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The Temporary Gentleman Reader’s Guide

By Sebastian Barry

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

INTRODUCTION
“I miss her face, its beauty, and its beauty lost.” (p. 276)

Jack McNulty’s story begins in the middle. It’s World War II, and the native Irishman is en route to Africa aboard a British troop ship when a torpedo destroys it. Jack miraculously survives, buffered from the shock by the “bottle of Scotch whisky” (p. 3) in his belly. From there, The Temporary Gentleman spirals back to Jack’s early years with the beautiful Mai Kirwan and forward to his solitary future in a free Ghana.

Why Jack returns to Ghana—or the Gold Coast, as it was called under British rule—he cannot say. It’s 1957, and his days as a soldier, engineer, and UN observer are behind him. Jack tells himself, “I will go back to Ireland, I must, I must, I have duties there, not least to my children” (p. 13). But first he is compelled to write an account of his troubled life with Mai.

In 1922, Jack is a shy engineering student from working class Sligo. Elegant and outspoken, Mai comes from a prominent Galway family. She and “her friends were the new girls of the century, who had come into the university on fearless feet” (p. 14). Jack is instantly smitten, but fears that he is reaching above his station.

Much to his surprise, Mai returns his regard and decides that Jack must meet her parents. Mai never drank alcohol herself, but Jack makes two stops along the way, so he can take “the questioning of her father more or less under the anaesthetic of four whiskies” (p. 47). It is clear to Jack that Mai’s father is not impressed, but Frank Kirwan keeps his opinions to himself—at least in the beginning.

When it is far too late to make a difference, Jack can see how Mai’s beauty and charisma masked some of her fault lines. On the day of their wedding, she flees the ceremony in tears. In time, Jack will discover that Mai is ill-equipped to manage the quotidian responsibilities of adulthood.

While writing his memoir in Ghana, Jack is cared for by a native servant named Tom Quaye. Tom is “exactly [Jack’s] age, down to the very month” (p. 17), and—like his employer—a veteran soldier who fought on the side of the British. Jack likes Tom and believes that his “houseboy” sincerely returns his affection.

Three years earlier and after four decades of heavy drinking, Jack had given up alcohol completely. “It just seemed the right thing to do” (p. 38). But when Tom invites him out to a local music club, a taste of palm wine sets off a night of wild revelry that will change the course of Jack’s life.

Acclaimed poet, playwright, and novelist twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Sebastian Barry is widely acknowledged as one of the most masterful storytellers at work today. In The Temporary Gentleman, Barry offers an exquisitely multilayered tale that explores Jack and Mai’s doomed marriage as it plays out against the wider stage of British imperialism.


ABOUT SEBASTIAN BARRY

Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award, and the Walter Scott Prize. He lives in Ireland.


A CONVERSATION WITH SEBASTIAN BARRY
  • You started your career as a poet. Later, you began to write plays and novels. What drove your evolution? Which is your preferred literary form?
  • I probably learned to write from writing poems—rewriting, endlessly, endlessly. In my archive at the Harry Ransom Centre the evidence lies in boxes—the petty history of long, diligent, happy hours waiting for words to click into place. But were they true poems? I don’t know. Poetry is the highest art, in my view, but a prose writer can learn a lot from it—the precision, the clock-making aspect of it. I did write prose for a few years then and by 1986 had written a first play, a mad piece, forty-nine pages of monologue. But there was no plan really. Looking back, it was as if I were trying to construct stepping stones across the choppy waters of a life, and I used whatever materials came to hand. I suppose the driving force was survival!

    I do prefer poetry ultimately, but not my own poetry—Michael Longley, the late Jack Gilbert, etc., all the modern greats. I miss Seamus Heaney walking through Dublin.

  • Do you write every day? When you begin a new piece, do you write it straight through or alternate between your various works in progress?
  • It would be odd to write every day, just as it would be odd to climb mountains all the time. I like to wait. It is part of the discipline. Wait for the whistle tune of a book, patiently, allowing the growing feeling of alarm and stupidity. Very important for me. For each book, I have usually written and finished about two chapters, working over and over them, maybe for half a year—and then the rest of the book might follow much more quickly. The full flow of a book is a fine time— the opposite obviously of waiting. I feel I may have “retired” from the theatre (possibly an illusion), so I am concentrating on novels now. Read for a year, write for a year, rewrite for a year.

  • Much of your work has been inspired by stories you’ve heard about members of your family. Do Jack and Mai have real life counterparts?
  • They certainly do. Jack’s shadow man was my own maternal grandfather, with whom I shared a room as a boy. He had been all over the world by the time he was twenty. From the Khyber Pass to the port of Lagos. An inveterate storyteller, a widower still in love with his wife, though their marriage had been a nightmare. Of course I shouldn’t have known that, but my mother told us endless, obsessive stories about the horrors of her childhood—not in his hearing. I suppose a strange upbringing! But I loved them all, those people.

  • Jack is the brother of Eneas McNulty and brother-in-law of Roseanne McNulty, the protagonists of two of your earlier novels. Is your family history as tragic as your novels suggest?
  • It’s a sad fact that most of it was much worse, or seems to me, now, much worse. There are many ways to tell the same story, thankfully, and I am mindful of the old dictum “a man can bear only so much reality.” But even if I skirt the volcanoes, I think you can still smell the sulphur—only too well. But a story is a story—laboratory conditions to test human experience, so that the reader is in that respect safe—and hopefully the writer.

  • In The Temporary Gentleman, Ireland’s political troubles take a backseat to Jack and Mai’s respective struggles with alcoholism. Are you suggesting that alcohol is as much of a national problem as religious divisiveness?
  • Couldn’t be far off—as much of a problem, I mean. It seems to me at age fifty-eight that alcohol is as dangerous, as inescapable, as unpredictable, very occasionally as delightful, and oftentimes as murderous as religion in Ireland, yes; and all the more lethal for being both invisible and acceptable, all at the same time. But then it is also a great social drug, I understand that, and the Romans thought life would be insupportable without wine. Yet, the havoc, the havoc. But not, physically, for Jack—Mai has a different response to it. It is said that so-called indigenous people have no defenses against alcohol—but I think it is universal. It starts out as a great comfort for the afflicted maybe, but year by year, decade by decade, it exacts its price. Is it an Irish problem? Not so much, because English drinking is just the same. Is it a human problem? Is it worth the candle, as they say? A mystery—a dark and sometimes bright mystery.

  • Jack drinks whisky and beer, but Mai becomes a gin drinker. Is drinking gin somehow more shameful?
  • No, but I think ladies thought gin was more dainty, maybe—better for their waistlines. I don’t know if it is. All drinking is shameful for Mai, because she knows her father would be heartbroken were he still alive. Drinking seems more shameful for Jack after he gives it up, and falls off the wagon.

  • Mai’s father called Jack, “the buveur of Sligo.” (p. 45) How would you translate buveur in English?
  • Drinker.

  • Was World War II as irrelevant to the average Irishman as you depict in the novel?
  • Well, President De Valera kept us neutral in the war, because he was afraid of the political terror of the 1910s and 1920s returning into Irish life. Ireland was sick of all that. But twenty thousand men went and fought in the Allied forces—it had been two hundred thousand in the First [World] War, when we were still part of Britain. There was a blackout on information in Britain too, but in Ireland it was almost total. If you were in the British army, you couldn’t wear your uniform at home on furlough. It was possible in remote areas, where there would be poor communications anyway, to be unaware of the war. There was a feeling that the war meant little enough to Ireland—generally. A minority was horrified by that. It was called in Ireland “the Emergency” and was felt mostly as food shortages and rationing. A very strange time—and possibly strangely damaging to the national psyche for many years.

  • Jack is writing an account of his marriage to Mai, hoping to “find the places where it broke and ask the god of good things to mend me” (p. 27). Many of your protagonists try to make sense of the past by writing it down. Do you consider writing to be an act of exorcism or atonement? Why do you write?
  • I think only in writing things down do we see the event properly—and in writing a life story, see ourselves properly—even for the first time. Meet ourselves, you might say, like Dante meets himself in Dante’s Wood.

    I write to sing—it is my version of singing. Singing reveals the core of the singer, much quicker than talking. You could talk to a person for twenty years and not know them—then, one night, hear them sing, and all is revealed.

  • What are you working on now?
  • I am reading and reading for a new novel. I have thirty books on my desk about indigenous peoples, “natives in their native place,” as we in Ireland were once ourselves—I mean, an intensely tribal people, round houses and all. Indigenous peoples, and what happened when the colonists washed through their worlds. In some cases very recent history—in some cases, now, as I write this. More sad stories!


    DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • The Temporary Gentleman opens just before Jack is plunged into the sea. How does this scene set the stage for the rest of the novel?

  • Jack is considered a “temporary gentleman” because of his status as an Irishman with a temporary officer’s commission in the British army. Does your understanding of the phrase change over the course of the book?

  • If Mai adored her father as much as Jack believed, why did she ignore his pleas to end her relationship with Jack? What does Mai’s obsession with the cinema tell you about her character?

  • After Mai and Jack have their first child, Mai’s brother—also named Jack—signs Grattan House over to them. Could Jack McNulty have maintained the family home if he hadn’t been a gambler and a drinker?

  • Is it really possible that Jack could live with Mai and not realize she had begun to drink?

  • Discuss the way in which Jack’s red hair is used as a symbol for his relationship with Mai.

  • Jack’s parents provided a loving and supportive home for their children. Yet, each of their sons encounters mostly tragedy and heartbreak. Was their generation somehow damned by the era in which they lived?

  • One night on the battlefield, Jack McNulty meets the other Jack McNulty—his distant cousin from the Protestant branch of the McNultys. What is the significance of their encounter?

  • Why does Sebastian Barry make Tom Quaye the same age as Jack and give him the same name as Jack’s brother and an Irish accent?

  • Does Jack do all he can to protect Maggie and Ursula? Does he deserve their forgiveness?

  • After Mai’s death, Jack makes it his mission to solve the mystery of his mother’s parentage. And in Ghana, he works to reunite Tom Quaye with his estranged wife. Do these acts atone for the pain he inflicted on Mai?

  • Why does Jack plan to burn the memoir that he so painstakingly wrote?

  • Does Jack truly want to return to Ireland? Or does he invite his own death?
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