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The Late Review: Mervyn Wall

17th Sep, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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Irish writer Mervyn Wall (1908 - 1997) had a long and varied career, with plays and mainstream novels and non-fiction all to be found in his back catalogue, and outside of the literary world he served as Secretary of the Arts Council from 1957 to 1975. Our concern here though is with the two humorous fantasy novels he published in the early days of his writing career and which Swan River Press brought back into print in 2015.

Originally published in 1946, THE UNFORTUNATE FURSEY (Swan River Press hc, 271pp) is set in tenth century Ireland, with the Devil and his minions laying siege to the monastery of Clonmacnoise, the infernal host taking up residence in the cell of Brother Fursey, who unfortunately has a stutter and so cannot pronounce the correct prayers to oust his unwelcome roommates. Expelled by the Abbot, the holy innocent Fursey ends up travelling Ireland's highways and byways with the Devil as his unwanted companion, albeit one who professes to mean him well though his way of showing it is often quite at odds with the intention, and of course he has his eyes on Fursey's soul. Fursey's wanderings bring him into conflict with a Bishop and a King, see him married to a witch and gaining a familiar, apprenticed to a wizard and stalked by the fanatical Father Furiosus. Along the way he loses his innocence and wins the girl, before riding off into the sunset (well, to England) astride a broomstick.

This is a delightful book, as whimsical and ironic as the work of James Branch Cabell without the wordplay, as satirically pointed as the best of Swift, but not quite as hard edged. It is an endlessly inventive and fantastical concoction, that while set in the Dark Ages is entirely focused on modern times (well, the 1940s anyway) and deftly lampoons the hypocrisies of Church and State, with everyone professing morality while embracing filthy lucre, and at the same time the book is keen to laud the innate goodness of ordinary people. As the Devil says, "the country and most of the people are all right; what's wrong with this land is the hard-fisted few that have and hold it", words that are as true now as they were then. The Unfortunate Fursey is a rollicking tale that is never anything but fun, making its more serious points with an effortless ease and gentle humour, so that the book as a whole slips down a treat. There's an introduction by Michael Dirda in which he gives us a lot more information about both the book and its author.

Two years later Wall went back to the tenth century for THE RETURN OF FURSEY (Swan River Press hc, 259pp). After only a few months at it, the life of an English shopkeeper has palled on wife Maeve, who is abducted by her previous lover Magnus and taken back to Ireland. Having grown tired of her, Fursey now determines that nothing will do but to reclaim Maeve and punish Magnus, and to do so he will become the evil person everyone else believes him to be. There follow various adventures, including encounters with his old mucker the Devil, time spent as a Viking raider and in the company of outlaw magicians, attendance at a Black Mass with familiar Albert, plus meetings with larger than life characters such as George the Vampire and Fester Wisenuts, before our hero reaches a resolution that is admirably appropriate to his peculiar case.

There is the same wealth of invention and delight in the characters that typified the first book, while the satire is sharp as ever, if not more so. What's different, as Michael Dirda rightly identifies in his introduction, is that this time round the humour is undercut by a feeling of disenchantment, that while Fursey might get what he wants none of it is really worth the trouble. His adventures have stripped Fursey of his innocence, and now the things that he once longed for can no longer satisfy him, while the past is gone forever, a time of simplicity and honest passions that can never come round again. Even the Devil is having a hard time of it, with the Irish ecclesiastics whose souls he was so pleased to have secured turning Hell into a most unpleasant place to live. The Kings and Bishops are largely relegated to the background, replaced by small minded bureaucrats who suck the life and joy out of every human activity in their pursuit of some Aristotelian golden mean, a chase that leads the whole country into a stultifying mediocrity. This, like its predecessor, is a book that can be read over and over again, not only for the comedy and the invention and the larger than life characters and off the wall plotting, but also for the very serious things it has to tell us about the world. It was great fun, but far more beside.

Swan River released the books in limited editions of 350 and 300 copies respectively. Each book comes with an introduction by critic Michael Dirda that those unfamiliar with Wall's career will find invaluable, and with strikingly apposite cover images by Jesse Campbell-Brown. I can't discover the original price for these volumes, but it's largely academic as they're shown as sold out on the publisher's website, though you can of course find either these or other editions of Fursey's adventures online.


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