Five books

Seamus Murphy

The award-winning photojournalist and author of The Republic shares his favourite five classics


The Third Policeman
by Flann O’ Brien

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien was a huge influence on me when I worked on The Republic. Absurd, surreal and darkly funny, it is like an ‘Alice in Bogland’. I have carried it in my head, heart and ultimately in my eye, since I read it as a student in Dublin in the early 1980s. Although completed in 1940, it felt like it had been written for my own generation of boozy, hash-smoking, world-weary but oh-so-unwise iconoclasts. I always have the sense that O’Brien – like any Irish writer since Joyce – was all too aware of Joyce’s towering shadow and gamely parodies, and plays with that condition. The Third Policeman was O’Brien’s anticipated follow-up to his acclaimed debut novel At Swim Two Birds, but this time Graham Greene was not there to champion him as he had while a reader at Longmans. Greene was elsewhere working on the war effort and never got to read The Third Policeman. The rejection notice itself adds yet more to the mythology: 

‘We realise the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so.’

O’Brien was unwilling to face the ridicule he anticipated from his claustrophobic Dublin literati circle and insisted the manuscript had been lost. The book went unpublished in his lifetime. I can’t do the book justice by attempting to describe or summarise it, all I can say is read it. David Lynch run for cover.

 


On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

On the Road is another book I returned to in my forties, having read it in my early twenties while living briefly in California. I didn’t travel enough ‘American road’ as I should have back then, but when I began a photographic project on America in 2005 (which I am now editing) this book was a touchstone and a way for me to shrink the vast continent, at least as I begun. Re-reading it decades later and travelling those roads which have become numbing Interstate highways, the book took me by surprise with its portrayal of human vulnerability. Sure, there were still cars, chicks and an escape into a dream Americana – typical male stuff – but something much deeper happens; a brooding search for meaning and belonging. The beauty and poetry of his writing is timeless and reading Windblown World, his journals from 1947–54 (years which include his travels and the writing of On the Road) reveal all the anxieties and insecurities over work and process that naturally dog any artist. It banishes any idea of Kerouac blitzed on speed and simply sitting down to type his masterpiece on a single scroll. Alas, huge success along with an unwelcome role as the voice of a generation proved too much for shy Jack.

 


Telex Iran
by Gilles Peress

Gilles Peress’ Telex Iran, a photography book, still excites and inspires me. The photography alone is exemplary; hard-won, artfully captured images convey the complexity, danger and spontaneity of Iran during the Islamic Revolution with their graphic, fractured angles and expressionistic shadows. The book is cleverly conceived and designed in a way that adds another layer to the story, that of the photographer communicating the personal experience of what he is doing and how it is with his photo agency in Paris through abrupt, enigmatic telexes – the lingua franca of foreign reporting at the time. The work advances the legacies of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank while the book questions and redefines the language of documentary photography. 

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The Gathering by Anne Enright

In The Gathering, by Anne Enright, a man’s suicide brings back the ghosts of the past to his grieving sister Veronica. You might think there’s nothing there to distinguish it from any another novel, and in fact there’s a whole genre of books out there by Irish authors covering similar ground. But Veronica’s quest to work out how she survived and her brother didn’t makes for visceral, unsettling and yet strangely compulsive reading. Enright’s insight uncovers Irish families with all the personal minutiae of Irish life. Her acute skill with language is devoid of melodrama or morbidity and puts this book above any other that tackles contemporary Irish domestic life. 

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The Comedians 
by Graham Greene

The Comedians, like much of Graham Greene’s work, takes you on location. As well as his signature complex, often dubious, characters, we have the thriller-style plotting and troubling questions of morality too. By reading Greene, you are visiting a particular place at a particular time, written from personal experience. War-time London under the bombs, an outpost of empire in Freetown, Sierra Leone where vultures roost on the rooftops at noon, the Mexico of a whiskey priest on the run from persecution. It is always cinematic. My favourite is The Comedians, its setting the Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier and the Tontons Macoutes. Three characters travelling to Haiti on a boat, so three men on a boat; Brown, Smith and Jones. Mr Brown, the narrator, is returning as a hotelier to a very unstable life in a restive city; the American, Mr Smith, who ran for US President on the vegetarian ticket and unsurprisingly wasn’t elected; and Mr Jones. Greene opens the book on Jones with one, long magisterial sentence. It betrays the narrator’s cynicism, evokes empire, hints at all manner of subterfuge and promises adventure by reading on. All in a single take:

When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones’ home lay.

 

Author Seamus Murphy in his library

Find out more about the author

The Republic

Seamus Murphy

An award-winning photojournalist returns to his home country to capture in images the spirit of Irish life in the centenary of Easter 1916

One hundred years after Ireland's 1916 Rising, the revolt that ultimately lead to independence, who are the Irish and what has become of the republic they made? Photographer Seamus Murphy, exile and escapee, digs deep to discover the forces and mysteries that drive - and have often beguiled - the country since its birth.

From the streets of Dublin, and the suburbs of towns and cities adapting to new multicultural life, to the older habitats of Ireland's wilder western shores, Seamus Murphy endeavours to capture the spirit of contemporary Ireland in this witty, closely observed and beautiful photographic book.

[Note: The Republic has been purposefully designed so that the front cover falls away from the spine. The book lies flat when opened, leading to a more conducive photography viewing experience for the reader.]

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