Eileen Battersby, interview with Jennifer Johnson, in The Irish Times (19 March 2005)

Details: Eileen Battersby, ‘Her Dark Material’ , interview with Jennifer Johnson, in The Irish Times , 19 March 2005), [Weekend], p.7.

Secrets - they sustain us, they expose us, they haunt us. Novelist Jennifer Johnston admits to being very keen on them. I just love them” she says with the full-hearted energy of a girl about to star in a Broadway show. “Don’t You?”

Well, it all depends on the secret - not all of them are fun, some are darker than InosL And the secret at the heart of johnston ’s tough new novel, Grace and Truth , her 14th, is a particularly appalling one. She agrees.

Now aged 75, but apparently destined to remain forever in her mid-50s, she knows this is a dark book, her least elegiac, and yet another shift in direction for her as a writer. It is guaranteed to shock, even offend, “But that’s what happened, that’s how it - the novel - came out”. She is a good talker, wary,of artifice and alert to the fact that everything she, or anyone, says is open to being looked at, reassessed and then expressed differently. She knows replies are shaped by the mood of the moment and can often spin on a phrase; meaning can and does change.

Intelligent, quick-witted, blunt and opinionated, with the odd flash of Mary Poppins briskness, she is an easy person to speak with. She overhears comments on buses and is capable of feeling passionately about issues - “‘I do get myself very worked up about things”, she says. There is an earthy doggedness about her. She announces openly, “No one seems to like my plays” and she knows that two of her finest novels, The Christmas Tree (1981) and The Illusionist (1995), remain underrated. This is the writer who once told me, rather cheerfully, that she saw life as “a long, sad joke”.

When discussing her work, Johnston is less decisive. The candour and directness of her conversation, when applied to her fiction, somehow heighten the complexities of sophisticated short novels that read as larger works.

When she says “I want to keep my books simple”, it’s impossible not to blurt out: “You must be joking.” Simple is not the word to describe her work, least of all this book. “Well, simple in the sense of not overloaded,” she says.

Detail is something Johnston has used cleverly and shrewdly, in her previous novels. This time, although there are neat asides, she has consciously dispensed with the extraneous. “There are all sorts of little doors I shut off; I just wanted her to concentrate on her obsession.”

The “her” is Sally, narrator and central character of Grace and Truth. Sally is an actor, who has just returned from a European tour and is exhausted. Unlike many of Johnston ’s narrators, Sally lacks that familiar, meditative, soulful dimension.

She is less a watcher than other Johnston creations. There is no sense of a life suspended by an awareness of the Past caught between several Irelands. Instead sally is relentlessly in the present, a bit breezy, exhausted from a long run of playing Pegeen Mike.

“She’s tired out from acting, from pretending to be ‘other’ people, and she really wants to find out who she is,” says Johnston.

All too easily, any discussion of Sally can begin to sound like psychoanalysis. Raised by her mother, the shadowy “Moth” who refused to share secrets, Sally has never found out who her father was and has become an actor, constantly reinventing herself. Johnston, herself the daughter of a playwright father and actor mother, has deliberately not tried to make Sally all that likeable. She is no tragic heroine, far removed from the vulnerable if defiant survivor, Clara of The Gingerbread Woman (2000), or Constance, dying and funny, in The Christmas Tree. Sally is a confident performer, able to deflect her sleazy luvvy of an agent; married to Charlie, and, very deliberately, mother to no one. Sally is a study in self-absorption; we don’t even see her acting or in rehearsal, although she refers several times to her ambition to play V1adimir in Waiting for Godot.

All of this is revealed quickly. Meanwhile, the triumphant actor (“My jaw hurt from smiling. My eyes were worn out with sparkling”), happy to be home in her little house in Goatstown, settles down to watch the war in Iraq - on television. The reporters, however, are upstaging the soldiers.

“It’s the madness of everything,” says Johnston. I have to say I was fascinated by watching the war on television. There it was, switch it on and the whole thing was going on like some kind of show.”

It is a variation on one of her major themes: war. Sally is even a bit of a conquering hero.

But it is different. Previously, war in Johnston ’s fiction was the Great War, a conflict that members of her mother’s family fought in. It was a defining chapter.

“As a young girl I knew old men - well, they seemed old - who had been in in it”, Johnston says. “They talked about it. But then it, the talking, all stopped very suddenly.”

She mentions the war memorial in Islandbridge, how it was long neglected and how it was restored only recently.’

The conversation - a Johnston interview invariably becomes an anecdotal conversation - moves to essential Johnston terrain, the Great War and its complex legacy in Ireland, the ambivalence which inspired the excellent This Is Not a Novel (2002) as well as her outstanding trio of early novels: The Captains and the Kings (1972), The Gates (1973) and How Many Miles To Babylon? (1974. Mention of those first books, begun, as she recalls, “during, I suppose, my late 30s and early 40s”, makes Johnston pause before commenting: “Those first books taught me how to write.”

They were far from the typical autobiographical first books. She has, never tended to write about herself. “I take bits and pieces about people I know, about the middle-class world they inhabit. and then change it”, she says.

It was, the Ireland of contrasting cultures, this place with its complicated history and divided loyalties, that fascinated her. Johnston, more than any other Irish writer, took the Big House novel, with its aura of decaying privilege, out of the countryside and towards its logical conclusion, the narrower comforts of Dalkey and Killiney. Things change, and in Grace and Truth , Sally’s house being situated in Goatstown, rather than Killiney, is about as deliberate as any other detail given in this novel of scaled-down,details. “Sally can’t afford to buy a house in Killiney,” Johnston says.

About the only concession to Sally having belonged to a minority class is that her grandfather is a bishop. Aside from that, the usual cultural nuances are absent. It is because I was concentratig on the secret, nothing else really mattered.”

Even Charlie, Sally’s self-confessed “skirt-chaser” husband, who announces he is about to leave her for someone else, emerges as an irrelevance. Far odder than this, though, is that Sally is censured for behaving badly when she orders him to leave the house. Johnston knows that people will react differently to the same development in different circumstances. But Charlie’s threatened abandonment is a mere sideshow. The story is directly about Sally and the bishop whom she always knew as a remote grandfather. For Johnston , Sally’s dilemma is clear.

“She’s only half a person,” she says. “And this is what I kept coming back to, it was what that voice in my head - and I do listen to what my books say to me- kept coming back to: what would it be like to be only half a person, to have all those genes doubled?”

As far as Johnston is concerned, “Safly doesn’t even know why she doesn’t want kids.”

She shrugs on hearing that Sally is not sympathetic and that - unlike, for example, Clara in The Gingerbread Woman - it is difficult to engage with her.

“She just came out that way,” Johnston says.

Far more interesting is the mother, “Moth’, the shadowy girl who gives up on life. There are other clues. Real wars are the stuff of television and reporters are the new heroes, just as the ongoing tribunals are regarded less as proof of the corruption of our society and more as “good radio”.

Aside from the raw topicality of the incest theme in her new book, Johnston is aware that Grace and Truth is also reflecting the fundamental de-culturalisation of Irish society. The book is rooted to Sally’s obsession but it also offers a picture of Ireland today, a de-culturalised chaos where everyone is in a hurry. The only time the pace slows down is over a choreographed meal in Hunter’s Hotel in Co Wicklow. Yes, it is a tough book, and there is no profound moment such as when Stella, a novelist in The Illusionist , says of her daughter: I haven’t known her to cry since she was a child. To be quite honest I have hardly known her since she was a child.”

It is a characteristic moment of clarity, a moment less apparent in the new book.

Grace and Truth is different, contained in a secret. For all its toughness, its war-as-a-television-event, it is full of unexpected forgiveness.

“Sally forgives Charlie, she forgives the old man”, says Johnston , but it’s not really clear whether she forgives the mother who could never forgive herself. [END]

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