Authors: Julia O'Faolain
Among new strings to the RC bow was left-wing Catholicism which grew increasingly courageous in the Sixties and Seventies. As priests became less diffident about criticising Rome and it began to be said that the Church was now frankly divided, I used my own perceptions about this in a long historical novel.
The Judas Cloth
is set in the last years of papal Rome before the Italians took it over in 1870. I got the idea from a pun made by the vicar general of a mountainous diocese in Ecuador, when his Indian flock teasingly called him ‘
’. Not only did he deny having that title, he also reminded them that the princes of the Church who did have it had often afflicted the poor as cruelly as the weals (also called
) left on peasants’ bodies when landowners beat them in the bad old days. As Pope John Paul II was then discouraging left-wing priests from engaging in politics, I felt that it was the Roman
who had often supported right-wing causes who were most likely to provide good material for fiction.
‘But why’, people who despise that sometimes ask, ‘write or indeed read it at all?’
Well, we all have our habits. The English invade other people’s countries; Italians design elegant things; the French dream of revolutions, and we Irish tell stories to amuse and console ourselves.
was Seán’s last novel: published when he was eighty, it consoled him for his loss of hope in a Christian heaven by imagining an offer made by the gods of Mount Olympus to a man not unlike himself. The offer is to let him grow younger instead of older, forget his past, enjoy successive erotic adventures with his daughter, his grand- then great-granddaughter, and so on. The gods’ interest is in discovering whether humans learn from their mistakes and, as the younging protagonist – whose name is Robert Younger – makes the same ones again and again, the message can only be that they don’t.
Reviewers were surprised. It was unlike anything Seán had written before. ‘This rueful hymn to life’,
concluded amiably, ‘is funny and sad and true.’
Eileen hated it. Her own writings had always aimed to hold on to her happiest and most intense experience when, in her teens, she discovered what seemed to be a still vital, Gaelic culture, surviving in the hills and islands of the west. Seán had shared the discovery, so turning his protagonist, Younger, into an Englishman possibly seemed like a double betrayal.
‘I don’t like it,’ she murmured to me behind the kitchen door. ‘His book! I just – don’t
What could I say to comfort her? I couldn’t think of anything. I may have agreed that the novel was –
I say this? – a mite self-indulgent. But I suspect I didn’t, since admitting his need to indulge himself could have made her feel worse. People were reading the book as we had by then, so we couldn’t put
his impudent genie back in its bottle. I wasn’t keen either on admitting that the notion of serial incest came uncomfortably close to revealing wanton impulses which, though fictional, were recognisably his.
‘I don’t like it either,’ I said to show that I was, for once, completely on her side – and that ours was in no way a literary discussion.
She haunts me now: warily, sometimes leaving behind a tenuous shadow of herself. When I awake from wool-gathering or sleep, she – or the shadow – slyly conveys an awareness that she has been in and on my mind. Like the trespasser she used to be, she is elusive. And by the time I begin to focus, both she – and the certainty that it
she – have dissolved.
Seán’s last invention, then, was a Faustian fiction in which his alter ego could enjoy a new and scruple-free youth. ‘Daydreaming’ had, after all, been the favourite hobby he chose to name in his entry in
Eileen, instead, enjoyed evoking the myths of the country’s youth. Looking through her papers, I found after her death that, despite her arthritic fingers, she had been working on a new collection of these.
As for my own love of fiction, I contend that trying to slip inside and understand an alien reality keeps the imagination supple. Perhaps, too, impelled by memories of childhood fears that I might not exist, I write to exist
to extend my scope and get
a better look at life than you do while living it. Like one of those high-speed trains that don’t stop at your station, it streaks by too fast. One has to piece together the broken images and try for new patterns – that’s fiction writing. In my case I suppose, too, that I write because Seán and Eileen did.
Je suis un enfant de la balle
– I ply my parents’ trade.
Julia O’Faolain was born in London in 1932. Her novel
No Country for Young Men
was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She was brought up in Cork and Dublin, educated in Paris and Rome and married an American historian in Florence. She lived for many years in the US, and now lives in London. A major collection of her short stories will be published by Faber and Faber.
We Might See Sights! and Other Stories
Man in the Cellar
Daughters of Passion
Godded and Codded
Women in the Wall
No Country for Young Men
The Obedient Wife
The Irish Signorina
The Judas Cloth
Co-editor with Lauro Martines:
Not in God’s Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians
As Julia Martines, translator:
Two Memoirs of Renaissance Florence:
The Diaries of Buonaccorso Pitti and Gregorio Dati
A Man of Parts by Piero Chiara
First published in 2013
by Faber and Faber Ltd
74–77 Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DA
This ebook edition first published in 2013
All rights reserved
© Julia O’Faolain, 2013
The right of Julia O’Faolain to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights, and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly