The Books Interview; Heavenly creatures

Jennifer Johnston, godmother to new Irish writing, talks angels and incense with John Walsh
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The Independent Culture
Nobody has yet thought of photographing the cream of English literary society in bed together. But when the publishers of Finbar's Hotel elected to cram the co- authors of this portmanteau novel into a Slumberland King-Size, the results were alarming. Novelists are a dodgy-looking bunch at the best of times but the combination of Dermot Bolger (resembling a rehabilitated hermit), Roddy Doyle (unsuccessful pimp), Anne Enright (warden of women's prison), Colm Tobn (furtive stevedore) and Hugo Hamilton (low-rent bouncer) was enough to convince readers that fiction was not a calling for the pure of heart.

At one end of the bed was the strangest sight of all - a large woman of mature years and craggy demeanour, wearing gangster shades and seeming aloof from this frivolous photoshoot, like Britannia in her chariot, being invited to share a divan with a squad of infantrymen.

"I was astounded to be asked to contribute," she says, two years later. "I felt like the other writers' bloody grandmother."

Jennifer Johnston is in a sense the spiritual godmother of much modern Irish writing. Now 68, she has for a quarter-century been turning out superior fictions that both embody the wounds of Irish life - its struggle to escape from religious, colonial and cultural domination - and offer the luxury of writing about things beyond its immediate orbit.

She writes about the end of the Protestant Ascendancy (in The Gates), about sectarian violence (in Shadows on Our Skin) and the magnetic draw of the past (passim, from The Captains and the Kings in 1972). But she also allows herself to escape from the subject of Irishness and write, movingly, about getting older and the awkwardness of love and the untrustworthy dazzle of new relationships.

She doesn't see a clean break between her condition-of-Ireland novels and her more recent comedies of manners: "Writing about carrying the past on your back is a manifestation of my Irishness, because we go on and on and will for another two or three generations," she says. "Look around at the countries of Europe and you'll find that practically all of them have pasts that are just as tragic as Ireland's, yet the people seem able to find some creative way at moving into the future."

Like Vichy France? "Absolutely. Even the haunted Germans are able to move from under that terrible shadow of the war. But one of our major problems is that we haven't allowed ourselves to do this - not just the decolonisation from the English but also from the Church."

Jennifer Johnston's books are full of suspicion about history, but there's no mistaking her love for its texture. Her prose likes to search around in the redolent nooks of old houses and old, upsetting memories. Her new novel, Two Moons (Headline Review, pounds 14.99), is a diverting fantasy about the agelessness of charm, in which the elderly Mimi is visited by an angel, Bonifacio, once a shoemaker in the Renaissance. He pours her glasses of Italian wine and encourages her to reckless expenditure (on shoes, which Ms Johnston loves).

The book is also a bittersweet demonstration of the impossibility of love, as Mimi's volatile actress daughter Grace gradually discovers why her marriage failed, and is besieged by the lovelorn youth who is engaged to her daughter. A complex image-cluster of tears, wine, light, hands, the moon, Shakespeare and the sexual utility of pine forests makes the book shimmer like an old painting.

Was Mimi's angel part of the present vogue for seraphic buddies and love- objects (vide Nicholas Cage in City of Angels and John Travolta in Michael)? "Not really. I was aware just of this person who arrived one day, looking like Danny DeVito, and I thought, what can I do with this guy? He just sat there, being cynical, and then Mimi started to appear and had a conversation with him". This is how her novels get under way. The characters arrive like slightly embarrassing guests dropping round to her house and waiting to be given something to do.

"I didn't believe in a guardian angel when I was young. I was brought up in the Protestant faith, and the one thing you had over your Catholic friends was that you didn't have those awful saints chivvying you around." Where did Bonifacio come from? "I was staying with friends in Italy, and we went to Sansepulcro and saw those wonderful paintings by Piero della Francesco - the solidity of Christ stepping out of the tomb amid the sleeping soldiers. I fell in love with Piero, and thought if I could put an angel in the book who was a distant cousin of his..."

Although the book is shot through with a luminous magic, a sense of potential wonders and paranormal unheavals and emotional will-o'-the-wispery, it all remains severely secular, notwithstanding the angel, the symbolism of Grace's name, and a key scene of baptism in the moonlight. Jennnifer Johnston has little time for formal religion. "When I was 12 or 13, living in Donnybrook, outside Dublin, I used to go into the Catholic church, hoping no-one would see me, and light candles and pray. It was so seductive, the smell of incense, the dancing candles and the holy statues which were so gross but then seemed so wonderful. It was a phase. It didn't last long."

Her only religious impulse since then was a recent desire to become a Benedictine Monk, following a 24-hour retreat at Glenstowel Abbey, surrounding by the tonsured tenors singing Vespers. "It was like being in the Middle Ages, in a church in Venice singing Monteverdi. I told my husband what I really wanted to be was a Benedictine monk. But I can't sing, so that's it." She shakes her massive head, regretfully.

She was born into a talented family. Her father was Denis Johnston, the playwright whose two best works, The Old Lady Says No! and The Moon in the Yellow River, were considered classics in Twenties Dublin. Her mother, to whom Two Moons is dedicated, was Shelah Richards, the actress. Both were alarming presences. "My father was a little frightening, a huge man, six foot four and he looked like God. He was always a visitor, as far as I was concerned, because my parents separated when I was nine. We only became friends when he was old and began to shrink. During the war he was a BBC war correspondent, and did some extraordinary broadcasts. Though he was born and bred in Dublin, he felt British."

Her mother was from the posh Dublin upper-classes of Fitzwilliam Street. "She was like a lion. She was great and she was awful. Our friends had mothers who made jam and were home when their children came back from school... But we weren't neglected. We had a nanny who had housekeepers and were with us forever and loved us. My mother was there as an extraordinary phenomenon in our lives. She knew how to put the boot in, then would be racked with guilt and would appear with some little present."

There were drama-salon parties, at which the stars were Hilton Edwards and Michael Macliammoir, the gay theatrical duo known as "`Sodom and Begorrah", whose florid extravagances Jennifer would watch with amazement and of whom she speaks warmly. "l love people who invent their lives," she said, "have totally different lives from the one they might have led if they hadn't taken this great step."

Jennifer Johnston is big on recreating oneself. Her conversation is full of makeovers and changing identities, whether of a country, like Ireland, or a person, like the various people she has been in the course of two marriages. She believes that love and passion always lead to betrayal or damage, and that most marriages need a saving dash of realism if they're going to survive.

All these themes have found a place in her books, along with a strain of magical realism that surfaces again and again as she talks. As when she describes Derry, where she has lived since marrying David Gilliland in 1976. She accepts with stoicism the procession of bombings and maimings that have hurt many of their friends. "It's just awful. One of the worst things is feeling, during times like the hunger strikes or the aftermath of Enniskillen, that the actual air was weighted. You felt like you were carrying heavy air on your shoulders. Like when you get out of bed in the morning and can hardly move with the anguish that's weighing on you."

You look at Jennifer Johnston, with her tinted shades, her flowing tribal- matriarch hair and her bruised heart, and think: if ever someone could have done with a guardian angel in her life, it is she.

Jennifer Johnston, a biography

Novelist and playwright Jennifer Prudence Johnston was born in Dublin in 1930 to actress Shelah Richards and playwright Denis Johnston. She was educated at Park House School and Trinity College, Dublin. Her first marriage was to lawyer Ian Smyth. They had four children. After their divorce, she married solicitor David Gilliland. They live close to the Irish border by the River Foyle. A republican, her two main themes are abandonment and yearning, and the Anglo-Irish connection. Her first novel was The Captains and the Kings (1972). Shadows on Our Skin (1977) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and The Old Jest (1979) won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. She has written 11 novels.