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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit