Sunday, 6 March 2011

Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston

Novelist Jennifer Johnston is the daughter of playwright, broadcaster and journalist Denis Johnston who died in the 1980s and whose artistic peak came in the 1930s.
He worked as a BBC radio correspondent during the Second World War in the Middle East and mainland Europe - Italy, the Balkans, France, Austria and Germany - and was one of the first journalists to enter a liberated Nazi concentration camp.
He was also a philanderer, having numerous affairs and leaving Jennifer Johnston’s mother, when the future novelist was still a child, to marry another woman and start another family.
So there is no great mystery on who Desmond Fitzmaurice, the central character of Truth or Fiction is based on.
He is a former playwright who worked as a journalist in the Second World War and who left his first wife (he maintains that she kicked him out) and their young daughter for another woman and had a second family.
Caroline, a journalist, is sent from London to interview the ageing and long-forgotten writer at his Dublin home to dig up some juicy gossip and reassess his career.
She is a reluctant interrogator, going through a mid-life crisis, and quickly finds herself being dragged into Fitzmaurice’s domestic dramas and regaled with tales of past adultories and even a murder.
On reading this novel it would seem that Jennifer Johnston had a difficult relationship with her father. Fitzmaurice’s daugher from his first marriage, who seems to be the fictional counterpart of the novelist and who we hear about but never meet, is said to hate her father.
And the portrayal of Fitzmaurice is less than endearing as he comes across as selfish and only interested in how he will be remembered by history, displaying contempt for his various spouses and romanticising an affair that he said he once had.
There is a theatrical feel to the narrative with Fitzmaurice playing back tapes of himself recalling about his affair, a knowing nod to Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, a contemporary of Denis Johnston.
Caroline is skeptical about Fitzmaurice’s accounts of his past and begins to resent his confiding in her and being forced to become a participant in his domestic tribulations.
There isn’t really that much depth to this novel and most of its intrigue lies in the knowledge that Fitzmaurice is broadly based on Johnston’s late father.
Given the richness of Denis Johnston’s life and the plentiful source material that he left behind - particularly in his war memoir Nine Rivers From Jordan and the philosophical The Brazen Horn - his daughter could have produced a much more layered and interesting fictional portrayal.
But then maybe producing such a slight novel and unflattering central character is saying as much about her attitude to a father who it seems she didn’t really like.


Fionnchú said...

Tony, I think you and I have chatted about Denis Johnston's "Nine Rivers to Jordan," as strange an "autobiographical novel" as "Black List, Section H" to me at least. I'd love to see "The Old Lady Says No!" on stage-- what a strange play. I wonder how many remember him in Ireland now?

Bernard Adams wrote a straightforward bio, more than DJ's half-organized if well-titled semi-memoir "Orders & Desecrations," that I recall most for a snapshot of dapper DJ surrounded over half a century ago by eager Smith College co-eds. Which plays straight into poor Jennifer's reactions...

Thanks for another reminder of our shared interests!

Tony Bailie said...

I actually started to read Nine Rivers last week John. Read that copy of The Brazen Horn you sent me last year... and want to go back to it. Saw the biography sitting on the books for review shelves at work and picket it up a couple of times but didn't take it which I regret now as it has gone.