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Novels and Novelists

The Magic Door

page 288

The Magic Door

Adam of Dublin — By Conal O'Riordan
Forgotten Realms — By Bohun Lynch

These two novels have this in common—each is an attempt to re-enter the kingdom of childhood. We confess we are not of those who think all is to be gained by letting the children write for themselves. Poetic peeps from the perambulator, revels among rattles, and picture exhibitions which consist of houses smoking furiously at the chimneys and the behinds of little black cats sitting in front of the fire are very diverting now and again, but how far they restore to us our vision of that other time is quite a different matter. How shall a child express what is for us the essence of childhood—its recognition of the validity of the dream? It is implicit in the belief of the child that the dream exists side by side with reality; there are no barriers between. It is only after he has suffered the common fate of little children—after he has been stolen away by the fairies—that the changeling who usurps his heritage builds those great walls which confront him when he will return. But to return is not to be a child again. What the exile, the wanderer, desires is to be given the freedom of his two worlds again—that he may accept reality and live by the dream. And therefore the childhood that we look back upon and attempt to recreate must be—if it is to satisfy our longing as well as our memory—a great deal more than a catalogue of infant pleasures and pangs. It must have, as it were, a haunting light upon it.

Let us take, for instance, Mr. O'Riordan's novel ‘Adam of Dublin.’ It is the story of a little boy's life from the age of eight to the age of twelve, yet it is told in such a way that, in spite of the intense vividness of Adam's personal adventures, they become for us a symbol of the adventures of the child spirit in this bungled world. If ever reality looked loweringly upon a little child, that page 289 child was Adam; but what power has it over him? For the moment it is real as the nightmare is real; it is, almost, part of the nightmare, like his father's porter bottle; it is as quickly escaped and forgotten:

He went to sleep and dreamed that her ladyship was something between a unicorn and a road-roller, with several tails, to each of which was tied a flaming sardine-tin, and as many heads, crowned by helmets of that fashion affected by the Dublin Metropolitan police. Her ladyship had run him down in Mount joy Court, and … was about to put him into one or more of the sardine-tins when he woke with a scream, was soundly chastised by Mr. Macfadden with the fortunately convenient porter bottle; and, after he had recovered from the shock, fell into a peaceful and refreshing slumber.

And yet if we consider what place it is that Adam escapes into, what is the nature of his other world, it again seems to be contained in reality. The difference is that in the one he is a stranger, in the other—the world in which he prays to ‘Holy Mary her Virgin,’ and kisses Caroline Brady in the tunnel, and reads, by the light of his bull's-eye lantern, Mr. Yeats' or Mr. Keats' poem ‘The Beautiful Lady Without Thankyou,’ or sits in Josephine's lap while he kisses her—he is at home.

What do we mean when we speak of the atmosphere of a novel? It is one of those questions exceedingly difficult to fit with an answer. It is one of those questions which, each time we look at them, seem to have grown. At one time ‘emotional quality’ seemed to cover it, but is that adequate? May not a book have that and yet lack this mysterious covering? Is it the impress of the writer's personality upon his work—the impress of the writer's passion—more than that? Dear Heaven! there are moments when we are inclined to take our poor puzzled mind upon our knee and tell it: ‘It is something that happens to a book after it is written. It droppeth page 290 like the gentle dew from Heaven upon the book beneath.’ Or to cry largely: ‘You feel a book either has it, whatever it is, or hasn't it.’

But to be so positive—as one is in the case of ‘Adam of Dublin’—about the presence of something so elusive is disconcerting. Let us, however, understand it to mean; among so many dead novels it is a delight to hail one that is so rich in life. For whatever else atmosphere may include, it is the element in which a book lives in its own right. In peopling the two worlds of Adam with appropriate and inappropriate inhabitants there are infinite possibilities for the creative activity of the author. The character of Mr. Malachy Macfadden, the drunken tailor, is a fearful joy to the reader if it is not to his son, and so is that of his somewhat sinister godfather, Mr. Byron O'Toole. As to Father Innocent Feeley, Adam's spiritual adviser, we defy the reader to resist him or his conversation on the top of the tram with Adam regarding the infallibility of the Pope and the infallibility of the Almighty. Adam himself is one of those small boys (why are they always boys?) who occur from time to time in literature to trouble our hearts. Mr. O'Riordan has but discovered a new name for him—and a new place. For throughout this novel one is never forgetful of the background of the city of Dublin; the author presses all his power and charm of writing to the service of ‘what is believed to be the fairest, if not the most extensive, kingdom in Europe.’ His success is so notable that we grudge mentioning his moment of failure. But it is there in Chapter Twenty-eight, when he carries his little hero into Bohemia. Why was this account of a club meeting written? We fear the reason was that the author could not resist the temptation of a portrait or two, but his hero's life is at stake while he sketches. However, there is so much good to remember that, having mentioned the bad, we can afford to forget it. It is the measure of Mr. O'Riordan's powers of fascination that we should be so conscious of any weakening of their spell.

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‘Forgotten Realms’ is as different a novel as possible, yet, as we have stated, the intention of the author is the same. But Mr. Lynch has chosen a more difficult approach. His hero is a grown man, the husband of a sensible, managing wife, the father of a young family, who is impelled, suddenly, to leave his home and familiar surroundings at the beck of childish memories, to set out ‘as a child might in imagination, to discover, to observe lovely things, to seek adventure.’ The first chapter when he is discovered lying in the grass is a very remarkable one. In a way it may be said to mark the curve of Philip's journey for us. As he lies there, looking and listening, he is suddenly conscious that the ‘intensely practical modern world has dropped away from him,’ far enough for him to question which was to be desired—constant occupation and forgetfulness or the treasuring of time for contemplation—for coming near to the heart of things:

Or was it that moments of intense vision came only by rare chance? Was it not rather an attitude of mind that the perplexities, the unwise activities of usual existence threatened to destroy? Such moments held a child's attitude towards the universe, induced a child's vision. Children were much nearer to the secret.

And thus he is led to look back with longing upon the time when the ‘magic door’ was not shut for him, and the purpose of his journey is revealed. Might one then in after years, after searching and much pain, find one's way back to it, and would they open it when he came again?

Forward, therefore, his feet carry him into unknown beautiful country, while his mind is for ever seeking the frontiers of its ancient kingdom. And it is only when he has given himself up to the search that he realizes how deep is his restlessness, how urgent his desire to recapture the secret resting-place of his soul.

We pass by almost imperceptible nuances from the one page 292 adventure to the other; they merge, they are enfolded, they are blended with exquisite skill. We share each fresh prospect as it unfolds before Philip the man, while at the same time we are gathering wild roses with Philip the little boy, or waiting with him in the drawing-room for his father to come home. But gradually the search becomes more difficult; it narrows, and it changes from the reconciliation of childhood and manhood to a deliberate attempt to solve a mystery. In the unending story of adventure which the lonely child Philip made up for himself there was another figure, a wonderful companion, a boy to whom he was ever constant, about whom there could never be any illusion. When he recalls how, as a youth in London, he saw the face, the form of his dreams, he recognized it and ‘guessed at a possible ending to his magic tale’ what does Mr. Lynch mean there?). And finally we are told that Philip is not setting forth in freedom after all; he has heard that his dream companion is in this part of the country, and he is come in search of him. This is a very curious disappointment for the reader, but there is a greater in store for him. It is contained in Philip's memories of his mother. She changes, gradually, under the imposition of this ‘real plot,’ from an extremely sensitive, sympathetic figure to a poor creature under a curse that, until it is revealed to us, raises our most fearful speculations.

Let us own that there is a point at which we lose all touch with Mr. Lynch, and we simply do not know what he would have us understand. Here is this beautiful writing, this thoughtful, serious style, so chastened and yet so supple—but what does it hide? What is the mystical meaning? Ah, there we imagine Mr. Lynch thinks to have caught us. But we do not think it will do. So long as they are kept apart psychology and mysticism are sweet friends. But put them to hunt together and they turn and rend each other.

(December 11, 1920.)