Monday, 7 January 2013
Just now, for obvious reasons, lots of people are full of their plans for the New Year; new starts, old starts revisited, infinite ways to be better, more resolute - which is of course the etymological root of these resolutions. I've always found resolute rather hard - I can manage steady, stoic, enduring, dogged, but the minute I try to be resolute I find the inner nag who sits on my shoulder saying "Aha! we know where that leads don't we? You just can't manage it, you've tried before and you know you always fail" so my resolve shrivels and creeps away to some quiet corner, all hunched and woebegone, and my seasonal portion of self defeat takes up residence in its place.
So, this is not a resolution, but it is a hope. I'd like to read through all of my grandmother's novels, one by one, this year. To spend some time with them, with her, to see what she has to say. I have read them before, several times; they have been with me all my life, since they were written long before I was born. She wrote in part for pleasure, in part because she came from a literary and artistic family, but also to supplement my grandfather's income with enough extra to ensure that they could send Mum to a fee paying school. She was a very delicate child, breaking bones at the slightest knock or tumble, a trait she shared with her mother, her aunt and her grandfather, who bequeathed us some faulty genes. So Ganna wrote to ensure that her one beloved daughter could go to a school where there was less rough and tumble, less danger of damaging activities.
Her first novel was called Barney's Bend; that's its cover up there, with illustration by Rowland Hilder. Because I know our history, I know that it is set in Arklow, County Wicklow, which is where she grew up. Mum and I went there together some twenty years ago, so I recognise the geography. It is decidedly not a "modern" novel. There is no exciting action in exotic locations, no guns or knives or violently dismembered bodies graphically described, no sex, licit or illicit. I do read novels like those as well, so am not saying that with a moue of disapproval, but Ganna's novels are simple ones, about people and what makes them tick. Make no mistake, when I say simple, I don't mean simplistic or lightweight. She was a deep thinking woman, and one with profound beliefs, but her writing, in this novel, centres around a small Southern Irish town in the early part of the 20th Century, where cars and motorbikes were a rarity, where donkeys were traded at the monthly fair, where the evening light came from the sky or from fire, lamp or candlelight. Her characters are finely drawn, but their concerns are those of ordinary life, not of earth shattering events or heroic feats. She writes of daily incidents drawn with such, to my mind, exquisite observation, that their true meaning is shown.
Most of us live quiet lives, we don't holiday frequently in exotic places, indulge in passionate and sexually athletic affairs, or find ourselves caught up in intricate and convoluted events, involving foreign spies or slightly psychotic loners, with mystical powers of deduction. To be sure, novels like this can take us out of ourselves, they are perhaps the modern day equivalent of the myths and legends told by winter firelight in times past. But tales like that take us away from ourselves, to fantasise about what life would be like if only ... Barney's Bend is about a small group of farming folk, whose lives are intertwined, and about the consequences for one another of the things they do. It is about what matters in love and in life, about what is of value. The characters' thoughts are described, so we understand their motives and their actions. They do nothing earth shattering, and because of this, one is drawn into their world in a very genuine way; they are recognisably human, and their human failings are those we share. To my mind, and I do know I am biased, the novel encapsulates something very precious, the realisation that our lives are driven by what we think as much as by events; that because of this it is important to be true to ourselves, and those around us; important to be aware that we are responsible for what we do, we can bring good or bad into the world, each thought, each action has a definite and concrete value in reality. This makes it all sound rather preachy; believe me, I can't stand preachy. Her writing is so deft, so painterly in it's descriptions, so grounded in her understanding of motive and so evocative of human lives lived, that she reveals how this life, this here and now, is very real, and very precious. I love this book, just as I know I loved it when I last read it, and the time before. I am conscious that this is a gift given, to know her mind, and to understand her remembered wisdom, even though she is no longer with me.