‘Night in Tunisia and other stories’

by Neil Jordan

 

‘The ikon maker’

by Desmond Hogan. Writer’s and Reader’s Cooperative, 1979.

Each £3.95.

 

John Pilling

 

The contention that it is the Irish who have, in the twentieth century, done most to keep English literature alive is given an extra dimension by two recent publications from a publishing co-operative that, if it maintains this quality (and improves its proof-reading), will not only deserve but receive support. The collection of short stories by Neil Jordan is clearly one of the most promising débuts for a long time in a genre in which the Irish have often reached distinction (Joyce, O’Faolain, O’Connor, more recently John McGahern) but which always seems to take second place, for academic critics at least, to the novel. Perhaps the recent acclaim for Ian McEwan’s two collections will change all that, although one somehow feels that it is the fate of the short story to remain, in Frank O’Connor’s striking phrase, ‘the lonely voice.’ It may be symptomatic that not only McEwan but also Jordan (whose first novel is with Hamish Hamilton) has felt drawn to the longer form.

 

It is something of a surprise, especially when one considers the ear for dialogue that most Irish writers seem to have been born with, to find that Neil Jordan’s stories use conversation very sparingly. But it is clear from the start that it is the isolated person and the inner workings of the individual consciousness that he is most concerned with. And yet his people remain, despite the traumas of adolescent sexuality and the bleakness of middle age, in relationship one to another, nowhere more so indeed than in the story which closes this collection, concerning a liaison between a middle-aged woman and an adolescent boy that only finally makes a kind of sense for both of them when they meet by chance a few years later. Jordan’s triumph in ‘A Love’—which is only excelled by the title story—is to convince us, as McEwan’s more extreme analyses of abnormalities sometimes cannot, of the complexity of human response, and he achieves this by his extraordinarily assured control of a network of images that, by the end of the story, stands revealed as a meaningful pattern, or rather a palimpsest. The inter-tracery of image that reaches a high-water mark in the outstanding ‘Night in Tunisia’—a combination of sexual, familial, financial and musical motifs against the sea and strand that are usually at the centre of Jordan’s imaginings—is astonishingly accomplished, without a trace of false lyricism or preciosity. Jordan’s great strength is his stylistic restraint, the index of an apprehension of reality that sees the detail and the essence as indivisible, as in the last words of the story ‘Outpatient’:

 

            She saw through the door the green mound of Howth Head, a

            long stretch of sea and a thin elongated smokestack of grey cloud.

            She saw his square back moving towards the backdrop of waste

            sea and cloud. He was moving to the paltry green rim of hedge at

            the end, avoiding the mounds of cement-coloured earth, scraping

            with the toe of his shoe at the resilient ground. When he reached it

            he turned. And she walked towards him down the calloused

            garden wanting to tell him that this house had nothing to do with

            miracles and trumpets, knowing she would not. There was a wind

            blowing from the sea, ruffling the hedge, his hair and her kilted

            skirt.

 

Desmond’s Hogan’s first novel cannot be so unreservedly recommended, flawed as it is by too many mannerisms and immaturities of both style and theme. It is clear that he will write (indeed has written, as his short stories—a collection of which is also with Hamish Hamilton show) more economically and more compellingly than this. But even though his pathos is a good deal more enervating than that of, say, Aidan Higgins, and even though he lacks the sureness of touch that Neil Jordan possesses, his achievement in The ikon maker is far from negligible. It is true that his amalgam of graves and Guinness, of melancholy and lyricism, is by no means unfamiliar. But his awareness that ‘love always loses, no matter how real it is’ is not left with only Galway as its point of reference, and does not ring hollow.

 

It would be idle to pretend that either Hogan or Jordan (except perhaps in his excellent title story)—or indeed any of the other talented participants in the Irish Writers’ Co-operative—have already attained a classic status. But both of them, and Jordan in particular, underline the fact that what might seem like the least propitious conditions for creativity continue to be an invigorating stimulus towards achievements that the younger English writers have found, and may yet find it, difficult to match.