May It Not Rest in Peace: On Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s ‘Cré na Cille’

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Among the many soothing stories we craft around death, most of us harbor a core belief that it will, at the very least, be peaceful. Even those with no residual belief in an afterlife can find some solace in the idea of an eternal quiet nothingness. No pain, no suffering, no obnoxious neighbors or megalomaniacal bank clerks.

But what if it’s all a lie? What if, instead of peace or rest, what awaits us after death is a continuation of exactly the same petty dramas and sordid resentments? What if, after we’re lowered into our graves, we discover that all the other corpses in the cemetery are still chattering away in some kind of eternal bitchfest?

These are the questions at the heart of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist classic Cré na Cille. Originally published in Irish (sometimes called Gaelic) in 1949, it’s now available in English for the first time, translated by Alan Titley under the title The Dirty Dust. Often mentioned in the same breath as works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ó Cadhain’s novel is, in some ways, even more radically experimental. For starters, all the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when.

We begin with Catriona Paudeen, a bitter, foul-mouthed, recently deceased local woman, frantically wondering whether her family has provided her with an appropriate funeral and buried her in the well-to-do section of the cemetery. Within a few pages, she’s absorbed into a chorus of competing voices as she realizes she’s surrounded by her old neighbors, some friends but mostly enemies, “all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they did above the ground!” The conversation mostly circles around everyday grievances — unpaid debts, unfaithful wives, contentious football games — although political disputes occasionally crop up, mostly related to the Irish Civil War and the Second World War (certain corpses are so nationalistic that they eagerly ask new arrivals whether Adolf Hitler has successfully destroyed England yet). As Titley writes in his thoughtful introduction, the novel is “a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial matters of life, which are often the same thing.”

There are similarities between The Dirty Dust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, in which three sinners are condemned to spend eternity in a small room together, acting as one another’s torturers (“hell is other people”). However, while Sartre’s play is full of heavy-handed moral and religious overtones, The Dirty Dust is remarkable for its lack of philosophy or theology. The idea of retaining consciousness while the body decomposes seems dark to the point of hellishness, but the text itself is so mundane, irreverent, and raucously funny that the grisly context slides into insignificance. One might surmise that the characters are in purgatory, but since they’re too busy arguing to reflect on their existential state, the theory lacks a foothold.

Essentially, this novel is all talk, and the historical and literary significance of the original lies in the richness of the spoken language, the warts-and-all reproduction of a dialect that, just 70 years later, has all but disappeared. Unfortunately, while Titley’s translation is sensitive and vibrant, it occasionally and inevitably feels stilted or overwrought. The narrow, uninspiring register of English curse words, for example, simply cannot capture the diversity of Irish language insults. Although Titley valiantly conjures terms like “sailor’s bicycle,” “shitehawk,” and “slut of the small spuds,” he also over-relies on shag, shit, bugger, bitch, and other less quotable English perennials. This danger — that the effusive, flowing text of the author may, at times, be reduced to generic translates — is fundamental to the translator’s work. However, as Gayatri Spivak argues in her essay “The Politics of Translation,” “to defer action until the production of the utopian translator, is impractical.” For decades, Irish language purists (we might also call them snobs) have rejected even the possibility of translating Cré na Cille, condemning it to irrelevance outside the walls of university libraries. Titley’s effort to translate the untranslatable, with full knowledge of its inevitable imperfections, is courageous and timely.

For hundreds of years, Irish has been battling the hegemonic language next door and, despite a partial revival in the last century, it continues to decline. Connemara, the setting for The Dirty Dust, is a designated “Gaeltacht” region, where Irish remained the primary spoken language long after it fell out of everyday usage elsewhere. Despite government subsidies intended to protect their linguistic identity, a recent report suggests that within 10 years Irish will no longer be the primary language even in these small enclaves.

Sad though this decline is, The Dirty Dust dispels any misplaced nostalgia for Connemara’s over-idealized past. The humor is very dark indeed, reflecting the reality that that Irish survived in these communities partly as a result of deprivation, isolation, and lack of opportunity. Accusations of theft, fraud, alcoholism, and violence rise above the chatter, before being quickly, desperately denied; ubiquitous nationalism, racism, and misogyny almost blend into the cacophony; and when the voices reflect on what they would have done with a little more time above ground, the overwhelming focus is on settling petty scores, chasing trifling debts, and suing neighbours over imaginary infractions. By the final pages, it’s clear that long before their deaths, the characters lived in a dark, narrow, airless world, where grinding poverty and religious conservatism gave rise to bitter hatreds between secretive, jealous, spiritually stale people.

It’s no surprise, then, that the cemetery’s new arrivals report the departure of waves of young people for England and America. Since the 1840s, mass migration from the Gaeltacht areas has been central to the decline of the language. And who could blame those who left in search of opportunity and relative freedom? While we may regret the loss of the language — and resent its suppression through force and economic coercion — native speakers can’t be expected to make vast personal sacrifices for the sake of a vague notion of cultural heritage. What’s more, Ireland’s current austerity government shows no willingness to make the kind of investment that might draw younger populations back.

All of this emphasises the significance of the translated edition. By exhuming Ó Cadhain’s zany chorus of cadavers, Titley has opened this masterpiece to the wider audience it so richly deserves.

May it not rest in peace.

Communicating Her Truth: Remembering Maya Angelou

A few weeks ago, I listened to Maya Angelou’s 1987 appearance on Desert Island Discs. The host was Michael Parkinson, a great interviewer who struggled rather sadly to connect with this particular castaway. The low point of the conversation is almost certainly this:

“You described yourself as six foot, black and female. I want to ask you a question. It might sound silly, but it’s a serious question. Have you ever wished you were six foot, white and male?”

Of course, most of us will experience an involuntary constriction of the chest when a privileged white man says to a member of any other demographic “but wouldn’t you like to me more like me?” Unsurprisingly, Angelou laughed, said no, and gave a charming, obfuscatory answer that precluded further discussion of the subject.

But while Parkinson should have known better, it is daunting to write about Maya Angelou from a cultural remove. Since her death on Wednesday, I have struggled to communicate anything beyond the fact that I loved her and am terribly sorry that she’s gone. Even that feels like appropriation. And yet, I’ve listened to Angelou read Letters to My Daughter — the best way to enjoy her work — and I take her at her word when she says the following:

“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish speaking, Native Americans and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.”

This week’s torrent of grief hasn’t been for a public figure, it’s been much more personal than that. We are grieving a friend, a sister, a mother. Since the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, Angelou has used her own life as a channel for universally valuable truths about racism, poverty, gender, violence, relationships, rape, family, motherhood, loss, equality, hope.

When I first read Angelou’s description of being raped, it was about 10:30 on a Sunday night and I was travelling home on the Tube. I knew it was going to happen and I tried to brace myself, but who could prepare for the frank, vivid brutality of the attack that left the seven year old feeling “like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible.” As soon as I began reading the chapter, I wished I hadn’t, wished I had more time to prepare, to read and feel that pain alone. My house in North London was about a 10 minute walk from the Tube station and I called my partner and spoke to her the whole way — too frightened to face the darkness of the street or the world on my own.

Yet that is how pain works in Maya Angelou’s writing — indiscriminately elbowing its way into perfectly ordinary, contented experience. On the day she was raped (which is how she always described it, although obituaries have largely referred to “sexual abuse”), the young Angelou was about to go out to the library, where she spent most Saturday afternoons.

The pain of segregation became clear when she and her brother attended the movies and were forced to sit on a dangerous, dirty balcony. And that memory resurfaced many years later when she stood to speak at a high-profile ceremony attended by the “most glamorous actors and actresses of the day,” leaving her incapable of delivering her prepared remarks and prompting a rumour that she had blanked out due to drugs.

And days after she returned to the U.S. from Ghana to work with Malcolm X, buoyed with hope for black Americans, he was shot and killed.

Although Angelou is celebrated for her resilience, and rightly so, her repeated traumas were devastating in their impact. They were, in her words, “times when my life has been ripped apart, when my feet forget their purpose and my tongue is no longer familiar with the inside of my mouth.” Still, she shared many of those traumas and, as countless publications have noted this week, her memoirs will almost certainly be her greatest legacy. By consciously writing non-fiction, Angelou stripped us of any possible shield or shred of wool. We can’t escape the pain in her work. When reading fiction, even fiction we know to be largely autobiographical, we have an emergency exit from pain, retreating into the childhood assurance that “it’s only make believe.”

That said, some critics have questioned whether Maya Angelou’s memoirs are strictly truthful. They feature the tropes of literary fiction, there are discrepancies between the different texts, the dialogue is too extensive and too stylish to be entirely accurate, and major “characters” come out smelling suspiciously like roses. Angelou’s mother and frequent muse, Vivan Baxter, is portrayed as a beautiful, strong, caring person, despite the fact that she dispatched her children, three and five, to live with their grandmother and all but disappeared from their lives for many years. Bearing all that in mind, can we still categorize Angelou’s works as autobiographies? Should they still be treated as honest insights into the life and experience of black American women?

The obvious response is that when it comes to memoir — or indeed any form of biography — there are no clear lines between fact and fiction. This is the kind of ambivalent answer I frequently gave as a hungover university student who hadn’t read the book being discussed, but in this case, I actually believe it’s correct. Writing and editing the story of a life inevitably involves emphasis, embellishment, narrative-creation, exclusion of important detail. The auto-biographer, purely by virtue of her extreme investment in the subject, can never be a reliable narrator. The most we can expect is that she will honestly communicate her truth. Surely that kind of honest communication comprised Angelou’s life work?

Like many writers from oppressed communities, Angelou was consciously “speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural.” She was telling the story of black America through her own experience, to provide insight to other black Americans, but also as an act of communication with other groups, including white people. Angelou’s truth, for much of her life, was embedded in an unthinkably racist society. Of course she didn’t fixate on their flaws and of course she drew out their strengths. White people lied about black people, perpetuating stereotypes and practises that continue to tear at American society today. The prevailing narrative was pitched dramatically against her community, so she pushed in the other direction.

What’s more, as well as showing us pain that in fiction would be unbearable, by having the courage to write memoir, Angelou also shared hope that in fiction would be implausible.

It’s worth noting, I think, that although they now seem like figures from a distant past, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were contemporaries of Angelou’s; Malcolm X was three years older and Dr. King a year younger. The violent brevity of their lives — among many other black men and women — may distort our understanding of how much has changed in 80 to 90 years. Although extreme and insidious racism survives, within the natural lifespan of Angelou’s generation, black Americans have dramatically forced back the tide of prejudice. Her hope may have appeared implausible, but she was right to hope.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography

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At the Edinburgh Book Festival 2011, Michael Holroyd lamented — as aging biographers are wont to do — the decline of biography. “I have a nostalgia for visiting private houses to find letters and journals and to root around in the attic,” he said. “But the fact that a lot of material now is on the computer takes the romance out of it, and now it’s about examining what lies behind the delete button — the horror.”

While his take is self-consciously crankish, Holroyd’s suggestion that the computer represents a turning point in biographical writing carries some weight.  After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed. Contemporary literary biographies — of Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron, John Updike, all of whom adopted email quite late in their lives — are petri dishes for a new age of biography.

Contemporary literature scholar Stephen Burn, who is currently editing the correspondence of David Foster Wallace, describes compiling emails as an “exercise in reverse engineering.”  Since Wallace does not seem to have kept any of his emails, Burn has had to track down friends, colleagues, editors, and fans who have saved the emails he sent them. As a result, he finds himself “tracing lines backwards from published books, stories, and essays, to make visible the various dialogues along the way that led to the finished work.”

These problems are not unique to modern biographers. Papers can be lost, thrown away, or burned. But at least as far back as Cicero, writers have, with a wry wink to posterity, been careful to preserve copies of their letters. And their correspondents, whether out of sentimentality or shrewd financial planning, have stored received letters in the attic. Besides, although it’s gotten short shrift in recent years, paper is extraordinarily durable.

In contrast, what Burn identifies as “the real dark shadow cast over scholars by email correspondence” is the fickle nature of fast-changing technology. We may believe that recent history is safely tucked away in the digital fortress, but electronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters. Whether as a result of bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence, Burn and other scholars fear that “potentially great letters or exchanges [will be] locked within hard drives that can no longer be accessed.”

However, while the digital lag may have an impact in the short-term, the practical barriers can and will be overcome. Libraries across the world are already refining their digital archiving processes, using write-blockers and advanced search tools.

The more prescient question is this: How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?

In his end notes to his biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max of The New Yorker, writes that “David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature” and that “with the advent of email [Wallace’s] correspondence grew terser, less ambitious.” Burn echoes the same view, observing that “the major difference probably stems from the more rigidly linear format of some of his emails.  Some of the great letters look like spiderweb art: in these notes, Wallace has written over the top of the letter he’s replying to, with comments between the lines, spiralling into the margins, running up to headers and down to the footers.”

The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moser described seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.

Burn also highlights that “email makes minor exchanges proliferate — procedural courtesies, note responses that probably wouldn’t have merited an actual letter.” In 2004, Nora Ephron described the six stages of early email. She traces from Infatuation (“Who said letter writing was dead? Were they ever wrong! I’m writing letters like crazy for the first time in years.”), to confusion (“Add three inches to the length of your penis. The Democratic National Committee needs you. Virus Alert. FW: This will make you laugh.”), to disenchantment (“Help! I’m drowning.”) That she was so overwhelmed by her own mail bodes ill for biographer, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post.

While letters require a commitment of time, thought, and a little money, we unthinkingly send masses of brief, entirely trivial emails. Sontag used email for less than a decade, yet the Sontag archive in UCLA includes 17,198 emails. It’s difficult to contemplate the mass of digital material that faced Steve Jobs’s biographer Walter Issacson. It’s even more difficult to envision the amount of content that will be left behind by lifelong users of computers, tablets, and smartphones.

However, although email might make the life of the researcher more difficult and less romantic, we should be wary of mistaking different for worse.

In 1969, Foucault asked whether, if an editor found a laundry list jotted down in Nietzsche’s notebook, it should be considered a work or not. Similarly, should an email that has clearly been written with little thought to style be valued differently to an elaborately crafted letter?

Max may regret that Wallace’s writing became terse when he used email, yet it surely casts light on the life and work. It could be that Wallace, as he lapsed back into the depression that eventually killed him, simply didn’t want to write more effusively. Or that in emails he didn’t feel the same obligation to cloak his feelings in craft. Whatever the reason, clearly the expansive and carefully-wrought writing of Wallace’s novels did not come entirely naturally.

For many others, however, email is a light-hearted form. Benjamin Moser highlights his delight at realizing “that Sontag sent e-mails with the subject heading ‘Whassup?’”

But is this more than an endearing quirk? Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and most recently Penelope Fitzgerald, suggests that “when people are at their most frivolous, superficial, gregarious, and chatty is often when they are most revealing about themselves,” highlighting the interplay between “your secret self, your solitary self, your nighttime self, your gregarious, chatty e-mailing self.”

What does it tell us about the “Dark Lady of American Letters,” that following a career largely dedicated to war, illness, and exploitation, she was playful, tender, slightly wacky in her emails? Moser highlights that she was lonely in her last years, and was “elated to be in such easy touch” with her friends. Yet acquaintances she emailed seemed unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms. Do the emails reinforce what one already suspects from Sontag’s prolific diary-writing; that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?

The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.

Image Credit: Flickr/greggoconnell