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
This is a curate’s egg of a book, purporting to explore “both the life and the work of Ireland’s best-loved poet”, but frequently misreading Brendan Kennelly’s poetry in literal, reductive ways to make it fit often grotesque biographical speculation.
On the one hand, Sandrine Brisset admires Kennelly almost possessively. She puts him on a pedestal, and then puts herself by his side as a “close friend” of many years’ standing, even being pictured with him in one of the book’s photographs, posed like father and daughter outside Trinity College.
On the other, she invents the notion of Kennelly’s public persona being a deliberately constructed act or self-serving “public mask”, only to become highly agitated when this mask “slips”, “cannot hold” or “becomes visible” – by which she actually means that Kennelly has been caught on camera not smiling like the passionate poet-seer beloved of the Late Late Show but looking anxious or sick because, yes, he was actually in poor health, or ageing, and yes, he did look unhappy in that picture from 1996 because he was about to undergo major heart surgery.
What is contrived here is not Kennelly’s persona – one aspect of this complex man’s many-faceted, authentic personality – but Brisset’s invention of this “public mask” central to her dotty thesis. Apparently we aren’t seeing the real Brendan Kennelly on television or at a reading but Kennelly playing the part of an archetypal Irish bard like an actor. His family and true friends know what nonsense this is.
It’s almost as if Brisset’s Behind the Smile takes its cue from Kennelly’s Book of Judas, where Judas declares: “The best way to serve the age is to betray it. / [ . . .]If betrayal is a service, learn to betray / With the kind of style that impresses men / Until they dream of being me.” Having benefited from Kennelly’s generosity in openly discussing his work with her in the course of many meetings, she wrecks what could have been the authoritative critical study Kennelly must have thought she was writing (if her footnotes on their conversations are any indication).
Like that proverbial curate’s egg, parts of Brisset’s book are indeed excellent. But after the impressive scholarship and perceptive analysis of her first chapter, “Poet and Visionary”, showing the seminal influence on his work of the Irish bardic tradition and of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry, she has Kennelly choosing “to serve the Savage Muse”, and perceiving “the correlation between schizophrenic voices and bardic voices”.
From this point in the book, literary judgment gives way to psychobabble as she begins to impose spurious interpretations derived from popular psychology on Kennelly’s poems as well as on his life. His past alcoholism, we learn, was a form of “self-harm used to pursue a mystical quest” to become a sacrificial scapegoat. It gets worse. Behind the Smile says more about the critic’s psychology than that of the poet she befriended.
Where Kennelly eschews egotism in his work, always seeking to write universal poetry by adopting conflicting voices or personae – who may be vilified figures such as Judas or Cromwell – Brisset sees this as “a dialogue between the self and the self, and not, as Kennelly claimed, between the self and otherness”. Where Kennelly’s awareness is acutely self-critical, Brisset sees “self-versions, self-portraits and self-interpretations”. Moreover, she seems to equate the poetic personae of Kennelly’s books – his “multiplicity of voices” – with the various roles he adopts, as anyone does, in his life.
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.