Madness, Guy De Maupassant, and Co Mayo

THERE IS a personal memory of a delightful spring Parisian Saturday morning in 1971 drinking an espresso on the terrace of a café along the Boulevard St Germain and reading a short story by Seán Ó Faoláin entitled The Talking Trees.

At the time I was completing research for a thesis on the short story, focusing on the influence of Guy De Maupassant on the Irish short story, more particularly the work of Pádraic Ó Conaire and Ó Faoláin.

As I finished The Talking Trees I realised that though I had just finished the perfect short story, I would never read it again. While it was technically brilliant, it lacked heart and left me cold.

The memory was vividly revived a couple a weeks ago when a package arrived on my desk from an English publisher I had never heard of before called Telegram.

It contained a circular from the sales manager and a book to be published in May. The book is written by Julia Ó Faoláin, Seán’s daughter now in her 78th year, it is entitled Adam Gould and is set in the early 1890s in a lunatic asylum on the fringes of Paris where one of the more colourful inmates was Guy De Maupassant.

On opening the book, it became immediately apparent that the daughter had learned well from the father and the masterful prose immediately drew the reader into the narration who becomes so immersed s/he finds it impossible to leave the book down until the final page.

As the narration progresses it also becomes clear that whatever heart the father’s writing may have lacked in The Talking Trees, the daughter certainly makes up for in spades in this truly enthralling novel.

Using the lunatic asylum as her focal point, Ó Faoláin first introduces the reader to a basic group of characters, a monsignor who embodies the ecclesiastical penchant for conspiracy; Guy de Maupassant himself whose insanity is driven by a life of degradation but whose caustic observations on life and death set the tone for the novel; the director of the asylum, a fatherly figure who seems to be somewhat out of touch with the political reality around him; and the main protagonist Adam Gould who was driven out of his father’s estate in Co Mayo, joined a seminary, became a failed priest, and through the graces of a rather unconventional uncle gets a job in the asylum.

With consummate ease, Ó Faoláin develops all these basic themes and characters and the reader is moved from monarchists’ hopes to overthrow the French Republic and reinstate their unnamed king, to the exploitation of the Congo by the Belgian King Leopold, to the burgeoning land wars in the west of Ireland, all of which is garnished by a delightful love story and a beautifully underplayed sense of humour.

Reading this book, it is impossible not to admire the storytelling skills of its author not to mention her artistry and her masterful use of the English language.

Adam Gould is a novel in the literary sense of the genre. It contains character development, main plots and subplots, political intrigue, philosophical debate, treachery, and romance. In it there is a host of minor characters that are as fascinating as they are colourful, adding comedy to the dark ambience that permeates the narration. Above all, it is a delightful read.

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