Another gift from a friend, this comprised the second half of my holiday reading. Though I’m a huge admirer of Joseph O’Conner, and particularly like his radio slots, I’m not sure I’d have bought this book for myself. Having heard a radio interview conducted by Mary Wilson (RTE 1), I felt that I had heard enough, and while the extracts read out were very beautiful, there could be little else remaining for the book. I suppose I felt that the story / content was quite tenuous and that the book must read more like an essay or short story, where the author uses a certain amount of poetic licence in order to have a story, but cannot make it completely fictitious because of the ‘real’ people about whom he was writing.
I did find myself more inspired by the poetry of the language and style of writing than I was by the story, which I found rather stretched and fleshed out. This was quite interesting, especially when the art of good writing was referred to in the book itself: content and form are both crucial must exist equally (idea paraphrased).
O’Conner did well to give a clear picture of the characters involved. Synge, about whom I knew very little up to now, and about whom I merely associated some vaguely-remembered facts from secondary school (association with Yeats, ill-health, premature death…), none of which made him a character of worth in his own right. Of course there was ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, but I somehow took this for granted?! O’Conner brought Synge to life, portraying him as a sensitive and vulnerable human being beneath the rather stiff, aristocratic influence. His relationship with Molly Allgood brought out the best in him, and while such an alliance was generally not approved, his love for her came across very clearly, giving his character humanity and wholeness.
Molly Allgood comes across as a great personality, and the old Irish sayings that pepper the book really add to her character, bringing her to life. There is more focus on her as she outlives Synge by many years. The story swings between her life in old age, as a down-on-her-luck actress, and her years with Synge, during which she exudes personality and life. The lonely life that she lived in London was evoked with touching sensitivity, and describes not only the specific autumn of her life, but calls up the difficult day-to-day of old-age in general. This is a testament to O’Conner.
There is a brilliant scene, whereby Yeats gives Molly and the rest of the cast of actors a most vitriolic ‘dressing-down’, when Molly refuses to comply in the way she speaks her lines. I had heard that Yeats could be rather fiery when provoked, but as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder was this portrayal of him extreme? Or perhaps it was justified. I suppose I’ll never know… And such is the nature of the book, which O’Conner refers to in his afterword.
Such a story must contain imaginings, and while certain events certainly occurred and others, almost certainly, others still, we must give over to the realm of fiction, accepting that the authorial voice, and not true fact, are their source.