Fodder for fools

‘The knowledge of your own redundancy has a keen tooth.’ Niall Williams

These words from the musings of Williams’ narrator Noah, known in his family simply as Noe, in the novel, This is Happiness. They have the ring of truth.

Only this morning as I sat at my computer ready to work, I thought yet again of the mountains of words I have amassed during my lifetime and of how redundant they will become once I am gone. 

Wiped clean, no doubt, when someone clears my computer before sale or offering it to recycle yards. 

I thought, too, of my long-time correspondent Gerald Murnane with his 18, presumably more by now, filing cabinets, filled to the brim with his musings, copies of his correspondence with others, including me, and our letters in return. 

A treasure trove, if only someone is prepared to go through it.

Murnane refers to this person as his Future Creature. A young female researcher whose heart is bent on discovering as much as possible of the world of the so-called reclusive, Gerald Murnane. Fifty years after his death

But Future Creature might be a long-time materialising. And my hunch is, she’s more likely to be a ‘he’. It takes a particular sensibility to idealise the writings of someone like Gerald Murnane, and I suspect his work might appeal more to males in our mix. 

But who am I to pull out the gender card? After all I spent a decade writing to Gerald, until he sacked me, as in he wrote what he described as his last letter to me, believing we had said all we needed to say to one another. 

My suspicion, he sacked me because he was offended at my suggestion his wife Catherine, before she died, might have suffered the lot of many women, ‘chained to the sink’. 

She was not, Murnane insists. Not at all. Instead, he was the one chained to the sink, while she underwent a series of psychoses that left her in psychiatric care, and him with the bulk of childcare. 

I don’t doubt the accuracy of this, but it doesn’t take away from the idea that a marriage to the great Gerald Murnane could not have been easy, however difficult Catherine Murnane’s childhood might have been and whatever else might have happened to drive her mad. 

‘Imagination is not to be scorned,’ writes Williams in his book, which also brings me back to This is Happiness. I came across the title in the ABC books section online. People were asking for books written and read by Irish writers. So many love the Irish inflection, the lilting cadences, the way Irish words rise and fall. And several people recommended Niall Williams, read by Dermot Crowley.

What a treat to immerse yourself in Noe’s (for Noel) world. His eccentric, but highly relatable grandparents, and the indomitable Christi, who comes to visit on the pretext of ‘bringing the light’, as in turning on the electricity for the backward town of Faha.

When his intention is, we discover, a pilgrimage of reparation to atone for his sin of leaving the lovely Annie Mooney at the altar. Jilted. 

He could not go through with it at the time and although Annie married another man sometime later, a chemist in another township, and the two could not have children. She was eighteen years younger than this man, and who knows how this sadness came about, but Christi befriends the seventeen-year-old Noe who is staying with his grandparents, following his decision to leave the life of a priest in a Dublin seminary. And the story unfolds.

Ah me. Leaving the priesthood, such a familiar trope. Just as entering the priesthood, or the convent for that matter, was as familiar to me as crossing the street. It was a constant in our conversations when we grew up. 

Two of my brothers spent time in seminaries and my eldest sister seriously considered entering the convent, too. But the nuns of her choice, our nuns at school, the Faithful Companions of Jesus, would not have her. They had had heard from a local Catholic doctor that our father had a drinking problem, and the nuns considered the daughter of such a man, likely to be unstable.

They could afford to be picky in those days. Now they have fewer options to choose from, likewise the priests. 

I toyed with going into the convent myself and discussed it at least once with my favourite nun before I left school. But even as I spoke to her in earnest, and she appeared to take me seriously, I knew my only reason for wanting to enter was to be closer to her, and that was no reason to go into religious life.

Neither my sister nor I made it into the novitiate. My sister fell pregnant at nineteen to a priest and I went to university where I discovered a world of men and also joined the newly instituted  class of Women’s Studies and realised the unfair lot of women within the world. 

To enter a convent under the sway of the pope and his priests would not do at all. 

The younger of my two religious brothers went to the Redemptorist seminary in Galong in his mid-teens. At his request, I understand. Though I suspect my parents were keen because he lacked academic prowess and life as one of those preaching priests who travelled from parish to parish in Australia, spouting warnings of hell, fire and brimstone might do the trick.

This brother loved music and art, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. He loved to air guitar and drum like Ringo Star. He drummed every surface imaginable, including his sisters’ bodies.  

He lasted only a few months into a year, while the eldest brother who entered as a nineteen-year-old after a stint as a lay missionary in New Guinea, was more dedicated to his vocation with the Sacred Heart Missionaries. But he, too, went to university as part of his religious training and there he met a woman. 

Sybille, of the raven black hair, marble white skin and dark eyes. They married within a year and separated within another. For reasons that defy me, though I heard stories, my brother had such a leaning towards to the poor and downtrodden, he invited homeless men into his house at all times till his new wife could stand it no more.

I think of her often. This lovely young woman who was at least a decade older than me, and still alive somewhere, I believe.

The ordination of Franciscan brothers, two uncles among them, in 1947 or thereabouts, when the Catholic Church in Holland still had plenty of takers.

When I write the stories of my siblings, in shorthand form, I’m taken with a sensation I will get into trouble for speaking about other people, as though it isn’t any of my business. 

And when I reflect on Niall Williams’ story, and the way he covers the lives of so many citizens in the town of Faha, all of them, I suspect fictionalised versions of real people he has encountered throughout his life or amalgams of them, I’m left yet again with the wish I could hide behind a fiction writers’ façade and say, it’s all made up.

But fiction like ‘imagination is not to be scorned’, as Williams writes. And ‘truth is best revealed when exaggerated’.

The other voice in my head tells me it’s okay to write as I do because these people about whom I write are no longer with us. At least not in the sense their younger selves have morphed into older versions of people who, might not even recognise their younger selves. And these older people might also have different perspectives from me on what went on in those days.

As Hilary Mantel reckons, facts are not the be all and end all. 

‘Evidence is always partial. Facts are not the truth, though they are part of it. Information is not knowledge. And history is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It is not more the past than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.’

When Williams writes of the nuns as a ‘type of aristocracy’ my heart skips a beat. Nuns were indeed aristocracy. So regal, so powerful, as they walked the streets of Richmond when I was a younger person and shop keepers gave them bread for free, flowers for the altar for free, and offered them hospitality whenever possible. Their handyman skills, their taxi driving, anything they could offer, but only if they were Catholics. 

The rest of the world looked on in awe. And children skittered hither and thither at the sight of the black robed crows, but not the Catholic kids. We learned to bow our heads, to speak in hushed tones, to speak politely when addressed. And to stay alert. 

A nun might have been in second place behind the priests, but they were still powerful. And though less inclined to the physical cruelty of the brothers and priests in the church and school yard, the nuns could also wield the whip of their tongues. 

There was one nun at my convent school who especially terrified me. Perhaps because her subject was science and I had no aptitude in the world of facts, the world in which things happened, in the spheres of physics, chemistry or mathematics. 

I could only play around with words in my mind and imagination. I preferred books and languages.

One of my brothers once told me, if I was good at languages then I should be good at mathematics because it, too, is a language. Only to me maths is an orderly language I could never grasp. 

I can only think now, like many a female of my vintage, when we were young we were schooled in the knowledge that women lacked all fortitude for mathematics and the sciences. 

These were the sexy subjects though never referred to a such. They were the superior subjects that required superior intellects. And girls, being of the second sex, could never grasp the intricacies of such formulations. 

When you grow up, told often enough that because you’re a girl you can’t do maths, you take it to heart. And whenever sets of numbers appear on the page in front of you, your mind does this funny thing of closing over. 

The letters on the page become a blur and even as you concentrate hard to grasp the concept of long division, or, in year nine, how to use logarithms, the knowledge only sticks on the surface. Barely enough to scrape through your exams before it’s gone forever.

Knowledge that stays with me includes the words of poets, the tones of playwrights, lines from novels. Words you repeated again and again in your brain till they became part of your vocabulary and you became the writer you are today. 

All because the words offered a chance to go inside yourself and escape the tedium of life. Even as it sometimes got you into trouble for speaking out of turn. For seeing things in ways others disliked. 

Still the words were yours alone. And when you put them down on scraps of paper and filled the blank pages with your images and ideas, you were the master of your own destiny. And for a woman raised on a diet of inadequacy and failure, the idea of mastery is a joy indeed.