Make sense of his life? Barry’s protagonist is just not up to it
The central character in the writer’s new novel, Jack McNulty, depends too heavily on his creator to speak for him
Sebastian Barry. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Temporary Gentleman
Faber & Faber
My favourite novel by Sebastian Barry, until I’m persuaded otherwise, is The Secret Scripture (2008). I like it best because it is most in possession of its experience; it most fully understands what an experience is and how it differs from an event or a happening.
Nearly all of Barry’s fiction is ascribed to two families, the Dunnes and the McNultys. He has also practised the compositional device of taking a small character from an early novel or play and making him or her the chief character of a later work. Lily Bere, Willy Dunne’s sister in A Long Long Way (2005) and daughter of Thomas Dunne in The Steward of Christendom (1995), becomes the much-put-upon heroine of On Canaan’s Side (2011).
Jack McNulty, a minor figure in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) and The Secret Scripture (2008), has the whole narrative responsibility to himself in The Temporary Gentleman . This device is not binding, as the character chosen for full-scale presentation is under no obligation to tell whatever truth he knows or even to remember all the old occasions.
It is a more awkward matter that the two families are, as my own father and mother were, socially ordinary. Thomas Dunne was chief superintendent of the B division of Dublin Metropolitan Police, the highest rank available in practice to a Catholic, and a far higher rank than my father achieved during some of the same years in the Royal Irish Constabulary.
My father’s father, a poor farmer in the Black Valley, in Co Kerry, and a boatman for summer tourists on one of the Killarney lakes, drowned in an accident there. My father, with little education, joined the RIC as an alternative to the British army, and stayed in it until it was disbanded, in January 1922. He joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary after a few months in which he failed to find anything better, and he remained in it as a sergeant until he retired, in September 1946.
None of Sebastian Barry’s fictional Dunnes or McNultys is at all distinguished. They are barely up to what he asks of them. Henry James complained, in his preface to The Princess Casamassima , that “the picture of an intelligence appears for the most part, it is true, a dead weight for the reader of the English novel to carry, this reader having so often the wondrous property of caring for the displayed tangle of human relations without caring for its intelligibility”.
Readers of Barry’s fiction find the human tangle everywhere but no one capable of making sense of it beyond a relatively low level of response and adjudication. They must wait for Barry himself to arrive and, brushing the inarticulate characters aside, bring the tangle to a much higher level of understanding. He thinks, feels and speaks for them. He does this irregularly, but he intervenes when he feels that the penury of a character’s understanding is a debilitating force in the scene.
These interventions are not always productive. Their elevations often take the form of secular mysticism, ascribing human feelings to landscapes. Even in The Temporary Gentleman :
Out back was a lonesome square of grass and dandelions, and the wind twisted itself into the desolate space and ran its chilly fingers through the grass, and asked the time from the dandelion heads.
This from Jack? In Annie Dunne , Dolly goes to the United States, leaving behind her “the regretful arms of the Liffey” and “the furtive dog, crouching down ready to spring and savage you, that is the hill of Howth”. This is Annie rather than Dolly, but such flourishes are bizarre when ascribed to either.
A question of credibility arises, because Barry’s chosen genre is realism, and the burden of it is domestic tragedy. Having made these choices, he is stuck with them. Here is Eneas on the beach at Strandhill:
Great winds have come in from the Atlantic that once he knew so well, all afternoon, and now the sea is poised in the ruins of its own ruckus. The sun throws long golden arms out each side like an Indian idol, making the richest path of gold in answer across the hurt waves that he has ever seen.
I would possibly believe these sentences if I heard Sebastian Barry speak them on his own behalf, and in his own voice, but not when, as here, he is attributing them to someone as poorly endowed with consciousness as Eneas.
The trouble is that Barry’s characters are woefully limited people. They can report what happens to them, but they cannot make what happens to them intelligible. Henry James would have called them, perhaps harshly, fools, and while he acknowledged the necessity of fools in any tangled web, he held that he could not see “the leading interest of any human hazard but in a consciousness (on the part of the moved and moving creature) subject to fine intensification and wide enlargement”. In The Secret Scripture Roseanne is a fool, but she has Dr Grene, no fool, to redeem her folly by completing the partial truth of it.
I hope I understand why Barry has made these choices. He is tender towards people who have held what I may call the Fine Gael sense of Irish life, a feeling for those who were defeated, especially in the years from 1916 to the Age of de Valera; a feeling, too, for those Irishmen, often Catholics, who like my father joined the RIC, or the British army, fought in either of the big wars, and later returned to Ireland (if they survived) to find an alien country and still open wounds. But Barry has not accommodated his sense of modern Ireland with the forms of fiction he has chosen.
Promoted beyond their capacities
The tradition of realism in the service of domestic tragedy is a worthy invention, but it is not various enough to fulfil the demands of Barry’s social and political values. In other words he has promoted his minor characters beyond their capacities. Literature does not observe the Sermon on the Mount; it pays more heed to WH Auden’s Spain : “History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.”
The Temporary Gentleman has Jack McNulty, in 1957, writing the book in our hands, trying to make sense of the past 30 years of his dishevelled life by writing out some of its episodes. The book is an act of contrition, but Jack is insufficiently contrite to make a good confession. He is still the clever chap he was in Sligo, his mother’s pet. He went to UCG, took a decent degree in engineering, married the beautiful Mai Kirwan, got a commission in the British army, travelled the empire. He dealt with every lamentable situation by falling on the thorns of it. He finds himself in Accra only to come back to dear old dreadful Sligo. Mam is still there, waiting for Jack to coax her into laughing. But the end is not yet. There is more to be suffered in Accra, but “fine intensification and wide enlargement” are not to be acquired merely by sitting at one’s desk and adding page to page.