The writer Anne Enright, a native of Ireland, is perhaps best known for her 2007 Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, a darkly beautiful novel about a family gathering in the wake of a suicide. In The Forgotten Waltz, her fifth novel and her first since winning the Booker, she takes up a seemingly more mundane plot: that of adulterous love. Gina, married to Conor, narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and father to a troubled daughter, Evie—which comes to a head as Ireland’s economy collapses.
It’s an affair whose outcome is known from almost the very first pages, and Enright is not interested in judging Gina or Séan—Gina believes, ultimately, that there is nothing to forgive and, if Enright does not agree with her outright, she makes Gina a sympathetic enough character that it is possible for the reader to do so. The considerable narrative pleasures of this novel lie in Enright’s luminous language, as she sketches Gina’s attempts to figure out what happened and how and why. The author, who has a quick wit and a hearty laugh, as well as a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude, spoke to me recently from the West Coast, where she was on book tour.
There’s a moment early on in the book where you refer to Gina and her sister Fiona’s bodies as “Irish.” Do you think of yourself as a particularly Irish writer?
I don’t write about Ireland so much as from Ireland. I am keenly aware of the Irish tradition and I’m very happy to take what I can from it, but it’s also quite important to push against it. We’re all helplessly local writers. I did think that the economic boom and bust had a universal application, or at least in the Western world. I’m just updating that old trope—taking the parish pump and turning it into a story for everyone else.
Do you feel that the attitude towards adultery in Ireland differs from attitudes elsewhere?
I don’t know whether adultery is an Irish subject. I did look around at boom-time literature. When Ireland was in the boom, everyone was saying, “Why are you writing miserable books like The Gathering? Now we’ve got money; all that is over and we should be writing about how great it is in Ireland now.” There was a kind of hectic sense of denial that was going on at the end of the boom particularly. So I had been looking at boom literature in other traditions—post-war American novelists, Richard Yates in particular. He wrote just at that cusp of money coming into the country, of the breakdown of old values after the Second World War and the need to make a personal morality. I also looked at Cheever and Updike and in Britain at the Hampstead novels. It seemed to me that adultery was a great subject for a boom, partly because it’s about authority: the old authorities had lost their credibility, so people had to make their own way.
The hidden fact in all of these adultery novels is that monogamy is fearfully hard to write about. It is perhaps one of those things that if you describe it, it doesn’t exist anymore. There is something unsayable at the heart of it. It comes from the center, rather than from the faceted self. As a writer, you’re always splitting off personas that you can use in your prose. It’s a part of the business of making characters. But the fact of monogamy—if monogamy is a fact; I’m not entirely sure it is—comes from a more undifferentiated self.
This is also a novel about Gina trying to construct a narrative for herself.
Gina Moynihan is the kind of person who realizes what she’s saying in the saying of it. And I think many of us are similar. Until you start articulating something, you don’t quite know what it is, and you don’t see the mistakes or flaws in your own argument until they’re in the air. She’s in the process of realizing what she’s saying, in the process of realizing what she knows or what she has refused to know—that’s the journey of the novel.
The wonderful thing about this kind of unreliability is that it reflects the unreliability of our own narratives about our own lives. You tell a story about how you ended up at this place, rather childishly thinking that there is no other place that you could have ended up—especially when it comes to love, which has this destined, momentous feel to it. I was balancing that momentous and eternal sense of love with the cause and effect of meeting people and shagging them or not.
Gina is faced with many seeming choices in the course of the affair, none of which she seems capable of making, and she does seem helpless to it, as does Séan. So maybe there is some grand undercurrent to their lives that means they are in fact destined for each other. I’m not the kind of novelist who would say that.
What is your own relationship to narrative, in your novels?
Conventional novels are all about cause and effect: the idea that if you put one event followed by another event in a novel, then there is a link between the two. I have retained a kind of modernist impulse; I don’t think that our lives are necessarily explicable in that simple way.
Is this, would you say, the most conventional novel you’ve written?
It seems quite a “straight” narrative, but there are two ways in which it’s not. There are two axes of time in it: one is the strictly linear, temporal—one thing follows another; and the other, cutting across the first, is this eternal moment of true love and that spreading “now” that the modernist writers like so much. So although I wanted to write a book that went from A to Z in a nice orderly progression, the whole thing is informed by my previous approach to narrative which is to fragment, to juxtapose, to put one thing up against another without apparent causality, just to see how the different sections talk to each other by existing side by side.
The other thing is that the relationship to the reader is quite kinetic, in that the reader has a choice of three books: one is about a woman who falls in love; the second is about a woman who falls in love catastrophically because that is what love is; and then the third is about an adulteress and a liar and a home-wrecker and a man-stealer.
I like the fact that different readers bring their own life experience to Gina. and their own personal morality. I’m quite happy that some people have an almost puritanical response. It does sort of entertain me.
You’ve commented before about the fact that you’re drawn to flawed characters, as Gina obviously is. What differentiates a flawed character from a truly bad one?
I don’t know whether truly bad people exist, but certainly when you’re inhabiting a narrator like Gina you have to be empathetic. It is very hard to be empathetic with what we might call the “truly bad,” meaning the pathological or the unreachable. Such people do exist, and it would be a wonderful thing to attempt actually. But that leads to so much nasty boy fiction: perfectly nice, clean, scrubbed young men writing about the worst excesses of human nature. You have to guard against that kind of phantasmagoria. If you are going to write about “evil in the world”—I mean, I don’t believe in the concept of evil, but if you are going to write about the worst aspects of human nature—you have to do it with great attention.
It’s refreshing to read Gina’s feelings about motherhood: she’s brutally honest about her disgust, especially in the description of her co-worker’s extremely pregnant wife.
Yes, she’s quite cheerfully disgusted by it. She quite rightly recoils from the sight of an unborn child’s elbow going across a woman’s stomach as she’s talking to her. It is quite an astonishing thing to happen to the human body, getting pregnant and having children, and Gina is averse to it, physically. If I were a more of a journalist, I would have written that Gina doesn’t want to have a baby because it’ll mean she’s out of the game.
One of the stumbling blocks in Gina’s relationship with Séan is his daughter, Evie, How did you develop Gina’s relationship with, and eventual affection for, this sometimes petulant adolescent?
In the tradition of adultery novels, the adulteress comes to a very nasty end, and in this one, rather than throwing herself under a train or taking a load of arsenic, Gina’s moment of comeuppance comes in the form of a sense of Evie’s full humanity. It’s both a punishment to see the world as it really is, but it’s also a moment of grace.
Do you have anything new planned?
I have a kind of a shape and a kind of a sense of—[laughing] why am I telling you this? If I tell you it’ll die. A few landscapes and places. I probably had it all one day and then it disappeared, so I’ll spend some time getting it back.
Miranda Popkey is a contributing writer for The Daily. She is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.