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52 Guitars: Week 46

Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes

I am on record as saying I don't care much for stories of static, hopeless suffering. I didn't  have to know much about this book to be pretty sure it was one of those, and I have recently learned that it is in fact honored as a classic of misery literature. I would never have read it if someone hadn't given me a copy, and I almost gave it up at the second paragraph, where the author makes things clear:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

The book (which is memoir, not fiction, in case you have somehow not heard of it) fully lives up to that promise, or threat. I think I read the first few chapters at a rate of four or five pages a week, and would surely have given it up entirely had I not felt some obligation--to the person who gave it to me, that I should give her my opinion based on a full reading, and to the author, that I should give him a chance to overcome my prejudice.

It never really did. It is very well written and very vivid, and it certainly succeeds in its effort to make the reader grasp just how miserable that childhood was. In brief: the family was poor to start with, and the father was a drunkard who spent what little money he came by on that vocation. And their relations are cold, mean, spiteful people who may help them when actual starvation threatens, but not necessarily, and not without insult. The whole of Ireland, in fact, or at least Limerick, appears here as a cold, mean, spiteful place; on the basis of this book you would conclude that it is a hellhole, pure and simple. And with one or two exceptions all representatives of the Catholic Church are cold, mean, and spiteful. One of those exceptions is responsible for one of the few bright moments in the book, the brightest in fact, and it almost makes the rest seem worthwhile. But mostly it's one terrible thing after another, a chronicle of misery, death, and dashed hopes until the last few pages, in which the author escapes.

It deserves its literary reputation. But it's not my cup of weak, cold, bitter tea.

***

Update: I've been very busy, and wrote the above in about twenty minutes late last night. I remembered today something that struck me often while I was reading the book, and that I'd meant to remark on: McCourt reproduces in detail long conversations among adults heard when he was a child, I think as young as three or four. I suppose this is possible, but it struck me as implausible, and made me wonder about the extent to which fiction might be mixed in with memory. That in turn suggests the possibility that some of the people who were made to look pretty bad may not have been quite so bad as that.

Comments

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Somehow, I never read that SNJ before. That was a great post.

I'm afraid this one hasn't convinced me that I want to read AA. ;-)

AMDG

Spoiler alert: I never cared for it either. It was indeed well written but also too miserable for me. I did appreciate it for the way it introduced me to the nature of dire poverty and that was good for me. I hated the ending with a passion. The whole of McCourt's miserable life happened because of "the knee trembler" and yet before he even got off the ship he had done the same thing himself except that in this case there was no illegitmate child as a result. A clear example of a man who couldn't even learn from the mistakes of others and his own hellish childhood. I'm not surprised he caved in to temptation, only that sober reflection while not tempted has not led him to draw the conclusions he should have. What an idiot!

Let's just not worry about spoilers--it's not like it's a complex and surprising plot.

No illegitimate child that he knew of, anyway. Well, I guess it would have been legally legitimate, since the woman was married.

I did appreciate that, too. Maybe "appreciate" is not the right word, but it probably is good for those of us who have never experienced dire poverty to get some idea of what it's like. I think I had gotten that long ago, from City of Joy, which is about the lives of the extremely poor in Calcutta. I read it at least 30 years ago and still remember a lot of it. It's a much grimmer situation even than that of the Irish poor.

Janet, will it make the book more appealing if I tell you that there aren't any more dead babies after the first hundred pages or so?

Oh...well if that's the case.

You say which is memoir, not fiction, but the author himself said it was memoir, not history. That suggests a rather different notion of the relationship between memoir, truth, and fiction. I haven't read the book (I have read his New York memoir), but I have read that local people (classmates, neighbours, and so on) had disputed much of its factuality.

"Well, I guess it would have been legally legitimate, since the woman was married."

I didn't even remember she was married. :P

"That suggests a rather different notion of the relationship between memoir, truth, and fiction."

The problem with memoir is that all our experiences are remembered from our own perspective and often the memory is faulty in itself.

"but I have read that local people (classmates, neighbours, and so on) had disputed much of its factuality"

The ones who didn't come out looking so good perhaps? :/

This is the problem of writing memoirs. Isn't one in terrible danger of writing slander etc?

Yes, the account of that final night is that there is a houseful of married women whose husbands are away on a hunting trip and who are taking advantage of their absence to bring in strangers from a passing ship and take them to bed. Happens all the time, I'm sure.

McCourt makes a similar distinction between memoir and autobiography, implying that the former has looser standards of truth. I would have said that the difference is only in emphasis: a memoir generally being focused on some one aspect of the person's life rather than the entire story.

If inventing facts in a memoir were a crime and I were a cop, I'd be pressing the case against this particular suspect pretty hard.

From the Telegraph's obit on McCourt:

Even Angela McCourt had challenged her son's recollections before her death in 1981. Frank and his brother Malachy had persuaded her to attend A Couple of Blackguards, their stand-up memoirs, in a Manhattan theatre. Angela interrupted the tearful renditions of their childhood, standing up and shouting at the stage: "It didn't happen that way. It's all a pack of lies."
stand-up memoirs -- so a stage act before they were a book.

"Yes, the account of that final night is that there is a houseful of married women whose husbands are away on a hunting trip and who are taking advantage of their absence to bring in strangers from a passing ship and take them to bed. Happens all the time, I'm sure."

Indeed. Yes, I remember that now. *shudder.* I do remember thinking how implausible it seemed.

That's fascinating, Marianne. I wondered what his mother thought, and noted that she had died before the publication of the book. If it was all true, she would have been pretty embarrassed by some of it. If it wasn't, embarrassed and enraged.

Getting back to what you were saying, Louise, about memoirs and slander: that stopped me cold for a long time in writing a memoir-ish sort of thing, because, although I have nothing very bad to say about any of my friends or family, any more or less realistic depiction would involve flaws, and it seems very unfair to expose people in a book that way, where they didn't consent and can't defend themselves.

So, did you decide to stop writing your memoir?

AMDG

No, it's just on hold.

McCourt was trading on the affection for all things Celtic (as manifest in Riverdance and the oeuvre promoted by Green Linnet). Green Linnet is now defunct and the Irish have re-invented themselves as Scandinavians with brogues.

Angela McCourt was not the only one who thought her sons fabulists. He was accosted at a book signing by one of his classmates at Limerick National School who reamed him out for disgracing his family and the local community.

Ireland was less affluent than Britain in 1929, but the country was not (in comparison with vanguard economies) anywhere near as impoverished as it is made out to be and steadily improved its relative position over more than six decades before an unanticipated burst of rapid growth made it nearly the most affluent of occidental countries. McCourt couldn't figure out why his parents returned to Ireland in 1932, but the likely reason was that Ireland largely escaped the Depression and was one of two occidental countries which saw increasing industrial production between 1929 and 1934. (The most violent economic contractions during that era were experienced by the United States, Canada, and, IIRC, the Southern Cone countries).

In my own experience, people who lived through the Depression are spare and matter-of-fact in their discussion of the disagreeable aspects of it. People who've survived a calamity among peers who also survived I suspect seldom harbor a great deal of bitterness about it. My mother tended to the view that "people who once had nothing and now have something" are the people who put their sweat-equity into communities. That does not sound like Frank McCourt.

It's good to keep a diary. It can keep us honest if we're given to retrospectively re-evaluating our lives in ways that render them fictions (something people who've been through a divorce often do, and something people who have failed in their occupation often do).

although I have nothing very bad to say about any of my friends or family, any more or less realistic depiction would involve flaws, and it seems very unfair to expose people in a book that way, where they didn't consent and can't defend themselves.

"Honor thy mother and father" as explained to me by the man who walked me through RCIA. "Your mother? You can tell me. Can you put an ad in the Sherburne News? No."

That was excellent advice. Btw, Art, for some reason I would have guessed you were a cradle Catholic.

My parents lived through the Depression, but they were children for most of it (born in the mid-1920s), and although their families were straitened in comparison to the '20s, they were not poor. I heard a fair amount about how poor other people in the community had been. My grandparents seemed to have been more personally stressed by it, which is not surprising, since they were responsible for the families' welfare. Most of the complaining I heard about it, though, was part of a "you don't know how lucky you are" admonishment. Concerning which I now understand that they were quite right.

The fascination or fashion for things Celtic passed me by. My impression of Irish Catholicism was influenced by angry and/or sentimental progressives, rather than the old (sappy) or new (vicious) Hollywood stereotypes.

This whole thread reminds me of when I did some (a very little) research into the Magdalene Laundries about which this movie was made: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318411/. The Irish government did a ten year study and could not find one incident of the sort of abuse that is apparently featured in this movie. I didn't read the entire report, but I read some and scanned more. Of course, the new movie, Philomena has brought the sisters into the news again.

I doubt it's possible to really sort all this out, but still, it appears that the same sort of exaggeration has taken place there as in AA.

AMDG

A piece of literature I might recommend would be Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. An aspect of it is contemplating the difference between family life and what we remember of it. My aunt sent my mother the book as a gift around about 1982. I never did ask my aunt whether she thought it would be instructive for her or for me, but these questions were salient for my mother and her siblings (just about the age of the characters in the book, and confronting some similar problems in living).

My relations were much less voluble about the Depression (perhaps because domestic arguments did not turn on material consumption in our house?? Don't know...). You heard a great deal more about the War.

Very interesting commentary!

I know a couple people who had him as a high school teacher, pre-Angela's Ashes, and both said he was an excellent teacher and a very nice person.

Peter

That's good to hear.

and both said he was an excellent teacher and a very nice person.

He was married 3x. I'll wager that 'nice' had its limits.

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