Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wanderings in a mind filled with music (Books - Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty)

George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Edna O'Brien, John McGahern, and now Bernard MacLaverty. It's such a cliche, I know, but what is it about being raised on that little bog-infested patch of intense green surrounded by two seas and an ocean that means you're going to grow up to string together the English language to create such glorious stories? Maybe, as Sheila and I mused last night as we indulged ourselves in an evening of wine and talk, it's the pub culture. Nights of stories and songs, the wheels greased by a little Guinness. Maybe it's the Guinness! Now wouldn't that be an ad campaign?

I had not heard of Bernard MacLaverty before reading John Self's enticing post on his latest book - Matters of Life and Death. If I can't convince you, maybe John will. I started with Grace Notes in which Catherine, a composer suffering with depression, returns home for her father's funeral. Her father owned a pub and she returns home to a tumult of activity while her brain moves its own private, circuitous path through thoughts of her musical mentor, her father, her grandmother, her depression - it's too early in my reading yet to make total sense of route - as she tries to take in the details of what is happening. It's wonderous how MacLaverty's prose slips in and out of time, from memory to the present and back again, like a thief. He creates that wandering of the mind with such powerful verisimilitude that at times I feel like he was in my own mind describing it. It's partly the musicality of the wanderings, the constant reference to musical sound that makes that true for me - I too have a head filled with music - my own private soundtrack - that almost never stops.

He rattled the rods against the skin of the drum, testing it. The drum was so big in relation to the man that Catherine thought of a penny-farthing.

'They're made of goat skin,' said her father. 'King Billygoat skin. You could smell the stink of it from Omagh.'

When she'd heard the drums in her home their rhythm had been fudged by distance and the sound had become an indistinct rumble. Now here, close up, it was a different thing altogether. Her father leaned over to her ear as if to shout something above the noise of the drumming, but instead shook his head. When the drums ceased, he whispered to her, 'They're supposed to be able to play different rhythms, different tunes - Lilliburlero and what have you - but it all sound the same to me. A bloody dundering. On the Twelfth they thump them so hard and so long they bleed their wrists. Against the rim. Sheer bloody bigotry.' Catherine stared at the flailing sticks, felt her eardrums pummelled. 'They practise out here above the town to let the Catholics know they're in charge. This is their way of saying the Prods rule the roost.'

But Cathrine was thrilled by the sound, could distinguish the left hand's rhythm from the right. She tried to keep time with her toes inside her shoes. There were slaps and duns on the off-beats, complex rhythms she couldn't begin to write down - even now, never mind then. The two sticks working independently. The hand stripping each other up. A ripple bounding back and interfering with the other ripples which had first started it. The drums were battered so loud she felt the vibrations in her body, was sure the sky and the air about her were pounding to the beat. It didn't exactly make her want to dance, more to sway. But there was an edge as well - of fear, of tribal war drumming. The gathering of men turned to stare across the road.

MacLaverty creates the feeling of returning home, the hollow unreality of death in the house when you haven't expected it, in just the way I remember my return home when my father died. The dynamics and rhythm are so completely different from the above paragraphs - hushed as opposed to thunderous, not a frantic pace, but slow movements that land first on one detail and then another - like a butterfly landing on a flower and lingering to drink deep - it makes me think of the acting exercises I used to do with my students.

'Aw darlin.' Mrs McCarthy awkwardly touched Catherine's hand and slid past her, out of the room. Catherine stepped over the threshold. Think of something else. Don't look. She'd always slept in this room. The light coming through the drawn curtains was yellow. The window was open about an inch and the curtains moved in the draught. Nylon and slithery. The coffin was on the bed. She kept her eyes away from it. It rested on the one of the patchwork quilts Granny Boyd had made. The design of the quilt had an odd name which she could not remember. It was either Grandmother's Flower Garden or The Drunkard's Path. The lid of the coffin was propped upright beside the wardrobe. His name had already been etched on the brass plate. How did they do it so quickly? On the wall - all her music certificates. It was her father who'd insisted they be framed. When she was young she'd accepted them but later they just embarrassed her. There was a wooden crucifix, the wood of the cross dark, the Christ figure pale. Two candles burned on the bedside table. The room smelt strongly of perfume. She traced it to a bowl of potpourri on the mantelpiece. Were they trying to mask the smell of decay? She must look at him. She stepped nearer and the floor board at that side of the bed. squeaked as it had always done. Outside the hammering and sawing continued. Men shouting to one another. She made herself look directly into the coffin at her father.

'Aw Jesus...' It was him and it wasn't him. Another changeling. He was robed in a white shroud, his hands joined as if in prayer. His fingers were waxy, yellowish - interlaced and tied in that position by rosary beads. He looked strange lying on his back like this. Everything seemed exaggerated - his nostrils were cavernous, his nose looked more hooked, his eyebrows bushier. His lips were blue-black and his skin was darker than she had ever remembered it. With his eyes shut the face had lost all its animation, did not seem like her father. A dead face. The face of a dead man was exactly what it was. She imagined him behind the bar smiling - throwing back his head and laughing. She would never see that again...
Just one more:

She did not go back to the kitchen but instead went into the living-room. Geraldine had opened the window and the place smelt better. Catherine moved about, looking - touching. The black upright piano. The piano stool with the squeaking strut. She lifted the padded seat to look inside. The stool lid had a brass support which sounded like scissors as it openend. It clicked into place to prop open the seat. The topmost piece of sheet music was 'Down by the Sally Gardens'. She openend the lid of the piano. The keys were more yellowed than she remembered. She pressed a three-finger chord, pressed it so gently that the hammers did not engage. Silence.

One day, when she was only three or four, she'd slipped away from the kitchen as her mother baked and listened to the radio. On this particular day the piano lid was open. Catherine had reached up above her head and pressed the keys as softly as she could. No sound came from them. She had to press harder to make the sound come. It frightened her when it did. Dark, deep, thundery. The booming faded away and the noise of the birds outside came back. She tried further up the piano where the notes were nicer, not so frightening. She pressed a single note, again and again. It wasn't the note which made her feel funny - it was the sound it made as it faded away. The afterwards. It made her feel lonely. She was scared that, no matter how hard her mother tried, she would never find her in this room. And she would always be lost. She would always be isolated. The piano stool had a lose strut. There was no glue in the socket and it could be twisted so that it made a dry squeaking sound. she would do this until she tired of it. People who came into the house and played the piano took the music sheets out of the seat and put them on the front of the piano, looked at them and played. Sometimes they sang at the same time. Sometimes people came in and could play without any sheets. Like Frankie Lennon. Then she heard her mother's voice calling her from the kitchen. She didn't dare answer because her mother sounded angry. Her mother flung open the door and saw her standing at the piano. She strode across the room, picked Catherine up and slammed the lid of the piano shut so hard it made the whole instrument tingle and hum. Then she banged the seat of the piano stool closed.

'Fingers,' she shouted. 'A child could lose her fingers through sheer bloody carelessness. And then where would we be?'

She was surprise to see a CD player and a dozen or so CDs stacked beside her father's records...

Walking through my childhood home following the death of my father touching things, I too remember that alternation between frantic preparations to be made - preparations for which I wasn't prepared - and wandering through memories looking for clues to what made my father my father and what made me me.


Anonymous said...

Well I can only say I'm delighted to have introduced you to this wonderful writer! Interestingly, when I read Grace Notes, I was a little disappointed by it, having so much loved his first novel Lamb (and there's one you must add to your wishlist if you haven't already: a devastating novel). There's also a review of Cal on my blog, which is excellent if not quite as good as Lamb in my view. I hope that if and when I re-read Grace Notes, I'll get as much out of it as you did. Meanwhile I am looking forward to his fourth novel, the only one I haven't read: The Anatomy School, which I have on my shelves awaiting attention.

Ted said...

John - They are added to the list! Thanks. The Anatomy School is on my pile for reading before the summer's gone, so we can compare notes.