Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

The Irish novelist Anne Enright, with a meditation on Genesis and the evolution of blame. Excerpt below.

She goes on to evoke everything from Milton to Twitter, with her usual lightly worn, but amazing wit and erudition. The whole thing is worth a read.

 

From the Metropolitan Museum

The story of the Fall is one of the most enduring stories we have, and it is never fair. You could use it as a template for a certain kind of novel: put a choice in there, tip the balance, make the consequences so disproportionate we doubt our sense of cause and effect, make them suffer, make them into better human beings. Visually, the narrative is brilliantly successful, for being so easy to hold within a single frame. There is nothing static about the way the viewer sees an image of the first couple considering apples. It is a moment of great tension, and they are wearing no clothes. So, to the rules for writing a successful fiction, we might add, pretend that it is not about sex, make the world symbolic, expand the small asymmetries. Here are two human beings who are slightly, but perhaps disastrously, anatomically different. She likes something long, he likes something round – what could possibly go wrong?

The story is a riddle about authority and predestination that has survived the theological palaver of generations because, simple to the point of transparency, it is also impenetrably self-enclosed. It is held in a brilliant web of balance and contradiction by a few hundred words; so it is worth looking at those words and what they actually mean.

Just to be clear: there was no seduction. There was no devil, nor any mention of Satan, who was, at this stage, an unimportant figure. Although he played a sporadic role in the torment of Job, or in the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan was not a mythical force before the bestiary of Revelations, and the rebellious Lucifer was some other angel until Milton came along. The idea of a great battle between light and the forces of darkness did not get going until early Christian times, possibly because this small, persecuted sect needed to find a great spiritual enemy against which to pit themselves. The creature in Genesis was just a snake, and though he was crafty, he didn’t seduce, nor did he ‘tempt’ Eve – this last term means ‘to test’ and is used only once in Genesis, when God tests Abraham, requiring the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Eve did not tempt Adam, either, nor was he seduced by her nakedness. There is, in fact, very little sex in the story. Our readings of it are all subtext, all interpretation, all error.

Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

Forgotten WaltzAfter slogging through a few disappointing novels recently, decided to treat myself to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz  to reset a bit. (Reading The Gathering a few years back was one of those gobsmacking moments in a reading life, up there with my first encounter of Penelope Fitzgerald.)

Here is the narrator introducing her husband to the reader in a chapter headed, “Love is like a cigarette”:

Let’s start with Conor. Conor is easy. Let’s say he has already arrived, that afternoon in Enniskerry. When I go back into the kitchen he is there, lingering and listening, having a good time. Conor is low and burly and, in the summer of 2002, he is my idea of fun.

Conor never takes his jacket off. Under the jacket is a cardigan, then a shirt, then a T-shirt and under that a tattoo. The wide strap of his bag is slung across his chest, keeping everything tamped down. he is on the mooch. This man never stops checking around him, as though for food. In fact, if he is near food he will be eating it – but neatly, in an intelligent, listening sort of way. his eyes keep traveling the floor and if he looks up it is with great charm: he is caught by something you have said, he thinks you are funny. He might seem preoccupied, but this guy is ready for a good time.

I loved Conor, so I know what I am talking about here. He comes from a line of shopkeepers and pub owners in Youghal, so he likes to watch people and smile. I used to like this about him. And I liked the bag, it was trendy, and his glasses were trendy too, thick-rimmed and sort of fifties, and he shaved his head, which usually annoyed me but it suited him because his skin was so brown and his skull so sizeable. And his neck was large, and his back bulged and sprouted hair from the shoulders down. What can I say? Sometimes it surprised me that the person I loved was so fantastically male, that the slabs of muscle were covered in slabs of solid fat and that the whole of him – all five foot nine, God help us – was fizzed up with hair, so that he became blurred at the edges, when he undressed. No one had told me you could like that sort of thing. But I did.

 

If this style speaks to you, you should go read it. I assure you she manages this deft tonal control–as well as providing an extraordinary vision of a very commonplace set of human predicaments–for all 259 pages.