Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

This is something different for me!   Clearly it is not fiction for a start and I am no theologian.   It was given to me by a friend of mine with the challenge to blog it:   I now challenge you to read it for yourselves too.   It is essentially a religious autobiography that Chesterton himself explains as his 'own solitary and sincere speculations' and the 'style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology'.

Chesterton was a well known literary figure by the time he wrote this in 1908 and had at least four major works behind him including The Man who was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill. By the end of his life [1936], he had published eighty books and myriad articles, essays and poems.   He was noted for his wit and the sense of humour he brought to his writing, enjoying particularly paradox.   He was not a modernist like Shaw who was a close friend but with whom he disagreed regularly and similarly with H.G. Wells.    Though his writing was frequently philosophical, he argued strenuously with the philosophers of his time accusing philosophy of 'uncommon sense', taking particular exception to Nietzsche.   He was a Christian apologist and he converted to Catholicism in 1922.

As you might expect with Chesterton who writes with such a fluid style, this book is an easy read if frequently giving pause for thought.   The least convincing are the first thirty nine pages at the end of which he himself says: 'here I end [thank God] the first and dullest business of this book - the rough review of recent thought'.   Along the way he examines and pans the will and volition, scepticism [which can hardly be described as 'recent thought'], relativism, materialism, evolution and rationalism which he describes as a 'doomed fortress' - indeed, 'our mental ruin has been wrought by wild reason'. This last is curious as he describes himself later in the book as a rationalist.   In this early section, rationalism and reason seem to be confused - but then Chesterton was no semantic pedant!   He sums up his thinking on these various isms by contending that 'most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania' and maintains that 'free thought has exhausted its own freedom' while 'liberalism has been degraded into liberality'.   He is fond of aphorisms that abound in this section, together with the kind of clever wordplay one associates with him.

Chesterton proceeds then for the remainder of the book to look at his own fundamental ideas and personal philosophy which he was startled to discover had already been discovered by Christianity.   He describes the elemental wonder of fairy tales, the joy of mystery in the face of the sterile facts of science and the modern world's insistence on the Panglossian necessity of things being as they are whereas he saw the world as a wild and startling place which might have been quite different.   [I'm not sure that the idea of contingency is compatible with Catholic theology!]   The magic, the mystery of the world must have a meaning, he claims, and meaning must have someone to mean it.   He argues that Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit into the world; that Christian pleasure is poetic and full of romance in the face of the logician.   He does a wonderful chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity, some familiar, some that might never have occurred to me that made me feel, in his words, that 'life is not only a pleasure but an eccentric privilege'.

Though some of his beliefs need contextualisation, some seem plainly wrong [though I am open to correction!].   For example, he argues the matter of the immanent or the transcendent deity.   He avers that by insisting on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism and social indifference.   By 'insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation'.   Surely, we need both - the immanent God that we may learn to love ourselves and, also, the transcendent.

Nevertheless, I shall support firmly his belief of 'how much every man owes to the tyranny and privilege of women, to the fact that they alone rule education until education becomes futile'.   He says that whenever he was most under a woman's authority, he was 'most full of flame and adventure'.  And maybe he was looking ahead to some bloggers when he says 'women who are utter mystics in their creed are utter cynics in their criticism'!

For all that his clever clever use of language, the generously sprinkled aphorisms and the self-contradictory pieces may annoy, this is worth reading as one man's journey in faith.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, Doubleday €8.80 [Veritas], €5.90

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Thing about December by Donal Ryan

Though he was long listed for the Man Booker and won the Guardian First Book Award with The Spinning Heart, I think that Donal Ryan has created a piece of literature even more original and heart wrenching with The Thing about December.  It is at once unbearably sad and, at times, unbearably funny, so I couldn't put it down today until I finished it.   As a chronicler of modern Ireland, he is unsurpassed.   Though he wrote it before Spinning Heart, it was only published after the success of that novel.   Publishers do get it wrong - frequently.

This time, he is in Tipperary and it is in the early days of the Celtic Tiger.   His narrator is a lost soul, Johnsey, an intellectually challenged young man only too well aware of his limitations and hating them.   He refers to himself variously as a 'gom' and a 'fat eejit' and he figures God made a slip-up making him.   He wonders where there might be a way to get away from this earth cleanly, to just disappear one day and he cries, 'Hey God, you forgot to give a justification for Johnsey Cunliffe's existence, he's below scratching his hole like a fool, waiting for a reason not to do away with himself'.   He has two lovely well-liked and respected parents who early in the story die, one a short time after the other, leaving sad Johnsey alone in an unfeeling and pitiless society.

He is of course bullied mercilessly by the local yahoos and though he fantasises about girls, his fantasies are about the stars of Home and Away rather than any local ladies with whom he is totally tongue-tied and then mocked.   His happiest memories are days spent with his father on their small farm or helping his mother with her baking.   On his own, he distances himself from the town's inhabitants being canny enough to see through the often false sympathy offered him when his mother died.

The crisis starts when the local council, under pressure from the smart boys in town, decide to rezone the surrounding land including Johnsey's farm which then overnight becomes worth millions.   Ryan handles with great style his depiction of the approaches made to Johnsey, the sudden friends he acquires and Johnsey's delight in them while all the time giving us a feeling of impending tragedy - which may or may not happen.   Ryan builds up Johnsey's character with perspicacity and great skill.  He has a certain shrewdness and native cunning but is unable to articulate his thoughts. He laments his own inability to manage words, that he 'could barely get a sentence out without his face going on fire and his brain downing tools'.   At the same time, he thinks a thought worthy of Rumsfeld, 'what's a lie anyway?   Do you have to know a thing to be not true, or just not care whether or not it's true for the saying of it to be a lie, or are you telling lies if what you say is not true but you think it is?'

Ryan breaks the book up into twelve chapters - the months of the year - and he starts each chapter/month with Johnsey remembering something of his mother or father in that particular month - until December and there is a thing about December.   Ryan has a lovely easy style of writing with a keen eye and even keener ear. He captures deliciously local phrases and accents:  one can actually hear the inhabitants talking!   One could quote endlessly from his writing but I would prefer you to read it for yourselves!

The Thing about December is published by Doubleday Ireland, pb £12.99 [€10.87]

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

I've long been a fan of Claudel and loved his Grey Souls trilogy, particularly Brodeck's Report but this novel, his latest, published in 2010 but only translated last year, is something quite different.   Toby Litt from the Guardian panned it totally calling it a 'banal and rubbishy novel' while David Annand from the Telegraph called it 'impressive' and 'a complex novel of ideas'.   I go with the latter.   Though it undoubtedly draws on Kafka's The Castle, there are also many nods to Borges and his fantastical stories [one collection of which is called oddly Brodie's Report].

Towards the end of the novel, the narrator called only the Investigator, says 'I'm not measuring up to my own life' and ultimately that is what the novel is all about, acquiring a knowledge of himself, a self-awareness and confronting it.   Along the way, he paints a dystopian picture of modern society and its control by neoliberalism in a rather surreal allegorical way.

The novel opens with the Investigator arriving in an unnamed town, his mission being to investigate the high number of suicides occurring in a large corporation called simply The Firm.   Very quickly he learns that this is a town out of kilter and there is no reality.   Not being able to gain access to The Firm, he finds a hotel, Hotel Hope, after what he thinks is at most an hour but turns out to be at least six - even time has its own existence.   The Hotel is manned by The Giantess and changes its appearance daily while the local cop, The Policeman, has his office there in a broom cupboard.  After a series of nightmarish events, he finally gets to The Firm and then his problems really begin.  He finds himself forced to re-examine his values and his own identity surrounded as he is by bewildering inhabitants and even more bewildering events.   Finally, malfunction becomes his esssence.

Claudel doesn't hide his despair at today's society in any subtle way.   One character complains that the little people like the Investigator no longer have kings, that 'monarchs today ... are complex financial mechanisms, algorithms... their thrones are screens, fibre-optic cables, printed circuit boards'.   Another character complains about his job which is to clean up 'valleys weighed down with the corpses of mobile telephones, computers, silicon, lakes filled to the brim with fluorocarbon, toxic mud and acid mud, geological faults plugged up with large shovelfuls of radioactive material...' and all he's got to do the job is a broom.   The excess of conformity demanded exhausts him and he remarks that 'man created order while no-one was asking him for anything.   He thought he was being smart.  It was a bad move'!

Finally, the Investigator is told 'man is a negligible quantity nowadays, a minor species with a special talent for disaster'.   What more can I say?  Read it!

The Investigation is published by Maclehose Press, pb, £7.99, available from, €7.07

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee, in his quiet, unassuming way, always challenges and in a devastating manner.   With this his latest novel, he gives us an astonishing if mysterious tale, a page turner that you can gallop through waiting always for the explanation:  there is none.   This is Coetzee after all.   I read it yesterday and spent today thinking how can I write about it;  it seems almost lese majeste to try.

There is nothing subtle about the title and when on the very first page, the narrator, Simon, introduces a young boy who accompanies him, one can quickly decide this book is an allegory based on the Holy Family.   But that would be too easy.    Nothing is clear.   Nothing is obvious.   Simon and his young charge, David [House of David?] have arrived by boat in this strange country from somewhere across the seas.  David has got separated from his parents and a letter he carried around his neck explaining his circumstances got lost on the ship.   Simon, though not young, takes it on himself to care for him  and is referred to sometimes as grandfather, sometimes as godfather or uncle.  The country they have arrived in is Spanish speaking and a sort of socialist Utopia where it turns out all the inhabitants have arrived in a similar way and, in Orwellian fashion, all their memories are wiped out.   They are provided with a basic flat, an allowance and Simon quickly gets a job as a stevedore unloading sacks of grain endlessly to supply the basic food of the country, bread [manna?].   There appears to be no meat or, indeed, spices.   Everything is bland - food and inhabitants.   Simon's workmates are an amiable bunch and, indeed, everyone in the country fosters goodwill, with passion of any description frowned on.   Even sex is reduced to the necessary satisfaction of an irritating urge.   In the evenings, his workmates go to the 'institute' where they attend philosophy classes which seem to centre entirely on phenomenology of a very basic kind.

Simon fits uncomfortably into this strange environment and argues continuously with everyone, including himself, most of the time in a philosophical manner and a lot of the book is taken up with these arguments, especially those he has with young David.   And David is the core of the book.   Though only five, he is clearly a remarkable child with knowledge beyond his years, extremely intelligent and with a very original approach to literally everything and an affinity with animals.   Is he the child Jesus?   That is the puzzle the reader is going to ponder for a very long time.   He teaches himself to read using an ancient copy of Don Quixote - the only book Simon could find - and he writes perfectly also, both accomplishments he hides from everyone until a crisis arises.   He has a curious relationship with numbers, seeing gaps in between them like there is between the stars, and he fears that numbers might fall down in these gaps.   He does not fit in with his school class and when pushed by his teacher to write  on the board, 'I must tell the truth', he writes 'I am the truth'.   In an echo of the scriptures again, a friend of Simon's tells Simon, 'instead of waiting to be transfigured, why not try to be like a child again'.

From the beginning, it is Simon's mission to try and find David's mother for him and quite early on, and bizarrely, he arbitrarily settles on a young woman, Ines [a virgin!] who equally bizarrely agrees to be his mother, a role she adapts to with great enthusiasm.   The story then evolves into Simon's relationship with Ines and David's development within the constraints of this strange country leading inevitably to a crisis the resolution of which is typical of Coetzee's calm and measured approach to story telling.

This is a book not easily forgotten chiefly because Coetzee explains nothing.   But it is nonetheless beautiful and haunting.   Coetzee writes a lean, spare prose, no word casually used.   He gives little description of the country but the impression is of greyness and bleakness, cold at night and hot during the day.  Simon find it desolate.  Transport is free as are football matches, bread and apparently also the flat they are allocated.  Shops seem to be rare.   A sort of communist utopia then but given to us like an exquisite epic poem.   It will make you think.

The Childhood of Jesus is published in Vintage pb, £8.99 [€7.76 from Book]

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I picked up Arimathea by Frank McGuinness largely because I was curious to see if such an accomplished playwright would make the transition to novel writing successfully - it blew me away!

I was naturally intrigued by the title and wondered about its relevance.   Arimathea was a small town perhaps in Judea, perhaps Samaria whence came Joseph who gave his grave for the burial of Jesus.   And graves seem to be the link as the novel certainly has a eschatological touch.   The plot, such as it is, arises as the result of a legacy -  and death, burial, and voices from beyond certainly figure strongly.  And religion does have an important role in that the major characters include the local priest, the Protestant minister and his niece.

The story is set in Donegal in a small village where the local priest, Fr O'Hagen, having inherited a sizeable sum from his mother, decides to commemorate her by bringing over from Italy, an artist, Gianni, to paint the Stations of the Cross for the local church.   Gianni is lodged in a house owned by a local family, the O'Donovans, with whom he takes his meals and whose young daughter, Euni, is charged with caring for him.   The narrative follows the life of the village, slow with apparently little happening outside the emotional turmoil of those most closely associated with Gianni.  But this is riveting.   McGuinness uses a similar technique to Donal Ryan in The Spinning Heart, in that he gives each of the main protagonists a chapter where we become privy to the thoughts and rampant desires hidden behind their often bland exteriors.  These chapters are followed by a rather beautiful one in the form of a poem on each of the Stations and a final chapter, Arimathea, which is a melange of voices in a wicked denouement.

McGuinness captures beautifully the voices of his protagonists, each very distinctive though oddly Gianni's is the weakest.   I say 'oddly' because this is territory McGuinness has visited before in Innocence about Caravaggio.   Young Euni is the first to break through Gianni's 'foreigness' and expose the real man and with Martha, the Minister's niece, he captures heart-breakingly her awkwardness, desire and uncertainties in the face of growing passion.   The portrayals of both Fr O'Hagen and his obsession with Mrs O'Donovan, and Minister Columba and his ironic outlook on life are extraordinary character studies.   There is a fascination for the reader in discovering the inner lives of the characters concealed from their neighbours and even the closest members of their families and this is the magic of McGuinness's writing.

I recommend that you find time for this.   It is published in Ireland by Brandon, an imprint of O'Brien Press, at €14.99.