Horseman pass by!, by Michel Déon, translated by Clíona Ní Riordáin, Lilliput Press, 168 pp, ISBN: 978-1843517085
Years ago, I gave a lift to a German girl hitchhiking through the wilder parts of Achill island. Besotted with the early Yeats of “Inisfree”, “The Stolen Child” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus”, hating her own society, she was making ends meet on Achill by childminding and work in an old people’s home, while writing her own fairytales in between, and frequenting the pubs. Later, as I discovered, she had taken up with someone local and was renovating an old cottage, intending to stay. My own connection with Achill at the time was a residence in the cottage of the German writer Heinrich Böll, who had made a second home there after the Second World War, and whose Irish Journal I was reminded of while reading this memoir of life in Ireland by the French writer Michel Déon.
“There is nothing more embarrassing,” Böll has himself say at one point in Irish Journal, “than when someone likes you for the wrong reasons.” Does Déon like Ireland for the right or the wrong reasons? Should we, in our relentless self-absorption, congratulate ourselves yet again on someone else from outside finding us charming? Most writers who settle in Ireland are in flight from something, whether Heinrich Böll from the realities of postwar Europe or tax exiles like Frederick Forsyth in Wicklow, not to mention political exiles like the poet Khodasevich in Donaghadee, briefly, in 1922 (“I would rather be in Siberia!”) or the Jewish George Clare, author of Last Waltz in Vienna, in 1938. The search for roots has also played its part, with mixed results – director John Huston’s love affair with the same east Galway region as Michel Déon, or Jean Kennedy Smith’s less than diplomatic frankness at how boring she found Ireland as US ambassador, how glad she was to leave. The right or the wrong reasons? Böll, who raised the question, seems to have recreated Ireland in the German mind as a place of lyrical refuge from excessive reason, dehumanising overorganisation. There is something of this in Michel Déon’s book as well, though with a literary rather than political emphasis.
What both texts share, in a literary sense, is the absence of a narrative. Ireland, for Déon, is not a rounded experience of arrival, life over time in a changing society, and departure. For fifty years, on and off, he lived in east Galway until his death last year aged ninety-eight, yet this memoir never moves forward but is instead a series of sketches, lifted clear of time and focusing on personality rather than place, with a novelist’s rather than a poet’s eye. This is probably why, unlike in Böll’s Irish Journal, we are denied one crucial element of his experience of Ireland – his first impressions, what he saw, heard, smelt, thought on entering the country. Those signals so vividly present in Böll, that quickly sink into the subconscious, there to bed themselves down as determinants of attitude ever after. With Déon, writing in old age, it all happened too long ago, and too sporadically – a dividing of time, all those years, between Ireland and Greece – to constitute an ongoing narrative of one Frenchman’s life over time in an evolving Irish society.
Why did he come in the first place? In spite of some talk in the introduction about remote Irish genes, it is not clear. What is clear however, and what may have attracted him unconsciously to Ireland is his anti-modernism as a writer, his abhorrence of the then fashionable nouveau roman in France and its practitioners’ threat to the traditional novel, from which he was making a successful living (at one point early in this book he describes a waspish exchange with a literary snob who puts him down as a “professional writer”). His vision of Ireland, it may quickly be noted, has as its central figure the arch-antimodernist William Butler Yeats, whose epitaph “Horseman, Pass By!” gives his book its title. Irish modernists like James Joyce or Flann O’Brien, let alone the more obvious Samuel Beckett, are rarely if ever mentioned as part of the spiritual landscape.
The equestrian motif, on the other hand, is never far away. Besides Yeats, there is his own “Wild Horses”, written in Ireland out of Irish experience, his wife, Chantal’s,n enthusiasm for the hunt (one reason for coming in the first place) and the implied, though never mentioned for some reason, presence of that other larger than life horseman John Huston. The unifying element seems to be the Galway Blazers, whose foregatherings, stirrup cups, hunts and evening dinners are given the run of the first fifty pages, to such an extent I feared we were in for another account of the landed gentry, its glories and eccentricities. Which is almost the case until one particularly courtly example walks off into a forest and blows his brains out for no apparent reason, and Déon asks us to stand witness, as in so many other books, to the disintegration of an Irish social class.
As the aristocracy and its horses (both celebrated by Yeats) are of no great interest to me, I struggled initially with this not very long book. Democracy, daily life and agnostic Catholicism gradually make their appearance however, and the studies of local people, neighbours and acquaintances, are a welcome change. The fine line between humour and condescension is never overstepped, and the stock figures – raindrenched postmen in yellow capes, wild women walking the roads, a bachelor alone in his mother’s house – are lifted like fossils out of the tradition and given back into it as living human beings, particularly so in the chapter on Pat-Jo, bachelor, friend and general factotum.
Reading this last, I found it hard to reconcile with my appalled remembrance of the drunken, pugilistic Irish portrayed in Purple Taxi, the film of Déon’s 1970s novel of the same name, which struck me then as a French remake of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, with the kind of clichés Pat-Jo, in the present memoir, manages to escape. We are spared the Freudian version of his bachelorhood as repressed homosexuality. His domestic chaos is not negative, and there is never (the next world will correct all that) a sense of victimhood. Nor is there the usual Irish obsession with the home place. He is taken to Paris by Déon, shown the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées, entertained at great restaurants like Aux Ministères, which do not faze him. At the same time, as Déon notes, there is no sentimental nostalgia for his own few acres. The pages devoted to this man, who has come clear of the usual distortions and is always and only himself, are the best in the book.
With equal care, Déon delineates two Irish writers of his acquaintance, the brash Ulick O’Connor and the courteous and wary John McGahern. The comic opposition emerges of itself, but Déon, who likes both men, never overdoes it. We visit a literary reception at the Shelbourne Hotel, where the former throws his weight about, and the cloudy waterlands of Leitrim, where the latter has his retreat. Between them, they constitute two Irish solutions to an Irish problem –exhibitionism or impenetrable reserve (a third perhaps would be exile). What also emerges, with reference to the later work of both writers, is loss of faith, in old age, in the artifice of fiction itself, and the suggestion, as these sketches illustrate, that it all might be said better as diary, journal or memoir.
But we never really get out from under the huge anti-modernistic shadow of Ben Bulben, and the childhood world of Yeats. Even Greece, Déon’s second home, presented here in opposition to Ireland, is, I suspect, another version of the same flight into the pre-modern if not the anti-modern. Quite probably, had he written about his Greek home and its local neighbours, the same book would have emerged with different names. For the real narrative in Déon is the escape from the sterile critical consciousness that is France, into never-never lands (such as the Ireland of Purple Taxi) where the romantic imagination can operate freely, damaged love can heal itself, and the hard Cartesian mindscape of Paris be kept, if temporarily, at arm’s length.
Not surprisingly then, we end with a version of the Brendan voyage in which the first glimpse of America is the death of imagination and the command comes to row back immediately to Ireland, where fact still melts into legend, and the corporate realities of the European Union and the United States are kept at bay. Ireland’s salvation, for Déon, rests in its remaining “different”. Like the Irish Journal of Heinrich Böll, his book is the atemporal diary of an escape from the temporal. There we are still safe, like the Yeats-obsessed German girl I gave a lift to all that time ago, hitching a ride through mythical space.
Harry Clifton’s The Holding Centre:Selected Poems 1974-2004 and Portobello Sonnets are published by Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books. He was Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010-2013.