The Projectionist: The Story of Ernest Gébler, by Carlo Gébler: a great read
This cool, forensic examination of a writer’s psychology by his son, is a great read
The Projectionist The Story of Ernest Gebler
His former wife, Edna O’Brien, fictionalised him: he’s Mr Gentleman in The Country Girls and Eugene Gaillard in The Lonely Girl. In her recent books he appears as himself. He’s the father in his son Carlo’s Father & I. And now he’s the intriguing subject of The Projectionist. Ernest Gébler – Ernie to his friends – is turning out to be among the most written about of Irish writers. If he were around to see it, this accreting fame should please him, as Ernie, according to Anthony Cronin, was perhaps “Dublin’s most ambitious man of letters”. But that’s unlikely. Ernie was very hard to please.
More especially because this is the book he himself spent his later years trying and failing to write. He called his work in progress the Autobiog and made a vast quantity of notes and aides-memoires for it. But he never managed to shape a coherent narrative. When Ernest died, in 1998, Carlo Gébler inherited his father’s chaotic archive, and from it he has fashioned a fascinating depiction of Ernest’s enigmatic and troubled personality. And because he has such a zest for narrative this is also a rare picture of the social history of 20th-century Ireland.
Envious and resentful of his nearest and dearest’s successes – envy seems to have been a Gébler family failing – Ernest would surely resent his son writing what he didn’t or couldn’t write, and for writing it so well. Could Ernest’s complexes be explained, in part at least, by the yearnings and dissatisfactions we associate with being a Middle European? It is an association, perhaps overly romanticised, that comes from their literature, from Kafka to Kundera, and that so often implies the longings for elsewhere of mild and otherwise solidly provincial people marooned in the middle of a continent and on the margins of a fading empire.
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In Carlo’s telling the Géblers exude something of that romance. They were from Bohemia, German-speaking Czechs, although his great-grandmother was a Czech speaker and nationalist, which caused familial conflicts. His great-grandfather owned a factory that made musical instruments. His grandfather Adolph went to the conservatory in Prague to study music. They appear to have been a typical bourgeois and cultured family of the time.
Socially anxiousMaybe because he knows more about them and knows their world more intimately, Carlo’s Irish family on his father’s side, the Walls, wear no such rosy tints. His great-grandfather John Wall, for instance, a railway worker, is described as “a bossy, lazy, overweening man” and sometimes as Old Wall. The Walls were the socially anxious kind of people who might have been described as shoneens in the 1920s.
But they too were cultured. At least they loved music and singing. And when Adolph Gébler came to Dublin as a young man in 1908 to play the clarinet in The Merry Widow at the Gaiety, he met Rita Wall. Carlo imbues the unlikely story of how they met with the stuff of destiny. Adolph fell for Ireland as much as he fell for Rita, and, although he would often leave it in the years to come, Ireland became his home.
Adolph and Rita’s married life spans much of the last century. The story of their warring but connubial relationship, their ups and downs as a bohemian – now with a small B – family in a past we both recognise and find foreign is, in a way, the backbone of the book. The first World War divided them when Adolph was interned as an enemy alien. The internment was traumatic for both of them, and despite the advent of several children the marriage never recovered whatever glow it had at first.
For Ernest it was no less traumatic. Born during Adolph’s absence, and a four-year- old boy when he came back, he and his father disliked each other on sight. Adolph gave his attention and affection to Ada, Ernest’s older sister, and Ernest assumed the position of the sidelined and unloved member of the family. This position he jealously held as much as he resented it all his life.
Adolph earned a precarious living as a musician, often in small-town cinemas and dance halls, milieux far removed from the expectations of a graduate of the conservatoire. Rita became embittered, a nag, a morning-to-night complainer. The family were peripatetic. Sometimes they lived in one room in Rita’s sister’s house on Botanic Avenue. They moved briefly to Berlin, where Adolph worked at the state orchestra. When they came back they went to live in Rosslare, in Sea View Cottage, and then to Church Villa in Tramore.
These dilapidated villas were the bases for Ernest’s formative years and for him a kind of idyll. He drove around with his father, who had acquired a Model T, waiting outside in the car while Adolph gave music lessons. Sometimes the “lessons” were assignations with a Miss Ashley-Ryder or a Miss Winton. Gregarious and urbane and always ready to strike up on someone’s piano, Adolph was much appreciated in country localities. Ernest himself became infatuated with a sweet farmer’s daughter, Mai Geraghty – a precursor, he would write later, of Edna O’Brien.
Family foolBut he was still “the family fool”. He had food intolerances, was weak at school, and was prone to cultivate resentments at what he saw as the neglect and contempt of his family. When the family moved to Wolverhampton and his father found him a job, as a trainee projectionist at the local cinema, he resented that, too. It was clearly all they considered him fit for, when by now he was himself nourishing ambitions to be a great writer.
Ernest did become a writer, if not a great one. And for a while he was hugely successful. His first novel, The Plymouth Adventure, about the Mayflower’s expedition to the New World, was tailor-made for success in the market where it mattered, the United States. It was filmed and made him a great deal of money. But, apart from buying expensive cars that assisted his courtship of his three future wives, he never allowed himself to enjoy the fruits of success. In New York, on the point of embarking on a triumphal US book tour, for example, he fled to the fastness of Wicklow, never to return. He went on writing, however, and continued to make money. But when O’Brien, his second wife, was lionised his resentment and jealousy became pathological.
This is a proper family saga, and it’s all here. The Gébler family’s falling apart as Rita leaves Adolph. The sisters, particularly Ada, growing mad with hostility. Ernest’s haplessness and bad behaviour in his successive love relationships. It’s especially concerned with Ernest, naturally, this man who needed love so much and yet was so unable to give it. Although, to the reader’s relief, he finds a measure of happiness in Jane, his third wife, who wrote a tender and illuminating description of him and whose love he never quite lost .
That the principals are well-known literary people lends an added piquancy. But, in any case, The Projectionist is simply a great read. And, although it is a cool and forensic examination of a father’s psychology by a not-well-loved son, Carlo Gébler manages to evoke in the reader not exactly affection for Ernest – that might be a bit much to ask – but a degree of understanding.
Anne Haverty’s novels include The Far Side of a Kiss and The Free and Easy