Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Goodbye Cruel Word

Upon hearing about a friend from Dublin, who has been cast off rather heartlessly by a friend of his, a highly-rated young Irish novelist who dedicated his second novel to the now-spurned friend, I got thinking about the capacity of writers for cruelty. People have long feared an acquaintance who could humiliate them in print, and Oliver St. John Gogarty will forever be better remembered as the inspiration for Buck Mulligan than for his own literary work after his unhappy cohabiting with the young James Joyce, though Gogarty was far from the only one lampooned by Joyce. It is often journos that inspire the most fear, such as Burt Lancaster's diabolical gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success but getting done in by a celebrated novelist, whose work is likely to last is probably the most traumatising. Clare Bloom was horrified to see herself reincarnated as an ageing alcoholic harpy by her former husband Philip Roth in I Married a Communist.

Peter Carey's former wife has suffered similar treatment in his last novel Theft: A Love Story. A friend of mine met Carey at a reading about ten years ago and he remarked at the time on what a lovely chap he was, exactly the sort that would get torn apart mercilessly were he to be a character in one of his own novels. It appears he might be a different sort altogether in print. There is a degree of sadism necessary to create fiction, a willingness to inflict the gravest injustices on one's own characters and often people you know yourself. And it is not uncommon for the bitchiest of writers to be people who are as demure and mild-mannered as can be in everyday life. Beckett, though not one that anyone recalls as being a social wimp, was someone that got annoyed with what he perceived to be fools around him and he attributed his return to France on the 1st of September 1939 to the parochialism of the Dublin literary set in the Palace Bar on that very day, ignoring the events on the continent; he said that he would 'prefer to be in France at war than Ireland at peace'. But Sam had already a bit of previous with those very same local poets, having rather cruelly using former psychiatric patient Austin Clarke as the base for his poet Austin Ticklepenny 'turning out his pentameter per pint' in Murphy. I was at college with Clarke's granddaughter and we always kept our copies of Murphy out of her sight. I don't know if she has ever read it.