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MARCH 12, 2021
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Reviewed here: "This Is Happiness" (Novel) by Niall Williams

This Is Happiness (Novel) by Niall Williams, 2019

Very rarely, here at Dilettante’s Diary, we find a book that deserves a page of its own on this website. "This Is Happiness" is one of them.

When I hear about a book that sounds good, I try not to find out too much more about it before forming my own impressions. There’s always the danger of learning too much of the story, thus ruining some of the narrative effect, or being too influenced by other people’s opinions about the book. In this case, I’d simply heard that "This Is Happiness" was an excellent book in which a man in his late seventies is looking back at his youthful days in a small village in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland.

Early on in the book, though, some details raised doubts about the narrator. He was saying that the statues in the village church were all freshly painted and colourful in the week before Easter. Huh? In the Catholicism that I was raised in – the Ontario, Canada version – the statues were shrouded in purple velvet to emphasize the Lenten spirit in the week before Easter. Could things have been done quite differently in Irish Catholicism? A similar question came up regarding the author’s saying that the Te Deum was being sung in the week before Easter. The Te Deum as I know it was only used for celebratory occasions, certainly not in the mournful week commemorating Christ’s passion.

But then I checked the cover and found that the book wasn’t a memoir. It’s a novel. So the author wasn’t recalling his own memories; he was imagining the memories of his first-person narrator. Still, I was pestered by further doubts about the chronological accuracy of the Catholicism being conveyed. (Maybe that’s because the author, Nial Williams, is about ten years younger than the character he’s creating.) On Easter, for instance, a nun arrives by chauffeur-driven car to have dinner with some people at their home. What religious order would allow a nun to do that? As I remember those days, nuns were strictly forbidden from visiting private homes. And, even if they were allowed to, what nun would leave her community to join other people on the year’s greatest feast day? It began to seem that the author’s research into those times was somewhat iffy.

Setting aside my quibbles about such matters, however, I decided to try to take the novel for the best on its own terms. And what terms! Once you surrender to the spell of the writing, it’s like being in a trance. You have to read slowly; you could skip through quickly to get the story, or plot if you want to call it that, but you’d be missing the best of what the book has to offer. I can’t think of any recent novel that has plunged me so thoroughly into a world that’s so different from the one I know. You come away from this book feeling enriched by the world view of someone who experiences life more deeply and more fully than the rest of us ordinarily do. As for any other book that gives me such deep understanding of what it means to be human, that offers such unexpected and striking observations about life, maybe Marilynne Robinson’s "Housekeeping" would be a precedent.

The narrator of "This Is Happiness" is Noel Crowe – better known as “Noe” – and he’s telling about the summer he spent with his grandparents in the village of Faha. At age seventeen, he’d just left the seminary, thereby making himself what the Irish called “a failed priest.” Some people are praying that he’ll still become a priest – that nun who arrives for Easter dinner, for instance – because they’re sure that’s what his deceased mother wanted. Noe himself is none too sure about his future; he watches the build-up of religious fervour in the village with a detached passivity.

The story, such as it is, begins to gather momentum when Noe’s alone in the cottage one day while his grandparents are at church. A traveller arrives, a middle-aged man, who introduces himself as Christy. It turns out that he works for the electricity company and he’s going to be visiting every family to try to persuade them to sign up for the electricity that’s soon going to be brought to the village. Unbeknownst to Noe, his grandmother has offered to let Christy share the cottage’s sleeping loft with Noe.

Christy has a worldly air about him, some hint of a mysterious past. We’ll find out eventually that he has his own private reasons for coming to work in Faha. Back to that first encounter, though, after he has introduced himself to Noe, he tries to light a cigarette but can’t find his matches. Noe goes into the cottage to get a light from the fire but when he comes out there’s no sign of Christy. Then he spots Christy’s clothes in a heap down by the river. Christy emerges from the water and, stark naked, comes forward to greet Noe’s grandparents as they’re returning from church.

The relationship that develops between Noe and Christy is too close, too elemental to be called a friendship. More like a mentor/student connection or a master/disciple arrangement, yet not without the bonding that goes with friendship. As Noe says, Christy was one of those people who “change the air about them.” Also: “He walked this line between the comic and the poignant, between the certainly doomed and the hopelessly hopeful.” You might say that it’s Christy who brings Noe out of the world of the church and the seminary, enabling him to find out what life is like for himself, rather than what his elders have envisioned for him. For lack of anything else to do, Noe accompanies Christy on his visits to the village homes to boost the sign-up for the electricity. In the evenings the two of them head off on bicycles to try to find some of the native Irish music that is the glory of the surrounding pubs.

To give some idea of the beauty of this writing, I’ll list outstanding samples from different categories:

DESCRIPTIONS

One of the main aspects of the story is that it’s all taking place in a rare period of warmth and sunshine such as the village has seldom experienced. Here’s the author’s description of the more common weather, the rain: “It came off the gray vastness of an Atlantic that threw itself against the land like a lover once spurned and resolved not to be so again. It came accompanied by seagulls and smells of salt and seaweed. It came with cold air and curtained light. It came like a judgement, or, in benign version, like a blessing God had forgotten he had left on.”

“Down in the village Tom Joyce was tolling the angelus bell, the sound like silver rings thrown one after the other across the sky.”

“There were cattle standing in the puzzle of puddles gone, the ground hardening and the grass sweetening as it sucked the sun out of the sky.”

When Noe has attributed good intentions to someone who was being villified: “It was as though I had opened a box from which a white dove had risen and flew now about the kitchen, the sense of goodness being just as outlandish.”

“He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

PROFOUND THOUGHTS, WISDOM

"Books, music, painting are not life, can never be as full, rich, complex, surprising or beautiful, but the best of them can catch an echo of that, can turn you back to look out the window, go out the door aware that you’ve been enriched, that you have been in the company of something alive that has caused you to realise once again how astonishing life is, and you leave the book, gallery or concert hall with that illumination, which feels I’m going to say holy, by which I mean human raptness."

Christy says: “Human beings are creations more profound than human beings can fathom.” That’s one of the proofs of God’s existence. “There’s no other explanation.”

SOCIOLOGY, COMMENTARY ON VILLAGE LIFE

About parking cars in Faha. “The drivers didn’t mind if they just landed in the general vicinity of where they were headed, let out the children and the old people and the neighbours who had God-blessed the car when they got in and God-blessed the driver when they got out.”

Regarding a certain pub: “...it was a place of despair, it was where there was no further to fall, where you could hunker down and linger in the dark and because your company was like-minded and likewise afflicted, you would not have to face the fact of how far you had descended.”

“It seems to me there was little culture of complaint then. I may be wrong here, but in my thinking hardship had been part of history for so long it had become a condition of life. There was no expectation things could, or would, be otherwise. You got on with it, and through faith, family and character accommodated as best you could whatever suffering and misfortune was yours.”

“As the river sang on, soft and blind in the distance, not for the first nor last time was there the sense that Faha had slipped its moorings and slid away from the country, which sped on, without noticing the lack.”

About the recitation of the rosary: “By native decree, and the proven truth that no nation spoke faster, punctuation in prayer had been long ago dispensed with, breathless delivery was acceptable to the Lord who could pause, parse and separate the string of prayers in His own time”

A certain taciturn character “was not from the parish and hadn’t the local idiom of speaking without saying anything.”

NOE'S ATTITUDE AS STORY-TELLER AND HIS VIEW OF HIS CHARACTER BACK IN THE DAY

After acknowledging the cruelty and meanness that are part of the human lot in Faha, as elsewhere, Noe says: “... but as I’ve grown older the instances and stories of them seem less compelling, as if God has inbuilt in me a spirit of clemency I wasn’t aware of when younger.”

“My main point is, it seems to me every life has a few gleaming times, times when things were brighter, more intense and urgent, had more life in them I suppose. In mine, this was one.”

“On a seventeen-year-old, indifference is both common mask and shield, and remoteness was a native trait then.”

About his having tried to be a better man: “I write this now, having come to realise it’s a lifelong pursuit, that once begun will not end this side of the graveyard. With this I have made an old man’s accommodation and am reconciled to the fruits of a fruitless endeavour. I don’t torture myself with my failures, but when I was seventeen I did little else.”

On his attempt to forgive what he saw as reprehensible behaviour: “Doing the Christian thing, I was to realise, was maybe only achieved by Christ.”

“Now there’s a cruelty easily available in mocking your younger self. However, I don’t want to fall to that here. I want to have generosity of spirit. I want to let him be as he was, honour him in all his innocence and, I’m going to say, purity.”

PSYCHOLOGY, HUMAN NATURE

“So compelling is the evidence of our own eyes and ears, so swift is your mind to assemble your own version of the story, that one of the hardest things in this world is to understand there’s another way of seeing things.”

“...it’s human nature to dream, and in the vexed nature of marriage to hope time will harmonise the irreconcilable.”

About his father: “I’m older now than he was when he died and appreciate something of what it must have taken for him to stay living. It’s a thing you can’t quite grasp, I think, until you wake up an old man or woman and have to negotiate the way.”

“When you’ve been raised inside a religion, it’s not a small thing to step outside it. Even if you no longer believe in it, you can feel its absence.”

“Sometimes a moment pierces so perfectly the shields of our everyday it becomes part of you and enjoys the privilege of being immemorial.”

“As always in moments of catastrophe, meaning was separated from the sounds of the words...”

“...when the first key was wound and the whole clockwork of man and woman was first set going, love was where everyone was trying to get to.”

A person who is dying finds out that “an endless humility was what was required of us in the last act.”

“As I think I’ve said, there are some memories you can’t lean on. You sense the railings of them but you don’t reach out a hand.”

Just occasionally, you come to a sentence that sounds a little too literary. For example, this description of Noe and Christy trying to exit a pub: “...Christy had his arm hooked in mine and now sailed we gallants out the door.” On hearing that a Mrs O’Dea is dying, Noe says: “...the image of a doorway through which Mrs O’Dea was to pass was carpentered into reality.” Sometimes the narrator gets carried away with emotion, which leads to long sentences – one of them being nineteen lines long. This can be an effective technique but it’s beginning to be over-used by authors, I find.

On the other hand, there are the sentences that require slow reading. Some readers might be deterred by them, but I find them well worthwhile. Such as the following:

"In the fields, cattle, memories dissolved by so many liquid mornings, noons and nights, had forgotten they dreamed of April grass, and, by a clemency reserved for those who live placid in a perpetual now, standing in a green sweetness forgot the cold muck-grazing of February."

One of the most striking relationships – although it’s under-played and not at all dramatic – is the one between Noe’s grandparents. When he was little, he knew them as Ganga (the grandfather) and Doady (the grandmother). Doady is shrewd, skeptical, hard-working and bossy. Ganga is sweet-tempered, kindly, placid and uncomplaining. While Doady might be seen as something of a stereotype in some stories, I’ve seldom encountered such a lovely man as Ganga. Granted, he’s not much of a worker and his efforts at keeping the farm going seem ineffectual, but it’s hard to find fault with a man who is so well-disposed towards his fellow human beings. His response to almost any downfall is a compassionate “O now!” Regarding one unfortunate accident, Ganga wasn’t interested in blaming anybody, “because he lived outside of the jurisdiction of all judgement and thought everyone was always doing their best.” When, in the aftermath of that accident, someone offered tea, Ganga didn’t balk at the unfamiliar Early Grey, because, the offer of tea was “kindness itself.”

Doady complains about Ganga’s mixing up the knives and forks in the drawer. But when Noe sees his grandparents at a moment when they’re recognizing the encroaching debilities of their age, “...it was all I could do not to be overwhelmed by the presence of love.”

Although the book moves very quietly, with hardly any remarkable drama in it, some scenes can be hugely suspenseful. This can be the case even in a quiet encounter with dialogue that amounts to very simple statements. Sometimes the tension in these scenes was so great that I used a piece of paper to cover the up-coming dialogue for fear that my eye would jump ahead to see what the outcome was, without proceeding through the scene step-by-step as the author intended.

The title of the book comes from a comment of Christy’s. He’s had a disappointment that strikes Noe as devastating. One evening when they’re trudging down the road, Noe tentatively asks why Christy wasn’t more downtrodden about this setback. To Noe’s astonishment, Christy simply takes a deep breath and says: “Noe, this is happiness.” Noe takes this to mean that you can stop at any point in your life “...and, no matter what the state of your head or heart, say This is happiness, because of the simple truth that you were alive to say it.”

What more could I say?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com