Kathleen--A Dublin Saga by Brian Behan (St. Martin’s Press: $17.95; 304 pages)
Brendan Behan’s brother--and how it must irk Brian Behan to be billed so even now, but so it is--has here set down a fictional re-creation of what it must have been like to be the Behan boys’ mother, and the Dublin she grew up in. As such, “Kathleen--A Dublin Saga” is an admirable act of piety.
Brian will never be the writer Brendan is, however. (His prose style isn’t as good and his material not as flashy.) Brian settles for a kind of generic Irish-ese: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone. Her Uncle Ned used to say that. Her people were strong people; they would live on in their descendants. Great red-faced farmers they had been, with hands as big as shovels. Her granny strong as any man standing, her feet plowing through strong, rich earth. Kathleen’s roots went deep and she hoped that someday her body in returning to the soil would bear flowers on her grave.”
Too Much Prose
Speaking as a person whose mother’s maiden name was Sullivan, I can say a little of this kind of prose goes a pretty long way.
Brian goes back to the youth of young Kathleen--remember, that’s his fictionalized mother. Until Kathleen’s father’s death, the family (here given the fictional name of Corr) had enjoyed some material prosperity.But once he dies, Kathleen and her siblings are left in the care of their mother, who must turn her boys over to the Jesuits to raise, and Kathleen and her older sister, Maggie, are given over to the nuns.
No more tea, sausage, no more soda bread! No more roaring fires. Just the drafts and chills and shame of an Irish convent, while their mother takes in sewing in a dreary tenement room, wastes away and dies.
But what’s this? James Joyce comes to Kathleen’s mother’s wake. Everybody has a wonderful time. Already, Maggie is working down at the Abbey Theater. Kathleen, after she gets out of the convent, becomes a paid companion for a wealthy Anglo-Irish.
And by this time, you’re stuck with both a book and an attitude that really is vintage Ireland and vintage American: The making of something special out of something that might not have been all that special, as in: We had trouble affording a coffin for our mother’s funeral, but James Joyce was there! Or, the tenements of Dublin were unsanitary, rat-ridden, dark, damp and filled with germs, but you should have been to the parties that they had over in those filthy places. They really knew how to live!
Part of the trouble with the narrative here is that although Kathleen lived through many of the uprisings and riots that tore through Dublin (and she took many a message from here to there and back again), she was mostly an observer; a marginal creature at best. (In “The Charterhouse of Parma,” Stendahl makes this device work, but Behan is no Stendahl.)
Also, as a woman, Kathleen is seen here as the sum of her relationships: As someone’s sweetheart, someone’s wife, someone’s mother. Her lover is a tiresome person. Her first husband dies of the influenza, her second husband’s a two-timing drinker with a bad personality. Again, finding something special in the ordinary is the challenge here. And, Brian Bhan doesn’t quite make the cut.
His last chance comes with his portrait of his brother (who wrote the justly famous “Borstal Boy”), but Brian can’t let his brother shine. There may be old scores to settle here, and the famous brother is shown not just as a convict but as bisexual, a family embarrassment.
Again, those who have read Mary Gordon (especially her essay on the Irish writer’s relationship to his or her own family) will recognize the pattern: Glorify the failure, insist on his or her triumph, then cut the famous mercilessly down to size. James Joyce recognized the pattern and bailed out fast--just after he paid his respects at Kathleen’s funeral.