Enright Anne

Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz

Anne Enright’s last novel was published to no fanfare at all (though some noticed it), and went on to win the Booker Prize. I liked The Gathering on balance – just about, I think – but my main issue with it was an unexpected one. Normally I would be dismissive of those who reject a book for not having likeable characters; with The Gathering, it wasn’t so much that I thought the narrator Veronica ridiculous and risible, but that I was fairly sure Enright didn’t intend her to be so. I hadn’t intended to read her next novel until I read wild praise for it from trustworthy sources.

The Forgotten Waltz, in other words, carried expectations both high and low. Perhaps the experience of The Gathering softened me up for it (I had better note that I couldn’t even finish the baroque sentences of Enright’s earlier novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch). Here the language is plainer, the character no less spiky, the result more purely pleasurable. This is not to say that Enright makes any concessions. Again she presents not a character or caricature but a real person, a real woman relating the tangle and contradictions of real life. She has no interest in charming the reader or attracting sympathy (though that is a disarming quality in itself).

The value of Enright’s writing is to take on the task of making the most hackneyed subject matter into a necessary work. She has written the story of a love affair. Partly what distinguishes it is its setting, around and after the Ireland’s great property crash of 2008 and beyond. The financial crisis, probably the biggest boom-to-bust in Europe after Iceland’s, affected families in Ireland as only money can, but for Enright it is reinforcing, not causative. Her narrator, Gina, an IT professional in her early 30s, is married to Conor (“The internet was made for Conor: the way he was always interested but could never settle on one thing”) when she meets Seán. Seán is much older and no looker – “not exactly a siren song” – but in the usual unexplainable way, gradually and then suddenly, they begin an affair. It is sexy but unromantic. After their first “adultery – I didn’t know what else to call it,” Gina feels “suicidal. Or the flip side of suicidal: I felt like I had killed my life, and no one was dead. On the contrary, we were all twice as alive.”

What else distinguishes this book? Scott Pack said “there really is no difference between this and the many volumes of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ that you see on sale in supermarkets and train stations.” If commercial women’s fiction is what we now call chicklit, I couldn’t disagree more. The Forgotten Waltz is the opposite of chicklit in that it brings news, it subverts expectations and does not give easy answers. In chicklit we know the formulas and the character types; here everything is made new. It is complex in its structure (Enright cites inspiration in Ford Madox Ford’s knotty The Good Soldier), though this complexity reduces to a very simple and beautiful effect. It is that each chapter (playfully named after romantic songs) seems to contain the entire affair, past and present, without making the time lines unfollowable. This can only come from an author who truly knows her subject and works the whole book to be steeped in it. Even when we think we know what the final status is – what’s happening in the ‘now’ of the narrative – we come to understand that there is no final status. Near the end Gina’s position seems to shift from consistent upheaval to one of tentative stability, merely threatened with upheaval – in other words, normal family life (if that is not an oxymoron).

The Forgotten Waltz is as much about family as The Gathering was. It highlights the contradictions of family and home life: the traditions and routines, the box it keeps us in which is also offers security, its status as a refuge or place of danger. Everyone in the book is acutely aware, as everyone in Ireland at the time was aware, of the financial and market status of their home. Gina always longed for a house with a sea view: “it didn’t seem a lot to ask – a house that would clean your life every time you looked out of it.” It would be facile to make the economic downturn into a metaphor for the turbulence of Gina’s love life (and one of the features of her story is its distinction between a love affair and love). Instead, the setting informs the characters – Irish people fixated with money and status, irrespective of their own level – and the characters inform the story. Some things, however, are universal. When Seán tells her she has “lovely skin, so soft,” Gina wonders, “Why did men need to persuade themselves? Why did they have to have you, and make you up at the same time?”

Bringing together the universal and the particular is Enright’s speciality, simultaneously bringing revelations of what other people are like while reassuring the reader that their own failings are normal. (Perhaps normal is not the word: usual, then.) “I wanted to sit where I was, and let time pass elsewhere. How do you do that?” asks Gina. How indeed? Meanwhile, one woman I know loved the book partly for the “the best portrayal I’ve ever read of a woman having an affair. I recognise it from the inside out.” By the same token, for me the book told me things I didn’t know. Gina, like Veronica in The Gathering, seems a cool, tough character. But any fictional creation as full and real as she is, must be by definition vulnerable, exposed, undefended because of everything she shares. Like the details of the property boom and bust or the involvement of Seán’s daughter (“the fact that a child was affected…”), Gina’s story is what it is. “Not pretty, but true.”

Anne Enright: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

Readers of – or failing that, readers of reviews of – Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering may recall that this Irish family saga was almost indecently steeped in sex, and the male member in particular. The mixed reactions (including my own) to The Gathering made me want to read something else of Enright’s, so I plumped for her previous novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002). And it opens with this: “Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854.” Anne, really: is there something you’re trying to tell us?

The opening section doesn’t let up after that attention-seeking start, as Lopez and Eliza push and pull against one another, “twenty times in all.”

Paco and Liz, laughing on the bed. Mme Lynch silently looking at the silently looking Senor Lopez. The tart from County Cork turning towards the turquoise, as the little mestizo handles it into her. It was a moment that garnered the blame of nations, as if everything started here. Something did start here – there are such things as beginnings – but what? But what?

What indeed? By the end of their congress, Eliza is unknowingly changed (“a future had dug itself into her, and was now holding on. A tiny fish, a presence urgent and despotic”), and then the book changes too. We set sail with Eliza and Lopez for Paraguay, where he is the heir to wealth and she is now his … what again? Wife, lover, whore? We know that Enright’s Eliza was not above lying back and thinking of Ireland, but like so much else in this book, we are never quite sure what she is.

The rest of the novel then is made up of Eliza’s account of their journey to and arrival in Paraguay, alternating with accounts of her later life there told from the years ahead by a Doctor Stewart. “I do not know what we are talking about, now,” says Eliza halfway through the book, and by that stage I was only too happy to nod a frantic agreement. The intricate mess of language, which on the one hand is so rich and delightful in almost every paragraph, a living thing all contours and melodies, also goes to block understanding of the story.

All this makes The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch on the one hand a more seductive read than The Gathering – Technicolor where that was more monochrome – and yet harder to follow as a story. Nonetheless there are elements which any reader of The Gathering will find familiar, such as lines like, “Because that is what women are for. For leaving, and loving from a distance, very like the way we love the dead,” or, “Ask any wife – there is always a moment when necessity turns to love.”  You make of those what you will.
At its best The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch reminded me of early Jeanette Winterson, particularly The Passion. Yet where Winterson, sometimes to a fault, sets out her themes on the surface of the page, Enright shrouds them so well in the thickets of the prose that finding them can be an exhausting process. I was relieved to look back at some newspaper reviews from the time of publication, and find that I was not alone: “there is a point,” said one, “at which breathtaking becomes, quite simply, suffocating.” And also: “the novel leaps mischievously on with barely a backward glance to check you’re still on board. In fact, if I’m honest, I wasn’t quite.” I’ll drink to that.

The Booker Prize jury, in awarding the prize to The Gathering, considered that it was a book which rewarded re-reading and improved on closer acquaintance. I can only, in my inadequate response to Enright’s earlier novel, presume the same is true of Eliza Lynch. The best things in life are rarely reached without effort. But how likely are we to make the return journey, when the first path was so difficult to navigate?

Anne Enright: The Gathering

16 October 2007: The Gathering has won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007

Anne Enright’s The Gathering had enthusiastic reviews when it was published earlier this year, and I picked it up in the shops and put it down again more than once. I finally picked it up permanently when it was longlisted last week for the Booker Prize. Enright has an ear for a memorable title – The Portable Virgin, The Wig My Father Wore – so at first sight The Gathering seems a little banal. But it is a family story, and as we go through the pages and remember that happiness writes white, and that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (“I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive”), we realise that we might well add Storm to the end of the title.

“I saw a man with tertiary syphilis at Mass, once,” is how the narrator, Veronica Hegarty, opens one chapter, and it sums up the sexuality and Irishness of The Gathering neatly. Hegarty is one of a large clan, and is obsessed with sex and penises in particular, her self-loathing in the sexual act matched only by her loathing for her wealthy husband Tom (“Tom moves money around, electronically. Every time he does this, a tiny bit sticks to him. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Quite a lot of it, in the long run”).

When I sleep with Tom … what he wants, what my husband has always wanted, and the thing I will not give him, is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred.

And if your response to that is, who can blame him?, then she’s ahead of you already (“Christ I wish I wasn’t such a hard bitch sometimes”), or if it’s to doubt the plausibility of it – or of other pronouncements like “Children don’t feel pain” – she’s covered that one too, when as early as page one, line two, she warns us that “I’m not sure if it did really happen” and later, “I doubt all this can be strictly true.” What she’s talking about here is the central question of the book: what happened to her nearest brother Liam when he was nine, that caused his recent suicide as an alcoholic at the age of 40?

With those warnings in mind, my take on it is that what she tells us did happen to Liam – the storm breaks around the middle of the book – is that it really happened to her. Otherwise her rage and hatred make for little sense and even less sympathy. Nonetheless there is bitter wit aplenty (“the cloth of his trousers wrinkles and sags around a crotch that is a mystery no one is interested in any more”) and frequently beautiful descriptions, such as this imagined scene of Dublin in the time of her grandparents (“the bookie and the whore”), in 1925:

Nugent cocks an ear after the escaping motor. There is a pause as the engine fades, and then the silence starts to spread. It seeps into the foyer of the Belvedere; the distant rustle of streets turning over from day into evening, as the night deepens and the drinking begins – elsewhere. As women shush their babies, and men ease their feet out of their boots, and girls who have been working all evening wash themselves in distant rooms and check a scrap of mirror, before going out to work again.

But those coming to The Gathering looking for a straight story will be disappointed – and probably maddened. Enright’s Veronica goes around the houses in telling her tale, from reinventing a love triangle two generations ago, to flipping through the album of her own childhood and then bringing us back to the present day. In doing so the powerful and sometimes precious language gets under the skin and works on you when you are not expecting it.

As a result I liked The Gathering much more on completion than I thought I would at any time while reading it. With the additional attention its Booker listing will earn it, the book will polarise opinion as John Banville and Ali Smith have done in recent years, and some will want to toss the damn thing on an Irish peat fire. But persistence shows that this challenging and interesting book burns brightly on its own, and among the bleak flames it gives out there is a peculiar sort of warmth.