June 02, 2002

Article at Angel on Authory

An interview with Ciaran Carson

This interview with Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson, previously unpublished, was conducted over email in 2002. A shortened version appeared in 2005 in the Barcelona-based literary journal, Lateral.


AG: Your fiction is mostly set against a historical background. As a storyteller, what are the uses of history to you: is it a quarry of anecdote; a way of putting distance between you and your stories; a means of avoiding current issues; perhaps of approaching them at a tangent?

CC: History is of course rooted in story, and there are as many histories of events as there are witnesses to those events, or interpreters after the events. Only a few stories are officially received and taught. It should be clear from my writing that I have not been trained as a historian. Any bits of history I use for my books are picked magpie-fashion and thrown together to see if they make a pattern, which they usually do, since it is part of the nature of the world, as we interpret it, to be made up of interconnected bits. The way you shake a kaleidoscope—which is only a few bits and pieces and some mirrors inside a tube—and get beautiful patterns.

As regards current events, it seems to me that the prose books are ironic reflections of what is happening in Belfast right now. And of course there is no objective history regarding these events, or what they might be leading to, or where they came from: it depends on your point of view. Governments, their advisers or co-conspirators, the media, the military, the people, whoever: all have their stories.

Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ are hardly present as a topic in your prose fiction. And yet your poetry is more political –in that it voices an opinion— even if only obliquely so. Why?

Well, I think the Troubles are present in the prose, but glimpsed in dark mirrors or through chinks in the kaleidoscope. But the prose does have a different voice from the poetry, though the ‘I’ in the poetry is not me personally; it’s a device to register things. In any case, perhaps the poetry you’re referring to is the stuff I was writing in the 1980s, where the voice appeared to be more directly up against the violence. I’ve lately done a translation of Dante’s Inferno which allows me a certain amount of anger at political situations, because the anger is ostensibly Dante’s. A rage at injustice, folly, lies, the unscrupulous manoeuvres of the powers-that-be. A controlled rage: I wanted to do the translation as strictly as I could, keeping to a Hibernicized terza rima (using assonance where the rhymes defeated me) and a fairly regular iambic beat. I think—I hope—it comes out like Irish ballad crossed with terza rima.

Did your transition from composer of poetry to composer of prose fiction occur for stylistic reasons? Or are there themes, topics, stories, better suited to a particular genre?

The first prose book I wrote was The Pocket Guide to Irish Traditional Music. It’s a very little book, but I enjoyed writing it very much, because it seemed to me that no-one had written a book like this, from the point of view of someone who played the music and appreciated the environment in which it happened.

And I was pleased when it was well received by traditional musicians, who recognized my descriptions of what was going on. At the time I wrote it (1985), I wasn’t writing much poetry, or prose, or writing any kind of literary genre, for that matter. I was too busy enjoying the music. But I wanted the book to be stylishly written, in a style that suited the laconic style of the subject. The next book, Last Night’s Fun, was commissioned by my prose editor, who suggested I could do an extended book on the subject (of traditional music). I resisted him for some time because I had never thought of myself as a prose writer, as someone who could write a proper book-length book of prose. I got around it by writing a series of connected essays, linked in the way that music gets linked together in a pub session: by happenstance, by inspiration, by habit, by any number of things. And I think all my prose books take that form: a series of bits and pieces. I don’t know if you can call them novels, and many reviewers have difficulty with that. I call them books. I like the comparative freedom that prose allows one, but I can only find freedom within limits, as I’ve suggested: by inventing little frames into which to put the sentences, and then lining them up in some sort of order.

Rhythm, language and imagery are at the heart of poetry, but prose fictionmakes different demands on its author—plotting, characterisation, etc. Rather than poems that have burst into prose, your works of fiction feel like novels longing to jump back into poetry, stories wanting to become images. (Didn’t Walter Benjamin say that ‘history decomposes into images, not into narratives’?) Discuss…

There’s not much characterization in the books I write. I don’t know if I’m very interested in the kind of novel that invents ‘characters’ and then proceeds to examine their souls, their motives, how they get together, fall in love, or whatever. I find it difficult to take seriously. As for plot, you’re right when you point to images: the plot in my books, if there is one, is the way the various images repeat themselves, or reflect each other, or arrive at a logical conclusion. Jorge Luis Borges claimed that his prose took the form of short stories because he was too lazy to write novels. Maybe that’s why I don’t write novels, either: they’re really a series of essays, or discursions, on a theme. I’m also very drawn to the work of Italo Calvino, who acknowledges his debt to folk stories, and whose work often has an admirable tendency to decompose into a series of stylish vignettes, or exercises, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller being a classic example. W.G. Sebald’s work is another model, and I was very sorry when I learned about his recent death: I was looking forward to what he would do next. I loved Austerlitz, though many critics thought it too mannered. I liked the mannerisms.

In any case, I want to write prose at least as well as poetry, and I’m always aware of the rhythm and flow of the sentences. The words must sound well in the ear. An awful lot of highly-acclaimed prose sounds terrible to me. The sentences are not well put together.

You’ve said that ‘the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century seems to be a model of what is possible’. Is this a political or an artistic complaint?

The Dutch Republic in the 17th century is a model of how art, science, religion, and commerce can get along together, and be inspired by each other. Of course it was by no means a perfect society, and many of its privileges were built on some kind of exploitation. The Dutch had colonies, after all. But it seems Dutch society was a good deal more liberal than anything else in Europe at the time. The Orange Free State. It’s ironic that certain right-wing and intolerant elements in Northern Ireland think themselves to have inherited that tradition.

Your father, as he appears in Star Factory and Last Night’s Fun as well as in a more fictionalised guise (in Fishing for Amber), seems to be central to your love affair with words, to your personal re-imagining of Belfast. Could you say a bit more about this?

Well, I’m sure some of the first words I heard were in the form of stories, told to me by my father, through the medium of Irish. Irish—it was his, and my mother’s second language—was the language of home. We children—my elder sister, my three younger brothers—learned English off the street. And my father had a good deal of lore about Belfast, where its street names came from, stuff like that: it seemed natural that he should be a postman. He could tell you where any street in Belfast was. As you suggest, I’ve partly fictionalised my father in the books; but then, I suspect he partly fictionalised himself, as everyone does when telling stories about one’s past—family anecdotes, that kind of thing, where the action is slightly embellished to add to the effectiveness of the story. My father was also the chairman of the Ulster Esperanto Society—he learned Esperanto in the hope that it might supplant English as a world language, and we used to speak a little Esperanto at home as well as Irish. I remember we children used to make up languages, writing down vocabulary lists in little notebooks. But I don’t think we ever learned them enough to be able to converse beyond a few words. And then we used to speak Irish on the street when we didn’t want the other children to know what we were saying. So, very early on, I learned the value of using language to conceal meaning; language as code. It would appear that ours was a very language-orientated household; and certainly, words are still to me a source of great mystery and power.

You wrote in Fishing for Amber: ‘Most storytellers these days are contented with a one-night stand’. True, but what are the difficulties involved in ‘transposing’ the tradition of oral storytelling, which so clearly informs your work, into writing?

There are many genres of oral storytelling, from formal accounts of ancient Fenian exploits to apparently casual anecdote, or joke-telling, just as there are many genres and styles in writing. And all storytelling is informed by the desire to put a shape on experience in an entertaining and stylish manner. So maybe the two traditions—oral and literary—are not that far apart. But I recognise that oral storytelling necessarily depends on tone of voice, on delivery, on rhythm, on dynamic effects. You can sometimes give an illusion of these effects in writing, if your readers are willing to suspend their disbelief, which most readers are. Once you use the word ‘storyteller’ in a bo k, the reader invents a storytelling figure for himself or herself, and begins to ‘hear’ the words. That’s the beauty of writing, that you’re allowed to tell lies to people who want to believe the lies are true. That’s the reason why con men do well: people want to be conned.

You once described the experience of growing up speaking Irish as being like ‘an island within an island’. But this also made you a constant, even if inadvertent, translator from early on. Your discussion of Ó Ríordáin’s "Réamhrá", in Fishing for Amber, highlights some of the difficulties of translation. Can poetry actually be translated, or only reinvented –a ‘distorting language mirror’?

I’m finally not too bothered by "traduttore, traditore". The very act of speaking is a kind of translation, after all. Certainly, when you write, your original thoughts—muddled and ill-formed as they were—are transformed by the act of writing. They are changed; hopefully, they are clarified.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve just done a translation of Dante’s Inferno. I began with practically no knowledge of Italian, but I believe that by the end of my attempt to understand, interpret, and re-write the 34 cantos I learned many things about the English language that I had not known until then. What comes out is of course necessarily different. That’s the beauty of it. If there ever was a single, pre-Babel language, it must have been a very boring world. With the fall came interesting confusion: felix culpa.

May I ask you to indulge in a bit of free-association? Here’s a list of ideas that recur when reading your work. If you could just jot down a few lines about whatever comes to mind when you think of the following words:

"Alphabet": shapes, soup; Alphabet City in New York, which uses letters instead of numbers for the streets; First Street through to Eighth Street, I think, in Belfast.

"Serendipity": the Three Princes of Serendip; zippity-doo-dah, zippity-day, my oh my, what a wonderful day (the catch-line of an old popular song); serenity; dipstick; diptych.

"Memory": chambers; St Augustine; filing-cabinet; roll-top desk; writing-slates and chalk; inkwell.

"Predestination": the Church of Retrospective Predestination (I invented this; it explains those moments when you realise that you have been ordained to meet someone at a particular time, that your paths just had to cross in precisely the manner that they did; in retrospect, every moment is predetermined, or predestined).

"Saints": when the saints go marching in; my sainted aunt! (a very old-fashioned British exclamation; Bertie Wooster might have uttered it); Hail glorious St Patrick, dear saint of our isle, on us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile.

"Catholicism": heresy; lapsed Catholics, which, when the priest asked us to pray for them, I used to mishear as Lapps Catholics, and I pitied them out in the frozen wastes of Lapland; the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church; is the Pope a Catholic? Does he wear red socks?

If I may: what shape is your work-in-progress taking? Does it further explore your previous books’ thematic and formal concerns, or is it a departure (can it ever be)?

The current book, whatever it might turn out to be, was sparked off by my learning that during the years of the First World War a W.J. Crawford, a lecturer in engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast, conducted important experiments with a spiritualist gathering known as the Goligher circle, which he claimed established the reality of psychic phenomena such as psychic raps and levitations. I’m fascinated with how these bizarre happenings were perceived at the time. Or I’m fascinated with how we observe any reality, and try to explain it. Crawford’s very dubious findings are a narrative of sorts, an attempt to explain the apparently inexplicable. So I’m interweaving an account of Crawford and the Golighers with accounts of paintings, or cities, of museums I have seen or experienced. The narrator isn’t precisely me; in fact, he is probably quite mad, but we only gradually come to suspect that.

One of the reference points in the book, an important locus, is John Soane’s Museum in London, which is an incredible space packed full of narratives in the shape of art and antiquarian objects. Have you ever been there? If not, go; but don’t tell too many people about it; one of its fascinations is that’s it’s relatively unknown. It’s at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I’m reluctant to say any more about the book; I’ve only just got into it, and I have to discover what’s it’s fully about. I think that’s why I write books; to find out what they are about. To discover the narrative between apparently dislocated bits of knowledge.

Ángel Gurría-Quintana