‘I believe plain anguish has been the fuel of much of what we cherish in literature’
Tom O’Neill discusses the inspiration behind his novel, Grattan and Me
Tom O’Neill: Middle age is a time of disruption. You don’t care much how you appear. Feelings of awe and even respect have become very dilute. But you are not yet neutralised by fatigue or decrepitude. So you are a danger
“That soft little word troubles has been used to quietly concrete over so many horrible wounds in our country, has it not?” So says Grattan Fletcher, a renaissance man from Rathmines, a senior public servant occasionally succumbing to valorous tendencies.
He has recently been overtaken by the thought that no matter what was to come tomorrow, he would like today to have been useful. He would like to be admired rather than thoughtfully considered by the people he loves. The heartbeat of Grattan is the love of everyone around him and a deep-set locus guiding his concerns and hopes for Ireland. When his good life hits some turbulence in middle age, he confronts raw truths. And he sets out to right what he can. And to run for the presidency.
“In matters of the Nation don’t set out to find the truth,” said Suck Ryle sagely, “it’s better to set out to establish your view as the truth.” Ryle is on the road on the promise of an executive position when Grattan makes it to the Park. Ryle’s provenance is unclear. What is known is that he was drummed out of the British army, spent some time on the street, doesn’t touch alcohol and has no known loyalty other than to a large tailless black cat. He is more practically bent than Grattan and does a degree of fixing behind the good man, in the interests of the campaign. Fletcher sees good in Ryle that nobody else could.
Tommy Nail, hayshed painter, unafraid to speak of the 98 unpublished novels behind him, narrates. He bases his “no lie of mine” account on a blog he claims to have gained access to at Grattan’s funeral. Nail battles to exclude his own preoccupations (pursuing the devil and waiting to see his publisher float down the river) in order to enter this dispassionate account into the national historical archive. As the account unfolds it becomes possible to suspect that he has more familiarity with some of the subjects than he ever admits to.
I was asked where Grattan and Me came from. I still have to think about that a bit. The writing influences are many. The nods to Don Quixote are deliberate. There are few books equal in the freedoms it gives the writer: the narrator, not just unreliable, but merely as mediator of another’s set of notes. It pre-empts all criticism of his characters and grants himself wide licence for intervention, commentary and axe-grinding. The compiler in Grattan and Me is not found wanting and airs his views on other writers liberally enough for me not to need to.
I took the liberty of adding a couple of extra layers. Narrator, foreword writer, inner editor, and others all have their say and give extra voices to bounce around in, each very sound and reliable only in small parts.
But I’m still left with where the actual stuff of this book comes from.
There are junctures in every person’s life when the nerves are more exposed. Times when there is no comfortable place to bide our time.
I can’t think of many outstanding works that came from a person currently in a comfortable life. Cervantes’ axe was made jagged by his trail of minor fame, mixed successes and his second stint in jail. As was Bulgarkov’s by state censure. Isolated from their societies. So many others were people hurting and excluded because of who they loved or what they believed. Proust could not participate in the society that enthralled him, until it repulsed him. I suspect that Joyce was homesick, intellectually solitary, supported by people who could not understand very much about the isolation of living most in his mind. I would also guess that his work was fed by distress at feeling his like-minded daughter slipping from his grip and not being able to save her from her living wake.
I believe that plain anguish has been the fuel of much of what we cherish in literature.
I’m not comparing products. Just the motive force.
Middle age is a time of disruption for any person. You don’t care much how you appear. Feelings of awe and even respect have become very dilute. But you are not yet neutralised by fatigue or decrepitude. So you are a danger. I found myself relating to where Cervantes wrote from. Picture a gnarly mid-ager with mixed successes in many fields – in my case, writing, farming, science, teaching, development projects, castle restoration, software, mythology, building, trees, social entrepreneurship, drinking. You can end up with some unglossed views.
In the large, I have had great luck through all that. Mostly in the people who have for some reason minded me. Not least amongst these charms in recent times, John O’Brien of Dalkey.
This particular work, Grattan and Me, was started in the depths of the recession when a lot of feeling in the country generally was very raw. There were uncomfortable revelations about us at every look. It takes a bit to bring out the good but not a lot to bring out the ugly in us.
In my personal life too, we were losing our beloved Dad. Slowly and bit by bit. I would drive with him and see parts of his essential being brought momentarily to the surface by the sight of familiar landmarks, the smell of rain, a dog crossing the road, or the warmth of a neighbour’s handshake. There was no place to hide from the sadness.
One of the things running through this work is a stream of old sayings, from here and elsewhere. Sometimes mangled to the needs of the characters. The kinds that you appreciate the meaning of only when you hear yourself saying them. A couple of years back an elderly neighbour spoke to me, bereft on the death of a brother who had been a long time dying. He said, “You only really know what it means when it happens to you.” I understand that.
A collage of the little I have come to observe and the even less that I have tried to understand has strained its way into the characters in this book. I know them all a bit too well. I have captured many essences of the people I care about in this book. And they’re not getting away.
And at the end of it all, this has not turned out as an angry book. It amused me hugely. But it’s also not a careless book. Teasing through it, I suppose I’m with Grattan too, mostly. Ar scáth a cheile…. We live in each other’s shadows. In Zulu, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu - a person is a person through people.
Grattan and Me by Tom O’Neill is published by Dalkey Archive Press and is launched this evening, Friday, January 27th, at 7pm, by publisher John O’Brien in the Clubhouse Hotel, Patrick Street, Kilkenny.