John Irving, famously, writes backwards. His novels begin at the end and work their way back to a beginning. It’s a process that suggests a level of authority and control that I’ve envied since I first heard about it. He was in the Pavilion (Dun Laoghaire) to talk to John Boyne about his latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries, as an opener for this year’s Mountains to Sea festival. The two writers have been friends for years and they have had public conversations before, so this was a relaxed and informed journey around Irving’s earlier novels, themes and characters, along with an inviting introduction to this one. Set partly in Mexico and partly in the Philippines, it deals with two adolescent siblings (aged 14 & 13), one of whom believes that she can predict the future and tries to change it. If you know John Irving’s work, you probably have a bad feeling right around now: this is not likely to go well for anyone. The novel proceeds from there.
I haven’t read Avenue of Mysteries yet (Reader, I bought it; I just haven’t read it yet) but I have been a fan since The Hotel New Hampshire, and that great line: ‘Keep passing those open windows.’ If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know why. My fandom continued through The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules. I liked the way Irving engaged with gender and sexuality, and I liked the complexity of his stories.
The conversation ranged around issues to do with the Catholic church – as an institution, Irving stressed, as distinct from mysteries of faith – and children at risk more generally. He spoke well about the current refugee/migrant crisis and his admiration for Angela Merkel (‘Mrs Merkel’) who, he said, displayed courage and leadership. He regrets subsequent developments, the assaults in Cologne that have given a voice and language to xenophobia and hatred. He talked engagingly about the myopia of bears, and calmly about voting processes for the Academy Awards. He was graceful in refusing to be drawn about Irish or any other hopes for this year’s awards, pointing out that the Academy ask their members not to muddy the speculative waters, a reasonable request. He said that the media always get in a flap about selection, but the nomination process is a good and fair system. It’s unusual in that the people who ‘do the thing’ – whatever ‘the thing’ is: costumes, make up, writing, acting – get to make the nominations. It’s at the next stage that the voting broadens out and becomes more general and unpredictable. The outcome is anyone’s guess because ‘even I can vote for best costumes’, and people tend to vote for films they like, not necessarily based on the actual category.
They talked quite a lot about Caitlyn Jenner. Germaine Greer’s recent comments really aggravated Irving, not that he’d had much time for her to start with – he complained about The Female Eunuch. The audience laughed. He said that he had hoped to get out of writing The World According to Garp because he didn’t look forward to it, but he had to do it in the end. He was angry because he saw the outcome of sexual liberation, which should have brought us together, turn to hatred instead. In that novel, as he summed it up, a man is killed by a woman who hates men and a woman is killed by a man who hates women. He spoke again about transgender issues and Caitlyn Jenner, and asked who was Germaine Greer to decide what a ‘real woman’ was?* ‘Up yours, Germaine!’ he said, and the audience applauded.
I was seriously taken aback. I wondered if he’d have said it if Greer had been on stage with him, or if the audience would have laughed if that were the case. I wondered, I have to admit, if he’d have said it ‘to’ a man. I’m not on Greer’s side of this particular argument, but I disliked the comment, and the applause. It soured what was otherwise an enjoyable evening.
*[In a recent article in The Guardian Damien Gayle quotes Greer as saying: “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that [sex change] procedure. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion. It’s not a prohibition.”]