Friday, July 2, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Lorcan Roche on Crime and Punishment

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Lorcan Roche, born in Dublin in 1963, is journalist, playwright, travel-writer, magazine editor and one-time male nurse. His novel, The Companion, was published by Europa Editions on Tuesday. His other works include award-winning plays for radio (Angel of Suburbia) and stage (Him and Her, Whatever Happened to Joe Magill, and The Old Fella). He lives in Dublin with his wife and daughter.

My father was a writer, historian, and one of those deadly earnest bibliophiles who handed his son a book for every stage of his development. He was also Books Editor for a national newspaper, and though our house was lined with books, and though I had already reviewed some "teenage" fiction for him and begun writing poetry and short stories, it was in New York City that my abiding love of certain books and writers was developed. This had much to do with being properly alone for the first time, being an exile, and being exposed to cultures more exotic and possibilities more frightening than any I had thus far experienced. It also had to do with being seriously ill — I contracted amoebic dysentery on a trip to Peru, and being young and stupid, failed to do anything about it for too long. As a result, I spent about five months lying on my bed, retching. And reading.

This list is made up of the books recommended to me by my father and books I discovered when I was in New York. All these "patient-books" have stayed with me — they still sit on the shelves of my house in Dublin.

If you were to torture me and make me pick just one book, I would confess to being a life-long admirer of Crime and Punishment. I have always been passionately interested in moral fables (blame my father for asking me to read too many mythologies, and my Greek and Latin teachers for setting my imagination alight) and felt, ever since I put pen to paper, that the art of the fable was in decline, that the exigencies of cinema and TV had diluted, if not desecrated, the form. Ambiguity, particularly the kind of ambiguity one finds in Crime and Punishment was made to seem very old-fashioned, very Russian, very arch.

Ambiguity fascinates me. I find people who live in black and white, us and them, right and wrong worlds to be terrifying. I have never been sure of anything. My wife says it is like living with Laurence Olivier — she never knows who is coming down the stairs in the morning. This is a writer's curse. I can empathize with the coward, the cur, the cheat, and especially the murderer. I found Raskolnikov fascinating, compelling, intelligent and very persuasive. I read the book every Christmas, and fantasize as I read it about doing in my mother-in-law with a hatchet — just kidding. I read it and I am transported inside the mind of a man who decides to step outside convention, and then bumps into fate, destiny, or maybe just some really shitty brand of luck.

I am also attracted to madmen. I like books that blur boundaries. I like protagonists who transgress, take risks, and stick two fingers up to authority. Raskolnikov's claim to be “extraordinary” was like an invitation to me. I was fascinated by the way the author turned the interior journey into a moral maze, how he managed to create tension and drama from mere thought. I admired, greatly, the balance he set up inside the head of his character, of how he knocked that balance out of kilter, then re-established it only to do the same over and over again, thereby creating a rolling movement, an irresistible internal rhythm.

I am also obsessed with that beat, that meter. For me, it is impossible to read a book by a writer who does not have this gift for stepping inside the head of a character and showing us not just how he thinks, but at what speed, and with what doubts, misgivings, etc.

When I finished Crime and Punishment, I determined that I too would write a moral fable. It took a long time — it turns out ambiguity is hard to achieve on the page. It turns out that it takes years to get to know a character, fully. Fyodor rocks. He is a god of detail and devil. He is a man who knows the blackness in all our hearts. He is honest, cruel, and crafty. He is sly. He is, for a writer, heroic.

My Father's List:

The Collected Poems of Martin O'Direain (a Gaelic language poet)
Shane by Jack Schaefer
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Tales of Cu Chulainn (from The Ulster Cycle)
Beowulf translated by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Norman Invasion of Ireland by Richard Roche (my father)
Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The Tin Drum by G√ľnther Grass

The Books I Discovered for Myself:

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O' Connor
The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
Factotum by Charles Bukowski
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver
The Art of Living by John Gardner
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates

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