Teethmarks On My Tongue
By Eileen Battersby
(Dalkey Archive Press, €16.99 p/b)
When a longstanding book reviewer publishes a debut novel, it can certainly be seen as an instance of, to quote the popular idiom, ‘putting your money where your mouth is’. Of course, it is hardly a prerequisite of a good critic that they should also be good at doing whatever it is they are criticising (although, that said, most of the best literary critics tend also to be practicing creative writers): horses for courses, etc. Nevertheless, the production of an embarrassingly clunky tome can seriously call into question the writer’s credentials to be passing judgement on the work of others. Unfortunately, Eileen Battersby’s first foray into fiction does just that, and can only harm her reputation in her other, chosen field.
Set mostly in Virginia in the 1980’s, the story attempts the classic bildungsroman form, told entirely in the first person by Helen Stockton Defoe, a horsey girl whose other passions are astrophysics and painting (specifically that of Caspar David Friedrich). The daughter of a flibbertigibbet, faux-Southern Belle mother, who is unhelpfully gunned down in a Richmond street by a crazed lover, and a remote, detached, world-renowned veterinarian father, Helen is starved of affection and emotionally stunted. When her father undermines her identity and self-confidence by selling the horse she was using, and declaring that she is more of a historian of science rather than an actual scientist, she takes off on an odyssey of self-discovery, first to France and then Germany.
Alas, this narrative breaks several of the basic rules of Creative Writing 101, and not in a good way. It doesn’t show, it tells, so that there is a paucity of tangible scenes furthering plot and revealing character. Everything takes place in Helen’s head, with the result that other people, even her best friend Mitzi, are alarmingly insubstantial and unrealised. Indeed, animals fare better than humans in this regard, as demonstrated by the affection Helen pours out on Hector, the stray dog she adopts in Paris. Furthermore, it tells us what we already know, to the point of insulting the reader’s intelligence. Try these snippets for size: ‘Paris is a big city’; or ‘Turner, the famous English painter’. Plus, we all know that Eileen Battersby is a Paul Simon fan (hell, so am I, considering him to be a songwriting genius), but does Helen have to drag his lyrics in at every turn? It is also in the public domain that EB loves horses, and dogs. Autobiographical, some? It is, finally, difficult to work up much sympathy for a heroine who thinks so hierarchically as to opine, on being invited to a jazz club in Paris, that: ‘It wasn’t Bach yet it was an improvement on ABBA.’
In ‘63 Words’, from The Art of The Novel, Milan Kundera defines Irony thus: ‘Irony. Which is right and which is wrong? Is Emma Bovary intolerable? Or brave and touching? And what about Werther? Is he sensitive and noble? Or an aggressive sentimentalist, infatuated with himself? The more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its "truth" is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable.’ Sadly, the truth here is glaringly self-evident, due to the patent lack of irony. Although not entirely bereft of self-knowledge, e.g. ‘Lord knows I am stiff and stuffy’, Helen’s chronicle is self-involved and repetitious, to the point that it resembles listening to someone running off at the mouth with a bad case of logorrhea.
When it transpires in the final pages that Helen has been pregnant for many months of her travels, giving birth to a baby girl conceived with her French lover Mathieu, it comes as much as a surprise to the reader as it does to Helen herself, as there had been no description of their physical relationship. Did she not notice that she had stopped menstruating? Or had a bit of a bump? Or was Battersby just too lazy to go back and fix up the text? In any case, there is a dearth of, and curiously Puritanical reticence about, physicality in general throughout the whole novel, unless it involves horses, dogs, or vomiting.
Dalkey Archive is a venerable and prestigious imprint, whose boutique roster includes such eminent names as our own Flann O’Brien and Aidan Higgins, and international stars of the calibre of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, Janice Galloway, William Gass, Henry Green, Hugh Kenner, Manuel Puig, Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. So it is difficult to account for the drop in quality control standards in taking on this amateurish effort.
Maybe Battersby should stick to what she knows best: book reviewing. When it comes to fiction writing, she definitely needs an editor.
This was not published in The Sunday Independent.
Fairly floored me as well.