Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!

The Faces – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally)

Danish author Tove Ditlevsen became known to the wider world a couple of years ago when her stunning memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy, were released. With the dexterity of an alchemist turning minerals into gold, Ditlevsen mined her real life for raw material which she transformed into polished, haunting works of art. Those elements are very much on display in The Faces too, written around the same time as the memoirs.

Reality disappeared behind her like someone on a railway platform as the train pulls away.

The Faces is about a woman’s journey through mental illness and recovery, unique for its striking language and poetry in prose – all hallmarks of Ditlevsen’s writing.

Our protagonist Lise is a famous author of children’s books, although she hasn’t penned anything in the last two years. While professionally, a writer’s block has hampered her creative output, in her personal life too, Lise is on the edge. To her ex-husband Asger, “a wife who wrote something as ridiculous as children’s books was suddenly a liability.” Her current husband, Gert, has been consistently unfaithful to her, not exactly the ideal husband material. Their housekeeper, Gitte, is a toxic influence on the family – she is sleeping with Gert as well as Lise’s elder son Moyen.

Lise is shown to be persistently tired, preferring the comfort of her bed and her pills. Then one night, in the novel’s first chapter, Gert confesses to her that his previous lover, Grete, has committed suicide. It profoundly unsettles Gert and Lise now feels stained by this incident too. One day, while having her bath, Lise overhears a heated conversation between Gert and Gitte through the bathroom pipes. Convinced, that they are plotting against her to induce her to take her own life like Grete did, Lise confronts them. Their vehement denial leaves Lise feeling dazed and confused. Yet her sense of unease is not quelled.

Finding her home environment increasingly unbearable and claustrophobic, Lise yearns to get away from it all. This desire compels her to overdose, not because she wants to die, but because she sees it as an opportunity to be transported somewhere else – a hospital.

Lise’s stay in the psychiatric hospital, then, forms a substantial chunk of the novel. It’s only in the hospital that the full extent of Lise’s illness becomes clear to the reader. Sadly, Lise may have escaped Gert and Gitte, but their voices continue to torment her. These taunting voices, playing on the frayed edges of her mind, are vividly real to her even when the reality is completely different. They assail her from all nooks and crannies, from the pipes to the non-existent speaking devices by her pillow. It’s not only the voices though, as she is increasingly haunted by disembodied faces too. Not only does Lise hear Gert and Gitte, she also sees them all over the hospital. To Lise, the faces of various staff members morph into the faces of these two, hounding her endlessly.

Lise is treading on eggshells as she tries to convince the doctors she is fine, while appearing surprised and disoriented on learning that they can’t experience the visions and hear the voices as she does. To complicate matters, Lise is wracked by guilt of being selfish and self-absorbed in her woes, for not being alive to the suffering of the wider world – a guilt that Gitte’s voice rubs like salt on her wound causing her much anguish.

As the title of the novel suggests, faces feature predominantly in the novel and the masks we allegedly don to keep up appearances forms one central theme.

They slept, and their faces were blank and peaceful and didn’t have to be used again until morning. Maybe they had even taken off their faces and placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest. In the daytime the faces were constantly changing, as if she saw them reflected in flowing water.

Ditlevsen essentially offers a glimpse into the lived experience of mental illness, the inability to separate reality from illusion. By sleight of hand, she recreates the experience of madness from the inside, letting us explore the shifting contours of Lise’s mind and her unreliable perception of the world around her.

Brief, intense and awash with sublime imagery, Ditlevsen’s writing is beautiful and clear as always, and the plethora of metaphors and similes dotting her prose are breathtaking. For instance, the voices which came back to her “could be unraveled from each other like the strands of a tangled ball of yarn.” A random childhood day was “preserved in her mind like a thousand-year old insect encased in a lump of amber.” When looking in the mirror, “three delicate wrinkles lay like a pearl necklace around her neck”, while the morning light “had a yellow, withered cast to it, like fading snapshots left in a drawer that no one opens anymore.”

As Lise limps towards a tentative recovery underlined by her fear, the reader is aware of the path being anything but smooth given the complexity of her feelings. For we can’t help but wonder despite everything – Would Lise prefer the comfort and solace in madness far more than the bitter ugliness of reality?

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

A couple of years ago, I was blown away by Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace, a haunting exploration of the friendship between two young girls – a novel that made its way into my Best Books of 2018 list. Wanting to read more of his work, I settled for The Birds, and it turned out to be another incredible book.

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is known as Simple Simon in the village. It’s a label that has fastened on to him because of his inability to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” He envies those people who are endowed with the three qualities he realizes he is not blessed with, but for which he yearns – strength, wisdom and beauty.

Hege and Mattis survive on the income that Hege brings home by knitting sweaters. In a way, the burden of providing for the two of them falls on her, and she is frustrated and tired. She implores Mattis to look for work on the farms everyday, but to no avail. Mattis dreads the prospect of physical labour, knowing fully well that he lacks ability. The farmers are aware of this too and therefore don’t want him working for them either.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable, memorable character, although the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show. While Mattis’ awkward conversations with Hege and some of the villagers form one aspect of the novel, Vesaas also peppers the story with some unique set pieces – occurrence of events that are fascinating to Mattis and offer us a glimpse into his mind.

For instance, at the start of the novel, Mattis observes a woodcock flying over their cottage. Woodcocks typically do not alter their flight paths, and the fact that this one has is a source of marvel to Mattis.

Mattis sat waiting almost breathless. For if it was a proper flight, the bird would return in a little while, along the same path, again and again during the short hour that the evening flight lasted. He knew this from other areas where flights occurred. Early in the morning, too, the bird moved along the same path, a fowler had told him so. On dry marshlands he had sometimes seen the marks of woodcocks’ beaks, next to the imprints of their dainty feet.

He sat waiting, full of excitement. The moments seemed to drag on, and his doubts grew stronger.

But hush, there it was. The flapping wings, the bird itself, indistinct, speeding through the air straight across the house and off in the other direction. Gone again, hidden by the gentle dusk and the sleeping treetops.

Then Mattis said in a firm voice: “So the woodcock came at last.”

To him, this heralds new possibilities of their lives changing for the better. But when he attempts to express this to Hege, she barely gives it the importance he thinks it deserves.

Hege is a practical woman, worried about the trials of everyday life and ensuring there is food on the table. But Mattis is mostly in his own world, seemingly inept at carving out the kind of living as defined by society.

And yet, there are activities that give Mattis pleasure because he can do them well – rowing a boat is one of them. Hege pounces on this and encourages him to become a ferryman, just to have him out of the house, knowing fully well that there will be no takers and no money coming from this futile enterprise.

Mattis, though, is optimistic and on his first day on the lake, he ferries across the one customer he will ever have – a lumberjack called Jorgen. Jorgen spends the night in their home, and subsequently settles there – Jorgen and Hege have become lovers.

While a man in her life brings Hege much needed happiness, Mattis feels threatened and unsure of his own position in the house in the new scheme of things.

One of the many things that Vesaas excels at in The Birds is visual imagery. The flight of the woodcock becomes a thing of wonder to the reader as much as it is to Mattis. Then there is the time when Mattis spends the day toiling on a turnip field.  Vesaas beautifully captures the sense of futility that creeps up on Mattis as he struggles to keep pace with the farmer and a young couple on the field. Beset by a stream of thoughts, Mattis is much more arrested by the sight of the couple – sweethearts as he calls them – rather than the work in front of him. A little later on in the novel, when he is rowing his boat out on the lake, a chance encounter with two holidaying girls – Anna and Inger – fills him with joy and instills in him a confidence he never knew he possessed.

Was this happiness? Happiness had come to him on a bare, rocky island, without any kind of warning. He hadn’t done anything to bring it about. He could even make sharp-witted remarks.

There lay the two girls, who weren’t a bit afraid of him. They were so near, he could have put out his hand and touched them. The sun was turning them golden brown for him, had been shining on them for fourteen days.

He had to do something. And it had to be something out of the ordinary.

But for the larger part of his existence, Mattis is always pondering the bigger questions – “Why are things the way they are?” And on those occasions when he musters up the courage to put them forth, no one really bothers to answer him.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel, subtly displaying a gamut of emotions and filled with uniquely etched characters. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both. Being ‘different’ from the others is always tough, but so is the responsibility of being the sole caregiver.

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

I was first introduced to Jean Rhys’ writing when I read Wide Sargasso Sea, in college probably. The fact that it was marketed as a prequel to Jane Eyre (a novel I rate highly), greatly piqued my interest. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the book now other than the central premise it’s based on. I remember liking it at the time.

I had absolutely no clue then that she had a much stronger body of work published earlier. Those four novels – all stylistically similar – didn’t do well all those years ago, after which she fell into long spell of obscurity before Wide Sargasso Sea was published in her later life.

I don’t really recollect what got me started reading her earlier work a few years ago. It could be that her name always cropped up whenever Patrick Hamilton’s work was discussed. They do have the same type of protagonists – lonely characters seeking companionship in bars and drinks, although the writing styles are as different as chalk and cheese.

I had loved Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square. And seeing that Jean Rhys’ earlier novels were more often than not clubbed with Patrick Hamilton’s work, that was probably the starting point of my foray into her earlier oeuvre.

Anyway, Jean Rhys has been a great find. And Good Morning, Midnight (title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) is a strong piece of work.

Good Morning Midnight 1

This is how the book opens…

‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

The narrator Sophia Jansen has come to Paris in what is her second stint in the city.

Sophia spends her days drinking in bars and cafes across the city. But she is afraid that if she drinks too much, will start crying, and that will not do.

She is paranoid about people judging her and talking behind her back. Maybe she is also imagining things?

These people all fling themselves at me. Because I am uneasy and sad they all fling themselves at me larger than life. But I can put my arm up to avoid the impact and they slide gently to the ground. Individualists, completely wrapped up in themselves, thank God. It’s the extrovert, prancing around, dying for a bit of fun – that’s the person you’ve got to be wary of.

At the very start of the novel is it apparent that Sophia is suffering from depression, but we don’t know why. One gets the feeling that she is at the end of her tether.

The hotel rooms she stays in are the same, nothing really to differentiate one from the other. And the days are also marked by a debilitating sameness, the tedium of which she tries to break by steadily drinking.

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.

Gradually, we are offered a glimpse into her past – her first stay in Paris, her marriage to a Dutchman called Enno, her brief return to London, only to visit Paris again.

As the focus shifts to her past, her fear of people, of being judged wrongly is present right from her youth as she flits between various jobs, which include being displayed as a mannequin. There is one extended scene in a clothing store where she is an assistant that is particularly heartbreaking – a conversation that she has with her superior’s boss Mr Blank, and her inability to perform a task given to her.

Mr Blank tells her to hand over an envelope to ‘the kis.’ But she is unable to find this person. She approaches Mr Blank again.

He takes the note from my hand. He looks at me as if I were a dog which had presented him with a very, very old bone, (Say something, say something…)

‘I couldn’t find him.’

‘But how do you mean you couldn’t find him? He must be there.’

‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t know where to find him.’

‘You don’t know where to find the cashier – the counting house?’

‘La caisse,’ Salvatini says – helpfully, but too late.

But if I tell him that it was the way he pronounced it thsat confused him, it will seem rude. Better not say anything…

There are some brief moments of happiness that she does find when she marries Enno, despite their day to day hurdles of eking out a life together in some European cities and eventually Paris.

As soon as I see him I know from his face that he’s got some money.

We go next door to a place called La Napolitaine and eat ravioli. Warming me. Eat slowly, make it last a long time.

I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’m alive, eating ravioli and drinking wine. I’ve escaped. A door has opened and let me out into the sun. What more do I want? Anything might happen.

But we also feel the inevitability of this marriage ending. Indeed, it is the break-up of her marriage and another tragedy related to it that nearly push Sophia over the edge.

Meanwhile, in the present, in the hours spent away drinking and harking back to memories, Sophia also seeks out the company of men (a couple of Russians and a gigolo). The men are of a certain type – they look to sidle up to her thinking she is moneyed.

Sophia is not ignorant. She is aware of this reality, of why these men put up with her. And yet she does not put an end to seeking their company.

As is the case with most of the Rhys books I have read, there is no plot. The writing feels very impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, as most of the time we are inside Sophia’s head or in and out of flashbacks.

There is also nothing linear about the narrative, her train of thought or her journeys into the past. The timeline does not play a role here, rather it is Sophia’s emotional state that does.

When describing this novel, I can’t help but draw parallels to any Impressionist painting. The brushstrokes are vivid but the picture as a whole at first is hazy. Until you move back a little, and it all becomes clear. Good Morning, Midnight felt the same way. It started off as a series of impressions of Sophia’s drinking and her fragile state of mind. But as we moved back a little and got a peek into her past, the whole picture started becoming clearer.

Interestingly, while Sophia’s existence is bleak, as a narrator she is not always so. She refuses to be pitied, and there is some sense of detachment when she looks back to her past, as if she is watching her journey to ruin from a distance. There are also some tragically funny passages where she chides herself for not keeping up appearances.

The keeping up of appearances in public is ironic. Earlier in her life, Sophia had already done a stint as a mannequin in a department store. That was just a job, but now she believes she must play that role in real life too. Basically, wear a mask (metaphorically speaking), so people can’t gauge her real emotions.

I watch my face gradually breaking up – cheeks puffing out, eyes getting smaller. Never mind.

Besides, it isn’t my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil over the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily? Singing defiantly ‘You don’t like me, but I don’t like you either.’

How will it all end? Will Sophia’s endurance finally break or will things carry on as before?

Good Morning, Midnight is another strong offering from Jean Rhys’ oeuvre. Here is an excerpt from A.L. Kennedy’s excellent introduction to this novel:

Vivid fragments of sensory information swoop and lunge at the reader, establishing the rhythms of a bad drinking bout: one moment all docile clarity, the next a crush of sickened self-awareness, a lurch into the past, or a dreamscape, or a helpless re-examination of realities too dull and terrible to seem anything other than the products of a sick imagination.

Having now read most of her novels, I still rate Voyage in the Dark as her best, followed by this one. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie would be third. I still have Quartet to read but I don’t see it toppling the first two. Plus, I have an edition of her Collected Stories to get to.

But all of that will be after some time has passed by. Rhys is intense and can only be taken in small doses!

Good Morning Midnight 2
Penguin Modern Classics Edition




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