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A Fire in the Brain

Declan O’Driscoll

Lucia, by Alex Pheby, Galley Beggar Press, 276 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1910296882

What remains of Lucia Joyce? No words or many words? Is she everywhere recorded in her father’s reach beyond the confines of language in Finnegans Wake? Was that novel, in part, an attempt to give credence to her imprecise fit with the norms of the world and the language used to evoke it? We know that she liked to speak to her father using invented, portmanteau words and that he wanted her to be recognised as great and not as mad, as all evidence seemed to confirm. James Joyce never wanted to believe that his daughter could not be cured and stated that “whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and has kindled a fire in her brain”. The problem was, however, that the fire could not be extinguished. We might wonder too what she kindled in him. Great love certainly, but also great distress. Their identification with each other was constant and observed by others, especially by Jung, who attempted to treat Lucia and wrote, in a letter to Patricia Hutchins that “She is definitely his ‘femme inspiratrice’ which explains his obstinate reluctance to have her certified. His own anima, i.e. unconscious psyche, was so solidly identified with her, that to have her certified would have been as much as an admission that he himself had a latent psychosis.” He said too that father and daughter were like “two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.” But who was the diver, and which one fell?

Such questions and such shortcomings in our knowledge of how it was to be Lucia Joyce are an asset for an imaginative novelist. Thankfully Alex Pheby is such a novelist. His decisions on the structure of the novel are especially important because they allow for a multitude of perspectives and avoid the plodding accumulation of “facts” that would weigh down a linear narrative. Instead, we begin with the finding of an intact tomb in Egypt, a second subject that happens to come first and which will continue to act as a counterpoint throughout the novel. The real subject is, of course, Lucia and the first “soloist” is an undertaker: engaging, personable, giving us the details of the embalming (“Mummification”) of an old woman. The pattern of the novel has been set: brief details of the Egyptian sarcophagus and the burial rites of that time alternate with chapters in which we are never facing forwards towards the details of Lucia’s life. Instead we glimpse, fleetingly, as if over the shoulder of the person telling us, some details – insightful, elusive, disturbing – that allow us as readers (and we should be grateful for such respect) to connect and form them into the character and elements of a lived life. That means, of course  ‑ in a fashion that is unusual for fiction ‑ looking beyond the words presented to locate their pertinence and to measure them against those few details we know of the life we assume is being referred to. How, we might ask, therefore, would this novel work if there was no “real life” to refer to? Would it be possible to shape a coherent life from the stories presented? Probably not, but that isn’t necessarily a fault. Alex Pheby has written this novel on the basis that there was once a woman alive called Lucia Joyce and that we will, inevitably, make an association between the episodes he creates, however invented or unproven, and the known aspects of that woman’s life.

There are many secrets in that life. A man is instructed to burn a huge collection of letters and postcards. “Don’t read them”, he is told. It’s not easy to burn so much material – he finds Polaroids and X-rays too – and fragments of paper float away. It’s 1988. Forty-seven years earlier, when he was nine years old, in an episode recounted much later in the novel, the man who has requested that the letters be burned, Stephen Joyce, is woken at 3.30am from his bed in Zurich because of an air raid siren. When he leaves the hotel in which he has been staying he looks up at the sky: “he was amazed to see snow falling, burning, to land at his feet. The snow turned to infinitely thin curled black crisps of nothing, which became smudges when touched with the toe of his shoe, but he did not question his eyes.” The man burning the papers sees things as they are too and notices a photo of “an old woman staring at the camera. Hair severe, badly cut round a bowl.” Such are the glimpses we too get.

The many perplexing, unknowable aspects of Lucia’s life allow Pheby to speculate or hint at unpleasant happenings in her life and illicit actions by those around her. So how should we regard the episodes in which Giorgio, Lucia’s brother, is shown to be manipulative, horribly cruel and with a sexual interest in his sister? Having posited the idea Pheby then says this:

If there are those of you reading this who know Giorgio, you might say that this never happened. But how do you know? How does one ever know what it is that occurs outside the range of one’s experience? You may not know that it did happen, but that is not the same as knowing that it did not happen.

Yes, this is all fiction and speculative but it is a fiction that is bolstered by what we know about those people who really existed and as such it must be questionable to intimate that both Giorgio and Stanislaus, Lucia’s uncle, had incestuous designs on her. Is it enough to ask: “Why shouldn’t Giorgio have tortured Lucia’s rabbit to prevent her from speaking?” and then breezily answer: “All things that are possible are, in the absence of facts that have been destroyed [the fire of letters] 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.”?

If we allow that conjecture is essential to the novel, as I think we must, then the most important area of supposition is the extent to which Lucia suffered, at every stage of her life, from people probing, prodding and persecuting her body. There are some particularly grim scenes in the novel in which absurd “treatments” are carried out on her. In one she is wrapped so tightly she can’t move and is then immersed in water, the supposed purpose being that “Under immersion, the patient brings to the fore all those things they have purposefully forgotten or have repressed.” What the patient actually feels about the treatment is of no consequence: “So let her scream, let her suffer, let her shiver ‑ all these are demonstrations that the self in the present is developing methods of dealing with what should have been dealt with satisfactorily in the past.” On another occasion a member of staff strips off to get into a bath with her, the better to hold her down in extremely hot water, assuring us that there wasn’t “any funny business going on”. A dentist wishes he could punch her writhing, protesting body. An injection will have to do instead. “She gives a long [no(o-o-o)] shouted from the bottom of a well. Her muted echoes of dissent can be ignored.” She is utterly powerless; this woman who was once a figure of fascination, a friend of Beckett (who rejected her wish for love), the daughter of a famous writer. A brilliant dancer, so striking in her epitome-of-modernism costumes. The devastation for her of being so alone and lacking all autonomy in a Northampton asylum is all too well achieved by Pheby: “... a lunatic has given up the rights to herself by becoming a lunatic in the first place ...”

The forces that worked against Lucia are echoed by the observations recounted by the man who discovered the tomb in Egypt. The woman who was buried there had not been buried in a manner which would have allowed her, in the belief of those who undertook her last rites, to proceed to the afterlife. Some perceived failure or illness had caused them to interfere with the correct methods of preparation for her journey. They had sealed her mouth, left her isolated and interfered with the symbols and images so that “All the symbols were negations, violence, destruction and chaos.”

Sad, sad, sad this work may be, but both in its variety of narrative methods and sublime, descriptive language it is a really fine novel. Never more so than in the final chapter which, to balance the funereal opening, begins in the “paupers” maternity ward in Italy where Lucia is born. The image of a row of beds being “reminiscent of a row of graves” brings Beckett to mind and the innocence and joy of the whole scene is unavoidably shadowed by the knowledge of what is to come.

1/9/2018

Declan O'Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.

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