The next post will be on or before Sunday 25th March. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating ‘The Lawless Book of Love’ please go to the January and February 2018 archive see well below and to the right
MEN NO GOOD IN BED
‘Ormond Sedge was dreadful in bed. He knew he was dreadful because Chrissie had told him: and Chrissie was his wife. Six months after she had married him she had begun to tell their friends. She called him ‘poor Ormond’ because it gave the telling a sympathetic ring; but ‘poor’ in her own mind because he failed to endow her with libidinous riches.’
THE COMPLETE ANGLER (from Collected Stories) by CLARE BOYLAN
As well as that impressively assured and rhythmic prose, observe also that the Irish author Clare Boylan (1948-2006) who died tragically young of ovarian cancer aged 58, doesn’t do things by halves as a comic writer. Few fiction writers of either gender would make laugh out loud comedy out of male inadequacy, and be assured it isn’t a kind of strident and merciless ideological stance at work, for Chrissie the heartless gossip comes to a very sticky end in this gothic story which arguably puts talented Roald Dahl well into the shade. Meanwhile the problematic couple’s friends are understandably divided by such public humiliation, and there is a fine example of bathos when we are informed that they didn’t like being told poor Ormond ‘had reached a new low, as if he was the pound’. So wise is Boylan’s artistic vision, she adds that the one who minds least is Ormond himself, as he finds Chrissie ‘luscious with frustration’ and can’t wait until he is in bed with her again. In a trice we are in a parallel and updated version of that quaint Shakespearean scenario of the willing cuckold, for which they even had a special word ‘a wittol’, and which for some reason the Dorset literary sage John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) was very fond of using. Chrissie’s solution is to bluntly order Ormond to go and find a mistress, and assuredly it will be no trouble, as the bars were full of single women who ‘paid for some of their drinks and sat with legs shaped for cello practice’.
Just pause for a moment and observe the richness and economy of Boylan’s comic effects. Note the fact the pragmatic women paid for some but not all of their booze (romantic idealism when it comes to finding a quick date, being, as they have learnt the hard way, usually hopeless) and the comic juxtaposition of sexual availability and the chaste image of someone studiously practising the cello. The sequence before he meets his perfect erotic tutor, Bernadette (unfortunately she is ugly and when he reveals his hobby was once stamp collecting, yelps, you poor little prick!) is highly entertaining. The first woman he taps on the shoulder is aptly called Virgin, and when he says he wants to ask her advice about something, her retort is ‘gin and lime’. Boylan orchestrates the story very originally with a literary source The Compleat Angler (1653) by Izaak Walton (1593-1683) because it is fishing which Bernadette recommends as a hobby far superior to philately. Bernadette herself is wonderful in bed, but is said to have make-up that looks like boiled butterscotch sauce, a figure which was warm yeast underneath damp satin skin, and who was also a lot older than anybody else. She twiddles Ormond’s genitals as if they were a squeaky toy, to make him laugh, and then tucks herself around him like a duvet. Later she goes and rummages in her books and unearths the angling classic and indicates how the fishing techniques of dapping and trolling and playing the water and baiting the right flies are analogous to the sensitive way a good lover teases and excites a woman. The punning that follows is always timely, and it is not all drawn from Izaak Walton.
The jealous trout that low did lie
Rose at a well-dissembled flie
There stood my Friend, with patient skill,
Attending of his trembling quill
‘“Sir Henry Wotton wrote that”, she said, adding as a reprimand. “He was over seventy.”’
In any event, studying Izaak Walton does the trick and Ormond ends up a virtuoso lover, whereupon like many a selfish male he returns to his wife and deserts his tutor Bernadette, who sadly is the only kind-hearted person in the story. Clare Boylan’s depiction of these cruel little tragedies that go on every day between and beyond the sheets is far from comforting.
‘For some reason Bernadette seemed to be coming to pieces. It must have been to do with her age. The tears appeared to be melting her face. He was eager to be on his way and forget her. “I’ll never forget you,” he told a palette of running colours. “You led me through troubled water, like Moses.”’
This is altogether reminiscent of the black anticlimax of the plays of Joe Orton (1933-1967), the difference being that at the end of the day no one loves anyone in Joe Orton’s burlesque dramas, whereas Bernadette in vain loves faithless Ormond who in turns loves disdainful Chrissie. Boylan is using these black comic effects not because she herself is callow and cruel, but because she has observed the sometimes preposterous selfishness of both men and women when it comes to matters of the heart. And of course, making us laugh, albeit queasily, at some of these bedroom betrayals, can often be more potent than telling the same thing straight, as a moral or ethical dissection.
Clare Boylan wrote at least three brilliant novels where the tragicomic treatment of adult egocentricity is contrasted with the consequent deprivation of their children. In Holy Pictures (1983), Home Rule (1992), and Room for a Single Lady (1997) set variously in Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th C, we have the scenario of a feckless enterpreneurial father whose reclusive, haughty wife is blindly loyal to him, hence hopelessly disloyal to her deprived and suffering children. Yet the poignant drama is treated as comedy not tragedy, and the children, invariably a trio of sensitive young schoolgirls, survive thanks to a phenomenal inner resilience and a penchant for harmless eccentricity. One of them has a pet hen she takes everywhere round Dublin and another organises a doomed amateur entertainment review with an entrance fee when proud father isn’t around, as they are so poverty stricken they are virtually starving. Searching round for parallels, there is a similar theme of an improvident father and a distraught family in the 1956 The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1892-1983), but although it is a fine novel, it does not manage Boylan’s unhinging and exquisite comedy. Clare Boylan’s unique and massive talent was to see things from a stereoscopic comic elevation, to observe them in the nuanced and infinite round, so that even the villains and hopeless cases are seen in a revelatory three if not four dimensions. At least one major fictional talent ‘the English Chekov’ William Gerhardie (1895-1977) made this his prescription for the very highest fictional art, and in my opinion the neglected Clare Boylan is emphatically a major writer who should be made obligatory reading in every household, school and university, as she has so much to tell us that we really do not know.
The Collected Stories by Clare Boylan were published by Abacus in 2000. They should be available via the usual second hand sources