War footing: British troops on a trek with Ethiopian ground forces, February 1941. (Photo: Associated Press)
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Bleak and beautiful: The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

The spirit of Conrad hovers over this tale of an alcoholic Irishman serving in the British army out in Africa during WWII.

The Temporary Gentleman 
Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £17.99


Sebastian Barry’s eighth novel opens with Jack McNulty, an Irishman serving in the British army during the Second World War, standing on the deck of a supply ship bound for Africa, a bottle of Scotch blazing through his veins. “It is a beautiful night and no mistake,” says the second lieutenant. The engines growl beneath, and the “sombre philosophical lights of God” hang over them like a benediction. Around is “darkness, a confident brush-stroke of rich, black ink”. We might be in the world of Joseph Conrad, and before he reaches the Gold Coast where, adopting a Kurtz-like persona, he will indulge his heart of darkness, McNulty has a Lord Jim experience. The stillness is ripped apart by an “ear-numbing . . . metallic noise”, the port-side goes up, and the second lieutenant is “suddenly as dead as one of those porpoises you will see washed up on the beach at Enniscrone after a storm”. The ship has been torpedoed; McNulty finds himself pulled down into the “deepest dark, the darkest deepest dark that ever was”. While his companions sink to the bottom of the ocean, the warmth of the whisky keeps his own heart ticking.

We are propelled headlong into the turbulence of The Temporary Gentleman, a bleak and beautiful tale about the wreckage of McNulty, a man who has been drowning for years. Conrad’s spirit hovers throughout, but so, too, does a phrase from Henry James. “I have the imagination of disaster,” James wrote in 1896 – “and see life as ferocious and sinister.”

Barry’s readers have met the McNultys before; each member of the family has been, as he puts it, “blown off the road by history’s hungry breezes”. Jack’s brother, Tom, was the husband of Roseanne McNulty, whose story unfolded in The Secret Scripture. An ancient relic abandoned in an asylum, Roseanne described herself as “a thing left over, a remnant woman”. Jack’s elder brother, another piece of historical flotsam and jetsam, was the subject of Barry’s 1998 novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.

Swallowed up by “a hundred different fates and stories”, Barry’s characters live in “the great belly of the whale of what happens”. Barry, a master of metaphor, is fascinated by the slipperiness of narrative and we slide around a good deal in these pages. The Temporary Gentleman is set in 1957, with Jack McNulty outstaying his welcome in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence. We have no idea why he is here, what he is running away from, or what to make of our protagonist. Nor does McNulty. During the war, he was a “temporary gentleman” – the term given to a man not born into the officer class – but everything about McNulty is temporary. Over the past 20 years he has wandered the world as a solider, an engineer, a UN observer and a gunrunner, but he cannot get away from Ireland. The country is caught in his system like malaria. “Take away the heat and the fucking palm trees and the black skins,” he says of Accra, “and it’s just Ballymena in the rain.”

He plans to return to Sligo, but first he is writing a memoir of his marriage to Mai, the spirited and statuesque beauty he wed against her father’s wishes (it is always fatal, in Barry’s novels, to be born beautiful and Irish). Mai, who remains unknowable to the reader, spends most of her life waiting for her husband to come home. His past is marinated in alcohol, which makes remembering difficult, but this is not the only reason for McNulty’s strange absence from his own story. “Like a hotel-room facing a high, blank wall”, he “lacks a moral view of things”. He records his courtship, his honeymoon and the collapse of his relationship with Mai as though he were a witness rather than the key player. The first sense we get of his disconnection is when the family house, an heirloom passed on to Mai, is suddenly reclaimed; McNulty, it transpires, has been borrowing against it all along.

Mai is as surprised as we are by the revelation of his failings. Her own bag of money, hidden in the back of the cupboard, has also been filched by her husband, to pay gambling debts, bar bills, milliner’s costs. She can no longer look at him; their marriage falls into silence, and then erupts into warlike scenes described by McNulty as though he were recalling an opium trip. Deep in the seabed of his psyche is a nagging awareness that the attempts to ward off, through drink, his own “darkest deepest dark” resulted in Mai’s subsequent alcoholism and the gradual “erasure” of her vivid life “even as she lived it”. His consciousness that he is not a gentleman at all is as vague and persistent as the buzzing of a fly in the next room; McNulty has ruined his own life and the lives of his wife and children, but a fog clouds his understanding of how it all came about, and how these human ruins are linked to the ruin of his country. It is with the utmost care that Barry allows us to glimpse, through a rent in the mist, where McNulty moves and has his being.

The conclusions of Sebastian Barry’s novels can sometimes disappoint, and readers may find the hairpin turn at the close of this one unsatisfying. It is fitting, however, for a tale that begins with such velocity to end on an emergency stop. The subject of The Temporary Gentleman is historical uncertainty; the uncertainty we are left with as we put down this devastating book is unnervingly appropriate.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State