The Unfortunate Fursey, Reviewed

The Unfortunate Fursey is another casualty of Ireland’s traditional consumption of its furrow. It has become a book more likely seen on the reading lists of American universities than the bookshelves of Ireland’s homes.

The only thing lamentable about this beautiful hardback reissue is that the print run is limited to 350 – this is a book that should be far more widely cherished.

Michael Dirda’s introduction is accessible and informative, and though the hard-sell grates a little, I must agree with his suggestion: “The wise might want to acquire two sets of this new edition – one to keep and one to give away.”

The Unfortunate Fursey was the first novel of Mervyn Wall, a talented playwright, novelist and radio broadcaster of the mid 1900s whose name has been all but omitted from the Irish literary canon. One of Wall’s critics, Robert Hogan, locates the book’s importance in the rare Swiftean marriage of “the manner of satire to the genre of fantasy”, and attributes its relative obscurity to the contemporary marginalisation of both genres.

Dedicated to redressing just such negligence, Swan River Press has spared no expense in creating this beautiful edition. With perfectly pitched original artwork, stylish design and high-quality everything, this is a beautiful object to hold in the hand.

It is not just on a point of principle that an Irish reissue is important – The Unfortunate Fursey is an extremely readable, entertaining and pertinent novel.

Our hero is a rotund, ineffectual lay brother in the medieval monastery of Clonmacnoise. When the monastery begins to swarm with uninvited demons, it is in the cell of the trembling, dumbstruck Fursey that they take refuge from the holy water and exorcisms of the other monks.

Quickly forsaken by his brethren, the hapless Fursey is turned out of the gates with only Satan and his minions for company. He soon embarks on heroic and continuously engaging adventures peopled with ticklishly observant caricatures. Wall’s prose is enviably vivid and pithy and carries the reader merrily along from beginning to end.

Much literature on the book describes it as a satire of Wall’s contemporary Ireland, but to my reading it is not as finely honed as all that. The author himself said that the book was “just a bit of fun”, and, while there are broader satirical elements, this non-specific tone seems a more accurate description of its politics.

Set in Ireland, the book certainly contains a cast of Irish sketches. The dressed-up gargoyle that passes for a “minor man of letters” may be a recognisable figure for any Irish pub-goer; the sadistic bishop and red-faced “Father Furiosus” might bring back memories for many a graduate of the Christian Brother schools. There are passing comments on the unsatisfactory living conditions in Ireland, but the primary satire is not of the nation. The monastery and the superstitions parodied here belong to the Continental tradition, and what is most heavily ridiculed is not Ireland or the Irish church, but truth-churning authority in general.

The clergy of the book are inhumane, wildly irrational but powerful beings who see evil everywhere but in themselves – women, birds and even hygiene are the objects of their disdain and they are bent on “suppressing the hateful passions of love” in Ireland.

Inversely, the Devil appears eloquent, compassionate, rationale, and loyal. His juxtaposition with a superstitious, masochistic and hypocritical cast of “men of God” calls into question the very alignment of religious institutions with good. As a monk, Fursey is stifled into dumbness, and it is only with the help of the Devil that he learns to speak and love. Along with the passing comments on Irish administration and the overt statement that demons are “a creation of Christianity”, this portrayal of those in control amounts to a ridicule of the power structures that civilisations erect. Finding parallels in any given society is no challenge.

But this is by no means a bleak book. What is specifically Irish about The Unfortunate Fursey is the good-natured, warm humour that makes its ridicule so palatable.

By all accounts the sequel is nearly as good, and just as important as The Unfortunate Fursey. The work of a more mature writer, it is apparently a better example of the genre. If Swan River Press has done nearly as good a job on The Return of Fursey, it will be plenty good enough.

The Unfortunate Fursey by Mervyn Wall (Swan River Press, March 2015)

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Elske Rahill: Elske Rahill’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies in Europe and the US. She is the author of the novel Between Dog and Wolf (Lilliput Press, 2013) and her short-story collection In White Ink is coming out this October (Lilliput Press/Head of Zeus).

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