THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
The Irish Independent
Saturday 22 October 2005
MADMAN AND THE LADIES
by Thomas Kilroy
Brian Lynch is an exceptional Irish writer. Not only because of the quality of his writing but because he stands outside the circuit of crude marketing and public posturing by writers now required, apparently, to sell books.
This beautifully written novel is about the English eighteenth century poet and lunatic William Cowper. But don’t stop reading at this point. This is one of those rare books that creates an unfamiliar world and then draws the reader into it.
Cowper is best know as a precursor of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Burns. Some of his lines (‘Variety is the spice of life,’ ‘God made the country, and man made the town’) have passed into the common vernacular. He was a strange mixture of suicidal suffering and writing of pure, elegant simplicity. Brian Lynch captures this mix wonderfully well.
Although he clearly couldn’t function in the world Cowper managed to survive, with a body servant, Sam, and little obvious source of income, through various abodes in provincial England. His real journey, though, was internal through his reading and writing and all of this is brought fully to life by Lynch. The external life is here, too, in the rich detail of the book with its mastery of eighteenth centry English customs and landscape, food, medicine, prosody and evangelicanism.
Cowper also attracted the support of several women, in particular, two widows, Mrs. Unwin and Lady Anna Austen. Clearly impotent, he nevertheless generated this nest of turbulent sexuality around himelf. This sad sexual comedy is the centrepiece of the novel and the characterization of the two women, one solid, the other mercurial, is particularly sharp.
And what about Cowper himself? It’s extremely difficult to bring an artist to life in fiction, to make the connection between the ordinary and the art. Not only does Lynch do this, he brings the whole complex of contradictions in Cowper into view. The peculiar stubborness of a shy man, the kind of control over women which a passive man can exert, the clear bell-like voice of poetry from a man with monstrous voices in his own head. Cowper gave these voices grim names, like the Mocker, the Judge, the Accuser.
This terrifying inner life is balanced by the comic sense with which Cowper faced most things around him, including his ladies. This, too, is caught by Brian Lynch. The vision isn’t too far away from Beckett. ‘Sometimes he thanked God he was mad – you could laugh out loud and not have to explain yourself’.
Perhaps the sexual shenanigans, or lack of them, are given even more force by the way in which Lynch creates the sensuality of life around Cowper, to which the poet was, indeed, responsive. In the middle of the heated battle for possession of him by the ladies, ‘as far as the act of connection was concerned, Cowper had only ever reached the point of being a calf butting its mother for milk.’
As you can see, the narrator of this book is witty, urbane with a sense of the ridiculous and how it touches human sadness. Lynch is also an accomplished poet and there is passage after passage here of startling, verbal beauty, never ostentatious, always integrated into the story.
And what about that story? There will be readers, I think, who will miss the typical plotting of a novel. But Lynch is after something more natural, the casual rhythm of how time passes, full of accidental shifts, some of them contrived by busybodies. The opening chapters, too, present challenges to the reader. They start with Cowper in old age but with a series of rapid, unsignalled references to the past. Indeed, some of the opening is only fully explained later on. Just stay with it.
Thomas Kilroy’s most recent play Henry opened September 2005 in the US to critical acclaim.
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