Ghost Light, by Joseph O’Connor, Harvill Secker, 256 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0436205712
At the end of Ghost Light, Dublin writer Joseph O’Connor’s seventh novel, a warning is issued to eager would-be researchers that almost all of the novel’s content is untrue. It is, we are assured, nothing more than “a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact”. Loosely based on the doomed relationship between Abbey playwright JM Synge and the actress Molly Allgood, who worked under the name Maire O’Neill, O’Connor’s novel is neither strict historical fiction nor a pure act of invention. Like many stories that are based on the memory of the teller, there is a good deal of room for creative invention with the facts. Moving rapidly between the past and the present, Ghost Light is told in flashback form. Molly is now a washed-up actress in 1950s London, struggling to provide for herself and yet maintain the dignified profile of a once great artiste. The novel narrates her brief engagement to Synge, opposed by the leading lights of the Abbey Theatre, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, and by Synge’s mother – here the epitome of Victorian Protestant severity. Molly, a tenement girl, comes into touch with the world of the Abbey’s high art, and Pygmalion-like, is transformed in her turn.
This, however, is not a simple story of love against the odds. The narrative, which takes the form of Molly’s haunted memories of her lover, also strives towards something like a universal act of misremembrance: Ghost Light plays on the faint echoes of phrases, figures and half-remembered facts that make up Irish cultural memory. Yet this is no compromise between the incommensurability of fallible memory and the hardness of fact: in such a struggle the most honest art signals the loss of its own power of revelation. Instead, with Ghost Light we approach once more the idealist realm of romantic art where the imagination asserts its dominance over life.
Like most writing of this kind, a spiritualist sensibility is never far from the surface. The surfaces shimmer with an unreality, and the end of the novel leaves us with a sense of the transience of all things, from which art is announced. “Even the shaken chain has its music”, we are told. The ghost light of the title alludes to an otherworldly theatre superstition of leaving a light on so that ghosts may perform their own plays; readers will be aware that the lexicon of metaphysics dominates this novel. As such, neither a straightforward biography of Molly Allgood, no matter how well written, nor a complete fiction will suffice to demonstrate the dependence of art on life. For this is primarily a book about the act of creation and the primacy of art which takes the mundane experiences of ordinary lives and transforms them into aesthetic events.
How far may liberties with the facts extend? Molly is touchingly rendered here, yet O’Connor’s portrayal of the Dublin actress as a worn-out drunk, disorientated and living in penury in London would be hurtful if it were not for his final, if faintly dismissive, caveat that her circumstances simply “were not as depicted here”. But perhaps there is no necessity to explain that Ghost Light is a fiction at all. To the attentive reader the fictionality of the novel is obvious, and is in fact referred to many times, nowhere more explicitly than when O’Connor’s voice interjects to ask “did any of this happen, Molly? Aren’t the dates incorrect? Sure it’s only a story. What matter?” Given the lack of fidelity to actual occurrence, it is all the more curious then that O’Connor admits he has long had an interest in both Synge and Allgood, having grown up on the southside of Dublin near the writer’s house and listening to his grandmother talking about the actress. (Synge’s house had, for O’Connor, a “strange beauty”, a phrase which perhaps is closest to the kind of book he has attempted to write.) Yet despite the novelist’s profession of fascination with Allgood from an early age, she too is the helpless victim of his poetics. The depiction here of the aging and starving alcoholic actress, tortured by the memory of her ill-fated love affair with Synge, is not nearly as brutal as the reality. Allgood was married and widowed twice after meeting Synge; neither of these relationships are explored here, nor to any great degree is her relative success in America as an actress subsequent to her engagement with Synge and his untimely death in 1909 at the age of thirty-seven.
Indeed O’Connor apologises not to the apparently misrepresented Molly Allgood but to the “great man” WB Yeats, who appears no more than a handful of times in the book as both a kind of silly Anglo-Irish fop and a poisonous, racist elitist. An apology is offered also to the “scholars of Lady Gregory and Synge and O’Casey” who might take offence at the admitted reductions of the psychological and historical complexity of these figures who form part of the historical backdrop to Molly’s story. O’Connor explains his reasons for using their names, if not their characters:
These giants often said they had fanned their fictions from the sparks of real life, renaming the people who had inspired their stories. The practice was sometimes a camouflage, sometimes a claim of authenticity. It was an option I considered carefully but decided against in the end, and so I dare to ask the forgiveness of these noble ghosts of world literature for not changing the names of the innocent.
A fulsome apology to those giants indeed; Molly Allgood is not numbered among the “noble ghosts”.
For all that, Ghost Light is not a genuine attempt to recreate the past, nor does it claim to be, but is rather an atmospheric evocation of the tragedy of personal loss. Those readers anticipating a provocative re-imagining of the early days of the Abbey Theatre, or an astute psychological reconstruction of Synge’s difficult personality and eclectic interests, will be disappointed. The significance of the establishment of the theatre is left untouched. The book’s blurb indicates as much and is unpromising for readers looking for a serious work of literary fiction on the playwright and his actress fiancé. The novel is instead aimed directly at the middle-brow popular fiction market. Potential intellectual, historical and cultural challenges associated not only with a complex writer such as Synge and his relationship with Allgood, but also with nuances in period recreation, are hidden under the saccharine anonymity of romantic clichés:
Dublin 1907, a city of whispered rumours. A young actress begins an affair with a damaged older man, the leading playwright at the theatre where she works. Rebellious and flirtatious, Molly Allgood is a girl of the inner city tenements, dreaming of stardom in America …
Her lover, John Synge, is a troubled genius, the son of a once-prosperous landowning family, a poet of fiery language and tempestuous passions. Yet his life is hampered by the austere and God-fearing mother with whom he lives …
A story of love’s commitment, of partings and reconciliations, of the courage involved in living on nobody else’s terms, Ghost Light is a profoundly moving and ultimately uplifting novel.
There is, it must be said, an element of truth in this oversimplified plot outline. Yet Ghost Light is a novel that takes itself quite seriously. There is enough formal experimentation in the narrative here to mark O’Connor out as a writer of greater skill than the book’s jacket suggests and one who is comfortable in sculpting his raw materials into compelling works of fiction. Chief among Ghost Light’s strengths is the under-layering of the narrative with voices from the Revival period. Allusions to and echoes of Joyce, Synge and Yeats, among others, serve to give authenticity to Molly’s memory, while at the same time engaging with the semiotics of Ireland’s literary heritage and the book as artefact. The narrative consequently serves two masters: the credibility of Molly as a character in her own right on which so much of our sympathy depends, and O’Connor’s ambition to fill the narrative with the literary ghosts that inhabit not only Molly’s memory but Ireland’s. The individual is the collective, the collective is the individual. For this reason, perhaps, almost the entire narrative is written in the second person: we are Molly in the past, she is us in the present. And from a slightly altered perspective, the use of the second person has another effect: it splits Molly into the Molly who sees herself and the Molly whom we see. This perspective can frequently change. When it does, often so too does the narrative voice, causing Molly to splinter into pieces.
Here she is in the National Portrait Gallery, looking at a painting of an elderly woman who reminds her of herself. Appropriately, as the bulk of the action occurs on one day, we hear a Joycean stream of consciousness that takes the form of a vulgar Dublin vernacular:
Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God’s honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blanford.’ Looks like Mussolini in a wig. Il Duce with udders. God help us.
Molly is portrayed as comic, lively, irreverent ‑ even if some of the imagery is forced. And then the voice changes as it shifts from the immediacy of an interior monologue to the distance of the second person. We not only see a different, existential image of Molly, but there are alterations in tone, mood, imagery.
Poor ghastly face. But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel that you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world …There was a day many years ago, in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Cross-bench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts.
This new imagist voice, the one that dominates Ghost Light, is unlikely to be Molly’s. It is rather a view of Molly from a watcher’s perspective; knowing, distant, poeticising. Sitting behind the purple curtain controlling these movements is Joseph O’Connor, whose own voice continuously interrupts the narrative to remind us, once again in an Irish contemporary novel, that what we are reading is an artist’s personal creation. In Ghost Light, as in recent books by John Banville, Colm Toibín and Colum McCann, for example, the primacy of the individualist writer reigns supreme over the histories of the communities they evoke. O’Connor uses this entitlement too: all of a sudden we are whooshed out of the Portrait Gallery and are riding along with Molly’s memory of touring America with the theatre company. The narrator – O’Connor – tells us in ironic tones how he will prepare the scene:
Once arrived at New York City they will rest for two days. Madame will need to see the doctor and there are some items to be redeemed from the pawnbroker’s, and this will all have to be arranged without any of the company knowing, although all of them will know everything of course. But knowing and knowing are not the same thing as any good storyteller will tell you …
Let’s see now; let’s see. Where does the scene go?
Like Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World, O’Connor is making his story up as he goes along. Later we hear the writer echo himself by laying bare the mechanics of authorship: “So let’s see. Them’s your characters. And what happens next? Where are we going, Molly? Something needs to happen.” In spite of, or perhaps because of these oscillations in voice and perspective, the author demonstrates considerable skill in keeping Molly as a credible character, though for all the liberties taken in the creation of the character, occasional excessively coarse moments in her interior monologue have a tendency to sound a note of inauthenticity.
Nonetheless, this is a writerly novel that makes no effort to hide its fictiveness. Such self-consciousness has become part of the stock in trade of the contemporary writer and can no longer be regarded with the same admiration as it once was: it has long since been consigned to its place in the apprentice’s handbook. Samuel Beckett, whose writing was part of what Maurice Blanchot termed the “literature of exhaustion”, was Ireland’s last great modernist; O’Connor’s instinct here is not to push the boundaries of the novel form but to pay homage to those who already have by imitating their styles and forms. His master is Joyce and Ghost Light is in love with the sensuality of language. First and foremost, this book is alive to the creative possibilities of tone, of mood, of image:
A few miles in the distance must be the mountains of Wicklow but it is too dark to see them now. You imagine being on the Sugarloaf – gorse in mist, the smell of goats – and as if to incarnate your thoughts, the gardens of the mansions sprout boulders and crag-heaps, walls of broken undercliff, outcrops and buttes of schist … Past a ruined Martello tower, an ivy-swathed gate-lodge … The rain summons presences as you nod beneath the skylights.
The homage to O’Connor’s modernist predecessors takes unusually impious forms at times. There are enough allusions to Joyce to make us more than suspicious of an accident (Molly’s cat, for instance, miaows the same miaow as Bloom’s); the imitations of Synge’s unique Hiberno-English sentence constructions are an ever-present reminder that parodying a supremely gifted artist will always be an act of bravery. Molly and Synge gently converse:
‘Would there be e’er a drain of tay itself for a Christian tongue?’
‘Wusha, Mishter, but there would, and I wettin’ it now in a minute.’
‘May the shadow of you never grow shorter.’
It has become part of their love talk, this mockery of his lines. They speak to one another like characters in one of his plays.
Well, not exactly like the characters in one of his plays perhaps, hence the use of the temperate word “mockery”.
Other acts of acknowledgement are more satirical. Yeats, the clown of the piece, is portrayed as a verbally aggressive buffoon, for example, wildly interrogating the Abbey players stuttering through a performance how they “have the audacity to exist … you bits of sucked sugar-stick. You abbatoir’s effluvia.” A single chapter is an interlude written in the style of a scene from a play set in Molly’s tenement house. There are many O’Caseyesque clichés: a young, damaged man plays cards by himself; his mother is a “ruined middle-aged woman”; there is no sign of a father. With a nod more to the satire in Ulysses’s Cyclops episode than to the sincerity of Celtic symbolism, there is even a wolfhound lying at the foot of a table in the flat. The character of Molly’s grandmother, a bedraggled, irascible slum-dweller, is undoubtedly a stock parody of one of O’Casey’s women. And like many of O’Casey’s women, she takes an unfavourable view of Republican revolutionaries, letting out a stream of invective:
GRANNIE: A root up their holes for them and God send they get another. Ah me dear dark Erin and the bould Fenian men. I’d rain bombs on every cur and bitch of them for a pack of huer’s melts. Prognosticatin’, craw-thumpin’ scruff hounds.
It is a frequent complaint that O’Casey’s characters are little more than caricatures, and his lyricism a parody of Dublin speech that sacrifices cultural accuracy for ideological rhetoric. Nobody, as academic Declan Kiberd, O’Connor’s college mentor and friend, frequently asserted, ever spoke like O’Casey’s characters. As a parody of a parody then, the writing here takes on such a heightened knowingness that the scene cannot be taken seriously as either part of the action of the novel or as a representation of Dublin in the early 1900s. Its purpose in the book is simply to demolish any suggestion of authenticity.
With scenes such as this the narrative threatens to come undone and collapse into farce. And perhaps this is O’Connor’s point: the embroidered language of writers such as Synge and O’Casey has attained such an exaggerated place in contemporary Irish popular consciousness that its artificiality must be mocked or ironically presented. How else can a generation which has learned to distrust the world bequeathed by its parents treat these embarrassing remnants of culture? The role of the artist is clear in this. If there is an ideology at work in Ghost Light it is that art must destabilise its own foundational myths so that we may see it again from new, less reverential perspectives. Everything must be questioned; all official truths, even those that give sustenance to art, are the stuff of fiction. Here we encounter the central tenet of O’Connor’s book. This is a work that is keen to assert that we cannot faithfully recreate that past, but that it is created afresh every time we remember it. This is both an act of liberation and entrapment. The final, almost guilty, disclaimer that the work is purely fictional is a final explicit reminder of such a fact.
There is of course, more than a slight nod to Synge in all of this. His own work, in particular The Playboy of the Western World, was so at odds of what was expected that the Abbey audiences rioted in protest. Engaged in its own brand of demythologising, Synge’s Playboy is the staging of an act of self-creation. Christy Mahon exaggerates his fantastical tale of patricide and becomes a hero in the process; when the lie is exposed his new-found admirers turn their self-disgust upon him. Like Ghost Light, The Playboy of the Western World was loosely based on a story: from this half-tale Synge extracted a play with a truth that penetrated the heart of Irish cultural mythology.
But here caution must be urged. Synge’s magnificent play destabilised the myths of the Irish cultural revival as they were attaining a force of being, and in doing so injected that movement with a counterforce that made dissent in all its forms a defining artistic characteristic in the work of many of that period’s major Irish writers. The works of Shaw, Joyce and O’Casey, for example, are all wars on history. This powerful legacy has been a heavy burden for modern Irish writers to carry. In keeping with the theme of the tragedy and necessity of a defective memory throughout the book, O’Connor’s engagement with the Irish renaissance is ambivalent. Ghost Light pays an impertinent tribute to the “noble giants” through an admiring mimicry, but there is little sign of actual rebellion here. Ghost Light is too sentimental, too wistful; it is, after all, a love story.
And it is ultimately the power of art that O’Connor’s book is in love with, a very specific version of art that specialises in making itself redundant. We are treated to the sacredness of the ordinary, the overarching theme from Joyce to Kavanagh to Heaney and now to O’Connor, that affirms natural religiosity as one of the defining characteristics of modern Irish writing. The arch-enemy of the sanctity of the ordinary is Yeats, whose Platonism is often regarded as a rejection of the natural world. His preference for the less solid world is contrasted with the apparently supreme beauty of the everyday. Late on, Molly, or possibly O’Connor himself, muses on Yeats’s immaterialist convictions:
Never saw the everyday, the warp and weft of a life, the forgettable conversations and meaningless glimpses few storytellers could include in a tale. Afraid of a drapery window, a conversation on a tram, an old man’s non-sequiturs, a cat crossing floor-boards. And yet, you have come to feel that those nothings are the story. Mahler, yes, but the cry of a newsboy; that has its music too. A woman walking hungry through snowblown streets. Is this not a drama worth playing? And where in the world is the sculpted Michelangelo that compares to a weary seamstress on the Tube? You are the daughter of a junkshop, a child of rag and bone, raised amid the tat no one wanted any more, the bric-a-brac and clutter, the ugly and expendable, but give the junk a little rub and you’ll see your reflection. A bit of spit and polish works wonders.
Notwithstanding the anti-climactic last sentence, the implication is clear enough here: the greatest art is found in the grubbiness of life itself. Elsewhere we are told that “poetry seeds itself everywhere. One only has to look.” Naturally, O’Connor is also thinking of Synge, who drew some of his greatest work from the most wretched of situations. But how, we must ask, is it possible for an artwork to convince us that life is more illuminating than art? It is this apparent tension between the temporal and the transcendent, the material and the spiritual, life and art, that seems at the heart of Ghost Light. Yet the tension is all on the surface. Ultimately O’Connor’s metaphysic makes art the ultimate life-giver; the seed from which life springs. There is no absolute quality of beauty or ugliness, just things made brighter and more vital by poetry. This is an enduring, if now old-fashioned aesthetic, and one that gently insists on the artist’s priestly role in the spiritualisation of ordinary things.
O’Connor now enjoys a relatively high profile. Star of the Sea, his most successful book, was instrumental in that. Becoming part of the cultural commentariat has also helped, as his voice has been regularly heard on RTE’s Drivetime programme over the last couple of years, where he presents a weekly diary, which is often light-hearted but sometimes also political. Ghost Light itself has had heavy promotion in bookshops and O’Connor’s numerous appearances in the media and at book festivals have helped the book spend considerable time at the top of the best-seller list. It is a novel that perhaps encapsulates best the status of popular literature in our current moment; reflective, poetic, humanist and accessible. If the artists that O’Connor’s book makes overt gestures towards wrote works that were often challenging, then works such as Ghost Light represent an insecure relationship with the extraordinary heritage of Irish modernism. The caveats expressed at the end of the novel are a reminder that writers such as O’Connor have their own ghosts to wrestle with. Indeed the Celtic Tiger years have seen a generation of writers emerge that has found in history a way of thinking about the present. It is unsurprising that four of the last high-profile Irish novels produced – Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn, William Trevor’s Love and Summer and now Ghost Light – are set in the past. Trapped in cycles of bad memories, these novels are excavations, or better perhaps, exorcisms. But there is another, more real history – in the form of the living present – at work. Divested of the radical potential of the best modernist art at a time when it is most needed, Irish writing has become a mixture of quietist aesthetics and commercially driven diversion. Ghost Light, a moving, carefully crafted tale, would probably prefer itself to be more the former than the latter.
Eoghan Smith teaches English at Carlow College and NUI Maynooth.