As ever, the starting point is often the parents. Mine were really interested in books, not because either was professionally involved, but because it was an automatic article of faith, an instinctive part of both their temperaments. No matter what other practical matters had to be attended to, it was understood that a work of literature was in reality far more important. My discovery of the novel came—surprise, surprise!—through Enid Blyton, and like most kids of my generation I felt a mixture of marvel and curiosity at the odd lives these fictional English children led, with their ginger beer and constant Hurrahs! It had nothing whatsoever to do with my life, which only goes to prove how unimportant and nonsensical the old adage is about people wanting to read what they most identify with. The main thing is to have a ‘quest’ of some kind. The socio-cultural aspects will look after themselves.
But the real discovery of my early reading life was Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-cutter’s Donkey and The Turf-cutter’s Donkey Goes Visiting. Again, there was that disparity between my life and this pair of children called Eileen and Seamus who live on the bog, and had stereotypically Oirish speech patterns. Through them came the possibilities of magic and fantasy and the ‘other’ world that always attracted me, perhaps because I sometimes feel that the components of a pragmatic life aren’t quite enough. Lynch’s exposure of the Celtic world of witches and crones, fairies, leprechauns and transformation totally enchanted me. When my daughter was younger, I bought her a facsimile edition of The Turf-cutter’s Donkey, with the Jack B. Yeats watercolour illustrations, but Harry Potter had arrived on the scene so it was too late for her.
Fast forward to age sixteen. I did an exchange with a German family in Landsberg am Lech. One day we went to the city and I wanted to get an English novel. I went into this bookshop where all the covers were lurid and explicit. I didn’t want to bring anything like that back to Landsberg and so hurriedly picked up a bland-looking volume entitled Last Exit to Brooklyn by one Hubert J. Selby. Reading it was, as they say, a seminal experience. It aroused many feelings, primarily a new kind of terror I had never before felt about the world. That, and disbelief. I’d actually never heard some of the language before, nor ever seen an adult novel with big bold capitalised terms of abuse. Nor had any of the violent and sometimes complex sexual scenarios ever crossed the path of my imagination To this day I regard it as a bleak, wonderful and powerful work. It reveals so much about the cry for love in all humans—uniquely, cruelly and unforgettably. I always recommend it to people in writing groups who are timid or judgemental about what is euphemistically called ‘strong’ language, because some people have an enormous fear of what they see as obscenity, and forget that all language simply is: it all depends why and how you use it. Context is important.
That same year, I became ill and was out of school for six months or so in a Dublin hospital. It wasn’t a great time in my life. In between stuffing myself with Hadji Bey’s Turkish Delight and bottles of Lucozade in the hospital bed, I read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which my father had just read. I didn’t understand the half of it at that time, yet I was drawn to Durrell’s use of language. I re-read the four volumes a few years ago and got much more out of it, obviously. The language is so seductive. This is Alexandria, pre-World War Two, and the often decadent, dissolute but passion-driven lives of a mixed group of expatriates and local Egyptians. It’s Durrell’s attempt to tell the same story in four different novel styles. Many commentators think it fails, and it does have its fair share of self-indulgent passages. Despite that though, it glows, it is sensuous, and it throws light on the human condition and our wandering, feckless natures. When I wrote my first novel, The Light-Makers, I used Alexandria as the setting for a small section of the book, based purely on my experience of reading Durrell.
I feel I sharpened my ‘fiction’ teeth on the European realist novel, mainly in my early twenties at university, where the manically disorganised German literature course at my university nevertheless opened new doors in my mind. I loved Thomas Mann, especially The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice, and Theodore Fontane’s little gem of an adultery novel, Effi Briest, has always stayed with me. Later again on the timescale Heinrich Böll, Günther Grass, Herman Hesse and finally Elias Canetti.
Why did they matter to me? Well, in ideological terms, Ireland in the nineteen seventies was decades behind some of these works which had been written in the thirties. So what was important for me was the element of secularism they possessed, and a clearly divided Church and State, something we have barely achieved. Fascist, yes, authoritarian, yes, fragmented, yes, psychologically and culturally dark—often. But so was our society culturally dark in some respects. Yet how differently the characters in some of these books seemed to work out their destinies (or not). Sexual guilt was usually absent. The bourgeois work imperative was often present, so guilt shifted in the direction of material achievement, which was virtually unknown in Irish fiction just then. It has taken a vastly improved economy here to create a different agitation in our fiction, one in which guilt has shifted its locus from sex to money.
Different societies move at different paces. It’s not a question of being ‘behind’ European literature. We never were. Irish writers were simply working within their own often cataclysmic cycle of inheritance, often brilliantly, and in the pre-‘chick lit’ era, serious writers felt welcomed.
More than any other writer, Elias Canetti (who was simply odious in his personal life, a recent biography revealed—petty, trivial and misogynistic to his lover Iris Murdoch) actually influenced me. His novel Auto da Fé was published in the late 1930s and its subject is an extremely rigid intellectual man who obsesses about the maintenance of his library. He is symbolic of fascism, and into his life come all the key character elements who eventually bring about his downfall. The novel contains the seeds for the philosophical direction of Canetti’s majestic work Crowds and Power. To this day, I sometimes find that the crowd I write about in my fiction isn’t necessarily a healthy, wholesome one. The crowd is there to be defeated, because the crowd thinks as an ideological unit—in fact, it doesn’t think as we understand it, and therefore is all the more threatening to individual wellbeing.
Finally, there’s The Once and Future King, by T.H. White (1958), which I read in my twenties. It’s a dream of the Middle Ages as they never were but should have been, with the world of Merlin and King Arthur re-worked to accommodate the author’s own quirky and suspiciously autocratic post-World War Two political views. Yet it’s a funny, touching, fascinating and utterly absorbing read, and T.H. White belonged to the era when writers were encouraged by publishers to write rich, clever, narrative-strong books for a fairly educated audience of readers without being slapped down for it.
That’s a long way from Eileen and Seamus and The Turf-cutter’s Donkey, but all these books nurtured me for one reason or another. You often find what you need. Most of the literature that has really affected me has involved a quest of some kind, or the idea of revelation or justice. It’s a very Flannery O’Connor-ish tendency!