Category: News and Events

A star of our time?

carson laughing

The American poet Robert Lowell is quoted as saying that if a writer lives long enough, he will see his reputation rise and fall – twice. In the case of Carson McCullers, an American writer of the deep South, Lowell’s thesis was never proved because she didn’t live long enough.

McCullers (born Lula Carson Smith) celebrated a double anniversary last year, 2017 – she was born 100 years ago – February 19, 1917 – and died 50 years ago on September 29, 1967 – and it’s probably a measure of her reduced standing now that not much has been written on this significant anniversary. Not least by me, an avid fan, who failed to post in time on this milestone!

McCullers is often twinned with Flannery O’Connor (a fellow Georgian, and close contemporary, born 1925) though O’Connor’s reputation has survived much better, particularly among the writing fraternity.  Despite the fact they were contemporaries, O’Connor was scathing about McCullers – in a 1963 letter, she declared how “intensely” she disliked McCullers’ work and she greeted the publication of her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961)  as the worst book I have ever read. It is incredible. . . It must signal the complete disintegration of this woman’s talent”.

That said, McCullers had a meteoric literary trajectory.  Her first and most celebrated novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, came out in 1940 when McCullers was only 23. She followed up with Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946).  She wrote a play – The Square Root of Wonderful – and produced a novella and short stories – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.  She also dictated an unfinished autobiography – Illuminations and Night Glare – which was published in 1999.

All of her major works were filmed which added to her “starry” quality.  It was the 1968 film of  Hunter, starring Alan Arkin as John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes a pivotal figure in the lives of a group of misfits in a small and segregated Southern town and Sondra Locke (future squeeze of Clint Eastwood who appeared with him in those chimp movies – Trivia Department) as teenager Mick Kelly who befriends Singer, that brought me first to McCullers’ work when I was in my late teens.

The age is significant – I was wide open to be carried away by McCullers’ brand of southern Gothic and I was totally enchanted. Superstitiously, I have never revisited McCullers’ novels because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have the same “mind-blowing” effect on me now.

The young adult tag is often used to denigrate McCullers’ oeuvre, perhaps because she was so young herself when literary fame came knocking.  Joyce Carol Oates has remarked that “McCullers may be remembered as a precocious but unevenly gifted writer of fiction for young adults whose work has failed to transcend its time and place”.

But her work has always divided critics. Gore Vidal, usually not an easy man to please, described McCullers’ work as “one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-hand culture” while Graham Greene rated her over that other giant of southern writing, William Faulkner.

Other film adaptations of McCullers’ work  include Reflections in a Golden Eye directed by John Huston and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and Fred Zinnemann brought The Member of the Wedding to the screen in 1952 with Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde (the boy actor from Shane – Trivia Department again). Vanessa Redgrave appeared in a Simon Callow-directed version of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1991.

Like many writers – including her nemesis Flannery O’Connor – McCullers suffered ill-health throughout her adult life. Rheumatic fever when she was 15 led to a number of severe strokes in her 20s and by the age of 31, she was paralyzed on the left side of her body.

Despite this she smoked and drank heavily and lived a colourful and varied sexual life, including several rumoured relationships with women, including Gypsy Rose Lee and the Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (formerly the lover of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann).  She counted among her friends Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

There’s also an Irish connection – through Carson’s mother, Marguerite Waters.  McCullers visited Ireland twice, firstly in 1950, where she stayed at Bowen’s Court, the Cork ancestral home of Elizabeth Bowen, another of her unrequited lesbian attachments. (Earlier, she’d had a crush on Katherine Anne Porter.)  McCullers admired Bowen’s reserve,  but Bowen reportedly found her a “handful”.  McCullers was similarly disappointed in Bowen’s Court – its heating and general comfort  and her reception there fell well below her expectations.

She returned to Ireland in April 1967, months before her death, to visit film director John Huston’s Connemara home.  By this stage, she was severely paralyzed and had to be transferred by ambulance from Shannon.   Huston later said the trip had probably shortened her life, but she was determined to come.  During this time she was interviewed by Irish Times literary editor, Terence de Vere White, who was granted a bedside audience with McCullers. She smoked while talking to him and, like others, he was impressed at the contrast between her physique and personality.  He had never met anyone “so frail and alive”.

She was married twice to the same man, Reeves McCullers, who committed suicide in the Paris hotel where they lived, in 1953.  After her first divorce from Reeves in the early 1940s, McCullers moved into a celebrated commune in Brooklyn called the February House.  In its time it attracted luminaries like fiction editor George Davis, W H Auden, Chester Kalman, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles.

This is perhaps the curse of McCullers’ life.  Any description invariably peters out into a who’s who catalogue of the famous and influential.  But her sexually-fluid identity, her androgynous pen name, her love affair with fame, her “wunderkind” early career, make her seem like an early prototype of a 21st century literary celebrity.

Old age ain’t no place for sissies

vibrant house cover

“First houses are the grounds of our first experience.  Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large,” the Australian writer, David Malouf, has written in his memoir 12 Edmondstone Street.  “The house is a field of dense affinities laid down, each one, with almost physical power, in the life we share with all that in being ‘familiar’ has become essential to us, inseparable from what we are.”

This is the territory of The Vibrant House from Four Courts Press, a new book with contributions from writers  and academics on the notion of the Irish domestic space.

I’m in there, not just in the text, but in the visual elements of the book, not least in this beautifully composed cover, photographed by Rhona Richman Keneally, one of the editors of the volume.  This image has particular resonance for me because it shows the dining room in my family home in Rathgar – my first and only childhood house – as it was when my mother was alive. (She died earlier this year.)

My mother is not the subject of my contribution to The Vibrant House, which is a speculative memoir of my father (who died in 1970) as glimpsed through the pictures he chose to hang on the walls when we were growing up. The painting of the masted ship on the tossed sea featured on the cover is not one I discuss in the essay but the sideboard itself with all its familiar ornaments and knick-knacks has, since my mother’s death, gained a memorial significance. It’s a shrine to my mother’s aesthetic which has been smuggled into the book like a visual afterthought.

The sideboard stood in the “good” room of the house – i.e. the least used. It hosts an array of objects, each of which carries a memory capsule.

Take the blue-rimmed pheasant jug, for instance.  This was only ever used, as I recall, when my uncle came to visit, for dispensing water to go with his whiskey.  My uncle was fond of his spirits and my father, a tee-totaller, doled out his ration in small doses.  In fact he reserved a separate, marked bottle for his brother, so he could keep track of his consumption.  This was in the days where there was little fear of being nabbed for drunk driving; all the same, my father worried about sending my uncle off into the night with too much on board. The pheasant jug was optimistically offered in the hope that dilution might slow the inebriation process.  Its contents, more often than not, remained untouched.

The ceremonial candelabra (a wedding present, maybe?) was also only brought out on state occasions – a few Christmas day dinners.  It was part of a set  – there was a silver platter, also visible on the sideboard, and a tea service that went with it, which is probably still stowed away behind lock and key in the cupboard below, alongside the whiskey, which, after my uncle’s death was only ever used for lacing the Christmas cake mixture.

The white Belleek vase – to the right of the photo frame – encrusted with fat birds perched on thorny branches with china florets, was also a gift,  from my aunt.  She was my father’s sister and a nun.  In those days – the 1960s – nuns often received very expensive presents which they regifted in keeping with the spirit of their vows of poverty.  So we got the Belleek vases. Yes, originally a pair.  The other one came a cropper when my brothers played football in the house one night when my parents were out and de-perched several of the singing birds.  There was some furious gluing activity with sticks of Uhu as we tried to reattach the broken birds, but our repairs were amateurish and the damage was discovered. The vase must have been mortally wounded as there’s now only one left, and this one on show is the unmolested one, I’m pretty sure.

Finally, the framed photograph is not, as you might expect, a family snap, but features a postcard of Bette Davis – sent to my mother by my sister.  In it, she’s holding up a cushion on which the words – “Old Age ain’t no place for Sissies” – have been embroidered. My mother really liked this image – so much so that she got it framed. She was an avid film fan, and was partial to Bette. But it was the sentiment of the sardonic message she really identified with. She often cited Bette’s cushion motto in her latter years, when she faced the indignities and disabilities of old age herself with pragmatism, fortitude and implacable good humour.

 

The Vibrant House: Irish Writing and Domestic Space; edited by Rhona Richman Kenneally and Lucy McDiarmid, will be launched at Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square East, Dublin, on December 9, @ 4pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The light hand of history

eilis book

Éilís Ní  Dhuibhne is a shamefully under-rated writer. A true polymath, she writes in English and Irish, and across the genres – young adult, crime, and literary fiction in both the short story and the novel forms.

Her second Selected Stories volume, just published by Dalkey Archive Press, demonstrates the range and breadth of her work in the short story form, if proof were needed.  It is historical in several senses of the word.  It draws chronologically on her five collections of short stories starting in the 1980s, and the stories explore our relationship with history, real and invented.

The first story, “Blood And Water”, is a seminal story in Ní Dhuibhne’s oeuvre, not only on its own terms but because it served as a kind of a rising agent for her outstanding novel The Dancers Dancing ‑ one of the few, or only? – bildungsroman – exploring the Irish College experience.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1999, The Dancers Dancing follows thirteen-year-old Dubliner Orla of uncertain class as she negotiates the troubled waters of adolescence in the Donegal Gaeltacht of the 1970s. But this episodic, modernist work also embraces the major questions of the day ‑ national identity, the Troubles, the magnetic pull of landscape, Irish versus English, post-colonial cringe, the weight of “native” cultural and female heritage and how to get out from under it. For that reason, “Blood and Water” lacked, for me, the light allusiveness of its novel offspring.

In general, though, lightness is what marks out Ní Dhuibhne’s style; lightness coupled with serious intent. She is a deceptive writer. Deceptively light in tone, deceptively erudite in her references, deceptively irreverent in her treatment of form. Her literariness betrays itself in several stories here where she insists on pulling the narrative rug from under the reader, in “The Flowering” for example (a title that is a deliciously ambiguous word-play on the art of crochet), where Sally Rua, a “real” ancestor of Lennie, the narrator, is given a wholly fictional life as a housemaid and wizard lacemaker by her literary descendant. She is then driven mad by her employer’s refusal to let her practise her craft and is banished to a lunatic asylum. “Of course,” Lennie tells us airily towards the end of the story, “none of that is true. It’s a yarn, spun out of thin air.”

Ní Dhuibhne’s playful subversion extends beyond language and form; the idea of embroidery as a tool of female liberation is another irony that is casually woven into the story. Like The Dancers Dancing, the big themes are smuggled in, while Ní Dhuibhne is busy with the distracting decoration.

There are other stories here that draw attention to their making. Take “Illumination” ‑ spoiler alert – a dream narrative in the first person, featuring another literary type, who spends a week at a writer’s retreat in California and gets embroiled in the lives of a local couple who seem to take to her rather too fiercely.

“Well,” says the narrator just at the point of denouément, “There is only one ending as you who read stories know. The next day I woke, later than usual …” But the real meat of this story is not the trick of the dream and its weird unsettling logic but the notion that we are all haunted by the feeling that just beyond our ken a shimmering of wisdom beckons. “Every day, I believed I was on the brink of finding out something wonderful, something radically important about the meaning of life and the meaning of fiction …” the unnamed narrator writes, “a moment of illumination would come and … it would provide me with the answer I was seeking, the breakthrough I longed for, and needed.” The imminence of this sensation ‑ and its frustrating elusiveness ‑ somehow produces the dream, which could be seen as a stand-in for the glorious if flawed synthesis of fiction-making.

The same unease haunts the narrator of “The Banana Boat” – the mother of dissatisfied teenagers on a summer holiday in Ventry. Despite the perfect weather (“It is so beautiful, in this sunshine, that you would believe it was real.”) she cannot trust to happiness, though she gives the sensation a name.“Death hovers somewhere around, lurking in the corners like the mists that are always somewhere out there on the Atlantic, sweeping towards us on the wind.”

It is a premonition that turns out to be justified in this story, but the tragedy as the narrator sees it is not the near drowning of her son but the constant anxiety about the proximity of disaster even in a safely lived life.(In the midst of her son’s crisis, his mother ‑ another writer? ‑ is considering the “storyness” of the incident, pondering on alternative endings and citing Mary Lavin’s “The Widow’s Son” and Alice Munro’s “Miles City Montana” as templates.)

Despite this broodiness, Ní Dhuibhne’s lightness of tone is never far away and is further sustained by her frequent use of the present continuous, which lends an immediacy to the actions of the story, as if they’re just happening to both us and the characters. It’s almost as if she wishes to tiptoe across the page leaving only faint footprints yet the images and the atmosphere of these stories persist long after reading.

Tense is also crucial in “The Day Elvis Presley Died”, where the narrator, Pat, (who could be an inheritor of Orla’s uncertainty mantle from The Dancers Dancing) is on holiday with her American boyfriend and his parents at a lakeside resort in the US in 1977. Although it is set in the past, Ní Dhuibhne writes the story in the present and then pitches the reader forward to an unspecified future where all is changed though we’re not sure how. But through the tense shifts we see how “live” this seminal summer is in Pat’s memory.

Only an obviously historical story like “The Pale Gold of Alaska”, about an Irish gold rush emigrant’s wife who falls in love with a Blackfoot Indian with punishing consequences, is anchored firmly in the past tense, although even here the narrative tone is, if not light, then sardonically distant, as if history is just a more bizarre version of the present. Ní Dhuibhne’s technique here seems to channel her character Lennie, the narrator of “The Flowering”, who remarks that she does not see much difference between history and fiction.

No discussion of Ní Dhuibhne’s work would be complete without referring to her sense of place, her earthy grounding in the locale of her stories – be it Ireland, the US or Scandinavia – the “lonely tearful” swimming pools of north America, the saffron glow of the New York skyline, the “leonine haunches of sand roll” in the waters of a Donegal lough, the “flower-studded” ditches of Kerry. Although even in the pastoral, irony is never far away.

In “The Day Elvis Presley Died”, Pat finds herself defeated by the majesty of the American scenery and disabused of the landscape myths of recession-ridden home. “Ireland, in compensation for its economic and social failures was … a dumb, and virtuous blonde, among the smarter and uglier nations.”

It is such sly, artful humour that trumps the stories in this collection which announce themselves as satire. “Literary Lunch” and “City of Literature” are romps, poking fun at the expenses-claiming arts establishment, but they seem too declarative for a writer who delights in telling things slant. Still, their presence here testifies to Ní Dhuibhne’s range – her ability to shape-shift within the genre.

One drawback of any selection of Ní Dhuibhne’s short-form work is that those stories divorced from their context can seem robbed of a certain resonance. Her 1997 collection The Inland Ice (from which the stories “The Woman With the Fish” and “Summer Pudding” feature here) is a complex intertextual work, threaded through with a folk tale – invented, of course – that speaks back to the stories surrounding it, creating a symphonic effect. All the more reason for a Collected Ní Dhuibhne that could do justice to her inventiveness in and mastery of the form. Until that happens, this welcome volume from Dalkey Archive whets the appetite.

A version of this review appears in the October edition of the Dublin Review of Books. 

 

 

 

Igniting sparks

 

Where do stories come from?  Most of the time, superstitiously, we don’t ask. And usually, it’s hard to say, because the process is so chaotic when it’s happening, and in retrospect seems too random to catalogue.

But in the case of  my story, “Lockjaw”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd magazine, the genesis was very clear. (The crowd at Lonely asked me to write a piece about how I wrote the story, and this produced a kind of diary of its making.)

I teach creative writing at University College Cork and several years ago came across a classic writing exercise in American writer John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction. This was the brief: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.

The aim is to write a passage that achieves effect by being indirect.  In other words, you know what you want to say and then very deliberately you don’t put it on the page.  It’s about restraint, about the power of leaving things out – a power on which the short story is built. The exercise is also about investing description with undeclared emotion.

The result, Gardner said, should be “a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. . . No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details to include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect.”

I don’t like to ask student writers to tackle exercises that I haven’t tried to do myself so I wrote along with them.  The description of the barn which appears in the opening of the story is almost word-for-word from the original exercise. I liked the way the prompt forced me to be inventive, made me use language to get around a narrative obstacle. Restriction can often be the mother of invention.

Because it produced a kind of density of description, I was loathe to let the piece sit there as a fragment and in time I developed it into a story breaking all of Gardner’s strictures in the end, since I go on to mention the son, the war and death.

Other threads in the story came in the usual magpie fashion. Because I wanted to keep the war element in the story from the Gardner prompt, I turned to the Irish Army’s peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, the only conventional war I had a connection to   – not counting the Northern Ireland troubles, that is.  That dictated the time period of the story.

The hurricane – so eerily topical at the moment – belongs to that era too (August 25,1986).  It came unbidden into the story because I have a very distinct memory of  the night Hurricane Charley hit. I was on the graveyard shift as a newspaper copy editor and got to say those immortal words – stop the press – so that we could update readers on the worsening conditions as the winds howled and the rain beat against the office windows.

At the time of writing the story, a friend of mine had gone into selling stoves in her barn so she found a place in the narrative too.

And finally the photographer, who was a late addition to the story, comes from an unease I have about the artful photographing of abandoned places, particularly people’s homes, with all the poignant mementos of their lives still in place. While loving the images, I distrust my pleasure in them because they seem, somehow, avaricious, feeding off authenticity to create a kind of beautiful-looking artifice. And as I write this, I realise it could be a description of writing itself; so perhaps I’m berating myself in the story at some level.

So. . . not a very coherent process even when remembered in tranquility. Except for John Gardner, that is, who provided the igniting spark.

Gardner was a novelist and essayist (probably best known for his 1971 novel Grendell, based on the Beowulf myth) but he’s remembered more now for his books on writing and the creative process.  He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s and was a creative writing professor at several US universities, including Detroit, Southern Illinois and Binghamton.  He was admired as a creative writing professor, and a tough mentor of young writers.  (Gardner died in a motorcycle accident aged 49 in 1982.)

In 1978, his book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, caused much dissent in the US literary community because it included bracing judgments of contemporaries including John Updike and John Barth.(So many Johns!)  It also controversially demanded that fiction should distinguish between right and wrong, a notion I’m not sure I agree with.  However, there is something flinty about his certainty of vision.

“Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral,” Gardner declared, “Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake”.

Which, almost 30 years on, has a distinct resonance in the Trump era.

 

 

 

 

The ghost of the good priest

the-innocents-1961
A scene from The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw

Must all clergy automatically be distrusted because of the Catholic church’s abominable record of sexual and physical abuse?  What about the good priest? Don’t honorable nuns exist? That’s the question Conor O’Callaghan implicitly asks in his recently paperbacked novel, Nothing on Earth.  (It’s a very pertinent question given the heated controversy of recent days about the new national maternity hospital and who should own it.)

The first person narrator in Nothing on Earth is a priest – or was one. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. (And perhaps that’s a telling ambiguity.) It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge.

The unnamed narrator is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her.

The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge. He goes through a dark night of the soul during which he is haunted by ghosts.

Is he in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration?

There are obvious comparisons here to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career and also a ghost story. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house.  Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers.

We see the events through the governess’s eyes. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces.  If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call.

As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence,”

Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him?  This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. Is he a “good” priest?  Or is he a sexual predator? Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood?  – “I will not be the man they want me to be. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt?  “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”

Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. Should we trust any priest?

Like all great fiction, Nothing on Earth begs the question, but doesn’t answer it. That’s up to the reader.

 

Blowing my own trumpet

masters trumpets
Not my Trumpet has Sounded!

On a recent visit to Amsterdam for a reading event, I had cause to do a search for myself on Google Netherlands. (It was for a purely pragmatic reason – honest! I needed to check the cover price of my latest book, Prosperity Drive, just out in paperback). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, according to Dutch Google, I had written – and published! – six, rather than five books.

Along with my two collections of short stories, and three novels, this search revealed that I’d also written a novel entitled The Trumpet Has Sounded, published on April 1, 1996. I know, I know, an April Fools Day joke, you say – but no, I did the search on March 16 and checked it several times since, in case I was suffering from writerly delusions or someone was playing a seasonal prank on me!

Apart from the title and publication date, however, there was no other information about my phantom book, and no accompanying cover image.

When I chased the title down on Amazon, I found only one, authored by a John Masters and published in October 2001. Its subject matter is listed as World History, Religion and Spirituality, but there’s no further clue as to what this Trumpet is about. Under Product Details, came the following health warning: “If you dare read this book, you might just consider the path you tread, and find yourself a different destiny!”

But there was no sign on Amazon of “my” Trumpet Has Sounded.

One of the biggest threats for the modern writer is piracy – the widescale reproduction of authors’ work on the web in downloadable form by rogue elements who gain nothing from it, but ride roughshod over copyright law. But here I was facing the exact opposite problem – finding evidence on the web of a novel attributed to me that I’m pretty certain I didn’t write.

The act of writing is often allied with the art of forgetting. Most writers will have had the sensation of discovering fragments of writing from the distant past that they have no recollection of writing. As someone with a terrible memory, I’ve often seen my slavish devotion to list-making as an antidote to forgetting. But recording on paper may not necessarily strengthen your memory.

Montaigne, who admitted to having a terrible memory himself, suggested that a perfect memory was the death of a good story.

“In my country, when they want to say that a man has no sense, they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of the shortcomings of my own, people correct me and refuse to believe me, as if I were accusing myself of being a fool. They can see no difference between memory and intellect,” he  wrote in On Liars.

Plato had a marked distrust of writing, arguing that the written word was the enemy of memory.  It would lead, he warned, to individuals relying on external letters and losing the ability to recollect what was within.

Given that I can’t remember, I have taken to imagining what my phantom novel might be about. The trumpets sounding refers to the  seven trumpets that herald apocalyptic events in the vision of St John of Patmos. They are blown by seven angels when the seventh seal is broken and the events that follow are described in detail in the Book of Revelations, Chapters 8 to 11.

So perhaps my Trumpets is a toga and sandals epic. A kind of Ben Her? Or maybe it’s an apocalyptic science fiction saga? A satire on the American President? Or a Jazz Age novel?

Whatever it’s about, the memory of it has completely escaped me. So here’s my plea – if anyone comes across a copy of The Trumpet Has Sounded by Mary Morrissy, can you buy it on my behalf, and help me to retrieve my forgotten  – by me, that is – mistress-piece!