Sunday, 4 October 2020

Reading for Writers During Lockdown: The Irish Voice. Niall Williams

 

 Reading for Writers During Lockdown:

 The Irish Voice: Niall Williams 


 

“Don’t you think there’s something wonderful about the Irish voice?”

So said the actress Ann Peacock who herself has narrated – beautifully – some of my novels in audio. She is an expert on the voice, having narrated many hundreds of novels. See her here: https://www.annedover.co.uk/  and https://www.annedover.co.uk/anne-dover/

I am ntrigued by Anne’s comment about how good the Irish voice is to the English ear. I have long thought this. The power of the Irish voice emerges clearly in recordings on BBC Sounds for instance, and the voices of narrators of novels delivered on Audible. But more importantly it emerges very clearly through the words written on the page, where the vocabulary, syntax and rented landscape sing out to the ear in a very particular way.

These thoughts crystallised for me when I read on Audio a novel by writer

Niall Williams http://www.niallwilliams.com/  (a visionary writer – a new find new find for me!) His novel This Is Happiness, is set in a village in West Cork, and is narrated narrated by Irish actor Dermot Crowley. Crowley’s voice is perfect for Williams’ prose. Brilliant.

This Is Happiness explores the human minutiae of daily living in a village West Cork, seen through the fresh eyes of a boy “Noe” visiting his grandparents –“Ganga” and “Dodie”- from the city, in his school holidays. 

It seems to me that all life is here on these pages: the layers of human experience in a village with a traditional, stoical, hard way of living, stubbornly adhered to by people confident of their own identity and rightness in their world.  In the story this taken-for-granted reality is invaded by the arrival of “the electricity”.  Among many rich characterisations, the image of the awful man in charge of this electrifying process is a masterly piece of writing. But as well as this each element of the novel resonates through the literary talent of this Irish writer. 

 

Unsentimental in tone - although the novel treats great themes, like identity, community, hierarchy, love and the sense of a unique place - it is a very easy read. This, I feel, is because the story is voiced through the young boy’s perception of this almost vanished world. A powerful thread running through the story is the saga of Noe’s relationship with Christy – a wonderful rendering of a relationship between a boy and man - interweaving Noe’s story with Christy’s lifelong doomed love affair with woman, now elderly in the village. 

 

The authorial voice of the storyteller – Noe in old age - occasionally brings us back to the present, reminding us of how much the world has changed since Noe was a boy.

 

Despite its inherent complexity This Is Happiness is also an easy read because its embedded lyricism embraces the ancient custom of stories embedded in other stories which reaches back to the pre-literate tradition of oral storytelling. This novel springs straight off the page into my ear through the medium of Dermot Crowley’s narration. 

 

Thinking on about the novel and Anne Peacock’s observation about the Irish voice made me think further about the way that the Irish voice has dominated the nature of so-called English Literature. It also made me think further about the 19th century migration Wales Scotland and - of course – Ireland,  into the newly flourishing coalmining area of south-west Durham – another tapestry of small villages with similar storytelling customs. My own family was part of this migration separate branches coming from Wales and Scotland. I also had one idiosyncratic grandma who, I think, came from Ireland. She worked as a domestic in a lunatic asylum and once told me of the courtship with my grandfather who was an attendant, ‘He chased me round the table till I caught him.’

 

Such a background is of course very inspirational for any writer and in my case can be can be traced in several of my novels. One of the stories actually begins with my Welsh heroine coming North on a train from Bagillt in Wales to Spennymoor in County Durham. In the story she is travelling under the seat because her father could only afford tickets for four of the children and she was the fifth and the smallest. That introduction to the novel is a true glimpse of my own grandmother’s journey at the turn of the last century when her own language was Welsh. This is one of the many stories I heard  from my mother and her sisters whose family history was a lapidary ediface of stories true and not so true that was a crucial part of their identity

 

My own novel is certainly not a biography but inevitably I have in my head in my heart the stories within the stories as with Niall Williams. They are part of my South Durham literary heritage  and the foundation of my inspiration whether the stories are set in South Durham or not.

 

Anne Peacock, who, I found, comes from this same region, told me, ‘In my family’s case it was migrating from the Welsh coal mining industry to the Durham one I have to thank, for my lifelong love affair with music and poetry and language in its many forms.

 

I have often tried to pin down the attraction to me of soft underlying rhythms and syntax of the South Durham way of speaking and I think this is where it lies - in the life stories and songs brought into my region by families from villages in Wales and Scotland and Ireland, whose life experiences chime together into a particular kind of music. This perhaps is why the literature coming out of Ireland and surfacing in the English literary canon holds particular appeal for people like myself and Anne Peacock.

Spurred on by these thoughts about Anne Peacock, Niall Williams and the Irish voice, I decided to check my shelves and see just how much Irish writing has been so bedded down in my writer’s consciousness to the point of actually buying the books. I recognise that in many cases the the works of these writers have been colonised and incorporated into the so called English Canon, but the Irish identity is clearly there in the work of these artists.

These days I am seen as a pretty ancient reader and write so there are very many books on my shelves. And, sharpened by my thoughts about Niall Williams and Anne Peacock I notice so many books which are the work of   Irish writers.

I made a list. And even I was surprised to find just how many there are. Here you go. Happy reading!

West Cork
John Banville (born 1945)/ Sebastian Barry (born 1955)/ Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)/ Brendan Behan (1923–1964)/ Maeve Binchy (1940–2012)/ Dermot Bolger (born 1959)/ John Boyne (born 1971) / Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973)/ Frank Delaney (born 1942)/ Roddy Doyle (born 1958)/ Ann Enright (born 1962)/  Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774)/ Jennifer Johnston (born 1930)/ Neil Jordan (born 1950)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/ Frank Delaney (born 1942)/  Roddy Doyle (born 1958)/ Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849)/ Ann Enright (born 1962)/ Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774)/ Jennifer Johnston (born 1930)/ Neil Jordan (born 1950)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/ John B. Keane (1928–2002)/ Molly Keane (1904–1996, writing as M.J. Farrell)/ Marian Keyes (born 1963)/ C. S. Lewis (1899–1963)/ Frank McCourt (1930–2009)/ John McGahern (1934–2006)/ Iris Murdoch (1919–1999)/ Edna O'Brien (born c. 1932)/ Joseph O'Connor (born 1963)/ Brian O'Nolan (1912–1966, writing as Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen)/  Somerville and Ross: (Edith Somerville, 1858–1949, and Violet Florence Martin, 1862–1915)/ Bram Stoker (1847–1912)/ Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)/ Colm Tóibín (born 1955)/ William Trevor (born 1928)/ Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)/ Niall Williams (born 1958)/ Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)/ Brendan Behan (1923–1964)/ Cecil Day-Lewis (1904–1972)/ Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/  Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967)/ C. S. Lewis (1899–1963)/ Michael Longley (born 1939)/  Paul Muldoon (born 1951)/ Tom Paulin (born 1949)/ Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)/  Oscar Wilde (1845–1900)/ W. B. Yeats (1865–1939)/ Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)/ Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973)/ Clare Boylan (1948–2006)/ Joyce Cary (1888–1957)/ Brian Friel (born 1929)/ Neil Jordan (born 1950)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/ Walter Macken (1915–1967)/ Bernard MacLaverty (born 1942)/ John McGahern (1934–2006)/ Edna O'Brien (born 1932)/ Frank O'Connor (1903–1966)/ Colm Tóibín (born 1955)/ William Trevor (born 1928)/ Oscar Wilde (1854–1900).

 

As I said happy reading!

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