Ghost Light, by Joseph O’Connor

Purchased from the Book Depository

The Irish not only have a tradition of consistently, generation after generation, giving readers a crop of exceptional writers, there is a subset inside that tradition — fiction writers who explore their idea of what kind of life their predessors might have led or what influenced them. Academics spend entire careers exploring what James Joyce did with that in Ulysses, so I won’t go there at all. More recently, Colm Toibin’s critically-acclaimed The Master offered insight on his idea of Henry James (sorry, I read it before I started blogging so no review here — it is a very good novel).

While Ghost Light is the first Joseph O’Connor that I have read, his writing covers the available spectrum from journalism and other non-fiction, through film scripts, plays and novels (this is his seventh). So it is fitting that he has chosen to join that subset: Ghost Light is a novel about the great playwright (and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre), John Millington Synge, told through the memories almost 50 years on of his lover, Molly Allgood (stage name Maire O’Neill):

Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.

Molly Allgood was every bit as real as Synge and was his frustrated lover, but O’Connor offers the caveat that “Ghost Light is a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways.” In fact, he acknowledges “certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel”. It is a mark of O’Connor’s writing ability that even his Acknowledgements and Caveat make for entertaining reading.

Synge died in 1909 but this novel opens in 1952. Molly lives in London in a dilapidated, near-ruined terrace on the Bayswater Road. She’s destitute — tea, tobacco and cheap gin define her material world. Her memories of her affair are sparked by two “hopeful” events. She has been hired to read a part in a radio play on the BBC World Service and, even though the BBC always takes forever to pay, it offers the chance of some small income, not to mention a reminder that she was once a respected actress.

That only sets the stage, however, for it is the other event that opens the box of memories. Molly has received a letter from a California post-doctoral student, requesting an interview:

I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I understand some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive.

Molly has only one physical reminder left, the original letter that Synge sent her, apologizing for a harsh assessment he made of her at an Abbey rehearsal: “It was bloody of me and I am sorry. I allowed myself to become upset.”

“You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.”

Molly is reluctant to sell the letter to the American student but the offer opens another possiblity. Slowly but surely, she has sold all her valuable possessions to a generous second-hand dealer in Russell Square. Perhaps the time has come to part with her last.

Molly decides that she will walk to Broadcasting House (not that her circumstances offer much choice) and that offers O’Connor the structure to create a tension between the present of London still recovering from the war and the past of Dublin and the Abbey Theatre in the first decade of the century. We know from the start that Molly’s affair with Synge involved more pain than pleasure, but that brief interlude came to dominate her life — as she comes across people and places in the London streets, each experience opens a new chapter in bringing back those memories.

I am not going to try to list them here. O’Connor uses the second person to tell the story, not one that usually appeals to me but it is effective in this book. The overall effect is a literary version of peeling away various layers of an onion, examining each in detail and then moving on to the next. It is a very deliberate decision on his part and knowing in advance what is going to happen three or four layers further on in the process, spoiling the foreshadowing he uses so effectively, would destroy the impact of the novel.

That process allows the author to develop a number of themes around his main stories of Molly and Synge and their affair — turn-of-the-century Irish theatre and the repressive nature of bourgeois Irish family life then are just two examples — that makes this novel much richer than your usual “memory” novel. We come to know not just Molly and Synge, but develop a very good appreciation of the world around them — and the world that Molly was sentenced to live in when Synge died. Ghost Light deserves to be compared with The Master as an example of how competently the Irish can deal with this very particular sub-genre.

My own “guiding light” in Irish fiction is Kimbofo at Reading Matters (who is also a fellow Shadow Giller judge). On her blog, she offers a regular feature (Triple Choice Tuesday) where bloggers, readers and authors offer three book selections — their favorite book, a book that changed their world and a book that deserves a wider audience. It was Joseph O’Connor’s selections there that drew my attention to Ghost Light and I am glad that it did. For Kimbofo’s own thoughts on this novel and O’Connor’s well-known Star of the Sea, check out Kimbofo’s reviews here.

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17 Responses to “Ghost Light, by Joseph O’Connor”

  1. Deborah Serravalle Says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this writer. I’m not familiar with his work and I’ll be sure to check out the other reviews.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was very impressed. I will admit that my interest in drama (and hence having some knowledge of Synge)left me positively disposed towards this work — but O’Connor certainly delivered.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    Phew. Thank goodness you liked this one. I made my book group read the Bolger book earlier this year and they all HATED it, so I now live in fear of recommending Irish literature to others.

    I thought the voice of Molly in this one was pitch-perfect; I particularly loved her wicked sense of humour. And yet there were moments of profound sadness — O’Connor gets the balance just right.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I agree with you about the quality of voice — not just Molly’s but her versions of JMS and the secondary characters in the novel. For me, that made the choice of casting the novel in the second person a good one. I also found that the “remorse” which is a consistent aspect of her memory brought to mind the similar ideas that Julian Barnes develops in this year’s Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending. The notion that we make some choices relatively early in life that will stay with us forever is a powerful one.

    I bought Dermot Boler’s Journey Home (it was O’Connor’s choice of novel that deserves more attention on Kim’s blog) at the same time I bought this one. I hope to get to it sometime early in the New Year.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Sounds rather good. Have you read David Lodge’s Author, Author? I know it was not a universally appreciated novel, but I loved it.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Sorry, I have not. I have heard of it but David Lodge is not someone who has hit my radar. I will investigate.

  6. Kevin J MacLellan Says:

    Hi KfC,
    I enjoyed the review and would likely enjoy the book as well, given your outline. But it does raise an interesting question. What parts of a writer’s (or any historical figure’s) life is “fictionalized in the tale? It seems important when we talk about historical figures, as opposed to historical events; and figures about whom not so much is known, on a personal level, as opposes to figures like Napoleon, about whom we know enough ‘in any case’.
    I am just now finishing Toibin’s “The Master” – which is a great book, an interesting story, beautifully well told, etc. – and I ask myself; doesn’t this presentation (possibly) skew one’s appreciation of Henry James’s works? What is fact and what fiction we (most of us, at least) don’t know without an historical investigation –which itself may be misleading or fruitless.
    Though this is hardly a new development, it seems to be taking on momentum. (Echenoz wrote “Ravel” and Klaus Mann wrote “Pathetic Symphony:” A biographical novel of Tschaikovsky.) So, I wonder: why not base a work upon a character, but leave the historical person out of it –as has most often, even traditionally, been done? Is that approach insincere?
    I suspect that some modern writers are dealing with an issue of authenticity, and this sub-genre is an example of one particular strategy. It falls under the heading, roughly, of re-writing or re-making the past (assuming that no deliberate falsehoods are employed, but only fictive embellishments), and the speculative element is – or, at least may be – most important. Interesting, then: fiction as fact, rather than insight.
    I have come to no conclusions, but it raises intriguing issues and questions. You;ve got me thinking, anyway, and thanks for that too!
    Regards,
    Kevin

  7. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin J MacLellan’s comment got me thinking that you could also class Sebastian Barry into this sub-genre of Irish authors taking historical characters and writing up fictionalised accounts of their lives. I know KfC wasn’t enamoured of Barry’s On Canaan’s Side but the main character is based on Barry’s aunt who fled Ireland under sentence of death, reinvented herself in America and never resestablished contact with those back home. I’ve heard him speak a couple of times about this issue and he says its his way of reclaiming his relatives from the past. He has also done this with other aunts and uncles in his novels, including A Long Long Way (Willie Dunne is his uncle) and Annie Dunne (his aunt).

  8. anokatony Says:

    I haven’t read Joseph O’Connor yet, but your article makes me want to. I’m always a little concerned that Irish authors are going to be a little too ‘stage Irish’ for my taste.

    • kimbofo Says:

      That’s exactly why JM Synge fell out of favour – he specialised in “stage Oirish”. O’Connor has a bit of fun with this — one part of the book is written as an act in a play that follows the style of Synge. I saw this performed by actors of the Abbey Theatre — at the Abbey Theatre — earlier this year as part of a show called “The Music of Ghostlight” which was curated by O’Connor and featured his rather famous little sister.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kevin, Kim: I appreciate the issue that Kevin raises — I think both O’Connor and Toibin are pretty clear in saying “this is just my version of what I think things might have been like”. In O’Connor’s case, his acknowledgements make it clear that even his chronology is fictional.

    I find myself in personal conflict here — I don’t like it when fiction writers do this with living people or recent events (9/11 novels and novellas I can’t stand) but I don’t seem to mind it when the figures are historical. I don’t think this novel or Toibin’s or Echenoz’s changes my view of Synge, James or Ravel because I am quite aware that this is just their impression. On the other hand, it does add another dimension to their work in the same way that a good critical essay or “real” biography would. I’d say it is incumbent on the reader to maintain a critical eye.

    In my opinion, an author succeeds with this tactic if they leave me thinking the real person served as an inspiration to provoke new ideas and thinking. He or she fails if I am left thinking the author has merely borrowed the real character as a prop to support some unimaginative work.

    I do think the example of Barry (and Ondaatje’s new book also fits in this way) is different in that the historical figures that he uses may be real but they are not known to the rest of us. The re-creation of family history is fairly common. Peter Behrens’ The O’Briens is another example of this from 2011 — if you go to my review, the next post is a guest one from him explaining why he chose that form for his story.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: While there is a fair bit of both Dublin and London in the book (which sets up some of the “stage Irish” that is present), I found this novel rated because of the way it creates two flawed characters. There is some formality to O’Connor’s narrative style but I found that it served to underline the characters that he was developing.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The proddy’s little squaw. The Kingstown playboy’s huer. Good use of vernacular there. Particularly given the change in tone in the later quotes. I jotted down my thoughts on your review on a piece of paper when I first printed it out,and seeing now the other comments I see I’m not alone in this reaction.

    What’s puzzling me is I thought I’d read some Joseph O’Connor and not rated him, but looking on wikipedia I don’t recognise the titles. I wonder if I’ve mistakenly alloted someone else’s work to him, and then judged him by that unfortunate allotment.

    Alternatively it may be that I remember correctly and his earlier works just weren’t as good. I’ll have to investigate.

    Kevin J raises some interesting points. I tend to treat books like this as pure fiction. Any coincidence with life is at best of passing interest. After all, if I wanted to better know Synge I’d read a biography. If I read this I do so wanting to read Joseph O’ Connor.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Sorry I can’t help with your O’Connor dilemma — I can’t think of anyone (Irish or otherwise) whom he sparked close comparisons with and as I said this is his first work that I have read.

    I too treat works like this as pure fiction (although I recognize that some in the academic field might want to spend time on just what parts might be real). I do think the idea of speculating on how a known writer might have felt or acted — and influenced, even hurt, those around him — is a legitimate venue for fiction. My back gets up when I think a writer is trying to portray this as “what really happened”; I’m quite prepared to go along with “perhaps this is what it was like”, particularly when it leaves the reader with a character who is as well-realized and developed as Molly is.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Yes, I’ll have to dig deeper on the confusion issue. The possibility that there’s no link other than perhaps a vaguely similar name may make it difficult to bottom out though.

    I’m with you on the perhaps front. In fiction anyway. I recently wrote up a reportage/travel book about Beijing and it lost me in part by raising questions of whether all the speech reported had actually been said. If we’re in fiction then the inclusion of some fact is fine. We still know it’s ultimately fiction. If we’re supposedly in fact one must I think be much more careful. The alternative, as happened to me with the Beijing book, is losing the reader’s trust.

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