There’s a line in The Temporary Gentleman, near the end of the book, that slapped me right across the face. It was electric, a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky. Sitting outside on my patio, enjoying the surprisingly warm and pleasant day, it nearly tossed me out of my chair from the force of it. Not because it was upsetting. Rather, it sums up in one very short line all the novels he’s written. If he were close enough to me I could pick up the phone and call him I would have, yelling in his ear THIS IS IT. This is why you write! Did you realize it when you put it down? Was the decision conscious? Did you expect observant readers to pick up on it?
In my mind’s eye I grabbed him by the lapels, so anxious to tell him I knew and understood, because it’s a question I’ve struggled with my whole life as well. It’s life experience coupled with an eerily similar family history I share with him – Sebastian Barry the writer. In my excitement I wished I had someone to tell, someone who’d read and related to his work the way I have. But there’s no such person in my life, alas, save him, who isn’t so much really there in the sense I can freely interact. Complex, a bit.
I was going to quote the line here, then decided against it. Before I do so – if I ever do – I want to show it to him. He’ll be in the Chicago area next month. He’ll get it, I know he will. And to me it’s now so blatantly obvious he may wonder at the strength of my reaction, as in didn’t you already know that?
But strong it was, like the percussive blast of a bomb.
The core of The Temporary Gentleman addresses love and why we disappoint, often destroy those we care most about. Jack McNulty is Barry’s grandfather, Jack’s ethereally beautiful wife Mai his grandmother. Jack loves Mai immediately upon setting eyes on her, on the university campus. Her hair is jet black, she’s tall, thin and animated. And he, believing he had nothing particular to recommend himself, feels cowed yet drawn to her by an irrepressible force greater than himself. It doesn’t happen instantly that she falls for him, or perhaps indulges him out of what reason who can say. But eventually she does and they marry.
The wedding scene is among the most powerful in the novel. Indeed, ranking among the most powerful I’ve ever read. That which follows the exchanging of vows, I mean. Mai runs from Jack out into the rain, ripping off her veil, giving her wedding ring to a poor child in the street, leaving a trail suggesting she wants and expects him to follow while a part of her cannot bear it. The rain is torrential. He can barely see her to follow. And in the end he’s holding her, standing in the water. She knows, senses what their union means. On what level I don’t believe she realizes it: I love you and I hate you, with equal violence. And he? Oh, I believe he knows it, as well. Yet he longs for her, tells himself he can protect her and love her and make her forget. All is delusion we convince ourselves to believe.
“… As soon as I moved away, she was gone, moving at speed to the garden wall, and was over it swiftly, and splashed down into the flooded field. She waded twenty feet out towards God knew what limit of the ground, where surely she would imminently plunge underwater and be lost. I cleared the wall myself and sloshed along in the murky floodwaters, trying to catch up with her, alarmed by the darkness of everything, the indistinctness. Then she stopped and I came up behind her. I saw her shoulders fall. I could hear her crying, a sound I don’t think I had ever heard from her before. Her crying was oddly deep, and I was horribly affrighted by it.
‘I want to go back,’ she said.
‘You want to go back where?’
‘I want to go back, I want to go back,’ she said.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
I stepped closer to her and put my two hands on her hips either side, and then when she made no obvious objection, put my arms around her, and stood as close to her as I could. I was fearful of knocking her over, on the rough ground beneath us. It was very surprising that, soaked as she was, coatless and hatless, in the vicious storm, her body under the silk was as warm as a running engine.
‘I have my wedding ring to a little beggar girl.’
‘I got it back,’ I said, ‘I gave her a shilling for it.’
‘Poor mite of a thing she was.'”
Mai has surrendered. And Jack accepted her price.
Two children follow, both girls (the older Barry’s mother). To all outward appearances Mai loves her children. Her firstborn, at least. Not long after the birth of her second daughter, Ursula, Jack learns his wife never wanted the child, attempting to abort her in the bathtub. But we bury things, don’t we, in our great capacity for denial? Mai is lovely, his heart beats for her or he believes it does, the same thing virtually. She adores Maggie, spoils her with love and attention, takes her to market every week and gently combs out her hair checking for nits. Surely she loves Ursula, as well? Loving your children is natural, thus she must. Mustn’t she?
On a later furlough from the army, unexpected by Mai, he shows up at his door and is struck with horror. Mai is in a righteous fury, beating Ursula, who kneels in the snow in her nightgown. Mai is a woman possessed; her hatred driving her mad. This is not the beginning of their rift but certainly the shift is palpable. His defenseless child at the hands of his furious wife. Is it any wonder part of his heart turns to stone, seeing hers has long since?
The girls grow up in a war zone, as real and violent as Jack’s service in the army. The screaming and the drunkenness, the violence and fearfulness. The girls shake in bed hearing it. But no matter the peaceful interludes, Jack and Mai beat each other to death, carrying the girls along with them. No, not a literal death but it may as well have been.
Why do we destroy each other, manifest our disappointment and self-hatred outward? Why has Mai turned into a virago and why has Jack let her virtually destroy their older child?
What force impelled Mai to swallow her certainty her marriage would mean the death of her soul, yet never stop loving Jack?
And why does this cycle never end, not breed out of the species.
The Temporary Gentleman follows in the steps of its predecessors. It rips the heart to shreds in its insistence the reader listen, feel the reality of the twin passions love and hate, ending with the humming of a note vibrating through humanity: inevitable remorse that dared not rise before it’s forced.
Why so bleak? Why so depressing? Indeed, why.
And it’s beautiful and it’s lyrical. Not Sebastian Barry’s most soaring but even on a bad day the man can write rings around everyone else.
Impartial? No. Resonating as deeply as literature can? Yes.
Like, dislike, should you read the book? You have my thoughts and know yourselves. What do you think, not me. How much raw emotion can you endure, how deep a study of humanity would you like? And how much “terrible beauty” can you see before it blinds you.
Because all of this is Sebastian Barry. And so this is why, for me: the huge, unanswerable why.