Maurice Harmon, review of Collected Stories by John Montague, in The Irish Times (14 March 2009)

Details: Maurice Harmon, ‘Making a Tricky Transition’, review of A Fall of Fire: Collected Stories by John Montague, in The Irish Times (14 March 2009), Weekend, p.13. Note: The review is reparagraphed in the current context.]

When a lyric poet turns to writing short stories, he moves from a kind of writing that is lyrical and tightly controlled to one that is more open and expansive. John Montague makes the transition well. Early stories have a directness of expression that deprives them of subtlety but the later and longer stories give him the kind of scope he requires. The preoccupations found in the poetry are also present in his short stories: sexual relations, Irish inhibitions, the politics of Northern Ireland, and the need to experience life elsewhere in the interest of self-discovery.

In some stories Montague focuses on the individual in order to capture a significant occasion. In others he casts a critical eye on a particular kind of society whose values disturb him. “The New Enamel Bucket”, for example, illuminates the barren pleasures of a small town in Northern Ireland with lots of drinking, muddled conversation, a fight, and a moment of insight.

All of this is made possible through detailed observation. He is at home with the material, the place and the people, whom he portrays with understanding and compassion. Longer stories give him the space he needs for his imaginative, and rational engagement. In “The Cry”, a young man returns to the town where he was born and raised. He has known “the narrowness of the life, the hidden bitterness of political feeling”. In London, where he works as a journalist, he feels liberated from narrow sectarianism; but when he tries to investigate an instance of police brutality in his home town, nobody will talk to him about it. The police, he realises, are in control and the people are cowed.

While Montague often points to the repressive aspects of Irish society and the crippling inhibitions that affect relations, between men and women, in “The Limits of Innocence”, published in 11952, he creates a tender and gentle account of young love. On the other hand, “An Occasion of Sin”, a nuanced account of disturbed sexuality in an Irish context, seems dated.

“The Lost Notebook”, set in Florence, is a deeply felt story of a sexual relationship between an Irish man and an American girl. It is a quietly reflective record, beautifully written, its ironic tone saving it from sentimentality. Both characters are young and lonely, both bruised by experience. He has got away from
Irish inhibitions, she from an incestuous relationship with her homosexual brother. Her frank sexuality is liberating for him, his observations on art broaden her outlook. Only once do they enjoy “sensuous fulfilment” but that quickly changes to sullenness and verbal wrangling. It is a sad story of vulnerability, but honestly confessional as the older narrator recalls a youthful encounter.

First published in 1997, “The Three Last Things” is a masterpiece. It is a maturely reflective work that focuses on death and belief. From the outset it has a European dimension. Knute Hanger is the son of a German Lutheran pastor, his wife is the daughter of a German Jewish survivor of the pogroms. They have found peace and acceptance in Ireland. Knute strenuously denies the existence of a God who can allow the cruelty and suffering that took place in the 20th century, the concentration camps and the atomic bombs. Some dark cloud, he thinks, hangs over the world. As the story opens he is faced with the fact that his wife, a “supremely honest spirit”, has only a few weeks, to live. She wants to die with, as Montague writes in a wonderful phrase, “the stern humility of rational humanism”.

She has her beloved poetry books on the bed and does not need the ministry of her friend Father Ger O’Driscoll, who comes to see her. “My husband,” she tells him, “may be extreme but he is right; you only begin to make sense of it all when you cease to believe. In a sense, in a pattern, in a meaning. Senselessness may be the meaning, the acceptance of the void the beginning of true wisdom.” At her funeral, tributes are expressed in German, Hebrew, English and Irish. The local Catholics feel that the “last blast of the Irish, of the old Gaelic, finished them off. It sounded far better than the other old raimeis”, but on the following Sunday Father Ger Confounds everyone with a eulogy to the woman he has come to see as a saint.

One of the many satisfactions of this story is a style that is fully adequate to its complexity of thought and feeling, of history and culture being worked through in the narrative. John Montague is deeply engaged. He confronts issues that have often been present in his work but never articulated with such transcendent power. Here he goes beyond irritation with Irish society, beyond poignant memories of old women who raised him, to this depiction of a woman who faces extinction with exemplary courage, clarity, and dignity.

John Montague, A Fall of Fire: Collected Stories (Dublin: Liberties Press 2008), 288pp.

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