Writing is a kind of sickness: History of the Rain/Niall Williams: Reflections

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I bought History of the Rain because Melissa Firman said I should, and because I trust this fine reader/writer/reviewer.

I read it because it is glorious. Irish and tangled and and caught, at times, in its own whirl, its own strange uncharted loveliness. It is a story about failure that is, itself, a victory of style, foresight, love. A book of tangents and a-chronology, of curves and mist. A book that, on its final page, does not, will not end.

Ruth Swain lives by a river in a part of the world where it always rains, where family is good, where the absence of a brother and a father requires Ruth herself, sick and perhaps dying, to write her family's wobbling story down. Into that story she writes the stories of the books her father loved and endowed to her, the mythology and the hope, the fortitude and the flood.

Look at what Niall Williams does with a character:
Two-handed, Mrs Quinty lifts the glasses free of the minor parsnip of her nose, holds them just in front of her and scrutinises the dust gathered there. Rain makes bars of light and dark down her face and mine, as if we're inside the jail of it.
Look at what he does with landscape:
The fields are wrapped in soft grey tissues of weather.
Look what he does with memory:
I know that field. Years ago I went there. It's rough and wildly sloping, hoof-pocked and rushy-bearded both. Running down it is bump and splash, is ankle-twist treachery. You get going and you can't stop. You're heading for the river. And you can't help but scream.
And (knowingly, truthfully, achingly absolutely), look what he does with the truth:
Writing of course is a kind of sickness. Well people don't do it. Art is basically impossible. Edna O'Brien said she was surprised Van Gogh only cut off one ear. Robert Lowell said that he felt was a blazing out, flashes, nerve jabs in the moments when the poem was coming. I myself have had no blazing out, and don't suppose it's all that good for your constitution. To stop himself from taking off into the air Ted Hughes had to keep repeating over and over Beneath my feet is the earth, some part of the surface of the earth. The thing is, writing is a sickness only cured by writing. That's the impossible part. 
More than 350 pages, and every page this good.


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