The Tenants of Time, by Thomas Flanagan. (New York: Dutton, 1988).
Here is a book that lives up to its captivating title. For its perspective on human events is that from which time is most apt to seem like a place, and a place—here Ireland—seem like a temporal being. It is the perspective of history. It is from the point of view of history that we live “in” our fixed century as in a dwelling and in our changing nation as in a stream. Like many good things, the title does double or even triple duty: One of the deep themes of the book is the tenancy of land, the acute catastrophe of eviction for the peasantry and the more muted melancholy of selling-up for the landlords. Finally, there is that personal passage of time, that strange conjunction of public times passing and private days waning, when the termination of our lease on life is in sight: The title is taken from—or worked into—a reflection by the most reflective character in the book, the schoolmaster Hugh McMahon, who says in the very center of the text:
We are all tenants of Time, and whatever it is that reminds us, that thing
we will convict as a murderer, like the messenger bringing bad tidings. (428)
Master McMahon hates the testimonials of time’s passing and, consequently, he himself refuses to testify. Though the kindest of men, he gently and quite informatively stymies the young historian with whose appearance the book opens. For Hugh himself is not a historian such as would put the stamp of by-gone on the object of his research, but he is rather an antiquarian who tries against hope to prevent the Gaelic tongue from passing into history—though he himself had once drilled it out of his pupils.
It is as a reflection on history that I want to recommend The Tenants of Time to the St. John’s community. For a deep doubt concerning the doability and teachability of history is, as it were, the negative foundation of our program of study. So we are left to come to extracurricular grips with the potent impossibility of this discipline. This book, which is at once about the delusory living, the shifting remembrance, and the abortive writing of history, might have been made for the likes of us.
Before getting to the thought-provoking gist of this novel-history, let me say something about how it reads. The novels which best typify their genre are long and historical. Think of War and Peace and Remembrance of Things Past. The two, bulk and history, are connected. It is, after all, the business of narrative prose fiction, as opposed to poetry and drama, to follow out the setting and circumstances of the precipitating events and characters in indefinitely ramifying detail until the fiction has been seamlessly implicated in a public world, the world whose scale is too encompassing to be a fiction. In The Tenants of Time this interweaving is done to perfection. The historical figures, such as Parnell and Gladstone, consort so comfortably with the fictional participants that one is pleased to find them not distinguished by so much as an asterisk in the appended list of characters. This novel, which is both long (over 800 pages) and historical, indeed reads in certain respects just like history: It is muted and intricate, many-faceted, and replete with the sort of scene-setting detail that only primary research can turn up. It is, even, at first, a little tedious, as good history often is, with the absorbing tedium of a tale levelly developed, without the compact actions, the crises, that are the stock-in trade of drama. I think in all the forty-one chapters I received a shock just once; others may find up to three surprises. This levelling of the dramatic niveau is carefully devised. Every critical event is anticipated, “prevented,” as the Bible used so aptly to say, approached obliquely by hints or glancing announcements. Novels are long partly so that readers may inhabit them during a span of real time not utterly incommensurate with that of the novelistic events. To make that time seem very long and yet to make the reader never wish to emerge—that is the quintessential novelistic art. This book was as hard to take leave of as it took long to read.
But whereas from one perspective we are being drawn into a fabric of accurately researched detail with its numerous interwoven threads, its clues and knots, from another it is the characters of the novel who start to come out as people. They begin as alien silhouettes outside the compass of our care and end up having captured our affection. They are Irishmen, recall, and each chapter is assigned to one or more of them (and once to a woman) to report their doings or to record their voices. The latter is most delicately done. They all sound different and yet, with the sparest use of dialect, just with an occasional idiomatic turn, they all sound Irish—which is the more remarkable since this novel was written by an American. My particular point here, though, is that if the book is devoted to history, the chapters belong to the people. That turns out to be the crux of this enterprise.
From Homer on, literary works have often been reflexive, that is to say, about themselves (as the Odyssey is about the telling of the odyssey). It is only an illusion of recent frequency that makes us think of this mode as modern. So it is not especially striking for this historical novel to be about the writing of history. What is remarkable is how reflectively it is done.
The situation is that in the first chapter—the year is 1904—a rather prissily conscientious young historian called Prentiss turns up in the town of Kilpeder in County Cork, to do research toward a book on the abortive local Fenian rebellion of 1867. In the last chapter he gives up the project as impossible and takes up the law instead. At the same moment the novel about the same incident has, of course, come to completion, and what is it but the desired history? Inference: When history turns out to be impossible, the novel may do its work.
That this upshot is not frivolous appears in the course of the final conversation, when Prentiss lets off a rehearsed epigram. It is aimed at the converse proposal of certain German historians, to the effect that history is merely a narrative fiction:
A taste for fiction has always seemed to me the unfailing mark of an imaginative deficiency. (816)
This mingy witticism has a small truth in it: A person of perfect imaginative repleteness could probably find complete satisfaction in such real-world fragments as make themselves available. But it is evident that the author of the epigram believes neither with the Germans that historians are a species of novelist, nor, as Prentiss pretends, that novelists are historians manques—both rather light-minded notions—but something more subtle, namely that novelists come to a consummation just when conscientious historians give up.
To appreciate this claim one must ask why, actually, Prentiss does give up. It is because he finds himself stymied from both sides. On the one hand, this supposedly compact tale of a temporally and spatially local event keeps going, as a German idiom so nicely puts it, “from the hundredth to the thousandth.” The ramifications of discoverable fact run wild. On the other hand, some sources who know won’t tell, and what is worse, those who do tell, generously and intimately, won’t tell all, leaving Prentiss with some all-too-well-formed enigmas, both intimate and public. He is too much of a historian and too little of a novelist to invent the truth. So he falls between the stools of too much and too little knowledge, as will, it is implied, any historian who takes the judgment-seat. The novelist has the advantage in both realms: He penetrates his characters’ privacies, not because they are his, but because he trusts himself to know what it is like to be a young man in Kilpeder, because he can see the paradigm in the person and give individual shape to the specimen. But he also paints the larger picture more successfully, for where the honest historian is obliged to seek a pattern-in-chief—Prentiss is all for patterns—the novelist can represent the oscillations of perspective as the ultimate truth. For example, as their particular messy little uprising of ’67 recedes for the four Kilpeder leaders personally—recedes more and more into nostalgic inconsequences and into shame-faced irritation with its balladistic glorification—the Fenian rebellion as a whole begins to hang like an ever-darker incubus over the great historical event of their maturity, the Parnellian Land War. (In fact the author makes sure that it reaches even into the reader’s present, for he unobtrusively presents the imprisoned Fenians as a pattern for the I.R.A.: The former shivered naked in their blankets rather than wear the Queen’s convict-uniforms, and the same “blanket protest” has been recently employed by the latter.) And that complex of dampings and reverberations rings truer than would any assessment on the historical level.
Perhaps it is this licence to write history from the bottom up, or better, from the inside out, that allows the novelist to consummate his labors, to achieve a whole, when the wise historian will accept defeat. For whereas history, having no natural being, becomes amorphous under very close scrutiny, characters under the novelist’s pointed attention gain “a local habitation and a name.” Flanagan’s four Kilpeder men are a memorable set, real friends as much in their untimely distances as in their long-breathed loyalties. There is Tully, the infinitely charming play-boy, the felicitously and also fatefully unconforming son of the local “gombeen” man, the money-lender and merchant prince in whose interest the noble land war against the aristocracy finally turns out to have been fought. There is his cousin, Delaney, the heir-apparent in spirit of the Tully ambitions, carried high by his shrewd, fierce energy and brought down by a whole-hearted passion which exactly parallels that of his hero Parnell. Then there is the above-mentioned schoolmaster and his remote relative, Ned Nolan, the accredited Fenian commander of the uprising, who turns terrorist. Ned is a dark, God-forsaken, pure-hearted man whom the others love, and who, it finally appears, loves them—with fatal results.
What the novelist as historian does particularly well is to build up through his individual people, somehow, by hook or by crook, an impression of a whole people. Perhaps the Irish are a people whose nature specially requires slow narrative development, for it is revealed in antitheses: loquacious and inarticulate, soaked in spirits but delicate about its rituals, strong for brotherhood and ready for fratricide, in turn fanatically renitent and ever ready to turn informer.
Now, one might ask, what is Ireland to us or we to Ireland that we should steep ourselves in its nature and its history? Well, as I have urged, The Tenants of Time is almost as much a book about history as of history, and therein lies its special interest for us. But isn’t it also true that any people that is genuinely what it is (as some are not) can capture our sympathy—and this one, lovable and damned, more than most? Moreover there are at present some forty million Irish-Americans: Irish history has spilled over into American history. The book itself has America as a kind of resonating background: Like the present-day I.R.A., the Fenians are partly financed from here, and they are officered by veterans of the American Civil War. Thus Ned, sergeant of the G.A.R., captain of the I.R.B., and, finally, retired terrorist, dreams of a little house on the Hudson. America is the place where the Irish, like most of us, have come for refuge, be it in the notorious “coffin ships” during the potato famine or by frigates sent to rescue failed rebels. It therefore makes sense that an American should produce a novel of Ireland, the more so because America is to history what Athens once was to tragedy: the chosen place of resolutions. It is both moving and right that an attempt to understand Irish history should be made on the other side of the Atlantic, that ocean whose winds carry the mists that make Ireland green, and on the note of whose name the book fitly closes.
This essay originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 38, No. 2, 1988) and is republished here with gracious permission.
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