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Saturday, 8 February 2014

An experiment in solitude

February 8th., Rue de Calais, Paris.

I half expected O'Connor tonight - kept the evening free for him - but he did not come. So after some hesitation I determined to spend it by myself, just to see how I got through with it. The restaurant was too full, and the service slow, and I didn't enjoy my dinner and I ate too much, and read the Tribune all through. I came home at 9.30, and read a little of Voltaire's "Candide" - I bought a nice edition of his "Contes" yesterday, half-bound, for two francs, and enjoyed it very much.

Then I meditated on the serial and got one or two notions. I was very gloomy at first, but got cheerful about eleven. I think I could accustom myself to reading in longer spells, and to spending evenings alone fairly comfortably if I tried.

I am reading George Moore's "The Lake". It is so smoothly written, and so calm and beautiful that I can enjoy reading it without even taking in the sense. Frequently I have read half a page without grasping the meaning at all, or trying to grasp it. It is a most curious novel, perhaps not really good, but certainly distinguished in a Yeats-y way.

The Lake tells the story of Father Oliver Gogarty, who has spent his whole life around the large Irish lake of the title. Coming to the priesthood at first from a sense of mission, as he comes into his thirties he finds himself in great distress over his treatment of the woman who was his organist and choir mistress. Rumours begin to spread around the small rural parish about the woman – that she has been meeting an unknown man, that she is pregnant with his child. Father Oliver confronts her and she admits it. Mistaking his jealousy for righteous indignation, he condemns her at the next mass, and she is forced to leave the parish. Within a few months, he begins to regret his actions and becomes distraught over the thought of her plight as an unwed mother. Eventually, a priest in London writes to say that she has given the child to be raised by a farm couple and is making her way giving music lessons. The priest chides Father Oliver that his “responsibility is not merely local, and does not end as soon as the woman has passed the boundary of his parish.” The woman, Nora Glynn, is clearly strong and independent, and when Father Oliver writes to beg her forgiveness, she is far more ready to move on than he. He first tries to entice her back to the parish with the offer of a job teaching music at a nearby convent and girls’ school, then stoops to telling her that she must save him from an eternal damnation for allowing her soul to be lost. Nora finds a job as secretary to an agnostic writer working on a book about the historical roots of Christianity, and travels with him around Europe and the Middle East conducting research. Father Oliver continues to torture himself over her situation, long past the point where it’s clear she no longer needs or cares about his anxious attention. In the end, Father Oliver realizes that his feelings for Nora were intimate, not religious, and with that, he comes to accept that he must let her go. But this realization also forces him to confront his reasons for staying in the priesthood, serving a parish he’s known since childhood. He has to decide if he will stay in hopes of someday recovering his faith, or go and risk taking his chances in a larger world without the familiarity and structures of the priesthood and the lake he’s lived beside every day of his life. I leave it to the reader to learn what he decides. Most of The Lake is told through the thoughts of Father Oliver, along with the letters he exchanges with Nora and Father O’Grady, the priest in London. Moore is particularly effective in capturing the changing features of the landscape around the lake, the woods and fields that Father Oliver often walks among to escape from his parishioners. He sees not only the life of the plants and animals around the lake, but also its history–the Welsh castles, an abandoned abbey, a mill town passed over by the Industrial Revolution. The result is a highly effective balance between the exterior and interior worlds, which keeps The Lake from becoming morbidly introverted. The love story is really just the mechanism through which Moore brings about Father Oliver’s awakening, and he never tries to make it anything else. Even though The Lake was written over a hundred years ago, it’s a remarkably fresh and alert narrative, very much to be recommended to any fan of Irish literature. W.B. Yeats considered it, along with A Drama in Muslin, one of Moore’s two masterpieces.

Additionally for February 8th., see 'Clairvoyant at work'

He succeeded with my toothpick, in getting me to the Potteries, and into the office of the Staffordshire Knot or Sentinel, and described a man that might be either Goold or the editor of the Sentinel, and said that known or unknown to me, this man had greatly influenced me. He insisted on the word 'Zola'. 'Zola'. He said there was a message to tell me. I hadn't done my best work. I am morally sure he hadn't the least idea who I was. And even if he had, he didn't know the toothpick belonged to me, even if he knew that it was I who had brought it, which he might conceivably have done as it was the last thing he picked up off the tray. I made full notes.

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