For here I am at the place I started,/ And that is the cause of all my tears,/ Fast in the rope of the rushing years/ With age and want in lessening span/ And death at the end and no hopes of a man." So wrote County Clare man Brian Merriman around 1780 in his famous poem "The Midnight Court," a classic of Gaelic Irish poetry. The 1,026-line poem set out to satirize relations between the sexes and joyously recommends the pleasures of earthy lust even to clerics. The risqué content of the poem is unusual in the period in which it was written, but even more striking is Merriman's choice of strident women's voices to air his views on native sexual hypocrisy.
Two hundred and twenty years later, Irish women's voices do not need to be filtered through the works of men, and some modern-day Irish clerics have become infamous for their sexual exploits (and not all of these with consenting adults). Ireland is in thrall to its first proper economic boom. Everything is different or in flux.
In the seaside town of Lahinch in County Clare, little seems to have changed until you notice the store selling surfboards and the youth of the town parading their slacker chic. Nonetheless, things seem reassuringly the same again, out on the pitted boreen that leads to a royal blue cottage, squatting cozily over Liscannor Bay. It's impossibly picturesque, the stony geological phenomenon that is the Burren behind, the Atlantic deep to the fore. A cat sleeps on the window ledge, and Nuala O'Faolain literally bounces 'round the gable, accompanied by her equally frolicsome sheepdog, Molly. The bouncing is possibly caused by relief. O'Faolain has traveled to that land from whose bourn few journalist returns, with the publication of her first novel, My Dream of You (Riverhead; Forecasts Jan. 8). She can now call herself a writer of fiction and leave the monochrome world of fact behind.
Readers of O'Faolain's hit memoir, Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (Holt, 1998), will quickly discern the same authenticity of tone, the same strange kind of truth-telling, in My Dream of You. O'Faolain and her heroine, Kathleen de Burca, are alike in many respects. Both the products of uneasy marriages and miserable childhoods, both find themselves in middle age without children or partners. De Burca, like O'Faolain, is an Irish journalist, and she rambles the world working for a London-based travel magazine. Her life is a well-balanced exercise in despair-control, but the unexpected death of her closest friend and colleague, a gay man, cuts her adrift. Suddenly, the center cannot hold; Kathleen realizes running away won't do any good this time. She must go back—back to Ireland, to family, to memories, to a bittersweet affair and, via a bottom-drawer project, back through Famine history to research the divorce case of a landlord's wife whose own life was misshapen by the hunger for love.
It's dangerous territory, the fictional terrain of spinsterhood. Tales of single women have always been told (often by men) as comedies of desperation. Sexual longing and frustration in a woman of a certain age somehow carries a whiff of taboo and shame even in 2001. But O'Faolain is as brave a novelist as she was a memoirist. Passion among the gray-pubed and potbellied is described in winsomely tender detail, but one passage describing the sensual pleasures of a man's dentureless gums caused a male friend to cringe when he read it. O'Faolain is bemused. "In these days nearly all men are narcissists, and it is a pity. It's a pity for them that they cannot escape in our time from questions of how they are presenting themselves. For Kathleen to meet a man who doesn't care about all that is incredible. A natural man who takes his teeth out. I know people are going to find it more horrifying than any sexual perversion I could possibly have mentioned." She adds that her intention is "the opposite intention to pornography. I hope the scenes of lovemaking will import a bit of loving intelligence into bits of sex. Men's writing about sex is so awful."
It's hard to think of many other first-time novelists who chose to touch on such an array of big themes. My Dream of You is about love, sexual passion, aging, loneliness, feminism, being Irish in Britain and the Great Irish Famine of 1845—1850. But O'Faolain, with a distinguished career in journalism behind her, is well placed to reflect on all these themes and knows it. She says, "The fact of the matter is, I firmly believe that tens of thousands of people will get a great read out of this book, and a thoughtful read. There's enough hooks in it for any living person to go in any direction thinking about the themes. And it's got a certain amount of originality, particularly about the fucking English."
Although Are You Somebody? was a huge hit in Ireland and spent 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, O'Faolain was so stunned by her unexpected success that she didn't at first see the book-writing game as the beginning of a new career. In fact, My Dream of You took a year and a half to write, and she had to leave "sour" Dublin and move to a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village to do it. For the first 12 months, writing was nothing but "shoveling rubbish around in a welter of insecurity. I used to get up in the morning, in the dark, and I'd be crying when I'd sit down at the laptop." Although, as already noted, there are resonances between the memoir and this new novel, O'Faolain is extremely uncomfortable discussing Kathleen in autobiographical terms. She clearly feels passionately about this, saying, "To me I've got a clear sense that Kathleen is far too simpleminded to be me. Far too easily consoled. Far too young and optimistic. I couldn't, I wouldn't have made the same decision about Shay. The reason I have to distance myself from her is I'm just not her. She becomes not me. At the start she's like me when I really don't know what I'm doing. And I'm skidding around the world, sleeping with anybody I might bump into in an airport arrivals hall. I'm her on the boat to Manila, thinking, 'Christ the world's awful.' I'll take that on board, but gradually Kathleen becomes a different person who I like and am even amused by, but I don't identify with her."
But, for a reader of both books, it will be less clear where Nuala ends and Kathleen begins. At an earlier juncture, when discussing the genesis of the novel following her discovery of the transcript of the Talbot divorce case from 1852, O'Faolain herself says, "I had the Talbot thing on one half of my brain, and I had what I had really wanted to say in the memoir in the other half of my brain, which is that I'm kicking against getting old. I hate it. I hate it because the possibilities of love and romance diminish with every passing day to the point where, in the end, they're ludicrous. They're the two themes I wanted to get together somehow. And I saw clearly that they are about different aspects of passion. Marianne Talbot was young, and she lost everything [because of an alleged affair with a servant], but you lose everything anyway in the shape of life." So it is that My Dream of You addresses personal issues that O'Faolain couldn't raise even in the form of her candid memoir.
That O'Faolain has survived into her 50s after a childhood destroyed by her careless, neglectful parents is something of a wonder. Her father, a journalist too, was Ireland's first proper social diarist. A vain spendthrift, his parallel existence as a man-about-town absorbed him much more than his obligations as a husband and father. Her mother, Catherine, was constantly pregnant (she bore nine children) and, overwhelmed by poverty, drudgery and loneliness, sought refuge in drink and an escape in reading. By the age of 14, the young Nuala was out of control, bunking off school by day, hanging around dancehalls by night. For one moment in time her parents took notice, and she was dispatched to boarding school, where her intellect flowered. Nevertheless, O'Faolain was already harmed, and her adult life is consequently littered with bad choices about men and love and intimacy. Yet, it seems that some omniscient presence is lurking in the wings of her life, ready to pull her back from the brink when all is nearly lost. Her greatest gift is her wonderful, bright intelligence, and this earned her a distinguished education at the universities of Dublin, Hull and Oxford. Her way with words led her to a career in journalism and broadcasting, and she became one of Ireland's best-known and most respected columnists.
But she sees the years from her late 20s to her late 40s as wasted years. With a certain wistfulness she says, "Since I've been about 53 I've been doing what I should have been doing all the time [i.e., writing other than journalism]." But she admits in the memoir, and now, that without one crucial relationship she might not have lived to tell the tale. It's strange, then, that this relationship finds no mirror in her fiction, nor could she write honestly about it in her memoir.
At age 39 O'Faolain returned to Ireland after the failure of a lengthy love affair. She says, "To me one of the many things wrong between me and the man I loved was that he was English, and he despised Irish people. For a while he thought I was picturesque, and then you'd see him wince. And he was a snob like English people are." She was a broken woman, drinking too heavily and finally seeking treatment for alcoholism. Enter Nell McCafferty, another famous Irish journalist, stout-hearted, capable, openly gay. Nuala says, "Luckily, Nell had a big crush on me, and I was so derelict I didn't know or care what happened. It was one of the great strokes of my life [meeting Nell], and I did love her. I got better through her and through having a home for the first time." But O'Faolain doesn't see herself as gay or even bisexual. She argues that few people's lives "come from their sexuality." Surprisingly, she says, "I never thought of Nell as a woman, and when I woke up in bed with Nell it didn't seem remarkable to me at all. God knows I'd woken up in bed with other people. And God knows she was much nicer and more honorable and more loving. It was much more healthy and life-giving than any relationship with a man. But I still would walk across 59 women to get to one man if I was attracted to him."
It lasted for 10 years ("As soon as I had the courage to leave her my real life began," says O'Faolain), and, though Nuala and Nell are no longer even friends, she sent the first finished copy of My Dream of You to her. Nell must have been astonished to find Nuala's psyche as rampantly heterosexual as ever because, according to Nuala, "Nell is very bitter. She says this novel is a disgrace."
And so it is that though Ireland and the Irish are changing, some things stay the same. Nuala O'Faolain hopes for, but doesn't expect another love. She's got her writing; she started another novel in December. She says, "All I care about now is how am I going to live well to the end. Can I keep going properly and not go mad or sour or eccentric." She enjoys a good relationship with her editor, Julie Grau, at Riverhead, who she says is "a terrific editor, and she's fun as well. I love her company."
When PW arrived at her house, Nuala presented a newspaper clipping of a poem with the words "Read that later." It turns out to be a poem called "Harm" by C.K. Williams. It's about a tramp who's a regular feature of the city neighborhood in which the poem is set. The poet sees this old derelict every day, then one day he sees the tramp take down his trousers and defecate, right there on the street, without even bothering to squat. The sight of the old man's decrepitude is appalling. When an adolescent girl walks by, the poet says, she "looked,/ and looked away, and looked at me, and looked away again, and made me want to say to her,// because I imagined what she must have felt, It's not like this, really, it's not this,/ but she was gone, so I could think, But isn't it like this, isn't this just what it is?"