Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trespassers by Julia O'Faolain

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 26 May 2013.

You might flit through this book and consider it merely an entertaining and well-written memoir of a charmed life.  Bright girl grows up in leafy Killiney with famous father and talented mother.  Their weekend callers are a who's who of Irish letters, including Frank O'Connor, Patrick Kavanagh and Conor Cruise O'Brien.  Her studies bring her to Paris, Rome, London, Florence and eventually the United States.  Along the way she's importuned by famous artists such as Lucian Freud and Patrick Swift. She has a couple of affairs with exotic and politically aware Europeans.  Eventually she takes up with the Renaissance scholar Lauro Martines, a man with only a slight blot on his escutcheon.  Their life is a sequence of academic appointments in nice places where they mix with the brightest and the best - poets, artists and the politically engaged.  A little louche occasionally but nothing too extreme.  And of course along the way she writes a number of well-received novels.

But there's a serpent in the garden.   While the book is loosely structured and entertainingly anecdotal there is a dark and constant motif running through it: the author's post-mortem reckoning with her famous father.  Seán Ó Faoláin was notoriously susceptible to a well-turned ankle.  Towards the end of his life he referred to Honor Tracy, with whom he'd had an affair, as "the best of the lot".  And it's clear that there were a lot - including the novelist Elizabeth Bowen.  (A piquant affair that, the past IRA Director of Publicity consorting with the future British Ministry of Information operative, or spy to you and me.)   And it's equally clear that Julia was not happy about all these affairs.  References to Seán, while often admiring, lack the warmth with which she refers to her mother.  Eileen was wounded by the Black and Tans but damaged far more it seems by her celebrated husband.   She agonises about abandoning her to "Seán's unreliable care" and  alludes to: "how badly, and how often, he hurt her".

We also learn that Seán Ó Faoláin, the scourge of the De Valera government, the deadly enemy of John Charles McQuaid, the ardent man of affairs, and the leading Irish liberal of his day, operated a double standard in matters sexual where his daughter was concerned.  He blackmailed her emotionally into leaving her first serious boyfriend - a Jewish Algerian communist student (what's not to like there?) and fought hard, but failed, to stop her marrying her eventual husband by digging up dirt on him through his Harvard network. Such was the acrimony about this match that Ó Faoláin and his long-suffering wife did not attend the wedding.  While Julia suggests it was to do with the expulsion of a Radcliffe girl with whom Lauro had been involved, it may have also been the fact that he had been divorced - anathema even to free-thinkers in the Ireland of the Fifties.  In her eighties now, it's clear that Julia is still much exercised by this fraught relationship with her father.

There are an abundance of juicy anecdotes - many involving Julia's sexual education.  There's a story of her posing for the artist Patrick Swift - a much older man.  As he set up the pose he quoted Cezanne who declared that when painting an apple he liked to eat one first.  This generated a frisson within our young heroine who admits "I both did and didn't want to be eaten".  There's also an early crush on the six-year old Garrett Fitzgerald, who apparently was a brave lad at climbing trees.  She's clearly not a fan of Anthony Cronin ("weedy Tony").  She warned a girl-friend to read his poetry but not to marry him.  The friend didn't listen and years later Cronin, who had been informed of her views, pulled a seat from under her at a party in Lugalla in retaliation.  Even a distinguished poet can be prone to petulance.

The trespassers in the title of these memoirs are the writer herself and her family.  She recalls life as an outsider initially in Dublin (they came to Killiney from London via Wicklow)  subsequently in France, in Italy and later the United States.  The book is excellent on period and place:  Protestant Killiney after the War, Paris, Rome  and Florence in the Fifties, and California in the Sixties.  It's a world of ideas, of art, and of political ferment.  She's inherited her father's anti-clericalism and recounts the ostracising of Hubert Butler in Kilkenny for daring to speak out about the crimes committed by Catholic Croatians during the Second World War.  Butler dared to question the saintly Cardinal Stepinac and mention his connivance with the Natzi puppet regime.  For this, the good burghers of Kilkenny boycotted him both socially and commercially.

The book concentrates on O'Faolain's life before her marriage at twenty-five.  Maybe her domestic milieu didn't provide the colourful encounters that punctuated her earlier years:  Patrick Kavanagh walking the ten miles to Killiney on Sunday afternoon for tea and cakes and exchanging poems with the young Julia; on the tear with the Irish rugby team in Paris the night before a match; observing John Sparrow sneering at William Empson during a Harold Acton dinner party; Lucian Freud in the lavatory of the Deux Magots in Paris removing her from his to do list because of some affair she never had:  "I no longer desire to sleep with you".  And beneath all the surface glamour, the bohemian revels, the stirring political debates, and the worldly success, the bitterness towards her father thrums.

Publisher:  Faber & Faber

RRP:  €18.90

Pages:  249