BOOKS: ‘Male critical culture has become quite defensive and sour’

Anne Enright: The author on her new novel, The Wren, The Wren, pretending to be a poet and the ‘male nastiness’ Sally Rooney encountered

“The book is a little bit underdetermined,” she says. “So it’s not going to give you all those answers.” She laughs. “In fact, this whole conversation has been looking for those answers, which the book slightly withholds. So it should seem congruent, but not necessarily locked in, in terms of cause and effect.”

Most of the poets I know are really very nice. They’re kind of lovely as a bunch. So I don’t know why I made Phil that guy

—  Enright on the protagonist of her new novel

She is absolutely correct, of course. The best fiction represents the chaos and unpredictability of human affairs, recoiling from neat resolutions. And Enright’s novels, which include Booker-winning The Gathering, The Green Road and the book before this one, Actress, are among the best of the best – resonant, provocative, moving explorations of the closeness and distance inherent in intimate relationships, with all the dynamics of power and desire they entail. The Wren, The Wren is especially arresting when it addresses the question of violence within families, with Enright telling me that one key moment stopped her in her tracks when she recorded the novel’s audio version: “I really, really found that scene hard to read. And I had to do it a million times to get it right.” To say more would mean being guilty of a spoiler, but readers will know when they reach it.

But there is also comedy, in which this newspaper itself features.

Hovering over the novel is the figure of Phil – father of single mother Carmel – now long dead but still making his influence felt. Phil was a poet “of some reputation,” whom we meet early on ransacking his seriously ill wife’s bed for his watch before he abandons her and their two young daughters (“He liked to walk out when the weather was good. He paused on the threshold to squint up at the sky, and he plucked a stolen buttonhole on his way to the bus stop, to drive the neighbours mad.”) When he receives a bad review from fellow poet Austin Clarke in The Irish Times, he throws a discus of dried cow manure at the front window of Clarke’s house in Templeogue, “and bragged about it afterwards in every pub”. His family become practised at hiding the review pages from him on a Saturday morning.

Enright is resigned to the inevitable game of identification that will greet her portrayal of a great Irish poet. “There’s really nothing you can do about that. Especially in Ireland.” When she worked as a producer, many years ago, on the RTÉ satirical programme Nighthawks, “every single sketch we did – it could be about St Patrick banishing the snakes, it could be about Michael Collins – somebody would say, ‘That was a great thing you did about Terry Keane’, Charlie Haughey’s mistress. You can’t stop them.” She goes on to qualify that “most of the poets I know are really very nice. They’re kind of lovely as a bunch. So I don’t know why I made Phil that guy.”

She enlisted the help of poets Jane Clarke and Jessica Traynor to confirm that the pieces could stand: “I just needed them to say ‘This is a poem’. This is a poem, as though it was a kind of sacred, vocational kind of thing, that you couldn’t just be a poet by writing a poem. That’s against everything I’ve ever said about prose. People say, ‘Oh, I’d love to be a writer’. And I’d say, Well, you know, if you type, that’s a fair start. Being a writer is someone who writes.” The acknowledgments in The Wren, The Wren also reveal that she accosted Paul Muldoon in Dublin Airport with Phil’s version of Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna’s An Bonnán Buí, or The Yellow Bittern (“I can’t believe I did that”).

Carmel was very difficult to write for me, and I stayed with her for a long time with this sense of difficulty. The reason she was so difficult is that she has no imagination

She drew on all sorts of influences to write the poems: there are echoes of the metaphysical poets George Herbert and John Donne, a touch of Patrick Kavanagh, the satirical, cosmopolitan edge of Louis MacNeice and something, too, of Michael Hartnett (“a lovely man: I met him the day I was married, in my wedding dress on Stephen’s Green,” she recalls). Did she have fun? “I loved doing the Irish stuff – the breakthrough for me was realising that he could translate from the medieval Irish. It was such a blast.” One such poem was the ninth-century, 24-syllable The Bird of Lagan Lough, which has been translated by Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson and Derek Mahon. “You’ve no idea how cheeky it is! But I didn’t do a bad job.”

I wonder aloud whether Enright will follow novelist Colm Tóibín, who published his debut collection last year, into writing poetry. “I loved writing as Phil; not only that, I loved writing as Phil writing as the monk, as St Columba. I don’t think I would write poetry as myself.”

Why not? “It asks questions about sincerity, I think. I’m not a great believer in sincerity because I think people can be quite sincere, or seem quite sincere, and be entirely unpleasant. So sincere, or even heartfelt, they don’t have a moral or even aesthetic value for me. I prefer to play.”

And play she certainly does, throughout her wrong-footing fiction, at one minute deadly serious, at another lightly comical, even flippant.

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