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Mick Jagger’s inaccurate passport. Note, ‘Dartford’, not ‘crossfire hurricane’.

I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘How to Read Literature’. Terry Eagleton was once one of academia’s most interesting and, if you can believe it, entertaining writers on literary theory: a bullish Marxist who put the catholic into Roman Catholic. His most famous book, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983) remains a scalpel sharp critical history of the field, and to its everlasting credit, it makes you laugh too. ‘How to Read Literature’ (2013) is a much more accessible if timid read, intended as a kind of instruction manual for students of close reading, a sensitive account of different ways of reading a text. I mention it because in it Eagleton writes an interesting chapter on the openings of novels. He begins by circling around this opening line from EM Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves— and they are twenty miles off— the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.

His analysis of this line—which you’ll have to read the book for—stirs a broader commentary about novelistic beginnings:

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must be beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilized middle-class Englishman like EM Forster who values reticence and indirectness…

The poise of the syntax… is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.  

Reading this made me reflect on the opening of Barry’s novel. Eagleton, of course, is right about the beginnings of novels. It’s something every GCSE English teacher cynically preaches to his students when asking them to write creatively: make sure that first line is a doozy. Get the reader involved; get them asking questions. And indeed, we see Barry keen to impress in the opening of ‘A Long, Long Way’. Compare the first line of the novel—

He was born in the dying days.

—with the first line of the second chapter.

Willie Dunne was not the only one.

If you want to be kind, you might say that there’s a fair amount to be said about that first line, but heavens to Murgatroyd! There’s very little interesting to be said about the second. The former is crafted, colloquial yet lyrical, ambiguous; the latter is throwaway, formless and vague. So perhaps that opening sentence—

He was born in the dying days.

—is worth dwelling on.

If I were asked for a single word to describe this opening line, the one that I would use is portentious. In any story worth telling, the narrator knows something important that we don’t, of course. The thing that the narrator knows at the start of ‘A Long, Long Time’ seems to be beyond the everyday, however, and gestures towards something of great moment. He was born in the dying days. The line has an obvious tension, between the birth announced at its beginning and the dying days invoked at the end, as if to announce to the reader, this is a story of life and death, no less, of beginnings and endings. While there is no contradiction here—a birth can occur during the last days of a historical period, say, or regime—there is an ominousness about the line. This birth seems out of place, or more correctly, it seems to have occurred at precisely the wrong time—in the dying days. On finishing the line, it is the nature of those fearful days that the reader is poised to wonder about.

The line is composed in such a way as to lead us to this question. It has two parts, pivoting around that word ‘in’. The first half of the sentence reads ‘He was born in’. The text begins, then, with the simple promise found in every realist novel, the creation of character from believable detail. We probably expect something documentary to follow: ‘Dublin’, perhaps, or ‘1896’, if we were particularly wonderful guessers. We don’t get it. The second half of the sentence holds off this satisfaction, for the mysterious man who is the subject of the sentence was born “in the dying days”.

The surprise we might feel when we read this follows on one level the nature of our everyday encounter with language. If we went to Wandsworth town hall, say, and asked a registrar when or where a particular person was born, we would be surprised to receive an answer like “He was born in the ripe fullness of time”. Similarly, if we read a newspaper obituary that read “He was born in a crossfire hurricane” we would suspect either the dead man was Mick Jagger, or the writer was cheerfully describing a very traumatic birth indeed. Our first expectation in many, but by no means all circumstances, is to have a literal and the factual statement follow the words, ‘He was born in’. What in fact follows is metaphorical and idiomatic.

Now, because this is a literary text, this isn’t quite as bizarre as the situation outlined above. We are schooled to expect surprising metaphors and florid language in literary texts, and our use of language, after all, is contingent on circumstance and expectation. And indeed the phrase ‘in the dying days’ is not so strange as to be outlandish. It is an idiom, a figure of speech familiar enough to many English speakers, that means ‘in the last days’ or ‘at the end of’. As a phrase we commonly find it appended with ‘of’ and then, again, a phrase or word more concrete: ‘the Nineteenth Century’, ‘the fin-de-siecle’, ‘British rule in Ireland’, ‘1896’, and so on. In paring back the longer, more precise idiom to the ambiguous metaphor that is its stem, the text cleverly holds off the reader’s satisfaction of meaning for a second time.

It also revives what was previously a dead metaphor— that is, a piece of language so overused as to have lost its original interest and suggestiveness. Once clipped of its withered leaves and knotted wood, the stem phrase left, ‘In the dying days’, now regains a little suggestive life. ‘The dying days’ now begins to darkly hint at apocalypse, at the end of days, rather than being merely some simple verbal colour used for describing historical dates or periods. Even if this were not a novel set during the First World War, we might begin to see the shadow of those coming events in this first line.

Finally, the abbreviation of the phrase also suggests another characteristic of Barry’s writing style. I am not simply referring here to the author’s surprising lyricism, his foregrounding of metaphorical techniques more commonly expected in poetry than prose. Rather, it is the writer’s use of idiom that is interesting. For in writing of ‘the dying days’ there is a sense that Barry is employing colloquial as much as poetic language—that he is using a familiar language about a familiar subject. That familiar language, it seems logical to propose, is the everyday language of the English-speaking Irishman (the name is for the dialect proper is Hiberno-English). And the familiar subject for these Irishmen? Endings, clearly: of the unmourned Nineteenth Century, of British rule, and of those Irishmen subject to the violence of that rule, with its history of immiseration and famine. This opening line tempts us to listen in on, and get closer to this conversation of the Irish, where mention of ‘the dying days’ at any time carries its own irony of history.

He was born in the dying days: this sentence may have only seven words, but it contains several surprises. All the better, then, for us to read on.

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So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.