Authors: Julia O'Faolain
Meanwhile, Professor Moreau, my thesis director, put my typescript into his briefcase and proceeded to give a class to the half-dozen of us who were taking his course in
How discussion of a literary figure whom he described that day as ‘a sincere hypocrite’ fitted that heading, I forget, but I remember fearing that the definition fitted myself and that, when he produced examples from novels by Bernanos and Mauriac, my stomach pains grew worse, either from guilt at having gone out with Dr P, or from eagerness to do so again.
A ‘sincere’ hypocrite? Was I? Remembering my prim
I felt ashamed. After the class I went into Gibert’s bookshop and bought a novel by Bernanos which had featured in Moreau’s discussion, and, on reading it, was shaken by the fanatical and possibly heretical Catholicism by whose standards the writer judged his protagonist, Monsieur Ouine – whose name suggests weasels,
– and the village where he lived. This was said in the novel to be in the grip of evil and described by its new priest as ‘a dead parish’ which, when the book first came out in 1943, may have been taken to stand for France itself. For all their talk of Cartesianism, the French, I was starting to think, could be more excitable, not to say deranged, than the earthy Irish ever could be. Intrigued by this, now that I could see my way to finishing my main thesis, I had asked Professor Moreau whether he thought I could write the obligatory subsidiary one about some aspect of the poet, playwright and actor, Antonin Artaud, a mad but seminal figure whose work I had been reading with fascination in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Moreau sent me to talk with Artaud’s sister, who was understandably reluctant to speak about her brother’s drug addiction, eccentricities, spells in mental homes, possible schizophrenia and general oddity. Why, I asked myself, should she let someone as unenlightened and
as myself discuss him? He intrigued me, though, and so did his manifesto,
The Theatre of Cruelty,
in which he explained
that by cruelty he meant no more than a resolve to force audiences to know what they didn’t want to know and rid them of ‘the false reality which lies like a shroud over our perceptions’. No wonder Ireland had appealed to him.
My worst fight with Jean-Paul happened on a bus where, when a priest took the seat opposite us, Jean-Paul put a possessive hand on my thigh then, when I removed it, retaliated by making
comments. I stood up and told the priest that I hoped he would forgive my companion’s ignorance of big city ways.
‘He’s from the colonies,’ I told him, then pulled the overhead wire and, before Jean-Paul knew what I was doing, had stepped from the bus as it moved off.
Soon my cramp was worse. Self-punishment? Or – oh dear! – an ulcer? I was tempted to go to confession for what would be the first time in years: a notion which must have come from reading Bernanos, whose novel was clogged with words which coalesced in a vision of a cold, temporal hell. Recurring ones were ‘glacial’, ‘nothingness’, ‘indifferent’, ‘hollow’, ‘malign’, ‘empty’, ‘muddy’, ‘inactive’. I wondered why Moreau had headed me towards this bitter writer, then remembered that it was my Dublin professor who had sent me to Moreau. Perhaps dealing with Irish Catholics was a speciality of his, and the French Right a terrain where he felt we would be at home. Today, when I think of the relatively recent German film,
The White Ribbon,
which portrays a sick pre-Nazi society, it is hard not to compare it with Bernanos’s
which describes an even sicker pre-war French one, remnants of which still lingered in the Fifties and which lay fermenting in the old magazines, obituaries and reviews of
plays that I combed through in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, a library specialising in drama. Hindsight could sharpen their
thrust, as happened for me in the case of Robert Brasillach, a brilliant theatre critic whose work had been delighting me for months before it occurred to me to find out about his life. When I did, he turned out to have been the only man executed after the war for ‘intellectual crimes’, i.e. editing a newspaper called
Je suis partout,
which favoured collaboration with Germany and gave away the whereabouts of hidden Jews. De Gaulle, ignoring an appeal signed by, among others, Valéry, Mauriac, Cocteau, Camus, Colette and Claudel, had refused to commute the sentence. And a current newspaper supplement which I happened to buy showed a murky photograph of Louis-Fernand Céline lurking behind a barred gate clearly intended to suggest a prison. Some people must have wanted
executed too. Having grown up on Irish Civil War stories about fratricidal murder, this should not have upset me, but did because I admired Céline’s novels and suspected that extremists on both sides had had more in common with each other – passion, activity, eagerness for change – than with people who condemned them, but themselves did nothing at all. This, I had to admit, was a notion I’d inherited from Eileen.
The topic of my main thesis, suggested by Moreau, was Gaston Baty, a Catholic theatre director who had roused hostility by keeping his theatre open during the occupation and welcoming the German ambassador to the best seats. He died in 1952, thus entering the pool of artists on whom university theses might be written. As an
his chief characteristic was the primacy he claimed for directors over playwrights and his belief that actors should be as pliant as puppets. Clearly a martinet, his stage productions were as hard to assess in retrospect as a vanished sunset.
Rows were eroding my feeling for Jean-Paul and no doubt his for me. But, being in no mood to placate him, I rang Dr P to ask if he had something for stomach cramps, saying that if he phoned a prescription to a chemist, I’d pick it up.
Instead, he took me to dinner and insisted that a glass or so of wine could hardly hurt me.
‘You haven’t got an ulcer,’ he reminded me. ‘It’s just stress. Why are you stressed?’
I hadn’t the nerve to say. And when he offered to walk me back to the rue de Buci, which was a worrying move, since we risked running into a visiting Jean-Paul, I found myself crying, which must have persuaded Dr P that I was a bit unbalanced. Stress?
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked gently. ‘Can’t you tell me?’
I should have said, ‘It’s because I find you attractive.’ It was on the tip of my tongue and would probably have gone down well. Most people, after all, like to be liked.
What stopped me was seeing Jean-Paul over his shoulder. Real? Imaginary? Was guilt making me hallucinate? Fearful of finding out, I thanked Dr P for dinner, rammed my key into the lock in the door of my
and went in, closing the door behind me.
I left for Dublin that week and did not meet Jean-Paul again until some decades later when he saw me on French television promoting the translation of my novel,
No Country for Young Men,
got in touch and invited Lauro and me to dinner. We accepted and spent a pleasantly sedate evening with him and his pretty wife in their house in Bourg-la-Reine, outside Paris. Jean-Paul, who didn’t in the least resemble his old self, was now a psychiatrist and clearly living comfortably. The occasion was, however, a trifle odd. The word Communist was not mentioned, and he seemed to have forgotten that he had ever loved Stalin. In his eyes the unique purpose of our meeting must have been to show me that Seán
had been wrong to think him a poor match. The four of us agreed, while saying good night, that his wife and he would come and dine with us in London, but they later called off the visit.
In Dublin in 1956 I decided to burn my thesis, which Moreau had more or less approved, though I did not. Gaston Baty as a topic didn’t really appeal to me, but I had discovered this too late. My plans for a subsidiary thesis had collapsed, too, for I had given up on Artaud as being thrilling but daunting – as any assessment of an artist subject to spasms of frenzy must, I imagine, risk being. So before leaving Paris I asked Samuel Beckett if I might write instead about him. He discouraged me, as he did everyone until fifteen years later, when Deirdre Bair, who was obviously more persuasive than I, made the same request and this time he agreed.
I was disappointed, because I had been enjoying his work since 1953 when a mutual friend gave tickets to the poet David Gascoyne and myself for the first production of
then lent me Beckett’s novels. It was a time of experiment in the Paris theatre, where Beckett was bracketed in people’s minds with Adamov, Ionesco and Genet, whose opacity was equally intriguing. I loved both opaque and open-ended narratives. They left you wondering. I didn’t necessarily think of Godot, for instance, as God. The Italian verb,
fitted just as well, and when the play was in English gave it the title ‘While waiting I come’, which was pleasingly paradoxical and connected with the play-acting with shoes (
in French) by the two tramps.
Play melts barriers, as our family had learned on wet days in West Cork when, rather than chat, we played cards so as to let monolingual Gaelic-and English-speakers join in.
Back in Ireland, having freed myself from Baty, I emptied my mind by hiring a horse and learning to jump double fences from an ex-jockey. Unfortunately he taught me to ride with my bottom in the air and the shortest of stirrup-leathers. When I said I wanted to do a sitting gallop instead, he pooh-poohed the idea with a leer.
‘Listen to me, ma’am,’ he argued, ‘the ones that sit back are in the military and, sit back so as to be able to draw their sabres. Now you don’t have a sabre, am I right?’
At Christmas it snowed, and Patricia and Richard, who were now living by a lake in a close-by bog, invited Seán, Eileen and me to dinner and, as there were said to be deep snow-drifts into which Seán’s small Wolsely could slip and disappear, Patricia’s brother, Keesje, who was staying with them, fetched us in a jeep. He and his two small sons were in Ireland to try to calm the despair which had gripped the three of them when the boys’ mother unexpectedly died in South Africa from a freak malady. Patricia had conceived a mad hope that I might help console Keesje, but Eileen, who had sat next to him on the drive through the snowy, starlit bog, confided later that his clenched profile had made her fear that, at any moment, he might swerve off the road and kill us all. She had, she said, sensed a doom hovering over him, for she claimed to have a feel for such things and often slept with a scarf over her forehead to prevent her third eye from detecting forces which it was as well to leave undisturbed. She had learned about the third eye from an Indian who lived in Howth.
Men were trouble. She didn’t want me taking up with another one. What she
like, she told me wistfully, was for me to take a crash course in Gaelic and become proficient enough to get a job in my own country – ideally in the diplomatic corps, which
would allow me to travel but always bring me home.
‘Like a dog on a long leash!’ I teased, and, though we laughed, I knew she meant it. My failure to learn Gaelic, which other people’s daughters did with ease, struck her as perverse.
‘A crash course,’ she wheedled. ‘The Sacred Heart schools are no good at Gaelic. We should never have sent you to them. There must be lots of good teachers around, so why not give it a try?’
Instead, like generations of emigrants before me, I went to London.
It seemed to be full of people obsessed with what they wore. A school where I taught for a term made the girls change several times daily, and the taste for uniforms persisted into adulthood. Men wore defining ties, and boys couldn’t wait to get into the rig of pinstripe and bowler to strut down the King’s Road. A man who was then a radical, but later became a Thatcherite peer, came with me to Trafalgar Square to hear Nye Bevan denounce British action in Suez, then took me to tea in the Ritz. He had been to a wedding earlier and wore a morning suit, which struck me as a sign of readiness to turn one’s coat. The suit bore the message ‘Don’t count on me; I’ll revert to type’.
Patricia, over on a visit, warned, ‘Don’t talk politics. People here don’t like it.’ I found this baffling. How, if not in such talk, did you test your views? Jean-Paul’s head had been brimming with emphatic ones, and, like Stendhal’s heroine, I had borne off what was in it. Much of this was compatible with my own heritage: radical sympathies spliced with disillusion, which was rampant that year. The discrediting of Stalin, the invasion of Budapest and the divisiveness of the Algerian War kept it on the bubble. Nobody, however, cared to discuss this, so I began numbing myself with work and took two jobs, a daytime one as a supply teacher
working for the London County Council, and a late-night one as a short-order cook in a place called the Moo Cow Milk Bar opposite Victoria Station. One of the waitresses there claimed to be a refugee from the troubles in Kenya and talked darkly of native savagery. Taking an Irish view of this, I wondered if the truth might be more tangled, and, sure enough, learned long afterwards that, when opinion in the Moo Cow Milk bar and the British press was ascribing atrocities to the Kikuyu, that tribe was being tortured and massacred by Brits at twice the rate at which the French were killing native Algerians. The difference was that French atrocities were known about, thanks both to the outraged French Left and to General Massu who claimed the right to torture anyone who had information which could save his men’s lives. English misdeeds, by contrast, were kept lengthily under wraps. No wonder people here didn’t like to talk about politics.
Edward McGuire had asked me to look up a girl in London with whom he was in love, but whom his father had forbidden him to see. Rita was the most beautiful woman I ever met, but had no instinct for self-preservation. She was said to have been chosen by the film director Michael Cacoyannis for a major part in a film, but to have missed her chance by failing to turn up to an
There was a series of such stories, including one about a youth who had so adored her that he built a shrine in her honour.