How about a New Year’s resolution that doesn’t involve giving up food, cigarettes, alcohol or joining a gym? And is good for your heart and soul, won’t put on weight and best of all, is free.
If you own a Kindle or other e-reader, a substantial number of classic novels are available to download free. It almost seems like cheating, but then it doesn’t seem plausible to buy 18th and 19th century paperbacks that you should have read some time in your teens but hung around the chipper instead. And if you were put off reading Wuthering Heights or Silas Marner aloud, in turn, in class and threw your copy away, now is your chance to really appreciate those narratives. You can download the likes of Dracula, Madame Bovary and the works of Tolstoy free; the potential is endless, if you already enjoy reading, to expand your engagement with the classics, treating yourself to a few hours of abandonment in a way their authors could never have envisaged, with the exception of perhaps Jules Verne or Aldous Huxley.
But if paperbacks are your thing, there is a nationwide promotion this month of four modern Irish classics, which is a great way to grow your library. The Sunday Independent newspaper is giving a free copy of a modern Irish classic each Sunday in January 2015 (you can redeem the voucher in the newspaper at any branch of Dunnes). There’s an excuse to indulge some time with James Joyce, Anne Enright, John Boyne and Iris Murdoch. It doesn’t matter if your surroundings are tastefully painted in taupe, mouse-back or elephant’s breath, a house without books is under-dressed and lacks the pulse of curiosity, adventure and imagination that we started out with as children.
If you’re feeling particularly flush and want to fill your elegant surroundings with artfully designed re-prints, an Irish company, Roads Publishing, established by Danielle Ryan, has issued several classics in beautiful bindings.
As handy as an e-reader is, it doesn’t have the colour, shape and feel of well-worn books on a shelf, books that don’t need to be recharged, with pages on which you can make notes and flick back and forth. A neuro- scientist told me recently that the combination of senses we use to touch, smell, see a real book, helps us to retain the material more than if we read from a screen. But there’s a use for everything, and I’d rather pack more clothes and shoes for a flight than a bundle of books, for which an e-reader is the perfect solution. I was recently amused to see the recommendations from Amazon this year after my son had borrowed my Kindle for study and downloaded free Machiavelli, Socrates, Nietzsche and The Art of War.
So, what better way to relax during the dark, penurious January evenings than curl up with a great book, burn a bale of briquettes and listen to the wind howling outside? Time to turn off the television and devote an hour to the imagination, it’s a new year a new beginning.
The four classics being given away each Sunday include the works of two Booker Prize winners, one dead, one very much alive. Since its inception in 1969, Ireland has produced four Booker winners including Roddy Doyle and John Banville, while William Trevor was short-listed four times. We have four Nobel Prize winners for Literature, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and, of course, Seamus Heaney. Irish writers like Edna O’Brien, Emma Donoghue and Jennifer Johnston have been globally lauded.
The most expensive literary prize in the world, IMPAC, has been won three times by Irish writers, most recently by Kevin Barry, and also by Colum McCann and Colm Toibín. IMPAC is an initiative of Dublin City Council, and our capital city is a UNESCO City of Literature. Whether it is manipulating a foreign language to express our unexamined race, or suffering the oppression of our British neighbours and the Catholic Church, family feuds and emigration, the canon of Irish writing tends to be mined from the memory of minutiae. Fiction helps us to make sense of the world. And great fiction is transformative. James Joyce changed the shape of literature forever. As T.S. Eliot said of Ullyses, ‘it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape’. Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist in 1910, the same year that Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a fragmented depiction of women in a brother. It was the dawn of Cubism, just as Joyce created the fragmented depiction of his race.
Both Anne Enright and John Boyne studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Enright used to be a TV producer and director. She has published one collection of stories, The Portable Virgin, which won the Rooney Prize, and several novels. John Boyne is the author of nine novels for adults and four novels for younger readers. He has won many awards including in 2012, the Hennessy Literary ‘Hall of Fame’ Award and the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award in 2014. His most recent novel is A History of Loneliness. Iris Murdoch was a prodigiously inventive writer of 26 novels in a career that spanned over four decades.
The Gathering by Anne Enright evokes a contemporary mother-daughter-family tension marked by death, sex and dark secrets. It’s a Dublin life, recalled over three generations through Veronica’s grief for her newly dead brother. The protagonist is a tall rangy woman who drives a Saab 9.3 and lives in a cream coloured world. A Celtic Tiger woman. She feels alienated the torchbearer of her generation. Her mother’s fecundity – and her father’s availing of it – produced twelve children, which has been a perpetual embarrassment to her. The children were like ‘steps and stairs’ but at her brother’s funeral the ‘staircase was now bockety, with gaps and broken planks and disproportion between one fat stoop and the next’. Enright’s language and portrayal of family life searing and jagged. Memory slices like a cleaver and slaughters the past. Sex begets death, not life. Death is the only inevitable consequence of sex.
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a must for your library; and not just because it is first on so many ‘Best of 20th Century Lists’. The intricate path from infant to young man is expressed through the semi-autobiographical, Stephen Daedalus. From ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road’ to ‘O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ Joyce portrays a tortured aesthete. St Stephen was Greek and the first Christian martyr, Daedalus was the Greek mythological craftsman, creator of the Cretan labyrinth and maker of wings to fly. The combination of victim of the church and soaring artist encapsulates Joyce’s compulsion to free his genius from an oppressive Ireland. Through fluctuating memory, triggered by random observations, Stephen defines the turn of the century, before Ireland’s liberation. Ironically, after four years of rejection, The Portrait of an Artist as a young man was published in New York in 1916.
Dublin-born, Iris Murdoch, spent most of her life in England, providing her with a distant perspective on her Irish roots. Her work examines morality through good and evil characters, often comedic, always philosophical. The New York Times called The Nice and the Good her ‘best, most exciting, and most successful book… and hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it’. It was short-listed for the first Booker which she won in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. The Nice and the Good opens with a gunshot in Whitehall and plunges the reader into a tale of obsessive love and entangled relationships. Murdoch spins her characters around murder, black magic, secrecy, infidelity, and ultimate redemption. Set in London and Dorset, you will be transported by the circle of Octavian Gray which combines romance with a thriller plot. Reading pleasure guaranteed.
John Boyne is ‘literally’ a household name. A few years ago, he gave a talk on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas at my sons’ school. They were rather awed at the idea of meeting a real live writer with a ‘famous’ book. The Thief of Time is the Sunday Independent giveway, and was Boyne’s first book and spans two and half centuries in the memory of Matthieu Zela. It opens as he flees his step-father, who has murdered his mother. Matthieu was born in 1743, and inexplicably stops aging in middle age. He survives several near fatal skirmishes and 256 years later he is the millionaire owner of a TV station. In those two and a half centuries he encounters Hollywood in the 1920s, the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Wall Street Crash. This is a really clever device allowing him flit back and forth recalling life with his half-brother Thomas and Thomas’s children. Successive nephews die in the French Revolution, a duel in Italy, and a bank robbery. Each Thomas dies before the next is born. Matthieu resolves to break the chain with his ‘current’ nephew, a drug addicted soap star, all very now. Time Out called it a ‘minor masterpiece’.
(c) Deirdre Conroy