Elizabeth MacDonald was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches English at the University of Pisa, where she lives with her husband and son. Her translations of the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty were the first in Italy. She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Derek Mahon, and Old Irish nature poetry. She has a special interest is the poetry of Mario Luzi. Her translations have appeared in many journals, including Modern Poetry in Translation, Poetry Ireland Review, The Cork Liteary Review andSoglie. A House of Cards was first published by Pillar Press in 2006 and a second edition will be published by Portia Publishing later this year.
“This is a tender, understated and beautiful collection of stories that will leave you longing for more. ” Emma Walsh, The Irish Book Review.
Elizabeth MacDonald is a principal in a dynamic new venture, Portia Communications which offers a diverse range of services to the book buying and producing community.
- Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers? Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
In the pantheon I would put Maupassant, Chekhov and Joyce. Then I have my own favourites, such as Maeve Brennan, Katherine Mansfield, Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor and William Trevor.
I am aware that Liam O’Flaherty is not fashionable; but in their brevity and intensity I
have always felt that his short stories approach lyric poems. Stories such as ‘The Tent’ and ‘The Conger Eel’. They do not aspire to meaning something; they are pure moments of being. I first read them as a child and they left their mark.
For me, the first modern Irish short story writer would be George Moore.
- I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish and alcohol plays a much
bigger part in the Irish stories.
How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish society.
The Irish know that their relationship with alcohol has veered into something much more fraught, yet they can’t do without it. And so we get the guilt-ridden echoes of this in numerous artistic offerings. Living in Italy, I see how a Mediterranean culture manages to keep alcohol-consumption within certain limits. It’s a very ancient culture and underpinning it everywhere is this sense of belonging to a ‘civitas’ – the need to belong to a society. Italians are very socially minded. Not in the sense of the state and one’s duties towards it, but in the sense of human relationships and community. That is what they care about most. Social judgements are crucial in holding all this
together, (far more, I would say, than purely religious and moral considerations), so few buck against the perceived sense of collective disapproval. It’s about losing face, rather than your soul… In this sense Italian society is traditional and slow to change. This disapproval of drunkenness dates back millennia. The Romans even had a law whereby a husband had the right to smell his wife’s breath to check if she’d been tippling. And woe betide her if she had. That horror of chaos unleashed due to the overturning of the rules of rightful living proper to the ‘civitas’, brought on for example by drunkenness, has survived largely intact to this day.
It’s not that the Irish are the lone raging alcoholics marooned in an abstemious world
– reliance on alcohol is a trait that we share with a large swathe of Northern Europeans. But we do seem to dwell on it more than others. Perhaps we are more honest about a dependence on it, and more willing to admit to falling foul of it. Maybe it speaks of a certain lack of hypocrisy – we’ll discuss failings that most other nations wouldn’t want to be associated with, and so ignore – socially and artistically. Hell, we Irish even admit to envy and, to take the sting out of it, call it begrudgery.
Yet the fact remains that alcohol fuels most social situations to an unhealthy extent. This, however, is just as true in WASP America and all sections of British society. But they don’t laud it, or write about it, to the same extent.
And while Italy has a reasonably balanced approach to alcohol, they still have a bad drug problem. Away from prying eyes, substances are taken; then people put their masks back on and head out for ‘fun’. There is no social dimension to the taking of these substances, it’s mostly done alone, for very individualistic highs. The drug scene doesn’t offer the same opportunity for socializing as a pub does. Rave parties are a case in point, each person lost in their own spinning world, gone beyond the reach of meaningful human contact. Very different to a pub where, pint in hand, you chat and enjoy a laugh.
Pub-centred socializing is gregarious and outward looking, it’s an attempt to reach beyond the self. Taken to the lamentable extremes that we see all around us, this positive reaching out coils back on itself and inevitably degenerates into something selfish and infantile.
But we know this…
- "Sunday Lunch", about a newly-wed couple, the man Italian and the woman Irish, seems to show a future where the wife will play second place to her mother-in-law in the life of her
Declan Kiberd (my authority figure!) has stated that "the over-intense, clutching
relationship between mother and son without displaying any awareness of the underlying implication that the very intensity of the mother-son relationship suggests something sinister about the Irish man, both as husband and father. Women sought from their sons an emotional fulfilment denied them by their men, which suggests that the husbands had often failed as lovers: but the women could not have achieved such dominance if many husbands
had not also abdicated the role of father." on in "Sunday Lunch"?
If we put "Italian" in there, do we get what is going in "Sunday Lunch"?
I agree with what Declan Kiberd says about the absent father figure in Ireland. As a writer I am very aware of imbalances – the moment of tipping over into some descent into paralysis and/or destruction. In Ireland until very recent times there was a gross imbalance between gender roles. But in this rigid demarcation, Ireland was far from being unique, as it was the norm to a greater or lesser extent all over the Western world. But what made it different in Ireland was that it was not just state sanctioned, i.e. rigid gender roles were not just a question of what was socially acceptable. In Ireland the extremely limited role accorded to women was copper-fastened when the Catholic Church brought all the weight of a moral imperative (and, I might add, endemic and vicious misogyny) to bear on the issue as well.
Insofar as men are the only socially acceptable breadwinners, their family can expect hardly ever to see them. And children will be brought up by their mothers, with the occasional frustrated wallop from their fathers. That has been the norm in Western society up until very recently.
But that norm was warped a little further in Ireland. Firstly because Ireland was a colonized country. This is an emasculating experience for men, who cannot command on their own turf. Furthermore, with the poverty that results from the exploitation at the heart of colonization, jobs and work were chronically scarce. On the one hand church and state tell them to be men and work; having been stripped of any other role, when this fails, what is left for them? Then emerges the feckless character that drifts between pub and home, veering between violence and maudlin bouts of sentimentality. And the women are corralled into a martyred approach to motherhood that in its own way poisons the next generation.
However, we can be thankful that this rigid division of the gender roles is being superseded in the Western world. Wherever men are relegated to the world of work, they are condemned to emotional infantilism within the family. And when women are corralled within the family walls, they are condemned to intellectual infantilism outside of it. How could any kind of partnership predicated on an equal footing ever emerge from such a distorted state of affairs?
As far as Italy is concerned, gender roles have followed the norm in Western society. It seems to me, however, that the input from the Catholic Church, while limiting, did not run along the same misogynistic lines as it did in Ireland. Italian women are called regina della casa (queen of the home); having had all real power taken from them,
they are accorded unlimited emotional power in the domestic arena. Which they wield very ably. Women’s focus is, after all, on intimacy, involvement and a collective
sense of belonging.
Massimo Grammellini, an Italian journalist, has said that men will continue to chaff under the yoke of domesticity for as long as they continue to focus on emotions as opposed to feelings. Emotions come and go; true feeling will stand the test of time. Emotion is skin deep; feeling – a capacity for deep sentiment – holistically sustains. A dependence on the thrill of emotion impedes awareness of the nature of feeling - and the unacknowledged need for it. Many men, even Italian men, cannot articulate the nature of their relationships and sentiments; in this way they live in thrall to them. Many women will fight for emotional supremacy over a man, be it husband or son. And how fatalistically men seem to accept this, delegating the ‘management of feelings’ to the mother.
The only place that has marked itself out as different in this regard is the so-called Anglo-Saxon world. Here, socially and religiously all mystique has been removed from the figure of the mother, which has gone hand-in-hand with women being accorded equal rights and allowed to move into the world of work. Parallel to this, men have opened up spaces for themselves in the home. Personally speaking, I have been delighted in recent times to see Irish men taking such obvious delight in the rearing of their families as they actively shoulder responsibilities in the home. This process is slower in Italy, as men are reluctant to lose their prerogatives of independence and women their status of ‘queen of the home’. Irish people may have moved on more quickly only because what they have shrugged off was so mortifying of their human dignity. In Italy, each of the gender roles, while limiting, did offer a certain kind of fulfilment that has blunted the need for finding a new equilibrium.
- A character in an Ali Smith short story asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories
versus novels, "Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you?
In its picturesque way, it does. For me the difference between short stories and novels is essentially this: the best short stories bring readers to a point where there is an unexpected shift in perspective and they find themselves asking questions. There may be no answers; the thing is to ask yourself questions. The novel, on the other hand, is all about the passing of time and the facing of consequences. This of course is messy.
- Ok this may seem like a silly question, but I pose it anyway: do you believe in Fairies? This
quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this: "One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would ‘put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland.’ In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the
‘little people’, replied with terse sophistication: ‘I do not, sir – but they’re there’.“
Fairies. Hmmmm. Let me put it this way. I think that life in Ireland, for a variety of historical reasons, developed in ancient times in a way that was, to a certain extent, similar to that of the Native Americans. Some great joy was found in nature, a totalising fulfilment that obviated the need for the more material forms of social development and civilization that manifest in cities. The Native Americans attained integrated at-oneness with their surroundings, but early Irish nature poetry does show the same joy in an active participation in creation. The Song of Amergin embodies
this ecstatic at-oneness with all creatures; Celtic mythology is full of shape-shifters who effortlessly subvert the laws of physics; boundaries between the visible and invisible become more permeable and fluid. As time has passed, this awareness – our place in a unified cosmos – has remained, but it has taken other directions, dwindling into other forms, often those of mere superstition.
- Do you think the very large amount of remains from Neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in
Ireland has shaped the literature and psyche of the country?
The historic remains of Ireland are extremely varied for such a small country and this has contributed to enriching it enormously. When the Celts arrived in Ireland, they were so mesmerised by the Neolithic monuments they found (having no talent/interest in that direction themselves), that they reputed their monument-buildings predecessors to be endowed with magical capacities. In fairness, I feel something uncanny was at work in these monuments. One motif that appears in Newgrange is a very rudimentary boat and sun; the same motif recurs in more sophisticated form in the Egyptian pyramids. And what about the solar wheel in Dowth; that too occurs in Egypt. What really stirs the armchair archaeologist/anthropologist in me however is the linguistic parallel between Semitic word order and Irish. Irish is an Indo-European language of the Celtic sub-group. Indo-European languages share a common word order, which is: Subject – Verb – Object. Irish, however, differs, as it shares the word order common to Semitic languages, which is Verb – Subject – Object. Who were these predecessors? Were the Celts so admiring of them that their cultural impact extended to a syntactic underpinning of the linguistic structures of the new conquering language? Maybe a parallel can be seen with the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, who continued the work of city building begun by their ‘grandparents’, the Vikings; but they discarded their own language and embraced Irish.
There are ghostly echoes and presences all around us, of an ancient past that continues to make itself felt in the shaping of the present.
- How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?
Irish hospitality has an aspect to it that I have not come across in other nationalities, namely the insistence with which an Irish host will press you to take something if you are his guest. If an Englishman offers his guest a cup of tea, and the guest politely declines, the English host will discreetly leave it at that. If an Italian host offers a cup of coffee, and his guest brusquely declines, as is the Italian way, the Italian host may reply, “Non faccia complimenti, eh!” (Don’t stand on ceremony/don’t be shy); at a second brusquer refusal, he will desist. But if an Irish host offers his guest some tea, and the guest declines, the Irish host will badger his guest thus:
- “Are you sure?”
- “Ah no, thanks all the same, I’m grand.”
- “Ah go on – it’s a cold evening!”
- “No, no, thanks very much, it’s all right.”
- “Ah now – a nice hot cup of tea?”
At this point there may be silence from the guest. The host seizes his chance. –“Go on, sure I’m having one myself.”
- “Ah, I don’t know…”
- “No, I insist!”
- “Well, if you’re sure…”
- “Of course I’m sure!”
I often wonder if these pantomimes aren’t the result of the famine – an endemic shortage of food in all houses, which meant that you did not accept hospitality unless you were quite sure that you would not be depriving the host of his next mouthful. If the host insisted enough, you could safely accept; otherwise you would be wise to desist, but your host wouldn’t have lost face in the carrying out of his duties.
It’s amusing to watch an Irish person try this approach on either an English person or an Italian – they can get quite sharp at the third “Are you sure?”…
I think the colonial experience, and the horror of the Great Famine, have given Irish people a sensitivity to other developing countries and the difficulties they face. But if Ireland can do it (our only natural resource is turf…), the hopeful thing is any country can!
- Who was the first great Irish writer who was not at all Anglo-Irish?
My instinctive reaction is to move beyond what I see the spurious divisions of a
‘divide-and-conquer’ mentality. That is, the drive to categorize and safely neutralize individuals by relegating them to the cages of supposed racial and/or religious identity. Even such a great critic as Bloom has categorized Irish writers in this way,
speaking of the ‘Catholic Irish Joyce’ and the ‘Anglo-Irish Protestant sage, Beckett’. I
am not comfortable with this.
Britain, for example, is a complex, multi-stranded society, but no one there would dream of raking over the racial and/or religious credentials of whoever procures glory for the country. They’re British, full stop. Indeed, on more than one occasion when an Irish person has achieved outstanding success in some field, British journalists have bumped them up a class, unilaterally bestowing British citizenship on them in a grand gesture of ‘Well, we all speak English after all, don’t we?’
Ireland has always been a mini-melting pot, and this for me is one of its strong points. It has endowed the country with cultural dynamism. The first instance of truly damaging ‘divide-and-conquer’ probably resulted from the incomplete Norman conquest of the country, which allowed pockets of resistance to continue, while ultimately draining it any real capacity for significant revolutionary impetus. Thus started the long drawn-out war of attrition that impeded any new balance being achieved, a new identity forged. The means to an integrated national future was hamstrung at a tragically early stage.
I delight in the diversity of background that goes into our collective national identity;
what exactly it is constituted of is each person’s private business.
Who in English do you think has written the best fiction set in Italy?
Personally speaking, I have relished the fiction Henry James set in Italy.
If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Minoan Crete – it’s always struck me as beautiful, peace-loving and civilized; the medieval Spain of ‘Convivencia’, to see the extent to which Christians, Jews and Muslims did manage to get along together; and London 1910, when as Virginia Woolf put it, modernity kicked in.
What are three things, besides friends and family, you miss most about living in Ireland?
I’m not sure I can single out three things. But I do know that I miss a certain approach to human contact. When I go to Ireland now, I notice with dismay that I lack an
ability to engage with strangers, an ability that I still see all around me in Ireland. It centres on the eyes. Irish people will look strangers in the eyes when they speak to them, or even if they merely bump in to you. The inevitable ‘Sorry!’ will always be accompanied by a friendly glance into your eyes. This no longer comes spontaneously to me; I’ve had to ‘toughen up’ in Italy and acquire a protective detachment. That means not looking strangers in the eye and keeping them at a distance. It’s just safer, especially if you’re a woman. If you bump into somebody on the street, you just sniff and keep going; an apology is very rare; and there is never eye contact. At bus stops, no one chats for the sake of chatting; it would be considered peculiar. The question everyone would ask themselves is – ‘What does this individual want from me?’
But Italian people will stare. They will stare at every part of you, and evaluate every thing about you - sometimes in a surprisingly complimentary way. Italians love whatever is aesthetically pleasing and can be very generous in their appreciation of something if it is visually gratifying. But they tend to avoid the person behind the things.
I’d like to be able to slip back into a certain friendly lightness in my dealings with strangers, but I fear I’ve lost ‘the gift of the gab’ somewhere along the line. It’s been replaced by the cautious observer.
Quick Pick Questions:
Rome or Dublin?
Which is the better city for the neophyte writer?
Either. Both. It’s not so much a question of location; the important thing is to move outside your comfort zone. Put yourself in a position where you will have to ask yourself some hard questions. Any place that shakes up assumptions is fertile terrain for the writer.
Cats or Dogs?
I have always loved cats. Loved their style, elegance and independence. But in more recent years, a part of me has come to admire dogs’ capacity for loyalty and affection. There is something humbling in a Labrador placing its head on your knees and gazing at you with unwavering devotion.
Italian Food or Irish?
That’s like asking, childhood or adulthood. My childhood is full of delicious memories of my mother’s home cooking. She is a very good cook, and we were lucky to be given all that is good and wholesome in Irish cuisine. However, in a country historically plagued by famine, you cannot expect the repertoire to be huge. Plus, the Catholic Church contributed with fasts and various dour clampdowns on eating habits. Irish people like to eat, it’s just a pity that it all got very grim over the course of history. Ireland is blessed with excellent quality produce, and a lot of dynamic work is being done at the moment to allow this to flourish. More confidence and awareness would help; this would enable people to avoid the traps of the fast food ‘culture’.
What can I say about Italian cuisine that hasn’t already been said? I adore it for its freshness. While French cuisine is all about technique, Italian cuisine is endlessly creative in the combination of first-rate ingredients. Italian cooks prefer minimum interference so as to allow maximum exploitation of natural taste and flavours.
Tuscany or the West of Ireland - which is more breathtaking?
Again, I consider myself luck to have the privilege of knowing them both. They are entirely different and provoke very different reactions. Everywhere in Tuscany the hand of man is present, taming and civilizing over the millennia. From the gently rolling hills with their orderly rows of trellised vines, to the centuries’ old olive groves, the fruit and citrus trees, the wheat, maize and sunflower-filled fields. Nature is everywhere at the bountiful service of man. But nature is taking her revenge, and increasingly flash floods, mudslides, forest fires – even the occasional earthquake – are overthrowing man’s hard won mastery of his environment.
The West if Ireland is not for the faint hearted. It unsettles my Italian husband, who balks at such empty reaches of unadulterated nature – these bare mountains, clouds scudding over their craggy faces in an unpredictable play of light and shadow; turf- filled expanses, purple with heather in August, empty except for the occasional wind blown thorn tree or keening bird; wind flecked lakes. It is a place where you feel alone with yourself and your thoughts. In its austerity however, nature rarely throws anything worse at you than gusting rain…
Italio Calvino or Liam O'Flaherty?
Liam O’Flaherty. There is a part of me finds Calvino a tad cerebral. I don’t trust the overly cerebral.
Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde all said they never really felt Irish until they
lived outside of Ireland.
Can you relate to that feeling?
Absolutely. I remember as a child and adolescent reading and studying Irish history. It was a depressing experience – a long litany of disaster and tragedy. With the egotism of the teenager, at a certain point I switched off and focused my attention on favourite countries abroad. Then I went to university and studied Italian: new horizons opened up, beckoned, and I went.
But living abroad is a two-way process. Not only do you take on board the newness and differences you find, but with this you find yourself absorbing the opinions of the host country towards your own. Most of the time they will not be flattering. You
begin to perceive how foreigners see you and this is when the hard questions arise. You revisit your own country in order to answer them and in the process see things from a new perspective. A salutary if humbling experience.
If forced to say in one or two sentences, are there any marked differences in the ways Italians see the world and life and the Irish, how would you respond?
The Italians are socially inclined, family and the community is everything. Food is the alpha and omega of Italian life, it is the main means by which Italians come together. It is not a country that prizes innocence; shrewdness is admired, for the Italians understand the world and its ways. They are at home in the here and now.
The Irish too understand family: we have, after all given the word clan to the world – although I’m not thrilled that the Italians have hijacked it to describe the Italian phenomenon of mafia gangs. But the Irish also understand individualism and the individual’s right to a private space. And it seems to me that it is from this private space that a yearning comes for something beyond the here and now.
You are a highly regarded English to Italian literary translator - who is the most popular of the writers you have translated.
Irish poets enjoy great prestige in Italy, and I have had the privilege of translating a number of them for Italian journals. Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Dennis O’Driscoll, who will be sadly missed, Brendan Kennelly and Dermot Healy. I have also translated George Szirtes. Engaging with the work of these poets has been an enrichment for me on so many levels, for which I am very grateful. I also made the first translation into Italian of a selection of Liam O’Flaherty’s short stories, which was well received. Currently I am translating the Italian poet Mario Luzi’s work into English.
Regarding Sunday Lunch, a great story, I commented, "One of the things this story is about is the contrast of the Mediterranean temperament of the Italians versus the constrained, perceived as icy tone of the Irish." In older English language literature Italy is treated almost as an exotic tropical place – is there any feel of this left?
It depends. I have seen some English-speaking acquaintances completely thrown by their experiences in Italy. They arrive with preconceived ideas and nothing will shake them. They maintain their view of the Italians and Italian culture even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, and find themselves increasingly alienated. A common misconception is that life in Italy is simpler, earthier – more ‘peasanty’, if you like. The complex codes governing life in Italy escape them. The Italians see no reason why they should go along with their preconceptions, and with numbers on their side, bombard the hapless lone foreigner with their own prejudices about what they call ‘the Anglo-Saxon’ world. A stand off ensues, where neither party is enriched. On the other hand, many friends have thrown themselves whole-heartedly into the emotional roller coaster that is life abroad: if it doesn’t break you, it can only make you stronger. And hopefully a bit wiser…
- How important is the beauty of Tuscany to your work-to me as a reader it seems totally
pervasive in your stories.
Do you ever just sit and gaze?
For me, the element of beauty is essential. Stories should not seduce the reader, they should not try gratuitously to shock the reader; they should have a beauty that speaks
for itself without cowing the reader into submission or knocking him over the head. It just so happens that I live in Tuscany, but I didn’t come here specifically to write about the place. After studying Italian at university, I came here to live, and found that I needed to explain my experience as much to myself as other people. If I had been living somewhere else, I would have endeavoured to filter the beauty of that experience as well.
However, that said, Tuscany is one of the blessed places on the face of this good earth, and yes – sometimes I just stop the jabbering, still the treadmill of blah blah blah, and, enrapt, look and listen.
Tell us a bit about Portia Communications?
Established in 2012 with the publication of ‘The Polish Week’, Portia Communications is a small independent publishing, communications and translations company based in Dublin and Pisa which is dedicated to publishing Irish and International writers. As a new venture, the communications and translations arms of the business are keeping our imprint, Portia Publishing, going for the moment. In time, we hope that Portia Publishing will blossom in its own right and will become a well-known and esteemed imprint bringing fresh new voices to the literary world.
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