In February it was quietly announced that Warren Plath, brother of the infinitely more famous Sylvia, had died in the US. He was the last surviving family member of Sylvia’s generation. Warren Plath had virtually no presence on the internet and the notice of his death – aged 85 – made no reference to his connection to the internationally known poet. It would be tempting to think this might mark the end of an era though the interest in Sylvia Plath shows no sign of abating, even now 48 years after her death.
For my generation, Plath was one of those writers whose work was handed around like samizdat. Her poetry collections, The Colossus and Ariel, and her novel, The Bell Jar, were staples on our bookshelves . In my early 20s, I devoured Letters Home, her correspondence between 1950-1963, edited by her mother, Aurelia. (It was Plath’s fate to be “edited” by those close to her. Much of the controversy about her legacy centres around her estranged poet husband Ted Hughes’ management of her work after her death by suicide in 1963.)
Plath’s letters had a certain resonance for me. I, too, was the daughter of a widow and recognised the push/pull relationship with her mother when I first read her letters in the early 1980s. (Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father died when she was 8.)
In a widowed family (since widowhood happens not just to the wife) the need for approval is concentrated on the mother. It’s often twinned with an underlying anxiety of what might happen should the remaining parent die. On the other hand, the daugther of a widow learns to withhold worries and tailor expectations – especially financial ones – for fear of overburdening her mother. Signs on, even through much of her inner torments while at Smith College, and later in Cambridge, Sylvia’s letters to Aurelia were determinedly cheery.
Aurelia Plath was ambitious for her children and wanted the very best for them, despite – or perhaps because of – their straitened circumstances. The dynamics of the widow’s family are all too evident in Sylvia’s young letters. She depended utterly on Aurelia, leaned on her for emotional and financial support, wanted to please her, but resented what she called her “hovering”. Her mother gave her conflicting messages – to excel and to conform.
Lest it be forgotten, the widowed mother often longs to be free of her double responsibilities as well. In the 1970s, Aurelia wrote: “I worked to be free of her (Sylvia) & at least live my life – not to be drawn into the complexities & crises of hers.”
After her first suicide attempt in 1953, Plath was given electric shock treatment at McLean, a high-end private hospital in Boston. Her stay there was funded by the author Olive Higgins Prouty, who was a mentor of Sylvia’s, since Aurelia could not have afforded it. (Mrs Prouty paid $2500 over several months to the hospital, a tidy sum at the time. She had not realised Sylvia’s stay would be so long when she first offered help.)
The most recent Plath biography Red Comet; The Short Life and Blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, drawing on new evidence, suggests that the decision to administer ECT was partly to do with Mrs Prouty’s threat to withdraw financial support. If Sylvia had opted for psychotherapy, for example, her stay at the hospital might have been extended for a year, or more.
Plath’s psychiatrist at McLean, Dr Ruth Beuscher, over-ruled the concerns of medical colleagues at the hospital, claiming that Sylvia’s “over-riding sense of guilt and unworthiness could only be purged by the ‘punishment’ of shock treatments”.
The medical necessity of the treatment seems to have been very far-down the list of priorities.
Ironically, after two of six sessions, Sylvia’s depression began to lift, even though the treatment was then in its infancy. ( Plath had been given ECT at another hospital earlier that summer which had been administered without muscle relaxants or anaesthetic.). She told friends it was like being murdered. She would never forget the effects of it: “I need more than anything. . .someone to love me, to be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room.”
After her death, Ted Hughes claimed the controversial treatment “pervaded everything she said and did”. Nowadays we’d call that PTSD. Little surprise that one of the dominant tropes in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about her experiences at McLean, is the image of the Rosenbergs going to the electric chair in 1953. And the metaphor continued to appear in her work. In a diary entry of June 1958 she described her life thus: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”
Although she was never diagnosed as such, Plath is often referred to in retrospect as manic depressive or bipolar. But in many ways, it was the electric shock treatment that moved her into what Susan Sontag calls “the kingdom of the sick”. It medicalised Plath’s depression, turning it into a “condition”. But a reading of her early journals reveals nothing more than a young woman with a bad case of life.
She was 20 when she made her first suicide attempt, and her diaries from that time show what we might nowadays consider as typical existential angst, replete with the solipsistic striving of a high-achieving perfectionist and the disappointments of an idealistic young adult.
“I can’t deceive myself out of the bare stark realisation that no matter how enthusiastic you are, no matter how sure that character is fate, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the flash cheerful brilliance of the electric light,” she confided in her journal.
But they also show a woman in a pre-feminist era struggling with her female and her artistic identity. “I’m just not the type who wants a home and children of her own more than anything else in the world. I’m too selfish, maybe, to subordinate myself to one man’s career.”
Even at that stage she was grappling with how to combine being a poet and a woman.
Sylvia Plath was facing those same choices in 1963 when she killed herself. She was a single parent, recently traumatically separated from Hughes, struggling to fend for two small (and at the time sick) children on her own – an unconscious mirror image of her mother? – while in the grip of a severe depression and the worst winter England had endured in decades.
She had an appointment at a psychiatric hospital set for the week following her death so help was at hand. But she was also consumed with dread that she might be forced into electric shock treatment again, something she knew she couldn’t face. It was almost as if the “cure” had become the illness.
However, she had resolved one of those choices. She left behind on her desk the completed manuscript of Ariel, her ground-breaking second collection of poems, which was published the following year to great acclaim and established her as a poet of standing.
As a tyro writer, I admired Sylvia Plath for how much she wrote. Her collected letters have been reissued in two massive volumes in 2017 and 2018, there are her journals and calendars, along with poems and fiction from an early age. She was constantly engaged with her interior life ( perhaps, sometimes, too much) and always observing – images and ideas from her letters turned up in poems, as did passages from her journals. There is no doubt how vividly she lived on the page. This wealth of material has also meant that Plath is a biographer’s dream. The sheer volume of material written about her amounts to a kind of pathology – or is it Plathology?
To which, I suppose, this blog is adding its two cents’ worth.
Above: Self-portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, 1946: Estate of Robert Hitter
There’s usually an “aha” moment when you find the right title for a story, or it finds you.
With “Repossession”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd (a bumper issue of the Welsh journal celebrating five years in existence ) this moment never came, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a story in search of a title.
“Repossession” is about a middle-aged couple who buy their dream house at a knockdown price because it’s been repossessed from the previous owners by the bank. Shel, the wife, begins to suffer odd mental distrubances once they move in, which she suspects are linked to her scruples about benefitting from others’ misfortune, but the reader may not be so sure the two are linked.
Over numerous redrafts, the story’s title morphed into “Onset”, “Slippage”, “Drunkard’s Island”, and then with a kind of weary resignation, I went back to its original title, which by then had taken on the feel of a compromise.
This was odd because it was this linguistic twinning that combines a ghostly haunting and property speculation in the same word – repossession – that prompted me to write the story in the first place. (Thankfully there’s no copyright on titles because as I was writing it, I discovered Lionel Shriver has a story of the same name in her collection of short stories, Property. Superstitiously, I haven’t read it.)
For some time, I had wanted to try my hand at a ghost story. At the time of writing, I was teaching the ghost story genre to an undergraduate writing class and we had read Rose Tremain’s marvelously ambiguous story, ” Is Anybody There?” – a title that itself has echoes of that spooky poem of our childhood, The Listeners by Walter de La Mare. (‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler/Knocking on the moonlit door;)
Knocking is the portal to the uncanny in Tremain’s story too, which is from Tales from a Master’s Notebook. Stories Henry James Never Wrote. (Vintage Classics), a wonderfully varied compendium of short fiction from ten writers (including Colm Toibín, Amit Chaudhuri, Tessa Hadley and Joseph O’Neill) who were asked to trawl through the notebooks Henry James left behind after his death and choose one of his unused ideas as a starting point for a new fiction.
James spent 30 years filling his notebooks with thoughts and story ideas, anecdotes from dinner-parties and newspapers, things noticed on his travels. which formed the “germs” of stories for the future. As the collection’s editor Philip Horne remarks, some of James’s ideas read like “a good Hollywood pitch” : –
Couple Asleep – Woken in Night – Husband Nervous – So Wife Goes Down – He Hears Voices – She Won’t tell Him What Happened.
Man Has been Brave By a Fluke – Lives in Terror of Having to be Brave Again.
Young Man in Mid-Western Industrial Town Fills his Room with French Culture – Refuses the Chance to Go There.
Betrayed Wife Must Have Affair to Get Revenge – Can’t.
Wife Has Long Affair – Husband Dies – They Can Marry – What’s the Problem?
Tremain’s “Is Anybody There?” is about two elderly women living side by side in a small English village, one of whom has a dark secret from childhood. When we discussed it in class, we realized how ambiguous the reality of the story is. We weren’t sure if anything we’re told happens in the story actually does. We didn’t know who the secret belonged to – the narrator or the neighbour? Was the story a means for the narrator to tell her own story? Were there even two women at all? Was one the figment of the other’s imagination?
Something about that slipperiness went into “Repossession”, I hope. As readers we’re encouraged to view Shel as flakey because of how the world perceives her. There are hints of some old trouble – substance abuse, a mental breakdown? Even her over-scrupulous conscience is considered suspect by her husband. But the real kernel of the story for me is the experience she describes shortly after having moved into the new house.
“. . . I woke early in the morning and had the strangest sensation of not knowing who I was, as if I didn’t recognize the inside of myself. You’ve no idea what an odd sensation it was, like a kind of unmooring, a slippage. I had to get up quietly and tiptoe around the house to find a mirror. I found one leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom. Once I saw my face, I knew of course. It wasn’t like being lost, I knew where I was, I just needed my reflection to tell me who I was.”
My godmother, a woman in her 80s, described exactly this sensation to me shortly before she died. She was of perfectly sound mind and I remember being struck by the existentialist panic of this moment for her – waking up and not knowing who she was. The only way she could “come back to herself”, she told me, was by looking in the mirror.
I remember taking a note of it. Like Henry James, I have dozens of notebooks where ideas can fester for a long time, and often die from lack of writerly oxygen. This one sat there for eight years waiting for its story to come along, but my godmother’s experience haunted me and was something I revisited in my thoughts. What would it be like not to “know” yourself? And to be aware that you didn’t.
Which brings me back to the title conundrum. Here are the ones I discarded and why.
Calling the story “Onset” I thought might unfairly emphasize what is a singular experience in the story. It would skew the reader’s expectation towards a narrative of dementia. Shel’s “episode” might foreshadow further “unmoorings”, but equally, it might not. I’m imagining many of us have experienced similar instances of momentary self-estrangement.
My second title option, “Slippage”, also radiated from this moment in the story. But as a title it has broader connotations. It suggests the general sense of displacement Shel experiences when she moves house – not only in terms of location, but in her grasp of time – for example at one point, history, or the fruits of her historical subconscious, opens up in front of her. But it seemed to me that this title depicted the story’s atmosphere rather than its content.
“Drunkard’s Island” is the name of a real place in west Limerick which I salted away in a notebook 30 years ago and have always wanted to use. The trouble is, as a title, it fails to signpost anything for the reader beyond, perhaps, exciting curiosity. (Not a bad quality in a title.) But it tells you nothing about the narrative, so I jettisoned it.
Unsatisfactory as it is, “Repossession” is probably the title that steers the reader least, and in a ghost story I think that’s important. It’s a genre that thrives on uncertainty. This title does what it says on the tin; it’s a story about a house that’s been repossessed.
But still I wonder. Is the perfect title for the story still out there somewhere?
When it was announced in April that H. G.Carrillo had died of COVID-19, I realised he was the first writer I knew to have died of the virus. Although he was only an acquaintance, whom I followed spasmodically on Facebook (he had a keen interest in art and posted wonderful images almost daily), I felt the loss of his engaging presence in the world. He was 59.
I met Hache (pronounced Hatchay) – as he was known – when I taught at George Washington University in the 2008/9 academic year on a Jenny McKean Moore visiting professorship. It was a momentous year to be in DC, the year Barack Obama was elected, an event that seems now to have happened in some altered and very sane universe. I attended the inauguration and felt lucky to write about it for The Irish Times.
My other formative experience that year was being welcomed into the academic community at GWU, a community that included Hache.
At any given time, English departments in universities have a contingent of visiting academics and scholars who pass through the halls and often fall under the radar. This was not how it was at GWU where strangers were actively welcomed and included in the life of the department.
I can’t say that I “knew” Hache – and, in retrospect, many of his friends and colleagues will find themselves saying the same thing – but what I did know of him was energising. He was stylish and intellectually bracing. He was a friendly, curious colleague – as a visitor, sometimes, that’s all you need; someone to be curious about you – and he was a great teacher. How do I know? Well, you learn this from your students because you hear them talking, or they mention it in passing in an unforced manner. (And if you’re a worrier, you’re wondering what they’re saying about you in other classes! )
He was popular – long queues formed outside his office for consultations – and though he was a tough taskmaster, students admired him. On a teacher rating, one student wrote: “This dude will kick your ass all semester long, but you’ll end up with a grade that accurately reflects the effort you put in. He is literally scary smart and his understanding of people is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It won’t be an easy semester but you won’t regret it.”
So far, so straigthforward.
After Hache’s death, the Washington Post ran an obituary, which provided a familiar narrative of his life. Born in Cuba in 1960, escaped to the US on a refugee boat with his parents aged seven, a young life in Chicago. It was a biography that he developed in his 2004 novel, Loosing my Espanish, into a compelling fiction. But when the obituary appeared, Hache’s sister challenged these biographical “facts”. Hache was not Afro-Cuban, he was African-American, Susan Carroll said. Born in Detroit, his name was Herman Glenn Carroll, and in his youth went by the name Glenn. There were, she added, no Latinos in the family. His biography, in other words, was a self-made fiction.
After he became a writer in the 1990s, his family did not see much of him, his niece Jessica Webley (36) said, although they were aware of his fictitious backstory. He had repeated it so many times over the years to his professors and academic colleagues, to his husband and fellow writers, that “he probably believed it himself,” his sister Susan said.
Cuban Americans were quick to respond to Carrillo’s deception and call him out for cultural appropriation. When his death was announced on the PEN/Faulkner Foundation website, where he was chair of the board of directors, Cambria Francesco demanded they amend the announcement to highlight the fabrication. “This is extremely disrespectful and harmful to Cuban, Afro-Latino, and immigrant people when his (Carillo’s) notoriety and work is based off of a lived experience that is not his own.”
To those close to Hache, in particular his husband, Dennis van Englesdorp, this alternative identity came as a bolt out of the blue. Friends felt betrayed. “The news was a slap in the face for those of us who knew him. We mourned him, but we also reeled in shock. Hache passed for something he wasn’t, even at home with his husband in Berwyn Heights; he did the same with colleagues and students at George Washington University and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed. And so terribly sad,” wrote author Lisa Page, a close friend and colleague.
“He chose not to be from Detroit, eschewing his Midwestern roots. Crossing shark-infested waters in a boat bound for Miami was a better story than leaving Motown for the District of Columbia and beyond. His black life mattered even as he left pieces of it behind. He shed it, like a chrysalis, to fly off and become someone else.
“Hache chose to become a Latino writer, lacing his fiction with Spanish. . . But reinvention has a price. He erased his African American heritage when he created his Cuban backstory. “
At an intimate level, this deception must be extremely hurtful. For his family it represents rejection. For those who loved him, Hache’s fabrication calls into question the very foundation of their relationship with him, and makes his untimely death doubly distressing. They are left with the ultimate doubt – if his personal origin story was a lie, how much else was?
The concept of an African American “passing” as another racial identity makes Carrillo’s choice extremely controversial, given the history of race relations in the US. But in purely literary terms, he’s not the first writer to have created a pseudoynmous existence – the Brontes, George Eliot, Colette; the only difference is how fully he lived it out.
I’m reminded of Michaél MacLíammóir (1899-1978), a doyen of the Irish stage, who was born, coincidentally, on this day 121 years ago.
His real name was Michael Alfred Wilmore and he was brought up in Kensal Green in London. An established child actor who worked with Noel Coward, he also studied art at the Willesden School of Art. As a teen, he read W B Yeats and became passionate about all things Irish. He learned the language and translated his very English name – into a kind of cod Irish. Constructing a backstory for himself – born in Douglas, Cork, he told people – he arrived in Ireland in 1924 a newly renamed “stage Irishman”. During the 1920’s he travelled and acted extensively around Europe and on a tour of Ireland he met his life partner Hilton Edwards. They settled in Dublin where they lived as a highly visible gay couple at a time in Ireland when homosexual acts were criminalised. In 1928 they formed The Gate Theatre which became a showcase for modern plays and design.
MacLíammóir held on to his constructed identity to the end even when most people in Ireland knew his so-called origin story was not true. It didn’t seem to matter. It was one more facet of his highly “performed” life.
So when does impostorhood become a transgression? If we were to look through the 21st century lens of gender identity, wasn’t Hache Carrillo simply deciding who he wanted to be and how he wanted to be viewed and treated by the world? Isn’t this exactly the freedom the trans community is seeking with regard to sexual identity? The right to declare who you are and have society honour your call?
Or was he just a plain old impostor with a rich interior life?
Sounds to me like the perfect description of a writer.
So surreal is the current Corona virus pandemic that I’ve found it almost impossible to write about it, even privately. Even if I could formulate some thoughts on it, I doubt that there’s anything new I could say. Being in quarantine seems to enhance the feeling of emotional distance from the experience. A privileged position to be in, I realise.
It’s a strange paradox. Ten years ago, however, without having any first-hand experience of it, I was writing about a time of plague.
The eponymous heroine of my 2013 novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press), the sister of the playwright Sean O’Casey, had the ill-luck of becoming an early Irish victim of the Spanish ‘flu, over a hundred years ago.
The ‘flu epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has, at time of writing, claimed 25,410 lives with over 565,000 cases registered world-wide.)
The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year. It was known as the Spanish ‘flu because it was only in neutral Spain that newspapers were free to publish accounts of the spread of the disease. (Compare with Donald Trump’s odious “Chinese Virus” name-calling.)
However, it is now understood that the 1918 epidemic may have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence. Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.
In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood) – a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu.
Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and, ironically, in China, both in 1917.
In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “When the 1914 War ceased, pneumonia swept through the country – every country ─ and took families away. . . The Black Flu came in 1918. I was still a child. It was a horrible old thing. Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.
Bella Casey was not so lucky. Her health was already compromised. She had an underlying condition.
She had developed erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or St Anthony’s Fire, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it has the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.
In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time. Although an educated woman, she spent the latter days of her life in poverty working as a charwoman. In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey, Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of spotless white gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s husband’s name.)
“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors. The headaches ─ symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”
Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had died in his early forties suffering from GPI, general paralysis of the insane, an accompanying condition of tertiary syphilis.
In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey in 1918. Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52.
And now for the fiction from those facts.
Babsie, coming in at noon, found her mother still abed. That in itself was strange for her mother was an early riser, but since Christmas she’d been poorly, laid low with a purulence of the lungs and a wild fever that had made her overheated one minute and perished the next. Babsie had put her husband’s dinner on – oh how she loved to say that, her husband; Babsie was a new bride – and leaving the door on Clarence Street on the latch she’d run around the corner to check on her mother. She was relieved to find a peaceful scene and not the wracking sounds of coughing that had been going on for days. There was some kind of infection going round. Some people blamed the soldiers for it; others said it was a kind of swine fever. But that couldn’t be what Mam had, Babsie thought, for when would her mother have been mixing with either of those? She had urged her mother to call in the doctor but Mam had set her face against it.
“It’s just my old trouble,” she’d said to Babsie. “It goes quiet, you see, for a long time and then. . . it emerges again.”
The erysipelas was her mother’s old trouble. Soon after she’d taken up charring, her mother’s skin had broken out in a rash. She’d had to wear gloves up to the elbow to hide her contagion. A dress pair with a pearl detail for these were the only gloves her mother owned. But the rash had spread anyway. It found its way to her face and washed up in a high tide close to her hairline. She had to wrap a turban of fabric round her head when going out to keep the condition a secret.
“People will think it a want of hygiene,” her mother had said. “But it’s a surfeit of cleanliness I’m suffering from, up to my oxters in suds all day.”
If you passed her on the street, you’d have given her a penny, Babsie thought, or be calling the clutchers what with the strange headgear and the dress gloves. The neighbours mistook it for another of her mother’s eccentric affectations. My, my, the airs and graces, they would say, look at the Protestant wan, all tricked up as if going to a ball, and only off to do her charring.
Babsie’s brother John was sitting at the scored table reading a book. Just like Uncle Jack he was, always stuck in a book. She poured tea from the cooling pot. The milk when she added it curdled.
“How’s she been?” she asked him.
He shrugged, barely lifting his head from the pages.
“You’ve let the fire go out,” she said. She tried to raise a flame from the embers in the grate. The poker made a grinding sound as she hit the firebricks.
“Shh,” John said, “you’ll only wake her.”
“I wouldn’t have to do it at all, if you kept the place warm for her. Is it too much to ask?”
Babsie was peppering for a fight so sick with worry was she about her mother. But she seemed to be the only one. She wanted only to be immersed in the newly-minted world of her marriage. Everything about this house, like every other house they’d lived in, spoke of struggle.
“Has she eaten anything?” Babsie persisted.
John shook his head. “She hasn’t moved since I got up.”
Only then did Babsie get up to investigate. She tiptoed into the back room and over to the bed. Drawing back the covers she placed a hand on her mother’s forehead. She shook her gently by the shoulder.
“Mam,” she said gently, “wake up.”
She shook again, this time more roughly.
“Mam,” she repeated, panicked.
A tiny smart of irritation came over Babsie; she was forever trying to shake Mam into action. She reached for her mother’s scabbed wrist – peeled back one of the gloves; yes, she even wore them in bed for fear of scratching herself unbeknownst in her sleep – but Babsie knew even before she tried for a pulse.
“John,” she said evenly, “go and get Reverend Brabazon.”
“Ah Babs, I’m in the middle of me book,” he wailed.
Books, she thought, bloody books.
“Go,” she ordered, “this very minute.”
When he was gone, Babsie drew the curtains and stopped the clock. She put the kettle to boil, for whom she did not know. It was just something to do so she would not have to approach the bed again and look on her mother’s closed-in face. She could not take it in; that the end would come like this, so quietly, as if her mother had just suddenly upped and surrendered. Typical, Babsie thought, and inexplicably she felt her ire rising again. It was something she had never understood. It wasn’t that her mother had lacked spirit – hadn’t she raised up five of them as a widow? – but her striving seemed always directed at appearances, the look of things as opposed to how they were. Well, Babsie thought, looking around, something would have to be done here. The scene looked peaceful, though hardly dignified. Her mother’s face had a par-boiled look where previous bouts of the erysipelas had left angry blotches. The gloves and the makeshift turban seemed foolish and pathetic, and Babsie set to, unwinding the scarf from her mother’s head and peeling off the gloves, so that when the clergyman saw her, she would not look like something out of a harlequinade.
She unwound her mother’s hair from the matted mound the scarf had made of it. Babsie lifted her head then while she combed the tangles out of it. When she laid her mother’s head back on the pillow, her hair settled like a tortoiseshell fan. Babsie laid her mottled arms by her side. Then she straightened the bed. Something tinny fell off as she turned down the counterpane. She had to go down on all fours to retrieve it. It was her mother’s little birdcage. It was a useless little thing, she thought, not even brass but brightly painted metal made up to look like silver. No pawn shop in town would look twice at it and so it had survived, a priceless treasure. She weighed it in her hand and then lifted her mother’s and folded the stiffening fingers around it in a fist. Tears came then, but nothing operatic – that was not in Babsie’s nature. She wiped her eyes and steeled herself. She went into the other room to fetch the two-pair candlesticks. There was a large dent in the stem of one, from what Babsie couldn’t recall. A domestic skirmish with her father, no doubt. One of the many. She lit them with a taper from the reawakened fire and set one down on each side of the bed. She bent and kissed her mother on the brow. Then Babsie passed her fingers in swift benediction over her mother’s eyelids and closed them, her lips moving to some silent prayer.
Almost everyone I know is either watching, or denying they watch Love Island. I belong to the deniers because I’ve been following instead what I think is the most interesting reality (or should that be surreality?) show around at the moment – the American legal drama, The Good Fight.
Just finished its third season, The Good Fight is a spin-off from a successful parent show, a notoriously risky venture in the world of TV. (Remember Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc which followed the actor character from the mega-successful Friends to a new life in LA. No? I rest my case.)
The Good Fight sprang from The Good Wife, a long-running, traditional legal procedural, a celebrity vehicle for Julianna Marguilies (Nurse Carol Hathaway in ER), who played Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother forced to return to the workplace when her Chicago state’s attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal.
Christine Baranski was a stalwart in that series. She played seasoned lawyer Diane Lockhart, a partner in the firm Alicia Florrick joins as a 40-something legal newbie. But it was essentially a sidekick role, despite the oomph Baranski brought to it.
The Good Wife was solid, dependable drama. Plenty of courtroom action, a rather cloying unrequited love sub-plot, a smattering of dirty politics, and lots of legal horse-trading. So far, so predictable. It ran for seven seasons before dying of exhaustion and the news that there was going to be a spin-off was greeted with some trepidation. Especially by Marguilies’ fans.
That it would be built around the character of Diane Lockhart was encouraging. This was a bold move. Not that Baranski doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a series – she’s an Emmy and Tony-awarded performer (she sings and dances, as well as acts – starring in both Mamma Mias, for example). No, the risk was founding an entire series on a female character in her late 60s. (Baranski is 67).
Furthermore, Diane Lockhart is a conservative feminist, in a strangely loose marriage with a right-wing Republican (played by Gary Cole) who does not share her political views, and she works at a predominantly African-American law firm where her white privilege is constantly being challenged.
But in its three seasons The Good Fight has grown away from its middle-brow TV roots, and morphed into something else entirely. I’m not even sure what genre it is now. Quasi-fictional? Auto-fictional? Semi-documentary?
The Good Fight has inherited its predecessor’s template of riffing on the headlines for its storylines, featuring #MeToo type sexual predation charges, a Bernie Madoff-style financial scam and Internet privacy challenges among its cases, along with a good dose of office politics. But that’s where the similarity ends. The clue’s in the title. Fighting the good fight is about trying very hard to do the right thing in trying circumstances.
That’s Diane Lockhart’s goal. And the trying circumstances? Being a good citizen in the middle of a Trump presidency. Trump is constantly name-checked in this series. Barely a scene goes by where he’s not present, if only by implication. One episode suggests First Lady Melania Trump has approached the firm via a proxy looking for a divorce. Another concerns possession of an incriminating video involving Russian prostitutes and urination. Often the president’s name doesn’t even have to be invoked for the viewer to get the drift.
The creators have all but jettisoned the romantic entanglements of their key characters – is this a reflection on the late middle age of the show’s heroine? – and scaled down much of the courtroom action. Instead they show us Diane and her colleagues battling the contradictions of living in the Trump era as committed liberals and/or Democrats (these are Chicago lawyers, after all.)
So, for example, in the third season, Diane’s frustration with Trump sees her joining a radical women’s resistance group which sets out, by fair means or foul, to undermine POTUS electoral dominance by filing false SWAT call-outs (one of which gets a White House aide killed) hacking electronic voting machines and engaging in the black arts of false news.
“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” series creator Michelle King told Variety magazine last month. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”
As a result, The Good Fight has dropped all pretence of being a fiction. So closely does it stick to its political inspiration that the viewer is constantly playing who’s who with the cast. Is Diane’s on-again/off-again marriage with right-wing ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (now working for the Trump administration) based on White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s relationship with her husband, George T Conway? ( Mr Conway is a distinguished lawyer who was once in the running to be US solicitor general, but is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration which he has likened to “a shitshow in a dumpster fire”.) Swap the gender roles and the similarities with Kurt and Diane are inescapable.
Another innovation the show has adopted is the insertion of animated musical shorts into the narrative to underline episode themes. There have been skits on non-disclosure agreements, Russian troll farms and Chinese media censorship (more of this later).
These memes function as visual thought bubbles. The action and the characters are paused mid-scene while the viewers are given a short dose of agit-prop. Trouble is, they are often not as witty as the satirical live action scripts. That said, it is refreshing to see a middle-aged, middle-brow TV drama dropping the fourth wall, stretching the visual vernacular and being really playful with form.
Ironically, the shorts have turned out to be more than mere technical gimmickry. One of them recently became a news story itself. Entitled “Banned in China”, the segment was due to be inserted into an episode about the human cost of Chinese government censors until CBS pulled the plug. Where the meme should have run, a placard appeared reading ‘CBS Has Censored This Content’. Initially, viewers thought this was part of an in-show joke until the New Yorker broke the story.
Responding, show runners, Robert and Michelle King threatened to pull out of the series, then insisted that the placard would have to air for the full 90 seconds that the segment would have taken. In the end they compromised on eight and half seconds.
It’s just one more example of the blurred lines between fact and fiction that the show has engendered. The closer its storylines get to “reality”, the more, it seems, reality bites.
In fact, the “reality” component of The Good Fight is so persuasive that it’s the fictional conceits that seem outlandish. British actor Michael Sheen has been chewing the scenery of late as fantasist attorney Roland Blum who cites Roy Cohn, political fixer and Trump influencer as a role model. Maverick oddball Blum creates havoc in the plush, politically correct environs of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart. But the drama seemed over-egged and Sheen too over-the-top. In its willed eccentricity, his performance seemed to belong to another show altogether – the ridiculous antics of Ally McBeal, the 90s manifestation of the TV legal drama.
It’s as if the producers were trying to distract us from the “reality” The Good Fight is desperately trying to immerse us in – with some really camp fiction.
Or maybe it’s all of a piece and I just can’t tell the difference anymore?
Remember Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel The Shining who tells everyone he’s writing a novel but who keeps on typing the same thing every day on his reams of blank paper. All work and no play etc
You know from the beginning that Jack’s novel is never going to happen, that it will remain a figment of his imagination.
I had a kind of inverse Jack Torrance experience recently.
I was doing a newspaper archive trawl for something else entirely when I came across a review of my last novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013). It was the third item down on the list and I could only see the headline which read: “An evocative account of a teacher’s fall from grace” and for a couple of moments, I didn’t recognize the book from this description.
It’s not that this isn’t an accurate synopsis of the plot, it is.
The main character, Bella Casey, sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, was a teacher whose hopes of happiness and success were dashed by circumstances.
But for a moment I was plunged into a kind of alternate universe, where a failed and much rejected novel of mine, my difficult third album – which I would describe in shorthand as an account of a teacher’s fall from grace – actually had been published.
Not only published, but reviewed!
The novel, entitled The Undiscovered Country (I love this title and hope to attach it to another novel at some stage) was set in Ireland and Australia in the 1970s, and was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and a real case of child rape.
I envisaged it as a Humbert Humbert story with the genders reversed.
The real story concerned Mary Kay Letourneau, a 34-year-old school teacher and mother of four, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree rape of 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a pupil at the high school in Washington state where she taught. Letourneau was arrested after a relative of her husband’s contacted the police.
While awaiting sentencing, she gave birth to Fualaau’s child. She spent three months in jail and was banned from any contact with Fualaau – for life.
But shortly after her three-month stint in jail, police discovered Letourneau in flagrante with Fualaau in a parked car. She was re-sentenced to seven years in prison for the original charges and for breaking the court order. Back in prison, she gave birth to a second daughter.
When she was released in 2004, Fualaau was over 18 years old and he asked the court to revoke the no-contact order. The couple were married in May 2005 and are still together.
The Undiscovered Country departed quite a bit from this reality – for the very good reason that reality is sometimes just too strange to be believed. (It was the situation that interested me, the notion of a woman as an abuser of sexual trust, and the different way that is viewed by society. Less predatory, somehow.)
But for a split-second when I saw the headline, I wondered – had it actually been published? Had I slipped into some crease in time and awoken, like someone from a coma, having lost a couple of years somewhere?
Then I checked myself – I knew The Undiscovered Country hadn’t been published. I had the ton of rejections to prove it!
Who knows why some novels never make it into print?
You’re always given reasons when a publisher turns down a work, but they’re usually fairly pat and formulaic – we didn’t fall in love with it, great novel but not for us, too quiet (I’ve got this last one a lot!) Once in a while you’ll get a truly original one; this is one of my favourites – “She has a wonderful sense of language and a great ear but this isn’t really a novel, it’s an emanation.”
The manuscript (or, should I say emanation?) was doing the rounds in 2003 when Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal – a novel with a similar plot line – had just come out, which probably worked against it.
Or maybe it was just a dud!
I’ve always considered The Undiscovered Country as unfinished business, a piece of work I might return to or recast in some other way in the future.
Now I wonder if I need to. Maybe I have told the story of a teacher’s fall from grace, but in another guise and at such a remove, that until I saw it in black and white, I didn’t recognize it myself.
Is having bad eyesight a pre-requisite for being a celebrated Irish writer? Certainly James Joyce had his troubles often having to resort to wearing a patch to spare his eyes. Throughout his life, he suffered from a catalogue of eye-related conditions – iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and cataracts. Some suggest his eye troubles were a by-product of syphilis, though this has never been confirmed.
Playwright Sean O’Casey was similarly afflicted, though it’s unlikely he had syphilis. From the age of five he had continuous crippling bouts of conjunctivitis which in latter years developed into trachoma. In a letter to the American critic Brooks Atkinson in 1964, the year of his death, he wrote heartbreakingly of the plight of a writer going blind:
“I could read an illuminated sign outdoors,” he replied. “But not ordinary newsprint or the letter text in a book. All the hundreds of books around me are dumb. I can write a little, largely by sense of touch. But I cannot read back what I have put down.”
But perhaps the blindest of all was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) – an Irish writer who is all but forgotten here now but who was a household name in Japan where he wrote a dozen or so books between 1891 and his death in 1904.
I discovered Hearn during an extended stay in Tokyo in 2010 where to be Irish meant you were automatically connected to the fame of Lafcadio Hearn. We visited Matsue, a city in the western Shimani region – a 16-hour journey by train from Tokyo where Hearn is the cornerstone of the city’s cultural tourism, although he only stayed there a little over a year. There’s a Hearn memorial museum and his home is open to the public. The city quarter where he lived in Matsue now bears his name and his stylised logo appears on the street lamps in the cobbled streets. In souvenir shops you can even buy Lafcadio Hearn tea.
Hearn is considered a laureate in Japan, the single greatest foreign interpreter of the country at a time when the old Japanese ways and traditions were being abandoned.
But 20 years before he made his name in Japan, Hearn was a newly arrived emigrant in America, penniless and down on his luck. From this lowly start he embarked on a career as a pioneering journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, specializing in closely observed depictions of the underbelly of society – grotesque murders, hangings, slaughter houses, dissection rooms, city dumps, and the lives lived in the poor black quarters of the city. This despite the fact that he was blind in one eye, and the sight in the other was severely compromised as a result of an accident during a tug of war competition when he was a schoolboy.
Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850. His mother, Rosa Kassimati, was a native of the island; his father, an Irish surgeon stationed on Lefkas with the British Army. They called their first child after the island, hence Hearn’s exotic-sounding second name. When he was two, his mother, Rosa, brought him to Dublin to live with the extended Hearn family, while his father was posted abroad. But after a short period, Rosa, homesick and pregnant with a second child, decided to return to Lefkas, leaving Hearn in the care of his great-aunt, Sarah Brenane, in a house in Rathmines. (There is a plaque commemorating his time in this house on Prince Edward Terrace.) The little boy was never to see either parent again – they divorced when he was six.
Hearn’s education at a boarding school in England was brought to an abrupt end when his great-aunt Sarah’s finances crashed and at the age of 16 he had to start making his own way in the world. It was the beginning of a peripatetic and picaresque existence that took him first to London, then Ohio, where he emerged aged 24 as a crime reporter and scandal chaser on the Cincinnati Enquirer and Commercial.
Hearn was one of the earliest exponents of the New Journalism, that is the original new journalism – the muck-rakers who dominated the American journalism scene in the late 1890s. (The term was resurrected again for the revolutionary immersive journalism of the 1960s). Like his successors, Hearn used fictional techniques – dialogue, literary description and placing himself as a character in the story – that later exemplified the work of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson.
‘Gibbetted’, his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish youth was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hearn’s report contains some eye-watering details (forgive the pun) that must have been more imagined and felt then actually seen given the state of his eyesight. In the New Journalism style Hearn steeps himself in the story. He explores the background of the prisoner, visits the young man before the execution and examines the gallows as they are being constructed. He even gets to feel the pulse of the prisoner when the first hanging fails.
“The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap veiling his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse. It was beating slowly and regularly. Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead – dead in darkness, for his eyes were veiled – dead and blind to this world but about to open his eyes upon another. The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea. But then came the gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of the Deputy Freeman calling ‘For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!!’ Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.
‘My god. Oh my god!’
‘I ain’t dead – I ain’t dead!’
The insistent use of other senses in the piece – hearing and touch – speak of a man determined to compensate for his deficient eyesight. And his feel for atmosphere and his human empathy – essential for any journalist writing colour – is unquestionable. His appetite for colour writing may have sprung from his personal life which was also extremely bohemian, to say the least, but that’s a story for another day.
Lafcadio Hearn was born on this day, June 27, 167 years ago.
Sean O’Casey is being remembered this weekend at a conference at the National Theatre, London entitled – In-Depth: The Dublin Plays of Sean O’Casey. I will be joiningProf James Moran of Nottingham University and Dr Nicholas Grene of Trinity College Dublin to discuss O’Casey’s trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.
The conference – on Saturday September 24 – will examine the circumstances of the original performances of the plays, how they related to O’Casey’s own life, and will place them in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. There will also be staged readings from the plays.
The National Theatre has enjoyed a long association with O’Casey’s work – Laurence Olivier directed Juno and The Paycock at the theatre shortly after O’Casey’s death in 1964. Olivier had seen the Royalty Theatre’s acclaimed production of the play in 1925 – with several Abbey stalwarts, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Sinclair – as an aspiring 18-year-old actor.
Olivier’s response to the play, according to Christopher Murray, one of O’Casey’s biographers, was that Juno was both life-like and tightly constructed. “It is, in fact, closer to Osborne than to Chekhov. There is no playing about with it, it is all there and it is as clear as daylight. . .”
My place at the conference is owing to The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press) my 2013 novel which re-imagines the life of Bella Casey, the playwright’s sister and dramatizes the writing of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography. Episodes and characters from the Dublin plays are woven into the narrative.The novel was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award in 2014.
For those interested in attending, the conference takes place at the Clore Learning Centre, Cottesloe Room, National Theatre and runs from 10.30 to 4.30pm.
(Poster image courtesy of the Irish Classical Theatre, Buffalo, NY)
Clothes maketh the man, Mother used to say. Her words stay with you as you riffle through the hanging ghosts in your wardrobe. It’s a moment of infinite anticipation. What to wear? The evening’s expectations are secreted among the limp fall of fabrics, the yielding crush of shoulder pads, the sly whispers of silk. You whisk two or three recruits from the comradely army in the closet and set them up around the room – over the mirror, on the twin mother-of-pearl inlaid handles of the wardrobe, or fainting on the bed. It makes it seem more like play; makes more of a ritual of it.
Often the bedroom will end up strewn with discarded clothes, denuded hangers, fleets of shoes poised in the second position and still, you won’t have made a choice. You find such disarray intoxicatingly seedy, though nothing could be further from the truth. You’re a careful dresser, in fact, discreet, but unambiguously feminine.