By Ian Sansom.
THERE ARE, OF course, many museums dedicated to writers, singular: the Dickens Museum in London; the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri; the Casa Fernando Pesoa in Lisbon. Dove Cottage. The Thurber House. Bellaghy Bawn. The list goes on and on. And then there those museums, far fewer, dedicated to writers, plural: the Writers Museum in Edinburgh; the American Writers Museum planned for downtown Chicago (opening 2015); and the Writers Museum, at 18 Parnell Square, Dublin. In life, writers are individual quantities: in death, they become groups, species, clans, tribes, fellowships, cabals and movements, all subject to national claims, packaging, and other forms of bogus classification.
The Dublin Writers’ Museum opened in 1991, in an 18th century townhouse. If anywhere calls for epic proportions, it’s surely an Irish Writers Museum, and 18 Parnell Square can certainly boast some rather nice moulded ceilings and a grand staircase, though it would be true to say that as a whole the place is a little shabby: it has about it the feel of an understaffed private language school, hanging on by dint of its reputation and its dear faithful foreign students. On my visit, on a cold, damp Saturday afternoon, the place was crammed with the earnest young of all nations, several taking notes, some of them taking photos (photography is not permitted).
One enters a dark, depressing room – what would once presumably have been the entrance hall – and after handing over your €7.50 you’re presented with the inevitable ugly audio guide device. I asked instead for a printed guide, and one was eventually found, in Irish.
The museum, as befits a writers museum, consists largely of exhibits of paper: first editions, Abbey Theatre programmes, manuscripts, etcetera etcetera. What’s interesting is everything else. In the first room there is Mary Tighe’s writing desk, which is little more than a slope with legs, and a bronze head of George Bernard Shaw, looking like Professor Dumbledore.
In the second room can be found various typewriters, pipes, and all sorts of other delightful ephemera and tat, including Oliver St John Gogarty’s motoring and flying goggles, and a letter of acknowledgement from J. B. Ferguson Ltd., of Chichester Street, Belfast, dated 15th Sept 1910, thanking Gogarty for his cheque for £500 in respect of a Rolls Royce. ‘We are writing Messrs Rolls-Royce and Melhuish to-day and will write you further as soon as we get a reply from them.’ Kate O’Brien, I can report, used a Remington Portable. Frank O’Connor’s fountain pen was black. Austin Clarke had a roll top desk from the Finsbury Office Furnishing Co. And Samuel Beckett had a telephone in his apartment in Paris equipped with a red button ‘to exclude incoming calls.’
UPSTAIRS THERE ARE more bronze heads, portraits, and James Joyce’s piano, an upright Anton Petrof, that, I think – although this is not made entirely clear – is the very piano that he bought in Trieste, and upon which he would famously spend the morning practicing before teaching in the afternoon. Joyce is prominent, though not dominant, throughout the museum: he has of course his very own Centre, and a Tower and Museum just down the road. His presence, in fact, feels rather odd and disturbing: in one portrait he looks like Blakey from On the Buses; in another, like a sick blind man nursing a hangover; and in yet another, rather like the actor John Malkovich playing James Joyce. (Samuel Beckett fares worse: in one ghastly painting he looks like Tony Blair, with demon eyes and bouffant hair.)
Perhaps most poignant is a small black and white photograph of Maeve Brennan, in New York, 1949, sitting before a fire, smoking a cigarette, whisky tumbler close to hand, surrounded by books and roses, her hair scraped back, looking like she means business. ‘Her stories and articles were widely read in America,’ reads the curatorial blurb, ‘although in Dublin (where her volume of stories, The Springs of Affection is set) she was relatively unknown until after death.’ Twas ever thus. In another room is a cabinet containing what one might generously call the relics of Mary Lavin – a teddy, a bootee, and, according to a tiny typewritten note, ‘A glass marble kept by Mary Lavin as a souvenir of her childhood home.’ The marble seems to have rolled away.
A truly great International Writers Museum might contain, say, W.H. Auden’s slippers, Clarice Lispector’s eyebrow pencils, Albert Camus’s goalie gloves, and one of Marianne Moore’s tricorne hats. A Writers Museum of Stylistic Devices would include Pinter’s silences, various Oulipian devices, and a hands-on working exhibit featuring Elmore Leonard’s stripped down dialogue mechanics. And the Writers Natural History Museum – a cross between the Pitt-Rivers, the Wellcome Collection, and a good old-fashioned Kunstkabinett – would feature a vast collection of livers, tear ducts, bile salts, anal cysts, and beards displayed according to weight. In the meantime, the Dublin Writers Museum is probably as good as it gets.
Ian Sansom is the author of several books, including The Bad Book Affair (UK) and other titles in the Mobile Library Mystery series. His most recent book is Paper: An Elegy (UK), which was launched in October 2012 at The Paper Museum. He teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Warwick, writes frequently for The Guardian and the London Review of Books, and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.