Award winning Irish writer Mary Costello is the author of the River Capture (2019), an astounding novel about a man’s quest for growth, driven and guided by his admiration for the life and work of James Joyce. Costello also is the author of the book of short stories The China Factory (2012), and novel Academy Street (2014), named book of the year at the Irish Book Awards.
James Joyce is ever present throughout The River Capture. What is your relationship with Joyce like?
Joyce was my muse when I was writing The River Capture. I’ve been a life-long lover of his work, but I was more deeply immersed in it while I was writing my novel. I was living with Joyce every day and felt his presence close: his refined feeling, his supreme intelligence. His suffering, too. He was – and is – a constant in my psyche and there are days when I can scarcely believe he’s dead, that this unique mind and heart and soul is gone. The sight of Ulysses or Ellmann’s biography on my desk or shelf consoles me.
As a writer Joyce gave me permission to do anything: to write about the ordinary, the banal, the sacred, the profane, the transcendental. He set the highest bar. He found the numinous in the commonplace. My novel is a homage to this bright star.
Luke, the main character in your novel, shares many similarities with Leopold Bloom, whom he deeply admires. Was Bloom your main inspiration for Luke from the beginning, or did the two meet along the way?
Originally the novel was going to be from Ellen’s – Luke’s aunt’s – point of view. But as I wrote, it soon became obvious this was Luke’s journey. And, like myself, Joyce and Bloom are ever present in Luke’s psyche. Luke finds in Bloom great humanity, compassion, an affirmation for man’s worth, and he identifies closely with Bloom – their preoccupations are similar.
I think all writing is autobiographical, and being a lover of Joyce, it’s inevitable that this love would filter into my work. Not to write about Joyce and Bloom would be to deny something essential – it would be tantamount to self-censoring, and the writing would, I believe, lack integrity.
So, in many ways Bloom’s and Joyce’s presence in The River Capture are a manifestation of what literature –and especially Ulysses– means to me.
Luke is interested in literature, quantum theory, astronomy, metaphysics… What are Mary Costello’s main interests?
All of the above, plus art, science, nature, history, biology, theology, psychology, mythology, maths, music, art –any knowledge, learning or experience that helps in my quest for consciousness.
Water is a key element in The River Capture. It seems to have its own personality, just like the rest of your characters. How did that come about?
I’ve always been interested in science and nature and the mystery of the physical world. Scientists and experts in every field are constantly breaking new ground, but there is still so much we don’t know. As humans our faculties are, it seems to me, limited. How do know that the tree or the stone doesn’t have some element of consciousness or sentience? It is this – this unknownness – that carries a special energy and thrill for me. Many scientific discoveries start with hunches or intuitions on the part of the scientists and in The River Capture, Luke has a hunch that the code to life – to everything – lies in water. A few years ago I read a book called H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness by the philosopher Ivan Illich and it prompted many new thoughts and emotions in me about water – for example, I feel great pity and compassion for water, for the ways in which it is used and abused. These are the kinds of thoughts that I give to Luke in the novel.
Desire, sexuality, religion and morality are central themes in the novel. What role does literature play when it comes to topics like these, which are so important in our society?
These themes and issues are all aspects or elements of what it means to be human, and so, in the telling of a human story, these – and many more – will be present. When I’m writing I don’t set out to deal with certain themes or societal issues – I am not a social writer. My starting point is usually a character or an image – either way, it’s something that won’t go away until I write it.
Insofar as literature (or any art form) matters to individuals and inspires and helps them grow towards personal awareness and consciousness, I suppose it plays a role in society. Can it change society as a whole? I don’t know. If enough individuals become aware and conscious, then maybe it’s possible.
Another reference in the novel is Borges. What other Latin American authors do you enjoy and recommend?
Borges is a great favorite. I also admire the work of Isabel Allende and the short stories of Julio Cortazar.
Both Bloom and Luke O’Brien rank kindness above all virtues. A particularly touching idea. During your creative process, how did you arrive here? Would you care to elaborate on this?
Ostensibly my novel is a love story, but it’s really about Luke’s quest for consciousness… for wholeness or individuation in the Jungian sense. His is the examined life or at least an attempt at it. Luke is striving to be a better person. He contemplates good and evil, man’s treatment of his fellow man and his fellow creatures, issues of conscience, etc. He admires Bloom for his kindness, his pacifism, his understanding of women, the way he speaks out against cruelty. In fact Ulysses is, in many ways, a manifesto for kindness. As I wrote the novel, it became obvious that Leopold Bloom was Luke’s soul guide, his psychopomp – that figure from Greek myth who leads souls through the underworld and who, in modern psychoanalysis, symbolically mediates between the conscious and unconscious realms in the journey towards consciousness.
Mary Costello will participate in event  on Sunday, February 2 at Hotel Sofitel (Salón Santa Clara), 3pm: Mary Costello and Alice Zeniter in conversation with Marianne Ponsford