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VAL NOLAN

 

Val Nolan

Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at NUI, Galway. He regularly contributes criticism to publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Sunday Business Post, PN Review and The John McGahern Yearbook. A poet and a fiction writer, he has been published in Southword, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Scotland, Crannóg,  Revival and on the ‘Futures’ page of the science journal Nature. In 2009 he was invited to read on the emerging writer's panel at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. He is a graduate of University College Cork and of the Clarion writing programme at University of California, San Diego.

 

 

 

 

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The Nicotine Cat and Other People
Augustus Young
(Duras/New Island 2009)
€14.99
. Buy from New Island

 

The Secret Gloss
Augustus Young
(Elliott & Thompson 2009)
£7.99.
Buy from Elliot & Thompson

 

The Rosemaries
Augustus Young
(Labyrinth Books 2009)
€10.00.
More information here.

 

Born in Cork in 1943, James Hogan has, as ‘Augustus Young’, published eight books of poetry, along with the needling non-fiction volume Storytime, which lampooned the literary scene in Ireland – and particularly the festival circuit in Cork – in less than flattering terms. Always productive, the most recent fruits of Young’s literary labours include a memoir, The Nicotine Cat and Other People, a short collection of poems, Rosemaries, and a play, The Secret Gloss.

Complimenting an earlier memoir, Light Years, which was published in 2002, The Nicotine Cat focuses on the people and poetry that have shaped Young’s ‘quest for his personal self’, and moves from his formative years, through a medical career in London and the curious life he now leads in a town on Franco-Spanish border. ‘I came to books late,’ he says, ‘and like all converts my fervour was fanatical’.

In the opening sections he reflects, sometimes quite movingly, on the ‘uncertainty of words’ which have always defined his relationship with literature. ‘The world rarely had the arrangement of letters that it had in school,’ he says, considering the importance of Dinneen’s famous Irish-English dictionary to him as a young poet in search of a language which ‘living people are talking’. His damning indictment of ‘Civil Service Irish’ is tragic and ridiculous, with Young recalling how he had to ‘interpret the news in Irish to native speakers in the Donegal Gaeltacht’.

The Nicotine Cat is full of moments like that, though the book as a whole is anarchically arranged and freewheels arbitrarily through literature, philosophy, history and the author’s personal relationships. Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, Baudelaire, Joyce (‘a great man for the drawing room furniture’), Rimbaud, Kerouac, Primo Levi and Henry James all make passing appearances as the influences under which the developing writer fell. While Young had little or no personal contact with any of these figures, his love of their work and the minutia of their biographies often make it seem as though he was the best of friend with them.

Stylistically, the book is best read in short sections, as it can sometimes be challenging to follow. At best, this prolonged, rebellious dart through Young’s recollections demands the close attention of the reader. At worst, it is disordered and confusing, flitting between the real and the imaginary with only a tentative acknowledgment of chronology. On the whole though, the patient willingness of the reader is rewarded. Asides on authors such as Philip Roth and historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt both inform and amuse. So too does Young’s account of his father’s work with the Irish Manuscript Commission, trying to reconstruct what had been destroyed in the Public Records Office during the Civil War. The elder Hogan ‘trawled libraries and town councils all over the country for material to patch together a written past’. What he recovered ‘was published in Analecta Hibernica, a periodical which died with him, more or less, and the drive to regather the past fragmented into carelessness’.

While Young shares his father’s fascination with the past he is conflicted by it. He admits to being ‘envious of the kudos available to literary lives lived in the here and now,’ particularly the ‘antinomian dispensation accorded to writers gifted with presence’. Though he retreats into his memories, into a fictionalisation of his life, he remains aware that ‘memories aren’t true. But you can be true to them’.

 

A similar tension with regard to the past underpins the verse sequence Rosemaries, a revised edition of a limited edition published in 1976. ‘Gently made and made good’, Young’s little grey book draws on his recollections of growing up in 1940s Ireland, of childhood and adolescence in a world where his new-discovered language was a rich and elegant force.

The poems focus largely on his family, and one powerful piece about his parents ends with his mother conceding a tennis match to an ‘ambitious cousin,’ her unnaturally wise son left to consider:

 

what damage

to my early days

was done, nobody

 

will know. But only

I was at her elbow

she would have won’.

 

Divided into the sections ‘Early Years’ and ‘Growing Up’, the technical and thematic qualities of the poems become more sophisticated as they progress. In tandem, the protagonist’s sense of humour grows more wry and more aware of the ridiculousness of his society:

 

Painstakingly, I took

time to prepare, and Confessed

‘You read too many books, boy.

Give your mind a rest.’

 

O my sins, for God’s sake,

were mocked at and made fun

of. Still I was a great sinner

for one so young.

 

Rosemaries is a delicate, artful showing from Young, yet with only fourteen short poems, this finely produced little book is mainly for collectors.

 

Conversely, it is difficult to know who The Secret Gloss – based on the life and work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – is aimed at. Variously described as ‘a film play’ and ‘in the format of a film or a play’, the work might have been better served if the author had decided what he wanted to accomplish, especially as The Secret Gloss is largely a theatrical text.

Drawing on the philosopher’s journals and Young’s own wide reading, it tells the story of a man regarded as an eccentric in his native Copenhagen, then a small town. The flamboyant Kierkegaard, whose work occupies the intersection of existential angst and religious belief, frequently crosses paths with the other famous Dane of his day, Hans Christian Anderson.

Kierkegaard, like Young, wrote frequently under pseudonyms, and this is an aspect of his life to which the author is predictably drawn, especially as he has claimed – in defence of work like Storytime – that it is Young speaking, not Hogan, and that the pen-name offers him the permission to say things he ordinarily might not. Kierkegaard himself considered this illusion to be the true ‘secret gloss’.

Some of the best writing here is in character descriptions Young gives as part of his stage instructions. The young Kierkegaard is described as a ‘scrawny, supercilious manikin’; his father, Michael Pederson Kierkegaard is a ‘Nordic giant of a paterfamilias’.

As with The Nicotine Cat, The Secret Gloss moves freely between tragedy and comedy, but Young’s skeletal text remains an unrealised version of the author’s vision. Without seeing it onstage, the full weight of The Secret Gloss is, as Yong titles its second part, ‘A Dance without Music’.  

 

©2009 Val Nolan

 

Author Links

Video of Nolan reading at the White House in Limerick

Article by Nolan for The Post about Ted Hughes

Nolan on the Gogarty Festival at Poetry Ireland

 

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