Many novels have dealt with the subject of forbidden passions and love affairs that have disastrous consequences not only for the unruly lovers, but also for the people around them. In The First Day, Irish author Phil Harrison’s debut, the story not only depicts the beginning and eventual end of a relationship between Samuel Orr, a married pastor with children, and Anna Stuart, a young Beckett academic, but narrates the initial love between them as a poetic merge of the often antagonistic sides of philosophy and religion.
Despite the wide age gap between Orr and Anna, they are by no means intellectually mismatched. Theirs is a love affair not only of the body, but also of the mind. The scenes of heated lovemaking are paired off with profound discussions about God, faith and Samuel Beckett’s poetry.
Harrison’s prose often recalls the style of other contemporary Irish fiction writers like Eimear McBride and Anne Enright, although stream of consciousness isn’t as much a dominant presence as the absence of quotation marks, a frequent enough literary device of Irish literature which reportedly doesn’t appeal to all. In The First Day, this narrative recourse is fitting in conveying to the reader the speed at which Orr and Anna fall in love, the acceleration of their relationship, Anna becoming pregnant with Orr’s child and the eventual aftermath.
In the second part of the novel, it is Anna and Orr’s son Samuel who takes over the narrative, creating not only a time jump of a few decades, but also a change of narrative pace. The clear differentiation between Samuel’s life and that of his parents, a legacy that he both embraces and blatantly rejects, is a clear demonstration of Harrison’s talent as a writer.
In an email interview, I asked Phil Harrison about the initial ideas behind The First Day, his experience as a screenwriter, and his personal take on Samuel Beckett.
There’s an ode to Beckett throughout the novel, even in the main characters’ name. Why did Beckett in particular resonate with you as a kind of muse for this novel?
It seems to me people tend to fall into one of three approaches to life and meaning: repressed (there is a meaning and I must find it – God, nationalism, whatever); tragic (there is no meaning and that’s fucking awful); or comic (there is no meaning, “haha, let’s go make some”). I learned a lot from Beckett about the last two, but especially the latter, the necessity of finding joy, or even just humour, in darkness. The novel feels to me less about finding meaning than making it, or perhaps finding that you need to make it.
This is your first novel, but you’ve written screenplays previously. How is the process different?
Writing screenplays has definitely informed my prose. I am much more interested in having characters do things than in telling people what they are like, which you have to do in cinema. But the question of voice, who is speaking and to whom, and what are they not saying, etc., all of these are more interesting questions in a novel, and afford a writer more space to play with, and rope to hang himself.
There’s a duality between religious faith and atheism in the novel in the characters of Orr and Anna that mirrors Beckett’s own seeming beliefs in Christianity as mythology. Is Orr and Anna’s affair perhaps a conflagration of the two?
I like that reading. There is surely something of that going on in their relationship. I think God is less what you believe in than what you worship – and in that sense, whether there’s a presence in the sky somewhere or not, there are gods everywhere – everybody worships something, or gives their authority to something. Whatever else it is doing, the novel is exploring this idea of how authority works, of the gods people name and the ones they don’t.
Anna and Orr’s relationship sets off a series of events that not only affect their own lives but that of Orr’s children, particularly Philip and Samuel. Was their affair a catalyst for everything that happens later, or was it rather a consequence of Orr’s desire for Anna?
I don’t know that I could answer that any better than you. Contingency is everywhere – there’s no sense that things had to work out as they did, simply that one thing tends to follow another until you end up there and not here. Anna has as much agency as Orr, albeit with a quieter, less brazen effect. Again, there’s that open question of control – what do we do when we try to control our lives, and what happens when we realize we can’t? Do we call that failure, or something else? What else might we do with our lives, or our children’s lives, than try to control them?
All the characters in the novel are extremely complex, and in a way, difficult to understand completely. Which character was the most challenging for you personally?
I’m pleased to hear the characters described that way, knowable only up to a point. Sam was probably the most difficult to write. The story is in some sense about his negotiating his own autonomy, in the light of his memories and alongside the omnipresence of his father. He had to be articulate and yet also have limitations, both to what he knows and how he thinks about what he knows.
Would you say the novel is a statement on religion? Infidelity? Desire? Faith? Philosophy? Sin?
It’s all in there I’d say. I hope though it’s primarily a story about specific people negotiating their messy situations in their own idiosyncratic ways; the effectiveness of any considerations of any of the subjects you mention emerging from the characters themselves and their interactions. If there’s one question that keeps emerging for me in the narrative, and to which I keep returning: how do you be an individual?
The novel ends in not just an unexpected way but also thought provoking. Did you have it planned out from the start or did it change as you wrote?
I’d no idea at all how it was going to end until I arrived. The characters seemed to be moving in some direction I had to follow. This is absurd, of course, in that they did nothing I didn’t make them do. But it’s the weird paradox of writing, I guess. You can make up anything you want, but truth still somehow exists, insists on being heard.
Tell me a bit about your future projects. Is there another novel in the works, or screenplays?
I’m playing around with a few screenplay ideas, mostly collaboratively, which will be interesting. But my main focus is a new novel. I’m about halfway through, I think. Though I’m not sure how I’d even know that. The future is unwritten.