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A Provincial Death by Eoghan Smith

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By Eoghan Smith

Sometime in the late Autumn of 2019, I started to dwell upon a set of disparate images, which gradually replaced the lingering imaginative remains of my first novel, The Failing Heart. These new images, which included a blood red supermoon, a distant lighthouse, a woman with long grey hair, a forest of dead trees, and a mysterious research institute, eventually grew into A Provincial Death.Some appeared unexpectedly; I am thinking of that hitherto unremarkable evening driving on the motorway when I was caught by the sublime phenomenon known as a Moon Illusion. This spectacular optical effect makes the Moon appear much larger and brighter than it actually is. The giant satellite was perched – or so it seemed – at the summit of a hill I was driving up, and so enormous it appeared that I speculated if the Moon, somehow unmoored from its gravitational lock, was speeding through space on its way to crash into the Earth. Then there were those images, such as the dead forest or the grey-haired woman, that were not sudden, but escaped repeatedly out of the places and people I had remanded in the cellars of my mind. But at that stage, I had no sense that they would all find their way into the same novel.

This is how a story begins for me: with fragments of ideas, half-discarded impressions, that my imagination is not satisfied to let remain as fragments. For a long time I pushed all the different images in my head around, allowing them to compete with each other on the page until one demanded more attention than the other. If I have learned anything as a writer, it is that a story must percolate at its own pace. An early, aborted draft of the novelwas a ghost story set entirely in a rural college; another took place in a famine-era hovel near a swamp. But I kept returning to seascapes, and in particular I was drawn to the southeast coast of Ireland. In the midst of the abstract flotsam was a persistent image that would become central to A Provincial Death: a man is clinging on to a rock in the Irish Sea, a man who has not given up all hope of being saved though he knows it could all end at any moment. As I worked on the book, I sometimes rented houses in places I knew my imagination was beginning to inhabit; Kilmore Quay, Wexford Town, Dunmore East. Eventually, the lonely, abandoned figure on the ocean-battered rock, this tenacious person simply trying to hold on in the wreckage of the ocean, was created. And so I wrote this fable of human survival and perseverance that I have called A Provincial Death.

Writers sometimes talk – or, at least, are sometimes asked – about their writing process. I am not sure I can say for certain what mine is other than that it follows a certain pattern. First there is the appearance over many months of insistent images, and then there is a period of experimentation with voice, style, character and atmosphere. But for me, the most important element is the development of a routine. The Failing Heart took many years to write, mostly because I wrote it in fits and starts, until I eventually found the discipline to finish it. By comparison, once the initial story had taken shape, the substance of A Provincial Death was written over the summer of 2020. This was largely because the Covid lockdown had confined me (and everyone else) indoors, and because of this I formed a regular routine where I wrote every day from early in the morning until the early afternoon.

The experience of the pandemic also spoke to a more global idea in A Provincial Death that I soon realised I was exploring without doing so consciously: how our era has become characterised by narratives of planetary catastrophe – rampant disease, environmental disaster, the mass extinction of species – and the question of how individual hope can maintain in such overwhelming conditions. That unexpected supermoon that I flippantly wondered was on its way to destroy the planet began to find its way into the story as a metaphor for cataclysm.  

As I was writing A Provincial Death, I thought about consolation.I returned to the humanistic realms of philosophy and the arts, which are always at some level simultaneous expressions of despair that there is a limit to human understanding and offerings of comfort that our predicaments can be expressed at all. I thought about the writings of people like Synge, Kafka, Rilke, Drndić; of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Arrendt, Sartre, and brought them into conversation with the novel’s narrator as he grapples with the predicaments of how knowledge of the finitude of things can be accommodated, how to continue on, and how consolation may be found.  

(c) Eoghan Smith

About A Provincial Death:

Lyrical and blackly comic, A Provincial Death is a startlingly original meditation on solitude and perseverance, the consolations of art and philosophy, and the capacity of human beings to endure catastrophe.

It is a hot, summer morning and Smyth, a struggling writer and academic, wakes to discover he is stranded alone on a rock in the Irish Sea. As he clings on in hope of salvation, he is assailed by broken memories and the failures of his past. Fragmented images of the previous day come to him: a mysterious research institute, a dead forest, a rickety boat captained by a gruff old fisherman, an eccentric academic named McGovern who believed that the Moon was about to crash into the Earth, destroying everything. Confused, weary and sore, and with the tide rising inexorably and strange sea creatures circling, Smyth tries to make sense of an arbitrary world in a desperate bid for survival.

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About the author

Eoghan Smith is an Irish writer, critic and academic. He is the author of the novel The Failing Heart (Dedalus, 2018). He has also written a monograph on John Banville and was co-editor of a collection of essays on Irish suburban literary and visual cultures. He has contributed numerous essays, articles and reviews on literature and visual culture to a variety of academic and literary publications, including The Irish Times, Books Ireland, Dublin Review of Books, Irish University Review and the Irish Studies Review. He has taught English literature at universities and colleges in Dublin, Maynooth and Carlow since the mid-2000s. A Provincial Death is his second novel.

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