Lucia – Alex Pheby

This year I had been craving for a different reading experience, and if you have taken a look at My Best Books of the Year, you will notice that many are from small presses. That’s not surprising. Small independent publishing houses take greater risks in releasing extremely interesting titles from upcoming or forgotten authors, in a way mainstream publishers do not.

Besides the publishers displayed on my Best Books list, Galley Beggar Press is another publishing house to watch out for. A few years ago I had read one of their titles – Randall by Jonathan Gibbs – and was quite impressed.

So I decided to try out another title, and eventually settled for Lucia.

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Galley Beggar Press Standard Paperback Edition

Here are the bare bones of Lucia Joyce’s life as is known to the world:

Lucia was the daughter of the famous novelist James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. They also had a son named Giorgio, who was elder to Lucia. At a young age, Lucia blossomed into a talented dancer and had the makings of a wonderful career in front of her, but it all careened to a halt. She stopped dancing. It is possible that she was forced by her family to abandon it, or maybe she did it of her own accord. No one really knows.

We also know that she had fallen in love with Samuel Beckett who was an apprentice with James Joyce, but this love was not reciprocated. Lucia also had a difficult relationship with her mother Nora, and increasingly became prone to throwing tantrums.

Her family quickly put her in a mental asylum for suspected schizophrenia where she remained for the last 30 years of her life till her death, well after both her parents and her brother died. Her family did not bother to visit her in all this time. We also know that all her correspondence and all material concerning her was destroyed by the subsequent members of the Joyce family.

She was relegated to the margins and silenced. The exact circumstances surrounding her fate remain vague and mysterious.

Those are the facts as we know it.

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Lucia Joyce, the Dancer, in 1929 (Image Source: Guardian)

Lucia by Alex Pheby is an attempt to recreate her story. But this is no ordinary biography. This is a fragmentary and questioning narrative, and told from multiple points of view, but never Lucia’s. That said, while Lucia’s voice is not heard, she remains the vital centre of the novel even when absent.

When the novel opens, it is 1982, Lucia is dead, and her funeral arrangements are being made. Even in her death, she is belittled.

Skinny. So skinny. Not in the way all corpses are, but translucent and matt, dead to the touch, pliable and inelastic, utterly without substance.

The second chapter is set in May 1988, where all of Lucia’s papers, correspondence, letters are being burned and obliterated by a man hired by a member of the Joyce family to do so. The name of that family member is struck out in black in the novel, but you would not be wrong in assuming that it is Stephen Joyce, Lucia’s nephew.

We are then taken many years back to a time when Lucia was young and attached to her pet rabbit, which at that moment is being tortured by her brother Giorgio. Why is Giorgio committing this heinous act? So that Lucia will keep silent about his incestuous relations with her, or his sexual abuse of her for that matter. This chapter is particularly harrowing, and sets the tone for how badly the men in the Joyce family come across.

Incest does not stop only at Giorgio. Pheby implies that James Joyce and Lucia’s uncle are guilty of it too.

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Lucia and her father James Joyce (Image Source: TLS)

Of James Joyce…

Say he is sitting in the living room and there is the proper object of his affections – his wife, Nora – and he is aroused by her, but then she leaves while he is reading the paper, and you, Lucia, replace her in her chair. When he puts the paper down he sees you, in his state of arousal. Is it any wonder, in the blurry world in which he exists when he has his reading glasses in place rather than the glasses he has for distance, that his arousal is transferred to you?

Are the Joyce men as horrible as Pheby makes them out to be? There’s no proof, but that’s irrelevant because the evidence has been extinguished. That gives Pheby or any other writer enough license to give their own take on how the events played out.

If there are those of you reading this who know Giorgio, you might say that this never happened. But how do you know?

If one has secrets, and then burns the evidence of those secrets on a pyre, ne invites speculation, and speculation is infinite in a way that the truth is not.

Why shouldn’t Giorgio have tortured Lucia’s rabbit to prevent her from speaking? All things that are possible are, in the absence of facts that have been destroyed that might have proved them incorrect, equally correct.

The moral of the story is: do not destroy documentary evidence of the truth, since it will come back and bite you in the arse.

Indeed, what goes around comes around. So, if the Joyce family went to great lengths to destroy Lucia’s real story, they are hardly in a position to complain if people frame their own versions, and show the family in a bad light. After all, no one can corroborate anything, so speculation is bound to run rife.

Lucia being silenced, cut out, snubbed by all is the dominant theme that runs throughout the novel, not only when she is alive but even after her death. It’s not just her family though. Her lovers marginalize her too. And so do the staff at the mental asylum where she is subject to horrific experimental treatments and where she is kept for most of her later life.

And of course, there’s Samuel Beckett, who pretended to take an interest in her only because he wanted to have a closer bond with James Joyce and further his career.

Sprinkled between all these chapters are the Egyptian sections, showing an archeologist discovering a tomb, which has been desecrated. The archeologist sets out to clinically examine what could have possibly led to the tomb being disturbed, consequently snuffing out any possibility of a smooth transition of the diseased into the afterlife.

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A Glimpse of the Egyptian Sections in the Novel

In a way, these Egyptian sections mirror Pheby’s own task of examining Lucia’s story from all angles, however disjointed they may be. Essentially, he is looking at narrative shards, piercing and shattered, that offers a glimpse of Lucia but can never be pieced together into a linear and coherent whole.

Throughout the novel, Pheby’s prose is detached, searching and incredibly compelling. Incest, animal cruelty, and crippling mental asylum treatments can be gruesome topics, and a detached tone possibly helps blunt some of the ghastliness of these acts. At the same time, the disturbingly detailed accounts also display anger and fury simmering under the surface, and can be heartbreaking one moment, and uncomfortable the next. But the writing remains wonderfully edgy, immersive and absorbing throughout and never lets up. The Egyptian sections are also brilliantly done and help tie up the chapters together.

Then there are quite a few chapters on the Little Match Girl. The obvious inference was the silent film adaptation made by Jean Renoir called La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes (The Little Match Girl) in which Lucia was cast as a toy soldier. But it was also originally a disturbing fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a dying child’s dreams and hopes. In a way Pheby is drawing parallels between the Match Girl’s heartbreaking plight and that of Lucia’s, whose dreams of becoming a successful dancer and retaining her individuality were cruelly thwarted. And as has been the trend all through her life, eventually her part in this film is edited and cut out.

The dancer Lucia Joyce, daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, performed for the famous director Jean Renoir at Les Ateliers du Vieux Colombier, Paris, France in the summer of 1927, and her performance was filmed.  She had been commissioned to perform for a role in Renoir’s La Petite Marchande d’allumettes, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s La Petite Fille aux allumettes, but her dance was cut from the final edit. She was removed.

This is apt.

 Truth and beauty, perhaps they are inseparable, and so lies and ugliness.

Lucia then is another worthy title from the Galley Beggar Press list and makes for fascinating reading. Highly recommended!

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Galley Beggar Press Standard Paperback Edition

Murmur – Will Eaves

I thought The Goldsmiths Prize released an excellent shortlist this year. Although it didn’t win, I loved Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes, and it made into my Top 12 Best Books of the Year. Then there was Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (the last book of her brilliant ‘Outline’ trilogy) and Olivia Laing’s Crudo, both of which I greatly enjoyed. And of course, Will Eaves’ Murmur, which was unlike anything I had read.

The irony is that I would rate all these four novels higher than the eventual winner of the prize this year – Robin Robertson for his prose poem The Long Take.

Anyway, back to Murmur

CB Editions

Murmur covers that period of Alan Turing’s life when he was chemically castrated for his homosexuality.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician who achieved recognition for his groundbreaking work in cracking the Enigma code as part of Britain’s war efforts during the Second World War. He probably became more widely known to today’s audience because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him in the film The Imitation Game.

But that story is not Murmur’s focal point. Will Eaves has zoomed the lens on the ignominy and suffering that Alan Turing had to endure because of Britain’s inexplicable treatment of homosexuals in those years.

It is worthwhile to point out that while Murmur is undoubtedly based on Alan Turing, Will Eaves subtly changes the names of the characters in his story. This means that the protagonist in Murmur is called Alec Pryor. By all means Alec Pryor is Alan Turing. But by changing the name, Will Eaves has given himself wider berth in terms of delving deep into the mind of his protagonist, making the character his own even though he is real.

The novel is in three parts. The first part is linear and the most straightforward of the three. Here we are told about the events that lead up to Pryor’s incarceration. At a fair, Pryor meets a boy called Cyril, and from then on begin a series of sexual encounters at Pryor’s apartment. Around the same time, Pryor’s apartment gets burgled. Pryor reports the burglary to the police and subsequently his affair with Cyril also comes to light. At that time, homosexuality in the UK was a crime. Prior is given a choice – prison or chemical castration. He opts for the latter.

Then begins the second part called ‘Letters and Dreams’. This is the longest and the intense section of the book forming around two thirds of the novel. This is where Will Eaves delves into Pryor’s subconscious, his dreams, hallucinations and imaginings as the effect of the chemical drugs start seeping in.

Admittedly, quite a bit of this section was challenging, simply because to a rational person dreams do not follow any logic. Yet it is a testament to Eaves’ writing that the reader is still compelled to move on. This is because of Eaves’ sensitive portrayal of Pryor that is simply heartbreaking. Despite the ordeal that he is going through, Pryor maintains his dignity, trying to come to grips with the changes his mind and body are going through. Having had the rational mind of a mathematician, the ‘treatment’ he is enduring is highly disorienting to Pryor.

No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.

Consequently, this entire section feels otherworldly and surreal because we are trying to get a sense of what is going on in his drug-addled mind, which is as opaque to us as it is to him.  Which is possibly the point Will Eaves aims to drive across.

In these chapters we get a glimpse of the bond that he shared with his best friend and first love Christopher Molyneaux in school, and the grief of losing him in an accident. Then there are dream sequences that involve his mother and her meeting with June, Pryor’s close friend and colleague to whom he was briefly engaged.

To me, the most fascinating part of this section, was the exchange of correspondence between him and June.

In these, both of them discuss what Pryor is going through, how he will emerge out of it all, the meaning of consciousness and identity, and the implications of artificial intelligence.

I am afraid of becoming something else. A hybrid. The fear is not the change, it is the loss of, well, one’s personal past. It is quite like the fear of becoming a machine, in fact. I grieve for Chris now in a way I could not before, and it is precious to me, this new old grief. I fear losing him again in losing myself. I know what you will say. You’ll say, Alec, the ‘I’ is always there. The ‘I’ does not disappear if you change its data or its sex – its experiences and memories.

The last section of the novel once again returns to a linear narrative to a time when the chemical castration has ended. And we partly get a sense of what went on earlier, but only barely.

Essentially Murmur is a fine achievement. Eaves’ writing is quiet, sensitive, and poetic. It makes you feel for Pryor and the dreams section of the book only heightens that feeling and leaves a lasting impression on the reader. In fact, in many of these hallucinatory dreams, the prose sparkles and dazzles.

The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.

No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among the asteroids.

And then…

The veil of night draws back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.

It certainly is a book that on multiple readings will always reveal something new.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The first Margaret Atwood I read many years ago was The Blind Assassin, and I remember being blown away by it.

Subsequently, I delved into her novels such as Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Lady Oracle – all excellent. But The Blind Assassin remains my favourite.

There was still more of her work to explore, but as other authors clamoured for my attention, Atwood was pushed to the back shelves.

And then the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released, winning accolades and critical acclaim.

I have yet to see the series. However, it gave be the push that I needed to finally lay my hands on another Atwood novel. Also, whenever there is a TV/film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first.

So here goes…

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Frontispiece from the Folio Society Edition

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…

But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel and has become a much talked about book recently, not only because it has been adapted into a highly acclaimed TV series but also because of how its themes eerily mirror what we are seeing in the Trump era.

In the first half of the book, Atwood takes her time in setting up the story – the structure of Gilead, and the characters that people this oppressive regime, their roles and functions.

Gilead is a tyrannical system, where rules have to be strictly followed to the tee.

Within, there is also a dominant hierarchical system. Broadly speaking, the men mostly control the women. But even within each gender group, there are tiers.

For instance, in a typical household, there is the Commander with his wife. If the wife can’t conceive, there is a Handmaid assigned to the Commander, and her role is to breed children. The household also has a Martha, who is generally the housekeeper.

Women married to the poorer men are called Econowives. Essentially, every woman, depending upon her function, is expected to follow a certain dress code. The Handmaids wear the red dress with the white headgear.

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An Illustration from the Folio Society Edition

In the novel, the protagonist is the Handmaid called Offred. We are never explicitly told what Offred’s real name was before Gilead came into being. The name is a derivative of the male name Fred. So, Offred means she is Commander Fred’s Handmaid. In other words, Handmaids do not have an identity of their own. Also, the name is not unique. So if the Handmaid is transferred, the next Handmaid taking her place will also take on the same name. This itself gives the first indication that women in Gilead are controlled, are the property of men with no individuality of their own.

Gilead is a society with a strict set of rules and disciplines even when it comes to sex. Offred’s sex sessions with the Commander, called the Ceremony, are scheduled as per calendar (as is the case for the other Handmaids in other households too). Obviously, these are no passionate encounters by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Commander’s Wife is also present on these occasions in a kind of a weird ménage-a-trois.

All this is one part of the Gilead set-up (there’s more), and as I mentioned earlier a large part of the first half of the novel goes into greater depths into the inner workings of the regime, painting a detailed picture of its rituals.

Interspersed in all this is the protagonist Offred’s story. Offred is among the first generation of Handmaids who has seen both worlds – a free United States, and subsequently a controlling Gilead.

Being alone in her own room gives Offred time on her hands to reminisce about the past, the people she was close too.

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

We learn that she was in a relationship with a man who was called Luke then, and they had a child together. But Offred has no clue of their fate in the current regime. Then there is her relationship with her mother (a difficult one), and the carefree times with her best friend Moira (a nonconformist and a rebel then as she is even now).

Those were the times when they wanted a brighter future…

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? 

It was also when they thought about love…

The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.

In the current regime, however, she does as she is told, doing her best to remain as ordinary as possible, to blend in. And there is the fervent hope that she becomes pregnant so that a nasty fate does not befall her.

There are other important characters in the story. Moira, of course. And Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, who is also a Handmaid but in another household.

But the key ones are Commander Fred, the Commander’s Wife (Serena Joy), and the Guardian Nick, who is the Commander’s chauffeur.

It’s in the second half of the novel where the pace of the story picks up, the tension and terror mounts, and propels Offred’s fate. For starters, the Commander, one day, expects Offred to visit him in his study, which is forbidden as per rules of the regime. Is he attracted to her, seeking a night of passion?

Then there is Serena Joy, who despises Offred for obvious reasons, but has a plan which she puts forward to Offred, convinced it will be beneficial to both of them.

How will all of these developments determine Offred’s future?

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An Illustration from the Folio Society Edition

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is brimming with themes and ideas.

The central theme of the novel is how a state chooses to control women in society giving rise to gender inequality. In a patriarchal world, continuation of the male line is considered to be of paramount importance. But this power rests with women because they are the ones giving birth. Therefore, there is this need to subdue women by exerting control over their reproductive rights. They have to breed no matter what…the fact that they can have a choice is denied them. This is true in the Gilead regime in the novel, and even in the real world, especially in those regions across the globe which have an abysmal record when it comes to women’s rights.

The other core subject is the power dynamics between men and women, and the horror of a woman losing her independence to a man. There is one particularly powerful and poignant section when Gilead starts taking control, and women all of a sudden begin to lose their rights and their independence…making Offred dependent for a short while on Luke.

You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him.

It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.

I guess you get all the money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.

There’s more…

That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to?

What’s the matter? He said.

I don’t know, I said.

We still have…he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying ‘we’, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.

We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?

He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

We are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his.

One of the themes in the novel is how we take things for granted, not appreciating the good moments or the importance of what we already have until it is too late.

We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about rebellion, notably by the women. Each of the women in the story choose to resist the stifling and controlling environment in their own way. The obvious rebel is Moira – gutsy and daring, as is evident in her attempts to flee the regime. But there is also Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, who later reveals to the latter that she is working for the Resistance (an underground movement), while maintaining an outward appearance of docility.

I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.

But what about Offred? Offred is a strong woman in her own right, even if she is not as fiery as her best friend Moira. At first, she diligently follows the rules set out for her, but as the book progresses, Offred gradually undergoes a transformation – it’s a subtle one – as she takes greater risks in working the system to meet her own ends.

I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.

Again, what will all this mean for Offred’s future?

The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.

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Various Book Covers for The Handmaid’s Tale

Which brings me to how the novel ends. I will obviously not reveal what happens, but according to me, Atwood has given the novel a brilliant ending simply because of the ambiguity surrounding it.

There is a postscript which follows, which I thought was unnecessary because it attempted to give an explanation of what went on in the story while not claiming to provide any certain answers. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the novel could have been better without it.

But that is just a minor quibble. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a powerful read with much to think about especially with what is going on in our world today.

I will end with a quote from an introduction given by Margaret Atwood herself, in my lovely Folio Society edition, of what she was attempting to put across in her novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale has often been called a ‘female dystopia’, but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom…

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Vintage Dystopia and Folio Society Editions