“A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre
This was lent to me by the lovely Heather when I said that I had never read a John Le Carre book and that I am not very keen on thrillers. It runs to 607 pages and my little heart sank when I first saw it. However, having put off reading it for some time, I was pleasantly surprised by how well written it was. It has lots of plot too. But yet, but yet, I do not care for spies. Hearing about how the burnbox works and tricks of tradecraft do not thrill me. This book tells the story of the perfect spy and a great deal of it is background about his youth. I love background and youthful history but yet, I did not particularly care for Pym’s. Could it be my fault?
“An Only Child” by Frank O’Connor
I am not an unbiased reader of this book. Frank O’Connor is from Cork and reading this book reminds me of my home town; the street names; the cadences of the language; even the press barons (prominent reference to George Crosbie early on – the Crosbies still own the Echo and the Examiner and everyone knows them, I was in college with a Crosbie cousin, coming home from family holidays we would all strain to be the first to hear an Echo boy shouting “Echo, Echo, Evening Echo”). In many ways this book is as much a history of Cork city as of the author.
When I was in school, Frank O’Connor’s First Confession was one of the short stories we had to read. I can remember when I was 12 or 13 being supervised by a cross nun while our English teacher was out (gallivanting, ill, who knows?) and we were all supposed to be reading quietly to ourselves from our short story book. I read this story. The requirement for utter silence combined with the hilarity of the story was my undoing. The more I tried not to laugh, the funnier it became. I was purple in the face and shaking by the time I had finished.
In view of this, you might think that I would have tried more Frank O’Connor but anything else of his I read never quite lived up to that first fine careless rapture. However, when I was last in Dublin, I picked up this volume and decided to give him another go. For me, a great part of its charm is reading about Cork 100 years ago and realising how little it has changed in many of its essentials. But this is certainly not its only charm. It is beautifully written. In some ways, “An Only Child” reminds me of “Angela’s Ashes”, however, while writing about the same kind of youth spent in poverty with an alcoholic father and a strong mother, O’Connor’s work is thoughtful and enlightening where McCourt’s is sentimental and clichéd. O’Connor is fully and painfully aware of his limitations, McCourt never demonstrates that self knowledge.
There is a great deal in this book about love of language and as, growing up, language was one of my own great pleasures, I find much in “An Only Child” which appeals. He teaches himself all kinds of languages with only the faintest appreciation of grammar. As children, my parents concealed their machinations from us by speaking a combination of French and German and, when this failed them, the odd word of Latin. My father refers to this largely as “the common European dialect”. For many years my father used to say a phrase I did not understand when asked to do something. There is an expression which possibly only exists in Irish English meaning I can do the job for you: it is “I’m your man”. My father, feeling that this really was too dull went for “Je suis votre homme”. This I understood as “Jesuis vo trom”. I knew that trom was the Irish for heavy (our education in Irish having started at the age of four and also there was the inexplicably popular TV show) and having a look at my father’s girth, I made my own deductions. I still remember my delight, when beginning to learn French at 12, in working out what the expression actually meant. Or rather what my father meant it to mean. To the francophone world, of course, “je suis votre homme” means not “I’ll sort it out” but “I am your husband”. Something which my father understood intellectually but which, however, never stopped him using the phrase on baffled French women.
When Mr. Waffle and I introduced our parents to each other, they got on like a house on fire and almost immediately began addressing each other in a variety of European languages, something which caused each of us exquisite embarrassment. As parents of three children of our own we are, of course, well beyond that now and only waiting for the opportunity to mortify our own offspring in a similar way. I digress.
My father’s parents would have been of an age with Frank O’Connor or slightly older and though they were somewhat better off (my granddad was a clerk in the railway, I’ll have you know, and my granny worked in the telephone exchange), I feel that they must have known each other because Cork is like that. Also they were both very strongly anti-treaty and had to leave Cork for America some time after the civil war (though they came back – the anti-treaty forces having lost the war but overwhelmingly won the peace).
Reading between the lines, you can see what must have made him a difficult git in many ways. He is not blind to his own faults or those of the people he loves. There is a very sad passage where he describes separating from his first wife. His children won’t talk to his mother, so she never speaks to them again. You can see from his description of her personality why this should be and though it clearly hurts him, it does not lessen his respect and affection for her.
There is a saying “No snob like a Cork snob” and the author, who was largely self-taught, has this feature in spades. I have a relative who is a very holy, generous, humble and kind religious man but he cannot resist name dropping. This, is a true Cork trait and one that Mr. O’Connor and I share.
I loved this book and, if you’re keen to know more about Cork (and who wouldn’t be?), it is a fascinating read from a historical point of view as well.
I know you love grammar, so I feel compelled to give you this quote from the text which gives a flavour of the whole:
A serious gap in my education was revealed to me during the very first days when I prepared my lessons for class, and the shock nearly killed me. I opened an Irish Grammar for what must have been the first time and read it through with a sinking heart. M. Jourdain’s astonishment on discovering that he had been talking prose all his life was nothing to mine on discovering that I had been talking grammar – and bad grammar at that…[following his enlightenment, he goes on to speak of his affection for grammar]
Whatever the importance of grammar in reading or writing, as an image of human life it seems to me out on its own. I have never since had any patience with the apostles of usage. Usage needs no advocates, since it goes on whether one approves of it or not, and in doing so breaks down the best regulated languages. Grammar is the breadwinner of language as usage is the housekeeper, and the poor man’s efforts at keeping order are for ever being thwarted by his wife’s intrigues and her perpetual warning to the children not to tell Father. But language, like life, is impossible without a father and he is forever returning to his thankless job of restoring authoritiy. An emotional young man, I found it a real help to learn that there was such a thing as an object, whether or not philosophers admitted its existence, and that I could use the accustive case to point it out as I would point out a man in the street.
“My Father’s Son” by Frank O’Connor
I’m on a roll here. This book begins with a rather ominous note to the effect that this book had not been completed by the author’s death and they did their best to piece it together from notes and earlier drafts. Unfortunately, it reads a little bit like that too. It is unclear in places in a way that “An Only Child” never is.
That said, it is fascinating. O’Connor was friends with every significant literary Irish figure of the time and his descriptions of them are priceless. I particularly enjoyed reading about Yeats in a very new and strangely intimate way.
Cork looms large at the beginning of the book. There are only two kinds of Cork people: those who stay and those who leave and, though those who leave would never admit it, the gap is unbridgeable and you can never go back.
O’Connor tried to go back. He found it tough going; of course, you can never go back. He left again but he says “Nothing could cure me of the notion that Cork needed me and that I needed Cork. Nothing but death can, I fear, ever cure me of it.” I know what he means.
“Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox” by Eoin Colfer
Children’s books, they’re so appealing. I particularly like this series which features an Irish child genius and fairies. Go on, try it, you know you want to.
I am overwhelmingly impressed that you even bothered to read the thing – I’d have been very polite while you were in the house and then shoved it behind something.
There are only two kinds of Cork people: those who stay and those who leave and, though those who leave would never admit it, the gap is unbridgeable and you can never go back.
When (Corkman) Alan Titley was leaving St. Pat’s Drumcondra to take up his well-deserved Professorship of Irish in UCC, my late father teased him that the stone must have floated.
This was a reference to an old joke, generally told in a feigned Cork accent (excuse bad phonetic representation):
“When a Corkman move to Dublin, he throw a sto-an in the Liffey.
If it flo-at, he go ho-am”.
I do like spies and thrillers, but the thing that depresses me about John le Carre is how he always gives you details of everybody’s miserable sex lives. I suppose it’s often germane to the plot (as a potential blackmail avenue), but why do none of his characters ever have ordinary pleasurable sex?
I loved the first Artemis Fowl book and must get hold of more in the series. (Children’s books can’t get away with being dull or pretentious or telling you about depressed fat men who like bondage.) I haven’t tried Frank O’Connor but I will now.
Women Rule Writer says
You might be interested to know that the Munster Literature Centre host a festival of the short story in Cork every September. I go every year and it’s great. Their site is
http://www.munsterlit.ie for more.
Women Rule Writer says
Ooops, I meant to say, of course, that the festival is held in honour of Frank O’Connor. Duh.
Artemis Fowl rules