Ursula K. Le Guin, review of Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, in The Guardian [Sat.] (19 June 2010)

[ Source: Guardian online; accessed 10.10.2010. ]

Whatever the current fashion in fiction, there will always be readers to welcome a love story. And when the fashion runs to fictionalising the lives of actual people, what better than the love story of a young, doomed Irish genius and a young, beautiful Irish actress?

I don’t know how closely Ghost Light follows what is known of John Millington Synge’s relationship with Molly Allgood. Novelists generally claim the right to rearrange or suppress facts and invent non-facts in order to arrive, not at a biographical representation of historical figures, but at a re-creation of them – not the “mere” description of a life, but the truth of it. Tolstoy was scolded for presuming to know what Napoleon thought at Borodino, but we now reverently accept a novelist’s assertion of what Virginia Woolf felt as she put stones in her coat pockets on the bank of the Ouse. After all, if a novelist can make up characters and tell us what they’re thinking, why can’t he put real people in a novel and know what they are thinking, too? Doesn’t the act of putting them in his novel make them his invention? Logic, modesty and respect may protest in feeble voices that such co-option is questionable, but at present the idea is that everybody can – and should – know and tell everything about everybody. Matthew Arnold’s notion of an “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea” between all mortal minds is not a popular one at the moment. It would, as it were, short out the internet.

Joseph O’Connor mostly doesn’t get inside Synge’s head because it is Molly’s head he’s in. Synge is seen almost entirely through her eyes: a sick man and a strange one, aloof and tormented, though, to her, worth all the love and grief she spends on him.

Molly Allgood – Maire O’Neill was her stage name – was the first Pegeen in the stormy first performances of The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. Later she played in a few movies, and died in obscurity, at 67, in 1952. The major part of the novel follows Molly’s stream of consciousness as an old woman living alone in London, drinking a great deal too much, just short of outright beggary, making her way towards an engagement at BBC Radio. As she slowly navigates the London streets she remembers better days in Ireland and America. The novel’s theme is the one Yeats borrowed from Ronsard: “When you are old and grey and full of sleep” – the old woman treasuring the memories of the young poet who loved her in her beauty. It’s a fine theme for a romance.

I had trouble following it, however, because the writing is so conscious, so over-tactical. O’Connor tells much of his story in the second person: “And you feel that you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties ...” Frequent use of this device never makes it seem less awkward and artificial. Perhaps it’s meant to bring the reader closer to Molly – you are her, she is you – but what it does is distance her, injecting between her and the reader an interfering presence, this author who constantly addresses her. Yet sometimes her stream of thoughts drops into the conventional first or third person in apparently random shifts.

Shifts, switches and leaps back and forth in verb tense and in time are less distracting because such abolition of chronological sequence has long been a familiar tactic in fiction, and is legitimate in representing the drifting of Molly’s thoughts, and useful in bringing all her life into the compass of one day in her old age. Since the brief love story itself – the poor young couple had only a year in all – is discontinuous and ultimately non-climactic, a little more drama would have helped. I was looking forward to the first performance of The Playboy, and indeed the whole run of the play in 1907 – as tumultuous and triumphant and painful an episode as any novelist could wish for – but really very little is made of it. And the skipping about among years, and from Dublin to London to America, fatally impedes the story’s forward momentum. The author is trying to sum up a year-long, lifelong love into one transcendent experience, a passion that stands outside time, in ghost light – but the flow of time is the stuff of story, and to my sorrow I felt the story bogging down in its meanders and recursions until it no longer drew me on.

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