Kevin Breathnach

Resurrections

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Liam’s tomb was the first public memorial to him. Many more would follow. At Manchester United’s stadium, Old Trafford, there is a commemorative plaque in what is known as the ‘Munich tunnel’. Outside the ground, the hands of the ‘Munich clock’ remain forever locked at 3.04 p.m., the time the crash took place. Here in the suburb of Trudering, the site of what was once Munich-Riem airport, two memorials mark the crash. One, erected by the residents of the suburb, is a small wooden affair depicting another Christ on another cross. I stand in front of it for some time, waiting. I walk a little closer now, taking in its memorial inscription. Then I notice something strange: a pin badge no larger than two square centimetres has been pressed into the board on which the cross is hung. It is shaped to resemble the current Manchester United mascot, a red devil with a pitchfork. I walk perhaps thirty metres down the road until, at the intersection of Emplstraße and Rappenweg, I come to the second memorial, situated at a spot now known as Manchesterplatz. Here, the memorial erected by the municipality of Munich names each victim of the crash. I am not a little appalled when, at the rather uncanny sight of my granduncle’s name here in Munich, I attempt to conjure some remembered image of his memorial much closer to home. I find I am unable to do so. In truth, I now realize, I have never actually gone to see it.

I don’t know where I was when they unveiled the Liam Whelan Bridge, nor do I remember ever seeing the 55c stamp with his portrait printed on it, though just five years have passed.  I have absolutely no memory of the time, a mental blank that in some ways parallels the way I have always felt about the tragedy itself. I have never experienced the inherited grief I believe the rest of my family feel and expect me to feel in turn. For me, my granduncle’s death in the Munich Air Disaster has always been something interesting to tell taxi drivers, or a way of tempering a United fan’s disgust when I tell them I support Manchester City. Still, it strikes me as strange, not to say insulting to the rest of my family, that I did not attend the ceremony at which Bobby Charlton, himself a survivor of the crash, unveiled the Cabra bridge named in my granduncle’s honour.

I had grown tired of football following a period of ten years spent wholly consumed by the game. I was not a particularly diligent student, and yet when it came to football I somehow found it in me to memorize reams of useless information. Just as Liam would have learned his Catechism growing up, so at ten I learned the winners and losers of every European Cup final since the competition began in 1955. As the 1998 World Cup approached, I remember committing to memory the starting XI of every Brazil team to have ever won to the tournament. After that, I had the idea that my friends would be very much impressed to hear me reel off the names and nationalities of every referee due to officiate that year. As it turned out, this idea was very much mistaken. But I did not need to impress my friends with footballing knowledge, I thought; they were already impressed by my footballing skills. Going back a few generations, my primary school had organized an annual football tournament. With my mother and my father and my grandfather looking on, I scored the only goal in the first game of my first tournament. Someone told me I was the youngest player ever to do so. Then I told everyone else. So cinematically golden were those early summer evenings that even at that young age I can recall experiencing them as in some way formative, even narrative. Later that week I was named Player of the Tournament. To me it seemed written that I would follow in my granduncle’s footsteps and play professionally. 

I think my grandfather felt it, too. When I started playing for Malahide United, he became the coach of the team, made me the captain and schooled me with advice he’d picked up during his own career playing in the Irish leagues. The next year I moved to my granduncle’s first club, Home Farm F.C., where my grandfather’s friend Liam Tuohy, who had also played for Ireland in the late fifties, was in charge of the youth programme. I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan. It was often said that I could read the game in a similar style to his, that I was of the same build, and that my growth spurt would arrive soon, by the time I reached twelve or thirteen, just as his had. A few times I was even told that our faces resembled each other’s exactly. In truth I could never quite see it, but I convinced myself that I did. I would go to Ireland matches at Lansdowne Road and overhear my grandfather tell his friends in the surest tones: Remember this lad’s name, he’ll be in an Ireland shirt soon. On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the crash, a reporter came to my grandfather’s house to take a photograph of the two of us looking fatefully out the window, me into the future and my grandfather into the past and both in the same direction somehow. There was an anniversary mass in Howth the next evening. The church was packed. My entire school seemed to be watching as I walked carefully down the aisle, bearing a Home Farm jersey imprinted with the same number Liam had worn. I placed it at the foot of the altar at last. There I stood, rapt, as the choir, my classmates, the entire congregation together started triumphantly into ‘Glory, Glory Hallejuhah!’ How could I, a child of just eleven, think this was anything other the sacrament of the resurrection of Liam Whelan?

This is an extract from an essay in the current Dublin Review (55). Buy it here.

On not reviewing William Gass: An apology

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Dear Ms. Tomaselli,

It is almost four months since I suggested reviewing On Being Blue for gorse. I would like to apologise for the delay in getting back to you. I’m afraid that, due to circumstances I did not foresee, I will be unable to write the review. It isn’t a question of time. About half-way into On Being Blue, I began to understand the literary significance of its author, William H. Gass, whom I confess I had never read before. It no longer seemed appropriate to treat On Being Blue in isolation, so I worked my way through most of his other collections of essays and stories, many of which, I noticed, were in the process of being reissued as the author approached his ninetieth birthday. (‘William H. Gass is preparing for death,’ I wrote in an early draft that never issued so much as a second line.) I spent a lot of time with him, returning often to On Being Blue. I even read his final hulking novel Middle C. The title of that book is interesting. It refers not just to the note in the middle of a musical instrument’s range, as suggested by the single piano key on the cover, but to the grade given in school to signify the mediocrity of its recipient. I just don’t want to be that guy.

My letter of apology is available to read in full on the gorse website.

Gary Shteyngart

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Little Failure is Gary Shteyngart’s sometimes moving, but generally frustrating, account of his attempts to come of age as an American having spent the first seven years of his life in Leningrad. If this sometimes boils down to little more than a series of faux-naif riffs on old American TV shows, Shteyngart is at his best detailing the material conditions of watching these shows on his grandmother’s television, which ‘catches either picture or sound’. Told in a fictive present that all too often slouches unpleasantly into the fictive future, Little Failure decries the ‘terse indecipherable bullshit-mysterious style’ practised by ‘guru editor’ Gordon Lish, but at times it could use his help.

The book is an inventory of bad habits. In his teens and early twenties, the author drinks to excess and smokes too much weed. In his late twenties, he is frivolous with his money and that of others. At one point, he even picks his nose. For the reader, however, no habit seems quite as bad as Shteyngart’s refusal to let a joke explain itself. On a New York school bus, for instance, a young and timid Shteyngart, newly arrived from the Soviet Union, excitedly identifies the five-storey apartment block his family now lives in. His classmates are astounded. ‘That’s your house?’ they shout. ‘You live in that whole place? You must be so rich!’ Certain that readers will be puzzled by this story, since at this point in the narrative Shteyngart is a poor young immigrant, the authorial voice generously explains: ‘The children think the entire building, all fifty apartments, is my home.’ Ba, dum, tss. The book is full of these patronising interjections, which finally work to turn comedic call-backs into dull weekend trips home. James Wood once spoke of a generation of American writers for whom ‘the implicit is always to be prized from its shell and consumed publicly’. Perhaps it is in this sense, more than any other, that Little Failure represents a truly American coming-of-age.

This review originally appeared in the June issue of Totally Dublin.

In Conversation

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I’m moderating a discussion with Jung Mikyung, Lee Kiho, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Colin Barrett in Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin on Thursday at 7pm as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival. Admission is free, but booking is required. Here’s a short introductory note I wrote for the programme:

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How misguided it would be to attempt to reduce the literature of some fifty million people to a set of simple generalisations, except to say that it is not read widely enough. Korean literature is large; its works cohere to no unified aesthetic or philosophical programme. In the fiction of Lee Kiho and Jung Mikyung, for instance, we immediately sense the operation of two opposing artistic sensibilities. On the one hand, we have the sort of high-concept absurdism of Lee; on the other, the delicately handled psychological realism of Jung. There is much else in between. Korean literature contains multitudes, and it would be an act of considerable violence to try to order them from this far afield.

But what we can speak about – and it is perhaps here that the differences between Irish and Korean literature might be reconciled – are the shared conditions out of which these works have arisen. Korea is a postcolonial nation which, having achieved rapid economic growth following periods of widespread scarcity, moved from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial economy in a very short space of time. It has enjoyed its booms and endured its busts. Today it is a postmodern society where, if one so chooses, it is possible to shop in supermarkets filled not with food, but with images of food. And yet this culture nonetheless remains deeply attached to its tradition and customs, some of which are encoded in its very language. If there is one thing that unifies Korean literature, then, perhaps it is the attempt to find an adequate form of representation for the social and psychological condition of being drawn into the past and the future at once. Korea’s is a present more future than ours, in any case; and its writers have much to report back.

Jenny Offill: The Dept. of Speculation

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This is an uneven novel about an uneven marriage, one that invites comparison with Adler and Hardwick just a little too persistently for its own good. Its form is one fracture, its tone of indirectness. New events are introduced after the fact: they are not described, merely reacted to. Half-way in, we switch quietly from first- to third-person narration. ‘I’ becomes ‘she’ becomes ‘the wife’ in this novel played out in and around the twin theatres of the subject and object pronoun. ‘Us? the wife thinks. Did he just say us?’ Offill has read her influences carefully and arrives at the page with instructions. (Remember: maintain a distant languidness of style; finish sad fragments with a short self-ironizing throwaway; quote learned lines elusively.) You sense she has the formula right, and yet The Dept. of Speculation fails, and it fails because Offill is not a good enough writer. There is no charisma to her languidness, nothing retained from her throwaways. She demonstrates little of the aphoristic sensibility one needs to operate within the novel’s fracturing; very few of her sentences surprise us at all. ‘Everyone there won’t do something,’ is about as close as we get; elsewhere, the text is strewn with cliché. ‘In Paris,’ we read, ‘even the subways are required to be beautiful.’ Granted, the comment is made from Brooklyn; but, on the page, no distance – not geographical, nor narrative – should be considered safe.

This review originally appeared in the May issue of Totally Dublin.

James Lasdun: Give Me Everything You Have

James Lasdun endured five years of unrelenting invective from a former student before he started writing about it. What began as a friendly exchange of emails turned inexplicably sour, with “Nasreen” becoming obsessive, abusive and eventually anti-Semitic. Privately, then publicly, she accused Lasdun of using her life in his fiction, working as part of a Jewish literary cabal to sell her unpublished novel to other writers, and arranging for her to be raped. (“I will ruin him,” she writes.) What is most impressive about Lasdun’s account of these five years is his ability to use such a traumatic situation as a tool for self-discovery. His tone is well-judged, his pacing expert. He does not turn misogynist, as I feared he might. His choice of digressive material is mostly impeccable: illuminating meditations on Chaucer, DH Lawrence and Patricia Highsmith are threaded into the narrative as a means of exploring the neuroses of Lasdun and Nasreen at once. Though not without occasional oversights, Give Me Everything You Have is the work of a stalked figure watching himself still closer than his stalker.

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

May-Lan Tan: Things to Make and Break

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Things to Make and Break is a difficult book to situate in both literary and geographical terms. Comprised of eleven stories that move between London and Los Angeles, Hong Kong and who-knows-where, the collection is all told in a tone of blank and deliberate disaffection which, though mostly well-worked, sometimes struggles to carry the text’s more heightened, surrealistic passages. Identities are forever in flux, so intermittently aligned. In ‘Candy Glass’, a transgender stuntwoman leaves LA and the lover for whom she is also double in an attempt to settle down in a small town and live ‘as a woman’, ‘where nobody knows’. She even plans to get a husband. If this desire to tie oneself down into tradition is not exactlypar for the course here, the condition of disposability and drift from which the desire arises certainly is. The names are androgynous, most parents are absent, and in ‘Legendary’ the narrator’s boyfriend keeps naked photographs of ex-girlfriends in a manila envelope marked ‘tax papers’. Things to Make and Break is a discreet economy of surfaces. ‘I have no depth perception,’ notes one character. ‘Everything just looks flat.’ Skin is the most important semiotic space in these stories. Scabs are picked, scars persist, and characters get on with the quiet business of being quietly anguished.

This review originally appeared in the April issue of Totally Dublin.

Patrick Keiller: The View From the Train

Just as the protagonist of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil arrives in Tokyo by slumberous ferry, so the narrator of London, the first of Patrick Keiller’s feature film-essays, returns to the city on a cruise liner. Keiller wears his influences well and without reservation. In this collection of thirteen essays published between 1982 and 2011, he constantly revisits the same figures – Aragon, Lefebvre, Wordsworth, Poe – in an attempt to develop what he calls ‘the transformative potential of images of landscape’. He is good on the production and ideological function of certain spaces. He argues convincingly that Britain is much wealthier than its dilapidated landscape has been made to suggest. ‘People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings,’ he continues, ‘are more inclined to accept that there might be less money for schools and hospitals.’ Without the gently weary voice of the late-Paul Scofield, though, Keiller’s writing comes off sounding quite a bit worse. In ‘Film as Spatial Critique’, for instance, he notes that ‘film from the past that depicts urban and other architectural space of its time can offer an implicit critique of similar spaces of the present’. In the same way, Keiller’s elegant and elegiac films offer an implicit critique of his surprisingly workmanlike prose. He has no idea how to end an essay, and his arguments are often weakened by too-long lists of supporting evidence. Still, Keiller remains an interesting and important thinker nonetheless. He is perhaps more relevant today than ever. The View From the Train ain’t pretty, but it’s important we look all the same.

This review originally appeared in the April issue of Totally Dublin.

Levy: The Unloved

Based on the reviews alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking Swimming Home represented a radical departure for Deborah Levy. Her earlier works always got a mention, but never without the inference that they were the weird younger siblings of the popularly and critically acclaimed novel in question. The critics must have been covering their backs for previous neglect. Republished over twenty years after it was written, The Unloved places an international cast of prosperous tourists in a château in Rouen to celebrate Christmas. All of Deborah Levy is here. The narrative is constructed around the investigation of a murder, but its resolution is somehow incidental to the sadness, sexuality and violence with which every stunning sentence is charged. (‘What are the right words to describe the kind of torture she knows the ex-military man practises on his wife?’) Indeed, while the setting of Rouen suggests touristic homage to Flaubert, the gestures the text makes to the Sadean eroticism of Desclos’s The Story of O are much more profound, not to say graphic. The body is such an important unit in Levy’s work, forever at work to express latent psychological trauma. She is certainly no Cartesian.

‘The application of physical and psychological pain makes people less secretive,’ says Inspector Blanc regarding the interrogation techniques he used during the Algerian War. It is a troubling dictum, and Levy dutifully brings it to the page. She is cruel to her characters. She tortures them and they reveal their secrets – not to the group, but to the author, to the narrator, to us. (‘O’s mouth is open. Wide open.’) This confessional aspect is perhaps where The Unloved differs from Swimming Home, a novel threaded through with a hidden narrative that finds no expression until its catastrophic closing pages. Catastrophe is all foretold here. We are inside all the characters here. All of Deborah Levy is here – all except for certain silences.

This review originally appeared in the March issue of Totally Dublin.

On Vermeer

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Tim’s Vermeer is every bit as enlightening as you’d expect a revisionist documentary about a 17th-century Dutch painter to be if it were made, as this one undeniably is, by libertarian magicians. Narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, the film follows Tim Jenison, a ‘technologist’ consumed by the photorealistic quality of Johannes Vermeer’s work, as he attempts to annul any joy you’ve ever taken in art, culture, or life itself.

Convinced that Vermeer used some sort of optical mechanism to make his pictures, Jenison creates an anachronistic mechanism of his own and, having never painted before, sets out to replicate Vermeer’s ‘The Music Room’. He builds the furniture, reconstructs the room, and places his modelling daughter’s head in a head-clamp. In just five years, Jenison manages to reproduce the painting almost exactly. In doing so, he is somehow able to convince Philip Steadman and David Hockney, both of whom have previously written that Vermeer must have used an optical mechanism, that Vermeer must have used an optical mechanism. Whether he did or not is interesting for about five minutes; what is more profoundly exposed by Jenison’s obsessive devotion to the question is the limitations of a TED-talk positivism where to know means nothing more than to know how. For all the attention Jenison offers ‘The Music Room’, he can tell us very little about what it represents or portends. He says nothing about the allusion to Caravaggio he has inadvertently reproduced, or the role of women in 17th-century Holland, or the fundamental shift away from representation in painting following the invention of mechanical reproduction. He spent five long years with a single painting, and all he can tell us about it is that ‘the amount of detail makes a general impression on the viewer’. Unable to see the woods, Jenison regards the trees more closely. He thinks he’s an artist, but he’s not. He’s a loser.

This review originally appeared in the March issue of Totally Dublin.

Peter Stothard: The Last Days of Cleopatra

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Alexandria is both more and less than an account of Cleopatra’s last nights. It is a disguised autobiography. It is a travelogue filled with grainy images. It is a book about trying to write a book. It is, in sum, an all-thumbs aggregate of every major trend in nonfiction narrative since the early 1990s. The book alternates between the ancient world of Cleopatra, the coming of age of Peter Stothard, and the time, in early 2011, when Stothard travelled to Egypt to finish this book, on the eighth attempt. He is good on antiquity. His focus on Rome’s bureaucrats suggests an interesting, if not appealing, Great Middleman theory of history. His take on 1960s Oxford, 1970s Big Oil and 1980s Fleet Street is less engaging, in large part decorated with deferential portraits of powerful reactionaries with an interest in the classics. Stothard relies on a series of effected coincidences to tie this narrative to contemporary Egypt. A less incidental consideration of the Arab Spring about to flare up outside his hotel might have revealed a more profound historical relationship between the two.

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Understanding a Photograph: John Berger

John Berger possesses a remarkable prose style from which we have very little to learn. Where there should be a colon, there’s a comma; where there should be a comma, there’s nothing at all. It is as if these should-be terrible sentences are trying keep up a pace, but they’re not. They are wilfully slow, long-exposed, still developing even after the full-stop. There is no system here. For all his evident learning, Berger writes like he has never read a sentence that was not his own. In his editorial introduction to Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer isolates something of Berger’s critical, rather than prosodic, self-sufficiency, noting that ‘the habits of the autodidact’ were ‘too ingrained’ for him to succumb to semiotics or discourse. The habits of the autodidact – that self-made (male) intellectual – are a mite overrated at this point, but this is a strong collection nonetheless. All the hits are here, including ‘Image of Imperialism’, ‘Paul Strand’ and ‘The Suit and the Photograph’, Berger’s magisterial essay on class hegenomy and August Sander’s ‘Three Young Farmers on Their Way to a Dance’ (1914). Here, he notes that by adopting the suit (‘the first ruling-class costume to idealize purely sedentary power’), the poor were condemned to be ‘always and recognizably second-rate, clumsy, uncouth, defensive’. He speculates, though, that after hanging up their jackets and taking off their ties, the three young farmers might still have danced with a certain style. Perhaps Berger has a system of prose after all.

This review originally appeared in the February issue of Totally Dublin.

Various Assumptions: The Still Lives of the Artists

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I write this essay every year and, every year, I see it morph to suit the quote that kicked it off a little better. ‘Every artist’s work changes when he dies,’ says John Berger in his essay on Giacometti. ‘And finally no one remembers what the work was like when he was alive.’ This was never as I remembered it, never as I needed it to be. What I remembered Berger saying was that death changes not the work of every artist, but the image. Berger makes his claim immediately after some remarks on Giacometti’s demeanour in a famous photograph showing him crossing the road in the rain, his coat pulled over his head for shelter. Berger says he looks ‘like a monk,’ but to me the photograph casts Giacometti closer to one of his own sculptures. It was an understandable slip of memory, in any case, and it caused no trouble in the end. I simply included the quote as I’d initially remembered it, and as usual nobody noticed. 

My gorse essay on the portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson is extracted here.

Robert Walser: A Schoolboy’s Diary

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The virtues of the essay form have been extolled just a little too often of late. Repeatedly it has been underlined that when we talk about the essay we are not talking about those awful exercises we had to do at school. Yet when it comes to the work of Fritz Kocher, the tragic “author” of many of the pieces collected here, the school essay is precisely what we are talking about. Working in 1904, the elusive Swiss writer Robert Walser has his fictional schoolboy speculate on subjects as plain as politeness, careers and school in a faux-naif style betraying ominous attitudes to class, power and discipline. (“The teacher treats the poor boys more roughly than us, and he is right to. Teachers know what they’re doing.”) These are ostensibly simple stories beneath which we sense unresolved contradictions heralding war, modernity and the end of simple stories. Kocher’s thoughts are often cut short by the school bell. “Unfortunately time’s up,” is the abrupt conclusion to one essay. It would serve just as well as the collection’s title.

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Declan Long Interview

All art is a commodity. That much seems inescapable at this point. But to what extent is any remaining artistic radicalism assimilated or neutralised by the Turner Prize and others like it? 

You’re right to say that all art is a commodity. Art has been based around its relationship to the market for a very long time. The role of banking was very important to the rise of Impressionism, for instance. But it goes much further back. The way art was commissioned was indeliably linked to certain power structures. Art is embedded in forms of market exchange. But if you look at this year’s Turner Prize shortlist, you see in Tino Sehgal an artist addressing this very point about the economic relationships underpinning art. So, instead of inviting people to pay to see a work of art, or even to buy it, ‘This Is Exchange’ pays people to participate in a conversation about economics. Since the 1960s, there have been artists attempting to flip these things by operating within what’s known as a ‘dematerialized mode’, where it’s not all about objects. Instead, the work is about some form of encounter or idea. Sehgal’s work certainly falls within that tradition.

My interview with art critic and Turner Prize 2013  jury member, Declan Long, appeared in the December issue of Totally Dublin.