Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Pen Friend

Last month when I was writing about John Banville and listing other admirable living Irish fiction writers here, there was one I forgot. And that would be Ciaran Carson, best known as a poet. Blackstaff Press published his recent novel, The Pen Friend.

Each chapter opens with the reproduction of a post card. Chapter one, above, shows the Empire State Building struck by lightning on July 9th, 1945. The postcard below represents the Vermeer that was stolen on two separate occasions in the late 20th century from the same country house – and recovered twice – before settling into its present home at the National Gallery in Dublin.

The material world is described in fanatical detail throughout the book, but it is a faded and obsolete world viewed through multiple layers of memory. Certain classes of objects recur on page after page – fountain pens, paintings, bodies of water, elaborately furnished rooms, phonograph records, the fabrics that constitute people's clothing, the perfumes women wear – as if the past could be retrieved by cataloging a range of relics that make their remote appeals to all five of the senses.

"I write to try to see you as you were, or what you have become. You left no forwarding address: that was part of your intention. For when we wrote those letters to each other all those years ago, we wrote as much for ourselves as for each other: as much to ourselves as to each other. Promising to be in touch, you drifted out of the XL Café. Your perfume lingered. Arpège, that's what it was, not L'Air du Temps. Jasmine and rose borne by musk with a hint of sparkling green in its depths."