Sunday, September 08, 2013

On the memory of stones (Benedict Kiely)

— In Devon, he assures her, lived a man who experimented in dousing and other devilment. He found by means of his dousing pendulum that some seashore stones he tested responded to the vibration tests for anger. He concluded that once upon a time those stones had been used for war and murder.
— Crap a brick, as my father used to say. What rot is that?

Though the two novels were published within a few years of each other and both deal (at least in part) with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Bernard MacLaverty's Cal (see last post) and Benedict Kiely's Nothing Happens in Carmincross could hardly be more different in tone and manner, the former taut and efficient and the latter rambling and verbose — but not necessarily less entertaining for all that. Kiely's novel follows the travels of an Irish academic who has come home from America in order to attend a wedding just across the border in the North. For most of the novel what actually "happens" is next to nothing, mostly drinking, rambling around, talking, a bit of screwing, but the book has the pleasures of listening to a long-winded but gifted storyteller with a seemingly inexhaustible store of events, memories, legends, and lies at his disposal. Scraps of song, newspaper clippings, and references to Irish history and mythology are woven into almost every paragraph, and much of it is bound to fly over the head of the average reader (like me). Yet despite its generally flippant tone, the book never strays far from the theme of violence.

The sanguinary Irish ballad "Follow Me Up to Carlow" is quoted in the book's first pages, and Planxty's rousing version (below) is possibly the one Kiely had in mind. In keeping with the spirit of the novel it should be listened to appreciatively but with a healthy dose of irony as well. The singer is Christy Moore.

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