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.”

 

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My Juvenilia and The Opening Line That Wasn’t

I was 16 and practically the same but for a hideous mane of long, straggly brown hair with orange highlights. I had just finished struggling through The Satanic Verses. I’d taken it to Germany where I spent many a journey on slow trains, puff-puff-puffing their way through the Bavarian countryside, with the battered book on my knee, trying to make sense of it all. Bizarrely-named angels, and evil and the Muslims didn’t like it: it went something like that. Still though, I used torn up bits of receipts from purchases of Puffreiss Schokolade in Müller to mark interesting passages, which I later transcribed into a notebook, in case I ever decided to emulate Rushdie’s descriptive style, which I must have assumed would be a piece of cake.

My literary aspirations began early in life; in fact they were very much present before I could read and write. At the age of three, I was inspired by numerous attempted break-ins to our home to compose my first work of non-fiction, which I titled “The Book of Burglars”. It was a no-nonsense guide to local criminals, which I penned with help from the local Gardaí, who had shown me an enormous, hard-bound book with an austere brown cover full of photographs of known criminals in the Rathmines area. I illustrated the book interpretively and filled its pages with line after line of elaborate pencil swirls, which I supposed represented the words I was imagining writing. In hindsight, it was rather a reasonable conclusion to draw, given that I had witnessed countless adults sign their name with a scribble that bore no resemblance to the letters of the alphabet of which I had by then become cognisant.

When I subsequently added literacy to my repertoire, I concentrated my efforts on the story of Spook, a castle-dwelling ghost-child, who gets separated from his parents only to be re-united with them at a banquet, where he enjoys (what in my 6-year-old eyes was) the ultimate consolation prize after an agonising ordeal: a drink of 7Up.

As I turned nine and became politically aware, (where such consciousness has since departed is anybody’s guess) my literary efforts were directed to a novella on the subject of the war in Kosovo. Alina’s Story told the tale of a girl and her family struggling to come to terms with the effects of ethnic cleansing in her village. It was written as part of a class project and my older sister of 13 kindly agreed to be my editor. Her decisions and re-writings may have been difficult to reconcile with my original vision, but I was convinced of her sagacity and the finished work is testament to her editorial skill.

Alina's Story, First Edition

When I turned 16, my hairstyle and literary interests took a new direction. I became immersed in the realm of the hypothetical and was in no small part inspired by Rushdie to create an unintelligible literary landscape of my own. It was my solipsistic phase, you see. I considered the predominant preoccupations of my life: self-loathing and the feeling of inadequacy and decided, delightedly that I would transmute these singular insights into a mytho-historical landscape. I imagined a people and land far away from mine and outside of the inconvenience of an established historical timeframe. These people lived in a country that looked precisely how I had pictured Rushdie’s India to be. They had inherited self-loathing, which was rooted somewhere in a bitter historical event (possibly a world war) which had generated, across generations, a learned guilt. I wrote 26 words of that epic work. I have lost the original to a large mainframe Pakard Bell computer but I had enough foresight to commit the 26-word opening line to memory. Here I admit it, for the first time to public view. It went like this:

The self-hatred of the Rahadan race was not ancient, but had existed long enough for the Purkhan family of four generations not to know anything else.

That line concluded my Juvenilia. Little did I know then to what my literary aspirations would amount: a paltry offering of my miscellaneous adventures to the blogosphere. Should have stayed in the genre of mythic-realism. Glad the orange highlights grew out though.

Anyone with a novel idea?

Anna Wulf is a character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I don’t know her very well yet because we only met 78 pages ago and our encounters since have been sporadic. My first impression of her was on board the 46 A bus to Dún Laoghaire and at that time, I considered her pretty self absorbed and possibly lacking the courage of her convictions. She really surprised me today over lunch though. I was eating a re-heated corner piece of brocolli quiche and I had opened the book defiantly, because on my endless weekend ‘to do’ list I had included such boxes to be ticked off as “sleep in and relax”, “check out menu pages for dinner tonight” and “Read The Golden Notebook”.

two of my three-page weekend 'to do' list

What Anna said to me over lunch was: “I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused … I have only one, and the least important, of the qualities necessary to write at all, and that is curiosity. It is the curiosity of the journalist.”

I think what Anna means is that for her the appeal of art lies in its power to arouse in the intellect and the emotions a sense of novelty. Whether or not there’s anything intrinsically profound in that novelty, it seems reasonable- at least from the perspective of human advancement- to be deeply moved by an idea which one encounters for the frst time. Premieres are pure, and that which is pure does not take long to become tainted and ugly. I have often wondered why we have such an aversion to clichés. To use one myself: “it’s a cliché because it’s true” and surely “beauty is truth”? I remember once as a child feeling immensely satisfied when I suddenly understood what my mum meant when she said (in German) “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree”. I had heard this said before and had stored in my mind an image of one of the apple trees in my Grandmother’s garden dropping its fruit gently onto the grass below. I connected in a flash the image with its import: like mother like daughter; like father like son.

Truths become clichés and clichés in themselves pejorative because of human vanity. We enjoy the novelty of our first flash of understanding and feel our cognitive and moral achievement devalued by widespread use. Anna’s fear is that she lacks original insight and instead indulges in passionless curiousity – which leads not to clichés but instead to a barrage of information with no meaning.

Art is nothing without meaning and even ambiguity in art has its function etched into it etymologically; allowing us to see two things at once. I have written before about how I believe the patron of the arts to be more profound than the artist themselves. I stand by that position, particularly because I have always been confused and lacking in conviction about what’s really ‘good’ in art and in particular in literature. When something has not appealed instinctively to me, beauty has been drawn out for me by inspiring teachers and friends. I have an irational but passionate dislike for the word ‘canon’ because it seems to have been constructed in cultural retrospect rather than based on timeless intellect and emotion. I know that I, like Anna am only interested in books that move me (usually to tears) or change fundamentally the way I think but I know that for many others, the appeal of literature lies elsewhere and that more and more, the commercialisation of fiction has come to be what constitutes it rather than what reveals great truths to the masses.

I think much more about reading and writing than I engage in either activity, and I like Anna yearn to write a novel which is just that. My problem is that I am crude and craftless – I yearn for original insight and would gladly spend my life in its pursuit but I despair at the idea of inventing a plot, characters, voice and setting, in which to couch my eventual clarity. I can’t help but ask myself the very question that Anna poses: “Why a story at all … Why not, simply, the truth?” Readers, please help me out. What does ‘novel’ mean for you?

In bed with Anna after our lunchtime chat