History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

This 2014 work is an unusual novel, almost not a novel, just a searching portrait, though one beautifully crafted. But then it introduces its story, the story of the Swain family, and turns itself into a still unique but marvelous novel, marvelous because, not least, it makes a beautiful connection between life and literature.

“We are our stories,” the books narrator Ruth Swain announces at the beginning. “We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only now live in the telling.” Ruth is a bedridden teenager trying to bring her father back to life through his books. And she refers to many of his 3,958 books as she does this. “I’ve read all the usuals, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy, but Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined. But right now I’m reading RLS. He’s my new favorite. I like writers who were sick.” And Robert Louis Stevenson was, like her, an invalid.

Faha, the town in Ireland where Ruth lives, lies on the banks of the Shannon, another character in her story—not least because it is a source of salmon. And fishing, a pastime of her grandfather, was passed on to her through her father, Virgil Swain. Indeed, with her memory of her father highlighted by his effort to be a poet, she suggests a poem created is like a fish caught. “A poem is a precarious thing,” she writes, “It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go. Virgil had a phrase, one bite, that’s all. But he wouldn’t let it go, and as poetry is basically where seeing meets sound, he said the phrase aloud…and found in repetition was solace of a kind.”

But before telling that story, she must tell how her English family moved to Ireland, about the town of Faha, the life of a farming community, the details of the house they lived in, and then about Virgil’s courtship of her mother Mary, and the birth of herself and her twin brother Aeney. And, finally, about the Swain family curse, the Philosophy of Impossible Standard, that one must always strive for perfection, even if it will never be attained.

We are now at the halfway point of the novel—and nothing has happened. There is no story. All is past. All is mood. And not just a literary mood, but the long Irish failure through history, the Swain family failures, and now the failure of Virgil to cultivate his farm, with its rocky terrain, and the constant rain that blocks out an invigorating sun. And yet, the reader perseveres, because the telling, the language, has been beautiful. And as Ruth finally warns us: “This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander.” And later: “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river.”

We persevere because we are entertained by Ruth’s astringent style, such as describing her grandfather’s marital status in Ireland. He has sired three daughters, and not yet his son Virgil, and has becomes bitter toward his wife. “But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically-speaking, and then, boys, you were rightly stuck. That Will Teach You, was Number One sermon at the time. Number Two was Offer It Up.”

What Ruth believes in, and author Williams believes in, is books and literature. This novel is filled with the books that Virgil has bought and read, and that his daughter Ruth wishes to read to understand him—and to recreate him for us. This dedication becomes truly real when she refers to the title, edition, and publisher of each book she cites. But more significant is that she recalls certain passages that apply to her own life or to that of her family.

Thus, she felt a humming when her father read to her. “He just made this low thrum. John Banville would know the word for it, I don’t. I only know the feeling, and that was comforting. I lay in his lap and he read and we sailed off elsewhere. Dad and I went up the Mississippi, to Yoknapatawpha County, through the thick yellow fog that hung over the Thames or in through those dense steamy banana plantations all the way to Macondo.”

But there are tart references also. Following “Amen to him,” on the death of a despised ancestor, she suggests a counter-balancing “Awomen.” Or: “Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress.” And then there are human insights, like when Virgil returns from his honeymoon to move in with his wife’s family: “Dad moved in with the baffled deepsea shyness of a character just arriving in a story already underway.” Or: “In a single moment the two of them shared a look that said those things in silent mother-daughter language, that would take a hundred books and more years to tell.” Or: “We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” And: “The fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”

These final lines come toward the end, when Ruth concentrates on Virgil, whose passion for reading has led him to pursuing poetry. But he is up against the Impossible Standard. Will he break the family curse, and allow himself to succeed? The final pages become truly beautiful, as Ruth imagines her father alive in the afterlife of her own book, this story she is telling.

“If I’m alive this is my book, and my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book….And my book will be a river…and be called History of the Rain, so that his book did not and does not perish, and you will know my book exists because of him…You will know that I have found him in his books, in the covers his hands held, in the pages they turned, in the paper and the print, but also in the worlds those books contained, where now I have been and you have too. You will know the story goes from the past to the present and into the future, and like a river flows.”

They cannot avoid the river Shannon that flows along the banks of the Swain’s farm, nor the rain that falls continually in Ireland. From clouds to rain to the river and back into the clouds. It is a natural cycle, not unlike the literary cycle from life to books to reading and then back to another’s life. Or: from life to death to eternity, and then back to living again through one’s books that survive. Ruth herself suggests this when she writes of “a river flowing ever onward between writers,” as she seeks to recreate her father’s life in order to understand him, and then present him to us. (August, 2017)

The Fall of Light, by Niall Williams

This 2001 novel comes to us as a legend. It is about a father and his four sons who journey across Ireland, leaving their home, their life, and a stubborn mother behind. The author pretends—or does he?—that this is his family, that he is passing down family tales that have been enhanced by each generation. That is, he writes in the tradition of Irish story telling.

But the proposed reality does not matter. What matters is the beautiful language that is characteristic of all of Williams’ novels, and which is perfectly suited here to the novel’s legendary tone, to its tale of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, an era of poverty just before the Irish famine that led many families to cross the sea to America.

The adventures of the five Foley men begin as soon as we meet them. They are swept apart as they attempt to cross the raging River Shannon, and their father disappears, leaving the sons alone. Is their father lost? Will they ever see him again? And, later, will each of the sons also reunite, when circumstance also separates them? This novel offers the tale, a romantic tale, of each family member—of Francis the father, of the son Thomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, the youngest son Teige, and Emer, the stubborn mother who has refused to join them.

Frances is a dreamer who has refused to raise his sons to a life of poverty. He steals a telescope from the manor house at which he works, and will forever spend free time gazing through it at the stars. It is a perfect symbol of his desire to escape a family life of poverty, of dependence, and to fulfill his dream of a more satisfying life. It may even be reflected in the novel’s title, as the light of the stars falls toward him on earth.

The oldest son, Thomas, encounters the beautiful Blath, and his pursuit of her makes him the first to be separated from his brothers. We shall later follow him as he crosses the Atlantic and then crosses the United States, joining an army engineering team as it scouts future railroad routes. The remaining three sons are enraptured by a caravan of gypsies. Finbar is seduced by the woman Cait and will follow her troupe across Europe, where he will become its leader with a yearning to return home. His twin Finan joins the gypsies for a while; but, to atone for a crime, he will leave them for a monastery and become a missionary in Africa.

The prominent son in the novel is Teige, whose skill at horsemanship first pleases the gypsies, as he wins a traditional race on a white pony; but he refuses to join them and uses his skill with horses to work for a rich landlord whose daughter seduces him and changes his life. Indeed, his visits to her bedroom at night represent the romantic high point of this novel. But the two have different dreams, and he, too, will cross the ocean, and there will survive because of his skill with horses.

But we are following these characters from the perspective of a legend, and, like many legends, there are high points; but legends also may arrive at uncertain conclusions. And that is true here. For there is no climactic ending, no rush of emotion, as we learn the fates of these characters. What we have, instead, is an imagined future in the mind of their father as he stares at the stars, stares into their future and the future of his family.

He will scan the skies from an island in an estuary of the River Shannon, where he and Teige have built the family’s new home, a site that is the geographical center of this novel. Indeed, it is this isolated island in the estuary that the characters regard as home turf—much as all Ireland sees its identity to be in this small island off the coast of England and France. The Foley’s cluster of buildings also represents the perspective from which the author tells this family story.

As Diana Postlethwaite quotes in The New York Times, ”Always the story returns there. . . . It is as if the teller understands that the island is an image for all Foleys . . . something passionate and impetuous . . . that made each of its men islands in turn.”

To criticize, there may be a little too much coincidence in this novel, both when circumstances seem to change the course of a life—such as a raging river, a seductive woman, or the arrival of gypsies—or when these individual characters have separated and then, casually, rejoin. And yet, this is a legend, after all, enhanced by generations of retelling—and why might not coincidences have crept in to fill certain gaps?

Another mild criticism I have concerns the extended details of some of the brother’s adventures, particularly of Finbar with the gypsies. Granted, the author wanted to include the stories of all four brothers, along with the father, but I was more interested in the adventures and fates of Frances and his two sons, Thomas and Teige. Thus, the long sojourn of Finbar with the gypsies does slow down this novel, even if his will continually draws him toward home on that estuary island.

What ties the book together, indeed, is this sense of family, the yearning the five men have for each other, their continual thinking about the each other, and their desire to be together. This is emphasized by the island home the father and Teige build for themselves. And it is held together by the telescope and the stars, by the dreams of the future they represent. It is a fitting romantic dream that belongs in a legend.

Some have criticized this novel because of its romantic view as well as its coincidences, but Williams might have cast this story as a legend because he was aware of precisely that. Certainly his typically rich and poetic writing style is appropriate to this tale he regards as a legend. And certainly this reader, who is a romantic at heart, will continue to indulge in more of Williams’ novels. (January, 2017)

Only Say the Word, by Niall Williams

Is this 2004 work one novel or two novels? It is surely one commenting on the other. But is it one completing the other? And which is completing which? The one guide, the only clue, we have is that one part is printed in italic and one in roman type.

We begin in italics, with the first-person narrator, Jim, in his forties and apparently a successful author. He is bemoaning the death of his wife Kate, and in later italic sections is attempting to make a normal family life for his two children, older Hannah and younger Jack.

This story alternates with a much longer story in roman type. Told in much greater detail and also in Williams’ elegant prose, this is about Jim Foley growing up in Ireland, always reading and wanting to be a writer but not knowing how. His is not an easy life. A younger sister dies, disrupting family life, then his mother does also, suddenly, and his aloof father suffers a stroke. While a brilliant brother deserts the family for London.

Reaching manhood, the roman type Jim falls in love with a wealthy American girl and follows her back to New York to marry her. But, uncomfortable in adapting to American life, he persuades wife Kate to return with him to the same house in the small Irish village where he grew up. There, she attempts to become a painter and he a novelist.

What becomes confusing at the end is that the italic section seems to reach a completeness, while the roman section, which is much longer, appears not to. All along, the reader has sensed that the roman section is the earlier life of the successful novelist of the italic section. That is, this is one story we are reading. And so, the completeness of the italic section is meant to bring completeness to the novel. But there is an Afterward that completely undermines this interpretation. Indeed, it represents a surprise ending, if I am reading it correctly.

And because Kate is not present in the italic sections, having died, although we do not know how she died, and because Kate is alive in the roman sections, and there is no hint that she will die, I am drawn to the conclusion that these are not, despite appearances, the same families. I see this interpretation in none of the comments on this novel, so perhaps I am wrong. But the work shows such a sensitivity to family life and the emptiness behind the lack of love that the separation of the two families seems deliberate.

And, still, there is more to my interpretation. In Church liturgy, the title, “Only Say the World,” is followed by “and my soul shall be healed.” This clearly applies to the italic portion, in which the narrator father and the two children are traumatized by the loss of Kate, their wife and mother. And they are “healed” by their confrontation with water at the climax of that section, water often being a symbol of rebirth. But the title suggests a deeper meaning, as well, if one focuses on the word “word.” In this case, “word” represents the written word, or Jim’s efforts in the roman typeface to write his first novel. And the Afterword reveals that by writing his initial words, his initial novel, be conquers the writer’s block he has endured in the roman section and is on the road to becoming an author.

But, in another sense, my interpretations do not matter. For this beautifully written novel can be appreciated on so many other levels than its plot. It is a novel about family life, about the relationships between parents and children, about their inability to express love to one another, and about children being able to conform to the world they are growing into. It is also about death, and the survivors adjusting to it. Indeed, it begins with the narrator rejecting God after the death of his wife, then ignores any spiritual aspect until the end, when a dramatic scene at the seashore helps both the narrator and his children to accept her loss—and, by implication, the spiritual world as well. It is also a novel about the written word and the reading of books, even the stealing of them, and even more the writing of books, especially the difficulty of writing that first book. It is a work that takes full advantage of the meaning behind “word” as used in the Gospel of John.

This is a complex novel in my reading. If this reading is true, it is a far richer novel that that perceived by most critics. If it is not, I apologize to my own readers. I am partisan to family stories that focus on personal relationships, the world of faith, and love. I am also needless to say, a partisan of works that explore the mind of a writer as he explores the art of creation. (November, 2015)

 

Note. Unsure about my interpretation, I e-mailed a query, and received an immediate reply from the author himself. He wrote:

“For me the aim in that novel was…to try and capture something of the healing if mysterious power of art, in this case fiction. And to dramatize this by engaging the reader on two fronts at the same time, so that in fact the reader would experience the same journey the writer in the novel does. That is, healing through words, through storytelling….I do believe the two ‘Jims’ are the same person, but with this difference: the one in Roman type has been written [been created, I would add] by the one in italics, and so by necessity therefore less real in the normal use of that word. If that makes any sense.
“My intention was that The Afterword be on a different plane entirely. It should ideally have been in a different typeface. I wrote it, deleted it, added and removed it several times before publication. But in the end I thought it was the most truthful way to finish the book. Here there is no Jim and the woman says ‘You call me Kate in this one.’…This is the person who in turn writes the two Jim narratives and by doing so faces the fear that he will lose his wife, who in this one he calls Kate.
“I know that many readers hated the Afterword….So perhaps it was a misjudgment. You can’t go back and delete it now. Personally I still tend towards believing it was truthful to the intention of the book, even if it failed artistically.” [The book itself didn’t fail. I am grateful to the author for the clarification.]