Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Hole in the Head by Francis Stuart

Although the central character in this novel shares many of the traits of a typical Stuartian character the story is less obviously biographical than many of his other novels.
Stuart often took parts of his own life and recast them as fiction, playing on the outsider role which it seemed he willingly embraced following the condemnation heaped upon him after he spend the Second World War living and working in Germany.
The narrator, Barnaby Shane, is still a fringe figure, damaged and isolated, but this time because of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide after his wife leaves him.
Mentally surfing on a cocktail of perscription drugs (although stolen by him) he arrives in his homeland – never named but easily identified as 1970s Ireland – accompanied by Emily Bronte.
Emily is his muse and, because of medication he has taken, as real to him as the doctors and nurses who treat him.
Barnaby is a writer who has lost his way, earning acclaim but whose own novels no longer inspire him.
Stuart paints a picture of a smug literary circle in Barnaby's home city (Dublin) where novelists, poets and playwrights tread on uncontentious ground and rely on literary tricks and forced drama rather than truly challenging their readers.
Emily's Wuthering Heights is highlighted by Barnaby as a truly daring novel in which the heights of human passion and madness are explored.
Barnaby and Emily venture north to the city of 'Belbury', easily identifiable as Belfast, which like its real-life counterpart in the 1970s has been ripped apart by inter-communal conflict.
According to his biographer, Kevin Kiely, Stuart was a regular visitor to the north in '70s and the depiction rings true.
The dynamics of the conflict are glossed over and Stuart does not really want us to identify the various warring factions as republican or loyalist. They are a backdrop to his more intense tale of a disturbed individual wrenched from reality into a self-created parallel world in which aspects of his unconscious (Emily) interact with the reality perceived by everyone else.
As he weens himself off the medication he drifts back to normality but in the process loses Emily, although his memory of his imaginary encounter with her continues to haunt him.
The second part of the novel sees Barnaby, still nervous and edgy, more or less restored to the accepted definition of sanity and after a brief period spent back in the south he returns to Belbury.
He gets caught up in a siege situation where he is sent in as negotiator.
The plot of A Hole in the Head, occasionally drifts into absurdity, but like many Stuart's novels it is more a vehicle for him to explore an isolated individual who finds himself cut adrift from the world in which he lives.
It is one of Stuarts most satisfying novels and one that confirms for me why he is my favourite writer whose novels I keep returning to and finding something new in each rereading.

2 comments:

Fionnchú said...

Kiely, whose bio I am reviewing now, comments that this and "Memorial" written around the same time in the middish-70s, go about as far as one can go with prose that skirts derangement. Does this ring true?

Tony Bailie said...

Memorial is a novel that would probably have landed Stuart in jail these days. I think it comes between Blacklist and A Hole in the Head. It is almost as if he is trying to re-outrage those who derided him because of his WWII activities but found themselves having to accept that Backlist was quite a good novel. Certainly the prose in both is edgy and in AHITH head does hit a slightly manic tone. When I first read it, maybe 15 years ago, I didn't really get it, but as I said in blog with each rereading I find it more and more appealing and would rate it alongside Blacklist and The Pillar of Cloud.
Looking forward to your Kiely review.