A January with a difference
Well, it was certainly a January with a difference.
For the first time that I can remember, I abandoned my desk for the entire month. The early New Year is normally the time of resolutions as yet unbroken: of planning the perfect, seamless, working routine. Of limiting all those distractions.
This January, I didn’t even try.
2016 was a cruel year in many ways. Scientists told us it lasted one second longer than every other year. As if we all hadn’t had enough. I waved it off with a grim kind of satisfaction.
And then I went away.
I filled my suitcase with wonderful books and a pair of walking boots. I didn’t even care if the sun shone. But it did, on that unpredictable island. For fourteen glorious blue and gold days, it shone bright and kind out of a huge sky.
I went to Tías, to the house of José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who settled there in his later years, disillusioned with his native Portugal.
Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, his novels dealing with isolation, with our need to connect with others, to survive contemporary urban living, to find dignity and meaning outside formal political and religious structures.
I’m starting with Blindness, moving onto Seeing and then Raised from the Ground.
Of his writing routine, Saramago said:
I write two pages. Then I read and read and read.
He died in June 2010, in Tías, as gently as he had lived.
His widow and translator, Pilar del Río, greets visitors to the house as though they are old friends.
The morning we arrive, we are welcomed, served Portuguese coffee in the cool and tranquil kitchen, made to feel at home.
Saramago’s study is as he left it: surrounded by books, a collection of fountain pens, souvenirs of his travels. The entire house feels as though he has just stepped outside for a moment. The olive tree in his front garden once travelled in a small pot with him on the plane from Portugal. He was determined to see if it would grow in the coarse, unforgiving volcanic soil of his adopted home.
It’s more than twenty feet tall.
It’s not the only thing that flourished in this beautiful house by the sea.
Back home, I start re-reading Angela Bourke’s wonderful biography of Maeve Brennan, Homesick at the New Yorker.
2017 is the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birth and her work lay neglected for far too long. Angela Bourke teases out all the influences that shaped Maeve Brennan’s young life in Rathmines and Ranelagh, before her family moved to Washington.
Her father, Bob Brennan, was one of de Valera’s most trusted allies, and he promoted Irish interests in the U.S. for a number of years, working in the diplomatic world.
From Rathmines to New York
Maeve moved to New York as a young woman, and worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a copywriter.
But she never left her past behind her. She began writing fiction and the influential William Maxwell edited her pieces for ‘The New Yorker’. Her stories pulse with childhood memories of Ireland. They are filled with precise, intimate details of her parents’ Wexford heritage; of her childhood in Cherryfield Avenue; of the daily mysteries and banalities of family life – a past which was never forgotten: a past which she found difficult to escape.
William Maxwell once observed:
In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.
Perhaps we do. But that lie is the lie of transformation – of the base metal of experience transformed into the pure gold of fiction.
This weekend, at the Ranelagh Arts Centre, we’ll be celebrating Maeve Brennan’s birthday. We’ll do so in a style that suits such an occasion.
With posh frocks, good conversation, and martinis.