Brinsley MacNamara [John Weldon] - Its meta-narrative nature prefigures the later experimentalism of Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett, from which it fundamentally differs, however

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Brinsley MacNamara, The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe, Dufour Editions, 1996. [1929.]                

Irish man of letters MacNamara is peraps best known for his brilliantly perceptive satire, The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918), but it is this, his sixth novel, published in 1929, which is considered his most innovative work.... It is a fascinating example of early-twentieth century Irish writing, in which tradition follow writers such as Flann O'Brien and John Banville." - Publishers Weekly

"[This is] easily the author's best book.... The novel is a fabulist satire, or a satirical - fantasy. The novel has variously been characterised as a meditation on the autonomy of literature, on the immortality of the artist, existence, non-being and reality."" - Rüdiger Imhof, The Irish Times.

""A good addition to literature collections."" - Library Journal

About two-thirds of the way through the 1929 novel The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe by Brinsley MacNamara (the pseudonym of John Weldon, 1890-1963), the eponymous hero hits upon a scheme of monumental spite. To memorialize his victory over the small-minded villagers of Garradrimna who have ever thwarted him, he determines that he will erect a statue—of Marcus Igoe. "He felt quite certain they would never be able to stand it," the narrator tells us, "this brilliant notion of putting up a monument to himself."1 Although the statue would both immortalize him and mortify his neighbors, Marcus eventually decides his victory would be a Pyrrhic one, because a timeless statue would impoverish the subjective variousness his battle against the town's conformity had produced. He asks of the monument, "would it be only a part of himself, or which side of him would be uppermost when the thing was done?" (VL 185). Marcus must not only decide between the permanence of a monolith and the variety of his many sides; he also must concede that a finished statue—like the achieved selfhood sought by the protagonist of a would-be bildungsroman such as Various Lives—would snuff out "the many future lives he would yet live in various stages" (VL 236).
Readers familiar with the MacNamara of Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918) would sympathize with a character's wish to transcend the oppressive stasis represented by Garradrimna, the fictional setting of both novels. A scabrous exposure of the spiritual, social, and emotional meanness of small-town Ireland, Valley is often adduced as one of the earliest correctives both to Revivalist idealizations of the Irish Volk and the nineteenth-century Irish fiction of the comic and the quaint. Rather than pious peasants and rakish gentry, Valley reflects the stunted lives, gossipy resentments, and, in John Cronin's words, "endemic bitchery" of the midlands.2 That bitchery drove the townspeople of Delvin, County Westmeath, who were fooled neither by the town's fictionalized name, Garradrimna, [End Page 74] nor the pen name "Oliver Blyth," to burn the book and to boycott the school where Weldon's father was a teacher. Michael McDonnell is one of many critics who claim MacNamara did for the Irish small town what Joyce did for the city, and surely MacNamara would have endorsed the faith in the power of realistic fiction to catalyze social evolution—a faith nowhere more evident than in Joyce's warning to his printer that failure to publish Dubliners would "retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass."3
The Garradrimna of The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe remains the same spiteful place, complete with the constant surveillance of the "squinting windows," but the protagonist's struggle against the town has become a structural given, announced at the novel's beginning and consistent throughout, rather than emerging over the course of the narrative as the result of the oppressive particularities of Irish life as exposed by a diagnostic realism. The first chapter declares that Marcus Igoe's "mood of combat with the life around him" is "permanently fixed" (VL 8), and all of the loosely connected plot lines that follow commence, unfold, and resolve as failed skirmishes against the town. But the comic grandiosity of Marcus's monumental gesture—his very name puns on the phrase "mark as I go"—combined with the several other fantastical attempts to achieve "a memorial, an enshrinement" of his "ultimate triumph over Garradrimna" (VL 198) signals MacNamara's departure from the genre of "avenging realism"—the term John Wilson Foster uses to characterize MacNamara's fiction in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Literature in an incisive chapter that nevertheless omits mention of The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe.
Various Lives instead anticipates the experimental metafiction of Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien; it, too, explores the problem of constructing a narrative frame in which to represent a variable life. Moreover, through its oblique references to the contemporary... - Richard T. Murphy

The essay purports to recover The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe (1928), a uniquely experimental novel by Brinsley MacNamara. The author's first novel, The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918), was met with notorious hostility which determined the nature of his subsequent work as a writer of fiction. The resulting search for an adequate technique to embody a critique of rural Ireland found its peak in The Various Lives, which represents not only a resolute break with the conventions of Victorian fiction, but also a speculative alternative to the modernism of James Joyce. Above all, the novel is chiefly a serious metafictional meditation upon the adequacy of literary representation. Its meta-narrative nature prefigures the later experimentalism of Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett, from which it fundamentally differs, however: while O'Brien puts an emphasis on playfulness and comedy and Beckett embraces the inexpressibility of the self as a condition to be responded to by further attempts at innovative expression, MacNamara retreats back to rural realism. As a result, Marcus Igoe's life remains a failure, and his self lingers on as almost entirely void. It is argued that the reason for MacNamara's arrival at this artistic cul-de-sac is his refusal to relinquish the priority that he gave to the fight against what he saw as the philistinism of post-Revival Ireland. - Pilný, Ondřej

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Brinsley MacNamara, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, Anvil Books, 1996. [1918.]

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When this novel was first published in 1918 the book evoked the same reactions many people imagine only happened with Satanic Verses; it was publicly burned in the village where MacNamara lived and he was forced to leave. The author's powerful study of a rural community haunts readers' minds and imagination.

These reissues are especially topical in view of the excellent RTE documentary recently on the prolonged scandal and ill feeling - which followed the publication of the first novel, back in 1918. As the world, or at least all Ireland, knows by now, the satirical (some would say libellous) portrayal of the people of MacNamara's home village, Delvin in Co Westmeath, triggered off feuds and resentments which rankled for decades. Purely as a novel, however, the book is a period piece, told with a heavy hand and a generally flat style, and is barely readable today. The later, and more ambitious, work of fiction is much more interesting, since it rambles disconcertingly from real life to fantasy and back again, usually with a sense of deflation and anti climax. There is even a rapid tour of the Dublin literary scene, accompanied by some rather glum satire (verbal wit was not its author's strongest point). Traditionally Marcus Igoe has always been regarded as MacNamara's best book, and the blurb compares it, rather hopefully, with O'Brien, Nabokov and Banville. There is an afterword by Michael McDonnell. - BRIAN FALLON

In 1918 a seemingly unremarkable novel appeared for the first time, published by Sampson Low, Marston, a small publisher in London, the novel was called The Valley of the Squinting Windows and was it written by Irish author Brinsley MacNamara (real name, John Weldon). MacNamara came from a small rural village called Delvin in Co. Westmeath in the midlands of Ireland.
The novel tells the story of life in a rural village (Garradrimna) in Catholic Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century and the power of gossip and public perception of an inward-looking society. The last time this novel was officially read in publicly was the year of its publication in 1918 on the steps of Clonyn castle to the gathered villagers of Delvin. Understandably, the locals were excited that one of their own had written a published book. During the reading, the locals quickly realized that the fictional characters in the novel were representative of the people in and around the village of Delvin. Pride instantly turned to hostility and an ensuing national scandal in Ireland.
Copies of the book were burned in the centre of the village and MacNamara found himself hauled before the courts and ordered to pay compensation. But the villagers, so insulted by MacNamara’s novel, turned their anger towards the author’s father, James Weldon, who was principal of the national school at nearby Balinvalley. Parents refused to send their children to the school. Ultimately, MacNamara’s father was forced to emigrate, and Brindsley himself left Delvin never to return.
MacNamara’s novel has been reprinted several times by Anvil Books UK, often when interest in the scandal re-emerges. In fact, the phrase itself, valley of the squinting windows, has become a colloquial term, particularly in Ireland, to describe a society obsessed with providing neighbours and peers with a good perception of one’s personal matters, sometimes at any cost.
Ninety-two years later, the locals of the Delvin community have decided it is time to move on, and a reprise reading of The Valley of the Squinting Windows will form part of Delvin’s Book Fair on 2nd May from noon until 6pm. So far, book donations have been extraordinary and it is on course to be Ireland’s largest ever book fair. As part of the fair, Irish celebrities, including actress Mary McEvoy, who lives locally in Delvin, will publicly read extracts from the novel. Current book donations continue to be taken and organizers are hoping that they will have in excess of 20,000 books for sale on the day.

The book is a rather overwrought tale of a young teacher seduced by a wealthy, dissipated man and how a trainee priest who has fallen in love with her avenges this outrage. It owes more to 19th century melodrama than 20th century realism, and is closer in spirit to Peyton Place than to Madame Bovary, the latter presumably being what MacNamara had hoped to emulate.
The Valley of the Squinting Windows would likely be forgotten now but for the stir it caused on publication in Delvin. MacNamara always claimed that Garradrimna, the village in his novel, was representative of any small community in Ireland: ‘I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.’ However, Garradrimna’s topographical details fix it so precisely as Delvin that locals understandably took umbrage, especially as there are really no attractive characters in the book, everyone being small-minded and greedy, obsessed with discovering and relishing the misfortunes of their neighbours. Seemingly when the novel was published there was great excitement in the region but this quickly changed to indignation once its contents were known: obviously no one thought to notice the title provided a fair warning of what lay inside. Instead of sensibly allowing the work slip into oblivion, the people of Delvin publicly burnt a copy in the centre of the village. Worse, they organised a boycott of children attending James Weldon’s school, as though he were responsible for his son’s novel. In response, Weldon brought a law suit for £4,000 against Delvin’s parish priest and seven parishioners for arranging the prohibition. He lost the case and was forced to emigrate. The Valley of the Squinting Windows has ever since been synonymous with small town pettiness. -

Peadar O’Donnell: ‘A novel that involves itself in its village, as this one does, will always create community excitement. Interestingly enough, Brinsley MacNamara did not choose to go into conflict with his own village. He did, however, set out to challenge the idealised view of themselves from which the Irish people seemed to him to suffer; or, more accurately, to challenge with a sharper sense of reality the great body of current writing at that period. He felt those were days when people might behave better if cut down to size.’ (Afterword to The Valley of the Squinting Windows, 1964 Edn.; cited in Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal, 1977, p.161.)

Sean McMahon, ‘A Reappraisal: The Valley of the Squinting Windows’, Éire-Ireland (Spring 1968), writes that ‘The topographical details of the novel placed it fimly in Delvin and district, though MacNamara insisted that the valley could be anywhere in Ireland. (”I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.”) The close parallels with people and places of MacNamara’s own county were one of the causes of the trouble later. // The novel itself has faint affinities with classical tragedy in that three “innocent” young people are destroyed because of the sins of their elders, committed in the past.’ (p.107.)

Edward MacLysaght, Changing Times: Ireland Since 1898 (Colin Smythe 1978): ‘Last week [March 1959] returning from one of those journeys I went astray and found myself in a village which turned out to be Delvin. Not knowing where I was I went into a shop and asked the young man behind the counter the name of the place. “This,” said he, “is The Valley of the Squinting Windows.” “Well,” I replied to his surprise, “it wouldn’t be called that only for me.” / The explanation of these apparently obscure remarks is this. Away back in 1917 I was not only chairman of Maunsels, the publishers, but also their general utility man which included reader. One of the manuscripts I had to read was entitled “The Valley of the Squinting Windows” by a then entirely unknown author who used the pen-name Brinsley MacNamara. I saw at once that we had found a new writer of real promise, though I realized that his was the sort of book which might well cause a storm (as it did). Anyway we published it and so launched Brinsley MacNamara, alias John Weldon, on his literary career.’ (q.p.; supplied by Ronan Crowley, NDU.)

Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991): ‘Brinsley could be a rancorous man and was much involved in controversy around the theatre and elsewhere but, since we were of different generations, we had nothing to quarrel about and had also, I flatter myself, a natural compatibility: and there wil be much to say about him in the future. For the moment I salute his noble, most impressive Shade, and borrow a phrase.’ (p.71; note however that no more is said of MacNamara in this volume.)

Benedict Kiely, “Irritable Vowels”, Village [journal] (13 Nov 2004), narrates in A Letter to Peachtree that MacNamara used to preface remarks with ‘curious thing’, and gives an instance in which he reflects on how the ‘landscape, buildings, environment, physical surroundings, can affect the character of people’, giving the examples of a Dublin workingman who drinks ten pints and goes home to a tenement to sleep it off, compared with a workingman in the ‘soft midlands of Meath and Westmeath’ who drinks his ten pints and cycles home six miles to Delvin and ‘murders his maiden aunt with a hatchet. / Curious thing, environment. Curious thing.’ (Sere .)

James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922 (Conn: Greenwood 1997), account Valley of the Squinting Windows, as follows [paraphrase]: Nan Brennan, who was deserted by the father of her child out of wedlock, seeks to make a priest of her later son, John; she becomes embroiled in wilful hostilities with the brother of the unfaithful lover, and manages to injure his marriage prospects by interfering with his correspondence with the connivance of the postmistress; he in turn encourages his worthless nephew Eugene to befriend her son and when John kill Eugene it turns out that the dead boy is none other than Nan’s first child; Eugene, a follower of the literary revival, seduces Rebecca Kerr and makes her pregnant; ‘Fr. O’Keeffe’ is in cahoots with the gombeenmen. (p.104.)

Born in Delvin in Co. Westmeath, Brinsley McNamara (the pen name of John Weldon) was a playwright and novelist. His portrait of Irish village life, "The Valley of the Squinting Windows" caused a furore when first published in 1918, due to its depiction of the meanminded inhabitants of his native village. His second novel, "The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe", is an autobiographical examination of the author's life and achievements written in the form of a dream.