Tag Archives: Coming of age

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that surprises me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from the highly respected writer, editor and critic Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life.

Central to the novel is the relationship between two men – Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The book is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age.

At eighteen, Jimmy is being encouraged by his English teacher – the sharp-eyed Mrs O’Connor – to continue his education, mainly as a route out of his working-class Ayrshire background. Tully, however, is going down a different path in life, working as a machinist but living mainly for the evenings and weekends. There is more than a touch of Albert Finney about Tully – not just in appearance but in personality too.

Irvine New Town, east of eternity. Tully was twenty years old and a lathe turner. He impersonated Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by taunting his boss all week and drinking pints of Black and Tan all weekend. He looked like Albert Finney, all slicked-up hair, but in Tully’s case spiked with soap. At that time, he had the kind of looks that appeal to all the sexes and all ages, and his natural effrontery opened people up. (p. 4)

Tully and Jimmy hang out with a gang of lads – Tibbs, Limbo, Hogg and Dr Clogs – whose defining characteristics range from the techy one to the political one. Their lives are defined by music, football, and various cultural references, their conversations peppered with lists of ‘top threes’: the three best goals scored by a Scottish player or the top three films starring Robert de Niro. I’m sure you get the drift.  

Where the first half of the novel really excels is in capturing the sheer adrenaline rush of being young, a time when your whole life is ahead of you, and the possibilities appear endless. The highlight of the summer is a weekend in Manchester, a trip centred on an indie music festival at the city’s G-Mex centre. The boys are high on the anticipation of the event, affording it the feel of a momentous occasion – a kind of coming-of-age or last flush of youth, something that O’Hagan neatly portrays in Jimmy’s response to this seemingly magical city.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things. (p. 53)

I just paused for a second, standing there, and realised I was ‘in it’, part of the city right then, and part of the history we were here to celebrate. (p. 58)

It’s a formative experience for Tully too, one that sets him on a different life path due to Jimmy’s carefully directed input. While Tully might be a lathe turner at the moment, higher education remains a viable option for the future, potentially opening up an escape from his humble beginnings. (As an aside, both boys have somewhat distant relationships with their fathers, a factor that seems crucial in shaping their personalities.)

The concert, when it comes, is like a drug – a high epitomised by The Smiths and lead singer Morrisey’s magnetic presence and swagger. 

The singer wafted into view and sold his drowsy reticence like a drug. The band was at its height, romantic and wronged and fierce and sublime, with haircuts like agendas. Morrissey came brandishing a license, a whole manner of permission, as if a new kind of belonging could be made from feeling left out, like nobody knew you as he did. (p. 120)

There is a hint of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in the mood and feel of this first section, particularly given the laddish banter amongst the group. And yet, that’s far from being the complete picture here; there is a softer side to the novel’s opening too, a real tenderness in the portrayal of these boys, who come across as hugely likeable and endearing. Despite all the surface bravado and brio on display, especially from Tully, O’Hagan never lets us forget how vulnerable these young men might be, both now and in the future.

In part two, we fast-forward thirty years to the autumn of 2017 and a whole different phase of life for the two central protagonists who remain closely connected – still firm friends, still throwing ‘top threes’ at one another – in spite of their physical distance. At forty-nine, Jimmy is an established writer, living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre. Having taken Jimmy’s advice and worked his way through night school, Tully is now a teacher, Head of English no less, in a school in Glasgow’s East End.

One day, Jimmy receives a call from Tully, the sort of phone call we all dread. There’s a crisis on the horizon for Tully, the kind of crunch point which is not going to disappear. He needs Jimmy’s help, both emotionally and practically, a request that only the closest of friends can ever make. Naturally, given their history, Jimmy agrees, ultimately finding himself caught between two conflicting forces – on the one hand, his loyalty to lifelong buddy, Tully; and on the other, his concern for Tully’s partner, Anna, who has her own somewhat different vision of the future.

The tonal register of this second half is very different to the first – more sobering and reflective in mood, qualities that tend to develop naturally as we age. Nevertheless, Tully remains fiercely comedic in the face of intense adversity, interspersing the serious stuff of life with hilarious anecdotes and banter.

Alongside these perceptive insights into Tully’s psyche, O’Hagan is particularly strong on the emotional impact of the dilemma on Jimmy. There is an overriding sense of loyalty here, a testament to the strength of a lifelong friendship that feels rock solid to the core – and yet Jimmy is also acutely alert to the bigger picture and its attendant moral considerations while Tully chooses to remain blinkered. 

Yet it became obvious, as the weeks passed, that his [Tully’s] decisions were having an impact way beyond himself. As an adult, he had a kind of complacency when it came to the opinions of others; he didn’t quite believe the world beyond himself could halt his ideas. (p. 154)

As a consequence, Jimmy attempts to mediate between Tully and his immediate family, throwing himself into activities in the hope of catalysing some form of resolution. The ending, when it comes, feels both heartbreaking and strangely triumphant, a hugely affecting combination that O’Hagan manages to pull off with skill and grace. Without wishing to reveal too many spoilers, there are some big moral and ethical considerations here, and yet the narrative never feels weighed down or mired in burdensome detail. The lightness of touch is one of the most impressive things about this novel, which manages to be emotionally truthful without ever succumbing to the merest hint of sentimentality – another testament to the author’s artistry and sensitivity. Moreover, the book as a whole feels perfectly balanced in spite of the shift hallway through; we need the vitality of that first half for the poignancy of part two to hit home.

In writing Mayflies, O’Hagan has given us a novel of rare beauty and humanity, an exhilarating portrayal of youth and a touching ode to male friendship. I loved it to bits – very highly recommended indeed for lovers of well-crafted character-driven fiction.

Mayflies is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I have long wanted to read the Italian writer Elsa Morante, ever since I learned of her influence on Elena Ferrante (you can find my reviews of Ferrante’s work here). Arturo’s Island was Morante’s second novel, originally published in Italian in 1957, and now freshly translated by Ann Goldstein for this Pushkin Press edition (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). It is a beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style.

The narrative is told from the viewpoint of Arturo Gerace as he looks back on his teenage years spent on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples – a tumultuous, troubling time in this young individual’s life.

At fourteen, Arturo spends most of his days roaming around the island, dreaming of great adventures with pirates, kings and other enigmatic figures from tales of fantasy. His father, Wilhelm, is a restless wanderer who frequently leaves the island for long periods with no planned date of return. With his unpredictable nature and temperament, Wilhelm is prone to frequent outbursts, displaying little thought for the feelings and sensitivities of those around him. In spite of this, Arturo idolises his father unquestioningly, eagerly anticipating the day when he is old enough to join Wilhelm on his seemingly intrepid travels.

Every act of his, every speech, had a dramatic fatality for me. In fact, he was the image of certainty, and everything he said or did was the verdict of a universal law from which I deduced the first commandments of my life. Here was the greatest seduction of his company. (p. 24)

Life for young Arturo is a solitary one, with his father often away and his mother no longer alive following her death in childbirth. He yearns for some much-needed love and affection, the kind fuelled by his romantic imagination – the absence of Arturo’s mother is very keenly felt.

She was a person invented by my regrets, and so she had, for me, every wished-for kindness, and different expressions, different voices. But, above all, in the impossible longing I had for her, I thought of her as faithfulness, intimacy, conversation: in other words, all that fathers were not, in my experience. (p. 44)

Moreover, young Arturo is largely in charge of the Geraces’ home, a somewhat run-down, castle-like building bequeathed to Wilhelm by an old friend – a man with an intense dislike of women and their ‘ugly’ appearances. As such, Arturo has had very little exposure to girls or women during his life, particularly given the isolated nature of his upbringing.

One day, Wilhelm returns unexpectedly to Procida with his new bride, Nunziata – a rather hesitant young girl from Naples who has been pushed into marriage by her mother, Violante. At sixteen, Nunziata is barely older than Arturo, a situation that leaves our protagonist struggling to understand this sudden change in dynamics and everything it represents. For the first time in his life, Arturo has a rival for his father’s affections, one who is almost as inexperienced and naïve as the young boy himself.

When I passed my father’s room, I heard from behind the closed door an excited whispering. I was almost running when I reached my room: I suddenly had the sharp, incomprehensible sensation that I had received from someone (whom I couldn’t yet recognise) an inhuman insult, impossible to avenge. I undressed quickly and, as I threw myself into bed, wrapping myself in the covers up to my head, a cry from her reached me through the walls: tender, strangely fierce, and childlike. (p. 124)

Virtually as soon as he has arrived home, Wilhelm becomes restless again, seeking the company of Nunziata and Arturo one minute and then shunning it the next. It’s not long before Wilhelm begins to view Nunziata as an appendage, akin to a tiresome relative of little interest or importance. Consequently, Arturo and Nunziata – the latter now pregnant with Wilhelm’s child – are left mostly on their own at the Casa dei Guaglioni while Wilhelm continues his erratic travels abroad.

At first, Arturo wants as little as possible to do with his new stepmother, shunning her company in favour of wandering around the island.

My antipathy towards my stepmother, meanwhile, didn’t diminish but became fiercer every day. And as a result of the life she led with me during my father’s absence from the island was certainly not very happy. I never spoke to her except to give her orders. If I was outside and wanted to summon her to the window to give her some command, or warn her of my arrival, I used to simply whistle. (p. 158)

Then, all of a sudden, he experiences a dramatic change of heart, prompted by the belief that Nunziata’s life may be in danger during the birth of her child, Carminiello. From this point onwards, Arturo begins to see his stepmother in a new light, viewing her as more beautiful and graceful than before. Meanwhile, Nunziata devotes herself to caring for the new baby, mainly at the expense of any consideration for Arturo or his potential needs – a situation that leaves Arturo feeling somewhat jealous of his new stepbrother.

I felt I could never have peace if she didn’t return to being, toward me, at least, the same as she had been before the fatal arrival of my stepbrother; and yet at no cost did I want to betray that longing to her. So I looked desperately for a means that, without wounding my pride, would force her to be concerned with me, or to manifest once and for all, her irredeemable indifference towards Arturo Gerace. (p. 233)

As the months slip by, Arturo must try to make sense of his emotions as they oscillate between an idealised form of first love for Nunziata and abject disillusionment – his demonstrations of affection are swiftly rejected. He tries, somewhat in vain, to grapple with new and confusing situations in this abrupt exposure to the complexities of the adult world.

Arturo’s Island is an emotionally-rich novel, frequently punctuated with passages of profound depth. Morante skilfully captures the vulnerabilities of youth, the maelstrom of emotions that characterises Arturo’s adolescence – the young boy’s experiences are very keenly felt. The author’s style is perfectly matched to the subject matter at hand: lyrical, intuitive and painfully perceptive. While the main thrust of the narrative takes places in the run-up to WW2, there is a timeless feel to this story, akin to a classic myth or fable.

With its imposing penitentiary, Procida is painted as an isolated, mysterious place, one with elements of menace and darkness, albeit lightened by the allure of the natural world. Morante’s descriptions of the island’s environment are beautifully expressed.

As this excellent novel draws to a close, Arturo must contend with emotions of antipathy, lust, jealousy and disillusionment. Morante’s portrayal of the young boy’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. Alongside the struggle to reconcile his feelings for Nunziata, Arturo must also come to terms with a new, rather disturbing vision of his father – a discovery that will leave a mark on his character forever.

This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth, which is running throughout August. For an interesting companion piece dealing with similar themes, see Agostino (1944) by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante’s husband – also very highly recommended indeed.