On the day of the marriage equality referendum in Ireland in May 2015, a news report included an interview with an elderly man emerging from a polling station with tears rolling down his face. When asked why he was reacting so emotionally to having cast his vote he looked directly into the lens and said: “Because it’s too late for me. But it’s not too late for everyone else.”
Twenty-four hours later when Ireland, that bastion of Catholicism, moral hypocrisy and sexual repression, became the first country to approve marriage equality not by parliamentary vote but by public plebiscite, the great scholar, humanitarian, and gay rights activist Senator David Norris was asked whether he, in his 70s, might take advantage of the new law himself. “I’ve spent so much time pushing the boat out,” he replied, “that I forgot to jump on and now it’s out beyond the harbor on the high seas. But it’s very nice to look at.”
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life writing novels but I never have, and never will, write a line as good as that.
As I publish The Heart’s Invisible Furies
, my tenth adult novel and my second to be set in Ireland, I find myself considering Ireland during an era when it wasn’t just frowned upon in Ireland to be gay but it was actually illegal.
A couple of years ago I shared a stage at the West Cork Literary Festival with my great friend, the novelist Paul Murray. I was talking about A History of Loneliness
, my novel about child abuse within the Irish Catholic Church, and he was discussing The Mark and the Void
, his exenterating novel about Irish banks. Those two institutions, the Church and the banks, have done the most to damage people of my generation and the next. During the Q&A with the audience I found myself saying something that I’d never dared express aloud before: that because my first experience of sexuality had been with a grown man in a position of authority over me, I used to wonder whether that was why I had turned out gay — whether a person’s first experience of sex marked them for life and defined the path upon which they would walk. Of course, I know that’s not the case but throughout my teens and 20s this question obsessed me; and it was only through making peace with my past that I found myself able to write A History of Loneliness
, which, had I attempted to write it 10 years earlier, would have been an unreadable diatribe. By the same token, had I attempted to write The Heart’s Invisible Furies
10 years ago, I believe I would have been more concerned with what readers might think of me than I am now. Between ’06 and ’08, when The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
was at its peak, I hated journalists asking about my personal life, not because I had any issue with being gay but because I simply couldn’t see the relevance of the question and didn’t want to relate that issue to the one that I was discussing.
I’m part of the middle generation, stuck somewhere between those who could never come out and those who shout it from the rooftops when they’re teenagers.
But away from the doom and gloom, it’s a little surprising to me to find that when I’ve mentioned The Heart’s Invisible Furies
to friends and family over the last few months, I’ve described it as “a comic novel,” a form of fiction that I’ve never indulged in before and towards which, to my discredit, I’ve always felt a little snobby. After all, throughout my literary career I haven’t exactly been known for hilarity. I have a line that I occasionally use at readings, that my books tend to feature lonely old men or lonely children but whichever it is, everyone dies in the end. I don’t mean to be so miserable, but that’s where the books seem to take me. And when I started The Heart’s Invisible Furies
, I began from a similar position. The idea was that I would take an elderly Irish homosexual whose life has been diminished by being unable to express his sexuality, and through his eyes the reader would see how Ireland, across 70-plus years, had changed. But of course, he’d die alone in the end. And to my surprise, it didn’t quite turn out like that. For once I started writing it, I discovered that my narrator, Cyril Avery, was basically a good-hearted, amiable, bumbling chap who goes from disaster to disaster in his personal life simply because he cannot be honest with the world. Or rather, the world — Ireland — will not let him be honest about himself.
For although Cyril in The Heart’s Invisible Furies
is born a quarter century before me, he spends the formative part of his life as anxious about his sexuality as I was, and many of his experiences, I’m embarrassed to admit, echo my own during my youth and 20s. There’s a section of the novel where Cyril, who is in love with his best friend Julian, remarks that sex “was a shameful activity to be conducted in haste, in hiding and in darkness. I associated sexual congress with the night air, with the outdoors, with my shirt on and my trousers around my ankles. I knew the sensation of tree bark imprinting itself against the palms of my hands as I fucked someone in a park and the smell of sap against my face as a stranger pushed against me from behind. Sex was not scored by sighs of pleasure but by the scurrying urgency of rodents in the undergrowth and the sound of cars rushing past in the distance, not to mention the associated fear that from those same roads might come the unforgiving scream of Garda sirens, responding to the outraged phone call of a traumatized dog-walker. I had no idea what it would be like to wrap my arms around a lover beneath the sheets as we fell asleep, whispering words of gentle affection that drifted carelessly into sleepy tenderness. I had never woken with another person or been able to satisfy my tenacious early-morning desire with an unapologetic partner. I could number more sexual partners in my history than anyone I knew but the difference between love and sex could be summed up for me in eight words: I loved Julian; I had sex with strangers.”
Across ten adult novels, a further five for younger readers, and a collection of short stories, I think this is perhaps the most truthful paragraph I have ever written, for this was my life until my late 20s. I come from a generation that felt — that still feels — a little awkward about being gay, a little embarrassed about it, even though we know there’s no reason to.
But it’s not the failed relationships that are the hardest thing for a gay man. Everyone, gay or straight, has those. It’s the relationships that can never be. The guys we fall for who we know will never reciprocate those feelings but who we long for anyway. Those can be torturous. At the age of 22 I was hauled over the coals by a friend who had discovered my crush on him. Across an afternoon of outrage he belittled and emotionally destroyed me, treating me subsequently as if I had shredded his childhood teddy bear and fed it to the dogs. Yet there was another friend, a kind one, who hugged me in O’Neill’s pub and told me that I’d get over it, that we wouldn’t let it affect our friendship, and he was right: I did and we didn’t.
I’m part of the middle generation, stuck somewhere between those who could never come out and those who shout it from the rooftops when they’re teenagers. A friend told me recently that her 11-year-old son has a classmate who’s already declared himself gay. I spent the summer of 2016 in London and almost every day I would go for a long walk around the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I remember one afternoon seeing two boys, perhaps 16 years of age, walking along hand in hand without a care in the world and feeling a sense of envy and, yes, bitterness at the freedom that they had. Is that wrong of me? Probably, but it’s how I felt.
Perhaps Cyril Avery is everyone I might have been, that I am, that I amn’t, and that I might be yet. The desire to fall in love and to share one’s life with someone is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual conceit. It’s human. We’re all suckers for a pretty face or a kind heart. What else can we do but keep hoping that the right person will show up?
÷ ÷ ÷
is an Irish novelist, born in 1971. His first short story was published in 1993 in the Sunday Tribune
and was shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award. He is the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
, Noah Barleywater Runs Away
, and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket
. His books have been translated into over 50 languages. He lives in Dublin. The Heart's Invisible Furies
is his most recent book.