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.

Lucia 1
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.

Lucia Joyce Guardian
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.

Lucia & James Joyce TLS
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.

Lucia Egyptian Sections
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!

Lucia 2
Galley Beggar Press Standard Paperback Edition

Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press Boxed Set, Folio Society, Pushkin Vertigo, New Directions Hardback

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Folio Society, Pushkin Japanese Novella Series, Feminist Press

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Virago Modern Classics, Orion Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, Folio Society)

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Canongate Books, Shakespeare & Company Paris, Picador

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press, Folio Society, Folio Society again, Peirene Press (‘Female Voice: Inner Realities’ Series Book One)

A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Oneworld Publications, Folio Society, Picador E-Book, Granta Hardback, Fitzcarraldo

Mad Enchantment – Ross King

For an art junkie, a trip to Paris is incomplete without a visit to the Musee d’Orsay. This is after all the mecca of Impressionism, that art movement in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, which was reviled by critics in its early years but revered much later. Musee d’Orsay displays a host of paintings by Impressionist painters such as Renoir, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and the father of them all – Claude Monet.

But this is not the only museum that showcases Monet’s art. The Orangerie Museum is dedicated to Monet and more so for displaying his famous water lily paintings. It is these paintings which form the subject matter of Ross King’s engrossing book ‘Mad Enchantment’.

Bloomsbury Publishing Hardback Edition. A Replica of Monet’s Water Lilies Painting in the Background

This then is a biography of not only Monet but also the history behind the creation of these water lily paintings or Monet’s ‘upside down paintings’ as they were so called. King goes on to show a bit of Monet’s early life as a painter, the essential ‘Frenchness’ of his art as he painted canvases of the Normandy coast,  wheat stacks, and the Rouen  cathedral to name a few.

King touches upon the significance of light in these paintings. Essentially Monet worked a lot outdoors and that too on many canvases at a time so that he could capture that fleeting play of light in his work.

Monet extract
An Extract from ‘Mad Enchantment’

Ross then goes on to show how besides painting, Monet also developed a strong interest in gardening. This is significant as it prompted Monet to cultivate a water lily pond in his garden at Giverny with the famous Japanese bridge across it.

This water lily pond then became a subject of his art for much of his later years. The idea for a ‘Grand Decoration’ was conceived; a slew of water lily paintings on much larger canvases. These would be displayed in a circular room, which Monet called his ‘flowery aquarium’ thereby giving a sense of peace to the observer.

Monet pond
Photographs of the Pond When We Visited Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France. The Inspiration for His Water Lily Paintings.

But the path to realize this ambition was not always easy. King explains how Monet had to suffer the difficulties of the First World War, periods of self-doubt, loss of some of his family members and contemporaries, and his own diminishing eyesight…to create these masterworks.

King’s prose flows smoothly and makes this biography fascinating and eminently readable. A must read then for anyone remotely interested in art and art history.