Philip Ó Ceallaigh: ‘There’s one word and that’s what life is about’

Romania-based short story writer on Trouble, translation, novels and brevity

Success never looks like success from the inside. Philip Ó Ceallaigh has had more garlands and bouquets than most writers, but it’s impossible not to notice that it’s been a long wait for his third collection of stories, Trouble. His first, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, was published in 2006 and his second, The Pleasant Light of Day, in 2009.

What happened? “I had no sense of security that this book was going to be published,” Ó Ceallaigh says via Zoom from his home in Romania, where he has lived for 20 years. “I just had to keep going and writing stories and working with the same degree of seriousness that I did anyway.”

“Seriousness” is the key here. Ó Ceallaigh (53) is – and sees himself as – a serious writer, taking his time over his answers just as he takes his time over his books. He pauses and considers before responding, never jumping in immediately with a ready-made anecdote.

In fact he stopped writing fiction for a time, and turned to essay-writing for outlets including Stinging Fly and LA Review of Books. “I was self-conscious about the fact that I wasn’t producing a novel. You’re causing trouble for your publisher and agent – they’re not going to say anything to you directly, but the pressure is there.”

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There’s that word already – trouble – that sits high not just in the title of his new collection, but runs like a red thread through the stories in the book. Why trouble? “Because there’s one word and that’s what life is about!” he says. In the stories the word recurs, showing off its versatility. It evokes Kafka (“One night I woke in my hammock from troubled visions”), it promotes compassion (“This man has enough trouble”), it’s quoted from When the Saints Go Marching In (“Some say this world of trouble/ Is the only one we need . . .”)

“I wanted something snappy for a start,” says Ó Ceallaigh. “I think I started to notice the repetition of the word myself in the stories, and when I became self-conscious about it in that way, I decided to just drop it in here and there, just to give a little nudge to the reader.”

Drifting men

Well, trouble is as subjective as success, but many of the characters are in it one way or another. One man winds up stealing money from his gangster employer (“relaxing into money is an art. It takes centuries to learn”); another struggles to fix up an island home when he’d rather be doing nothing (“all you want is one day, beneath the sun, like a butterfly”). A third navigates moving into a flooded flat with his young daughter: “Well, things do fall apart. You were warned.”

The characters, like those in Ó Ceallaigh’s earlier collections, are often men who are drifting, never quite settled, even when they are parents. Do these represent something in his own life, I ask – not that I’m suggesting they’re autobiographical snippets. “If you guessed that you wouldn’t be entirely wrong!” he laughs. But “I don’t think I would ever write about myself if I thought it was something that was absolutely unique to myself. So is it something about me? Yeah, but it’s something about everybody.”

But a book, anyway, is not just its subject matter. What makes Ó Ceallaigh’s stories glint and shine – Trouble is the best collection of stories I’ve read all year – is the polish of the sentences. They have flavour and character. The sentences, I tell him, have the air of being worked, at which Ó Ceallaigh looks unsure until I add that he achieves this without that work being obtrusive.

“Yeah, that’s the word,” he says. “You don’t want it to be obtrusive. You’re trying to hide the work, that’s the skill. Readers, you don’t want them to even think about it. That’s simply politeness as far as I’m concerned. Because there’s too many books already in the world. Too many writers and too many books. Why inflate it unnecessarily? I hear people talking about how many words they’ve written, and I always think about how many I’ve managed to delete.”

Ó Ceallaigh is not, he says, going to write a novel. “Not that I have anything against novels. But there’s very few that justify being novels. There’s very few writers who [can] sustain a long narrative . . . and also be interesting just writing paragraphs and sentences.” He suggests Saul Bellow, Philip Roth (“some of his better ones”) and Dostoevsky: “What I think of as serious writers. Just open a page of Bellow, anywhere, that sheer verbal energy, every page is like a workout.”

Interesting sentences

He warms to the theme. “Most novels don’t pay back that kind of sustained attention, they actually encourage a reduction of attention. I could talk about some recent Irish novels that have been very successful but I don’t want to seem bitchy. I just find it annoying where I’m reading a novel where the sentences don’t seem very interesting. And I might enjoy the novel at other levels. I don’t want to seem like I’m putting them down.”

But? “There’s one I think of as being spectacularly successful in recent years. You know, I admired the sensibility of the novel in the way it looked at relationships. But if I’d written it I would have cut it down to 70 pages.” Is he talking about a prominent young female Irish writer? “Yeah, how did you guess?”

Relationships feature in Trouble too, including one that falls outside the non-autobiographical snippets. First Love is a fictionalised diary of Felix Landau, an SS officer who – temporarily – protected Polish-Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, whose work he admired, until Schulz was murdered by a fellow Nazi in vicarious revenge: “You killed my Jew,” he told Landau. “Now I’ve killed yours.”

But in the story, the key element is Landau’s love for a woman, Trude. Ó Ceallaigh read Landau’s diary in a library in Munich: “What really stunned me was, he talked about the massacres he was involved in, but what consumed him most was the fact that he was in love.”

This interested him as a writer, he says, because “it’s very hard to talk about love, without being lost in this enormous baggage the word has culturally. Which leads us to this incredible romanticisation of whatever it is that happens to men and women when they come together and lose their minds. And the idea that we become wiser or better through it, which is utterly false. If you’re stupid and cruel, you’ll bring stupidity and cruelty to love.”

‘Coldness and clarity’

Love, indeed, is the subject of what Ó Ceallaigh calls the “central” quote about trouble in the book, from Mikhail Lermontov: “We want eternal love and that’s not possible/ And the other kind’s not worth the trouble.”

But this brings us to a point that’s been made about Ó Ceallaigh’s fiction before: Anne Enright said of his first book that it shows “men’s failure to love women”. Hers is not a unique voice. Does he agree with that?

“I was a bit confused by that when the book came out at first,” he says. “Maybe she’s right. Is there something wrong with the characters, is there something wrong with me? But the point of writing about anything is actually for some kind of coldness and clarity, you know? On one level the reaction to the book was quite extreme. That surprised me, [but] now I’m perfectly happy with that. The fact that people have different reactions, it’s a sign you’re doing something interesting.”

We should be glad to have Ó Ceallaigh’s fiction back, but even when he wasn’t writing it, he was doing other valuable work: his translation of Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian’s novel For Two Thousand Years was one of the literary highlights of 2016. He translated it “not because anyone asked me to but because it was a way of being in the author’s company”. It also taught him the virtue of patience in publishing: “I couldn’t interest anyone in it for seven years.”

With the ups and downs he relates, I wonder, does he make a living from his writing? Does he teach to supplement his income?

“No, I don’t teach. For a few years there I just translated anything I could, stuff like that. I’ve never really had a job. I was a teacher for about nine months, that was the longest. I’ve never had a steady job and I’m probably not suited to becoming a brain surgeon at this point! So I’ll just carry on as best I can.”

Trouble is published by Stinging Fly Press