An apprentice to the literary giants

This is the Way
Gavin Corbett
4th Estate, €12.85

IN 2010 the writer and critique Gabriel Josipovici published What Ever Happened to Modernism? While documenting the history of the modernist movement, the book also makes a scathing attack on contemporary English novelists, like Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis.

Josipovici accuses these writers of promoting a brand of petty bourgeois uptightness that is peculiarly intrinsic to English culture. Moreover, he argues that this bland prose style — which masquerades as Anglo-Saxon realism — has evolved from a terror these writers have of not being in control of the fictional universe they create.

Strangely, he notes, this isn’t the case with most American, German, Italian, or Irish authors.

But let’s leave Josipovici aside for now and take a few examples: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O’ Brien, are all writers who refused to accept that reality — whatever that terms actually means — fits into a conventional narrative.

Similarly, Gavin Corbett, who won the Kerry Group Irish novel of 2013, for the second book of his career, This is the Way, is a writer who, I think, should be considered as a worthy apprentice to those literary giants.

The main protagonist and narrator of Corbett’s prize-winning novel is Anthony: a member of the travelling community who has been living in a Dublin bedsit for the last two years. The story he is telling doesn’t have a conventional plot. For most of the book, we gather up bits of information about Anthony’s life through second hand stories he feeds us.

Here are some facts we pick up as the novel begins to gather momentum: Anthony’s brother, Aaron, hung himself after a feud between two rival Traveller families, the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos. We learn that Anthony’s mother went off to the London with a character called Beggy. And we also learn about the strange habits of Anthony’s Uncle Arthur: a nervy character who has a missing thumb.

I remark to Corbett when we meet that his short, snappy, prose style reminds me of a novel I recently read by the Scottish booker prize-winning author, James Kelman.

"Funny you should mention Kelman," says the 37-year-old Dublin writer, who has clearly taken this as a compliment. "He was a big influence on this book. I was reading his novel How Late It Was, How Late when I started writing This Is the Way.

"I wanted to pull off something similar and write a book that was voice led. It all started with the sound of Anthony’s voice. Even before I knew about Anthony’s character I just had this sound.

"I wanted Anthony’s voice to be like a landslide of language. Not just uncontrolled language, but language that is carefully modulated with punctuation. I like to think that where I use punctuation in this book it counts. It’s very important for me to get the sound of every sentence just right."

I mention to Corbett that plot seems to come secondary to Anthony’s voice, which drives the direction of the book.

"I’m certainly not a plot driven writer, " he says, agreeing with this observation. "I think plots can be a bit of a nuisance and draw you away from what you are trying to do with a book."

Corbett overcomes this with ease by incorporating a mythical element into his story.

Anthony recalls numerous myths his mother told him as a young boy. These include: the story of Lambton Worm, a well-known folk tale from Northern England; the myth of the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos being fish who turned into people; and a tale where a man called Dan has to travel to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory.

Corbett says by inserting these myths into the story he hoped readers might ponder questions like: how much of this is true? Or how much is Anthony embellishing things as he tells the story?

"I was keen for the novel to have this richness that an oral story would have," says Corbett. "I’m interested in Celtic mythology as it was filtered through the Gaelic revival, with people like Augusta Gregory and WB Yeats. I relied largely on my own imagination. However, I did consult one book: an anthology of Gaelic folklore, compiled by TW Rolleston in the early 20th century. But I wanted this to be entirely my own invented folklore."

Corbett says that writers who set out with a vision for a book that has grandiose ambitions to begin with are effectively already destined for failure.

"Writing is such a mysterious process. You don’t know what is going to bubble up and end up in your book," he says.

Or, put another way, one might argue that Corbett is a writer who works out of a modernist tradition, where characters are always unsure of themselves. And the so-called reality they see around them is crumbling with each passing minute. Thus the gap between one’s conscious thoughts and the world they perceive is never really clear.

This small passage from This Is the Way exemplifies this with great clarity:

"I do not know what is meant neither, I only know what my life is now. It is not one thing it is not the other. It is a life of waiting what it is. When you are not moving, when you are not settled, you are waiting. You are watching. But you learn out of it. You learn many things from getting bored. You learn about yourself you do."

In this anxious and repetitious babbling, we could just as easily be on the set of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, or caught up in the existential monologue of Beckett’s Molloy. Corbett says this minimalist style is a challenging idiom to write in.

"Sticking with a character who has a limited vocabulary instills some discipline in you as a writer. It gives you more propulsion because it is always pointing you in the one direction.

"When a character has a very specific language, it’s almost like method acting."

Corbett strikes me as the kind of writer that will probably never become a literary like say Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, or Colum McCann. But I say this as a compliment.

For want of a better phrase, he is a writer’s writer: someone who is not afraid to take risks and challenge the conventions of literature, and play around with language.

"I don’t care to psychoanalyse myself to know why, but I have never felt part of the mainline," Corbett confesses. "As a result, I’ve always been attracted to art that has been made from outsiders: people who are often mentally deficient and un-self conscious about what they create."

In a literary culture that is saturated in bland mediocrity, authors like Corbett should be encouraged and cherished now more than ever.

Before we leave, I get a brief synopsis of his new book, which he has just finished writing and has provisionally called Green Glowing Skull: It’s about a group of Irish tenors based in New York. Corbett promises that it’s slightly more demented, twisted and surreal than This is the Way.

When he’s not sitting down at his desk, Corbett confesses to being lazy and prone to bouts of procrastination. But when the words begin to appear on the screen, a sense of completeness, or understanding, comes from nowhere. Clarity thus descends from chaos, he admits.

"Most of the time I’m happy to go about the day in a complete daze. But when I sit down to write, and put down my thoughts in words: I get a sense of how I feel about myself and about the world."