#817 Bad corsets and the wrong shoes

Actress
by Anne Enright

Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2020
$29.95 / 9780771005916

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski

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A view at Pearson College, with Arbutus tree. Photo courtesy of Pearson College

There are not many more “Irish” novelists than Booker Prize winning novelist Anne Enright. Still, her connections to British Columbia, and Vancouver Island in particular, though slender, are strong. In a recent talk at an event in Dublin, called “Imagining: Home” — in the presence of Margaret Atwood — the novelist spoke about the two years she spent on scholarship to Lester Pearson College in Metchosin. The text of the speech appeared again in her writings as Ireland’s first Laureate for fiction.

The vividness of her memories and the strength of her associations clearly live with her — even to the extent, as she points out, that she still makes minor pilgrimages to one of Ireland’s only two arbutus trees, where, it seems, she can feel her connection to Vancouver Island – Ed.

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What better way to find your way into the postured and coded culture of early 20th century theatre first in London and rural Ireland, next of fifties Broadway and Hollywood, and, finally, of sixties Ireland than to write a novel about an “actress”? The defunct, sexist word sizzles on the book’s cover as the single word title of a new novel by Anne Enright.

Make that actress Irish and you instantly have another rich seam of thought, especially if her Irishness is partly fake, partly an American concoction, partly inflected by Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” and partly utterly authentic — and problematic.

Then present those two narrative interests through the thoughts and memories of the actress’s daughter, and you have a whole other kettle of fish. Of course, you would make the daughter’s memories and subjective experiences impinge on the “facts.” Of course you would. If you were novelist Anne Enright, however, you would go further. For one thing, you would entangle the identity and consciousness of the narrator-daughter so richly with her ostensible subject that, at times, it would almost completely occlude the main storyline.

In addition, you would do what almost no other novelist has done before: you would write the novel in a kind of shadowy, fitful, second person voice, addressed to the daughter’s husband.

Each of these — the parts played by the actress, by the daughter-narrator, and by the narrator’s husband — needs more attention, but first things first.

The main storyline, the life of Katherine O’Dell, actress, is simple enough. Its single “big moment” is revealed unceremoniously at the beginning: says Norah, “I might as well get this fact over with.” Katherine O’Dell, at the end of her acting career, shoots an impresario in the foot, is declared insane, and some years later, dies. End of story.

Readers who have experienced Anne Enright’s previous fictionalized biography, The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch, may take a while to realize that Actress is entirely different. Eliza Lynch existed; Katherine O’Dell did not. The fact that Katherine interacts with real people like Orson Welles, Oliver Reed and Charles Laughton makes the book seem teasingly “real,” but it is nevertheless a tease.

Sounding thoroughly researched, the book circles back from Katherine’s death to her childhood in England. With sidebar biographies of, for example, Katherine’s actor father, the narrator carefully reports the results of her investigation into an itinerant acting company. And because all of this is presented as Norah’s evocation of Katherine’s apparently much repeated evocation of this period for her daughter, the double filter allows Katherine’s experience to be amplified even while it is inflected with stage history, comedy, and a deep sense of its intoxicating power. “It was all built out of cardboard, greasepaint and panic. Bad acoustics, bad corsets and the wrong shoes: that heap of junk they drove, night after night, over [sic] an Irish country moon.”

Norah next reports on the way the young actress achieves a sudden success on Broadway, and, true to form, is pulled into the Hollywood star-making machine. In spite of her easy compliance with all of its demands — amongst other things, that she marry (pointlessly and briefly) — Katherine soon finds her film career foundering. Returning to Ireland, she builds a career of fitful stardom in spite of ups and — as time passes — more and more downs.

Why the charade of research and authenticity? In a piece the author wrote about Maeve Brennan, another (real) Irishwoman (also red-haired, beautiful and ultimately mad) she reflects on the shadowy line between fiction and fact in the magazine in which Brennan wrote and the powerful effect of that uncertainty: as she says, “This [ambiguity] put a wonderful pressure on the sentences.” This is exactly what we have here: a “wonderful pressure” on the writing arising from the sleight of hand creating an authenticity that is, like theatre, pure illusion.

Anne Enright. Photo by Hugh Chaloner

And yet. Anne Enright makes sure that Norah, for all her apparently scrupulous care with “facts,” is not a very controlled writer. First, she cannot maintain a linear chronology. We are made to feel as if the sheer weight of Norah’s own memories and quietly stifled thoughts warps space time itself. We are given a fact, say, of Norah in research mode arriving at the door of the house where her mother was born. Without seeming to realize what is happening to her, she is pulled into other thoughts, until, many pages later, she arrives back at the “dark green paint” of the door on which she is about to knock. Thus, because of this studied fascination, almost — but not quite — out of control, we are made to feel that just beyond our knowledge, a presence, an identity is gradually being examined, like a homunculus in a jar, in the slowly turning fingers of her wondering, knowing daughter.

After all, the apparent drive behind the biography comes from both without and within. The without version arrives in the form of one Holly Devine. Asking to interview Norah about her mother, Holly Devine quickly reveals her academic background. She is also a pertly pretentious young women confidently armed with the jargon of contemporary theory, and fully intent on using it. Amongst other things she really, really wants to know “how my mother styled her femininity.” She is, in the novelist’s hands, laughable. She is also scary, a little. And (because this is an Enright novel), she is also sympathetic, a little.

Into this mix of propelling forces behind the biography, comes Norah’s husband, who (“not…in a nice way,” Norah feels) asks his wife, “Why don’t you write it [the proposed book] yourself?” And Norah does. Sort of.

From the novelist’s point of view, though, faced with the need to create a character whose personality and life needs enough heft to support the whole superstructure of her daughter’s memories and research, she makes a few important decisions. First, she decides that, yes, her heroine will be a full-on actress — with everything that implies. Not just an actress, she will be, as the author said in an interview, a proper “diva.”

And what we might expect in a diva is what we get. We get a comparatively naïve and wondering young woman, who, under the expected pressures of powerful men and an equally powerful public, becomes increasingly egoistic, egotistic, temperamental, anxious, embittered, and, of course, even in her daily life, “theatrical.” In all of this, of course, we get men, lots of men (nearly all predatory, arrogant, and/or manipulative). We get lots of cigarettes, we get lots of drugs, and we get lots of alcohol. After all, the woman is a proper actress.

Yet, according to her daughter, her star quality is something hard and real. “Offstage, you could hardly see her, onstage you could not look away.” Or, possibly, not: “…you know, maybe she was just standing up there, emoting in the light.” Is she just a concoction? Not quite: the author says in an interview, “I don’t blame her for being fake; I blame her for being a chameleon.”

After all, she is what the brutal adoration of the public insists upon, “the audience who takes, takes, and then likes to criticise.” In a particularly disturbing phrase, Nora describes her as being “set aflame, perhaps, by the glare of their attention.”

And because this all comes through Norah’s testimony (is this too cold a word?), she sees her as a mother. Biographies infamously can slant towards hagiography or exposé. Norah’s version of her mother is neither. And this is where Anne Enright takes the initial tropes around stardom, and stirs them into a witches’ broth of something elusive, rich, and, possibly, subversive.

At times Katherine O’Dell, as a mother, is exasperating, silly, affected, even “infuriating” — in the way, Nora recalls, for example, she is fascinated with Stalin’s horoscope and oblivious of his murderous social policies. It all could, of course, be a lot worse: a lot of readers might well be braced for discovering that Norah is one of those children of celebrities who have been badly damaged by the self-absorption and cruelties of the parent.

Of course, at times, Norah feels neglected: “I was a disaster. I felt utterly unwanted and small.” The fact is, however, in a subtle and strangely moving way, the novelist makes this a “love story” — and a love story with (nearly) all that implies. Time after time, we see Katherine’s sometimes paper thin, almost childish love of her daughter, amongst other things, unthinkingly dependent on her approval: “I would like to note here that a grown woman asked a five year old girl … to reassure her and to praise her.” And it works both ways: “This was my marvellous mother, who told me I was marvellous too.” In one of the most affecting parts of the book, she recalls the strangeness of nursing her dying mother’s body: “And I don’t know what I loved, as I tended her fragile bones, but thought I loved my mother. Because she was always the same person for me, no matter what her appearance, or her mental state….”

The novelist has taken big risks in placing such a rich repository of love at the emotional core of the novel. After all, this is the same novelist whose most celebrated novels are regularly called “dark.” It is possible to sense a kind of defiance, here, though, as if she were thinking, “Dammit, I am going to do it this way, because there is a truth to it, there is a way into the human experience that needs to be told.” The result is deeply moving. But it is, never for a moment easy.

That’s one quality of an Enright novel any experienced reader can testify to. None of them is easy. There is a density, a heft, compression in just about every aspect of her writing.

And the sources of this distinctive quality are plentiful. Paradoxically, a lot of the writing is worryingly and disturbingly funny. Or, at least, it seems to be. A lot of Anne Enright’s writing (when it is not angry, or even when it is) is funny. Or, at least, again, it seems to be. Any reader who has heard the author read her own work (Youtube videos abound), will often (not always) have a hard time escaping the sense that even in some “dark” passages, there is something tonally askew.

Norah’s account of her mother’s untimely birth, halfway down a staircase, is devilishly extravagant and deliciously sordid — and all the more so since clearly it is Norah who is confecting the details. As for the faintly preposterous Father Des, the dapper priest — and psychoanalyst — and more, much more (more “darkness” here), Norah mutters, “He made me feel like a potted plant. It was always lovely when he was in the room, and yet no one had a good time.” Anyone who can read this without grinning, perhaps awkwardly, is missing something important.

Anne Enright at the seafront in Bray, Ireland. Photo by Derek Speirs, courtesy the Paris Review

Typical of Anne Enright, too, is the fact that one of the highest points of comedy, is also one of the most ugly — namely, her account of Katherine’s participation in a piece by the (fabricated) “Polish director Aleksy Wójcik”: as Norah drily reports, “the only good thing I can say about this production was that it happened in a foreign language.” Meat cleavers flourished on real chunks of cow, onstage rape, full frontal nudity, all are eye-poppingly worrying — particularly for Norah — but also, in ways distinctive of Enright, very, very funny. Consider, too, even the account of the highest moment of action in the novel, Katherine’s gun attack on Boyd O’Neill: in her tweed suit “probably Chanel,” “She was dressed for a shooting and for the six o’clock news.”

A second source of the toughness and density in the novel is Norah’s own life. At many points of the novel the pressure of her own memories herniates through the biography — until autobiography takes over from biography: the middle-aged Norah thinking of her teenaged children, of her husband, of her own writing career produces some of the most disquieting but also best writing in the book. Young Norah’s need to touch the space left by her unknown biological father is first entangled with pure fabrication. Later, though, she returns to the search in any way available to her, including, as a young woman, fumbling her way into relationships with men, even men she does not like, and most disturbingly, one of her professors. A deeply unpleasant man, he makes Norah feel that he “did not want to possess me or to penetrate me, so much as to be me. Or to stop being me.”

The last, most emotionally charged source of toughness and weight in the novel, however, is not in Norah’s life, but in her mother’s. It is what Norah discovers going through her dead mother’s boxes, a discovery that delivers a sucker punch just when the novel — and reader — is most vulnerable.

In the end, though, it is not narrative, but something else that gives the writing its real heft. There is no writer out there whose writing can be mistaken for Anne Enright’s. Read but a few sentences, and you find time slowing down, and words taking the place of minutes: sentences, paragraphs, in fact the whole book, need to be read and reread.

Consider, for example, the passage where, Norah studies her own unknowable self: “I became interested in my own cruelty. That moment of tenderness as the pen touches the page, the possibility for sadism in the place where words are born. To name the thing. To have it and finish it.”

In spite of the often mundane subject matter, a kind of subject matter the author calls “the woman at the busstop,” the writing takes its real life, as she also has said in an interview, from the “lift of the voice.” And that lift of the voice, more than any other aspect of the author’s writing is what makes it distinctive. Even the simplest phrase can make us stop: “Outside, Catholic Ireland raged on.” And the last sentence of virtually every chapter is a minor miracle of floating gravitas.

A single word, Actress, makes some of the point. It is a well-known trope that “all the world’s a stage” (thank you, Mr. Shakespeare.) The idea has been around for centuries. In this novelist’s hands, however, the word actress insists, sings, smiles wryly, hisses, mutters darkly, and even sobs. It is no small matter that the passage from the book Anne Enright often singles out to read for audiences describes Katherine O’Dell (née Odell — but changed because, of course, she is an actress) leaving the house. Catching her own reflection in a mirror, she slowly, coolly braces herself: now she must … act.

How she performs as an actress not just for the theatre audience, but also for everyone she meets, for her daughter, and for herself is what, in Anne Enright’s hands, connects this distant, haunted woman with all of us.

Anne Enright. Photo by Sarah Lee

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Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Theo Dombrowski is the author and illustrator of popular guide, travel, and hiking books including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island — Volume 1: Victoria to Nanaimo, and Volume 2: Nanaimo North to Strathcona Park (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018), and a Kindle book, When Baby Boomers Retire: Getting the Full Scoop. Theo lives at Nanoose Bay.

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Cover of the UK edition

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