Kate Katharina WLTM …

Tree-loving, anxiety-riddled Irishwoman, GSOH, seeks literary fling with stranger on the Internet. Specifically, to read first 20,000 words of her novel and discuss if desired.

Ideal respondent is dispassionate enough to crush dreams if necessary but with no vested interest in doing so. Trolls (though the most loyal of all readers) need not apply.

Detailed feedback not required, and novel relationship may be terminated with no hard feelings. Long-term literary relationship not ruled out, as long as LSH approves.

And now in plain English:

Writing a novel is torturous! I’ve no idea if what I’ve done is any good at all. But you might! If you’re one of the lovely people who’ve been reading and commenting on my blog over the last few years and feel like you’d like to get your literary teeth into something rough and ready, please let me know! You can e-mail or tweet me. Send a pigeon if you will!

Also, if you enjoyed reading about Frau B, you might find it interesting. It’s not about her (I promise!) but it’s set in a nursing home. I can’t guarantee anything but I hope one or two bits might make you smile.

I don’t need any fancy literary criticism. I’d just like an honest answer to the questions: Did you like it? Hate it? Something in between? And: would you read on? If you can also say why, then we could be literary friends for life!

Also: the reason I’m looking for strangers is because friends are too nice. They say kind things because they know the truth might make you throw away your quill or close over your laptop forever in despair.

 

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The festival that won my heart

There is something in the air in Listowel. For me, it was the smell of wild garlic and the way the leaves hanging over the River Feale caught the light.

The tiny town located in Ireland’s South-West has a population of under 5000. But it has produced John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, Bryan MacMahon and a host of other women and men of literary as well as musical note. The writers’ festival was a glorious excuse for a reunion with two schoolfriends.

On the first morning, we took a walking tour. Our guide – a spirited and brilliant man of advanced age (the son, incidentally of the late Bryan MacMahon) – brought us to the Garden of Europe. The grounds, dating back to 1995, feature a monument to John B Keane, as well as Ireland’s only Holocaust memorial.

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Morning’s walk in Listowel

Gesturing to the impeccably-kept lawns behind him, the guide said: “This used to be a dump. A place you’d come to shoot rats.”

It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It was about the twinkle in his eye and the implication that the town had stayed humble.

The line between fact and fiction is appropriately slippery in Listowel, where the truth lies between the lines. Perhaps this is the reason that so many of the writers who came said it was their favorite literary festival, by far.

Or perhaps they like it so much because it is a place where they are allowed to exalt the ordinary. During a tea party hosted by none other than Colm Tóibín, he described a conversation he had recently overheard between an older person and a staff member in a Vodafone store.

“Now, I don’t want to send texts. But I want to receive them. Now, if I just turn it off, it can’t do anything, can it?  It won’t ring, will it?”  The utter terror of technology, Tóibín said. He wants to put it in a story.

For me, the days in Listowel were characterized not by terror but by awe. There was the surreal moment at a panel discussion when I recognized the shape of Margaret Drabble’s head in front of me. Later she turned around, and the man beside her (my former English teacher, who would be interviewing her later) introduced us. “I taught them very little,” he said, typically self-effacing. “Well you instilled a love of reading if they’re here,” she said, not missing a beat.

I sat beside the extraordinary artist Pauline Bewick during another event. She had a notebook open on her lap, full of striking, colorful sketches. Beside her was her daughter Poppy, herself an artist who, unlike her mother, works slowly and produces work that is startlingly life-like. They were a beautiful pair, gazelle-like, other-worldly and unassuming despite their huge success. I told Pauline about how our English teacher had inspired us to love literature. “You know that leaves me with a lump in my throat,” she said. “It really does.”

Another highlight was the poet Colette Bryce, who – to my shame – I’d never heard of. A Derry-born wordsmith, there was something about the gentle strength with which she read that lured me in. I bought her selected poems and was giddily excited when she looked up after signing it and said in a Northern lilt: “Thanks for coming, Kate.”

Edna O’Brien, of course packed the room out. I couldn’t even see her from where I was sitting. But I could hear her distinctive voice, and felt its warmth. “Enchantment is the novel’s most important quality,” she said. “It’s what matters most.” A literary titan whose work Ireland once banned, she would know.

On our last night, we went to see Forgotten, a one-man show written and sublimely performed by Pat Kinevane. It took place in St Johns, a church on the town’s main square converted into a theatre.

My friend, himself a playwright, was seeing it for the second time. It was an intense, exhausting, brilliant performance. When it was over and we filed out of the church, the sun had gone down and the last of the light stretched across the sky.

I noticed my friend had a certain glow about him; a kind of exaltation was written across his face. “This is what good theatre can do,” he said as we waited for the 11 o’clock bus back to Killarney. “It’s what Edna O’Brien was taking about,” he said. “A piece of art can enchant.”

 

Why you must read The Land of Spices

In my final year of university I took a class on Irish women’s writing. Among the works on the reading list was Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices. Years later, whenever anyone asks me to name the book I wish I’d written, it’s the title that slips effortlessly off my tongue.

Why?

Because it’s everything a novel should be: beautifully crafted and full of psychological insights. Tender yet unsentimental; political but not polemical.

Published and promptly banned in Ireland in 1941, it’s the story of a nun whose life is unalterably shaped by a scene she encounters as a young woman. It’s also about how a little girl with a troubled background awakens in her the very sensibilities from which she has tried to flee.

Re-reading this book as I try my hand at writing something of my own has been a humbling experience. How does she do that? I ask myself. How does she jump across time so smoothly? How does she find the words to describe those micro-moments that occur as we assess each other during a conversation? How does she examine a distant relationship with such subtlety? How does she manage to convey the landscape of Irish nationalism so unflinchingly?

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I don’t have the answers; if I did, I’d have written my own Land of Spices. But I do have some relatable quotations to share, which I hope will spark your desire to read this thoroughly perfect book:

When you feel guilty for judging someone harshly, then overthink the situation and appear disingenuous and defensive when you apologize:

She was ashamed of her earlier severity with him … She racked her brain for a way of expressing friendliness and repentance …. But he thought he saw a further thrust at himself in this self-explanation – and he was still rankling with dislike of her.

When blind faith assaults the intellect:

That was the point of the vow, she would tell herself ironically- for can there be obedience without conscious subjection of the brain?

On being alone in grief:

She stared ahead at nothing visible to others.

On the paradoxes of Irish identity:

The Irish liked themselves and throve on their own psychological chaos … They were an ancient martyred race, and of great importance to themselves – that meagre handful of conceptions made a history, made a problem – and made them at once unconquerable and a little silly.”

On fighting the urge to interfere and allowing a person to heal themselves:

For she was confident that a soul, left to itself, has good chances of recovering in some measure from any sickness – whereas rash manipulation may establish a deformity.

In the end, The Land of Spices  was banned because of a single, eleven-word sentence.

It’s a pretty essential one: not the kind you can leave out.

But don’t worry: I won’t share it here. (Spoiler alert)

I guess you’ll just have to pick the book up yourself – and enjoy the exquisite writing of a woman who deserves pride of place in Ireland’s literary canon.

 

*** PS – For anyone who wants to see and hear Kate O’Brien, this from RTE’s archive might be of interest: http://www.rte.ie/archives/2016/0201/764550-kate-obrien-the-early-years/