Oliver Comerford The longest road III 2015. Oil on
panel. 31 x 46 cm. Collection of the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.
'At long last I was renouncing chance.' Faith Healer, Brian Friel.
novel, chance and luck and coincidence have to be watched carefully, not
overused, kept in check. How do characters, lost to each other, meet again? Can
you really have two people meeting by chance on a Ryanair flight to Szczecin or
in the vegetable aisle at Dunne’s Stores in George’s Street and gasping with
Ambassadors’, Henry James has his protagonist Lambert Strether set out one day
on a train to visit the French countryside. He has no clear destination. He
gets off at a station on a whim and goes for a walk, enjoying the scenery, the
air. James captures this over seven pages. It seems as though nothing else is
going to happen until Strether sees a couple in a rowing-boat. And then,
slowly, he realizes that he is watching Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet. He
has finally found them out. It is, as the novel says, a chance in a million.
obviously a cheap device in a novel. James manages to disguise the sheer
unlikelihood by offering the pages before the recognition scene a great deal of
texture and richness. Strether’s visit to the countryside does not feel as
though it is a thinly-disguised preparation for something. It stands alone, is
intriguing in itself. Seeing the two on the boat, as a result, is almost
organic, almost credible, because of the credible detail in the writing that
such a thing as chance, the sort of chance Strether had that day, that
characters in novels often enjoy? Is there such a thing as luck? Or even a run
of luck? Some poker players might think so. Or people who back horses. But this
is not as simple as it sounds. The few times I went to the races with the poet
Anthony Cronin, he insisted that you must study form and parentage before
betting. It made no sense to him to bet on the basis of chance alone.
1970s, it was normal, if you were young, to hitch-hike home at the weekend. If
you were thumbing to Enniscorthy, you got the bus to Bray and stood on that
road that is no longer the main road from Dublin to Wexford.
it could be miserable, as car after car passed without stopping. Or you could
get a lift just as far as Ashford, say, and get stuck there.
to know the small stretch of road on the outside of towns and villages like
Ferns and Camolin, Gorey and Arklow. It was there you stood, hoping a car would
sometimes you could be tremendously lucky. The first car could take you
straight to Enniscorthy, and the same could happen on the way back. You could
never predict it. It seemed like luck, a happy alignment of stars.
how, one weekday evening in early August 1973, I found myself in the centre of
Dublin at six o’clock, having got a straight lift from Enniscorthy. It occurred
to me that I could go to the cinema and then it struck me that I could walk
down to the Abbey Theatre and see what was on there.
a single ticket for Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Silver Tassie’.
production by Hugh Hunt included actors I would come to admire in the Abbey
over the coming decades – Clive Geraghy, Des Cave, John Kavanagh, Patrick
Laffan, May Cluskey, Deirdre Donnelly, Niall O’Brien. It also included Colm
Meaney, who would go on to win fame in ‘Star Trek’.
strange thing was, aged eighteen, I knew nothing about the play, not even that
it had been turned down by the theatre in 1928, thus causing a break between
the Abbey and O’Casey. Nor did I know that the expressionist second act was
notoriously difficult for audiences who had come to appreciate O’Casey in a
more traditional mode.
I came to
the play innocent. I returned to my seat after the interval and witnessed a
different style. Instead of dialogue, there was chanting. Instead of a
recognizable setting, it was abstract. Oddly, it didn’t occur to me to wonder
what was going on, or even to be puzzled. I liked the first act and I liked
this too. If I had known about the controversy, I might have examined the
production more critically. But I expected things to be weird, or it didn’t
bother me if they were. Here was just another example.
in 1973, an Irish book came out that perhaps set a standard for weirdness. From
the very first sentence: ‘I am, therefore I think.’ I didn’t know where this
came from, nor did I recognize the very last sentence of the book, John
Banville’s ‘Birchwood’: ‘whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent.’ But
I liked the sound of both.
novels, Banville would muse on the nature of chance – his novel ‘Mefisto’ has
the line ‘chance was in the beginning’ – and on the world itself and our pale
presence in it, as though existence itself, whatever that is, was a joke that
chance thought up. Banville had little interest, in these novels, in motive and
psychology. He didn’t wish to create characters that were, say, credible or
books that were obviously readable.
the glittering image, the sentence itself that contained as much irony and
undercurrent as it could carry. If he had a character he wished to rid us of –
and in ‘Birchwood’ he did in the guise of Granny Godkin – then, following the
example of Charles Dickens in ‘Bleak House’, he simply blew her up.
this tremendously exciting in 1973. Like ‘The Silver Tassie’, I came to
‘Birchwood’ innocent. I took the book at its word. I realized that we were
somewhere in Irish history, with famine, pestilence, endangered big houses, the
roaming dispossessed, insurgency. I realized that the novel was almost laughing
at these things, even if the laughter was sour and muffled. I realized that the
characters were not meant to be real or rounded, but that didn’t bother me
because the sentences themselves pulled me along, although I probably wasn’t
sure then what it was that made the process of reading the novel exciting.
last page of ‘Birchwood’, Banville wrote ‘There is no form, no order, only
echoes and coincidences, sleight of hand, dark laughter.’ As late as this last
paragraph, his narrator seeks to make sense of the world: ‘I feel that if I
could understand it I might then begin to understand the creatures who inhabit
it. But I do not understand it.’
As I stood
on the road outside Gorey, having passed under the railway bridge and turned
left, waiting for the next car to come, I promised that I would keep such news
to myself if a car stopped. If this car didn’t stop, but the next one did, I
would still be lucky. And if I had to wait and wait, each driver sizing me up
and driving by, it would be just bad luck.
I asked myself, was bad luck? How did it come? Why? Could luck change?
Colm Tóibín (May 2022)