When I was a teenage writer, I wrote to the Listowel short story writer Bryan MacMahon looking for literary advice on a story I’d written. I was delighted some weeks later – this was the 70s in the days of handwritten letters – to get a reply, but terribly disappointed with what he said. At the end of the MS I’d sent him, he’d simply written Solvitur scribendo. Luckily, I’d done Latin at school so could translate the words – it is solved by writing.
Even so, I’m not sure that at that young age, I fully understood the significance of his pithy advice.
I was revisiting that time recently when I was commissioned to write an essay for a collection by and about Irish women writers in their 60s. Given the brief, the piece I wrote was, not surprisingly, about the anxieties of being a writer in formation in the latter half of the 20th century, and being a woman in the same era.
Biology has taken care of some of the worries of my young writing life; the pram in the hall is no longer a preoccupation, though regrets remain, of course. Revisiting the pangs of creative doubt and insecurity (these are not exclusively female concerns about writing, I realise, nor confined to the young) coincided with a day-long testimonial seminar on the work of Eilis Ni Dhuibhne at UCD in late January.
A panel of writers was asked to look at Eilis’s short stories and respond to them. I chose three stories from Eilis’s recently published New Selected Stories from Dalkey Archive Press, a volume drawn from 30 years of her short fiction. Perhaps because I was primed, I began to see in Eilis’s stories some of the same anxieties I had been looking at in my own writing life for the essay.
The three stories, “The Flowering”, “The Banana Boat” and “Illuminations” feature the same character, Lennie (who might be seen as a stand-in for the author) and they revisit her, or versions of her, over several decades.
Apart from their qualities as accomplished, stand-alone narratives – which I had enjoyed and admired when they were first published – I discovered looking at these stories together that an intriguing subterranean history emerged; a meta-fictional testament to the anxieties of authorship, and in particular, of female authorship.
“The Flowering” is from the 1991 collection Eating Women is not Recommended. Written mostly in present continuous in close third, it features Lennie, a young woman and fiction writer, we suspect, although that identity is very effaced in the text. The story starts with Lennie having a dream, an habitual dream, where she longs for what she calls a “true discovery”.
“The promise, or rather the hope, of solutions, glows like a lantern in the bottlegreen, the black cave of her mind, where Plato’s shadows sometimes hover but more often than not do not make an appearance at all.”
The non-appearance of even notional shadows reveals Lennie’s deep-seated anxiety about her creativity. “Drunk on questions, she begins to believe that there is one answer, a true all-encompassing resolution which will flood that dim region with brilliant light for once and for all, illuminating all personal conundrums.”
The nature of the discovery she seeks is not made clear (she is not sure of it herself; nothing about this story is sure) but it is related to genealogy and her own identity, a hunger to know her ancestors, and to recognise inherited qualities. Lennie wants to enter the past.
As if on cue, the narration segues into a contemplation of place as an entryway – Lennie is staying in Wavesend, a house with many familial connections. The story veers into past tense and becomes Sally Rua’s story – presented as a “real” ancestor of Lennie’s – a mid 19th century housemaid and wizard crochet and lacemaker who once lived in Wavesend. Sally is sent out to work as a teenager, but is ultimately driven mad by her employer’s refusal to let her practise her lacemaking craft and after some inappropriate behaviour she is banished to a lunatic asylum for the rest of her days.
Sally Rua’s story could be seen as a fiction that Lennie is working on, although this is not made explicit, which fits in with general understatedness of the story. Lennie’s writing and her identity as a writer remain occluded in the narrative.
What is made clear, however, is that Sally Rua’s story within a story, is total invention. “Of course, none of that is true. It is a yarn, spun out of thin air,” Lennie tells us nonchalantly.
In “The Flowering” there is a double stand-in going on. Sally Rua stands in for Lennie, who may stand in for the author, and Sally carries the burden of the thwarted art-maker. The author brings out the big guns in terms of plot to “punish” Sally Rua for her artistic impulses – cheerless servitude and incarceration in an asylum – perhaps an indication of the author’s own interior state vis a vis her literary ambitions in the prevailing conditions.
Eilis has said that Lennie in “The Flowering” mirrors aspects of her life in her thirties. She used the story as the basis of a play in the 1990s. “When I revisited . . . Lennie, she seemed alien to me. I thought, this is a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown; she is half mad. It was strange to go back to that story and that time. The nervous breakdown was like Sally’s, in ‘The Flowering’: desperation at the difficulty Lennie faced in trying to develop as an artist – to write – while holding down a full-time job and being a mother and housewife,” she said in an interview in the Irish Times in September 2017.
But what comes through in the story is not just despair and madness – conveniently relocated to Sally Rua’s story – but something more deep-seated and chronic i.e. Lennie’s uncertainty about her own identity and the place of fiction in her life.
Sally Rua’s story may dominate the narrative, but Lennie reminds us that it is she who has “embroidered” the story about Sally. She does exist, Lennie tells us, but can we believe her? She’s a fiction writer, after all, and she declares that “she does not see much difference between history and fiction, between painting and embroidery, between either of them and literature”.
The story ends on a question – if Sally Rua (Lennie’s fictional construct) does not exist, then “where does that leave Lennie?” Here the anxiety takes on a more existential hue. Fiction in this context is seen as life-saving, as therapy, as granting definition, but even within the fiction, Lennie cannot trust – or believe in? – her own invention, another distinctly authorly preoccupation.
“The Banana Boat” dates from 2000, a decade later. In this story, Lennie is also a decade older, aged 45. She is on a family holiday in Kerry with husband Niall, and two bored teenage sons, John (16) and Ruan (14). Family life is foregrounded in the story. There is no direct mention of Lennie’s writing except when the family stop off en route to Tralee at a furniture shop to buy a table for Niall – and her – to write on. But the table is never bought because the shop is closed.
However, although Lennie’s identity as a writer is barely mentioned, the story is peppered with secondary literary references which clearly reveal Lennie’s writerly sensibility. Authors are constantly name-checked – Peig Sayers, Tomas O Criothain, Erskine Childers. Two short stories, “Miles City Montana” by Alice Munro (from the collection The Progress of Love) and “The Widow’s Son” by Mary Lavin (Tales from Bective Bridge) are cited specifically with relation to the plot.
The story opens in an idyllic setting in west Kerry. Although bad weather has been forecast, it never comes. “It was so beautiful, in this sunshine, that you could believe it was real.” But despite this, Lennie is anxious. The stated reason is that she’s a worrier, by nature.
“The details of the worries vary from time to time but the anxiety remains the same. . . Death hovers somewhere around, lurking in the corners like the mists that are always out there on the Atlantic. Maybe it is because of this that I am always afraid that the rug of my joy can be pulled from under me, that the whole delicate edifice of my domestic happiness will suddenly disappear.”
And then her fears are made manifest. Lennie’s younger son goes into the water and gets into trouble and there is a moment where she sees that this could be a hinge in her life, when she steps away from the normal into tragedy. But even in the midst of the drama, she’s seeing the event in narrative terms, calculating how the story might be told.
“I realise right now that there are two ends to the story, two ends to the story of my day and the story of my life.” Here she refers specifically to the Munro and Lavin stories.
In “The Widow’s Son” by Mary Lavin, the eponymous young man is killed off his bike trying to avoid one of his mother’s chickens; in the second option, he saves himself and kills the chicken, but it causes such a rift between mother and son that he leaves home and is never heard of again. This is a kind of a Hobson’s Choice for the reader – neither of the endings is very palatable.
Whereas both “Miles City Montana” and “The Banana Boat” present only a binary choice – life or death – but explore the choices offered when tragedy has been averted.
In the Munro story, the narrator is a young mother on a long road trip with her husband and two small daughters. It is very hot and the family stops in Miles City for a swim in a public pool, where one of children gets into difficulty. The parents are nearby but are not directly on the scene when the mother, acting on some intuition, senses that something is wrong and luckily manages to save the child. After the crisis is over, the unnamed narrator says:
“That was all we spoke about – luck. But I was compelled to picture the opposite. . . There’s something trashy about this kind of imagining, isn’t there? Something shameful. Laying your finger on the wire to get the safe shock, feeling a bit of what it’s like, then pulling back.”
Lennie’s reaction echoes that of the narrator of the Munro story. While rescuers go out to fetch her son from danger, she questions her instincts as a mother – and perhaps also as a writer? (“I had no intuition. Just anxiety.” )
Both of these narrators are undeclared writers. In the only brief reference to what she does, Munro’s character says: “I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to.”
But the difference between them is that Lennie reaches for fiction in the heat of the drama, while Munro’s character waits until the “post-mortem”.
Tempered with the relief that her son is safe, Lennie’s reaction is primarily literary: “We still belong to real life, the life that is uneventful, the life that does not get described in newspapers or even, now that the days of literary realism are coming to an end, in books.”
Although, paradoxically, this life is being described in a book. When the crisis is over, Lennie tells us she jots down “these thoughts” – which seem to become the story (rather like “The Flowering” where the fictional element is displaced into the telling of Sally Rua’s story). But in this narrative they are only “thoughts” – they don’t even qualify as a story, per se, such is Lennie’s anxiety, or is it superstition? As if it’s a self-reflexive recoil on her part about reacting to the near-drowning of her child, firstly as a writer considering narrative tropes, and only secondly as a mother?
Lennie’s competing anxieties of not being a good enough mother – because she’s a writer? – and not having a life sufficiently interesting to make literature from it – are both crucially feminine dilemmas. Can I be both, the story is asking. Can I be good at both? Is it an either/or choice? Reading this story, I was reminded of Esther Greenwood’s description of the same dilemma in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”
Added to that Lennie is asking – can the domestic ever be the stuff of literature? In this story, Lennie is revealed as even more unresolved about her identity as a writer than in the earlier “The Flowering”.
Eilis has said that “The Banana Boat” is “closer to my idea of what a short story should be like. . . A little stone in a pond, rippling out, or a world in a grain of sand: that’s a good short story.”
For me, the ripples of “The Banana Boat” extend out beyond plot to these underlying doubts that torment Lennie as a character. After reading this story I found myself wondering about her future, outside of the frame of the story, and was waiting for the next instalment.
“Illumination” is written another decade on – in Eilis’s 2012 collection, The Shelter of Neighbours. Written in the first person it features an unnamed writer – for once not in the domestic setting but in a place where her identity as a writer is foregrounded, a Californian writers’ retreat.
She has two children, aged 17 and 15; if this is Lennie (although that is not made explicit in the text), then going by their ages, this experience happens only a year after “The Banana Boat”. But despite having escaped the domestic sphere – although she mentions that her children wonder why she has left them for a month – she can’t quite surrender to the freedom the retreat affords her.
Even her reading – biographies of famous writers in the retreat library – only heightens her feelings of non-entitlement. “Such biographies make me wonder if an ordinary, sane person lacking any stunning eccentricity could be a writer at all?”
Echoing the concerns of the Lennie of “The Flowering”, she writes that crucially, the retreat lacks what she had hoped to find: “Brilliant insights into life and literature. An answer to a question I couldn’t even articulate. I had no answers to offer myself but I had hoped to sit at the feet of philosophers, listen to discussions that Plato might have organised, symposia where the dialogue itself led to the solution of the problem, or to some great discovery. All my life I had been waiting for some answer to come to me, from the conversation of others, or from a book, or from the clouds themselves, or the sunlight on the ocean and this had not happened.”
Here again, even when the exterior conditions are conducive, there are the answers she can’t find, the Plato’s cave denied to her, the world of creativity and authorship she feels locked out of – or unworthy of. And for the first time, the spectre of failure – literary failure – is stated directly:
” . . nor did I mention that my last two books had received terrible reviews, been universally hated, and that my life as a writer was probably over now.”
If this is Lennie, it is the first time we see that, despite the sometime crippling anxieties of authorship, she has been busy writing all along. Yet, the unease remains.
“Some answer about writing is what I wanted. . .What is it for?. . . Every day I felt I was on the brink. That the next day my brain, myself, would fill with light, that something wonderful would happen.”
In effect, something wonderful does happen – an unsettling but transcendent encounter with a family who live in the woods, which may be a dream, or, again, could be the dream-like fugue that accompanies the fictional process. Are we witnessing in the creation of the story of the strange perfect family – and isn’t it interesting that they are a family – what Lennie is actually working on? Another story within a story?
And yet, despite all the literary disappointment, we find that by the end of this latest Lennie instalment – if that’s what it is – that she has gamely adopted the Beckettian hashtag – I’ll Go On.
“I knew I would go back to the beloved fogbound island and struggle towards an answer like a woman who has stepped on the stray sod and will wander around in one field for the rest of her life.”
It seems to me at the end of this trio of stories, Eilis has worked out and perhaps resolved a subtextual, and perhaps subconscious, puzzle she set for herself; how can I be both a woman and a writer. Bryan McMahon’s wise words came back to me then. The writing, your own and other people’s, will solve it for you.