A just-married Irishwoman slips out of the church in Galway after signing the register. Tearing the veil from her head, she hands her wedding band to a girl in the street, and rushes on, toward the river, into a grey curtain of rain. She crosses a bridge and keeps running, toward her childhood home, as her bewildered new husband follows, trying to keep her in sight.
I never did learn precisely what caused Mai, the wife of Jack McNulty in Sebastian Barry‘s The Temporary Gentleman, to behave this way on her wedding day in 1926. But by that point in the book, I had a few ideas. It’s the story of Jack’s disastrous marriage, seen through his eyes and told in his words. Much of the fascination of the book lies in the reader’s shifting perceptions of Jack, and the way Barry allows hints about Jack and Mai to leak from the narrative like a breadcrumb trail of clues. By the end, the truth is all too clear, to the reader and to Jack himself.
The Temporary Gentleman opens with a tour de force of a chapter in which Jack’s ship is torpedoed.
Everything roared for that moment, the high night sky of blankening stars, the great and immaculate silver serving dish of the sea itself, the rended ship, the offended and ruined men– and then, precipitatively, a silence reigned, the shortest reign of any silence in the empires of silence, the whole vista, the far-off coast, the deck, the sea, was as still for a moment as a painting, as if someone had just painted it all in his studio, and was gazing at it, contemplating it, reaching out to put a finishing touch on it, of smoke, of fire, of blood, of water, and then I felt the whole ship leave me, sink under my boots so suddenly that there was for that second a gap between me and it, so that wasn’t I like an angel, a winged man suspended.
I fell in love with the book immediately. And yet, I often found myself wondering how the feckless Jack, who is something of a subgenius, came to be the recipient of such a lyrical gift. The magic of Irish DNA? Or a kind of reverse legacy bestowed upon him by his real-life, writerly grandson?
It takes bravery to cast one’s own family members as characters in one’s writing. I wouldn’t dare it. Sebastian Barry has been doing this for years, weaving fictionalized versions of his forebears’ lives from stories heard in childhood, inherited memorabilia, and his own memories. In the late 90’s, he featured his maternal grandparents, Mai and Jack O’Hara, in a play called Our Lady of Sligo. (The great Sinéad Cusack played Mai in 2000 in the Irish Rep production.)
Jack is in [Our Lady of Sligo] but not a very reputable character, really. I was very hard on him and that’s just stupidity. It’s really difficult to find someone when you think you know so much about them. I’m 58, which is tolerably young for a writer but hideously old for a human being, so I am now a little older than he was when I was born, and I see now what it is, it’s an inexplicable dance… Years ago I would have been very critical of his vulnerabilities, but now I just find them a little bit ravishing, a bit wonderful. (Telegraph interview, March 2014)
Much of the same ground is covered in the play and novel: Mai’s powerful love for her authoritative father; Jack’s lower social status and his aspiration to be counted a “gentleman” like the British gentry of Sligo; the alcoholism each of them suffered; and the ember of love that endured between the pair, even in the extremity of their pain. Barry was quite close to his grandfather as a young boy, yet from his mother he heard many a story of the man’s weaknesses and failings. In The Temporary Gentleman, he explores events as Jack might have experienced them, with a great reservoir of compassionate love for his flawed grandfather.
If you’d like a little audio sample of The Temporary Gentleman, you’ve come to the right place. At the end of the post, there is a further “spoiler” discussion of the book and my reaction to it.
BBC’s Radio 4 adapted the novel for its “Book at Bedtime,” and thanks to the Three Graces at ciaranhinds.eu, all ten parts can be accessed here. The abridgment was done by a person named Neville, and I must say that Neville’s work horrifies me. Instead of cutting out paragraphs or sentences, he takes his sharp little scissors and cuts snippets from the sentences themselves, doing violence to their rhythm. In a book like this, every word has its place for a reason. That being said, the book is read by Ciarán Hinds, whose voice is like the crema on a perfect double espresso. Somehow, he does not sound to me like a man with Jack’s flaming red hair. But he has a very delicate touch with the female roles, and he imparts to the text an actorly rhythm all his own…
Another option is Barry reading from his book, in a four-minute selection on YouTube. It’s Chapter nine, Jack and Mai’s wedding. I love how he “reads” with his free hand gesturing (what a beautiful ring by the way). And he actually does manage to sound like a man with flaming red hair…
Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t read the book yet, you’ve been warned…
I have to admit that as a woman, I found Jack’s “vulnerabilities” neither ravishing nor wonderful. True, his humility and his capacity for deep and enduring love make him a sympathetic character, especially in the beginning as we follow his courtship of Mai, a girl who is clearly above his touch both intellectually and socially. Mai’s disapproving father refers contemptuously to Jack as “the buveur of Sligo,” and even in the earliest days, it’s clear that he’s a drunk. Not a mean drunk, never that, which is something at least.
There is a truly horrific scene about halfway through the book, when the man from the bank tells an utterly unsuspecting Mai that she is about to lose her beloved home because Jack has never paid back the loans he took out to feed his gambling addiction. Scarcely understanding what she has heard, Mai goes upstairs to retrieve her stash of gold sovereigns, another family legacy, only to find that it too has vanished. Ouch. The book forced me to ponder the question of what true love is, and whether it could co-exist with such abject weakness of character.
My favorite illustration of Jack’s nincompoopery is his decision, in 1939, to sell the house and move the entire family to Malta because he’s convinced that the Germans are going to invade Ireland, and that nobody would pay any attention to a little island in the Mediterranean. Not only that, but the houses there are selling very cheap! Guided by woman’s intuition, or perhaps her superior knowledge of world affairs, Mai refuses to go at the last minute. (The siege of Malta, during which the inhabitants were repeatedly bombed, and cut off from the outside world for months, began in 1940.) And yet, as he gets older, Jack seems to gather his experience about him like a robe of dignity. He has seen the world, he has exhibited extraordinary personal bravery during the war years, he has an education, and he is capable enough in his job as a land surveyor and geologist, when he isn’t the worse for drink.
Mai herself is a complex individual, who in the early days seems to regard her husband with tolerant amusement. In Africa, she sets up an obstetrics clinic and teaches the women how to avoid puerperal fever. But Mai has a tendency to what in those days were called “nerves.” The birth of her first child, and her return to Ireland alone, send her into a depression from which she never completely emerges. Then she starts to drink, and the slow disintegration of her personality, including the damage to her moral compass, is a terrible thing to witness.
My one quibble is that Barry, following the conventions of “literary” writing, fails to properly evoke Jack’s physical desire for his beautiful wife or to describe their sexual relationship. It is a diary, and perhaps a man of Jack’s day would not have committed such things to writing, yet eventually he tells of things that are, in a way, far more intimate. The only exceptions to the no-sex rule are Jack’s memories of the way Mai’s (clothed) body intoxicated him during their courtship, and this one description of their honeymoon: We made love to each other in the dowdy hotel room with the unfakeable and ineradicable happiness of ordinary lovers. It would be interesting to know more, because this is, after all, the story of a marriage. Admittedly, Jack spends a good deal of time either banished from the conjugal bed or in self-imposed exile… but I found myself wondering what the book might have been like had “Jack’s” verbal pyrotechnics been devoted to even one night with Mai (scintillating? soul-wrenching? joyous?) rather than the torpedoes, bombs and car accidents that seem to inspire his most vivid writing.
Barring criminal behavior, I do not believe that one person can be held accountable for another’s unhappiness. This book tested my thinking on that point. Another enduring question is whether people who behave badly ever truly acknowledge it to themselves. In this story, the process of writing about his life ultimately leads Jack to face the truth and grapple with it. In his fiction, Barry gives his grandfather a kind of epiphany, and a chance for redemption, that are very rare in real life.