We're delighted to present an extract from The Woodcutter and His Family, the new novel by celebrated playwright and author Frank McGuinness, published by Brandon/The O’Brien Press.
Zurich. January 1941. The World War intensifies in Europe. A writer breathes his last, imagining his life till now from his childhood in Dublin. The voices of his family circling him – wife, son, daughter – carry him to his end as he hears each separate chapter chronicling the power of their passion for their famous father, their love, their hate, their need, their sorrows and joys, their strangeness. And James Joyce has saved for them one last story to delight and defy them – ‘The Woodcutter and His Family’.
On the day I was born my father set himself the task of learning to lip-read. Why a man so prodigiously talented in the acquisition of the earth’s languages should undertake such a challenge has always and ever baffled me. Perhaps it baffled himself. Who can say?
He never spoke of it again, so it fell to my mother to confess this strange feat many years after he had committed himself to this pursuit. There was no necessity for it. None of us was deaf, and neither was any of his family dumb. Did he wish us to be?
Could that be what he was looking for, silence? The great man of letters, celebrated the globe over, did he above all else wish to escape from our chattering and retreat where nothing could trouble him but his meanderings and motives, known only to his own sweet self? I cannot tell you an answer to that, for I failed to ask him when he was hale and hearty enough to reply. It was one of many failures which he forgave me. Indeed he forgave us all without complaint, no matter how many times we had let him down – in thought, in word, and in deed. The most benevolent of famous men, Papa.
He forgave that I was born too early. Poor Mama had such a fright. She’d firmly maintained I would not arrive until the end of August. Even September. When she started to feel sore and sick in her stomach, she cursed what she’d had for breakfast. I blame the Famine, the Irish Famine, she said, I blame it for everything that afflicts us as a race, but more than anything I blame it because I can never ever waste a morsel of food, and the consequence is I have nearly poisoned myself on numerous occasions, forcing down rancid meat a rat would not digest, and that’s what I did this morning, choosing not to throw into the bin a slice of ham but instead smothered it in butter between two bits of bread and convinced myself it was fit to eat. Look at me now, poisoned – all my own fault, don’t pity me.
And he was not going to encourage her to rant further on the Famine. It was one of her dominant topics of conversation. She could link it to every misfortune that befell our family – even Hitler. I cannot for the life of me remember how she forged a precise connection between the two, but can recall that, when she did, Papa told her she was the most ridiculous woman he’d ever married. She burst into tears as he was correcting himself and said he meant met, not married.
She took this to imply that all the years he’d kept her from a state of wedlock, they had nothing to do with his hatred of the Catholic sacrament but were merely another way of humiliating an innocent poor Galway girl who’d abandoned all to serve him, the dirty Dublin rogue.
You only wanted me for my stories, she accused him. No, he corrected her, it was to save you from the Famine. That would have been a kindness years ago in 1845, she said, are you implying I am over a hundred and I look it? Yes, he said, if it pleases you. It didn’t.
A similar row was threatening to develop on the day of my birth, 27 July. I mentioned the ham she had been wolfing, didn’t I? But did I let slip that my father had no intention of staying with her that day? No, he’d planned to go swimming, and she’d happily let him, because he always returned in peaceful mood; immersion in water seeming to placate him, as if he’d endured another Baptism, welcomed into the fold of civilised men who could show a modicum of respect to their wives. Go on, enjoy yourself, I am fine, she informed him. He believed her for there was not a chance in hell she was in labour.
But she was. As soon as Papa closed the door, she knew it for sure, yet would she give him the satisfaction of calling him back to convince him why she was so certain? How many babies had she seen born in the west of Ireland? How many women had she witnessed in the throes of their agony? Strong, strapping lassies, full of devilment and laughing fit to burst their sides. Well, boyo, birthing put a stop to their smiling.
Still, she maintained she was cut from Connemara granite. She was no soft caramel. She could endure it. And she prayed he would come back to be with her. Prayed to the Virgin most pure, Star of the Sea, pray for the wanderer, pray for me. And whether it was indeed the Virgin worked her miracle and let him hear, or whether it was he found a hole in his red swimming costume that rendered it indecent, back he came to the second-floor flat, Via S Niccolo, 30, Trieste, to find her in deepest agony. He called for the landlady, Signora Canarutto, to assist them like a good woman – for the love of the divine Jesus, my mother added, forgetting in the panic the Signora was Jewish.
Not that such things mattered in times of this nature, although when we’d last crossed the border into Switzerland my father had to convince the relevant authorities we were indeed Aryan. A long way down the line of my life till that would happen. Now the necessity was to make preparations for my birth. The presence of my papa and her neighbours calmed my mother, she said. All her life her greatest dread was that she would die alone, or, more specifically, that she would bleed to death and no one there to stop the flow. She felt sure now she would not have to endure such a death. Hence, she was more than content to let everything be done for her. Quite the lady of leisure, am I not? she joked. No one found it funny.
Of course the midwife must be in attendance, and so they fetched her, a Giuseppina Scaber. She looked like a reverend mother, but not one to put the fear of God in you, nor had she the look that, at a moment’s asking, the devil and all his demons would possess her and allow her tear you limb by limb for having the cheek to pry into what was not your business by asking for something – anything – to relieve your pain.
The Woodcutter and His Family (Brandon/The O’Brien Press) is out now.
About The Author: Frank McGuinness is Professor of Creative Writing at University College Dublin. A world-renowned, award-winning playwright, his first great stage hit was the highly acclaimed Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. His other plays include The Factory Girls, Innocence, Carthaginians, Someone Who’ll Watch over Me, Dolly West’s Kitchen and many more. His adaptations of classic plays include Lorca’s Yerma; Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya; Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and dramatisations of James Joyce’s The Dead and Du Maurier’s Rebecca. His television screenplays include Scout, The Hen House, Talk of Angels, Dancing at Lughnasa, A Short Stay in Switzerland and A Song for Jenny. His first novel, Arimathea, was published by Brandon/O’Brien Press in 2013.