For the next four years references to WWI will inevitably appear here as well, as I make no bones about the war's importance in creating the world we live in now and, naturally enough, and very directly, the world Stefan Gillespie lived in.
Wondering what 'might have been if...' doesn't make for a very useful study of history, but I guess as a historical novelist of sorts I am bound to do a bit of that! Without a WWI there would have been no WWII (though that doesn't mean there wouldn't have been bloody wars) and it's extremely unlikely Hitler would ever have become much more than a not very good artist... and closer to home some form of Irish Home Rule would almost certainly have arrived before 1920. It's odd to contemplate that, under those circumstance, the war the British government might have been fighting in Ireland could have been with recalcitrant Unionists.
I have also just embarked on a project with my son which relates the First World War very personally to West Wicklow, Baltinglass and the townland we live on.
In 1914 there were two farms on our townland. The families that lived there were the Jones and the Kellys; the Jones across the fields and down the road and the Kellys in the house, still here in part, where we now live. Two men from the townland went to fight in the First World War. They didn't come back. Andrew Jones died in 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; William Kelly died the following year at Ypres. They were both farmers' sons (what else could they be here then?) in their thirties, and they must have played together in the fileds and woods between the townland's two houses, as my children and our down-the-road neighbours' children play now. There are still just two families on the townland.
My own great-grandfather, a professional soldier, also died in WWI, in fact in the last week of the war in 1918, which rates high on any scale of bad luck. While my great-grandfather has a war grave in France, that I have just discovered, there are no graves for Andrew Jones and William Kelly. In the battles they fought in their bodies simply disappeared into the seas of mud in which they fell, or were blown to pieces. The monument to the dead whose bodies were never found after the Battle of the Somme, where Andrew Jones' name is recorded, lists the names of 72,000 men.
It's a humbling and very moving thing to stand in the fields and think what was in the minds of those two West Wicklow men as they climbed up out of their trenches, the day each died, to walk through the barbed-wire into the hail of machine-gun fire and shells. It's hard not to imagine that alongside their families the hills that look down on us here now, Keadeen, Kilranelagh, Baltinglass Hill, were there too.
This is, of course, the landscape in which Stefan Gillespie grew up, and the fact that the detective novels that feature him have this same place very much at their heart is, I hope, another way of making these hills and their memories live in different ways.
Karl Kraus's extraordinary play about the folly and madness of war, seen from the 'other' side, from Vienna, the capital of Germany's ally, Austro-Hungary, is a great cry against the barbarism and inhumanity that drives so much of human history, and the fact that it has never been fully translated into English is a peculiar statement about the narrowness of the English-speaking world when it comes to literature and art that isn't in English.
You can read parts of my translation on my Kraus website,
It's not easy going, but then what it's about isn't easy going, and as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century, I suppose Kraus has some right to expect us to put some effort in. As a writer he tended to believe that anything you could understand completely at one reading probably wasn't worth reading. It's not a very popular position to take these days!
I will be publishing the first part of 'The Last Days of Mankind' as an ebook in November this year (the second part in 2016). The play is 800 pages long and if played from beginning to end would run for more than 16 hours. Unsurprisingly it doesn't get many performances. It is unlike almost anything else you'll come across.
Translating it has been a lonely business, though at the beginning I had the help of a German artist, Cordelia von Klot, who happened to be my neighbour in the next townland along the little road where Andrew Jones and William Kelly lived. (The picture that accompanies this post is Cordelia's 'Kraus in Vienna'.) So it's been good to get some feedback since I put parts of the translation on to the web. Marjory Perloff, writing for the University of Chicago's 'Critical Inquiry' about Karl Kraus, was kind enough to say this:
'The most important... development (in studies of Kraus) ... is that there is a new translation of 'The Last Days of Mankind'. In November 2013, the British writer Michael Russell, whose career has been in television drama, responded to the ongoing discussion of The Kraus Project by posting the following on his website dedicated to Kraus:
...1914 saw the start of the First World War and of Karl Kraus’s bitter, relentless and incomparable dissection of its progress. 11 November 2014 will see the publication of my full translation of ‘The Last Days of Mankind – Part One’ as an e-book on Amazon; that is to say the prologue, act I, act II & act III, with commentary (part two, acts IV & V, & the epilogue, will be published in 2016). Almost 100 years on this will be the first ever English version of Karl Kraus’s complete text of the play. The translation will be revised from the work-in-progress version used to provide the condensed material currently on this website; the commentary notes will be revised and extended…
I am happy to report that Russell’s translation is excellent—certainly the best I’ve seen to date. I only wish it had been available when I began my own work on Kraus! But now that it is here—and very accessible on line—I urge readers to take a look, especially at the scenes discussed in my own essay. It seems, then, that in time for the centenary of World War I, Kraus’s great war drama is finally going to get its due in the English-speaking world.'
Marjory Perloff's own excellent essay on Kraus can be found here,
Anyway, if a little bit of Karl Kraus pushes Stefan Gillespie aside from time to time in the next couple of years, why not?
And I will also post what my son and I find out about the two men from our townland who died in WWI, Andrew Jones and William Kelly.