Today, We Are All Irish

Editing and Remembering

Working on the novel today. I am remembering my research of the Book of Kells in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin. So long ago, it seems. Not to the Book of Kells, I'm sure. The last of its 340 folios was completed in 384AD.

Today is March 17, and the weather is beautiful where I am. The sun is bright in a blue sky and warming the chill of a late winter morning beside the Pacific. It's a good day and I am grateful for it. That said, I'd rather be in The Temple Bar this morning for a proper Irish Breakfast.

Irish Breakfast

  • Eggs

  • Bacon (chewy, not crispy)

  • Sausages

  • Mushrooms

  • Baked Beans

  • Grilled Tomato

  • Black Pudding

  • Toast  (Irish soda bread for me, thanks)

  • Butter

  • Marmalade

  • Tea  (coffee for this Yank)

Dublin is 11 hours and 5,145 miles away measured in time and miles but not in the more accurate distance of memory, desire and the senses. The streets, Georgian stone architecture, the greens, buskers and bracing poetic passions of that place are just outside my mind's window today.

The annual St. Patrick's parade will cross over the Liffey River at O'Connell Street and enter another year of one of western society's most enduring traditions.

Patrick and Ireland are indelibly bound in our imaginations, yet he is not Irish. He was born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain. When he was about 16, Irish pirates kidnapped him and sold him into slavery to a Druid high priest in Ireland.  He worked as a shepherd for six years before escaping back to Britain. Eventually, he had a dream in which a voice gave him the mission of returning to Ireland to work with the Christians there. Patrick was beyond good for the Emerald Isle. He adopted the Irish and by the time of his death, he had established schools, monasteries and churches all over the island. 

Perhaps it's the Irish in me, but I'd like to think that Patrick and today's Irish would recognize one another if he were to return to Ireland for today's celebration in Dublin. He would welcome the embrace of that legendary and companionable literary city.

Now, I'm off in my mind to The Temple Bar for a stout. With a raising of the glass by the Scot in me to the North-Northeast and a corresponding Sláinte to the assembled patrons in the pub, I settle in to appreciate ballads accompanied by Uilleann pipes.

Photo: Leandro Borges de Carvalho

Photo: Leandro Borges de Carvalho

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you.

 

Mark

Separate Fictions, Joint Reality

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

All our separate fictions add up to joint reality.

- Stanislaw Lec (1962)

BTW Cvr Blue.png

Recently, I discovered an alternate draft of the pitch for my novel, BEYOND THESE WOODS. Considering its position between works-in-progress dating back to 2014, I assume that I put it aside when one of the calls-to-duty that occur in my working life took precedence, and the draft was misplaced for the past four years. Reading it, I experienced a return to my state of mind at that time, which now seems irretrievably distant, a time before the flare-up of human darkness that threatens to overtake us. 

The fictional dysfunction at the root of the conflict in BEYOND THESE WOODS remains with us in fact. My novel is an imagining based on facts rooted in events that have occurred in our lifetimes and remain unresolved mysteries. The passions that drive social, economic, scientific, political and military forces to their breaking points in WOODS have metastasized into a plague on America's foundational principles and the institutions upon which our ancestors built what I have always considered to be a good life. Our shared aspirations and values have become practice targets for the angry and aggrieved among us who are willing to submit to the disruptive expedient, to roll the dice and only hope they haven’t participated in the torching of civilization. Perhaps they are exhausted by the demands of progress and have intentionally submitted to a louder, dominant destroyer. It’s just easier. The duties of effective citizenship are too hard.

Reading this alternative draft through, I am struck by how everything has changed in our day-to-day reality, and nothing has changed at all. We are re-learning that consciousness of a fact is not the same as knowing it. Our history is repeating like a dark tidal current. 

Here is what I wrote earlier:

When men claim that the earth was made for them, beware. Human beings - and birds, fish, mammals, plants - are of and by the earth. When men bully Mother Earth, who stands up to them? The lobbyist, the sheriff, the national guard, the average citizen, the lone wolf scientist? When men savage Earth's ancient forests, who has the courage to say no?

When all of these forces conspire to brutalize again and again, should anyone be surprised when Mother Nature pushes back?

Many of the trees on the western slopes of California's oldest mountain ranges were growing peacefully before the first nation ancestors crossed the Aleutian Island chain, and more than 1,000 years before the first Europeans discovered North America. Giant Sequoia trees were masters of this corner of our planet. No other living thing could match them for size and strength. They have endured every wave of natural disaster and human exploration, settlement and exploitation. But today, something in California's Thunder Peak old-growth forest is killing everyone who comes to harm them, who thinks the Sequoia are theirs for the taking. Loggers and hunters are dying, struck dead in their tracks when they get too close. No one has a clue about what is causing these deaths among the trees' tormentors, except Lotte Keene, who knows more about nature -- including human nature -- than is healthy for her and anyone who works with her.

What this irrepressible scientist-adventurer doesn't know is that past is prelude in this environmental crisis. A mysterious environmental activist and a ruthless shadow force within America's government are dedicated to preventing her from ever learning the truth about their goals. Worse, they are unaware of their separate, yet intersecting plans. And Lotte Keene will stop at nothing to identify the cause of this pathogen. No one is safe from her fierce, unblinking and stubborn search. 

With Keene on their case, no clues are safe from discovery. No enemy is safe from the ultimate antiseptic; exposure to the people of Thunder Peak Wilderness, America and the world.

This is high-tech close-quarters warfare with causes and shadowy actors that are chillingly familiar to each of us. This is high-tech combat in which the enemy within is more terrifying than any enemy beyond our borders. 

This is the story of natural justice and one woman’s tenacity to solve the mystery of sudden death in the Sierras, to rescue earth’s oldest forest matriarchs, and save humankind from itself.

This is human weakness run rampant. In the wrong hands it will rewrite the laws of evolution and permanently alter life as we know it . . . beyond these woods.

I questioned whether to share unpublished writing from another time. What decided it for me was the window this experience opened into a higher truth: humans are a fascinating breed capable of exquisite achievement and beauty, yet we are simultaneously inclined to darker deeds. There are times when we as a species can't seem to control our horrifying impulses. We allow the worst among us to rise, dominate and destroy. Just as the people of Longwood, California experience the nightmare of creeping extremism in BEYOND THESE WOODS and have to confront how far they are willing to let chaos take over their lives and everything they have worked generations to achieve, we now find ourselves at a similar moment of truth in 2018 America, the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Egypt and elsewhere.  

One is fiction that gives us an opportunity to live history without paying a price for the experience. The other is fact. 

CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI | Andrew Sean Greer

Poignantly Awry - Life Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

I recently re-read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and am glad that I did. It is a leader in a small class of novels that deal so entertainingly with immortalism and aging.

Upon picking up the book for the first time, any of us would naturally ask ourselves: Did Max Tivoli really emerge from the womb an old man? That has to be writerly bravado, a wild swing at capturing the reader’s attention. Or the beginning of a story that has never been told before. Either way, the author has moxie.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is an enchanting and affecting novel about an old man born old in 1871 in San Francisco who is destined to grow young.

1st Picador Edition (2005) ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

1st Picador Edition (2005) ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

Andrew Sean Greer tells how this improbable mistake of biology, time and physics occurred in strikingly rich exposition. Max’s mother is from a wealthy Carolina family relocated to Comstock-crazed San Francisco. His father is one of the countless dreamers drawn to the Gold Rush. As Max tells it, “…the Comstock had made too many beggars into fat, rich men – so society became divided into two classes: the chivalry and the shovelry. My mother was of the first, my father of the wretched second.” Suitably, their union is a paradox of the mundane and the magical, which combine to create a moment of timeless possibility.

Max learns soon enough that while his condition is not unique, he is one of very, very few. So rare is his dilemma that only once – later in life as he grows younger – does he encounter another of his kind, and then it is only supposition.

Max meets his life’s great love early and their future seems doomed by the secret between them. Over time, he wins her through desperate deceptions for a glorious period in his middle years. Even then, she is unaware of his magical condition.

Greer's literary voice has been compared with Ford Madox Ford, which is high praise. Greer's narrator Max is direct whereas Ford's Good Soldier John Dowell is disengaged and distant. The ultimate unreliable narrator. " . . . I have generally found that my first impressions were correct enough. If my first idea of a man was that he was civil, obliging, and attentive, he generally seemed to go on being all those things."

Max is comfortable with seemingly straightforward declarative sentences, which are in fact occasionally complex expressions of deeper emotions woven like Celtic coils into his trustworthy narrative. He earns our confidence with candor and a voice that is consistently true to 21st century sensibilities despite its slant and attitudes of 1890's San Francisco. Max's out-of-time experiences and priorities complete the illusion of otherness. "While at twenty I had been far off the map of youth, now that I was nearly thirty I looked nearly right. Perhaps not quite in the bloom of youth, but approaching it in my ogreish way, and I began to get more than my usual share of glances from ladies who peered like fascinated children out of carriages, streetcars and shop windows."

Greer also consistently surprises and delights the close reader with his offhand use of opposites, subverting expectations and recharging our attention with the unexpectedly profound cast off phrase.  

The century turned, the seasons changed, but little changed for me until a lucky and terrible disaster.

Something of youth comes back with age.

This novel received extraordinary support with blurbs from John Updike, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, the L.A.Times, and the plaudits go on and on.

I enjoyed THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and will look for his short story collection, HOW IT WAS FOR ME and the novels, THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS, THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, and THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS.

 
If you read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and have an issue with my description, please comment below. I will respond if appropriate and update this post to reflect new information.

 

Andrew Sean Greer

Born to two scientists, Greer studied writing at Brown University, where he was the commencement speaker at his own graduation. He worked for years as a chauffeur, theater tech, television extra and unsuccessful writer in New York City. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from The University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, he lives in San Francisco and is a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center.

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THE CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, opens the windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje’s writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje’s writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat’s Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

VIDEO: John Berger and Michael Ondaatje

Two important writers discuss story telling and the creative process in a conversation recorded courtesy of the Lannan Foundation.

I have read, been inspired by, and re-read several of these writers’ books. John Berger’s To The Wedding and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and English Patient are particular favorites of mine. This conversation was recorded at John Berger’s farm in Quincy, Mieussy, France, October 2002.  Enjoy…




Resonance: Dreams give us lift . . .

Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.

 

Dreams give us lift …  The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.

Ivan Doig
HEART EARTH (p. 133)