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With Karl and Groucho

Billy Mills

Brazilian Tequila: A Journey into the Interior, by Augustus Young, Matador, 160 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1785899874

The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin (1934), by Augustus Young, Labyrinth Books (2017), 222 pp, £6.31, ISBN: 978-1872468853

Augustus Young has remained one of the great perennial outsiders of Irish writing over the last forty-odd years. The publication in 1972 of his first full-length collection of poetry, On Loaning Hill, from the New Writers Press (NWP) marked the emergence of a distinctive new voice in Irish poetry. The ninety plus poems in the book show an acute sensibility and an interest in formal experimentation that was untypical of the younger poets published by the press, who generally eschewed what Young has referred to as the “reach for the shovel” tendency.

However, although Young became personally close to Brian Coffey, who was something of a NWP totem, he was never really influenced by the older poet and his next two books, Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) and Rosemaries. A Verse Sequence, saw him become more engaged with syllabic verse structures and autobiographical themes, with an increasing facility for rhyme. These strands came together in The Credit. A Comedy of Empeiria, published in 1980, a fictional bildungsroman in syllabic ottava rima that is also a social satire of some ferocity.  When The Credit. Book Two / Book Three appeared six years later it consisted of a mix of that same verse structure and a type of rhymed open field composition in the form of a kind of Brechtian epic drama. It was now clear that Young was doubly outside, associated with the Irish avant garde, as represented by NWP, but unwilling to conform to narrow notions of the experimental.

In addition to poetry, he expanded his range, writing fictionalised memoirs (or autofictions, as he calls them), somewhat in the vein of Aidan Higgins, translations, especially from Brecht and Mayakovsky, and cordels, a Brazilian folk form with something of the moral tone of the Robin Hood ballads, in his combined study/translation/original verse work Lampion and His Bandits: Literature of the Cordel in Brazil. Among his more recent books is m.emoire, a memoir/elegy in prose and verse for his late wife, Margaret McKinnon Morrison. This year has seen the publication of two prose books that reflect his protean range.

Brazilian Tequila is a prose memoir that grew out of a trip to Brazil as part of his research for the cordel book, an adventure that was made possible by Young’s alter ego, James Hogan, epidemiologist. A fellow doctor, Pedrinho Diaz, whom he met once at a conference and with whom he has conducted a decade-long correspondence on life, love and literature invites Young/Hogan to visit Brazil to meet Ubaldo Ribeiro, one of the author’s literary heroes and a friend of Diaz. The meeting with Ribeiro never materialises, but what does unfold is a journey into the heart of Brazilian gombeen politics and a final rejection of the attitude to life that underpins it, with, in parallel, the end of a friendship.

In addition to being a comfortably staid member of the urban professional elite, Pedrinho, it turns out, is the new feudal overlord, or colonel, of his native village. At the heart of the book is a visit to the said village, in which he assumes his new authority and receives homage from his vassals. Young uses the opportunity to hear and collect cordels, but this is secondary to the main narrative, that of a European sensibility coming up against a culture of superstition, corruption and clientelist politics, including an attempt to draw the author/narrator into a scheme by the minister of health to defraud the state via an entirely spurious cholera campaign.

Despite his long residence in London, it’s hard to avoid the implication, never spelled out, that this situation was all too familiar to anyone who had grown up in Ireland. The nearest this gets to bubbling up is towards the end of the visit when the narrator is arguing with the local teacher and states: “Injustice is the same everywhere. Brazil doesn’t have a monopoly on it.” This exchange takes place around the point of crisis, when the struggle between the temptation to go with the Brazilian flow of acceptance and escape (as, for example, in the singing of cordels) meets the moral imperative to reject injustice, wherever it is found.

Morality wins out, albeit with some ambivalence, and the narrator decides to leave the country as quickly as possible, not without regret at the loss of friendship but with a legacy to carry with him: “I could always return to the serãto in my mind’s eye. What was a black and white world before I went there had been lightened by unbelievably blue skies with passing clouds that promise more than they deliver, the watery greens of the serras, ochre highways.” This Brazil of the mind enables and illuminates Young’s cordel versions, allowing him to celebrate their art while remaining critical of the world that produces it.

Brazilian Tequila is an interesting companion piece to Young’s earlier memoirs of literary London, a world that Brazil was meant in some ways to be an escape from, and is written with his characteristically exuberant fluency. It’s a handsome paperback, with an eye-catching cover, readable font and ample white space on the pages of good quality paper. It’s a pity that it is poorly edited, with numerous typos that intrude unfortunately into the pleasure of the reader.

Superficially, The Invalidity of All Guarantees is a bit more of a rough and ready production, although this is more than compensated for by immaculate proofreading and an equally readable font selection. The book is an unstageable play for two voices, consisting of “conjectural reconstructions” of twenty “exchanges” between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin during the latter’s stay in Brecht’s house in Denmark in the summer of 1934. The exchanges are punctuated by poems, mostly translated or adapted from Brecht originals, but with a few by Young in the Brechtian style.

These two giants of mid-twentieth century German letters were in exile, driven from home by the rise of Hitler, and this backdrop inevitably colours their conversations, but it can’t be said to fully dominate them. They range across the role of ideas in art, the public versus the private, the role of the audience, love, happiness, knowledge, Marx (Karl and Groucho) and racism. Young uses the two men to explore these themes in much the same way that Plato used Socrates and his other characters to explore the philosophical questions that concerned them. This passage, from the fifth exchange on originality of ideas, gives a fair sense of the tenor of the conversation:

BB: As a good Marxist I don’t adhere to the principle of non-contradiction. I always say what suits my purposes. I’ve my principles, like Groucho Marx. ‘If you don’t like them I have more’, and I don’t think he was quoting his illustrious namesake. Although Karl made a principle of accepting contradictions.
WB: I can’t be much of a Marxist then? Karl or Groucho. I try not to contradict myself, and my principles aren’t anybody’s.

Here we see a pattern of interaction established: Brecht pragmatic, somewhat facetious, a public figure, successful playwright, the artist as one who does; Benjamin inclined towards idealism, private, writing a study of Kafka, the artist as one who feels. The book plays out as a two-handed dance of these complementary views on the role of the artist. Benjamin seeks “clear expressions of clarity”, Brecht wants simple clarity, arguing that a “deep need must sometimes be approached superficially”. Where Brecht, the practical man of the theatre, declares himself content with the plaudits of the public, Benjamin, the archetypical scholar at his library desk, looks to posterity. When the book ends, Benjamin is retiring to sleep, Brecht going to his studio to write.

All this is, of course, conjectural, Young’s imagining of what conversation might have passed between the two men. Inevitably, there is a strong temptation to read the book in the light of our contemporary political landscape: the rise of the far right; widespread institutional racism; an increase in the number of people finding themselves living as political exiles. This element is certainly there in this multi-layered work, but equally valid is a reading of the dialogues as an internal argument, a “dialogue of self and soul” between the sardonic, Brechtian Young of The Credit and the tender, affectionate, disconsolate Young of m.emoire. In the end, the two are reconciled by a shared, if diverging, concern with art and truth, and the truth in art, and by the need to learn to live in some sense of community. Or, as the Brecht character has it, “we have to live with our fellows’ doubts and beliefs, fears and complacencies. It’s an imperfect world. What’s the point in throwing up your hands in despair?”

The Invalidity of All Guarantees is a typical Augustus Young book, in that it is quite unlike any of his others. It’s also quite unlike any other book by an Irish (or any) author that you’re likely to read this year, or this decade for that matter. He is one of our part-hidden treasures, a writer who deserves to be read with the same serious frivolousness he revels in while writing. But don’t take my word for it; find out for yourselves.

1/11/2017

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, and critic. He was born in Dublin in 1954. He spent some years in Spain and the UK and currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively. His other writings on Coffey can be found in Other Edens and on his Elliptical Movements blog.

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