Monday, June 16, 2008

A Beautiful Novel

Grey morning dulled the bay. Banks of clouds, Howth just one more bank, rolled to sea, where other Howths grumbled to greet them. Swollen spumeless tide. Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads. Two heads. At swim, two boys.

At Swim, Two Boys
Jamie O’Neill

“A beautiful novel.” That’s how I recently described Jamie O’Neill’s 2001 novel, At Swim, Two Boys, to a young man who, while browsing the selves of the Quatrefoil Library in St. Paul, inquired of me if I knew of a good summer reading book. Upon my recommendation he did indeed borrow the library’s copy of the book. Hopefully he’ll find my description accurate and will enjoy this richly layered and deeply absorbing novel as much as I did.

At Swim, Two Boys is, at its heart, a love story – a story about love between two young men, and love for one’s country. The novel is set in Ireland in the year leading up to the Easter Uprising of 1916 – a time that O’Neill (pictured at left) refers to as “the soul of my country.”

In a 2002
interview, O’Neill explained:

[At Swim, Two Boys] is a historical novel, but it’s supposed to be contemporary as well. It’s a way of looking at what’s happening in the world today through different spectacles. The whole notion is that two boys, in their friendship and their love, would discover their own country – a country, in the end, that would be worthy of their fighting for it. It’s a conceit, really. The Easter Uprising in 1916 was the birth of the modern Irish state. It was also around that time that what you might call a homosexual sensibility was beginning to form, after Oscar Wilde and everything. Before the Wilde trials, [homosexuality] was usually – I’m going to give you some Latin now – pecatum inter Christianos non nominandum est: the sin, the crime, amongst Christians which couldn’t be spoken. What Oscar Wilde did was give words to it. He gave it a face, a humanity. Those words, to begin with, were words of terrible condemnation. But with words come speech, and only with speech can come understanding. That period was important.

The novel tells the love story of two young Irish men: Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle. Jim, the son of a general store owner, is quiet, studious, thoughtful, and naïve. Doyler, Jim’s schoolmate at Presentation College, is, by contrast, outspoken, rebellious, brave, and affectionate. He’s also from the slum area of town and a secret member of the Irish Citizen Army – the “red flag socialists of Liberty Hall.” When he is discovered wearing the “Red Hand of Liberty” badge under his collar, he is expelled from Presentation College by Father Taylor, a member of the nationalistic Gaelic League, who declares: “The black devil of socialism, hoof and horn, is among us!”

Another of the novel’s key characters is the disgraced aristocrat, Anthony MacMurrough. Recently returned from imprisonment in England for acts of “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexuality), he lives with his wealthy aunt, Eveline MacMurrough, and often engages in stream-of-consciousness monologues with his ghostly past friend, Scrotes, a character that critic Raj Ayyar perceptively describes as MacMurrough’s “superego/inner censor.” Continues Ayyar: “Loosely based on an old professor he knew in prison, Scrotes is the voice of [MacMurrough’s] Catholic guilt and training.”

Unable to accept and love himself, MacMurrough engages in furtive and promiscuous sexual exploits. At the beginning of the novel, he is sexually involved with the rough and ready Doyler who, unlike Jim, is actively engaged in discovering and defining himself both sexually and politically. Yet despite his dalliance with MacMurrough, it is Jim whom Doyler comes to recognize and declare as “old pal o’ me heart.” It is Jim whom he loves.

Interestingly, in his witnessing of Jim and Doyler’s love, MacMurrough grows in self-acceptance and self-respect. He becomes less self-absorbed (Scrotes stoles away, “home to raven regions lonely”) and is less willing to sexually exploit others. Indeed, his transformation from self-hatred and selfishness to an openness and willingness to embody and experience love is one of the novel’s many beautiful aspects. Love between two men is possible, MacMurrough realizes, and he witnesses the unfolding of such life-giving love in the relationship between Jim and Doyler. As one critic
notes, all three young men - MacMurrough, Doyler and Jim - become “comradely heroes fighting for their sexual as well as their national survival.”

After his banishment from Presentation College, Doyler decides to leave and go live with the Irish Citizen Army, headquartered at Liberty Hall, though not before he and Jim agree to meet at Easter the following year (1916) so as to fulfill their pledge to swim together out to the Muglins - the rocks to the east of Dalkey Island – and claim them as their own.

Elizabeth Flynn, in a 2002 Lambda Book Report review of the novel, notes that:

In O’Neill’s clever and capable hands, the swimming becomes a powerful metaphor for young men learning to inhabit their bodies, acquiring self-knowledge and physical grace (“that magical moment when the mind lets go and the body is released”). But with this knowledge comes an unexpected revelation. Catholic readers will recognize Jim’s near-delirious fever of self-reproach as – amid the baffling pangs of adolescence and the dire injunctions of the Church – he struggles with his growing attraction to Doyler.

To help Jim prepare for the difficult swim to the Muglins, MacMurrough agrees to coach him at the Forty Foot – a “gentleman’s bathing place.” During one of their training sessions, they discuss the escalating tensions between the Irish and the English, and the possibility of war. It is during this conversation that Jim declares his love for Doyler, a declaration that moves MacMurrough and makes him more determined than ever to help reunite Jim and Doyler.

“It’s getting dangerous now, all this militarism,” [said MacMurrough].

“We’ll be asked to fight for Ireland, sure I know that,” [replied Jim].

“But what is Ireland that you should want to fight for it?”

“Sure I know that too.” He raised a shoulder, his head inclined then turned: an attempt to shrug and nod, all the same time. When he was shy or self-conscious of something he would say, his body would often fail him. “It’s Doyler,” he said.

“Doyler is your country?”

“It’s silly, I know. But that’s how I feel. I know Doyler will be out, and where would I be but out beside him? I don’t hate the English and I don’t know do I love the Irish. But I love him. I’m sure of that now. And he’s my country.

And then Jim says to MacMurrough:

“ . . . I don’t know anybody else I could talk these things with. I used think I’d burst with all the words in my head. I can talk things now. I don’t know but it’s like we have a language together. It’s great with the swimming, but it’s better again with the talking. You’re part of my country too now, McEmm.”

As I said, beautiful.

Anyway, Easter 1916 comes around and Jim and Doyler fulfill their pledge – and then some. But the fateful events of that time overtake the two young lovers, along with MacMurrough, Aunt Eva, and many others – with tragic and devastating results. To say any more would give too much away. Instead, if what I’ve shared of this novel interests you, then I encourage you to find it and read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

I read At Swim, Two Boys in 2005. In fact, I took it with me when I journeyed from the U.S. to visit my older brother and his family in England. (My nephew, Mitch, snapped the photograph at right as I paused in my reading of the novel in the backyard of his family’s home in Weybridge.)

Shortly after, I joined my parents from Australia for a coach tour of Europe. As we journeyed between the various cities on our “Highlights of Europe” tour, I shared excerpts from the book with my Mum. When I finally came to the novel’s beautiful but heartrending conclusion in the Bavarian Alps, I remember gazing out the coach window at the forested hillsides, a lump in my throat and my eyes stinging with tears.

The novel’s title is a punning allusion to At Swim-Two-Birds, considered by many as the masterpiece of Irish novelist Flann O’Brien. Aspects of At Swim, Two Boys employ a stream-of-consciousness style which, coupled with its Dublin setting, has ensured that the novel has been favorably compared to the works of James Joyce. Tom Beer, writing in a 2002 Newsday review, notes that: “Like Joyce’s Ulysses, At Swim, Two Boys evokes the vibrant world of early 20th century Dublin: its shops and smells, its pubs and newspaper headlines, its political squabbles and colorful street talk.”

It’s primarily for this reason that I’ll be reading an excerpt from At Swim, Two Boys at tonight’s Bloomsday celebration at the University Club of St. Paul. Sponsored by Intermedia Arts and hosted by Carol Connolly, Bloomsday celebrates all things Joycean! It’s held every year on June 16, the date Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses, sallied forth into Dublin City.

Following is the excerpt from Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys that I’ll be sharing as part of Bloomsday. It’s a “conversation” between MacMurrough and Scrotes that takes place as they observe the “boys of Erin,” Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle among them, at a pageant on the grounds of Presentation College. Enjoy!


You know, they make it so damned difficult. They make a thing so deeply wrong that no morality can afterward apply. It doesn’t matter how we go about it, kindly or coldly. No good is so good as to mitigate; all further wrong is a feather’s weight upon the deed itself. See it in the newspaper reports. One can be a gentleman thief. One can be a love-struck murderer. We’re just unspeakable, we’re sods.

– Who are we? asked Scrotes.

– People of my kind.

– You have a kind? said Scrotes.

– Yes, and we are easy to find. Under bridges, at the back-end of piers, in parks when parks are closed, in the shadows of others, in the night.

Far up the garden the boys of Erin mavroned and macree’d. Whish it whash, said the sea to the shore. By the summerhouse MacMurrough saw [Jim] who waited in a phalanx of tulips. Where was Doyle? [Jim] might topple without his shoulder to slope to. There was Doyle far behind, on his own, in his kilt and sash and pinned to his sash, MacMurrough saw it, his Red Hand badge.

And he appeared at that moment beautiful to MacMurrough; proud, defiant . . . He might be a badge himself, a golden crotchet . . . pinned to the trees. The knowing of him, of his nasal whine, his feet that smelt, this did not take from his beauty. His beauty claimed his defects for the part of him that made it possible, made him true. MacMurrough saw the making of a man, of a fellow creature, of such who can say, boldly and freely, I do.

– When you told him of the Spartans, Scrotes asked [MacMurrough], what did you intend?

– I don’t know that I’m sure. One is sensible to his feelings for his friend [Jim]. I thought it might cheer him to know those praised in his national song had felt the same.

– Not nearly the same, said Scrotes.

– I’d had rather gathered the Spartans were famed for it.

– The Spartans’ desire was praiseworthy and good. Their world was shaped by that desire, as ours is shaped by man and wife.

MacMurrough pursed his lips. I want it to be all right for him, he said. For both of them.

– Help them [said Scrotes].

– I have procured the one his suit. The other apparently can clothe himself. It should seem the extent of my capacity to assist.

– Help them make a nation, if not once again, then once for all.

– What possible nation can you mean?

– Like all nations, Scrotes answered, a nation of the heart. Look about you. See Irish Ireland find out its past. Only with a past can it claim a future. Watch it on tramcars thumbing its primers. Only a language its own can speak to it truly. What does this language say? It says you are a proud and ancient people. For a nation cannot prosper without its pride. You and I, MacMurrough, may smile at the fabulous claims of the Celt. We may know that the modern Irishman as much resembles the Gael of old as he resembles the Esquimau or the Kafir on the Hindu Kush. And we may believe he is better for that. But no matter. The struggle for Irish Ireland is not for truth against untruth. It is not for the good against the bad, for the beautiful against the unbeautiful. These things will take care of themselves. The struggle is for the heart, for its claim to stand in the light and cast a shadow its own in the sun.

– Help these boys build a nation their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literatures for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale; and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light.

– For only with pride may a man prosper. With pride, all things flow. Without he have pride he is a shadowy skulk whose season is night. And now behold, the pageant is ending. The boys have fallen upon the stage and the splendor falls with the dying day. Soon there will be fireworks and the young must be led to their duty. You must go from this lofty place and tread again the trampled grass.

To his surprise MacMurrough found they had left the garden and climbed to Scrotes’s turret room. It was full the night and the pale moon that through the window shone had sketched an embrasure on the floor, sketched it half-way up the opposing wall. In this moonshaft they stood, Scrotes and he, and no shadow of theirs disturbed the dust that floated in the light behind.

Far, far below MacMurrough heard the crowd’s applause. He would never speak with Scrotes again, this he knew, and he turned to him. Was I truly your friend? He asked. I believed I loved you. But I forget, you know.

– You were. You did. You do.

So spake Scrotes, and having spoke he smole a smile and home to raven regions lonely stole.

- Excerpted from At Swim, Two Boys
by Jamie O'Neill
Scribner, New York, 2001
(pp. 284-286)

Recommended Off-site Links:
Under the Spell of Ulysses - Tom Beer (Newsday, May 19, 2002).
“Irish Revolutionary” - Michael Giltz (The Advocate, June 23, 2002).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Promiscuity, and the Love that is the Center of Catholic Christianity


Frank Partisan said...

Really interesting, well written book review.

You should adapt it for the screen.

Anonymous said...

Your mastery last night with At Swim, Two Boys couldn't have been more important for the subject. I saw the power of the word to illuminate minds, allowing your audience to effortlessly do the work of relaxing into the truths of homosexuality.

You countered the heartless effects of prejudice against all of us. Without your clarifying delivery though, explaining, telling, not a general wash, it could have gone no place.

And to hear the gay contingent in the rear cheering for you in your introduction lifted my heart. I believe strongly you lifted every heart in that room. I believe the crowd felt proud in their journey toward inclusiveness last night.

Thank you and God bless you, Michael.