Wednesday, August 17, 2011
‘An Untilled Field’: George Moore’s Influence on Joyce and Beckett
At the heart of much discussion of the Celtic revival is the eternal opposition of exile and home. Joyce chose exile, Yeats stayed at home. Where the opposite of ‘national’, for Joyce, was ‘international’, its opposite for Yeats was ‘provincial’. One chose Shakespeare & Co. for his stage, the other the Abbey Theatre. What George Moore represents, in a way that is both his strength and possibly his downfall too, where his reputation has been concerned, is something altogether different: exile and return, and it is with such themes in mind that I propose to discuss him here. The Moore I’d like to talk about is the short story writer and author of The Untilled Field, which I’d also like to situate in relation to the short fiction of Joyce and Beckett.
The tally of biographical material linking Moore to Joyce and Beckett is small. Edouard Dujardin, pioneering interior monologist, forms an important link between Moore and Joyce, and it was his knowledge of the Moore connection that alerted Joyce to Dujardin in the first place. Moore condescended to Ulysses with frightful snobbery, as well as on artistic grounds (‘There are no appearances in Joyce; it is all syllogism’, he wrote to Louis Gillet), and Joyce pooh-poohed the slovenliness, he thought, of Moore’s stories, though in later years the two men kept up a ping-pong of elaborate politeness in their letters, and Moore was one of the four authors Joyce recommended his step-grandson should read (the others were Tolstoy and the Goncourts). Another connection, unveiled only to be brushed aside by Richard Ellmann, is Joyce’s borrowing, for the end of ‘The Dead’ from a book ‘that nobody reads any more, George Moore’s Vain Fortune’, a novel he describes the young Joyce as having ‘overpraised’. Where Beckett, is concerned, the connection may be altogether more personal: Nancy Cunard, publisher of Beckett’s Whoroscope and The Negro Anthology may have been George Moore’s daughter. Where comparisons are drawn to Beckett’s Irish contemporaries they are usually to Joyce, unsurprisingly, and to his 1930s poetic modernist confrères; no one, to my knowledge, has suggested a link to Moore. There is a well-known poster of Irish writers to be found in many Irish pubs, Moore’s absence from which has been lamented by Adrian Frazier (he should replace Brendan Behan, Frazier has argued), and in this absence the connections between and other writers such as Beckett are all too often an ‘untilled field’, but as the affinities I hope to outline suggest, one whose cultivation is long overdue.
However under-acknowledged, the influence of The Untilled Field on the naturalism of Dubliners is obvious and unmistakable. In terms of the two authors’ careers, the volumes come at contrasting points. Joyce’s ‘scrupulous meanness’ in his stories, and wrangle with Grant Richards to get them into print, are very much of a piece with Stephen Dedalus agonistes, and the predicament of the young Joyce yet to achieve the expansive freedoms of exile. In Moore’s case, by contrast, The Untilled Field is the record of a return to Ireland after long residency in Paris and London, and a would-be contribution to the Celtic Revival, though with hindsight his subsequent falling out with Yeats looks only too inevitable. Prepared for a country as backward as the one he left, the returning Moore was more than a little taken aback by what he found. Frazier casts the returned émigré as a ‘Rip van Winkle, open[ing] his eyes to find homeland utterly changed.’ Had the creative fruits of this period, namely The Untilled Field, gone according to plan, they could have provided a virtual text-book definition of the phrase ‘reverse-engineered’: not only was the book first published in Tadhg Ó Donnchadha and Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin’s Irish translation as An t-Úr Ghort, in 1902, Moore originally intended to destroy the English version. In the end he did no such thing, and the Irish version, credited to one ‘Seorsa Ó Mordha’, could not even make it into the window of the Gaelic League’s Dublin office. All that Moore got out of the experience was the delightful self-estrangement of seeing himself translated back into English, by T.W. Rolleston, from his translators’ Irish, deeming his lines ‘much improved after their bath in Irish.’
Joyce was not so open to Revivalist infatuations. Throughout Dubliners, turn-of-the-century Revivalism, as a branch of Irish nationalism, is associated with narrowness, inadequacy and failure. If Little Chandler fancies himself as a Celtic Twilight poet, with his daydreams of what a reviewer might make of a book of his fey little verses (‘A wistful sadness pervades these poems... The Celtic note’), he has found the perfect fantasy outlet for his priggish, timid soul. We can scarcely read the opening words of ‘A Mother’ (‘Mr Holohan, assistant secretary of the Eire Abu Society’) without guessing, correctly, that the world we are about to enter is one of petty snobbery and one-upmanship. ‘When the Irish Revival began to be appreciable Mrs Kearney determined to take advantage of her daughter’s name and brought an Irish teacher to the house’, begins another sentence. So much starchy self-righteousness is a difficult act to keep up, and when Mrs Kearney snaps, over a disputed payment for her daughter’s singing, her loss of face is extreme.
Looking for points of connection to The Untilled Field, we must first face an obvious contrast, that of city (Joyce) and countryside (Moore). Rare forays to Mullingar aside, Joyce was exclusively a writer of the Irish metropolis, and it is probably just as well that his plan for a companion volume to Dubliners, Provincials, never came to anything. In the geography of rural Ireland, it can seem in an odd way from Moore’s stories that America is closer than Dublin; it is to America, not Dublin, that love-lorn bachelors, fallen women, or the would-be self-made man instinctively turn. Yet, to push my theme of exile and return, it is notable that Moore’s small-town world appears to allow for more mobility than Joyce’s. None of Joyce’s Dubliners is permitted to leave the city, and when Eveline gets the chance to board a ship for far-off Buenos Aires, she physically cannot. In Moore, however, the trope of American exile is given an original spin in ‘Home Sickness’, as return to the Irish countryside turns out to be the wrong move for Bryden, who ends up missing and returning to the home-from-home of the States, abandoning his bride-to-be. This makes for an interesting reversal, but Moore goes further and gives Bryden a kind of home sickness to the power of two when, returned to the States, he once again indulges dreams of his home village. As he writes in the story’s concluding lines:
There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself, and his unchanging, silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it, and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes about it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills.
As his aborted return home showed, Bryden could have had his wandering hills if he wished. Having lost them out of economic necessity, the first time round, it is as though he needs to return to lose them all over again, the better to enshrine them as symbolic hills of the mind’s eye. But where is home and where is abroad in all of this it becomes almost impossible to say.
Writing to his brother Stanislaus of his hopes for ‘The Dead’, Joyce registered a note of remorse for the excessive cruelty in his representations of Ireland elsewhere in Dubliners (‘it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh’), and his failure to honour its warmth and hospitality. If ‘The Dead’ softens the harshness we find elsewhere in Dubliners, Moore succeeds throughout The Untilled Field in offering his blighted characters some small consolations, even if these comforts turn out to be self-deluding or even self-destructive. Compare Joyce’s ‘Counterparts’ and Moore’s ‘The Clerk’s Quest’: the former ends in a brutal epiphany of failure and impotence, whereas Moore’s clerk, Mr Dempsey, succumbs to a Bartlebyesque distraction and very unBartlebyesque erotomania for a woman he knows only from the perfume that clings to the letters she sends to his office. He dies in a ditch in a state of blissful delusion, a tragic enough fate, but one that at least succeeds in snapping him out of his awful routine, whereas Joyce’s Farrington, we sense, has many more years of the same numbing work ahead of him.
The role of the church, needless to say, is central to both collections. Moore’s ‘The Window’ is an ambivalent portrait of the role of Catholicism with a strong genetic link to Joyce, through the person of Flaubert and his novella Un coeur simple, in which the simple-minded Félicité mistakes her parrot for a vision of the holy spirit. The religious enthusiasm, tipping into mania, of Biddy M’Hale, allows Moore a delicious study in the authoritarian-bureaucratic side of the church, and its deep distrust of those who would substitute the visionary’s irrationalism for these staider qualities. In Joyce’s ‘The Sisters’, the old priest is reduced to a walking zombie by the blankness of his personality and his cringing enforcement of clerical law, yet it is only when his physical ability to administer this law is threatened – as represented by the chalice slipping from his hand – that anyone suspects something might be wrong. The paralysis is as much the sisters’ as it is the priest’s, for their inability to see that his whole life has been one long prostration. Biddy’s devotion tips into madness, or social pariahdom at least, when she interrupts Fr Maguire as he says mass.
Moore’s most extended treatment of exile and return comes in the magnificent and longest story in The Untilled Field, ‘The Wild Goose’, its title an Irish by-word for exile. Its protagonist, the Irish-American Carmady, a figure with more than a touch of Charles Stewart Parnell about him, travels to Ireland, where he hopes to carve out a political career. He marries the sensitive, intelligent and wealthy Ellen, but their marriage founders on her Catholic horror at his anti-clericalism. Here Moore is very much in step with Joyce, and we are left in no doubt that her scruples are born of a fatal cocktail of fear, ignorance, repression and cowardice. But for Carmady, there is no going back and no remorse: as he clears Howth head in the ferry, he feels himself a ‘free soul’:
If he had stayed he would have come to accept all the base moral coinage in circulation; and he stood watching the green waves tossing in the mist, at one moment ashamed of what he had done, at the next overjoyed that he had done it.
If I am arguing that Moore allows his characters more relief from the straitjacket of Irish paralysis than Joyce, this is not to say he is writing at a lesser pitch of honesty or intensity. The great exception to this rule, once again, is ‘The Dead’, in which Gabriel’s imaginative flight of fancy to the West of Ireland acts as both an escape from the constricting world of Dublin but an embrace, too, of the deathly, snow-bound world he finds there. Gabriel has artistic pretensions but not the strength of character to make of his journey the successful route into exile taken by Joyce himself. Carmady is neither one thing nor the other; and it would be entirely against the spirit of ‘The Wild Goose’ for him to feel bested or unmanned by the power of religion, a force for which he feels nothing but contempt. He simply comes and goes, inhabiting the trope of exile and return with a lightness of heart not permitted to Joyce’s more constricted Dubliners. And this too is to Moore’s credit in my comparison, since least of all do I want to suggest that The Untilled Field is merely a precursor text and nothing besides.
Moving on to Beckett, a handy starting point might be his 1934 essay ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, in which he launches a full-frontal assault on ‘the altitudinous complacency of Victorian Gael’, and the ‘cut-and-dried sanctity and loveliness’ recycled by Revivalist poetasters. As has long been apparent, there is something wilful about Beckett’s assault on Austin Clarke: Clarke’s investment in Irishness and Irish myth are grounds enough for damnation in Beckett’s eyes, it seems, though his recent experiences had sharpened Beckett’s prejudices on that score. His short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks was banned by the Irish censor, allegedly on the strength of its title alone, prompting Beckett to another satirical broadside, ‘Censorship in the Saorstat’. But even before this, the stories themselves are full of satirical jibes at the ‘haemorrhoidal isle’, as Beckett called it, and a lingering Revivalist culture that Moore would have recognised with ease.
Belacqua is anomalous among Beckett’s anti-heroes for both his definable social background and sociability, making his way haplessly and helplessly through a succession of unlucky women. Reference to his ‘grand old family Huguenot guts’ and his self-designation as a ‘dirty low-down Low Church Protestant high-brow’ mark him out as a déclassé Protestant horrified by his philistine caste and its doltish rites, more at ease among the proletarian drinkers of ‘Ding-Dong’, but quick to sneer at a street renamed for Patrick Pearse and the antics of a drawing-room Revivalist at the party that forms the centrepiece of ‘A Wet Night’. A good test of the Beckett-Moore comparison is how Beckett fares with characters drawn from outside his own social sphere, and here we are reminded that, of the three books I am considering, More Pricks Than Kicks is by far the most youthful and immature. Belacqua’s fellow Dubliners are in the main a gallery of grotesques and comic foils, who struggle to penetrate his (anti-)heroic self-absorption, but there are nevertheless moments of tenderness and empathy, as when the little girl gets run down in ‘Ding-Dong’, and for the woman selling ‘tickets for heaven’ in the pub at the end of the same story:
Her speech was that of a woman of the people, but of a gentlewoman of the people. Her gown had served its time, but yet contrived to be respectable. (...) But her face, ah her face, was what Belacqua had rather refer to as her countenance, it was so full of light. (...) Brimful of light and serene, serenissime, it bore no trace of suffering, and in this alone it might be said to be a notable face.
His momentary high-mindedness is not enough, however, to prevent him departing for the kips in Railway Street several lines later. The ‘homespun poet’ Belacqua flees in the pub in ‘A Wet Night’ could be any of the minor poets excoriated in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, and the poem he recites is a piece of delightfully absurdist dross. Yet a comparison of ‘Calvary by Night’, the poem he recites, and a contemporary poem of Beckett’s, such as ‘Alba’, reveals an unusual level of stylistic overlap: both poems adopt a halting, fractured style, a quasi-sacramental tone, and any number of proxy images for matters sexual. While conducted on the level of knockabout farce rather than anything as subtle as ‘The Dead’, the party in ‘A Wet Night’ stages its own confrontation between progressive and conservative opinion, echoing Gabriel’s tussle with Miss Ivors, in the persons of the Polar Bear and the Jesuit, though the latter is not without a touch of snobbery for his own side (‘I am not a parish priest’).
As Adrian Frazier reminds us, Moore’s portrait of the idealistic priest in ‘The Way Back’ and ‘In the Clay’ drew on Fr Gerald O’Donovan, whose views on church architecture often brought him into conflict with the hierarchy of the day, but who illustrates that Catholic life was far from the uniform drabness and conformity we might imagine. The church produced genuine intellectuals such as Monsignor Pádraig de Brún, uncle of the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi and translator of Homer and Dante into Irish. Beckett’s great friend Thomas MacGreevy, another exemplar of Moore’s flight-path of exile and return, combined fervent Catholicism with modernist experiment in his poetry, and ended his life editing the Capuchin Annual.
The combination of spiritual vocation and quixotic artistic vision on the part of another priest, Fr MacTurnan (based on one Fr Peter Finlay), finds expression in fantastical plans for a Co. Mayo Oberammergau, in ‘A Play-House in the Waste’. Here Moore deftly avoids apportioning the blame solely to religion for Ireland’s culture of failure and paralysis; or to the extent that religion is responsible, Moore shows it conducting its experiments on a populace so enfeebled by poverty and emigration as to make the process almost tragicomic in its futility. The same Fr MacTurnan becomes obsessed with rescinding clerical celibacy, to avoid the awful fate of Ireland becoming a Protestant nation, as described in ‘A Letter to Rome’. While ‘A Play-House in the Waste’ reminded me of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film about a mad Irishman trying to build an opera house in the Peruvian rainforest, there is also an irresistible Beckett intertext, in the form of ‘First Love’:
What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will found our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire. Elysium of the roofless.
Moore provides his own image of Irish desolation in ‘Julia Cahill’s Curse’, where a passionate young woman rebels against a controlling priest, not just by leaving her parish but placing it under a curse as she goes, that every year a roof in the village would fall. At moments like these, with their suggestion of dark pagan powers lying beyond any priestly control, Moore allows his characters a measure of connection to dark and passionate forces, so that Julia Cahill is a representative both of modern Ireland, rejecting the authority of the church, yet a figure of the Hidden Ireland too, which the church has struggled in vain to keep down.
Moore’s ‘Alms-Giving’ has a strongly Beckettian savour, winkling out the core of unacknowledged cruelty behind our concern for the handicapped, just as Beckett does in Endgame or Rough for Theatre I, with its brilliantly drawn sadistic beggars (an early version of whom appears in the paralysed beggar of ‘A Wet Night’). But even more Beckettian yet is ‘So on he Fares’, a small masterpiece of a story about a boy feeling unloved by his mother who runs away to sea. Beckett returns several times in his fiction to the scene of a child requesting reassurance from his mother, and being coldly put in his place (‘A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said’), and in ‘So on he fares’ the sadistic mother slaps a bee against her son’s neck, stinging him. He begs a lift from a passing bargeman at the end of his garden (readers of Beckett’s novellas will remember their fondness for canals), and, to keep to his story rather than be returned home, claims to know where he is when he asks to be set down near the mouth of the Shannon. Here he meets a kindly woman who takes him in. On her death several years later he goes to work as a sailor, but eventually decides to go home. What happens next is a brilliant inflection of the theme of exile and return: he encounters none other than himself as a young boy: a boy who bears his name, Ulick Burke. His mother had given him up for drowned and recycled his name with her next child by his father, who has returned during Ulick’s absence but is now away again, not to return for another three years. Initial joy at being home quickly gives way to the realisation that his mother still doesn’t much care for him, so down he goes to the end of the garden again and hitches a ride with the same boat that had brought him home. The circle of exile is completed in a return that has brought with it no great confrontation or reconciliation, and no great lessons: life has simply continued as before, and the narrator departs as before, for more or less the same reasons. The story’s last words could come from one of Beckett’s 40s novellas, in their beautiful equanimity and acceptance of homelessness, rambling and loss:
The evening sky opened calm and benedictive, and the green country flowed on, the boat passed by ruins, castles and churches, and every day was alike until they reached the Shannon.
The proleptic echo of the end of ‘The Dead’ here compounds my sense of this as a key text in the nodal connection between the three writers. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of exile and home, Moore’s fiction steers a unique and undercharted course, and one whose rewards are there for the taking, if we choose to follow.