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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

David Butler A Question and Answer Session with the author of The Last European, The Judas Kiss, and the poetry collection Via Crucis

March 1 to April 21
A Q & Session with David Butler, PhD

David Butler is a novelist, poet and playwright. His
publication record to date includes the novels The Last
European (2005) and The Judas Kiss [2012), the poetry
collection Via Crucis (2011) and a short story collection No Greater Love, (due for publication in 2013). A third novel, City of Dis has been accepted for publication by New Island in 2014. Before deciding to write full-time, David lectured extensively in English and Spanish Literature and Creative Writing at TCD, UCD, Essex University and Carlow College. He also worked for a number of years as Education Officer at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin.

"Absence"by David Butler (This poem is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published or posted online without the approval of the author.)

L'homme est l'être par qui le néant vient au monde.
Of the words that separate us from animals
Absence is the most disruptive and immediate.
It is colourless, weightless.
It has no home in the world
But is carried parasitically,
Voracious as the hollow of memory.
It is odourless and silent.
Its slow accumulation tilts, by degrees,
The scales that weigh up
Whatever it is we call ourselves.
It is the amputee's void sleeve.
It is furniture's melancholy.
It is Death's soundless anthem.

There is a world of difference between a blank wall
And the wall from which a portrait has been removed.

I am very grateful that David Butler has agreed to participate in a Q and A Session for Irish Short Story Week Year III

David Butler

1.Who are some of the contemporary writers you admire?

Toni Morrison; Jose Saramago; Ciaran Carson; David Mamet; Tom Stoppard; Tom Waits; Cormac McCarthy; Michael Cunningham; Leonard Cohen.

If you could hear a reading by three famous dead poets, who would you prefer

Brian Merriman; Sylvia Plath; Gerard Manley Hopkins

2. 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.  Why do the Irish drink so much?  -I have researched this and the Irish do show up as among the highest per person drinkers in the 1st and second world.


3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work.
It’s certainly A dominant theme, but I wouldn’t think THE dominant theme, which seems to me to be tied up with language…
There’s a comic hyperbole with a definite scatological edge running through Irish Literature, starting (in English, since it’s certainly already there in Gaelic literature)) with the twin poles of Sterne and Swift, the one tending towards bawdry and exuberance (as does Synge and Joyce and Flann O’Brien), the other towards a satirical, darker view of the human condition (as with Beckett and McCabe, say.)
Mothers are pretty-much as hopeless, absent and/or as domineering as fathers…the absent Dedalus mother in Ulysses for instance, or in Molloy (father & son). Christy and Pegeen Mike in Playboy are both motherless, though their fathers are alive and kicking! Friel’s Translations (another absent mother play with obvious debts to Synge) has much to say about the exuberance of language as a compensation for squalor.

My first novel, The Last European and more recent The Judas Kiss both take parentless adolescents as their foci, while City of Dis, which is to be published next year, centres on a thirty-year old innocent set free on the city after the death of his domineering, blind mother. My work-in-progress, Semantics, is a novel-length play on language, almost as if Gulliver’s Travels had been written by Flann O’Brien!

4. Is Edith Grossman's translation of Don Quixote way better than previous versions? It was a great pleasure to read-some people advise first time readers to skip the pastoral stories-is this sound advice? Big question-how dominated by Cervantes is the literature of Latin America? Is it the world's most influential novel?

Cervantes is a HUGE influence over there, but also in Europe…think how important DQ is to Madame Bovary and Dostoevski’s Idiot as well as to Fielding, Smollett, Dickens’ Pickwick and of course Sterne. There’s even a lost Shakespeare play called ‘Cardenio’ based on an episode! For the Lat-Ams, besides the lucid, ludic Spanish, the whole play of writing and reading, as when in Part II everyone’s read Part I, or when the battle with the Basque breaks off because the original manuscript runs out etc were taken up with glee by Borges, Marquez, Cortazar et al.
I’ve actually not read it in translation, but would say that many pastoral-story episodes can readily be skipped over. None of them contribute to why the novel is influential and loved.

6.   A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in Ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read?  One of the most references poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life.   Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life?  why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse.  If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet?  (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

I think this is as much about hagiography as ability. Was James Dean a better actor or Amy Winehouse a better singer because they died young? Did drink help or hamper Kerouac or Brendan Behan? All that MIGHT be said is that excessive creativity probably has as its downside some emotional instability, but to try to follow the arrow backwards is pointless. For every poet maudit I’m sure there are two or three happily married ones.

7. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non-literary work experience please.

Mainly concerned with education, in various countries. My first job was as a lecturer in physics and maths in the Seychelles, and I’ve taught Maths in Australia, the UK and here. I’ve also taught English (EFL) in Spain and Venezuela.

8.    What was your area of focus in your dissertation at Trinity?

I was comparing the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti to Kafka and Beckett. Specifically, I was arguing that it is
entirely incorrect (and lazy) to label them as existentialist. Existentialism presupposes a view of Time (as in Heidegger’s classis Being and Time). Our existence precedes our essence because we PROJECT constantly into the future and out of the past. Other coordinates of this  calculus include embodiment, the other, language etc. I argue that in all three authors these coordinates are deliberately and systematically estranged, so that any existential calculus or project becomes meaningless.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?

Since I believe the richness and paradoxical nature of language in general (and of Hiberno-English in particular) is the main theme of Irish literature(s), this is where the answer must lie. Stephen Dedalus famously laments “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words
home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine!” though one feels that for Joyce, this ‘acquired speech’ is what made the verbal convolutions of Ulysses so delightful.

10. (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."

‘Fraid not! I wonder is that the same Galway woman who, when asked about the Troubles up North, replied “well, sir, they say it’s not as bad as they say it is.”

11. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?

Yes, and in characteristically Irish fashion! Ask anyone here about the spirals that adorn the Neolithic tombs like New Grange and they’re sure to tell you they’re Celtic…

12. Do you see one literary form as harder to write, more serious than the others? Are your short stories practice for novels?

For the past couple of years I’ve turned my hand to play-writing (with limited success). I think it’s a hugely difficult discipline. Joyce, who had a fantastic ear for dialogue and a good visual and ensemble sense, wrote a pretty lousy play. Putting drama into drama is excruciatingly difficult!
Oh, and my short stories are decidedly not practice for novels…

13.  I will be visiting Ireland for with my brother in May for the first time-what are the literary tourist must see experiences.

I’m not a great believer in museums and/or birthplace visits for writers per se. Following the Ulysses trail through Dublin does bring a new dimension to Ulysses, though. There’s a great and beautiful manuscript collection, the Chester Beatty, and the Long Room in Trinity, which houses the Book of Kells, is stunning.

14. Please tell us something about your experience as education officer at the James Joyce Centre?

I organised talks, lectures, reading groups, dramatisations, literary tours etc, answered Joyceana queries, and even wrote An Aid to Reading Ulysses, published in the ‘centenary’ 2004 year through Dublin Libraries

15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature.

This is a key part of the Irish psyche in general (pre-boom, anyway). The glorious defeat is to this day the stuff of ballad and song in this country…there are literally hundreds alluded to in Ulysses for instance. It persists in our sports! An iconic figure in Irish myth is Cuchullain, and his heroic death is celebrated in an iconic statue in our GPO, scene of another heroic defeat. The statue features satirically in Beckett’s Murphy (literally the butt of a joke), and THAT is the real key. The attitude of any half-decent Irish writer to our glorious tradition of heroic defeat is never maudlin, always mocking. That’s why the upholders of Nationalist pieties have ever howled and decried writers like Synge and O’Casey…

16.  What, besides "The Dead", is your favourite story by Joyce? Where should one new to his work start? do you think people should just dive into Ulysses or should you read study guides on it first?

I think the story Counterparts is a marvel of construction.
Ulysses needs to be approached with care. Too many people dive in and give up on episode 3 (Proteus). The lack of plot means there’s no need to scrupulously go from episode to episode. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 are chronologically simultaneous with 1, 2 and 3, but you’re inside Leopold Bloom’s head, which is great better place to be. Any episode can be skipped and later returned to.

17. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?   

As elsewhere, they have hardly any social clout at all (though they did make a splash during the ‘Troubles’). The activity of poetry is a healthy one though, as a repository for our basic humanity.

18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).

Why a creative artist would have any more insight into this than, say, a political analyst, sociologist or cultural historian is beyond me…

20.  e. One Hundred Years of Solitude-is it over hyped? the back cover of the edition I have compares it to the Book of Genesis in importance.

I think 100 Years is an absolute Wunderkammer, a beautiful Chinese box of a novel. It’s not exactly a Book of Genesis, in that Grass’s Tin Drum and Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo which in many ways prefigure it came out the previous decade. Unfortunately it spawned a host of cheap imitations, among which I’d include Rushdie’s Midnights Children and Allende’s House of Spirits.

21.   In your work as a lecturer in Spanish literature, are students more drawn to magical realism or the harsh world of Roberto Bolano? Who are some lesser known Latin American writers you would endorse to general readers?

Magial realism wins hands down among students. As for a novel that needs to be better known, the arorementioned Pedro Paramo by Mexico’s Juan Rulfo is an absolute marvel.

23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?

France. I love cheese. Also wine. Also French.

24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

If I could understand the lingo and the glyphs, not to say customs and maths, the Maya about 400 years before the Europeans got there. So much was lost when their gorgeous writings were burned. These guys, who were stoneage, had a mathematical ‘zero’. (Try being a Roman engineer who needs to multiply MCCLIX by XXXIV and you see why that’s such an achievement!)

25. More and more writers I see becoming established have an MA in creative writing and some PhDs. Education is a great think but do you think this could at some point make an MA in writing a near requirement to be published as journal editors themselves have such degrees. This seems to be happening in American under the domination of the University of Iowa Masters in Writing Program. Some say this starting to lead to homogeneous writing styles and to lock out amateur writers and it also produced a defacto domination of literary journals by recent college grads. Some fear this will lead also to stagnation in literature. Is there anything to these concerns?

There is a great deal to be worried about. Literature has always been the prey of cotories. Always. You’d hope we’d’ve learned something…

27. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

Very. Like our history, it’s part of the psyche. Think of Ulysses without the sea! Also, the idea of the writer as exile…

29. Quick Pick Questions
a. John Synge or Beckett-?
b. dogs or cats
c.  best city to inspire a writer-London or Dublin
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?
e. RTE or BBC
f. Yeats or Whitman
g.  Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?
Great for finding toilets when abroad
h. night or day
Day, no night, no day, no night…

30. OK let us close out on this note-what is your reaction these lines from a famous Irish poet?

I was born to the stink of whiskey and failure

And the scattered corpse of the real.

This is my childhood and country:

The cynical knowing smile

Plastered onto ignorance

Ideals untarnished and deadly

Because never translated to action

And everywhere

The sick glorification of failure.

Our white marble statues were draped in purple

The bars of the prison were born in our eyes

And if reality ever existed

It was a rotten tooth

That couldn't be removed.

Michael O'Loughlin

I’ll reply to a poem by quoting from a poem:


(Louis MacNeice)

Grey brick upon brick
Declamatory bronze
On somber pedestals
O'Connell, Grattan, Moore
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse


I am honored to be able to post these very well considered and illuminating responses.

You can learn more about the work of David Butler on the webpage of one of his publishers, Doghouse Books.

Some of his poems can be read here.

You can also read his excellent short story "Return" that was the runner up in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penquin Ireland Short Story Competition here.

I hope to be able to post on his forthcoming collection of short stories soon.

Mel u

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