Digging, from the BBC's "Seamus Heaney: A life in Pictures" broadcast 4/15/09
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a historical novel as much as I did Thomas Flanagan’s The Tenants of Time, nor have my expectations been so sharply disappointed as in William Kennedy’s highly-touted Quinn’s Book.
Strangely, when read consecutively they throw some odd lights on my Hibernian heritage and the unending horrors of Belfast and the IRA.
I’ve been to Dublin several times and feel oddly unrelated to my gene pool there. Nursing mothers begging in the streets turned me off wholly on my last visit.
I’ve only been once to Belfast—in October 1967, to take some students to the Arts Festival, where it was dumb Irish luck to stumble on Seamus Heaney, graciously reading a chrestomathy of Northern Irish poets, many of them good enough, but wholly eclipsed when he concluded by doing a swatch of his own.
“Digging” is one of the great lyrics of our age—as clear as a mountain lake but at the same time as deep as his heritage. In short, I found I could take a lot of Heaney but not a whit of the country itself.
Flanagan’s novel helps me to understand why. Its frame is a cultivated Oxonian type doing local history on the famous failed uprising of 1867. The principals in that farce are a Fenian agent who has earned eclat—if not skill—in the American Civil War as a noncom, a schoolmaster, and the self-made lawyer who joins Parnell in the British Parliament and shares that philanderer’s fate.
The young lawyer’s attempts to reconstruct what happened in 1867 from the disadvantage point of 1904 are frustrated by the sentimental and mendacious ways the flop has been transformed through the alchemy of the patriotic ballad and into heroic victory.
The schoolmaster is trying to retrieve the region’s folklore during his retirement, the ex-MP is living out his shame in penurious seclusion, and the Fenian fanatic has blown himself up in one of his many impractical schemes to oust the British overlords.
I’ve heard time and again stories about the potato famine. In this novel, it is the helpless rage of the peasants as they watch their cattle and corn being shipped off to England in the midst of their impending famine. It’s as cool and heartless as Kampuchea. Yet why did efforts to free themselves founder for so long?
As I read him, Flanagan says those peasants were “tenants of time,” indentured to their own sentimental version of what their country was and could become. The silly sentimentalizing of 1867 and ballads sung beerily in the pubs added handcuffs of self-delusion to the whips of the British absentee landlords.
Reading Flanagan’s marvelous palimpsest (he keeps running over and over the same events, from slightly different perspectives, so that finally you have a three-dimensional sense of Ireland’s painful past two centuries) makes me comprehend why it took so long to free the Republic and why it might take almost as long to get it joined to the North.
The Sinn Fein agitator at a London rally on last night’s TV suggests how Flanagan’s analysis, alas, still holds. It’s the best long, slow read I’ve had since John Hershey’s novel on the frustrations of muscular Christianity in modernizing China.
And then there’s Kennedy’s Quinn Book, cresting on a wave of superlatizing feature stories about how he has saved Albany from oblivion, about how he’s done for the capital of the Empire State what Joyce did for the capital of the Emerald State.
I couldn’t be less convinced. And I’ll tell you what first turned me off. Teenage Quinn’s employer, a larger-than-life boat captain, is so potent (and priapic) that he literally fucks back into life the corpse of the demimondaine he has saved from a fate worse than a hell of chastity.
In the stately mansion where this bit of retrieval takes place (we’re saving Albany, remember?), the long-sexually-inactive mistress of the place is so moved by the captain’s balling of the dead that she starts to pleasure herself on the spot.
I have no idea what Kennedy is driving at here, other than to attract attention. It’s as callow (and as shallow) as a television grabber.
The leitmotif of the novel—which positioned it in my mind next to Flanagan’s—is the hatred the Irish had to suffer and endure in Albany before and after the Civil War.
The passages on the Draft riots and the Irish involvement in them ring fairly true, though even here the grisly reigns during the assassination of a Negro who has shown great courage and imagination in manning an Underground Railroad terminal. But overall you get the feeling that the “history” rests more in Kennedy’s imagination than in the archives.
Compared with Flanagan’s patient and low-key portrait of a society in a state of somnabulism, Kennedy’s version of Irish experience across the water is a cartoon full of garish strokes, not all convincing.
And I’m depressed by the cliffhanging romance that brings Quinn and his true child-love to bed in the closing sequence of the novel. Kennedy should take some lessons in subtlety about love scenes from Flanagan as well.
The more patient writer gets at the pressure-cooker power of sex repressed, evaded and avoided in Irish culture with a finesse that makes the initiatory coupling in Quinn’s book look like a barroom joke or a john graffito.
There’s no real hope in hype—neither in the life of a nation nor in the life of a writer. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the intermittent performances in Quinn’s Book. It’s just that Flanagan’s book is as solid as an oak table; Kennedy’s is a comic book by comparison, flimsy, and ramshackle.