FEELING UNENTITLED

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?

You can read ‘Repossession’ in Five Years: Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

Siblings are often in danger of being traduced in print when there’s a writer in the family. Sometimes they bite back, biographically or fictionally. Others, like Bella Casey, the heroine of The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press, 2013), my novel about the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and his sister, don’t get the chance of a right to reply.  One of the triggers for writing Bella’s story was O’Casey’s decision to kill her off  ten years before her time in his autobiography.

Perhaps the best known set of literary siblings were the Brontës, but they happily shared a literary territory, particularly as teenagers. Later, the sisters’ fictional depiction of one another seems to have been heavily disguised – and, more importantly, was not contested. In the course of my research, I did some trawling through works where literary siblinghood was either hotly debated on the page, or – as in the case of Bella Casey –  a sister or brother was airbrushed out of the family album.

Stannie 1904

1. Stephen Hero: by James Joyce

This early work featured many episodes drawn from Joyce’s family life and, in particular, Stephen’s close relationship with his brother, Maurice (read Joyce’s real-life brother, Stanislaus, pictured above) Joyce subsequently rewrote it as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but he excised much of the material relating to Stanislaus. In later years, Stanislaus wrote a psychologically riveting memoir of Joyce’s early life, My Brother’s Keeper. “It is terrible,” he observed “to have a cleverer older brother. . .I perceive that he regards me as quite commonplace and uninteresting – he makes no attempt at disguise – and though I follow him fully in this opinion I cannot be expected to like it.”

2.Monkeys: by Susan Minot

Susan Minot’s “semi-autobiographical” debut novel caused a family storm when it was published in 1986. It follows the lives of the seven Vincent children, their Catholic mother and alcoholic father in an atmosphere of New England privilege. The novel inspired a veritable symphony of competing sibling creativity. Sister Eliza Minot published The Tiny One in 1999, covering the same events, brother George penned a murder mystery, The Blue Bowl,  about a large family in which one of the sons is accused of killing his father. Sam Minot, who claimed the father-killer character in George’s novel was based on him, replied with a self-published memoir entitled The Strange Poverty of the Rich. There are three other Minot siblings who have yet to contribute to the debate.

A S Byatt

3. The Game : A.S Byatt

A Brontean tale of two sisters who as children share an imagined alternate universe based on the Arthurean tales, but who are divided by the same creativity as adults. When Cassandra, a single Oxford don, sees one of her childhood fantasies portrayed in her sister Julia’s novel, the stage is set for a showdown. Byatt’s sister, Margaret Drabble, described the novel as “a mean-spirited book about sibling rivalry and she sent it to me with a note signed ‘With love,’ saying ‘I think I owe you an apology’.”

4. The Peppered Moth: Margaret Drabble

Drabble’s first novel, The Summer Bird-Cage was also about a pair of rivalrous sisters, one single and the other who opts for a wealthy marriage. But it was not until Drabble’s 2011 novel, The Peppered Moth was published, that Antonia Byatt railed publicly against her sister’s fiction. Byatt was exercised by the character of Bessie Bawtry in the novel which is based on the Drabbles’ mother, Kathleen. She is quoted as saying that she “would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother”.

5. Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott did not have the same problems when she mined sibling territory for her series of novels about the March sisters – maybe because the proceeds were going towards supporting them. Troubled by her family’s genteel poverty, she vowed at age 15 that she would be rich. Little Women was a commissioned work; her publisher wanted “a book for girls”. The novel, based on Louisa and her sisters coming of age in the American Civil War, was published September 30, 1868 and was an instant success.

steve jobs

6. A Regular Guy: Mona Simpson

Tom Owens drops out of college and becomes a Silicon Valley biotech millionaire. He’s a barefoot in the boardroom kind of entrepreneur who eventually gets pushed out of the company he helped create. Sound familiar? Simpson’s brother was Apple founder, Steve Jobs, above, who was adopted days after birth. Simpson’s novel is written from the point of view of Owens’ estranged daughter, Jane. Jobs’ response to the novel is not recorded but Lisa Brennan-Jobs, his daughter by a first marriage, was furious. “In the first few pages, I was confronted with my family, my anecdotes, my things, my thoughts, myself in the character Jane. And sandwiched between the truths was invention—lies to me, made more evident because of their dangerous proximity to the truth.”

7. Hideous Kinky: Esther Freud

Hippie mother Julia leaves the predictability of Tunbridge Wells with her two daughters, aged 4 and 7, for Morocco where they live a low-rent life in Marrakech. The elder girl, Bea, based on Freud’s sister, Bella, insists on a conventional life in the midst of the chaos, going to school etc while the younger sister and child narrator of the novel watches uncomprehendingly as her rackety mother hitches herself up to various men and explores Sufism while the family slides further into impoverishment. When asked what her sister thought of the autobiographical novel, Esther Freud said Bella’s memories of the sojourn in Morocco were not compatible with hers. But she added that her sister had relished the novel.

frank mccourt

8. Angela’s Ashes: Frank McCourt:

Frank McCourt ‘s fictionalised memoir was a fore-runner of the misery lit genre back in 1996. Its depiction of a miserable Irish childhood with a brood of brothers enraged the residents of Limerick where the McCourts grew up. McCourt’s brothers, Malachy and Alphie each subsequently produced memoirs of their own – A Monk Swimming and A Long Stone’s Throw respectively. They didn’t argue with their brother’s account; they merely added their own voices to the family narrative with further adventures, mostly in the US.

9. Big Brother: Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is inspired by her dangerously overweight brother Greg, who was contemplating gastric surgery when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2009. Shriver has turned the story into a novel in which the brother – now called Edison – takes charge of his obesity with a rigorous diet imposed by his sister, Pandora, with weight issues of her own. Shriver was determined to fictionalise her brother’s story. “It was the inspiration,” she said of his death. But she added that her real brother was very complicated. “I don’t think he would’ve fit in a book.”  And if he were still alive, the novel might never have been written.

dorothy wordsworth

10. Daffodils: William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud, Wordsworth wrote, but by right he probably should have used the first person plural. He was with his devoted sister Dorothy (in the portrait above) when they saw the long belt of daffodils as she notes in her diary. “. . . they grew among the mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind. . . ” Dorothy’s journals were full of observations of nature and the siblings’ life together, some of which found their way into Wordsworth’s verse. Indeed, he consulted her journal when he came to write Daffodils and that, it seems, is how she intended it. It was for William that Dorothy kept the journal.