An achievement of intimacy


Among her peers in Ireland, Deirdre Madden is possibly the most serious writer and offers her readers honest intellectual engagement rather than entertainment, writes Eileen Battersby

Writer Deirdre Madden looks more anxious than usual. She is as interesting and as difficult as are her understated, complex fictions. Interviewing her never falls into an easy conversation. She is intelligent, almost forensic in her pursuit of the essence of intention and interpretation. Her voice is soft; her accent sounds closer to Co Derry than her native Co Antrim. There is also a reserve that could as easily be described as remoteness, and probably is.

Even when she is responding to a question, there is always the impression that she is thinking about something. This is not to suggest she is distracted, she is simply a deep, relentless thinker and a careful listener.

Conscious of the role of the artist and the need for distance, Madden approaches questions or weighs an opinion with the same sense of responsibility that shapes her art.

Concerned with ideas and truths - she asks me about the great German writer, the late W.G. Sebald - Madden is possibly the most genuinely intellectual novelist, indeed artist, of the current Irish 40-something generation. There are no gimmicks, no tricks, she has a respect for language that renders her prose correct and rather formal, almost laboured. She is not interested in linguistic fireworks, she wants to engage the reader, not merely entertain. The publication of her sixth novel, Authenticity, is important, as she says herself of it, and of her fiction in general, "it's saying 'This is what's happening, think about it' ".

But it is also an important artistic step for her. It returns to themes of art and truth, and the meaning of art and the relevance of the artistic life - preoccupations which she has previously explored, most particularly in her finest book to date, Nothing is Black (1994). That said, Authenticity takes these ideas and themes a further stage in a strong, demanding character-driven - or should that be life-driven? - narrative which is the culmination of what she has been concerned with in her first book, Hidden Symptoms which won her the Rooney Prize in 1987.

Her six books have all been different yet are linked by an artistic continuity and her interest in describing life as lived. The power of memory has always been important, yet this time it is more about the impact of choices made in the past on life in the present. Although caution is her natural medium, Madden, who seems older than her years until a rare smile transforms her into a girl excited by books and ideas, is pleased with the new novel. "I see it as a book about three artists and the choices you must make," she says, referring to painter Roderic, his much younger lover Julia, also an artist, and William, middle-aged like Roderic but a businessman who never allowed his talent the chance to express itself.

Autobiography does not interest Madden, she does not write about herself and is unlikely to. Personal questions are of no interest to her. "There is something of myself in all of the books, but I don't write autobiographical fiction. I don't think the life, my life, is that relevant here. I'd rather talk about the work," she says. She was born in Toomebridge, in Co Antrim, and on the day this interview took place, she was a week shy of her 42nd birthday. She has been married to poet Harry Clifton since 1987; "a long time", she says and laughs. They have lived in Italy and France as well as Ireland, and next term she will be based in Trinity College, where she studied as an undergraduate, at the Oscar Wilde Centre.

It seems ideal, two writers at work, engaged with Ireland and Europe. But the interview moves away from her life and returns to the new novel.

It is a long novel, close on 400 pages, set mainly in contemporary Dublin, and has a large cast. "Yes," agress Madden, "but William is the one character in the book based on a real person." She talks about once meeting a man who had been off work and who had wanted to be a musician. "Someone who did have a gift and had thought they would like to have tried, but hadn't followed it through." Part of the book, and at least a third of the central story that of the three artists, is about the failure to fulfil promise, or at least even give promise a chance. Madden is also concerned with the way choice often means things can not be changed. "Once you have gone down that way, you can't change direction."

We find ourselves discussing the various characters; Roderic is on one level the central character, in that he is an artist who has pursued his vision to the cost of all else. His flamboyance and risk-taking has destroyed his marriage, alienated at least one of his three daughters and placed an immense burden of responsibility on his brother, Denis, once an aspiring pianist. Throughout Madden's fiction, her characters have always sought true intimacy; most appear to spend their time warily circling each other.

Authenticity, particularly in the case of the two brothers, sees the achievement of an intimacy beyond the sexual. Roderic considers Julia as much as an artist as a woman.

The interior world has also been closer to Madden's world than the physical and yet she has always described things, never more so than in this book, which is strongly visual. While the characters emerge as individuals, each with their own aspirations and ambitions, interestingly, Liz, William's wife, a woman caught up and content in the bourgeois world her husband's income has secured for her, is as real as all the others - and possibly more sympathetic.

Madden's concern is the authentic, "How to live authentically." It is Roderic who reacts to the use of definitions in the course of an interview with a journalist who attempts to define Roderic as an artist.

Madden does not use definitions either. "Do you see me as a woman writer?" she asks. No I don't, nor do I see her as a northern writer either, although she does write about the North. As she says herself, "it would be hard not to coming from there". The North is important to her fiction, not only for providing a setting, as in Hidden Symptoms, The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988) and One By One in the Darkness (1996), but also as a subject.

She asks, "Did you like the new book?" I reply that, as all her books, it is demanding, in that it asks of the reader. It has the exhaustiveness of life itself. It is, as the title might suggest, authentic.

There is also the fact that this is a book she could not have written 10 or 15 years ago, as it is a novel about life experience. She considers this and appears to agree. It is also fascinating that the character with the strongest grasp of life in the novel is Julia's father, a man with a bit of farm in Wicklow; he fixes cars, has been a good parent, is interested in everything, looks at the night skies and values life.

There's a line in Remembering Stone and Light (1992), a novel about search and displacement, in which Aisling, Madden's narrator, remarks, "I'm not a person who has much talent for happiness". Later, Nuala, in Nothing Is Black, says, "I'm unhappy because I don't know how to live". These are big statements and considering the art and truth themes so central to Madden's world vision, the more mundane are often most effective.

Writers don't much like being compared, but I have consistently looked at Madden's work alongside that of Anita Brookner.

Both look at the essence of small lives and the ordinary. Madden does not have Brookner's well-developed sense of irony, but there are similarities. While I believe Nothing is Black, in which three women on the run from themselves and all searching for meaning in their lives, arrivein the remote Donegal landscape, is her best book. Madden, even at her most relentlessly exacting, is as important as she is serious.

Of the new book, she says "I enjoyed writing it", and particularly liked devising the conceptual art that Julia creates. The more Madden speaks, the more it is possible to acquire an insight into how an artist works, Madden's careful comments carry with them heavy allusions to process and what this means.

In the course of the interview, I was surprised when she referred to my review of One By One in the Darkness, the story of three grown sisters back at the family home where their widowed mother still lives, as "vicious" and "harsh". However, although I had written the review more than six years ago, and many others since, I recalled it as a critical but far from dismissive response. In it, I described that novel, fraught as it is with the unspoken suffering of the characters, as being "not easy to read", adding, "not that any of her books have proved comfortable. Demanding of her reader, and herself, she is an introspective, intense writer, far more concerned with the interior world of her characters than with conventional narrative." I believe this remains true, although there is an increased sense of the physical in the new book. The weight of her ideas is greater than her style, nor is dialogue a particular strength.

"There are moments throughout One By One in the Darkness when Madden succeeds in capturing a sense of real pain. Writing about the ordinary is never easy. Madden's failure in this disappointing, powerfully intelligent, disciplined novel lies in too repressive a control rather than its lack." Much of this might still apply to her work. I think that it also explains why she is interesting as a writer. In her relentlessness, lies an urgency and refusal to compromise. She is wary when I refer to her books as moving in phases. It is difficult to reach any point of agreement - she says several times, "I wrote it, you've read it" - although we appear to have interpreted Authenticity with one mind, even to the superimposing of the past upon the present in the final pages.

Why does she write? The answer is as expected. "I see it as a compulsion." It is also an exploration. Madden is a sophisticated, concerned witness.

Writing is not her job, it is her vocation. Her fiction, for all the concern with ideas and art, and the notion of what is an artist and how should an artist live, most effectively of all, reflects life as lived by characters like Aisling and Nuala. "I see my books as coming together as a body of work, but each one is different." She leaves the interview saying she is exhausted, and hoping the new novel "is accessible and has a wide readership".

Authenticity, by Deirdre Madden, is published by Faber