Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought"

That, surely, must be the charm of Angela’s Ashes, which I finally read this past week. It made me think of national stereotypes, especially with regard to Ireland – the music, the poverty, the Catholicism, the alcoholism. Everything Irish that I’ve read in the past two decades have flirted with one, or in the case of Angela’s Ashes, all these themes. Frank McCourt says it best in the beginning “The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years." This perhaps is the only bit of commentary he provides in the book; the rest is just narrative where you read between the lines to understand what his feelings were.

I am not going to review Angela’s Ashes here, since the book is quite well known. Instead, let me set down a few thoughts I’ve had in the few days since I finished it… let me, as it were, live up to the title of this blog and drift through this, and a few other books.

My introduction to Irish literature was through Roddy Doyle. I’m struck by how similar his books are to McCourt’s. Similar in spirit if not content. Angela’s Ashes may be a memoir, but to me it feels fantastic. Conversely, Roddy Doyle’s books may be fiction, but they feel real to me. Such is the power of both authors’ writing. Maeve Binchy, another favourite Irish writer, is a gentler soul, with less searing tales, yet the sorrow, the poverty, the narrowness, exist in her stories too, especially the earlier tales set in a pre-boom Ireland.

But why with all this sadness and doom have the Irish never earned a reputation for dourness like their fellow Celts across the sea, the Scots? I suspect it is the music. The triumphant beats and haunting melodies of an Irish jig (best known thanks to the kitschy yet fabulous Corrs) stand in stark contrast to the mournful wail of the pipes.

Reading an Irish novel means having the words sing off the page. Even the fast paced dialogue in a typical Roddy Doyle novel is pure music, with its rhythmic cadences and its inverted phrasing – I can hear the soft burring r’s and the stretched out vowels in my head as I read. Angela’s Ashes has the same lyrical quality, with no obvious effort.. To be Irish is to be musical, I suppose.

A word on the alcoholism, supposedly the Irish Curse. Perhaps my first brush with alcoholism in literature is through Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a very poignant tale of a woman at the receiving end of her husband’s abuse. In Angela’s Ashes, it shapes the destiny of the family. It denies them even the very basics of life. If Malachy McCourt Sr. were just able to stay sober and support his family, the tenor of this tale would be very different. Alcoholism they say, is a “family disease” because it brings everyone down. But this of course is nothing new – attend any AA meeting and you are bound to hear similar stories of degradation, and it is to McCourt’s credit that he brings such freshness and vigour to it… I think Angela’s Ashes must be required reading for every recovering alcoholic.

All in all, heart-wrenchingly good, to paraphrase Shelley rather badly.

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