Wednesday, 26 August 2009


I have a new short story called 'Distraction' published in Verbal Magazine.
You can read the story online by clicking here. Alternatively you can visit the Verbal website here and download a pdf version. The magazine is also distributed free in Ireland and is available in a bookshops and various cultural venues.
Another short story is due to be published next year in a crime fiction anthology by Morrigan Books. The book will be called Red Hand of Crime -- The Irish Mythology Anthology and contains some of Ireland top writers and has made me feel very humble to be included among them. More details here on Gerard Brennan's Crimescene NI blog.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Candle of Vision by George Russell (AE)

It was a seemingly disparaging and throw-away line in Samuel Beckett's Murphy in which a minor character was reading The Candle of Vision by George (AE) Russell that led me to this 1919 publication.
Russell was a contemporary and confident of WB Yeats and one of the leading figures of the Celtic Twilight, a literary movement which Beckett's mentor James Joyce derided in Finnegan's Wake as the 'cultic twalette'.
There is scant reference to Russell in the various Beckett biographies I have, mostly name checks, and one instance when Russell, as editor of a magazine, rejected a poem submitted by Beckett early in his writing career.
In terms of subject material and style the two would seem to be miles apart - Beckett's stripped down prose depicting alienated characters who become increasingly detached from the physical world with little evidence of anything beyond that, while Russell uses flowery language to retell the other-worldly visions he says he experienced.
The Candle of Vision is Russell's account of his life as a mystic and recounts many of his visions.
Russell, possibly aware of the distrust of a self-styled mystic that many people will feel, outlines his case for belief in visions.
"We experience the romance and delight of voyaging upon uncharted seas when the imagination is released from the foolish notion that the images seen in reverie and dream are merely the images of memory refashioned; and in tracking to their originals the forms seen in vision we discover for them a varied ancestry, as that some come from the minds of others, and of some we cannot surmise another origin that they are portions of the memory of Earth which is accessible to us. We soon grow to think our memory but a portion of that eternal memory and that we in our lives are gathering an innumerable experience for a mightier being than our own. The more vividly we see with the inner eye the more swiftly do we come to this conviction." (P56)
In many ways I found his thinking and reference to an 'eternal memory' to be quite Jungian and his mysticism seemed to echo the Swiss psychologists' theories about the unconsciousness and the 'collective unconsciousness'.
And like Jung, Russell seemed to have arrived at a basically gnostic world view
"I cannot assume that the sudden consciousness of being in the air was absolutely the beginning of that episode any more than I can imagine a flower suddenly appearing without plant or root or prior growth; nor can I think that blind motions of the brain, in blank unconsciousness of what they tend to, suddenly flame in to a consciousness instinct with wild beauty. To assume that would be a freak of reasoning. (P82)
The Candle of Vision should come with a reality warning for those of a sceptical nature who will find their eyes rolling repeatedly but I found this to be a fascinating insight into the minds of a character whose name is often mentioned along with Joyce, Yeats and Beckett but who remained as a footnote in history.
Russell was also a poet and I remember seeing a dusty but beautifully bound collection of his poems in a secondhand bookshop for £10, which I wish I'd bought because the following day the shop was burned down.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Sphinx by DM Thomas

Sphinx is the third novel in a quartet and while some familiarity with the earlier two – Ararat and Swallow – might clarify some of the referrences and recurring themes it can be read on its own.
While mostly set in early 1980s USSR, the action flits back and forward in time from the days of Pushkin to the 1917 Revolution and to the 1930s.
Characters are often just that – characters in novels, poems and plays (often improvised) – and Thomas blurs the lines between what is real and what is fiction.
characters who the reader presumed were in a play turn out to be real while trusted narrators are actually fictional representations of a writers imagination.
Often the stories within stories are in the form of an improvisation where someone is given a theme and has to construct a story or poem on the spot.
The plot is often convoluted and involves espionage, betrayals, madness and - being a DM Thomas novel - sex.
The novels are as much about the way a writer uses real life situations to create fiction and how real people become a distorted representation of themselves in a piece of writing.
The opening section, written in the style of a television script, is the most appealing and stylistic piece with some great images, the second part concerning a rather dull English journalist travelling in Soviet Russia is written as a straightforward narrative, while part three is written in rhyming verse.
In my review of Ararat (see here) I compared it to a Russian doll where storys are embedded in other stories and narrators who created characters turn out to actually be a fiction created by another narrator.
Taken as a series the three novels interact with characters reoccuring, stories morphing and being retold as fact and fiction merge and then suddenly snap apart to leave the reader floundering and unsettled.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

The eponymous anti-hero is a dysfunctional Irishman living in London with a prostitute. He is more obsessed with his inner self than with the reality and is barely able to function in society. He cuts himself off from the world best when he ties himself, naked, to a rocking chair and rocks himself into a transcendental meditative state. However, Murphy agrees to seek work so that his lover, Celia, can come off the streets.
Other characters come to London seeking Murphy, including a woman who believes she is engaged to him and that he is working hard to make a better life for them, and Murphy’s former teacher. These characters provide a slapstick element to the novel.
Murphy finds work in a mental institution where is in awe of the patients who he treats with “respect and unworthiness”. He admires them because they have cut themselves off from the absurdity of the modern world.
Beckett writes: “The nature of outer reality remained obscure… The definition of outer reality, or of reality short and simple, varied according to the sensibility of the definer. But all seemed agreed that contact with it, even the layman’s muzzy contact, was a rare privilege. On this basis the patients were described as ‘cut off’ from reality, from the rudimentary blessings of the layman’s reality, if not altogether in the severer cases, then in certain fundamental respects. The function of the treatment was to bridge the gulf, translate the sufferer from his own pernicious little private dungheap to the glorious world of discrete particles, where it would be his inestimable prerogative once again to wonder, love, hate, desire, rejoice and howl in a reasonable balanced manner, and comfort himself with the society of others in the same predicament.” (Murphy p101).
According to one of Beckett’s biographers, Deirdre Bair, he was struggling to find a direction for the novel until October 1935 when he attended a lecture by Carl Jung where the psychologist said that a poet had the capacity to dramatize and personify his mental contents
Quoting from Jung’s lecture Bair writes: “When he creates a character on a stage, or in his poems or drama or novel, he thinks it is merely a product of his imagination; but that character in a certain secret way has made itself. Any novelist or writer will deny that these characters have a psychological meaning, but as a matter of fact you know as well as I do that they have one. Therefore you can read a writer’s mind when you study the characters that he creates.”
(Samuel Beckett by Deirdre Bair (P181).
That could go a long way to explaining Beckett’s intense obsession in Murphy and more starkly in his later novels with the inner worlds of his characters who are alienated from society.
In Murphy it appears that Beckett wants to disguise his insights and darker preoccupations by padding them out with a series of slapstick set pieces and comic asides. A swami who cast’s Murphy’s horoscope for him is described as being “famous throughout the civilized world and the Irish Free State”.
And at the end, following Murphy’s death – by accident or suicide is never made clear – he leaves instructions that his ashes should be brought back to Dublin and flushed down the toilet in the Abbey Theatre. However, the man carrying his ashes instead goes to a pub and gets drunk and ends up throwing the ashes at someone during a brawl.
“By closing time, the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.”
(Murphy p154)
This early novel maybe suffers from having too many superfluous characters and smart-arse prose but at its core there is deeply disturbing insight into Beckett’s mind.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Canone Inverso by Paolo Maurensig

There is distinct Gothic and Mitteleuropean feel to this short readable novel by Austrian Paolo Maurensig. He manages to set a scenario where you think you know what is going on so that when he drops in a dramatic twist you are left floundering and wondering how you didn’t see it coming all along.
There is some clever story telling going on here – a seemingly independent narrator telling a story told to him by a second narrator who recounts a story told to him by a street musician in Vienna.
However, as the novel unfurls it emerges that those who seem to have a major role are side players while those who appear to be mere observers are a key part of the story.
At the centre is a valuable violin bought at an auction in London in modern times.
The story flashes back to post-First World War Austria/Hungary, following the fragmentation of the old order in Europe.
A talented boy, Jeno, inherits the violin from his father, who he never knew and earns a scholarship at a prestigious music school.
Maurensig has a great understanding of the technicalities of music but also an appreciation of how it can have a profound impact on people’s lives and raise them to a higher state of consciousness.
Jeno meets an equally talented musician at the school, Kuno, who despite an aristocratic background reminds Jeno of himself. The two are the most talented musicians at the school but somehow remain friends without succumbing to rivalry.
Jeno is so obsessed with his music that events in the wider world fail to make much impact on him, even as all the pupils and teachers with Jewish names are suddenly removed from the school.
When his studies are complete he accepts and invitation to stay with Kuno at his father’s country estate but the change of territory and the relationship of former musical equals in a harsh academic environment to poor country boy staying with his privileged friend changes the dynamic of the relationship.
Jeno feels that Kuno is constantly trying to assert his seniority and dominate him to the point that he ultimately wants Jeno’s precious violin.
Kuno’s aristocratic family have secrets. His father’s brother is believed to taken his own life but rumours persist that he is living in South America.
There are also philosophical discourses on immortality, the nature of talent
and genetics. Maurensig also manages to depict a sense of being caught up in an intense drama against the backdrop of vast world-changing events going all around the central action.
Canone Inverso is a richly layered novel that deserves a second reading, purely to enjoy the false and genuine trails laid by the author and to admire how he so subtly planted information along the way that the surprise twist at the end seemed frustratingly obvious all along.