‘Éilis’ – inspired by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher’s folk tale –
Hosekræmmeren/The Stocking Merchant
After an unavoidable delay, American/Irish publisher Dalkey Archive Press will be publishing my novel Éilis from the Flats in August of this year in readiness for a full launch programme this autumn.
I began throwing out shapes for this novel a long time ago. I even once pinched a BBC film crew and, using real film stock, directed a short period piece with the now world famous Eva Birthistle as ‘Éilis’.
Éilis from the Flats is partly based on the 19th Century Danish story Hosekræmmeren (The Stocking Merchant) by Steen Steensen Blicher, which was published in 1826. I actually translated – was impelled to translate – Hosekræmmeren as soon as I read it. This very short but incredibly powerful story about a young woman living with her parents on a wild heath and driven mad, as I read it, by greedy parents and social circumstances has gripped me ever since my days in the Danish merchant navy. In particular, it’s the idea that parents would sell their own child that haunts me and this is a central scene in my modern day version in which Blicher’s Cecil (Cecelia) becomes Éilis from north-side Dublin tenements (‘flats’ being another term for tenements). The drawing above, by Robert Jensen, depicts Cecil refusing the banns for her marriage to a wealthy landowner. In my version, Éilis is sold to a drug dealer. For me, the modern version is even more haunting, if possible. But then I go back to the original and think not.
In my book of life, there are bad people and a lot of very good people and then people who waver in between. These are just some of the ways in which my novel, and indeed all of my writing, tends to differ from some of the more popular novelists, particularly in a place like Ireland where many writers have surprisingly little interest in folk tales or folk culture and have, in my view, a very cynical view of human nature. Though they are good and sometimes great writers; in their world, nobody is honourable or happy, and to be proud of, or fight for one’s culture is – bizarrely in a post-colonial country like ours – seen as inherently conservative; everybody is tainted; everybody has issues. All families are at loggerheads and seem to carry dark secrets. Therefore, for these doom merchants, the classic postmodern hero in fiction has to be a stoic for enduring such misery. It’s like Greek myths, but without the grand vision, the catharsis or the craic. And no gods or ambrosia, to boot. I would exclude Sebastian Barry from this category and – though he is the guru of the miserabilists – Colm Tóibín. Almost despite themselves, these two superb writers instinctively divine the spiritual in all of us, even as they stare into the abyss of unbelief. Patricia Highsmith does the same.
Think it’s a block of flats? No, a block of books
The brilliant work of Voluspa Jarpa –
his first name a beautiful confluence with the Norse Vøluspá
Maybe it’s just that I was always, even when young, an old fogey with a romantic streak but ‘tales of the pessimistic’ don’t do it for me. For, despite the fact that I had what many would say is a tough upbringing, permanent misery is not my experience of life, and I’ve been lucky enough to live a full and interesting existence. Of course people have problems and of course there are bad people, but that is not the true essence of humankind. Most humans I’ve ever met are curious and interested – inter – est. And if I’m right, then fiction, or my fiction at least and the fiction I hold dear, will emerge from the heroic task of doing good or trying to be good and often failing. Of maintaining inter – est. Stories also of people who, at key turns in their lives, try and do the right thing. Take a writer like Cormac McCarthy, who clearly views natural forces as implacable. They are just there. And then there are human beings who exploit their power to, say, torture a wolf (The Crossing) or drag the world to near destruction (The Road). Well, Billy Parham failed in the end but at that moment when he turns to go back into the dog fighting pit for his wolf … nobody can tell me that he is not a hero, or not trying to do the right thing. At the end of the utterly bleak Road, meanwhile, is the possibility of redemption. We move into myth – very like the Norse Vøluspá that tells of Ragnarök and a possible bright dawn to come. Possibly …
It is humankind that must decide. It is humankind that creates the beauty in Nature’s implacable neutrality. We do art because it’s not there and Nature doesn’t care less, unlike God. The God we humans create, or feel, to mediate the unknowable that is the Love we feel for each other and some beating vibration there in that otherwise implacable ether. It is humankind that tells stories. It is humankind that makes fictional characters real – they are as real as any living person. As real as an artist’s tree, which is essence of tree. More tree than the tree.
Then there are characters who inexplicably change from good to bad and then back again – probably most of us, but always wishing they could be better.
In my dreamspace, there is magic, myth and horror
and heroes in the meanest of places
I believe it was inevitable, I mean it was meant to be, that Dalkey Archive Press would publish Éilis from the Flats. Its proprietor John O’Brien has the philosophy of using the benchmark of talent, along with a certain cussedness or oblique eye, to decide whether he wants to publish something or not. Though by no means a slick, upmarket publisher – quite the reverse in fact – Dalkey is an outstanding imprint with a track record for not only defending and encouraging diversity in literature but also making fiction in translation a central part of its raison d’être. I am already a Dalkey translator. Therefore I am doubly and extremely proud to be one of Dalkey’s fiction authors.
Moreover, I am highly influenced by North American writers. I write, primarily, because I enjoy it and it was William Faulkner who encouraged me to do that. His flow of words – his amaze and unamaze and suspiration of words, that sometimes happen to him in the flux of writing, exhilarates me, because it’s beyond the rational, but makes perfect sense. This kind of writing takes a lot of self-confidence, though. Not just in your ability to write, but also in your convictions as an artist. The confidence to write what you want and stand by it, though the levees breach …
Faulkner was steeped in the Deep South of the USA and innately understood its passion. The lives of the whites and the blacks and their rhythm of being in the world. In that sense, the Glasgow writer James Kelman is very like him. He exudes a deep and wise sense of place and it is there both writers get their depth and confidence to write in their own voice, or voices. That sense of engagement and, God forbid, fun even in the midst of trauma and mayhem bounces off the page. Their empathy with people is also an important part of that sense of place – including what are now called ‘damaged people’. Herman Melville is also a master of empathy but he has a much bigger social vision than Faulkner, in that he wants to sound the depths of the whole world and the philosophy of our very existence, as with Moby Dick, rather than just the ‘Deep South’ of Faulkner. Like me, Melville was himself a mariner and worker, and also a journalist of sorts, frequently devoting long asides to the facts of whaling for example, or flogging at sea – an iniquity he helped to get stopped.
So it is with this idea of fiction as embracing the world: as journalism, reportage and news from the streets, as a folk tale, that I find myself drawn and is an inspiration for Éilis from the Flats and the ‘Good Friday Sting’ series. It’s very much a 19th Century idea, not just from Melville, but also Dickens and Dostoevsky – probing human nature and the human condition amongst ‘peasants’ and the lower classes, then bringing people together to have a huge row. That in essence is what Jane Austen and George Elliot also do in their own social milieu. My recently published translation of Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan’s classic – A Fortunate Man – is another good example of polemical, polyphonic, yet gripping, literature that has a proper story. A beginning, a middle and an end.
But before all this starts sounding like a programmatic set of bricks that I’m going to lay down one after the other, let me report that I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen with my characters. I just have a vague idea of how things might end. What the young journalist James Tierney does in Éilis for example bewilders me and annoys me sometimes. I did not, and do not, want him to have a relationship with Ronagh Durkin in their world. But as I wrote, his character pushed my narrative down a particular road. Similarly my vision was for the young Adonis, Finn Dempsey, to be much more prominent, maybe even come to the rescue, but his character became more complex and less prominent – that is how fiction works.
I should probably stress that Dalkey has thus far only pledged to publish the first book. Let’s see if I can make Éilis so successful that the next one – Fifth Column – can follow quickly.
I believe Éilis From the Flats will be read by a lot of people who don’t tend to read ‘highfalutin’ novels. I have already had some notice of this. It is for those people that I write, as much as for myself, because they are my people – the place I am. They give me my voice and I, in turn, know their voices. We are what Melville called the “mariners, renegades and castaways”. The scum of the earth.
I will give more details of official launch dates for Éilis From the Flats as the autumn/fall approaches.
The Bayeux Tapestry (1070s)
Ordinary folk have done stories since time immemorial – we know how to do it.
@ Paul Larkin
Mí an Mheithimh, 2019