as one of my schoolmasters, a shabby, taunting, careless, half-laughing reactionary. His subject? History, of course. I did in fact have such an Irish master at my London school. His name was Callaghan; he glittered with mocking amusement during school prayers and was famous for his tempers, his personal disasters and his scorn. After reading something I had written, he delighted himself and our class by demonstrating to all of us, and with exact command of language, that I was raving mad. When I first came to Dublin, he was often in my mind."
V.S. Pritchett wrote a review of ‘The Life and Writings of Forrest Reid’ (1875-1947) (by Brian Taylor), published February 1981. He described a trip from Dublin to Belfast in 1923:
"Early in 1923, when I was a very naive and untrained newspaper correspondent in Dublin, it was my duty to take a regular trip to Belfast and to find out what was going on politically in that depressing and bigoted city of linen mills and shipyards. The Orangemen were contemptuous of the Southern Irish and had a blustering condescension to Englishmen like myself, and one of the few people whose talk was a relief from this was Forrest Reid, a novelist and critic in his late forties, admired by Yeats, Forster and Walter de la Mare, but almost ignored in his own city at that time. 
His family had belonged to the merchant class, who were relatively free of the political stubbornness which was extreme among the industrialists and their workers. He himself was totally indifferent to Irish or to any other brand of politics. He had broken with the Christian faith and was a professed pagan of the Classical Greek persuasion – certainly without the Gaelic nostalgia of the South, despite his friendship with Yeats. I found him living alone on the top floor of a shabby house in a noisy and dirty factory district. His room was bare and poor, and only packed shelves of books, carefully bound in white paper covers to protect them from smoke and smuts, suggested the bibliophile and the scholar. A pile of novels for review stood on his table, alongside his papers and pencils, and the remains of a cold leg of mutton which, I imagined, had to last the week, and during our talks he would sit near to a miserable little fire, shyly drawing intricate patterns with a poker in the soot on the back of the fireplace. I had never met a book-reviewer before, had not read any of his novels, and though by this time I had heard talk of mysticism, the supernatural, visions, and of reality dissolving into dream, these subjects were above my head and beyond my inclination. 
But his talk was quiet and enlightening. He did once or twice mention that E.M. Forster was a friend of his and that he knew Cambridge, and this explained why his speech was free of the mournful glottal-bottle blurting of Ulster address; as I had not heard of Forster at the time, this made Reid even stranger to me. The certainty was that he was one more example of the ‘quare fellow’ or of the large population of Ireland’s eternal bachelors. He was 48. I left Ireland, and not until years later, when I read Apostate, the account of his upbringing in Belfast, did I understand that he was more than a shabby and kindly eccentric schoolmasterish man. He was ugly in a fascinating way because of his high block-like forehead and his broad nose that turned up at the tip as if in ironic inquiry, but there was a kind of genius in his truthful portraits of boys as the wary or daring young animal grows up. 
His present biographer mentions that Reid’s small feet had high insteps, which – to me, at any rate – suggests someone capable of springing into some other air. I had not noticed his feet, nor did I know that this lonely and engaging man was a pederast – one who found the homosexual and heterosexual acts ‘disgusting’ and who had sublimated his desires in tutorial friendships that, perforce, would die as those he loved grew up, got tired of him or married – the last hard for him to bear. 
An earlier biographer of Forrest Reid – Russell Burlingham – found this subject difficult to discuss in 1953. So, even now, does Brian Taylor, but he has treated it with delicacy and understanding. If Forrest Reid was ‘a case’, Taylor shows that ‘a case’ is in itself a crude simplification of a life. All ‘cases’ are different: Reid was an instance of the man whose desires are overruled by his affections and his principles. He spoke frankly of his ‘arrested development’, and, as Taylor shows, it led to a lifelong preoccupation with the intervention of dream-like moments in reality. As a youth – in Belfast, of all places – he had been under the influence of Henry James to the point of writing to the Master boldly and getting flattering replies. As for the ‘pagan supernatural’, that had been stimulated by Forster’s The Celestial Omnibus and the stories and poems of Walter de la Mare. The latter pair had become his literary counsellors and friends. He rather daringly sent his first novel to Henry James, who responded seriously: but when the Master read Reid’s second novel The Garden God, in which the portrait of a beautiful boy by G.A. Storey in the Royal Academy dissolves, and the boy turns into a phantom dressed in a silver suit riding in a forest, so that ‘something told me I was looking on either the boy’s innermost life or on some former life of his,’ James was embarrassed and angered by the platonic eroticism of the book and broke off the relationship in a panic. Edmund Gosse was not disturbed. He detected the pain in Reid’s isolation and added that ‘for people too obstinately themselves, there is always dreamland.’ A rather Barrie-like observation: but if Reid was timid and not without self-pity, he was not a sentimentalist. He found a complex resource in a Proustian obsession with memory, and a curiosity about Time. In one of his much praised later novels, Uncle Stephen, there is this passage: 
Could you be in two times at once? Certainly your mind could be in one time and your body in another … Somebody might come to you out of his time into yours. You might, for instance, come face to face with your own father as he was when he was a boy. Of course, you wouldn’t know each other; still you might meet and become friends, the way you do with people in dreams. 
Reid seems to be stating, as Brian Taylor suggests, his perennial concern with a boy’s search for a father and a childless man’s search for a son, for ‘companionship and understanding’. 
Forrest Reid was the youngest and not much wanted son of a Belfast merchant whose business was failing and of a mother of an old aristocratic English family who could not conceal that she had married beneath her. This story is told in Apostate. Reid’s passionate love was given totally to his nurse, Emma, who after a few years left home suddenly without explanation: he could love no woman after that. After his father’s early death, the family went further down hill, the neglected boy played with ‘rough’ boys in the streets and was a pain to his older sisters. He was ugly, but his boyish animal spirits were high and he was clever. He left a good school early and was put to work in a tea merchant’s office, an easy trade, for he found it simple to hide in a storeroom and read Greek and was determined to write. In loneliness, his search for friendship was fierce and possessive. He was already a Platonist. His mother’s death freed him from the tea trade, for he was left a small legacy, and, at last, got what he wanted – a place at Cambridge – but far too late. (He was nearly thirty and said he got little out of his time there.) He can be said to have been penned in by autobiography all his life, writing version after version of his boyhood experience, in nearly all his novels, and becoming obsessed about ‘getting it right’ while evading – as was inevitable in his time – the sexual dilemma. Perhaps the pagan did not quite suppress the Presbyterian, and he was left, as he said, ‘intractable’ in his companionship with the one or two men with whom he lived in a tutor-pupil relationship. 
The striking things in Reid’s writings are the clarity of his descriptive style, his fervid response to landscape and his totally unsentimental, almost minute-to-minute evocations of the changes in a boy’s real and imaginative experience as he passes from childhood to youth and the loss of wild innocence. He recalls what the day brought and felt like without affectation and what most of us have inevitably generalised or forgotten in growing up. We have forgotten, also, the passing dreams that suddenly came and abruptly vanished. His obsession, or perhaps a half-humorous pedantry, obliged him to try and try again exactly to recover those moments – which of course narrowed his scope – and the many quotations here from scenes in his novels and from his letters make this point. One is especially struck by the curious fact that Aksakov’s memories of his childhood under the rule of a dominant mother was one of Reid’s favourite books – one more example of a natural sympathy between some Irish writing and the Russian feeling for the vivid and troubled hour of the day. The pagan Greek ideal has something precious and Ninetyish in it, and this Russian naturalness seems to me a more valuable influence on his talent, although Reid’s Irishness was almost non-existent, except in that pure, direct response to the natural scene, whereas Aksakov’s Russianness was historically Slavophil and innate. 
Reid has been thought of as a provincial and escapist: he accepted that. He wrote in a letter that he preferred ‘the literature of escape and what I should call the literature of imagination, for the escape is from the impermanent’. Brian Taylor refers to Russell Burlingham’s Portrait and Study for purely literary criticism. Taylor’s is a sensitive and intelligent study of Reid’s dilemma without the dramatising aid of Freudian or sociological fictions. As a person, Reid becomes very clear, sad and droll. He was soon to leave that bare room where I first listened to his talk and his friendly silences. He moved to a council house outside Belfast with his adored dogs and his current friend, perpetuating a kind of boyhood, smoking his pipe as though he were a Belfast chimney. He could be testy at the card-table. He was barricaded by an ever-growing pile of first editions, he pondered his stamp collection, and was loftily resigned to being more avidly read for his excellent book reviews than – as far as the large public was concerned – for his admired and not very saleable novels. He did attain a local fame. One claim he could make: the scrupulous artist had reserves of sudden extrovert fierceness and triumphant skill and cunning – he could win Challenge Cups at croquet all over England and Ireland. No sublimation there: he was certain to get through those hoops."
Pritchett also produced a quick pen portrait of Belfast in an essay, 'Poetry Drives No Rivets' (1923). He said:

"It may be a significant fact that Belfast bricks are fiercely red, while those of Dublin are warm and lazy in the afternoon sun. The fact is that northern virtues are more apparent than southern virtues."

Also read by V.S. Pritchett, ‘Dublin: A Portrait’ (1967). A book with 7 chapters.

No comments:

Post a comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...