A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Before Are You Somebody? was published, Nuala O’Faolain was a minor Irish celebrity, a opinion columnist with The Irish Times commenting with clarity and perception on the various aspects of Irish society and culture that caught her attention. She had also achieved a certain notoriety as the long-term partner of Nell McCafferty, an outspoken political and social journalist, intrepid feminist, lesbian and Northern Irish republican. She wrote Are You Somebody? just one year after her fifteen year relationship with Nell broke up.
This was a book that was never intended to be. A small Irish publisher acquired the rights to a number of Nuala’s newspaper articles and planned to assemble them in book form. Nuala offered to write an introduction. When she sat down to write, the words flowed onto the page until it became a 200 page essay contemplating the high and low points of her life to date at 55 years. Somehow her account of alcoholism, despair, love, sex, loneliness, the stuggle to find meaning in life all struck a chord with many people and her publisher quickly repackaged the book as a memoir. Within a year it was number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. She was inundated with thousands of letters from readers touched by her story who saw themselves in her specificity.
‘I’ve been on television, so it sometimes happens that in a lounge-bar, say, women at another table start looking at me and pointing…They’ve seen me before but they’re not quite sure…
“Are you somebody?” they frankly ask.’
This book is Nuala O’Faolain’s attempt to answer that question.
In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt says: ‘It was of course a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’ And so too was Nuala’s. She recounts without a trace of sentimentality or self-pity her childhood, the second eldest of nine children, abandoned between a philandering, socializing father and an alcoholic mother trapped in a domestic prison she hated. They were not particularly poor in that they had enough to eat but they were deprived of love.
She only realizes this with hindsight. ‘They [her cat and dog] have given me the measure by which I find my parents wanting…I took it for granted they had little tenderness for us. They made me accept that, for myself and my brother and sisters. But I can stop feeling passive when I think – they would have had no tenderness for Molly! They would have said: “You’re not expecting me to mind that dog, are you?” …And I think for the first time – I let myself feel it – how did my mother and father not care more for the small children around them? How did they not pick them up, not comfort them?’
She highlights the moments, relationships and changes that marked her life. Throughout her life she was at odds with herself. She was a feminist but, despite herself, believed that her happiness would be given to her by men. She no longer believed in God but pined after the religion she had been brought up in. She was convinced she could not be a good mother but struggled to find a place for herself as a middle-aged, childless woman.
At a moment when she was devastated by the slow death of her father, tottering on the edge of alcoholism, lacking in self-esteem, she tells how she fell in love with Nell McCafferty: ‘it was by far the most life-giving relationship of my life’ .
At the end of the book Nuala describes her first Christmas Day spent since the end of her relationship with Nell, a day spent traveling across the Burren alone with her dog. It is a poignant picture of a woman bravely counting her blessings and yet fearful of the future. ‘Behind me, up in the Burren, nothing knitted together. There’s a pre-historic burial site. There’s a village abandoned in the Famine. There’s a tiny twelfth-century church. There’s a holy well. There’s a mound of shells near a cooking-pit. Each thing is itself, discrete. Near each other, and made from the same material, but never flowing into each other. That’s how the life I describe here has been. There has been no steady accumulation: it has all been in moments. But in front of me there is a vista – empty, but inexpressibly spacious. Between those two – landscape of stone, and wide blue air – is where I am.’
Some readers may find this memoir unsatisfying because despite her piercing intelligence and unflinching honesty (the Guardian described it as ‘a truthfulness that sometimes bordered on the self-destructive’ in her obituary: http://books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2279405,00.html) this is not a tale of triumph over adversity, there are few insights into herself and her life and there’s no sense of progression towards self-understanding. But it is an immensely truthful picture of a woman struggling, often unsuccessfully, to reconcile what she knows with how she feels.
Earlier this year Nuala O’Faolain discovered that she was in the terminal stages of cancer. She was interviewed on radio on April 12th by the broadcaster and her friend, Marian Finucane. (You can listen to this deeply moving interview here: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/marianfinucane/1084847.html Programme 29.)
True to herself, Nuala faced death with a frightening lack of armour, just as she faced life.
From the transcript: ‘
N. O’F: Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn’t time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life…it means nothing to me anymore — the beauty. For example, twice in my life I have read the whole of Proust. I know it sounds pretentious, but it’s not a bit. It’s like a huge soap opera. But I tried again the week before last and it was gone, all the magic was gone from it.’
She also challenged the fundamental beliefs of a still strongly Catholic country, fearless for herself and initiated a wave of compassion across the nation.
MF: Do you believe in an afterlife?
NO’F: No, I do not.
MF: Or a God.
NO’F: Well that’s a different matter somehow. I actually don’t know how we all get away with our unthinkingness. Often last thing at night I walk the dog down the lane and you look up at the sky illuminated by the moon and behind the moon the Milky Way and, you know, you are nothing on the edge of one planet compared to this universe unimaginably vast up there and unimaginably mysterious.
And I have done that for years, looked up at it and given it a wink and thought ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ and I still don’t know what’s going on, but I can’t be consoled by mention of God. I can’t.
MF: Would you like it?
NO’F: No. Oh no I wouldn’t. If I start doing that something really bad is happening to my brain, though I was baptised and I remember my First Communion and I went to Catholic schools and I was in the legion of Mary and I tried to stick to my pledge.
And though I respect and adore the art that arises from the love of God and though nearly everybody I love and respect themselves believe in God, it is meaningless to me, really meaningless.
Nuala O’Faolain died on the 9th of May 2008, a ‘difficult’ woman, but most definitely somebody.
Holt (Henry) & Co ,U.S.; 1st Owl Books Ed edition (31 Jan 1999), 215 pages, ISBN-10: 0805056645