Dermot Healy’s “Banished Misfortune”

I was put on to this by Alan Beard at the great goodreads community where I share and receive a  love of reading. Alan read it in his bath but he said “it’s all expanded and got dog eared. I kept it by the bath because I would read and re-read the dense, poetic, obscuring prose over and over because it seemed to me to want re-reading”. I observed the caution about reading it near water, and agree with the rest.

As it happens, I have just finished reading A Goat’s Song which is extremely watery, and there is something about water and Healy that seems inseparable. I couldn’t face having to finish Banished Misfortune so I’ve saved the last three stories to read later, taking the wonderful novel as a thick filling: I’ll review that later, but it was extraordinarily powerful reading it with the stories still pulsing in me.

I too will be re-reading the stories. On the book’s blurb the extract from the Irish Press review says “no two stories are alike in theme, or length, or structure, or style…” In an obvious way this is mainly the case, but I’d say the similarities are far greater than the differences. The ones I’ve read are all straight in and straight out leaving a fictional world contingent upon what came before and also what comes after the story: time and perception are both disturbed, disturbing, disorientated. The dislocation and lack of comforting ‘centre’ seem to me so far a hallmark of Healy, and they are congruent with the same attributes of personal identity.

There is a readerly intensity invited. Relatively quickly one gets used to the way a sentence can hold three separate discourses, for instance, three phrases separated by commas separating perhaps times or places or character perspective; one gets used to the intrusion of a single short sentence to state (recall) of a place or scene in winter, an image of it in summer (with no ‘plot’ relevance, but certainly germane to texturing the a collage). Fairly quickly too one handles the compression of ideas, metaphors and other images. Healy is fascinated by ideas and words, inexpressibility, fiction and ‘truth’, clarity and fog, feelings: he’s as likely to employ pathetic as unpathetic, echoing and contradictory, elements – say between character’s feeling state and landscape – in the same grasping for total impression. The very short Betrayal is excellent: very close to poetry, the sort of images and ‘symbols’ that have no existence in the literal world; too, a delightful intellectual exercise.

Related to the poetic, a great pleasure for a reader is desire frustrated. A text which tantalises, brings a world to life so real you feel you could walk in it, yet purposely (as a function of the writing) withholds itself. A major method of this is in the way only the merest suggestion of the world whence the moment of the story is given, so one has the startling clarity of that momentary world in stark contrast to the unattainable, vaporous trace of a world of which you know almost nothing, yet, paradoxically, because of the ‘reality’ of the story’s world, accept as equally real. And in this, the form matches perfectly with central themes: desire itself, memory, consciousness, and a kind of permanent vagueness about the past the only bulwark against being the construction of stories. This is psychological realism.

Umberto Eco in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods discusses time and memory,  with reference to narrative, verb tense, narrative time, discourse, plot and story; also he talks about ‘mistiness’ in relation to discourse, imagery which consists not of identifiable elements but something very intense and sensuous (I think dreamlike). Eco’s wonderful set of essays conscentrates on Labrunie’s  Sylvie, a novel that has provided with a fascination since his student days. I do believe that what Eco achieves by way of analysis would find good exemplary focus with Healy’s work. The ‘mistiness’ (often literal at the surface level of his landscape descriptions) is achieved primarily through disturbing the possibility of constancy of time (in duration, quality or any other attribute) or orienting spatial centre, with the barest hint sometimes of ‘story’ except that which coincides with ‘plot’ (the way the story is put together especially in its temporal sequencing).

Eco says of Sylvie, “although I have treated Sylvie with almost clinical rigor for years and years, the book has never lost its charm for me. Every time I reread it, it is as if my love affair with Sylvie I’m not sure whether I mean the book or the chaacter) were beginning for the first time. How can this be possible, since I know the grid, the secret of its strategy? Because the grid can be designed from outside the text, but when you return to the text, and -once within it – you cannot read in haste….as you slow down, as you accept its pace, you forget about and grid or Ariadne’s thread, and you get lost again in the woods…”

Wise words on many levels, talking of which Eco distinguisher between a ‘model reader’ who reads for a story so only needs to read texts once, and the second level reader who enjoys the pleasures of the fictional woods. In those woods or texts the various paths may be compared with a musical score. Says Eco, “It is like a melody, which the reader can enjoy first for the effects it elicits, and later by discovering how an unexpected series of interals can produce these effects. This score tells us how a tempo is imposed upon the reader by ‘shifting gears’ so to speak.”

For myself, by coincidence reading Eco straight after Healy, firstly Eco shines brilliantly! Then, inseparably, both he and Healy equally. Incidentally, Eco’s Serendipities is a great book. Eco generously allows for an ’empirical reader’ as well as a model reader (and, of course, neither exist in their pure state). The empirical reader is, in the fictional woods, very likely to read the paths using criteria drawn from their private life (that is, by projecting onto the text what I.A. Richards called’mnemonic irrelevancies’), adding ‘meaning’ to a text that isn’t supposed to be there. Healy welcomes such ‘intrusions’ not as distortions but to add to what is a created liquiity. (And Eco’s brilliant ‘grid’, as he reminds us, theory, template is no use at all when you submit to the pull of the actual text, its discourse, its music.)

I finished reading Banished Misfortune happily aware I would be revisiting. Some of the stories do work extremely well at the level of story (yes, I know it’s a very crude distinction) but all of them contain the refractions of a single discourse. The Tenant is geometrically apparent in its plot and story. The empirical reader could well enjoy Bad Day at Black Rock meets Dad’ Army, and why not? There are many stories of strangers coming into small towns, dreadful tension beneath the public order. Healy does it well, also replay in the motif that plays through much of his writing about identity, history and the instability of the present. Tension is achieved formally, but where Healy describes psychic states very thickly in thinly drawn characters  the tension of Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ are located at the personal level; history and the reality’ of life are put, not to much in counterpoint as counterpart.

Always,  this historical dimension, really a question of identity, memory, is begun with the individual, with feeling, with personal sense of being. Yet this is different from the cosy concept of fixed person, fixed mind: the mind itself is free floating, as the reader’s perceptions are tilted, misted, disoriented int ime, so too the person who is reading’s mind, being; so too the writer’s; so too the human. And though you can’t ever really know that much even about yourself, as your Dad might have told you, “In a foot of land there’s a square mile of learning.”


A few quotations:

I have lived with faith yet never found its expiation. If I have discovered anything it is that life is bare and vital, embroidered by language and laughter, and still so quick that no image can satisfy or symbol call up all the longings. I am at least free of association. Names have fallen away. The village people have become like shadows, like stains years old. Stains not of blood, for those are the city people walking the streets, alive and caricatured, but the village shadows are old friends, like decaying domestic matter.

(Note the above contrast between ‘real life’ city folk as caricatures and the shadowy, ‘decaying’, ‘stained’ humanity he feels at home in.)

No hint of flesh or hair could persuade me that I existed at twenty, nor companion at forty give evidence of my worth. Nor could I defend myself from reality, when, as some part of me chooses to consider the exciting and deepening possibilities of my life ahead, there for one terrifying moment remains only my life before. And from these unwilled insights, emerges myself, unwilled, judged, unreasonable, and from this flow the lives of other people.

And there is an important double meaning, I think to the phrase “from this flow the lives of other people”: our mutual humanity, and the nothingness from which the writer weaves a narrative.

I’ll be returning to this review. May buy an extra copy for the bath!