A Taste of McGuinness

Writer and O’Brien Press Sales Administrator, Jamie O’Connell, writes about his experiences at University College Dublin under the tutelage of Frank McGuinness and how it impacted his reading of Arimathea.

In late January 2009, I sat in Room 207 of the Newman Building in University College Dublin. It’d been a particularly cold winter, but this cold Monday morning was an exciting one. It was my first class with Frank McGuinness, as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

I’d heard of Frank McGuinness many times before this first meeting. His plays, like Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Factory Girls, have left their mark both within Ireland and internationally. And when Frank did appear, his passion for writing was immediately evident. The books he enjoyed, he examined with zeal.

We studied Albert Camus’s The Fall in great detail. At the time, I remember finding the book a difficult read and the assigned reading each week was put on the long finger by me, generally until 11pm the night before class. However, in the years that have followed, as various events happened in my life, wisdom from that book, words and quotes, have spontaneously come into my thoughts, making life more understandable. It has given me ‘new eyes’ – something that Marcel Proust described as the fundamental role of fiction. I am grateful that Frank challenged my classmates and me to read it.

Last September, I returned to University College Dublin to complete an MFA in Creative Writing. Frank teaches a seminar on this course too; this time we studied the work of Jane Austen, notably Emma. Throughout our seven seminars, Frank’s love of Austen’s prose, her creation of the small town of Highbury with all its intrigues and dangers, has been an eye opener. His examination of the inner lives of Austen’s protagonists and the dangers lurking in this community, has rekindled my love of this eighteenth century novelist. Those who attended Sean Rocks’ interview with Frank at the Dublin Book Festival on 14 November heard him likewise speak passionately about Austen’s writing (the full interview is available on the RTE Player).

Over the last year, I have encountered Frank and his work through a different avenue again: The O’Brien Press’s publication of his debut novel Arimathea. Nominated for Book of the Year at the The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2013, the novel has lived up to anticipation. Reviews in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times have all been stellar.

Amongst all this, I’ve read the novel. The two semesters with Frank, studying Emma and The Fall, has given me a view of the novel different than most. In the social snobberies, the secret worlds, the intrigues of the Donegal town in Arimathea, I found myself thinking of Austen’s Highbury, with all its social complexities. Rural life is not as simple as impressions would appear. Both Austen and Frank have clear tight prose that drives the novel forward. One glides over the well-crafted sentences. There is nothing sluggish in either.

However, in Arimathea, elements of The Fall also appear. In each character’s monologue truths appear which don’t always show humanity in a favourable light. Yet, there is a departure from The Fall at this point; in the conclusion of Arimathea, humanity is offered a sort of redemption. An act of kindness occurs and the reason for the choice of ‘Arimathea’ as the title becomes evident.

The Sunday Business Post summed it up well: ‘a beautifully bleak first novel’. Humour mixes with pathos, as The Irish Examiner wrote: ‘deeply funny about the absurdities of human behaviour’. Both as a student of Frank’s and as an avid reader, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Arimathea is now available at www.obrien.ie and most good bookshops.