Jennifer Johnston: Commentary & Quotations


Commentary

Commentary

Mark Mortimer
Seamus Deane
Derek Mahon
Ann Owens Weekes
Rüdiger Imhof
Jürgen Kamm
David Stevens
Keith Jeffrey
Karen McManus
Rhonda Kenneally
Penny Perrick
Robert Goldsmith
Arminta Wallace
Richard York
C. L. Dallat
Eileen Battersby
John Kenny
Medbh McGuckian
[Shirley Kelly]
Elmer Kennedy-Andrews
Mary Morrissy
Anne Lynskey
Eve Patten
Paddy Smyth

Mark Mortimer, ‘The World of Jennifer Johnston: A Look at Three Novels’, in The Crane Bag, 4, 1 (1980), pp.88-94: ‘[...] It would appear that in the person of Frederick Moore [in How Many Miles to Babylon?] we have something like an ideal portrait. Irish readers, and those acquainted with Ireland, will recognise the type, anomalous perhaps in the Republic of today, but difficult to visualise elsewhere. An integral part of the scene. Such figures and the world they belong to represent only a segment of Protestant society in Ireland (it would take the subtlety of a Proust to analyse the social and religious differences existing among the Irish Protestants), but a segment with influence out of all proportion to its size, whose contribution to the life of the country has been impressive in many spheres of action. Fair enough. But what of the outside world, the great mass of the people, the Catholic poor? In Jennifer Johnston’s world such people exist primarily, almost exclusively, in relation to the Big House they serve; maids and housekeepers, gardeners and grooms, cooks and chauffeurs. [...]’ [Cont.]

Mark Mortimer (‘The World of Jennifer Johnston ..., &c.]’, in Crane Bag (1980): ‘Even in The Gates, where an entire Catholic family is described, the husband and the two elder boys in this family are working on the estate. Anyhow the Kellys - with a drunken, lecherous father, putting local girls up the pole; a brutalised sub-servient wife, worn out by child-bearing; and the utter squalor of their cottage, outside and in, - can hardly be considered typical. The whole picture suggests a caricature rather than a realist portrait. In these novels the exclusion of the outside world is almost as sweeping as with Jane Austen. And as wide; for like her famous predecessor, Jennifer knows her limitations; concentrates on the scene she is familiar with; restricts herself to the milieu she has experience of. This segment of society is her “little bit of ivory, two inches wide.” It would be absurd to censure her for this selectiveness as it would be, say, to criticise John McGahern for the absence of any Anglo-Irish figures in his novels. Each one is portraying what he knows and feels; each one is a faithful chronicler of a certain background, a certain way of life - with an added human dimension that lifts their work above the purely provincial and give it a universal appeal. / Not that Jennifer Johnston flinches from the sordid aspects of this outside world, whether physical or human, when these are relevant. [...]’ (p.91; available at JSTOR online; accessed 31.05.2010.)

Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (London: Hutchinson & Co. 1986), “Contemporary Literature” [chap.]: ‘Her [Johnston’s] very style is crisp and decisive, entirely appropriate for someone who still has such affection for the secure world whose disappearance she understands and laments. But the very humane clarities of this attitude do not easily survive the very different complexities of the contemporary Northern Irish troubles. In trying to come to terms with that situation in Shadows on our Skin she revealed how closely dependant upon the genre of Big House fiction such a stalwart morality is.’ (Quoted in Nichola McFall, UG Essay, UU 2003.)

Derek Mahon, ‘Indian Summer’, review of Fool’s Sanctuary in Irish Times (1987), [q.p.]: ‘This is of course Jennifer Johnston’s recurrent theme: “If only ... ”. If only things had been different, if only people could live in peace - a familiar liberal lament, redeemed from platitude by Johnston’s irony, vitality and sense of the ridiculous. Yet the pain is there, book after book, as the flag comes down: a regimental Union Jack on which is somehow superimposed the Starry Plough of the Citizen Army. The lyrical plangency of this lament (a lament, also, for personal honour of an old-fashioned kind: consider Cathal’s torment) is the Johnston hallmark; it’s one of the things we cherish in her work. I would like to suggest though that, having made herself perfect through practice, she consider once more an option briefly taken up in Shadows on Our Skin, that of contemporary life and the problems we face now. It will be objected that these are implicit in everything she writes; and so, in a sense, they are. You can’t tell a poet what to do next; but I can’t help feeling there is something bigger and riskier to be tried than she has yet set her hand to. “There are no new days ahead of me”, is how Miranda begins; but, in so far as this bears a more than purely personal application, it is not true. It is historically untrue. Ireland is crying out for the imaginative departure, and Johnston is one of those who are able for it. I’ve mentioned Nadine Gordimer, and I wonder what would happen if one of our finest novelists were to attempt, say, something analogous to that compact masterpiece The Late Bourgeois World.’ (Rep. in Mahon, Journalism 1970-1995, Gallery 1996, pp.102-04.)

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Ann Owens Weekes, Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition (Kentucky UP 1990), p.212; ‘domestic repression reflects national repression in almost all of Jennifer Johnston’s work, most overtly in Shadows on Our Skins [... &c.]’

Ann Owens Weekes, Irish Women Writers: The Uncharted Tradition ( Kentucky UP 1990), [on The Old Jest]: ‘[..] Nancy’s aunt recognises – to late for herself – that clingingt to the traditions passed on to her, she has never lived. Like Angus, she comes to believe that Nancy has cause to celebrate the sale of the Dwyer house, a sale which frees her to select her own role in a world that has begun increasingly to open its doors to women, the doors of the university [viz., TCD in 1904] and of economic and social independence. Far from mourning the passing of this world Jennifer Johnston, in the novel she wrote after the passing of her own particular world, celebrated the beginning of women’s liberation that was released by the demise of the structured world of pre-World War I, the stratified world of Anglo-Ireland included.’ Further: ‘[The Old Jest is] the first Johnston bildungsroman, the first Johnston text in which a female character is fully awakened to and consequently freed from the constraints of nation and gender traditions.’ (p.202; quoted in Gráinne MacCool, MA Diss., UUC 2010.)

Rüdiger Imhof, reviewing Invisible Worm, in Linen Hall Review (April [1991]), finds it an uninspired and uninspiring novel, and summarising Johnston’s novels as being ‘fraught with artistic shortcomings, their structural patterning is formulaic and repetitive; they are peppered with implausibilities; and a good many of the sentiments expressed by the characters are fatuous and inane’. (p.28.)

Jürgen Kamm, ‘Jennifer Johnston’, in Rüdiger Imhof, ed., Contemporary Irish Novelists (Tübingen: Gunter Narr 1990), pp.125-41, notes the recurrence of characters who turn to writing, though ‘as regards literary success, the exploits of these fictional characters fall short of the acclaim which has been bestowed upon their creator’ (p.126), and later: ‘In Johnston’s fiction the feeling of being “separate, detached, or unconnected with other things and persons” is frequently presented as resulting from childhood experiences, and the urge to write, which many of the characters have in common, is only one manifestion of their protected, isolated existences.’ (p.131.) [Cont.]

Jürgen Kamm, ‘Jennifer Johnston’ (1990) - cont.: ‘Artistically the author realises her thematic preoccupations by relying on a restricted set of characters [...] coher[ing] around an isolated representative of the Protestant population group (often a member of the declining Protestant Ascendancy) who overcomes a life of either self-chosen or enforced seclusion by striking up a friendship with an Irish, Catholic complimentary character. At least in some of Johnston’s novels this pairing of character representing the two Irish nations is immediately evident from the use of Christian names [...] the action [...] therefore, moves towards a moment of crisis when the dominant forces of the outer world eventually encroach upon and violently destroy the small, private world of companionship which the character sought to establish. The distinct note of pessimism which is sounded in Johnston’s novels is at best mildly alleviated by occasional moment of sardonic humour, is underscored by the fact that many of the narrative close upon the death of either the central character or that of the companion figure, which, in turn, leads to the renewed isolation of the protagonist.’ (p.127.) [Cont.]

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Jürgen Kamm, ‘Jennifer Johnston’ (1990) - cont.: ‘[In Johnston’s novels] childhoods are seriously overshadowed by the invariably loveles marriages that bind their parents to each other.’ (p.129.) ‘In a number of novels the youthful characters suffer from a chilly domestic atmosphere brought about by frequent clashes between warm-hearted, understanding but often weak father figures and cold-hearted, occasionally discontented but always dominant mother figures.’ (p.129.) ‘Johnston’s male characters are more credible, more accomplished creations that their female counterparts’, excepting Roger Hawthorne (p.137.) ‘Many of Johnston’s characters are looking back over their lives ... the retrospective frame of these novels is repeatedly realised by a frame which serves to oppose the time levels of present and past’ (p.137.) Kamm notes inter alia that Johnston’s novels often retain inconsistencies of detail, anachronisms, and like errors in detail - e.g., the fact that Helen’s late husband is called ‘Dan’ and ‘Don’ in Railway Station Man, the more confusing since a Don is mentioned elsewhere in the novel; that in Fool’s Sanctuary Miranda’s age is given as eighteen or thereabouts’ in 1919 (FS, p.13), that her father is said to die when she is twenty-nine (ibid., p.76), but elsewhere that he died in 1939 (Ibid., p.5).

[Note that Johnston has taken heed of these last strictures in carefully dating the events of The Illusionist - as attached.]

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David Stevens, ‘Religious Ireland (II)’, in Edna Longley, ed., Culture in Ireland, Diversity or Division [Proceedings of the Cultures of Ireland Group Conference] (QUB: Inst. of Irish Studies 1991): ‘[in] the novels of Jennifer Johnston [... T]he portrait of the Anglo-Irish is one of lostness; not irredeemable lostness, it is true, but the consequences of communication with the other tradition is often pretty disastrous.’ (p.145.)

Keith Jeffrey, ‘Irish Culture and the Great War’, in Bullán (Autumn 1994): ‘It is a curiousity ... of How Many Miles to Babylon? that the violence planned and espoused by Jerry Crowe is assumed to be legitimate - it is not questioned at all - while that of the Great War itself is dismissed as both futile and irrelevant to Ireland. perhaps Jennifer Johnston ... was unable clearly to see the connection between the origins of modern Ireland and the “lives that were lost in the Great War.”’ (p.94.)

Karen McManus, ‘Prodding Republicanism’ [interview], in Fortnight (April 1995), pp.36-37: quotes Johnston extensively on her life, her preoccupations, her politics: ‘The literary establishment in Ireland actually thinks I am a very second-rate writer. I don’t imagine the likes of John Banville reads my books ... The English are notoriously single-minded when it comes to Irish literature. They think it’s all happening in Irish literary circuits [adverse comments on Edna O’Brien’s latest novel, House of Splendid Isolation]; ... Maybe we write the same novel throughout life ... When I found my voice, I found the confidence to say what I really wanted to say. A lot of men tell me I write awful women but I know I am striking a chord. I create women who have the strength to move the shit aside. Men find that threatening.... What is important to me are values. My fixed point is how you react to people you love. I’m a woman and I’m Irish, but above all else I’m a writer and those two other things just happened to be part of my life. I’m trying to confront the agony of individuals getting on with their lives and not going mad in the process. It isn’t all about sad, broken, Ireland. ... I don’t care about the big issues. What I care about is how we manage to live with the big issues going on around us and how we manage to face ourselves .... I am a republican, but I am also concerned with the Protestant faith. I find it hard that, in the north, Protestants are unable to address their heritage and refuse to stand up and say ‘We are still here because we want to be here and we are not going to put up with this shit’. We must look to reality and decide that we want to be part of this heritage and stop looking at it as oppression .... This is one of the things I try to sell and perhaps I don’t succeed and this maybe accounts for the lack of enthusiasm for my work on literary circuits ... because it is one of my handles, because I have used it as a means to an end, I have got entangled in the Big House trap ... I love the sound of language and the Church of Ireland liturgy has been a great source of inspiration ... I’d like people to find small truths in my works and go on doing so.’

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Rhonda Kenneally, reviewing The Invisible Worm, in Irish Literary Supplement [q.d.]: ‘an only child she grows up craving, and later being repulsed by, the attention of her glamorous her father; her mother, distant and only mildly unsympathetic to the increasingly unhappy and trapped daughter, find her owns solace sailing back and forth in her little boat on a particularly unforgiving stretch of sea overlooked by the house. Lara, childless and approaching forty, shares the house with her husband Maurice. Whereas their marriage first appears perfunctory, full of deceptions and platitudes, it is later demonstrated to have remarkable healing and succouring properties.’ The reviewer speaks also of a ‘fascinating interplay of plot, character and setting’ as most masterful aspect of The Invisible Worm, together with ‘shifting back from first to third person’. [Note: this seems to miss the incest plot.]

Penny Perrick, ‘Now you see him ...’, review of The Illusionist, in Sunday Times, Books (7 Dec. 1995), [q.p.]; ‘written with Johnston’s customary and scintillating restraint.’

Robert Goldsmith, ‘The Trouble with Literature’ (MA Dipl. Diss., University of Ulster, 1996): ‘Johnston since her first novel [...] has portrayed Ireland as a place which threatens individuality and sensibility.... Her skill lies in the creation of striking, unconventional relationships which offer a model of feeling and sensitivity. They are ways of testing imaginative limits, the range of tolerance, in Irish society.’ (p.15.)

Arminta Wallace, review of Two Moons (1998) in The Irish Times [q.d.]: three generations of women in house at Killiney, Mimi, Grace (an Abbey actress), and Polly, home from London with her young man, who falls for her mother Grace; the old woman is engrossed in conversation with an angel, Bonifacio di Longara, who inveigles her into her to buy Gucci shoes in town; Grace’s mind is full of Shakespeare.

Arminta Wallace, ‘A Writer Making Sense of “Life‘s Awful Muddle”’ [interview], in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 2012), Weekend: ‘[...] It has become a commonplace among commentators to tag Johnston as a “Big House” novelist. Even the mildest scrutiny of her oeuvre reveals this to be ludicrously inexact: she is, if anything, a chronicler of Irish families and the million tiny cuts they inflict on each other in day-to-day living. / For the most part, though, hers are Protestant Irish families – and Johnston has been almost alone in chronicling, with a dry wit leavened by occasional blazes of fury, the many small but significant dislocations which mark the lives of a minority community in an overwhelmingly Catholic cultural milieu. / Last year’s Shadowstory, for example, finds an otherwise benevolent grandfather exploding into blistering anger over the Ne Temere decree that, for generations, demanded that the children of “mixed marriages” must be raised in the “one true faith”. / It’s an odd, almost impolite topic to find in a book published in the new, all-together-now, supposedly secular Ireland: which is precisely the point. [...] Over and over again Johnston has explored the crippling lies, omissions and silences of families in a way that makes them uncommonly accessible. The Irish Book award will, hopefully, bring her to the attention of a new generation of readers. Meanwhile she herself keeps up with new generations of writers.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Richard York, ‘“A Daft Way to Earn a Living”: Jennifer Johnston and the Writer’s Art: An Interview’, in Writing Ulster [‘Northern Narratives’, special issue, ed. Bill Lazenblatt], 6 (1999) - JJ: ‘Yeah, I haven’t been very successful about writing plays, but I am, yes, I am extremely interested in theatre. I think that it is not my medium but I am very interested in what happens in theatre and I have now removed myself rom inside to outside and am trying to - I am on the Board of the Abbey and I am on the Board of the Lyric - so I am [29] trying to come to terms with my great interest in the theatre by doing it that way really rather than writing for it. Because I can’t hack that one at all because of this thing, this disjointed time thing, that I have all the time in my head. I mean, I have it all the time in my head when I’m, living too and somehow or other I am not Pirandello, unfortunately. I wish I were. RY: But the plays, of course, often do involve these time sequences. JJ: ‘Yes, but they don’t work, because I haven’t got it right. And I haven’t got the right switch in my head, or I haven’t found it yet to put that right and I find this very aggravating. Now I can write those monologues, but they’re just sort of like “;talking heads” really. And I enjoy doing that, but I can’t really get it right for the stage for the full length play.’ (pp.29-30.) [Cont.]

Richard York (‘“A Daft Way to Earn a Living” - interview of 1999) - cont.: RY: ‘It is interesting about the family - is the family basically a trap in your novels, or is it the area in which you can form positive concrete relationships with other people, which would be a kind of freedom?’ JJ: ‘I think it is a trap. I think it is a very dangerous trap and I think that we haven’t yet worked out how to diffuse the danger there, maybe in another couple of generations, we will have had time and care to do that, but certainly at the moment, it is a trap. And I think the interesting thing about the relations that are formed in families are (a) the peripheral ones and (b) with a bit of luck, the ones between parents and children, when they are able to have time and understanding to address each other, and that doesn’t always happen.’ RY: ‘And on the whole, of course, families seem to be getting less authoritarian nowadays and presumably that’s the kind of movement which is traced in your novels’. JJ: ‘J.J. Yes, one can only be very thankful for that. But then on the other hand, I had parents who, well, my family is extremely complicated but my parents - my father allowed his four children to do anything they wanted. Well, this is what he always said, which led to the most [35] enormous amount of confusion among all of us in a way. [...] All of us took a very, very, long time to find where we wanted to go because he just stood back and said, “It’s up to you, you just do anything you want” [...] And it was the isolation, think, which got me, I didn’t start writing until I was about thirty-five. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I really thought I wanted to be an actress and then my mother did get out, she became a bully about that and said no, so I got married [...]’ (pp.35-36.

Richard York (‘“A Daft Way to Earn a Living” - interview of 1999) - cont.: RY: ‘Is there anybody you feel especially akin to?’ JJ: ‘I’m very attached to E., M. Forster while not feeling he has influenced me in any way, but he just sometimes says thing that make me laugh, and sometimes he says things tha just make me vehemently agree with what he is as, and I love the way he writes about the awful middle classes, you know, like I’m writing about the awful middle clases as well. [...] And of course Jane Austen. Jane Austen, again doing the same thing in her own way, just looking at the middle class and being very funny about them.’ (p.45.) [Full text available in JSTOR online; see further extract under Quotations, infra.]

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C. L. Dallat, review of The Gingerbread Woman, in Times Literary Supplement (10 Nov. 2000): the novel deals with an encounter between a recently widowed Northern Catholic, Laurence [‘Lar’] McGrane who has lost wife and child to an IRA bomb, and a Southern Protestant, Clara Barry, who is writing a novel about her Manhattan experiences; charted over the ten days of their acquaintance from the moment when he meets her on Killiney Hill, believing her to be about to commit suicide; reviewer criticised resort to stock characters and the improbability and inaccuracy of some of the fine details.

Eileen Battersby, review of Jennifer Johnston, The Gingerbread Woman, in The Irish Times (25 Sept. 2000), recounts that the central character Clara is ‘post-operative’; a lecturer on modern Irish prose fiction, Bowen, McGahern, Edna O’Brien and Sean O’Faolain and Francis Stuart [spelt Stewart in novel]; meets Lar from Northern Ireland and invites him into her house, also occupied by her mother who reacts to his casual rudeness. Battersby writes: ‘The Gingerbread Woman is characteristic as well as untypical of Johnston, similar yet different. She knows her territory. Probably the most consistently under-celebrated of Irish writers, her genius lies in her calm intelligence and her instinctive feel for the way an individual will act in an extreme emotional crisis. Most interestingly, she observes the shifts in emotions and the layers of response.’ Further, ‘As the writer who took th eIrish Big House novel out of the countryside and decaying privilege, and into the narrower comfort of Dalkey and Killiney, Jennifer Johnston has always demonstrated an exact understanding of the cultural nuances of Irish life as well as the perceptions, even textures, that go into the business of being Irish. Few Irish writers have pursued these questions so intently.’

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Eileen Battersby, ‘Making Sense of Life’, interview with Jennifer Johnston, Irish Times ( 30 Sept. 2000), Weekend, on forthcoming publication of The Gingerbread Man (Wed., 4 Oct. 2001) [caption: ‘She may be the quiet woman of Irish fiction, but Jennifer Johnston’s sophisticated take on Irishness is more evident than ever in her latest novel’]: Battersby quotes Johnston as saying that the new novel is ‘about the end of an affair’ but also about making sense of life, ‘never an easy thing’, and remarks: ‘All her narrators are watchers. Most of them live inside their heads, the place where she most intensely resides. Despite her ability to evoke a physical setting for her work, she has never been interested in surfaces. A Johnston character develops through his or her words and gestures. Appearances are irrelevant - you are what you say and do.’ Further: ‘Hatred and betrayal have always been major themes for her [...] and although it is she who moved that genre on from the Big House in the countryside to its logical conclusion in the suburbs of Dalkey and Killiney, she is, as a writer, most concerned with inner worlds. / If she has an affinity with any Irish writer, it is probably Elizabeth Bowen, whom she didn’t read until she had reached her 30s.’ [Cont.]

Eileen Battersby, ‘Making Sense of Life’ [ interview] in Irish Times, 30 Sept. 2000) - cont.: ‘Johnston has always moved between the first and third person voices and has continually played with tense. It is her way of creating texture and voices within voices.’ Battersby calls the new novel ‘as dark a slice of psychological realism as Johnston’ and quotes: ‘I’m a realist. I see life as a very tough business. It is an endurance test. A long, sad joke.’ Further: ‘I can hardly see. I’m half blind. I’ve never driven a car.’ ‘When I was a child we had an aunt who always read to us. She had these books she obviously though she read well. And I have to say, even at that early age, now this is real arrogance, I thought to myself, “I can read better than that”. I was impatient to read for myself.’ Johnston calls her novel The Gates ‘a feeble book in which I did so many things wrong’. [Cont.]

JJ: ‘Dublin is my patch. I still miss it.’ Johnston recalls ‘the impossibility of being asked for “forgiveness” by her mother and a family friend on her mother’s deathbed. Battersby quotes: ‘We all need guardian angels. Life isn’t easy.’ Johnston speaks of the First World War: ‘Don’t forget when I was young there were still people who had fought in it. People who had lost brothers, fathers, uncles, sons. They were all around me.’ Johnston remarks that she is taught but not published in America; she is ‘not yet ready to write about ageing and immortality. Not as of today. I may be tomorrow.’ Her brother Michael is two years younger than her.

Eileen Battersby, Interview with Jennifer Johnson, in The Irish Times (19 March 2005), [Weekend], p.7: ‘Now aged 75, but apparently destined to remain forever in her mid-50s, she knows this is a dark book, her least elegiac, and yet another shift in direction for her as a writer. It is guaranteed to shock, even offend, “But that’s what happened, that’s how it - the novel - came out”. She is a good talker, wary,of artifice and alert to the fact that everything she, or anyone, says is open to being looked at, reassessed and then expressed differently. She knows replies are shaped by the mood of the moment and can often spin on a phrase; meaning can and does change. / Intelligent, quick-witted, blunt and opinionated, with the odd flash of Mary Poppins briskness, she is an easy person to speak with. She overhears comments on buses and is capable of feeling passionately about issues - “‘I do get myself very worked up about things”, she says. There is an earthy doggedness about her. She announces openly, “No one seems to like my plays” and she knows that two of her finest novels, The Christmas Tree (1981) and The Illusionist (1995), remain underrated. This is the writer who once told me, rather cheerfully, that she saw life as “a long, sad joke”.’ (For full text see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

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Eileen Battersby, ‘A shaper of sophisticated stories’, in The Irish Times (9 Jan. 2010): ‘[...] Johnston’s sophisticated, at times deceptively conversational, narratives have drawn on social class as it exists in a country caught between the contrasting Catholic and Protestant cultures. As a writer she is more effective through nuance than open comment, as in Shadows on our Skins, which openly confronts the Northern conflict – yet this was Booker shortlisted in 1977, while some of her more deserving novels were overlooked. It is also ironic that her work is being taught at US universities – although she does not currently have a US publisher. If Elizabeth Bowen has a literary heir, it is Johnston who, despite superb novels such as the early war novels and The Christmas Tree (1981) and The Illusionist (1995), remains consistently underrated, suffering to some extent because of the immense achievement of William Trevor. Yet more than any other Irish writer, it was Johnston who took the Big House novel, with its final vestiges of fading privilege, out of the countryside and towards its inevitable, and logical, resting place – the more narrow, less romantic, and ultimately realist suburban comforts of Dalkey and Killiney.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

John Kenny, review of The Essential Jennifer Johnston (London: Review), in Times Literary Supplement (17 Dec. 1999), p.20: the volume contains The Captains and the Kings, Railway Station Man, Fool’s Sanctuary; ‘audaciously repetitive .. these novels are inherently representative; calls Barry’s preface ‘a florid hagiography’ ; remarks, ‘In her own chosen area she does stay well aloof of the rambles of Molly Keane, but, equally, never quite approaches the probity of Elizabeth Bowen.’ Further: ‘Her delineation of Catholic and Protestant interaction ... often has the tired feel of a love-across-the-barricades formula, and her Ascendancy people often seem easy Yeatsian symbols, exponents of civility beset by the barbarism of the natives [...] Johnston’s compact style has elicited complaints about lack of plot and character elaboration; however, she is at her most original when she jettisons novelistic detail entirely and moves towards a kind of minimalism where poetic resonance replaces standard “development”. Her dialogue [...] is not always credible, but she has devised an excellent conduit of character in her evolving method of illustrating the ellipses of the mond through monologue ... seen in ... her terse masterpiece, The Invisible Worm (1991)’.

Medbh McGuckian, “Jennifer Johnston”, in W. J. McCormack, ed., Blackwell Companion to Irish Literature (Oxford: Blackwell 1999; 2001): ‘Generally, she filters the disturbing via the ghostly prism of history, focusing on illness as a metaphor for the betrayal of innocence. Her reassuring voice is both allusively witty and poetically fascinated by the meaning of words as actually spoken in conversation or monologue, wherein her genius lies.’

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[Shirley Kelly,] ‘It all worked out rather well’ [interview], in Books Ireland (October 2002), pp.270-71, relates that the title of the new novel, This is not a Novel, is an allusion to a Magritte painting, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pomme’ and quotes Johnston: ‘So I though, well if that‘ ’s not an apple, this is not a novel. Instead of working the joke into the text, I decided to put it on the cover. Of course a novel can be almost anything, but I did want this to be somewhat different to my previous novels. It is, in some ways, a sideways look at my family history, which is not to say that it’s autobiographical, but there are some strong references to my family.’ (p.270.) [Cont.]

[Shirley Kelly,] (interview in Books Ireland, Oct. 2002); - cont.: Johnston speaks of a letter from her maternal uncle to his father just before his death at the battle of Sulva Bay; novel set in 1970s, recalling circumstances in which Harry was forced to enlist by his father, having given scandal (presumably) through homosexuality; central charracter Imogen, a traumatised young woman in a mental asylum whose brother Johnny, a champion swimmer, commits suicide; speaks of World War I and its effect on Ireland; also of 1916: ‘The men of 1916 were heroes, but if only they’d bided their time we wouldn’t have had this endless fall-out.’ (p.271.) Quotes: ‘My parents’ life, when I was a child, was quite turbulent, but my brother and I were protecvted from all that by nannies and maids. [...&c.]’. [Cont.]

[Shirley Kelly,] (interview in Books Ireland, Oct. 2002); - cont.: Johnston speaks of having wished to become an actress and joining Trinity Players, and was consequently ‘slung out’ [of TCD]; also speaks very frankly of her children and grandchild, the son of Lucy (who went to India and eighteen and returned married), now ‘fallen into a big hole’ who is now ‘twenty, beautiful but uneducated and without any desire to do anything.’ She does not intend to write autobiography.

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Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Fiction and the Northern Ireland Troubles since 1969: Deconstructing the North (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2003): ‘For Johnston gender and sexual issues, not colonial oppression, are the most pressing political factors in women’s lives. Yet, ‘sad, broken Ireland’ may be glimpsed in or behind the struggles of the protagonistss of these novels who are, first, writers, then women, and then Irish. Feminism can be importantly supportive of post-colonialism.’ (p.231; quoted in Gráinne MacCool, PGDip./MA UUC 2010.)

Mary Morrissy, ‘Performing in the Suburbs’, in The Irish Times (12 March 2005), Weekend: ‘[...] The dynamics of performance pervade Grace and Truth . Sally’s life as an actor is informed by the secret kept from her by her mother, her isolation from a regular family life, the absence of a father. The bishop - who has had his ambitions to become an actor thwarted - becomes an impostor of a different kind, losing his faith but faithlessly continuing the performance of rites ‘and rituals. But his story, placed as it is, seems to act more as justifying testimony to “explain” Sally, while Sally’s life is placed in a kind of animated suspension. And it reduces her to a kind of and case history, rather than the flawed but fictionally rich character who should really have been allowed to own this book.’ (For full text see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

Anne Lynskey, review of Grace and Truth, in Times Literary Supplement (13 May 2005), p.22: ‘[...] For Sally, the heroine of Grace and Truth, paternity is indeed the forbidden fact which holds the key to her identity. Sally grew up without a father, her unhappy mother acting out the impossible lie that no such man existed. Now a successful actress, she has made her name by cultivating the pretence that she first knew as a child. But when her husband leaves her, Sally decides that her gift for pretending has kept her from knowing how to love. She needs to find out who she really is before she can understand anyone else. In Jennifer Johnston’s hands, this premiss proves less trite than it might. Sally sets out to escape the secrets and lies of her upbringing by discovering the truth about her father, and the tale of troubled self-discovery that unfolds does not pander to expectations. [...] Johnston has written a powerful book. She sensitively examines those themes - of paternity, of reality - that have always been the domain of literature. Sally, we learn, has just completed an acclaimed London run of a production of The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge, a drama about the complex bond between parent and child. She and her grandfather recite together a scene from The Tempest which turns on a father’s relationship with his daughter, and illustrates the dangers of a life lived as an “insubstantial pageant”. [...; &c.; for full text see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.]

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Eve Patten, review of Jennifer Johnston, This is Not a Novel (Headline Review), in The Irish Times ( 19 Oct. 2005), Weekend, p.10: ‘[...] Partly it was scandal, the twinned sins of homosexual and adulterous transgression, but partly it was Time bearing down on a presence and a class, no longer required in Ireland . “We all disintegrated, disappeared, uncles, cousins, so many fled,” Imogen’s father recalls. “Why did they think they had to flee? What did they think they had done wrong?” / The strengths of this book stand out dramatically against the weaknesses of its three immediate predecessors. Johnston has returned to a flowing construction, to fleshing out properly the emotional and physical landscape her characters inhabit. Gone is the format on which she has recently relied so heavily: the fraught, stagey dialogues, interspersed with staccato passages of thought association and irritating snatches of song. [...] No one will complain, I think, about her somewhat clichéd contours of the first World War - after all, she claimed this territory long before Barker or Faulks. [...] But what does tug at the sleeve sometimes is the worry that individual elements of this story are over-familiar, jaded by previous deployment in the Irish fictional canon. The historical trajectory needs new spin, new interpretation, but one senses instead a passivity on Johnston’s part. Is she guilty of a kind of complacency? Has she done enough to recharge or even upset the standard narrative (and the academic audience which needs her to confirm it) of Anglo-Irish Protestantism Big House, Great War and Grand Decline?’ concludes: ‘with its well-finished narrative construction and decorous prose, it has the welcome feel of a good writer coming home.’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

Ana (review blog / 22 July 2009) - review of The Illusionist: ‘Set in London and Dublin, both in the 1970’s and in the present day, The Illusionist is the story of a writer, Stella, and of her marriage to a strange man named Martyn. They meet when Martyn interrupts her reading on a train, and Stella is quickly charmed by this mysterious man and the illusions he performs. Shortly after they get married, Stella begins to realize she doesn’t really know the man she’s sharing her life with. Bluebeard-like, Martyn keeps a locked room in the house that he requests her not to open. The story of their marriage is intermingled with a present-day story, when their daughter Robin visits Stella in Dublin after Martyn’s funeral. [...] The Illusionist is a story about trust, about silences, about art - and above all, about the importance of having some space in your life, however small, that is solely yours. For Stella, this is her writing. The ever-secretive Martyn does his best to crush it, though, and often tells her just how much he resents her written words and private thoughts. [...] the story turns out to be a bit dark. Martyn is just such an unpleasant man, and I really felt for Stella when she was at her most lonely. Also, Martyn does tricks with doves, and Stella has ornithophobia [..] There's also Stella's complicated relationship with Robin, who adores her father, and with her own mother. There's her friend Bill, who encourages her writing. And to make the story even more interesting, we have the often complicated relationship between Ireland and England playing in the background. Though the ending of The Illusionist leaves some questions unanswered, it wasn’t at all unsatisfying. This was a lovely book - a very pleasant surprise.’ (Ana is a twenty-something bookworm. For the complete review and responses to it, see attached.)

Paddy Smyth, ‘Riveting truth in a “non-memoir”’, in The Irish Times (31 Oct. 2009), Weekend, p.10: ‘[...] Now J has done it again, though most of the dramatis personae are no longer in a position to complain. “This is not about my father,” she told her elder daughter, Sarah Smyth, as she presented the manuscript of the new novel, Truth or Fiction, to her. / A couple of years ago she teased readers with the Magritte-inspired title This is Not a Novel and, later, Grace and Truth, both exercises in exploring family secrets and lies and the way they play out over time in the dynamics of family life. Now, with Truth or Fiction, we have, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the non-memoir - a picture at one moment in time of her father, the playwright, broadcaster and academic Denis Johnston, and the women in his life: two wives, a mistress, a mother and a daughter. / Like Denis Johnston in the late 1970s, Desmond Fitzmaurice, in Truth or Fiction, is an ageing “writer of plays, war correspondent, literary giant of the thirties” and now “no-one reads his books any more, no one puts on his plays”. Both lived for a time in a splendid house on the end of Sorrento Terrace in Dalkey, in south Co Dublin, looking out over Killiney to Bray Head.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

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Quotations

Quotations

Johnston remarks: ‘I like The Illusionist. That’s a book of mine that fell through a big hole. I don’t think anybody ever bought it at all. [...] It’s quite a good book, I think.’ (Quoted in Arminta Wallace, ‘A Writer Making Sense of “Life’s Awful Muddle”’ [interview], in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 2012) [as supra]. See full-text version of The Illusionist in RICORSO Library, “Irish Writers” - as attached [password access].


The Old Jest (1979) - Nancy keeps a ‘thought diary’ for ‘passing thoughts that give impressions of me, so that in forty years if, as Bridie would say, I am spared, I can look back and see what I was like when I started out.’ (p.10.) Equally, because she would ‘just like to know what is inside me. What sort of a person I might expect to turn out to be’ (p.56). Angus tells her: ‘The first fact of life you have to grasp if you want ot get anywhere at all is that life isn’t full of sweetness and light and gentlemen standing up when ladies come into the room. On the contrary, it’s full of violence, injustice and pain. That’s what you’re afraid of seeing when you open those locked doors, peer into caves. The terrible truth.’ (p.95.) Nancy concludes her narrative: ‘The great thing is you can always choose, and then, as Bridie says, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.’ (p.158.) [The foregoing all quoted in Gráinne MacCool, MA PGDip. UUC 2010.]

The Railway Station Man (1984) [Helen Cuffe wonders if son would be willing to go berry-picking:] ‘He wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t seem to have that line in his mind leading back to the early days. We can’t seem to find that comfort between us, she thought. I suppose that is what parents and children should have, some form of comfort, if nothing more. It seems quite hard to achieve.’ (Headline Review edn., p.139; quoted in Faith MacDonald, UG Diss., UU 2010.)

The Invisible Worm (1991) [Laura, on commencing to write]: ‘Like my future - an empty page on which I will begin to write my life. I will try to embellish the emptiness of living. Pehaps I may come alive.’ Penguin Edn., p.181; quoted in Faith MacDonald, UG Diss., UU 2010.)

The Illusionist (1995) [Stella Glover, née Macnamara, reflects on the distance that she feels from her daughter after the death of her husband Martyn:] ‘I sip the tea and watch her, watch the whirl of her skirt as she turns, watch her fingers now loose, now clenched together. I think of the tiger in the zoo I used to visit as a child, pacing backwards and forwards in his cage, his tail from time to time lashing as he walked and turned, walked and turned in an energy of despair. I watch her through the steam from my mug of tea. The room is becoming a prison, for me as well as for her.’ (Headline Review edn., p.41; quoted in Faith MacDonald, UG Diss., UU 2010.) [See longer extracts - attached.]

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This is Not a Novel (2002): ‘The notion of this piece of writing had been in my mind for some time and was rather energetically seeking a way to get out, like a bird shut in a room, fluttering, flapping and shitting from time to time on the carpet. Then one day I wandered, somewhat aimlessly, into an exhibition of the work of Rene Magritte, a painter whose work, until then, I had seen mainly in reproduction. Postcard-sized jokes they’d always seemed to me and suddenly here I was being surprised and moved by the meticulous lunacy with which the artist viewed the world; in particular the bourgeois world, from which, I reluctantly have to admit, I come. These were far from light-hearted jokes: they were more like government health warnings, enjoy if you insist, but beware. Nothing here is what it seems to be. / Ce n’est pas une pomme!’

This is Not a Novel (2002): [the grandmother of the narrator-protagonist writes in her diary:] ‘The country is now at peace, but so many hearts have been broken and so much bitterness has taken root in men’s minds that it will take a long, long time for trust to grow between those who once were comrades with a single cause and then became bitter enemies. So many of our friends and family have drifted away to England or the colonies, wanting ng to assure some sort of future for themselves and their families. Patrick sighs and [112] then laughs and calls them fools. “This is an infernal bloody country,” he said to me the other day, “but it’s my infernal bloody country and I hope my children feel the same about it. For better or for worse. It’s like a marriage.” / I thought sadly as he said those words about our marriage, and how my debilitating illness had stolen the charm and attachment that once we had. They say that the grief I felt, and indeed still do feel over Harry’s death, depleted my body’s capacity to keep healthy to such a degree that it may take me many more years to recover. What they don’t realize is that I do not want to recover ... which, of course, they would consider to be a form of madness. Maybe it is. I find I cannot forgive Patrick for the fact that it was at his insistence that Harry joined up. I know this for sure, though Patrick has never spoken of it to me. I know more about this whole miserable affair than he has seen fit to tell me. I am not a fool and I most bitterly resent that both he and Arthur have conspired to keep me in some sort of darkness about it. I am sure this is for the best and most gentle of reasons but I am perhaps not a very reasonable person and I sometimes hate them for it. / But to better news. Here we are in some sort of peace and Arthur and Helen have produced a son. [...].’ (pp.122-23.) See also under Francis Ledwidge for notes on this character’s settings of his poems to music (infra.) Note that Patrick went to Rugby College (p.160.)

This is Not a Novel (2002) [Imogen reflects]: ‘Books, it seemed to me, were where I would find strength. / I made a list for them to relay to my father. I knew that there would be nothing nourishing on the shelves of the home. / “War and Peace”. “Ulysses”. “À la recherche du temps perdu”. / Stop right there, I said to myself Whatever happened to small and beautiful? “L’Étranger”. “Symphonie Pastorale”. Both in English, please. / Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, the writers who were scandalising the protectors of our morals. “The Tailor and Anstey”. I remembered hearing about the book being ritually burnt and the author being held up to public shame. / Yes, I would like to read all the burnt books of the world [...]’ (See also short note under St. Patrick, infra.)

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Sundry remarks
‘“A Daft Way to Earn a Living”: Jennifer Johnston and the Writer’s Art’ [interview with Richard York], in Writing Ulster, 6: “Northern Narratives” (1999), pp.28-47: ‘I don’t like writing about victims, and I think I do very much like writing about people who have escaped from that trap, because I think that it is something that we all have it in us to be able to do. So if that is my sermon it would be that you don’t have to be a victim, that we all have the freedom’ (pp.33-34.) Further [of her theme as a novelist]: ‘It includes the extraordinary way I which over the last seventy years we’ve had nonsense instilled in us about our Irishness. All this has to go, and there are still quite a lot of people clinging to the vestiges of that[,] which I think is rather a pity.’ (p.44.) Quoted in Faith MacDonald, UG Diss., UU 2010; see further from this interview under York, in Commentary, supra.

Telling stories: ‘All I know how to do is tell stories, the same story, some people say, over and over again ... for me ... it has been a reassembling of facts, my facts ... to shout that I am on the side of the nation, with a small n.’ (Culture in Ireland, 1991, p.10.)

World War: ‘The effect that World War I had - the massacre of a whole generation of young men - embittered a large number of people who remained. In Ireland, it was the beginnings of the troubles we are now in. I’m not denigrating what happened in 1916, because I think it was a piece of magnificent romantic nonsense. It [sh]ould never have happened, but it was magnificent, and it, in fact, probably is the reason why Ireland is in the terrible situation it is in now. I think that, had the uprising not happened, come 1918, we would have had Home Rule. There would have been no problems about the North because the British wouldn’t have allowed there to be problems, and we would have moved on from there in some cumbersome but logical way to being a Republic. Once that happened, something cracked in us and we suddenly saw ourselves as people with freedom dangling in front of us, and we couldn’t wait any longer. Therefore, that war has had an extraordinary effect on the country. [...] I think I used it as a metaphor for what is presently happening.’ (‘Q & A with Jennifer Johnston’, in Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 1984; quoted in Jürgen Kamm, ‘Jennifer Johnston’, in Contemporary Irish Novelists, ed. Rüdiger Imhof (Tübingen: Gunter Narr 1990), pp.125-41; pp.126-27.)

Criminal Damage” (for Eoin Dubsky, who spray-painted “No War” on a US Hercules transport ’plane at Shannon Airport, on Sept. 4th 2002): ‘The charge has a Pentagonal ring, / Like collateral damage / But painting “No War” on a US military ’plane / At Shannon Airport is not equal / To murdering, from the air, Afghans at a wedding. // The British Library refuses a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses / To a translator in Baghdad - Sanctions continue: a book is / A weapon-of-mass-destruction. // On the radio, there’s a call to step up Airport security: / You’re interviewed - no one asks why / The fat transport-planes were there / In the first place. Keep-the-head-down. // Some will not comprehend the act / Of lifting the wire, crawling under / The skin, scalpeling away / The dead tissue of language to make NO.’ (Fortnight, April 2003, p.16.)

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