Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Pictures" by Desmond Hogan

"Pictures" by Desmond Hogan  (2005)

March 1 to March 31

The Reading Life Desmond Hogan Project

Shuana Gilligan's Introductory Post on Desmond Hogan

Happiness Comes From Nowhere, Shauna Gilligan's marvelous debut novel, can be found here. 

If you are interested in being featured on ISSM3, please contact me

I first heard of Desmond Hogan through an article about him in the online edition of The Manchester Guardian.   The Manchester Guardian has the best literary section of any online paper in the world, in my opinion.   When I saw that they had an article about an Irish writer of course I read it and I was really intrigued by what it said about Desmond Hogan (1950, County Galway, Ireland).   I felt a small personal connection with him when I read he often swims up to two hours a day, partially for exercise and partially to have a time to himself to think.   I have been doing pretty much the same thing for a long time.   I also discovered he had a strong interest in Gypsies and by coincidence maybe a decade ago I got very interested in Gypsies after reading a great book Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.   I ended up reading all of the books I could find in English on Gypsies.

Before I bought his collection I consulted with Shauna Gilligan who has given me much good advise regarding Irish literature, and she strongly endorsed his work.  After reading only two or three of the stories in Lark's Eggs and Other Short Stories I became, and still very firmly am, convinced that the short stories in this collection were world class literary treasures.  I have written a number of posts on his stories, some simply commenting on a story and others attempt to deconstruct his works and explore various leitmotifs in his work. I take his work very seriously and probably, not sure how to say this so I will just say it, some of my posts on Hogan are probably among the hardest to understand by casual readers of any on my blog.  I wrote these posts for myself to increase my understanding and for others who feel about Hogan as I do not to convince those who do not feel as I do or more likely have not read his work.  

In a post on Juan Luis Borges I said I saw him  as belonging  to  the tradition of literature with cosmic ambition:  the Bible, The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, that strive to convey complete universes, containing everything.  I think it is useful to see Hogan in this same tradition with the qualification that he is trying to convey the complete world of the inhabitants of his stories, their history, their culture, their way of being in the world.  He is also, I think, recreating mythic structures among the debris and detritus of the times of his stories.   I think for sure that is part, though far from all, what is behind the many references to Irish Travelers and Gypsies in his stories.     I also think that the stories of Hogan are very inter-textual, they reverberate off the walls of the literary culture of the world.  

There are several keys questions to help us understand the stories of Hogan.  To me one of the biggest questions concerns the nature of the narrator.  Why do so many of the stories feature a male narrator, a youngish man, very cultured in the way of an autodidact, with all sorts of odd not taught in school knowledge.  He is not a Traveller but he often lives among them and he spend a good bit of time telling young Traveller men stories about Art and History despite the fact that they are not interested.  Is he with Travellers just because is he somehow metaphorically or spiritually homeless?  It would be easy to say that and it is not wrong to do that.   But I think it limits our understanding of these stories.  We need to ponder how the narrator is used to reconstruct the world he is in and from.  We almost must accept and deal with the fact that the narrator often talks of having sex with young Traveller men.  I think there is an artistic reason why the narrator is often a Gay man and I think understanding it goes deeply into these stories.  I will try to talk about it.  

 First I think one needs to talk about the concept of the dandy as detailed in Declan Kiberd's great book, Inventing Ireland:  The Literature of the Modern Nation as set out in his chapter "Elizabeth Bowen:   The Dandy in Revolt".  Susan Sontag talks a bit about concept of the Dandy, in her land mark essay "Notes on Camp" and I think that if this is understood correctly it helps us understand why a number of the narrators in these stories are gay.  These will help us understand two of the "big questions" readers might have on the stories:   why so many references to Irish travelers and why so much gay sex.   If  you look in detail, there are more gay male narrators in the stories that center on travelers than the other stories.   This allows us to see into the structure of the stories without stooping to biographical analyses of an author of whom we know nothing, which is what it means to treat the stories as found objects.  I know it is more fashionable or common place to treat stories as social commentaries or treat them as political documents but to go deeper as the stories of Hogan demand, we must move away from this. 

I will first explain what Kiberd means when he talks about the tragedy of the dandy.  This is also directly related to all of the seeming only cultural references to thinks not taught in school and the narrator's conversations with young Traveler men about arcane historical matters in which they have no interest and which we can only speculate as to whether or not the narrator knows he is talking to no one.  I realize many may not know what I am talking about at this point (or perhaps I am like the narrator talking to no one who is listening) but I  will proceed on in the hopes some will be interested.  (There is world wide interest in the stories of Hogan-I base this by the visitors that come to my blog drawn by the Hogan posts, not just in Ireland.) 

The best way to explain the concept of the Dandy is to quote a bit from Kiberd.

To the cynicism of the modern undergraduate, he would infinitely prefer the desperate composure of the dandy...Traditionally, the dandy has been the stuff of comedy, especially in the brilliant Anglo-Irish example of Oscar Wilde..the .dandy’s perennial problem: how to maintain an aristocratic hauteur and decorum in the absence of any available court at which to rehearse and play out such gestures...The dandy’s craving for oblivion is “not a resignation but a heroic passion”, in fact the only form of heroism still practicable in the absence of a courtly backdrop. A hero thus becomes someone who knows, and says, and lives the truth that traditional heroism is no longer possible.

Kiberd brilliantly invokes Walter Benjamin's concept of the dandy as a hero without work:

Nobody at Danielstown, least of all Mr. Montmorency, is capable of answering that. When asked what the British soldiers are dying for, he insists that “our side is no side” – “rather scared, rather isolated, not expressing anything except tenacity to something that isn’t there – that never was there. And deprived of heroism by this wet kind of smother of commiseration”. Nothing is left to such a man but beautiful manners and a perfect stylization of every gesture, for here indeed is Walter Benjamin’s essential dandy, “a Hercules with no work”.

From  Walter Benjamin:

nonchalance is combined with the utmost exertion of energy . . . There is a special constellation in which greatness and indolence meet in human beings too . . . But the high seas beckon to him in vain, for his life is under an ill star. Modernism turns out to be his doom. The hero was not provided for in it; it has no use for his type. It makes him fast in the secure harbour forever and abandons him to everlasting idleness. In this, his last embodiment, the hero appears as a dandy . . 

Related closely to the idea that of the dandy and with Hogan as a writer in the tradition of Borges is part of the cultural or literary reason the narrators are gay.  Of course it is also just a story about a man who liked Gay sex which is fine but that is far from all it is.  Using another text, Edmund White in his brilliant collection of essays Art and Letters talks about how Gay males have to create themselves, they have no built in societal role models.  The narrator of Hogan's stories is creating himself as he tells his story.   He is anchoring himself in a world in which he seems to have no home.    To be Gay is inherently more creative than to be straight as you create yourself or you are destroyed by the society the narrator wants little part off.    The narrator also does not work thus exemplifying Walter Benjamin's notion of a dandy as a hero without work. 

I want now to make a few observation on "Pictures".  It is not my intention to tell the plot of this story or explicate the action, just to make some observations.  I have talked a good bit this month about the notion that the weak or missing Irish father is one of the dominant themes of modern Irish literature, some including Kiberd say it is the dominant theme.  Looking at "Pictures" which is about a visit of the narrator and his father to the National Galleries and I do not see a weak or missing father at all. He seems a strong figure and a real force in his son's life.  The father in this story is not weak or missing.  

I want to do something a bit different and then close this way to long post.

I want to look at one paragraph to see how it fits in with my remarks.   In this paragraph we have the great American writer Mark Twain, we have hat from Manila and a history of an Irish regiment (or maybe English).
We have the two boys listening to the history, one with a sluttish "Jean Harlow face".  Harlow was an androgynous sexual figure of the 1930s American movies.  Why the other has a Neptune Belly and ant legs is up for grabs.  We also have Napoleon brought into the mix.  Oliver St John Gogarty was an Irish writer, politician and medical doctor specializing in diseases of the throat and ears (Yes Googled him!).  There is a world in this paragraph and "Pictures" is simply full of this from start to finish.  We also have Hogan's wonderful use of colors and his descriptive adjectives, things I have not yet spoken about

"My father and I had a swim and afterwards a man with a malacca cane, in a linen Mark Twain suit and a Manila straw hat, who had been watching us, told us the history of the Forty Foot. Two boys listened intently to the lesson, one with a sluttish Jean Harlow face, the other with a Neptune belly and ant legs. The Forty Foot was called after the Forty Foot Regiment stationed in the laMartello tower built during the Napoleonic Wars. Twenty Men. Forty Feet. At the beginning of the century Oliver St John Gogarty used to frequently swim between the Forty Foot and Bullock Harbour in Dalkey where monks had lived." 

I will be posting more on Hogan in April.  As I have said before and will say again, I consider his short stories to be world class treasures.

Author Bio (from Lilliput Press)

Desmond Hogan was born in Ballinasloe, East Galway, in December 1950 and currently lives in south-west Ireland. He has published five novels: The Ikon Maker (1976), The Leaves on Grey (1980), A Curious Street (1984), A New Shirt (1986) and A Farewell to Prague (1995), as well as four books of stories: The Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea (1979), Children of Lir (1981), The Mourning Thief (1987) and Lebanon Lodge (1988), published in the USA in 1989 under the title A Link with the River. His travel writings, The Edge of the City, appeared in 1993. In 1971 he won the Hennessy Award, and in 1977 the Rooney Prize for Literature. He won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1980 and was awarded a DAAD Fellowship in Berlin in 1991. In 1989 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Alabama, and in 1997 taught at the University of California, San Diego.

Larks' Eggs and Other Stories by Desmond Hogan can be purchased from Lilliput Press, a premier source for quality books from and about Ireland.

Happiness Comes From Nowhere, Shauna Gilligan's marvelous debut novel, can be found here. 

Mel u

1 comment:

shaunag said...

Fascinating post.
I find this angle very interesting, Mel: "I know it is more fashionable or common place to treat stories as social commentaries or treat them as political documents but to go deeper as the stories of Hogan demand, we must move away from this."
I would be interested in hearing more on this both in relation to Hogan and, perhaps, other modern male Irish writers.