Novels, novels

On the topic of novels, a very good one has fallen into my hands, by a dear friend, who is crazy, in all the right ways. The book is entitled, Israel Madigan. It is by Robert Eady, and good luck finding it, for the publisher is small, Catholic, and not pushy. (One might start trying, here.)

Anita Brookner died last Thursday, it was announced this morning in the Daily Telegraph. I mention this because she was the opposite of Mr Eady. Her desolate novels, of lonely spinster women like herself, and the occasional lonely man, are refined and crisp. They expound, with genius, the subtle acts of betrayal, that make life more interesting. These include the betrayals of nature, for people once young grow old and die. She makes unhappiness more attractive than it might otherwise be. Nothing memorable seems to happen in these novels, but the prose is so lucid, so patiently understated; the psychological tension so close to that of the examined life; that one is compelled forward. Miss Brookner was a Freudian, and I would deduce an atheist; punctiliously honest, and very well-read. Naturally, she won the Booker Prize, for her worst novel. This, too, was a kind of betrayal.

Both authors came late to writing novels. In Brookner’s case it was a “displacement activity,” from a quietly successful career as art historian and instructor in the Courtauld. She seems to have needed something to do with her free time, to avoid going mad; her works are remarkably tasteful. She turned them out annually for a long time, starting at age fifty-three.

Whereas Eady, whose second novel this is (the first was, The Octave of All Souls, same publisher, 2013), has started later still, after a life of dayjobs, and as a disregarded poet. He has also been the author of magnificent letters to the editors of various defunct or soon-to-be-defunct newspapers, the best of which should be gathered in a collection. These would be those the editors did not publish, because they were offensive in all the right ways. Definitely Catholic; and one might say, rightwing.

He is as far from Anita Brookner as, say, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Flannery O’Connor, and in the same approximate direction. But his narrative world is that of a small, and beloved, Ontario town, poetically re-imagined. It is because he can capture the serenity and goodness in such a place, that his depictions of black evil are so effective. Men and women betray each other, subtly or not; but Eady is able to show that they also betray God, subtly or starkly. He is deeply insightful of the criminal mind, and of a selfishness which does not recognize subtle restraints. He is unmodern in not trying to excuse it.

This is what I have found exhilarating in both of Eady’s novels; for there are few authors who can capture sanctity; fewer who can capture demonry, too; and it is hard to think of another alive who can capture their interaction — in warfare. Instead we get cartoons; we get glib Punch and Judy, downsized to the politically correct. Eady, by contrast, goes bravely where only angels would not fear to tread.

To raise as protagonist and heroine a (“former”) prostitute, and gangster’s moll; to cast her in the avenging role of the “deuterocanonical” Judith; to enter into the very tent of Holofernes; is at least ambitious. To tell the story through the eyes of a haplessly observant, ex-convict rubby-dubby, and in the reactions of a simple Catholic priest, lifts the burden higher. To make the stakes a small bastard child, and weaponize the power of his mother’s love, is to pass beyond the boundary of what is conventionally attempted in modern fiction. I think Eady pulls it off.

But this is a novel that is not self-regarding. Nor does it lack a convincing plot. It is not shy or pixie, either. The author is acquainted not merely with the existence, but with the demands of literature, in high story-telling; but conservative in adherence to the realistic genre. The characters are all sharply distinct people; no extra-terrestrials are admitted, except through the portals of the narrator’s visions, which are tightly delineated. Eady is intent upon grabbing gentle reader’s lapels, and telling him something; something he wasn’t expecting to hear. The experience is cathartic.

I do not think this work will win the Booker, however. For it lacks effeteness, and will take too long to stale.