Sam Thompson, ‘Perversely cured: The baking, banning and bisexuality of John Broderick’,
in Times Literary Supplement (17 Dec. 2004), p.26-27.

In 1961, John Broderick’s first novel, The Pilgrimage, was published in England, France and the United States. In his home country of Ireland it was instantly banned, and remained so until 1975. We can take this situation as an emblem for the whole of Broderick’s writing life. In many respects he had a successful literary career - between The Pilgrimage and his death in 1989 he produced twelve published novels and a large quantity of journalism - but the success always somehow amounted to less than it should have done, its fruits staying out of reach. One hopes that he was not writing in order to impress anyone at home. He came from a wealthy family of bakers in the Irish midlands town of Athlone, and later recalled their reaction to his burgeoning literary career:

They didn’t respond at all. They said nothing. Nobody belonging to me - my mother, my uncles, my cousins, anyone belonging to me - they never mentioned any of my books to me ever. Not ever. I think it was because they disapproved …Waste of time. Make much more money baking buns.

Even in literary circles, there was a feeling that Broderick might have been something more than he was. One obituarist described him as “a sad figure who never really found his métier”. Whatever the reasons, his reputation never equalled that of close contemporaries like John McGahem and Edna O’Brien (though they too suffered from censorship).

Now, fifteen years after his death, steps are being taken, if not quite to proclaim a neglected genius, then at least to secure for him a place on posterity’s mid-list. Athlone made up for its former indifference with an annual John Broderick Weekend, which started in 1999 and has now expanded to become the Athlone Literary Festival, and Lilliput Press has reissued two of his novels and published a short biography. This project deserves to succeed, because the novels do not deserve oblivion.

The Pilgrimage happens in an Irish town of the 1950s, one of Broderick’s many fictionalized versions of Athlone. Outwardly, Julia lives in bourgeois respectability: her main amusements are going to Mass and taking tea with her husband, Michael, who is rich, twenty years older than her, and crippled by severe arthritis. The household manservant Stephen cares for him, and Michael’s nephew Jim, a handsome young doctor, visits regularly from Dublin. Although Michael, cannot walk, a pilgrimage is planned: they are to go with the parish priest, Father Victor, to Lourdes - “always an unforgettable spiritual experience”.

Broderick introduces all this in a few pages of impassive, efficient prose. Then, deadpan unwavering, he continues to unfold things. Julia is having an affair with Jim. Michael is gay and tormented by guilt about the fact. He married Julia in an attempt “to reform his nature”, and she married him because “she was tired of working”. And now, as the date of the pilgrimage approaches, she begins to receive anonymous, sexually explicit letters describing her infidelity, and is plunged into paranoia. “No face entirely beyond suspicion, no room empty of town at the bottom of the hill rise up and claw at the windows like a nightmare thing.”

The Pilgrimage is driven by cold, bitter rage at the “narrow-minded, money-grubbing, hypocritical, furtive” world of its setting. The town is a hostile environment, and so produces a highly evolved species of inhabitant:

Like many others who live in those closed communities, she had developed a natural gift for dissimulation to an uncanny pitch of perfection. The city dweller who passes through a country town, and imagines it sleepy and apathetic is very far from the truth: it is as watchful as the jungle.

The word “watchful” recurs through both these novels. Later in The Pilgrimage, the narrator again reflects on hish towns: “In that atmosphere of careful virtues and furtive pleasures watchfulness flourished like a huge o~ne creeper on an ancient house”. “Watchfulness” has grown into the subject of the sentence more vital than virtue or pleasure. And along with the malice and constriction goes universal loneliness. This is Julia’s sole moment of emotional connection with her lover, just after he has told her he is getting married:

She felt that sudden bond of intimacy, of perfect understanding, that one sometimes experiences with total strangers; one cherishes the illusion that if things had been different, if one had not had to catch a boat, a train, a plane. something wonderful would have happened; one would get to know another human being.

Michael hopes, desperately and pathetically, for a miraculous cure. “I might walk again, it happens all the time in Lourdes, doesn’t it?” It is quite clear what the other characters, including the clergymen, think of the chances of this. “The bishop pursed his lips. The pause which followed was like an icy blast from an open window. ‘We shall,’ he murmured at length, ‘all pray for you, of course.’” Broderick discreetly conceals considerable nastiness in his dialogue. The bishop’s “We shall all pray for you”, a canting abdication of faith and responsibility, is about the most irreligious thing he could say here. Only Michael, in pain, has faith.

The last chapter of The Pilgrimage is a single sentence, a shocker: “In this way they set out on their pilgrimage, from which a week later Michael returned completely cured”. This is a form of what Martin Amis once called “the kind of challenge that the literary Catholic enjoys throwing out to the world, as if to testify to the macho perversity of his faith”. Amis’s macho Catholics were Graham, Greene and Evelyn Waugh. The final flashy irony of The Pilgrimage is less tremendous, less theodicean, than the irony of A Handful of Dust or The End of the Affair, but it is just as cruel. The “perversity” comes not from the inhumanity with which providence operates, but - more simply from the fact that the characters are weak hypocrites. They have manoeuvred themselves into a position in which the miraculous healing of a sick man - which they have all been publicly praying for - is for them a disastrous evil.

This is characteristic of Broderick. Catholicism is bitterly satirized for the misery it imposes, but the fault lies not with religion, and certainIy not with God. It lies in the fact that most people - especially those who call themselves devout - are irreligious creatures who perform rituals and mouth pieties, but believe in nothing. Consequently the Church is a sink of vice; but in Broderick’s work, as in his life, it is central and inescapable, whether defied or embraced. In 1979 he said, “I haven’t got faith at the moment … I do hope the religious experience will come again”; and in 1984, “I am now a practising, albeit critical, Catholic. Mind you, I always had an affection for the faith, warts and all”.

There is a further irony that was not the author’s doing. The Irish Censorship Board and the Catholic Truth Society apparently felt more or less the same way as Beoderick’s fictional hypocrites about the plausibility of The Pilgrimage ’s miracle. The book was banned for indecency, predictably, but it was also charged with blasphemy, for its suggestion that such a sinner as Michael could be worthy of benefiting from divine intervention. Broderick anticipated this, taking his epigraph from Luke 5: 31: “They that are whole, need not the physician: but they that are sick’. The novel was banned nevertheless.

The Waking of Willie Ryan (1965) was Broderick’s fourth novel, and the culmination of the first, confident run of his fiction-writing career (the next novel was not to come until 1973). Willie Ryan, sixty years old, returns to his home town after twenty-five years in the insane asylum where his family had him committed, ostensibly for attacking his sister-in-law Mary. In fact, he kissed her on the cheek. The real reason he had to be put away wsa his affair with Roger, a young hedonist responsible for Willie’s first “waking” to love, and to art, music and literature.

Willie has come home to die, but his presence still threatens scandal, because he is unrepentant. In all his time at the asylum he has never attended Mass or been to confession. How, then, is his life to be made into a respectable narrative of sin, penitence, absolution and death? Mary Ryan and Father Mannix, the priest who helped have Willie committed, plan a private family Mass in which he will take Communion, and so signal his capitulation to the bourgeois piety he has always defied. But Willie has not essentially changed, and he has his own plans to even the score.

By contrast with The Pilgrimage, there are truly likeable characters in Willie Ryan. There is hope for the younger generation, Willie’s nephew Chris and his fiancée Susan, who may yet escape the mental strictures that have blighted their elders’ lives. Willie himself is memorable, thoroughly valorized and convincingly strange. Sane but robbed of his life, he is a young-old wise fool with “yellow-white hair”, a ‘lithe and graceful step” and a total lack of hypocrisy. He alone understands the nature of religious faith, though he does not possess it.

The concerns here are the same as those of The Pilgrimage, but the consuming bitterness of the earlier novel is maturing into something more complex: a serious, ironical and accomplished dissection of a world in which observance and conformity conceal a howling moral void. Sature begins to become a vision of evil manifested in the monstrous mothers of Chris[…; incomplete].

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