Brendan Kennelly: Behind the Smile, by Sandrine Brisset
A curate’s egg of a book, mixing impressive scholarship and analysis with psychobabble and often grotesque biographical speculation
Brendan Kennelly: Behind the Smile
So partial and skewed is her perspective that major areas of Kennelly’s work and concerns are ignored or barely mentioned, not just his exploration of “the nightmare of Irish history” in works ranging from My Dark Fathers to Cromwell, but his whole and particular contribution to postcolonial Irish literature. Inconveniently, they don’t fit her book’s schematic view. Nor does her Jekyll-and-Hyde portrait bear much relation to the Brendan Kennelly I’ve known as his editor, publisher and friend of 30 years. I recognise the ups and downs she describes, but her interpretation of them is nothing short of deluded.
When it comes to his life – and the book claims to be a biography as well as a critical study – Brisset’s account is unbalanced, to put it mildly. Readers wanting to know about his north Kerry childhood, his growing up in a Ballylongford pub run by his parents, will look in vain for any extended discussion of these formative years so important in shaping his life and work. His five brothers and two sisters don’t merit a mention. Even his marriage to poet and critic Peggy O’Brien gets just two references: one, she was a good cook, and two, they got divorced.
Three media-invented relationships are given some space, but thankfully, the real ones are totally absent because Kennelly rightly values and tries to protect his and others’ privacy, so his conversations with Brisset covered only his work and thoughts, causing her to regret that “Kennelly’s love life was kept remarkably secret”. This has nothing to do with any alleged split “between the public and private self”.
However, Kennelly’s discretion didn’t discourage Brisset from trawling through back issues of the Sunday Independent and recordings of chat shows to construct a preposterous, distorted account of his relationships with his daughter Doodle and three granddaughters, in which financial support is presented as emotional blackmail, and Doodle’s public airing of mental health problems and appalling experiences of rape is both questioned and doubted while at the same time being used as a way of blaming her for what Brisset calls Brendan Kennelly’s “private tragedy”.
“Through her, the poet was being crucified,” declares Brisset, before developing a further strand in her obsessive critique of the filial relationship involving sadism, sado-masochism and an ill-fitting “parallel with James Joyce, whose daughter Lucia was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia”.
Any judicious editor or publisher would have demanded that Brisset delete this vitriolic poison-pen portrait of Doodle Kennelly. Not only are her accusations unfounded and out of place, but their excessive nature makes it increasingly difficult to understand what lies behind them. This sorry chapter serves as a reminder of the perils of self-publication, Brisset’s publisher Raglan Books being her own imprint set up to publish a book which no other publisher would have allowed to be put out in this form. Readers wanting a reliable guide to Kennelly’s work would be better served by Richard Pine’s critical anthology, Dark Fathers into Light, and John McDonagh’s A Host of Ghosts, the latter study not mentioned anywhere in Brisset’s book.