Form, Flann, and Lyric Poems: 5 Questions for Aidan Mathews


Aidan Mathews’ latest short story collection, Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone and Other Stories, really has something for everyone. The author displays his flair for delving into the minds of an eclectic group of characters – from ‘A Woman from Walkinstown‘, musing on the decline of her name, Mary, to the teenage girl spending a Saturday afternoon with her separated father. Decades pass within its pages – the imprisonment of Anton Artaud in 1937 gives way to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, while stories set in our time make substantial appearances.

The author Aidan MathewsIn light of this impressive range, we pick Aidan’s brains about the nature of form, the helping hands of Puffin paperbacks, and the short story masters you should have on your bookshelf …

1) This collection has been described as postmodern, with echoes of Flann O’Brien in the espadrille episode in ‘In The Form of Fiction.’ How would you describe the collection? Is a subversion of the genre something you sought to do consciously, or do you think that the short story form lends itself well to subversion? 

Flann O’Brien died in my father’s care in Mercer’s Hospital, and his brother Kevin taught me Latin in UCD; but, apart from the Peacock production of At Swim Two Birds in, I think, 1970, and my later purchase of the Penguin edition with its gorgeous Jack B. Yeats cover, the connection is slight and rather sad, because so many of the marvelous mid-century Irish writers in my parents’ bookshelves, master humorists included, seemed afflicted by alcoholic melancholy and self-loathing. 

Jack B Yeats

2) Do you feel more comfortable with the short story form than with the novel? 

I may/must do, because I’ve only ever managed one novel. Muesli at Midnight was an attempt at an anti-novel in the Tristram Shandy tradition. I do love large narrative fictions, but I’ve never been able wholly to believe in their presuppositions.  Those 19nth century notions of the self and of society, of character and circumstance, and of the dialectical interaction of the two to present plot-line, are as artificial, and therefore as simplistic, as the mythologies that European literature replaced after the Reformation.

On the other hand, I don’t really write short stories as such. I write long short stories mostly, since long short stories – or the novella, if you wish to be posh – dominated fashion when I was an undergraduate long ago. Brevity bulked large in the 1970s, in the last little while before the cut-and-paste of Microsoft ease ousted the difficult cut-and-thrust of pencil-marks on perforated type-script.

3) You’ve written novels, poetry, plays, short fiction – do you enjoy exploring these different mediums, and which is your favourite (if you can choose)?

I’ve more or less enjoyed every foray into form, except for the creativity-by-committee that screen-writers have to endure; but, because liturgy was my first experience of the wise Eros of language (I served the morning mass in Latin as a prep-school pupil), I am fondest of the lyric poem, which chills the most ordinary words with an acapella acoustic.

4) Who influenced you when you were starting out as an author? What book did you read that really made you think – this is for me?
Nothing in my recent life as a reader compares with the impact of the Puffin paperback library on my first few years. A good godfather funded a modest monthly allowance in the old Hodges Figgis, and I splurged accordingly. Even today, the sight and the scent of those covers secrete my entire childhood like the seed cathedrals in the arctic.
When I passed puberty, I read Joyce’s Portrait in a Jesuit school in Andalucia, almost a hundred years after the timeline of its opening chapter, and I thought to myself in that odorous white dormitory: This is present time and not past history. The formation is the same; the deformities are the same. This is my infancy; this is my adolescence. It cannot be my adulthood. It must not be my middle ages. There is an end-time surely to the sadness of the body.
At college in California, I came across René Girard’s book on resentment and desire (Deceit, Desire and the Novel). Its analysis of bondage  and captivity proved to be a cat-scan of my own ulterior interior, and I have been breathless with a sort of radiation sickness ever since, so that I now read only harmless things, best-selling novels and the liberal broadsheets.
5) When it comes to short story collections, is there any that you highly recommend to someone who maybe hasn’t dipped their toe into the genre yet? 
Obvious ones would be the two tender pugilists, Maupassant and Babel; Flannery O’Connor, of course, and the older Irish namesake who admired her, the currently unfashionable Frank, whose only real omission was to bar the twenty-something Sylvia Plath from his Creative Writing class at Stanford (but then, again, Eliot at Faber rejected Animal Farm as a Trotskyite rant); the late Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia; any of Jennifer Johnston’s dramatic monologues  – ‘one-person pieces’ being the voguish term – for stage and radio; and the prestige house-style of New Yorker fiction, which is heartless but highly crafted and therefore a salutary caution against the hazards of self-expression.
Many thanks to Aidan for letting us peek into the mind of the creator!
Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone and Other Stories is available now from our online store.