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A felicitous career

  • 28 April 2022
  Towards the end of Brenda Niall’s new book My Accidental Career she muses on her reluctance to insert herself into her biography of Judith Cassab and the authority that allowed her to do so in her biographies of Archbishop Mannix and Irish Jesuit William Hackett. She says, ‘When it came to Hackett and Mannix, I was back in a world that I remembered well. I had the right to speak’. 

The phrase is striking in a culture which at once insists on the right of everyone to speak, and simultaneously restricts the right to speak of and for particular groups to those within the group. Niall’s point, however, is less about rights and exclusion than it is about moral authority and decency. To write with due respect and with authority of someone who has survived the Holocaust demands a depth of experience. For the world of Hackett and Mannix authority was given through a Catholic upbringing, but not for the world of the Holocaust.

The right to speak, however, demands more than shared experience. It implies that you have a voice, an ability to speak. It includes the mastery of words and of structure, the feeling for imagery and for rhythm, the curiosity, and the power to engage your listeners or readers. Writing is an art, a craft and a profession to be worked at. It implies both a gift and its nurturing.

The two qualities of authority based on experience and of the ability to speak come together in the story with which Russian poet Anna Akhmatova introduced her poem cycle Requiem. As she was waiting in a queue outside the Russian prison for news of her husband arrested in the Stalinist purges, a woman recognised her and asked, ‘Can you describe this?’ Akhmatova answered, ‘I can’. Her answer asserted both that she had the authority and duty to do so and that her gift of writing was fit for the task.

The quality of Niall’s writing is evident in An Accidental Career, though easily unnoticed. It lies in the clarity of her thought, her exact choice of words, the alternation of anecdote and reflection and the self-effacement that creates a direct link between the reader and the work itself. Her writing has the rare gift of simplicity. The precision of the title is characteristic of the book as a whole. It refers to a career, the items that might form part of