Books reviews 2018 - #7, #8, #9 and #10
The Poor Mouth, Flann O’Brien (1961), translated from Gaelic by Patrick C Power (1974)
Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi (2001), translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2010)
The Green Road, Anne Enright (2015)
Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, Mary Midgley (1984)
Holidays are a time for making a serious dent in your tsundoku. That’s the theory. In practice, the excitement means you visit a couple of bookshops and end up acquiring a dozen or so more books. You take, say, ten with you for the week, and end up reading four and a half. There’s been progress, of a sort; but you’ve also gone backwards (again).
And by ‘you’ I do of course mean ‘me’.
The other excitement is the revelation of a theme. In both the acquisition of the new books, and in the evolution of the tsundoku, mysterious selective forces are at work. Why these ones? And why these ones?
And from the tsundoku, and from among the new acquisitions, these ones are selected to be taken on holiday. And from those that have made the journey – first this one, and then this one, and then this one are chosen to be read.
So in The Poor Mouth it is raining, all the time; and so, too, in Beside the Sea. It rains occasionally for Anne Enright; but it dries out for Mary Midgley.
The Poor Mouth is funny; Beside the Sea is tragic; Wickedness is funny and tragic. The Green Road is sometimes funny, and a little bit tragic, but is mainly poignant. The Poor Mouth and The Green Road are both set in Ireland; Beside the Sea is set in France. Wickedness is not really set anywhere, but all the philosophical references are western, so we’ll say ‘the West’.
The Poor Mouth is a satire on poverty in pre-war rural Ireland. The lead character has echoes of Don Quixote and shares a home with his mother, his grandfather and sundry farm animals. Beside the Sea is set in contemporary France. The lead character is a single mother suffering a combination of acute poverty and serious mental health issues. She takes her two sons, aged nine and five, on a trip to the sea-side. The Green Road tells the story of an Irish family – a mother, a dead husband and four adult children – as they drift apart and then come together again. Wickedness is a careful exploration of the nature of wickedness, wondering how and why it is that all of us do ‘bad’ things at least some of the time, and some people do bad things a lot of the time.
Beside the Sea is told in the first person: we are listening to the voice of the single mother, hearing her version of events. We know that she is not at all well; and so we know, too, that she is – as they say – an ‘unreliable narrator’. How much of what is happening is ‘real’, and how much is happening in her head? She does a terrible, terrible thing. Is she evil? Is she wicked? She is, surely, responsible – but is it truly her fault?
All the characters in The Green Road are ‘fucked up’. One of the children left home to become a priest but ends up an unhappy gay man avoiding HIV and selling art in New York. One became an actor but soon enough ends up an alcoholic single mother who hates her baby. One is working for an aid agency in Africa but is endlessly in unsatisfactory relationships and is realising that he will never save the world. And one is still in County Clare, with a prosperous husband and a nice car and a nice house and nice children and a screaming sense that she has done nothing with her life.
And the mother is furious with her children for abandoning her, and furious with herself for being furious, and all the children are furious with her for having dumped so much unfocused expectation on them and she’s furious with all of them for having failed to achieve anything. None of them are, in fact, ‘fucked up’, they are just ordinary. It is part of Enright’s genius that she can show us this.
The characters in The Poor Mouth are both ordinary and fucked up, as well as mad and unreliable. They do bad things: they lie, cheat, steal, perpetrate fraud and tell tall tales. It is itself a tall tale told. It is possible to imagine a character in The Poor Mouth telling the story called The Poor Mouth. As a reader we can enjoy the clever post-modernism of this sort of thing (if we want to) and we can laugh at the mapcap madness of it (we have less choice here – it is very funny). But the Irish authorities at the time of publication did not see it that way: they felt that the portrayal of Irish citizens in this way – as feckless wastrels, as ‘bad’ people – was unacceptable. (It’s part of the reason Flann O’Brien wrote under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien…)
Fortunately Mary Midgley arrives to save us. With her customary mix of formidable intelligence, intolerance for fools, extraordinary learning, elegant prose and – perhaps above all – great tenderness for the human condition, in Wickedness she sets out to explore what we really mean by things like ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ and, at its most banal, ‘bad behaviour’. She contends (roughly) that it is not a ‘thing’ in some positive sense; it is, rather, the opposite or absence of things – things we call ‘virtues’.
She makes frequent reference to the Nazis, since (as she explains in the first chapter) they represent such an obvious case of ‘evil’. They serve as an example against which her various arguments can be tested; and they’re a good example because pretty much everyone will have heard of them. They have the further advantage (from the perspective of a brilliant essay of moral philosophy) that there is near-universal agreement that they were, indeed, ‘wicked’.
Such examples and argument lead inevitably to Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and who published her work under the title ‘The Banality of Evil’. The banality of evil. What an extraordinary phrase.
And Midgley guides us to it. So much of what happened under the Nazis (not all, to be sure; but much) occurred not through the deliberate summoning of what one might call ‘evil intent’ but, instead, through the deliberate suppression of thoughts that might point out just how evil it was. It was not necessary to think evil thoughts; it was necessary merely to not think at all. (“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” as either Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill (or possible JFK) put it.) How banal is that?
For me, Midgley’s arguments and analysis threw powerful new light on the Trump phenomenon, and you should read Wickedness for that alone.
She also provided a great means by which to see the characters invented by O’Brien, Olmi and Enright. All those characters behaved, at one time or another and to a greater or lesser degree, ‘badly’; and these various writers of fiction used the tools of their craft to highlight and explore those behaviours. (That’s mainly what we want from fiction, isn’t it? A mix of talking therapy to help us with our personal demons, and some moral philosophy to help us decide what to do with our lives.) Midgley’s work seems to come almost from another dimension, so that the characters – and their behaviour – are suddenly suspended, in three dimensions, as if held in position by laser beams. Suddenly, there is visibility, clarity and even, tentatively, understanding.
And if that doesn’t count as a good holiday, I don’t know what does.