I’ve just finished reading Beneath the Earth by the Irish writer John Boyne. It’s his first collection of short stories. Boyne is better known as a novelist: he has published nine novels and five novels for younger readers. One of these The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas sounded familiar: in 2008 a film was made in the UK based on the book.
I’d taken the book with me when I went to Italy recently. I can’t settle into a novel when I travel – plane, train, hanging around at airports. The blurb calls them “dark, unerring and surprising” and you can tell from the opening sentences below that they are dark. Boy, 19 opens the collection and Beneath the Earth is the last of the dozen.
* I started charging for sex a few days after my nineteenth birthday (Boy, 19)
* The brick crashed through the front window shortly after midnight and Émile woke with a start, his heart pounding, his eyes raw from interrupted sleep. (The Country You Called Home)
* I never had a chance to observe Arthur in his public role until a few days before my mother’s funeral (The Schleinermetzenmann)
* Hawke, a grey wolf in human form, emerged from the forest on his hands and knees, pulling pine needles from his palms. (Rest Day)
* It was no easy task to dig the child’s grave. (Beneath the Earth).
In my folder “Working Poems” sits a poem Reading Disgrace at the Mezza Luna. I started it on a workshop where the sample poem was Reading Rumi in the Bear Inn (I think that’s the name of the pub – I’ve mislaid the poem). The novel starts: For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.
We know, immediately, that the protagonist (David Lurie who teaches Romantic poetry) will fail and fall. The novel is a masterpiece for which J M Coetzee was awarded the 1999 Booker Prize.
Is this opening line too strong, though, to include in a poem that weaves together quotes from a book with observations about a place and people in it? Is that why the poem doesn’t work (yet)?