Thursday, June 25, 2009

Note to Self

"Before publication, and if provided by persons whose judgment you trust, yes, of course criticism helps. But after something is published, all I want to read or hear is praise. Anything less is a bore, and I'll give you fifty dollars if you produced a writer who can honestly say he was ever helped by the prissy carpings and condescensions of reviewers. I don't mean to say that none of the professional critics are worth paying attention to—but few of the good ones review on a regular basis. Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion. I've had, and continue to receive, my full share of abuse, some of it extremely personal, but it doesn't faze me any more. I can read the most outrageous libel about myself and never skip a pulse-beat. And in this connection there is one piece of advice I strongly urge: Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don't put them on paper."

—Truman Capote, from an interview in the Paris Review, 1957.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Last of Summer

The Last of Summer (1943) isn't the best-known of Kate O'Brien's novels, and I was quite lucky to find it at Charlie Byrne's a few months back. (I check the Irish lit shelf every time I go in, but I usually find only the novels I've already read.) O'Brien is among the great Irish novelists, though she isn't nearly as well known (in or out of Ireland) as she ought to be.

Raised in Paris by a French mother and an Irish father (both of whom are dead by the time this story takes place), Angèle first comes to Ireland in 1939 with several other actors over on holiday from London. Towards the end of a sunny, sultry August—yes, sometimes in Ireland the weather is really that fine!—Angèle skips out on her companions to visit her father's relations for the first time.

The Kernahan clan is headed by her frosty, magisterial Aunt Hannah (widow of her father's brother Ned), and Angèle is puzzled by Hannah's hot-and-cold reaction to her sudden appearance. She also meets her father's other brother, the bumbling, kind-hearted Uncle Corney; Hannah's cousin-slash-unpaid servant Dotey; and three cousins all about her age—Tom (the mild-mannered, responsible one), Martin (the brooding, cynical academic), and Jo (who is bound for the convent). Despite the weird vibes Hannah is giving off, Angèle becomes quick friends with her cousins, and Martin makes his attraction to her all too clear.

Having studied in Paris, Martin has far more in common with his long-lost cousin than his older brother, who is the quintessential 'mama's boy.' Their father died when Tom was a teenager, and he has managed the farm and served as his mother's most beloved companion ever since. The conversations between manipulative mother and all-too-malleable son leave the reader feeling squirmy, to say the least, and the author's treatment of their Oedipal relationship isn't exactly subtle ("Always she pleased his eyes as no other woman did." Whoa.) When Tom and Angèle announce their engagement after only a few days' acquaintance, naturally Hannah is outraged, but decides to give her blessing while secretly doing her utmost to unravel the attachment. This way Tom will come running back into her arms when the whole thing ends in tears.

Tom and Angèle don't even know each other, but they believe that the magnitude of their infatuation and their essential good natures will triumph over that pesky requirement of a papal dispensation—for being first cousins, and all—as well as the looming specter of another war in Europe, which may very well prevent Angèle from ever seeing her mother's family again. Their attraction makes sense in that Angèle is an orphan looking for a place in the family she's long wondered about, and Tom sees in her all the worldly experience he's been denied through his father's premature death and mother's 'strangling affection' (to use one of my favorite phrases from another Kate O'Brien novel). Without Angèle, Tom will live the rest of his life under his mother's thumb. He believes he needs her, but he'll never understand the real reason why.

In all her novels O'Brien does a marvelous job laying out the tangles of confused thoughts in a character's head, all the fragmentary images and memories and motives, the weird or spiteful thoughts one would never dream of uttering aloud. We are also privy to the interior monologues and personal history of minor characters like Dotey, who is no less fascinating for all her pathetically self-interested scheming, and the 'genially selfish' Dr. O'Byrne, whose daughter Norrie has been in love with Tom since childhood:
Dr. O'Byrne almost nodded his head as he listened to this delicate little speech—so exactly did it tell him what he had already told himself very often about this woman. She's certainly a great fly in the ointment, he reflected now with anxiety. I could hardly choose a worse mother-in-law for my girl. And she's only about fifty, so far as I recall, and she hasn't a thing wrong with her. Superb organic health. Nothing to stop her hanging on in vigour into the nineties. Upon my word, I think Norrie will need the heart of a lion to face it—but sure, that's what the child has! The heart of a lion, and it's set on Tom Kernahan...
And Jo Kernahan, the twenty-one-year-old future nun, is wise beyond her years, surveying the household's growing confusion over Tom and Angèle's proposed union with dispassionate sympathy. Her interior passages are particularly lovely:
And she had visited Sainte Fontaine—and knew that the best part of her soul was waiting for her there, had gone ahead of her to that out-of-date, cold, mediaeval centre of discipline and rigidity and elimination...
This is also the device through which we discover that all three of the Kernahan brothers were in love with Hannah, and that she and Angèle's father (also named Tom...hmm!) were engaged before the elder Tom jilted Hannah (glimpsed her true colors just in time) and ran off to Paris, never to return. Anxious to acquire the wealth and status of the Kernahan name, Hannah accepted Ned's subsequent offer. This tidily explains Hannah's instant hatred of her sensitive, pretty niece, but what's not so tidy (and is all the more satisfying for it) is that Angèle never discovers the real reason behind her father's hasty departure. These stream-of-consciousness passages are too intimate, all too messy, and that's precisely why they're such a delight to read.

I loved The Last of Summer for the same reason I love all Kate O'Brien's novels: the situation is a train wreck waiting to happen. You know early on how it's going to end, but it's so well done you'll never consider putting it down before you've finished it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Requiem for a Watering Hole

A lot of pubs and restaurants have come and gone since my first trip to Galway back in the spring of 2000. I still mourn my old favorites—the River God Café (sublime food, awesome mermaid mural on the stairwell wall), Bananaphoblacht ("Banana Republic"—they had the best hot chocolate), Camelot (such a romantic wine bar), the Snug (old-school, had just what it said on the tin). Another pub, Taylor's, became a "Gentlemen's Club," turning Lower Dominick Street into the closest thing Galway has to a red-light district (aside from the "gentlemen's club," there are two sex shops, a casino, and a gay bar that hasn't looked open for business in years. Or maybe that's just what they want you to think...)

Anyway, I came upon an old matchbox collection from my college days, and I noticed a fair number of the places I got them from are no longer in business. I'm going to be a huge nerd and share them with you:

The Grange Hall used to be my favorite café in the Village—it was a really chill speakeasy-style bar/restaurant with wonderful comfort food (best garlic/herbed mashed potatoes ever), a portrait of F.D.R. above the bar, and a huge mural depicting migrant workers on the back wall. I based the local bar-restaurant in Mary Modern, The Dragon Volant, on The Grange Hall.

I had my last meal of the spring 2000 trip at Dish, a modern Irish restaurant in the Dublin city center—good food (I think I had a lemon tart for dessert), but not all that memorable otherwise. I'm pretty sure Dish is no more.

Langton's (of Kilkenny) is still open, as far as I know—I just included it in the photo because this is the coolest matchbox ever. I ordered a Sex on the Beach there just to scandalize the elderly bartender.

And Caisleán ui Cuain in Kilkenny—such a friendly pub! I've remembered the friendliest places, because it was my first solo trip and I was feeling lonesome. It's under new management with a different name now, something so dull I can't remember it.

I never got a matchbox from the River God, though I did buy a t-shirt with a mermaid on it (and later lost it at a hostel in Dublin. That was nearly five years ago, and I'm still kicking myself.) I had a delicious lunch there on my own, then dinner with Kate when we visited Galway in '03, and then with a bunch of my M.A. classmates the following year. When Diarmuid's dessert came garnished with a sprig of mint, he cried, "There's a nettle in me ice cream!" Oh, the happy memories.

I think somebody should write a guidebook for time-travelers... because if I had the power to travel back in time and 'put right what once went wrong' like Dr. Sam Beckett, naturally I would rather use it to get some really good food at a restaurant that's closed long since.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Screaming Skulls, part 2

(See Screaming Skulls part 1 and the first excerpt from Elliott O'Donnell's Haunted Britain, The Ghost of Anne Boleyn.)
Another screaming skull haunting is associated with Wardley Hall, Lancashire. Roger Downes, the last male representative of his family, was one of the most abandoned courtiers of Charles II. One evening, when out with several of his companions, as rowdy and reckless as himself, he insulted a girl, and on being reprimanded by a tailor, he ran the unfortunate man through the body with his sword, killing him instantly. For this atrocious crime he was brought to trial, but thanks to his social status he was acquitted and allowed to go free, with the result that, instead of reforming, he continued his former abandoned career.

Time passed, and then came an evening when his sister and cousin Eleanor were sitting together in a lavishly-furnished room of Wardley Hall. A servant entered with a box, which had come all the way from London. It was addressed to Roger’s sister in a queer handwriting she did not recognize. Suspecting nothing, she opened the box and to her horror it contained the bloody head of her brother. On a piece of paper were written these words:

Thy brother has at last paid the penalty for his crimes. The wages of sin are death. Last night passing over London Bridge he engaged in another drunken brawl with the watchmen, one of whom sliced off his head and threw it into the river, whence it was rescued by an eye-witness and sent to thee as a memento.

When the sister had recovered from the shock the ghastly spectacle had given her, she had the head buried, but the next day, bearing all the horrible indications of interment and decay, it was back in the house, and every attempt to get rid of it was of no avail. Whenever it was removed such terrible screams resounded through the building during the night that the inmates were frightened to death, and glad to have the head back so as to be able to sleep in peace.

When, some time in the ’nineties of the last century, the skull was removed from its habitual resting-place and thoughtlessly put in another spot, albeit in the house, a storm arose in the neighborhood, creating such dreadful havoc that as soon as the cause of it was ascertained (or thought to be), the skull was quickly restored to its former home, when the weather once again became tranquil.

Wardley was some years ago, and I believe still is, the property of the Earl of Ellesmere, and according to hearsay the skull even now reposes in its old resting-place in a recess specially made for it on, or near to, a staircase in the hall.

How much truth there is in either of the skull hauntings I have mentioned is difficult to say. I imagine they both rest on somewhat slender foundations.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Screaming Skulls, part 1

More creepy stories from Elliott O'Donnell's Haunted Britain (see the first post here):
Screaming skull phenomena are certainly among the strangest of hauntings, and yet they are not uncommon. A particularly sad and tragic story is associated with one in the Lake District.

Several centuries ago—exactly how long is apparently not known—there lived in an old farmhouse near Ambleside a much-respected farmer and his wife, Kraster and Dorothy Cook. The little land they owned was coveted by one Myles Phillipson, a wealthy and influential magistrate. On several occasions he asked the Cooks to sell it to him, but they steadily refused on the grounds that it was all they possessed and was, therefore, indispensable.

Enraged at being balked in his desire, Phillipson swore he would get the land whether they were alive or dead. Pretending to be very friendly with them, he invited them to a banquet, and during the evening contrived to have a silver cup, which had been purposely placed in front of one of them, while they were dining, put covertly in one of their clothes which had been left in the hall. Pretending that the cup had been stolen by one of the guests, he had everyone searched, and the cup being found secreted in one of the Cooks’ belongings, he had Kraster and Dorothy arrested at once. Stealing in those days being a capital offence, Phillipson, before whom they were brought, sentenced them both to death.

Directly their doom was pronounced, Dorothy rose in the courtroom, and in tones which rang through the sombre building, pronounced the following curse: “Guard thyself, Myles Phillipson! Thou thinkest thou hast managed grandly, but that tiny lump of land is the dearest a Phillipson has ever bought or stolen, for you will never prosper, neither will your breed.

“Whatever scheme you undertake will wither in your hand; the side you take will always lose; the time shall come when no Phillipson shall own an inch of land; and while Calgarth walls shall stand we’ll haunt it night and day. Never will ye be rid of us.”

In due course the Cooks were hanged. Some time after their execution, consternation was caused in the Phillipsons’ home by the appearance of two ghastly grinning human skulls at the head of a staircase. They were at once taken to a distant spot and buried. That night everyone in the house was awakened by the most blood-curdling screams, and in the morning, to the alarm of the whole household, the skulls were back in their place on the staircase, with even wider grins. And so it happened again and again. Whenever the skulls were removed they came back, and the night of their return the household was appalled by the most unearthly screaming. The skulls were smashed, they were burned, but no matter what was done to them, they recovered and were to be found back in their staircase home, always grinning.

In the meanwhile Dorothy’s curse was working. Nothing the Phillipsons did ever prospered, they lost all their land and all their money. Their old home, and with it Calgarth, passed into other hands, and what became of them afterwards was never known.
Screaming skulls, part 2 tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Another vintage jumper, hooray!

I am really pleased with how this turned out.
Celester on Ravelry kindly passed this WWII-era pattern along (her version is here). Of course I had to cast on many more stitches than called for, and lengthen the body quite a bit (12" before binding off for the armholes? hah!) I used the handy Knitting Daily Waist-Shaping Calculator to figure the decreases and increases. I knit the body in the round with faux seams in garter stitch, and my only regret there is that I worked the waist decreases into the seam stitch. Not a good idea, it looks a bit sloppy, but you'd probably only notice if I drew your attention to it. If I could knit it over again I'd also add back shaping, since there's a little bit of extra fabric back there. I was worried about that as I was knitting the body, but it looks fine. I also bound off at the neck half an inch sooner than the pattern says, using Elizabeth Zimmerman's stretchier sewn bind-off.

Celeste mentioned in her pattern notes that she had a difficult time getting her arms through the sleeves, and when I cast on the 66 stitches called for I realized that was probably why. Cast on 76, increased to 86, and they fit perfectly.

Look at my puffed sleeves! Weeeeeeeeeeeee!

The pattern calls for four buttons to fasten up the neck, and I found just that number of plastic pearl-look buttons in my grandparents' old candy tin (they're probably from the '60s). I later noticed that one of them was broken, so I made do with three. Crocheted the button-loops. Oh, and this yarn is really lovely—I wish I had used it for my Little March Hare jumper, as the quality is better than the Cashcotton (i.e., no little white strands of angora flying up as you knit).

Pattern: here, courtesy of Celeste
Yarn: Rowan RYC Cashsoft 4-ply in Monet, 7 balls
Needles: #2s for the ribbing and #3s for the body
Raveled here.

If I were still in Galway I'd be wearing this every day. Ah well.