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Paul Murray: An Evening of Long Goodbyes

The Big House novel was a staple of Irish literature but modern writers have endeavoured to subvert it, including writers such as John Banville and Elizabeth Bowen. Murray carries on the worthy tradition of subverting this theme. Charles and Christabel (known as Bel) Hythloday (the name presumably comes from Raphael Hythloday in Utopia or, from the name itself, which, in Greek, means talker of nonsense) live in a big house south of Dublin. Their father was a chemist, specialising in cosmetics. He died a few years before and his death had an effect on their mother who became an alcoholic and is having treatment at the beginning of the novel. The brother and sister have no employment, though Bel does try to get work as an actress but has had only very limited success. They are looked after by Mrs. P., their Bosnian housekeeper. Charles follows a life he describes as the contemplative life of the country gentleman, in harmony with his status and history… the idea was to do whatever one did with grace, to imbue one’s every action with beauty, while at the same time making it look quite effortless. He uses the term sprezzatura to describe what he is aiming at. In practice, this means gambling (he has lost a lot of money), watching Gene Tierney films (an actress, with whom he is obsessed), having the occasional affair, building a folly in the back garden and breaking up his sister’s affairs (there is clearly a strong incestuous feeling on the part of Charles towards Bel).

The novel opens with Charles seeing a strange, ghost-like figure in the early hours of the morning. He thought this might be the effect of the drink but when he sees it again, he takes a poker and when it reappears, he strikes it hard. It turns out to be Frank, a large, ungainly man and Bel’s latest boyfriend. Charles takes an instant dislike to Frank. From then on, the novel descends rapidly into chaos. Money worries surface, not least because Charles has been putting all official-looking letters into the string drawer (i.e. the drawer, where they keep string and the like), so they have been ignored. They turn out to be final demands from a variety of providers including, in particular, the bank where they have their mortgage. Charles’ feeble attempts to sort out the problem, helped by a detective called MacGillycuddy, who is also the postman and whose main source of income is stealing money and valuables from the mail, are made worse by the fact that things seem to be disappearing from the house – the wine, money and various valuables. Charles suspects Frank but can do nothing about it. He decides, with MacGillycuddy’s help, to blow up the folly, fake his own death and claim on the insurance. With the money, he will move to Chile. Of course, it will all go horribly wrong and Charles ends up in Chile but only in his mind, while recovering in hospital. He dreams that he and W B Yeats are living a life of contemplative gentleman in Chile. He is in hospital and the bomb blew up at the wrong time and he was hit on the head by a flying gargoyle. The explosion reveals that it was, in fact, Mrs. P and her three adult children, who had been living illegally in the folly, who had been stealing from them.

When Charles gets out of hospital, he finds that the house has been turned into a theatre, with Bel and Mirela, Mrs. P’s daughter, who has a prosthetic leg, acting in a play, specially written by Harry, Bel’s latest beau. The play also features Bel’s and Harry’s mother, who has returned from her rest cure. Things get worse. Charles is driven from the house and goes and lives with Frank in an area besieged by vandals and drug addicts. Eventually he has to get a job in a factory making Yule logs, where nearly all the employees are Latvian immigrants. However, the owners decide to replace all the workers with machines and all are fired on the spot. Meanwhile things are not going well between Bel and Harry, though Harry has decided to sell his principles, and gets some money from a rich capitalist. Even when Charles writes his own play (called Bosnians in My Attic!) and wins a lot of money at the greyhound races, particularly from a dog called An Evening of Long Goodbyes and the house is turned into a theatre, things are only going to get worse.

Murray gives us a hilariously funny story with a complex plot that will keep you guessing to the end. More particularly, he will savage modern Ireland. The rich capitalists and their pretensions, the Irish economic boom (symbolised by a greyhound wittily called Celtic Tiger whom instead of running to victory, would rather savage the other, smaller dogs), the new Ireland, with its drug addicts, crime and corruption and, of course, the old Ireland with its reliance on booze and a somewhat impractical tradition, are all targets. He holds back on none of this. While we might, in some way, identify with Charles, the main character, we cannot entirely sympathise with a man who is essentially a lazy, arrogant drunk, obsessed with a film star and with incestuous feelings towards his sister. In short, reading this, you will get view of Ireland very different from the Irish Tourist Board view of the country though Murray’s view may be more accurate, if somewhat exaggerated. It is a superbly funny novel and a brilliant portrayal of a country heading for chaos (it was written well before the economic collapse of 2008). And the Big House will, somehow, survive, despite becoming a theatre, a home for illegal Bosnian immigrants, being partially blown up and having most of its contents pillaged and gracefully falling apart.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Hamish Hamilton