handiwork – Sara Buame

Writer and visual artist Sara Baume’s latest book ‘handiwork’ is her non-fiction debut and has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, along with another work from Tramp Press, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s wonderful ‘A Ghost in the Throat’.

Sara Baume won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award for ‘SoleSearcher1’, and went on to receive the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature and an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer in 2015. Her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

‘handiwork’ is a short contemplative work that compares the flights of migratory birds to the art of creation, both writing and sculpture, as well as her daily artistic practices:

I HAVE ALWAYS FELT a terrible responsibility for time.

The impotent urgency manifests at minimum as an internalised twitch, at maximum as the murmuring of a voice in my head, arguing that the solid form at hand is not symmetrical enough – the wrong angle, the wrong shape, the wrong stroke – causing me to carve it smaller and smaller in the name of an inconceivable perfection – to carve it away completely, back into plaster dust.

The nemesis voice never acquiesces to flow; it is always reasoning and glancing ahead into the coming weather. You could stop now, the voice murmurs, or you could get ahead for tomorrow. And then, tomorrow – you could stop now, it will murmur, or you could get ahead for tomorrow….

Like the migrant birds who, one year, find they have to go a little farther than the year before – for a superior food source, a safer resting spot, because the weather is peculiar.

And then, again, the year after, a little farther still…

This book is a collection of short pieces, with space for you to pause and contemplate each little thought. Some pages containing a single sentence.

‘INDEED, VERY FEW PEOPLE are aware’, José Saramago writes in The Cave, ‘that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain.’

Broken into fourteen sections, each introduced with an image of a single model bird from a series built by Sara Baume in the spring of 2019 and photographed in the autumn. Each made from plaster that has been carved, painted and mounted onto a length of timber dowel, and studded with a pair of glass beads. The creation of these birds, the moulding, the carving, the painting becomes the contemplation, as is the writing of this book, of exploring what it is to create. Meta-non-fiction? Auto-non-fiction?

Facts about migratory birds interject and then play with the text, the writer’s journey.

WHEN WE FIRST MOVED into this house, I assigned myself a room where I would write. I carried in a desk and tucked the swivel chair beneath it and raised a bastion of books around it. As for the other stations, they have never been formally designated. Instead, they have asserted themselves gradually, as if the walls and floors and furniture are somehow sympathetic to my preoccupations and repetitions and observances; as if this house has diligently ordered itself around my daily practices, my daily handiwork.

However, not simply a book about writing and creating, this is also an homage to the writer’s father, a man who created working equipment from scraps, a handyman, and her grandfather who diligently made wooden models, carts that she never thought much of until much later in life. As Sara Baume creates her bird sculptures she dwells on her relationship with her father, his dedication of a work area for her once she had completed her studies, and ultimately these contemplations become her writing, our reading. An acknowledgment of grieving:

He died of a cancer conjured from the fine traces of toxins that accumulated in his lungs over the course of decades; which emanated from his daily bashing, clanging, whirring and grinding, and hovered in the air of his sheds – the unwanted produce of his progress, ungraspable yet ubiquitous as the sky in a model railway.

A short but deep book, one that radiates joy as the writer’s keen observances and her connection to nature exude the poetic, the artistic and the melancholic. Another wonderful book from the small independent publisher Tramp Press, it is a joy to read these quality works from female Irish writers.

A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa

“THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.” Yells Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the opening line of her prose debut ‘A Ghost in the Throat’. I will not be ignored, I will not be erased, this will not sit in the shadows of texts written by men…The book closes with the same line, delivered with less force “This is a female text.” More on that later. Here is a blend of auto-fiction, research, memoir, translation and the story of poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is a female text.

‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, translated by Doireann Ní Ghríofa as ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’, (and which appears in both Gaelic and English at the end of the book) is an Irish lament composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (referred to by our author as ‘Nelly’). It has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, in the main, composed the keen about the death of her husband Art on 4 May 1773. And despite the claim of being the greatest poem written during the 1700’s, little is known of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and our author sets out to right this wrong.

However, this is no standard biography, award winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading us through her journey of discovery, as well as her own life of motherhood, domesticity, the endless chores that fill her days, donating breast milk…

My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my miniscule victories.

But to focus on the chores, with an occasional slip into Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem and life, in no way gives justice to this complex, multi layered revelation of a book. The poetry, and the possible life that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill lived, leaks into our writer’s daily life. In the 1700’s the literature of women was not written down so the poem survived in oral form and was eventually transcribed in the 1800’s, by another woman, Nóra Ní Shíndile, our writer having to explore other female threads, for example letters, to somehow decipher the life of her subject.

I have come across a line of argument in my reading, which posits that, due to the inherent fallibility of memory and the imperfect human vessels that held it, the Caoineadh cannot be considered a work of single authorship. Rather, the theory goes, it must be considered collage, or, perhaps, a folksy reworking of older keens. This, to me – in the brazen audacity of one positioned far from the tall walls of the university – feels like a male assertion pressed upon a female text. After all, the etymology of the word ‘text’ lies in the Latin verb ‘texere’: to weave, to fuse, to braid. The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

The theme of being “carried in female bodies”, obviously, comes through with our author detailing her pregnancies:

In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.

As Doireann Ní Ghríofa researches her poet, she slowly reveals her life through others, letters of others, she is performing a delicate dissection, this is shadowed by her own experiences of first year medical training at University. Whilst delving into another’s life our writer is revealing more of herself, layer by layer. This is a beautifully constructed revelation of both a writer and her subject, whilst concurrently explaining the erasure of women. Whilst on a journey to the area where Nelly’s twin sister Mary lived, Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to find the house, the rooms, to reconstruct, even in her own mind, the lives of these women:

He knows the Baldwins’ old place, he says, leading me to the wet meadow where Mary’s rooms once stood. ‘See?’ he says. ‘Nothing.’ He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany: the parasols, portraits, and books, the blue vases and embroidered blankets, the drapes and sideboards, the letters, the combs, and the coats, the spoons and looking-gasses and scrubbing cloths, the coal buckets and diaries and piss-pots. Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.

This text reflects Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s allegory of being woven, fused, braided, the complex layering here is only revealed when you flick backwards and re-read passages, each section representing another thread that up close looks like nothing more than a single thread but once you stand back the full complexity of a stunningly woven tapestry is revealed.

How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?

There are even reasons for the addition of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, previous mediocre attempts, male translations, and our author is very modest when it comes to her work, not believing she has the talent to do the keen justice. Alone this closing of the book makes it a worthwhile addition, another “Women in Translation” addition. And when you reach the final words “This is a female text” you will be drawn back to those same opening words, written in a different tone. It is as though you’ve shared private moments with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now the tale is complete, she is going to write a book about it.

An absolute revelation of a work, moving, powerful in its admissions, honest, brave and unique in style and substance. A book that offers up many interpretations, I’ve seen one where the rooms are presented as the theme, these threads, so many you could follow. A poet who has created a stunning prose debut, one that will surely take home more awards (it was recently crowned with the An Post Irish Book of the Year Award for 2020), be glowingly reviewed again and again as the US publication draws near, and be lauded by readers and writers the world over. A book so unique that I feel ill equipped to write about its power and beauty. Interestingly the small independent publisher “Tramp Press” is now out of stock, great to see titles by small presses, who champion the cause of this style of book, having to go to reprints.

I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

Ulysses

Righteo, I read “Ulysses”, apparently that’s an achievement. Instead of writing a post full of your usual Joycean delving, probing or analysis, I thought I’d simply write about the reading experience. Let’s be honest, if you want to find out more about “Ulysses” there are thousands of places to go, classes, internet tools, books, clubs, you could keep yourself busy and increase your blood pressure for the remainder of your life and still walk away not 100% convinced you’ve understood a damn thing.

“Ulysses” has a reputation, one that precedes itself, “unreadable”, “life’s too short to read Ulysses”, and numerous other derogatory comments litter the reading websites, a demanding work obviously and numerous people just aren’t looking for focused concentration when they open a book, all of this myth had me concerned before I’d even opened page one.

First up I should mention the edition I chose to read. I’m sure every city has them, a chain of bookstores where remainders are marked, and then sold off at about a third of the recommended retail price. The shops that are littered with the next bestseller that actually never sold, thousands of copies of Jodi Picoult, Dan Brown et al. Occasionally I wander into these concrete caverns and browse, only to find some obscure out-of-print book that I’d long been looking for. On a recent visit they had one copy of the Gabler Edition of “Ulysses”, for $10 – bargain. In a nutshell the “Gabler” is a revised edition attempting to correct any errors made in earlier editions – there’s a decent “Foreword” and a large “Afterword” explaining the discovery process and the substantial effort put in to editing and publishing a definitive edition, that’s not for this post.

Before I go on, apologies to any Joyce scholars, or avid readers of “Ulysses”, below are my thoughts as I read the book, these are not in any way scholarly, nor have they been researched, do not take offence at a simple man’s views on what he thought whilst reading. If you disagree with anything, feel free to let me know, however I re-iterate that these are my thoughts, and plenty of times I have been known to be wrong.

Onto the book itself;

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Not that hard, Buck’s walking down the stairs with a bowl of lather, a crossed mirror and razor, about to have a shave….I actually made it through chapter one in a single sitting, undaunted, not overly perplexed, a chapter a day, be done in eighteen days. What’s the fuss? I’d started on a positive footing, a few google references required for some of the Latin quotes, a quick check of Homeric allusions, no guide required, I will be right. I had gone in blind, like heading out for a multi-day hike with some water, enough food, equipment, a rough idea of the terrain and hoping for the best. I’d managed to find the Linati and Gilbert “schema” on the internet, it gave a few pointers for each of the chapters (the map?) but I intentionally did not refer to the numerous multi layered guides, highlighting every nuance, dissecting every sentence.

At the highest level I understood Stephen Dedalus was trying to reconcile his blame for his mother’s death, I knew that Bloom was aware of Molly’s indiscretion, I figured out Bloom’s grief process for his young son, his father’s suicide, and of course the funeral. Surely you don’t read “Ulysses” for these broad narrative brushes!

Could I keep reading a chapter a day and be done in eighteen days? Of course I was wrong, I had underestimated the complexity, my resilience, in some cases the sheer length of some chapters (as well as my free time), a chapter a day was unachievable but it took me until Chapter Eight before I realised such….more struggles…and then I hit Chapter Fourteen “Oxen of the Sun”.

Complex, cryptic, but extremely rewarding, the gestation of the English language in a chapter about embryonic development, this section apparently mimicking the c14th travels of Sir John Mandeville, (I’ve added my simplified interpretation after each sentence):

And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move more for enchantment. (A table with carved legs?)

And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix then in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously. (Knives and forks with bone handles?)

And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blases in to them like to bubbles. (Glasses – glass blowing molten sand?)

And full fair cheer and rich was on the board that no wight could devise a fuller ne richer. And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing with they see it natheless that are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress. (A can of Portugese sardines in olive oil?)

And also it was a marvel to see in that castle how by magic they make a compost out of fecund wheatkidneys out of Chaldee that by aid of certain angry spirits that they do in to it swells up wondrously like to a vast mountain. (Bread?)

Basically a table with cutlery, some bread and a can of sardines!
Needless to say I got bogged down here and in the following “Circe” Chapter. But I soldiered on, sometimes vividly imagining the setting, other times simply reading the words, clueless as to what on earth was going on.

And then suddenly Bloom returns home, in the wee hours of the morning, Chapter Seventeen, “Ithaca” Odysseus returns, and then “Penelope”, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness, back to a chapter a day.

Of the Homeric references, there would be plenty I missed, but I particularly enjoyed “Nausicaä” chapter Thirteen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Scheria (or Phaeacia), Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes (thanks Wikipedia). In “Ulysses” we have the readable, and controversial when it came to banning the book, chapter where Bloom masturbates whilst observing the flirting Gerty on the beach. But early on in the chapter we have the equivalent of the handmaidens’;

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine…

The washing coming in lines 173+

She had four dinky sets with awfully pretty stitchery, three garments and nighties extra, and each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen, and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things.

Once completed I attended a seminar in Melbourne which was an “Introduction to Ulysses” and there were hints about what chapter’s to read in what order, pointers as to Joyce’s life, reflections upon certain sections (although not everybody has the same edition of course) and a few discussions about interpretation. A room full of people wanting to delve further and further into this iconic book. Me? I’ll dabble again, I’ll pick it up and dip in and out, I’m highly unlikely to read it from cover to cover again, and I’m even unlikely to attend another seminar.

Late last year I posted a list of works, from various sources, which have been referred to as the “Ulysses” of their country or language. I’d really enjoyed a number of books on that list, for their complexity, their boldness, their experimentation, and will slowly work my way through the majority that have been mentioned. A sort of quest, a challenge, yes, but an enjoyable approach to looking at world literature. Is there time to read Joyce again?

 

 

 

Slipping – John Toomey

Slipping

Today another short review of another short book.

Whilst I do keep tabs on numerous literary awards, I must admit I had not heard of the Rubery Book Prize, an annual international award given to writers either self-published or published by independent presses. In 2017 the Fiction Award was won by John Toomey for his novel “Slipping”, published by the independent press Dalkey Archive, and it was through Dalkey’s news updates that I heard of the award and the winning novel.

This is not a spoiler alert, what I’m revealing here is replicated on the back cover, and within the first chapter. This is a book with a simple premise, Albert Jackson, a highly regarded teacher, murders his wife and being sentenced to the local psychiatric hospital he enlists the services of Charlie Vaughan, a young fiction writer, to help him present his side of the story. The novel is not simply presented as Charlie’s journey or struggles in writing Albert’s story, it also consists of Albert’s notes, Charlie’s interviews with witnesses, family members and Charlie’s meetings with Albert’s psychiatrist, Novak.

However it is not the simple narrative premise where this novel’s riches lie, it is a work that plays on the usual motivations and explanations found in the crime genre, and delves into the mind of a man who has become sick of his day to day existence:

People disgust me. To be honest. I long to be alone, away from them and their social pleasantries. Away from etiquette, as if anybody even knows what that means these days. Small talk, as I said, has always been a source of irritation to me but in recent times I’ve come to utterly detest it. To the extent that I almost fear it. Fear I might throttle somebody, or drop into a whimpering ball right there on the street, in abject exasperation at life’s triviality. I have contrived a number of ways to avoid meeting certain people on the street. I plan departures in advance of arrival. I anticipate and prepare for my exits – appointments, work, emergencies, illnesses. You name it I’ve used it. (p17-18)

Masterly constructed the book switches between writer Charlie’s impressions;

…we can never entirely absolve ourselves of first impressions, astute or petty; it is the tiny prejudices and proclivities formed in as long as it takes to say hello that condemn us to tragedy. (p4)

And the musings of an unreliable narrator, Albert – here a lecture about “The Great Gatsby”;

‘And then we get the sting in the tail – the unreliable narrator. Just as we arrive at our safe conclusion, we ask ourselves – Can we trust the story we’ve been told? The narrator is compromised. Does this change the conclusion or bolster it? Who can say? You can, my scholars. Make an argument, take part. Assume your views. Go forth and criticise!’ (p29-30)

And then we have the role of you the reader, as a writer the more Charlie understands, and the more information he uncovers, the more complicit in the crime he becomes, you then begin to question your voyeuristic role as a reader…

In facilitating Jackson and his story, surely I had aligned myself with the wrong camp. As well as which, for me there was still something missing from his assorted statements. And it haunted my impression of him. Told me I was wrong to talk with him. The emotional hollow, the thin precision, the soulless control. What essence of him could be redeemed if the deadpan brutality of his murderous account proved as faithful as Novak had suggested it was? (p104)

There is the added layer of the role of a fiction writer;

But the novel’s a different beast entirely; pliable; capable of shifting and rolling with the fluctuations of the human heart, of clinging to the coattails of otherwise elusive patterns of the mind. It has range, human capacity, like nothing else. (p109)

As I am not generally a reader of crime fiction it is difficult to rate this book as part of that specific genre, however it is an economical and well-constructed book, a lighter read that filled in a gap whilst I was having a break from James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Whilst an easy read there are a few criticism’s I would like to highlight, the female characters are “victims” (obviously Albert’s wife) and it is not just the dead wife who is not explored in a lot of depth, in the case of the other two female “players” their roles in Albert’s life are explored however their motivations are not detailed in any way and they are merely play things for the male characters, our writer included.  As a light distracting read this novel is entertaining, whilst being unsettling and very readable, John Toomey has taken a simple tale and added several devices to hook you in, although some may be overblown (Albert referring to his wife as still being alive, pointing out the use of 3rd person narration are just two glaring examples) the overall effect is an enjoyable escape from some of the more detailed literary fiction I generally approach.