Maeve Binchy: 'Boredom is a mortal sin'
When they met, at the end of the 1970s, the star ‘Irish Times’ columnist was reworking the play that DOUGLAS KENNEDYwas helping to stage at the Peacock, in Dublin. They bonded over a G&T, and so began a friendship that Kennedy, now also a successful novelist, has valued ever since
IT WAS A WET THURSDAY some 33 Septembers ago. There was a knock on the cubbyhole office that I called home back then. Standing in the doorway was our very brilliant script editor, Sean McCarthy, looking (as always) as if he had just walked out of some Charles Bukowski novel.
He flopped down in the chair opposite me and proffered a pack of cigarettes. (Back then so many of us not only smoked but also did so freely everywhere except intensive-care units.) I slid open my filing cabinet, where I always had a bottle of Powers on hand, and poured us each a dram. We clinked coffee cups. We lit our cigarettes.
Then Sean finally spoke one word: “Morning”. Followed by: “So I’ve locked her into one of the dressing rooms backstage.”
The “her” was the author of the play that was due to premiere in our theatre in just a few weeks’ time. And Sean, who was perhaps the best ally a playwright could have, as he had the most canny understanding of dramaturgical structure and character development imaginable, had politely ordered the playwright in question to get a major rewrite done before rehearsals started, the following week. Our theatre was called the Peacock. I was its administrator, Sean its script editor (a role he also played for the big house upstairs).
“Why don’t you drop backstage in a few hours,” Sean said, “introduce yourself, and make certain she’s doing the rewrites, not her column?”
Indeed, the playwright in question had already written two acclaimed volumes of short stories and was also, at the age of 39, a columnist of immense brilliance. But the play, a tale of two young Irish women spending time on a kibbutz (an experience that the writer herself had once lived through), still needed, like all new plays, considerable structural attention.
“She’s hardly shy of doing the necessary work,” Sean noted. “She just has so much else going on.”
Two hours later I headed backstage. As I approached the dressing room where our newest playwright had been sequestered I heard a typewriter being hammered at full throttle. I lingered outside for several minutes, not wanting to interrupt such percussive productivity, while the then-wannabe novelist in me couldn’t help but marvel. So this was what a proper writer sounded like in full flow.
Eventually I ventured a soft knock on the door and poked my head inside.
“You must be Dougie,” were Maeve Binchy’s first words to me. “And you really are the teenage administrator, aren’t you?” – I was a mere 24 years old at the time – “And I’m sure Sean dispatched you here to check up on the rewrite. There it is,” she said, tapping a considerable pile of pages in front of her. “And, yes, that is my column in the typewriter. So if I could hold on to the dressing room a little while longer . . .” I said that she could have it for the rest of the day. (“God, I hope I’m not here that long,” she said.) Then I asked if I could find her a drink.
“A double gin and tonic would be most gratefully received,” she said.
As I headed off to fetch it she added: “I can see that we are going to be friends, Dougie.”
It was a friendship that lasted until Maeve’s death, a few days ago (and she never stopped calling me Dougie). She was, in so many ways, the big sister I never had – and one from whom I gleaned so much about negotiating all that life throws at you.
Five weeks after this first encounter, in 1979, Maeve’s first full-length play, The Half-Promised Land, opened to terrible reviews and sell-out business. By then I had met her extraordinary husband, Gordon Snell, and had watched her elegantly negotiate that hugely vulnerable period all playwrights travel through as their work inexorably marches towards opening night and public judgment. Though Maeve was stoic about the largely negative critical response, she did admit to me some time later that it hurt.
“But the only response you can ever have to a bad review is never let on to the person who wrote it that it hurt you. All you can do is keep working.”
Maeve’s extraordinary writing career was a testament to that statement.
Just a few years after that Peacock play she published her first novel, Light a Penny Candle. It turned Maeve Binchy into one of the most-read and most beloved popular writers of our time. The triumphs of her career have already been well documented this week: the facts that she was translated into virtually every major and minor world language apart from Inuit and Urdu, that she sold more than 40 million copies of her novels and that she still lived in the house in Dalkey that she had bought early in her writing career, eschewing the wildly materialistic trappings of success that so many other residents of hyperbestsellerdom have embraced.
But the Maeve I knew and loved always remained very much a working writer, and one who implicitly understood that success is a fragile veneer, never to be fully trusted. As she told me when I had my first international success, with my fifth book, The Big Picture, in 1996, “I am so thrilled for you, as I know how long you’ve been working for this. But do remember one thing: it’s just a success. Now you have to write the next one.”
Writing the next one was something Maeve was always doing, with an output that was Balzacian in its fecundity and in its fascination with la condition humaine. Indeed, Maeve was an unapologetically popular novelist. She wrote big page-turners that spoke to a huge global public. Though some critics considered her to be simply a purveyor of comforting commercial fiction, Maeve was always an immensely serious writer who had a 19th-century view of the novel when it came to accessibility and its need to reflect that essential subject within which we all dwell: quotidian life.
I once had an amazing discussion with Maeve about Madame Bovary and how the genius of Flaubert’s novel lay both in its groundbreaking depiction of domestic entrapment and in the cold eye it cast upon that most profound of human dilemmas: boredom.
“Boredom really is a mortal sin,” she noted. “And it also lurks behind so much in life, doesn’t it?” This was the same Maeve who had agreed to be interviewed on Bernard Pivot’s very cerebral, very celebrated books programme, Apostrophes, in her absolutely fluent French, and whose knowledge of literature and the arts was as far ranging as her great curiosity when it came to everything to do with life.
As such her fiction connected with such a vast public not simply because she kept her readers turning the page late into the night but also because her stories never shied from the big, primordial stuff we all grapple with on a daily basis.
Go back through her oeuvre and you will see that Maeve’s genius was her ability to cast a pellucid, profoundly humane eye on the tragic and the wondrous within human existence, and to confront the way we are so often the architects of our own cul-de-sacs. Just as she so clearly understood that the biggest argument we have in life is with ourselves.
What also came across throughout her fiction was the notion that life is an ongoing negotiation and challenge, and one in which the cards are often unfairly dealt. Whether it be chronicling the dark, sadder recesses of human experience – failed marriages, failed careers, the random inequities of illness, the fact that we are all hostage to the happenstantial horrors of tragedy – Maeve’s great skill was to also reflect the steadfastness and fortitude that get people through the day and that allow us all to somehow persevere.
We both had a hatred of perhaps the most specious word in the modern American lexicon: closure. As Maeve shrewdly noted, “Closure is for wardrobes, not for people.”
This was another key theme underlying her fiction (and her world view): life will frequently beat you up or land desperate things in your path, some of which might change you utterly and leave you with wounds that never fully cauterise. But you have to find an accommodation with it all and still find a way to live an interesting, hopeful life. It’s the very least you owe yourself.
WHEN I FIRST STARTED reading Maeve, in 1977 (the year I moved to Dublin), what struck me so forcibly in her immensely accomplished Irish Times columns was the fact that she was a world-class eavesdropper, and one who was always looking to the proverbial street when it came to her subject matter. Go back through the published collections of her best columns and you will note that she had her ear firmly attuned to overheard conversations on the London Underground, on a bus, in a pub, in a shop, and how each of these reported dialogues (or, in some instances, harangues and monologues) reveal so much about the complexity of a singular life that had momentarily intersected with her own.
And though she never suffered fools, and hated cruelty and the sort of outward arrogance that always masks larger doubts, what so marked her journalism and her fiction was her implicit understanding that life is, at heart, so unbelievably messy, that we frequently make the wrong calls and engage in absurd acts of self-sabotage, all in the name of pursuing that elusive notion of happiness. But read through Maeve and you also see another overriding theme so central to her work: every life is, in its own way, a novel. As such it has a value and an importance that we must never overlook or underestimate.
As can be imagined, Maeve was the most extraordinary of friends, yet also one who was gently but firmly corrective (like the excellent schoolteacher she once was) when it came to reminding you that extended bouts of ruefulness or self-pity were less than elegant. When my own first play crashed and burned at the Peacock in 1986, three years after I quit my job there to become a writer – and my column in this newspaper was axed by its then-new editor just a few weeks thereafter – she called me at home in Dublin 8 and told me to come out to a restaurant in Dalkey for lunch. I was only 31 at the time and feeling just a tad punch-drunk and sorry for myself after two big professional setbacks.
“Now, Dougie, none of this is nice,” she said as she ordered us a second bottle of wine. “And I won’t tell you it builds character or rubbish like that. But what else can you do now but go back to work? So what are you writing next?”
Two years later, after I had moved to London, Maeve took me out to lunch the day my first book was published there. When I reminded her of her shrewd advice to me 24 months earlier her response was classic Maeve. “There you go now. So what are you writing next?”
To Maeve writing was, alongside love and friendship, not simply one of life’s great consolations but also, I sensed, a way of being able to control some sort of narrative amid the disorder that envelops us all.
But perhaps my abiding memory of Maeve dates back to 1980, when, during my Peacock years, I managed to entice the San Quentin Drama Workshop to perform Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame at our theatre. The coup of this fortnight’s engagement was the fact that Beckett himself had agreed to direct the two productions – but would rehearse only in London and refused to come to his home city for the opening.
I went to London to attend the rehearsals and organise the transfer.
When I saw Maeve and Gordon for dinner during that week she said, “Now, Dougie, I want you to pull off a miracle and somehow get me into one of Mr Beckett’s rehearsals.”
Beckett had been insistent on a no-visitor rule at rehearsals. But when, with considerable trepidation, I approached him the next day and said that an Irish Times journalist wanted to sit in on a rehearsal he thought about this for a moment, then shrugged and said, “As long as she understands there is to be no interview, no questions, no contact whatsoever, I’ll allow it.”
I raced to a phone box five minutes later and got Maeve at home in London.
“Meet me at Riverside Studios tomorrow at 10. White smoke from the chimney. Mr Beckett has consented.”
The next morning, having been briefed about Beckett’s conditions, she accompanied me into the rehearsal room. Beckett acknowledged her presence with a curt nod, then turned to the actors and went to work.
Maeve sat next to me in a corner, silent and rapt throughout, her pen darting across her reporter’s pad with the same propulsion that had marked the way she was hammering out her column in a Peacock theatre dressing room when we first met. There was a break for coffee. Much to my amazement (and I can still see Maeve trying not to appear equally stunned) Beckett approached her. Asking if she was the journalist from The Irish Times, he started chatting with her about Dublin.
They must have talked for about seven minutes. A huge conversation, given Beckett’s reticence when it came to the press. I remember watching Maeve throughout this exchange. She was so engaged with Beckett, in complete eye contact with him, absorbing everything he was telling her. Meanwhile she was virtually strangling the pen in her hand, willing it not to go to work (as that would have ended the Beckettian conversation instantly).
But as soon as he thanked her for coming to the rehearsals and turned back to the actors, Maeve’s pen flew across her notebook for the next 10 minutes. When her characteristically brilliant article appeared in The Irish Times the next day – a phenomenal coup, given that it was the first interview with Beckett in an Irish newspaper for decades – the conversation Maeve reported with him was, word for word, all that I overheard spoken between them.
If this is my abiding memory of Maeve it’s rooted in the fact that it underscores so much about the way she approached life and the written word: always absorb, always listen, always be curious, always be alive to the extraordinary and the ordinary. Most of all, always engage. And remember: all you can do is keep working.
Douglas Kennedy’s 11 novels include The Big Picture, The Pursuit of Happiness, The Woman in the Fifth and The Moment. His new novel, Five Days, is due to be published by Hutchinson next spring. His work has been translated into 22 languages, and in 2006 he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres