FICTION: Ghost LightBy Joseph O'Connor, Harvill Secker, 246pp. £16.99
JOSEPH O'CONNOR'S seventh novel, Ghost Light, will give days of pleasure to tens and tens of thousands of readers. It is a great love story, with extras: a virtuoso display of literary talent, a tribute to the Hiberno-English heritage of lore and lyricism and an interpretation of the Irish literary revival as the fruit of settler and native, Protestant and Catholic.
It's a story a biographer could not tell, and not just for want of the superabundant literary talent on display here. One could see that the love affair between 35-year-old JM Synge and 19-year-old Molly Allgood had set off the fireworks of The Playboy of the Western Worldand lay at the heart of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Yet little trace remains of what went on between them. Did they even do it at all? All lovers hide what they do together, but this pair more so. Not only was it out of line for a theatre director to have an affair with an actress, and a Protestant with a Catholic, but their families did not approve of the match. His letters to Allgood have been published, 400 of them, but hers were destroyed, by Synge or his family. We cannot hear her voice.
Into this gap steps O’Connor, brimming with sympathy and skill. It was a master stroke to tell their story through Molly in 1952, as her own life comes to a close. She has pretty much forgotten her two husbands, GH Mair and Arthur Sinclair, but she remembers Synge, her first love, all day long. She’s a chronic tippler, living alone in a room in bombed-out London. Her mind drifts in disorderly fits of reverie over their first brush against each other, their fights, their walking out together, his meeting with her family, and her with his, a lovely week of consummation in a Wicklow cottage, a bust-up and then reconciliation under the shadow of his approaching end.
Another stroke of genius was second-person narration. When we read “You are sixty-five” it is as if the storyteller is looking at, and imagining into existence, the aged actress. At other times the “you” can be Molly speaking to herself, or the “you” becomes Synge himself, addressed by Molly. The flexibility of the mode of address allows O’Connor to slip in and out of partial voicings of historical characters.
It is awkward to make up speeches for people who once spoke for themselves. An illusion-shattering question arises for the reader: is this true or not? Telling the story at a remove both from third-person narration – she did this, and said that – provides an escape from that difficulty.
That the story is told through the mind of an actress also makes believable the rich web of literary allusion that O’Connor weaves. Molly has sung the songs, recited the poems and played all the great Irish parts. She has the habit of coaching herself into various forms of deportment, mostly of courage and dignity in the face of trials: the show must go on! A travelling player, she blooms wherever she finds herself planted, for she sees the world as full of blessings.
That Molly has so much literature in her head gave O’Connor the chance to riff on classics of the Irish revival. When Allgood thinks of men she has known, he channels another Molly, Mrs Bloom. As Allgood became a scriptwriter late in her career, O’Connor can do not just Joyce but O’Casey – though her skit on Synge’s visit to the Mary Street domicile is pretty dire.
In fact, whenever the Protestants come on they are stage Protestants, sourfaces. A low point in such staginess occurs when Molly overhears Lady Gregory take Synge to task about sneaking an arm around the young actress. Surely, Lady Gregory would not say, even in arch irony: “My dear John, it is not for me to opine on your private friendships . . . nor on the terrestrial coordinates of your arm.” Synge was never “John”, for one thing.
A dramatised dinner-table quarrel between Synge and his mother – compare the awful Christmas dinner in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man– is for me more convincing. If it isn't for other readers, the scene is still forgivable in a polyphonic book like this, where everything is a bit more pronounced. Everyone knows the book is a story, with its postmodern chapter titles – Returning to Miss O'Neill in London on the First Day We Met Her – pastiches of Timesarticles, lost letters, naughty limericks and so on.
One of the novel's great achievements is not just to display imaginative power but also to show how the imagination works, and in particular how Synge's imagination was fed by Allgood. At one point, for instance, she is reflecting on her disappointment with his all-too-polite love letters: "Why does he never say exactly what he wants? If beauties were before me, stepping out of their clothes, it would be you that I'd beg for; it could only be you. Why can he never write anything like that?" Of course, Synge did write like that eventually in The Playboy of the Western World: "It's Pegeen I'm seeking only, and what'd I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?"
The finest imaginative proof of Synge’s stealing Molly’s lines is also the novel’s most daring feat of impersonation. The book ends with a letter by Molly saved from the fire, a splendid, long, made-up love letter to the playwright. It “proves” not only that she knew Synge for what he was, a fierce man for going into himself and not coming out the whole day, but that she loved him, and brought him out of himself. By listening to her heartfelt words he was led into where the heart lies – not only her heart but the heart of her country, and of humanity.
Synge would tease Allgood that her sentiments were those to be found in a novel for dressmakers, but he was as much a believer in the One True Love as she was, and as Joseph O’Connor is, and as readers will be as they read this book.
Adrian Frazier's Hollywood Irish: John Ford and Abbey Actorswill be published by Lilliput Press in the autumn