How long is a good book?
Silly question, you may say. In our book group discussions we have considered “The Driver’s Seat” by Muriel Spark, 102 pages of sparse text, and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, 715 pages plus an epilogue in my edition. I doubt there is any correlation between quality and length, although your scribe has often advised students how to cut a 200-page thesis full of “essential” information down to a 10-page journal paper that someone will read.
How long is a good discussion of a book?
Although I have not kept an exact record, I would guess our median length of Monthly Book Group meeting was about two hours, two glasses of wine, or two pints of best beer, dependent on your unit of measure. Since March, we have been driven to video meetings by lockdown, and these meetings have been noticeably shorter, constrained by the technology. Yet our attendances have gone up, no doubt influenced by the lack of opportunity to travel, go to the theatre or the pub.
What has this to do with Ireland, by Frank Delaney?
Well, while it falls far short of Tom Wolfe, it isn’t a short book (479 pages). During discussion, several, but not all, of the members suggested shorter was better in this case. Two members had listened to the audio version, not realising it had been abridged, and indeed one felt something was missing. It occurred that although it was not uncommon at our meetings to hear that such and such a book would benefit from a stronger editorial hand, or could be shortened considerably without losing any of its meaning or essential tone, it was very rare for someone to wish for a longer version of a given book. Are books getting longer as the policeman get younger? The meeting itself lasted 1 hour, certainly a result of the chosen technology.
Do I digress too much? What did we think of the book itself?
Our proposer told us how he had enjoyed it many years ago and, influenced by our recent interest in Irish novels, revisited it and was not disappointed. The opening paragraph captivated him, Frank’s powers of observation and description were delivered in flowing language casting the magic that pervades the novel. Indeed, the opening paragraph sets the scene for the succeeding pages, prefacing the interleaving of the coming of age story of Ronan, his search for his family history and the history of Ireland, and his eventual discovery of the unsettling truths. The book covers so many areas – history/legend, the Irish, nature, human interaction, and emotions, and does it so well.
It is said that stories are so important to human understanding and Frank certainly believes this. The book tells 29 stories, mostly by the Storyteller, full of love for Ireland, imagination, insights into nature and told with a beautiful Irish turn of phrase. Of course, the historical accuracy of the stories can be attacked (and it was) but the proposer argued that history need not be written from the political perspective but considered as grandfathers’ stories – stories that belong to every Irishman and unite them.
This prompted two recurring themes, first on the tradition of storytelling and how it had been lost, or at least supplanted by a new way of telling (YouTube anyone?). Not all agreed about the lost tradition, pointing towards the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the way the radio has captured folk stories and songs by travelling round the country, recording people telling tales at home and at work. Storytelling, whether historical or invented, by parent to child is still very important, The tradition of storytelling through the gospels was referenced, and of course these are still pertinent in modern life. Billy Connolly and Dave Allen were mentioned, comedians certainly, but observers and storytellers too. Walter Scott appeared; he usually does! Linking the Irish and Scottish traditions, a “seanchaí” is a traditional Gaelic storyteller/historian. In Scottish Gaelic the word is “seanchaidh”, effectively the same word. Is there a parallel to “Ireland” in Scottish literature? Your blogger suggested George Mackay Brown, and in particular “Beside the Ocean of Time”, previously discussed on these pages. This too interleaves past and present, by dream rather than stories told, but in a similar tradition.
There was discussion on the theme of literacy. Did the advance of literacy diminish the role of the oral storyteller? On the other hand, there is evidence of declining literacy and numeracy for sure, and of the pervasive influence of technology and the media (Love Island, anyone?). Literate or not, there is a very pertinent phrase in the book, “Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge”. Very well put, Frank!
The second theme was “accuracy”. I doubt anyone has a historical record of the life and social interaction of the Architect of Newgrange, who lived 5200 years ago, but the last story concerns the Easter Rising in 1916, and it is arguable that historical accuracy is more important. One described the “history stories” as simplistic and romantic; another depicted the stories as being rather over-sympathetic to the Irish point of view, depicting the English as aggressors. It was argued that history was much more “nuanced”, that events (“dear boy, events”) had much more complex origins. On the other hand, these are stories, not historical records, and the author is Irish. It is fair to say opinion was divided on this dichotomy between historical accuracy and a “good story”. For example, the proposer talked of stories as learning tools (parables?), building up mental pictures of events to inspire and instruct. Maybe if truth is secondary to intent, we have propaganda (Brexit, anyone?). As an aside, our man in Brussels told of a story embedded in Belgian folklore that Flemish soldiers were shot by French-speaking Walloon officers due to inadequate language skills and led, still, to some ill-feeling towards Walloons, even if a myth.
There was some discussion as to why the book finished in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Some suggested this was unfortunate as it omitted recent Irish history which might not be so favourable to the author’s point of view. On the other hand, the plot device relies on Ronan pursuing the Storyteller who was present at the GPO in 1916, and as such could not extend much beyond the 50th anniversary.
However, to be sure, the majority very much enjoyed reading the book. One enjoyed it very much – listened first, read later. He found that the author reading it gave it more feeling and meaning. He found the structure effective, a romantic, lovely story. Listening gave it closer proximity to the telling of tales rather than writing it down. As prefaced, the matter of editing cropped up. One liked the storytelling, but found it rather repetitive, and preferred the sections on family life and the way in which it is interspersed with stories. However, he gained a better understanding of the Irish people and life – and thought Delaney did this exceptionally well. Another talked of Irish kitsch and Irish pubs, he knew most of the stories and suggested they are not tremendously Irish-specific but occur in many verbal traditions. The Irish professor was magnificent and humorous. He too, preferred the family story and the book had encouraged him to visit Ireland and travel the country lanes. A third believed it to be classically Irish, pitched at the American market, really enjoyed it, wanted more on Kate and Alison who he found intriguing and not uncommon in family histories. The proposer talked of the secrecy about Ronan’s birth and ancestry, everyone else knew about the O’Mara family, but this was kept secret for Ronan. It was argued that this was common in Ireland, and elsewhere.
One of today’s occupations is ‘living in the bubble’, not a coronavirus bubble, but only listening to stories that reinforce your narrative. Are there ‘echoes’ in Delaney’s book? One spoke of another book, “Paris Echo” by Sebastian Faulks, in which an oral historian in Paris collects stories of the German occupation in Paris. However, the oral historian only listens to the stories that reinforce his beliefs. We travelled back to Greek mythology, the original story of Narcissus and Echo – Narcissus who was so infatuated with himself he rejected Echo’s feelings for him and was punished by falling in love with his own reflection. Is Delaney guilty of this trait?
What did the meeting conclude? Well, despite the occasional gripe about length, repetition and historical bias, the overwhelming majority enjoyed the book and felt it gave a better understanding of the Irish tradition and way of life, and in at least one case encouraged a visit to the periphery of the island. We downed the last of our respective, Teamed, drinks, and made our way home. Ah, we were home already.