Carlo Gébler: The Catastrophist & Catharsis in Writing
Over a peppermint tea beside Hodges Figgis bookshop, Carlo Gébler tells me that writing about his father in his new book Confessions of a Catastrophist was a cathartic experience.
Like the almost 300-year-old iconic bookshop mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Gébler is part of literary history: he is the son of two prolific authors, Ernest Gébler and Edna O’Brien. His mother was unpublished and much younger than her husband when they married. They separated when Carlo was still a child. “They unfriended, in modern parlance,” he chuckles. Today Carlo is an essential cog in the Irish literary establishment in his own right – he is writer-in-residence in HMP Maghaberry, Co Antrim and teaches at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Trinity College, Dublin. He was elected to Aosdána in 1991.
He talks emphatically about what he says was his parents’ “colossal” influence on him, “not just in terms of what you do, but what you might do what you do.” Both of them were committed to simplicity, lucidity, narrative coherence, lyricism and emotional honesty in their writing, he believes. “When you get older, you realise how their values have seeped into you. They construct your personality. Whether you like it or not, you’re saturated in them.”
Gébler’s relationship with his father Ernest plays a big part in his memoir. Although he declares that on one level the only reason he is a writer is because he is seeking his parents’ approval and craves their praise – “I just want them to applaud and say well done” – he is very clinical and analytical about the effect of his father’s inability to love.
“He was damaged and unhappy,” he remarks. “He was the second child, born on New Year’s Eve 1914.” When Ernest’s father Adolph returned from war, he bonded with his eldest daughter Adelaide and not with his son. Gébler says Ernest was “excluded” from having a close relationship with his father. “As a result, he was deeply unable to give love.” This emotional separation between Ernest and Carlo seems to be something that the latter is still coming to terms with – Confessions of a Catastrophist is his second memoir that examines it.
Throughout our conversation, Gébler emphasises his admiration for ‘Grub Street’ writers – those who consider how best to make money from their work.
“Through my experience with [my parents], and later through my experience of other people, I began to understand the economics of literature – you could write things down, sent it away, and a cheque would come back in the post. It was possible to make money out of words. This was a lesson once learned never forgotten.” Growing up, Gébler would often encounter authors like Roald Dahl at the house, but it wasn’t the fact that they had made a successful career as an author that made an impression on the teenager.
“[Dahl] was very interesting. He was too tall and quite abrasive, but he would just talk about contracts and agents, and how you could finesse things, and what you did in order to parlay more money. I’m putting it crudely, but when you’re 13, 14, 15 and you listen to him having these conversations, you think, ‘okay, it’s not just that you write something and it’s published, actually there are complicated financial transactions,’” he says.
In his new book, Gébler references his initial training as a film director at the National Film and Television School in the UK, after which he decided to pursue writing as a vocation. This visual style from his film background is completely evident in his writing, he says, and if he could, he would inscribe on writers’ hearts: ‘If this were a film, what would I see?’ “Film is very simple: you see it, you hear it. If you don’t see it, you don’t know it. [Books have] a line of internal coherence, like film editing: an array of rushes, shoot new bits, add voiceover and music, and reconfigure it into a new form.”
His study, a converted bicycle shed, has closed shutters so Gébler can work in the dark. A window at the back lets in a little light. His radio is tuned to BBC Radio 3. A lapis lazuli egg sits in front of him, near the figure of a nude African goddess, representing the earth and productivity. He writes both on a computer and in his slim black Moleskine notebook, which he carries in his breast pocket. He aims to produce 1,000 words every day and says anyone interested in becoming an author has to “read the foundation stones of literature – the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek myths and 19th and 20th century Russians – Pushkin, Chekhov and Shalamov.”
He has worked as the writer-in-residence at Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim for many years, tutoring prisoners in creative writing. “While working in the prison, I met a prisoner called Jason Thompson. He’s thanked in the acknowledgements [of the book]. Jason read through the material and made a couple of suggestions. He came up with the title.”
The book has taken four or five years to put together, much longer than the rest of his books, which took up to a year. Gébler says he fiddled more with this one. “The more you write, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you have to write.” As he mentioned in his interviews for Writing.ie’s National Emerging Writers Programme, he traditionally makes biographies of his characters, lists of what they’ve done at each stage of their lives. “What this book did was to answer those questions but for myself. The magnetic force was catastrophism, things going wrong. That was my focus.”
Despite Gébler’s protestations that the title of the book was born from a negative outlook on the world’s “liars” and corruption, Confessions of a Catastrophist leans towards optimism as Gébler writes about bringing up his young family. The narrative moves from his father’s battle with Alzheimers to the birth of Gébler’s son on the same day. He says: “What the book probably doesn’t do is [state that] the only thing that matters is love. I have five children by the same woman. They all still speak to me. That is not only enough, but it is everything. If the book has a failing, it is that I haven’t emphasised that I know the value of love.”
(c) Marese O’Sullivan
About Confessions of a Catastrophist
Carlo Gébler is a writer. Over a long career he has written an enormous variety of material including drama for thescreen, stage and radio, long and short fiction, memoir, history and travel. He has not, however, written a cookery book though he realizes he might have to. If he does it will be called Burnt Dinners, of course.
When he started writing seriously in the late 1970s there was no internet and publishers liked to lunch.Three decades on the literary world haschanged: most significantly, it seems no longer congenial or welcoming to literature or those who try to make literature. As a catastrophist who never doubted from the moment he started that conditions in what he calls the Kingdom of Letters would only get worse, Carlo Gébler is not in the least surprised by how things have turned out.
It was always going to go downhill (how could it not?) and in his Confessions he describes that process but in his own personal, idiosyncratic and caustic way. The book is an intriguing mixture of pungent, fierce and striking memoir with pithy mordant notes on the literary trade, on the books he’s written and why he wrote them, and on the difficult business of negotiating a way through the thickets and trying to make a living. It is not a sour book (hopefully): it is a funny book (hopefully), it is unquestionably a true book, true about literature and the innumerable humiliations peculiar to it.
Carlo Gébler’s Confessions of a Catastrophist is in book shops now or pick up your copy online here.