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‘We put our children in the hands of your people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’

Now is his chance indeed: let him who would speak, speak. But he stands tongue-tied, the blood thudding in his ears. A viper: how can he deny it?

‘Excuse me,’ he whispers, ‘I have business to attend to.’ Like a thing of wood, he turns and leaves.

Well folks, I am back. Yesterday was a fantastic day, spent with friends, family and my beautiful bride on a stunning headland by Austinmer beach overlooking the Pacific ocean. It could not have gone better. Stephanie and I had the opportunity to renew our vows in the company of people we wished could have come to our first wedding in Ireland – so instead we brought the wedding to them.

I was free to enjoy the day and its festivities thanks to the sterling work of my fellow bloggers who agreed to lend a hand with ‘A book a day’, this week. Take a bow you folks. I am extremely grateful to you all.

So back to the business of book blogging.

David Lurie is a Cape Town college academic more suited to expounding on his theories about Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Byron through his writing, than actually teaching students. However, his published books have failed to attract any acclaim and his frustrations with his classes aside, it does provide him with an income. With two failed marriages behind him Lurie instead indulges in affairs with college staff, or spending his time with prostitutes, for sexual relief. Inevitably his overly analytical mind ruins whatever pleasure he may gain from these encounters.

Then Lurie embarks on an affair with an eighteen-year old student, which leads to an official complaint from her family and a disciplinary hearing. Refusing to engage with the process, as he sees it as a forced confessional, the professor instead agrees to leave the university.

He travels to his daughter Lucy’s home, an isolated farm in the wilds of the Eastern Cape. Lurie remarks upon her vulnerability to attack living in such a lonely place, but she insists that she has found meaning her. She cares for a number of dogs and introduces her father to Bev, a local woman who euthanises those pets that have been too badly wounded, or are too sick to survive. Lurie dismisses their concerns for animals as inflated sentiment. His daughter in return rejects his emphasis on abstract thinking and academic concerns.

However, when the farm is attacked, both father and daughter are confronted with their own powerlessness and react in very different ways.

Nominally the title of this book refers to the professional misconduct of Lurie. J.M. Coetzee narrates his protagonist’s increasing disenchantment with his life that has led him to the disciplinary impasse with the college board, his refusal to ‘confess’, a product of his own confused feelings on the affair. In his mind his encounter with the student came as a result of passion, something his own ex-wife dismisses by pointing out that no young woman wants to see a man of his age in the throes of sexual climax. Indeed Lurie seems to lust after the student’s youth more than anything. When he later sleeps with someone closer in age to himself he is initially disgusted by her body, but then continues the relationship. It is not like anyone else wants him.

However, Lurie also later feels disgraced by his inability to protect his daughter. Coetzee draws an odd parallel between his refusal to engage the board and Lucy’s to speak to her father about what happened.

In effect, the author tells us the woman who had embraced life in the countryside has been beaten by it. It takes the rarefied academic longer to realize the same.

This book left me angry. Its characters are defeated by life and Lurie’s sub-Yeatsian carping about noble minds tied to aging bodies I could not take seriously.

Dispiriting and defeated.

The complete stillness was more startling than any violent action. The body looked altogether smaller than life-size now that it was, as it were, stripped of the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence. And the face which inclined its blind eyes towards him – the face was entirely horrible; as ageless as a tortoise and as inhuman; a painted and smirking obscene travesty by comparison with which the devil-mask Dennis had found in the noose was a festive adornment, a thing an uncle might don at a Christmas party.

Evelyn Waugh is a writer I can return to again and again. I think Vile Bodies was the first of his books that I read as a teenager, which was something of a revelation. It was the louche pessimism of his writing that impressed me, equal parts self-aware and flavoured with schadenfreude, combined with a rapier-like wit. It would seem the man himself was a thoroughly unpleasant character – if you are interested in reading about Waugh’s life I would recommend Selina Hastings’ biography – but I always find myself putting down a book of his with a big grin on my face. The copy of The Loved One that I read was a gift from a friend back in Dublin to mark our leaving for Australia. Sadly this edition, published in 1956 and having survived all the years in-between did not last one day with me. The cover was torn off. I feel terrible about that.

Dennis Barlow is a failed English poet who has been unsuccessful in breaking into the Hollywood film industry. Fortunately he has managed to befriend Sir Francis Hinsley, chief script-writer for Megalopolitan Pictures and a fellow Englishman. Barlow has even managed to take up residence in the “only knight in Hollywood’s” home, despite the objections of the expatriate community represented by Ambrose Abercrombie. The general feeling is that Barlow in not making a decent stab at success in America is letting the side down quite a bit and making them all look a bit foolish. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he is something of a parasite, having latched himself on to Hinsley. Barlow’s solution is to find work at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery. If anything this adds insult to injury, but worse is to come. One day Megalopolitan Pictures summarily dismiss Hinsley after twenty-five years service. Distraught the respected man of letters does the only honourable thing and takes his own life.

Abercrombie leaves it to Barlow to make the funeral arrangements, which leads him from his less classy workplace smelling of burnt dog hair to the far more up-market Whispering Glades. Offering a number of religious and non-religious services, the funeral home works according to a number of obscure philosophies designed by its founder Wilbur Kenworthy, the self-described ‘Dreamer’. The dead are referred to exclusively as ‘Loved Ones’, who are greeted after death by the eternally happy ‘Waiting Ones’. Whispering Glades, therefore, are in the business of making the corpses under their care as life-like as possible, so that they will be well-received in this ‘whites only’, paradise. The necropolis itself is divided up into a series of themed graveyards, notable for the ostentatious level of detail.

Barlow becomes professionally envious, as he feels his position at The Happier Hunting Ground is tantamount to being ‘lower class’, somehow. He spots an opportunity to attach himself to a beautician at Whispering Glades, the wonderfully named Aimée Thanatogenos. Passing off examples of classical poems as his own work, he begins to woo her, much to the dismay of his rival for her affections, Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy. Barlow’s only worry is that before she agrees to marry him, allowing his stay in Los Angeles to continue, he might run out of poems to plagiarise.

This is a wickedly funny book about English class versus American largesse. Waugh’s descriptions of Whistpering Glades are inspired, in particular an island dedicated to W.B. Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, although they got rid of the bees, so that there would be “no sore fannies and plenty of poetry.” Whereas Abercrombie presents a mask of cheerful bonhomie in the face of America’s overtaking of Britain, Barlow sees his situation in entirely cynical terms. Who has money? How can he get some? Readily exploiting the people in his life, he has decided that if cannot write poetry, he will instead live comfortably.

Deliciously wicked and absurd, I loved this book.

“There were great writers, Joyce among them, who dealt at length with the seedy as an aspect, an inescapable aspect of human affairs, but this was to throw something else into perspective. They did not rejoice in it for its own sake. And they were men with wide experience of life. They did not have this weak fascination with the sordid. Most of those who dealt in it now though, he thought, were actually sheltered middle-class males and females, playing a game, trying to be toughies, to show their laddishness. And they really knew very little about it, very little about the criminal and his mind, or the mind of his symbiotic twin, the policeman.”

Anthony Cronin, Roddy Doyle, Hugo Hamilton, Marian Keyes, Frank McCourt, Pauline McLynn, Conor McPherson, Joseph O’Connor, Gerard Stembridge, Donal O’Kelly, Owen O’Neill, Tom Humphries, Charlie O’Neill, Gina Moxley and Gene Kerrigan. Fifteen writers, one narrative, shared between them. The Irish have a love/hate relationship with their culture, this insistence on the soggy island being the home of ‘saints and scholars’. There was a great little show last year called The Savage Eye that dedicated an episode to lancing the pomposity of Irish writers and artists. Yeats Is Dead is title notwithstanding, a broad parody of James Joyce’s fiction that mixes crime and satire into the proceedings.

With each chapter a different writer takes control of the story, setting off a dizzying chain of one-upmanship. Roddy Doyle is the first up to bat, commencing the proceedings with an accidental murder. Two crooked cops have been working for Mrs Bloom (ho ho!) as hired thugs. Ordered to intimidate an elderly hermit named Tommy ‘Stanislaus’ Reynolds into returning a stolen item, they inadvertently cause the man to have a heart attack. Then he is shot. The chapter closes with the two Gardaí reporting their misadventure to their employer. Mrs Bloom is a formidable woman, who has made a living from theft from an early age. Doyle even includes a stolen ‘papal throne’, from Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 in her home. The scene is set, with an intimidation racket gone wrong, a crime dame with a controlling interest in many areas of Celtic Tiger Ireland and two bent coppers fearing for their lives.

As each chapter follows, however, things quickly escalate beyond this humble beginning. Soon corpses are pilling up; more characters are introduced; there are adulterous affairs; wild swerves in plot; book forgery scams; chaotic trials and political corruption. The McGuffin is revealed to be a lost work of James Joyce’s, an unfinished novel, or possibly a chemical formula, known as ‘Yeats Is Dead’. The story rambles on in a shambolic manner, with each of the characters unknowingly being controlled from behind the scenes by the canny criminal mastermind Mrs Bloom.

I laughed twice during the fifteen chapters of this book. The first time courtesy of Roddy Doyle having a bent copper’s mistress reply to a request to talk dirty by simply saying ‘The Flood Tribunal’. Owen O’Neill, spotting an opportunity to poke fun at all the Joycean namedropping throughout the book, names a character after the famous Irish broadcaster Eamon Dunphy, which also raised a chuckle. The remainder of this book is a train wreck, especially the chapter written by Marian Keyes. Here we have an author trading in lazy stereotypes and dated references, who is over-indulged by the Irish reading public. She introduces into the plot a Dublin Southside rap music fan named Micky McManus, who secretly wants to be Black. It is an insulting and ridiculous character portrayal, which is quickly mocked by some of the later contributors by transforming Micky into a blackface sporting, would-be Rastafarian homosexual.

I chose the above quote from Anthony Cronin’s chapter as it summed up the weaknesses of this book perfectly. At times some of the writers attempt to introduce some social realism into the proceedings, but for the most part Yeats Is Dead trades in Irish stereotypes and clichés. Frank McCourt wraps up proceedings with a smutty parody of James Stephens that owes more to the Carry On series.

Vulgar and farcical like the Celtic Tiger era that inspired it, this is an absolutely toxic waste of time. ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone…’ and spinning in its grave.

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