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Loving and Losing

Ann Kennedy Smith

Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss, by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Blackstaff Press, £9.99, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-1780731735

It begins with the promise of an adventure. “You are an Arctic explorer!” the hero, Bo, tells the heroine in the first words of this memoir. He is a professor of folklore at University College Dublin, she is his graduate student, who after her fiancé breaks off with her is desperate to see the world: “Anywhere that was not Ireland would do.” Her professor encourages her, although he knows she’s going to Copenhagen, not the Arctic. In fact, his words are an invitation to a different sort of journey. “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,” he tells her, reciting Yeats as they walk across a field at Belfield together, and naturally she is smitten by this, as well as by his energy and confidence, deep blue eyes and warm, tobacco-stained smile. The real journey is the one that they are about to embark on together.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is the acclaimed author of short stories, plays and novels in English and Irish. She is also a scholar, a university creative writing tutor and a member of Aosdána. Her new memoir tells the story of the thirty-five years, or twelve thousand days, that she spent with the internationally renowned folklorist Bo Almqvist. Episodes from their life together are chronicled, from the first tentative suggestion of a dinner date to the final, desperately sad moments in a hospital ward as Bo lay dying. The structure of the book is essentially twofold in the main section of the book, as she interweaves memories of their early courtship and later married relationship with chapters about the more recent history of the last two weeks of her husband’s life.

The title recalls the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales gathered as One Thousand and One Nights, and from the outset there is the promise of a rich tapestry of stories waiting to unfold. “In folk tales attempts to manipulate the future generally end in failure,” Ní Dhuibhne observes early in the book, drawing an analogy from traditional story-telling to describe a fate that will take its course. Later she will analyse her husband’s last days in forensic detail, as a minor medical mishap became a life-threatening crisis and Bo was admitted to hospital. The care he received there was too little and too late, but much as she would like to manipulate the past and set right mistakes, this is not a misery memoir. Twelve Thousand Days is as much about beginnings as endings, and it makes their shared story come alive again.

It begins as a straightforward love story. In May 1978 Ní Dhuibhne was on her way to her professor's flat for their first date. She was twenty-four, wearing a new salmon-pink dress with a tweed jacket on top, with long, shining black hair that reached to the middle of her back. “I never let it get as far as my waist,” she writes, perfectly capturing the self-consciousness of youth.

I could have had a yard of hair. But something stopped me. It would have been too much. There were unspoken rules, in the air around you, that you understood even though they were never articulated. Don’t go too far. Even where hair is concerned.

Young and in love as she was, Ní Dhuibhne did not take lightly the decision to embark on the relationship with Almqvist. She was a hard-working student and short-story writer, independent-minded and keen to make her mark, earning a living in a menial job at the National Library during the day while working on her PhD thesis in the evenings.

“I don’t know why some of us are attracted by this kind of exploration, while others are not,” she says of her research into Irish folklore. Her collecting of ancient, orally transmitted tales that were told in the Irish language gave her great happiness, as a memorable trip to Donegal in early 1978 shows. Her account of tape-recording Joe Mac Eachmharcaigh’s stories and songs as they sat together in his cosy prefabricated hut is described with a lyrical intensity. “It was like listening to the dead, although the story was as alive as the dogs barking in the winter farmyards, or the waves crashing against the Bloody Foreland.”

Not all of her working life was as romantic as this. She describes the dusty atmosphere of the National Library in the late 1970s and the repetitive chore, before computer systems, of laboriously cataloguing the constant flow of books and pamphlets “of Irish interest” that arrived daily. Her boss agreed that the work was beneath a bright student like Ní Dhuibhne. “It’s the sort of work we should get temporary staff to do. Married women,” he tells her.

In fact, no married women worked there, apart from the cleaning lady. “I didn’t notice this at the time ‑ we always have our blind spots,” she comments drily. That wasn’t going to be Ní Dhuibhne’s fate. She dreamed of success as a writer and a romantic white wedding, so at first the prospect of marrying a divorced Swedish man who was old enough to be her father caused her some trepidation. “Too different,” she worried.

Nobody will stand for it. It will be much worse than hair to your waist, hair to your ankles. They’ll laugh at you, and pass remarks behind your back, and sneer.

Standing on Booterstown Avenue before their first date, she hesitates before taking the step that will change their relationship from professor and student to lovers. A young woman who marries an older man? It’s the stuff of a John B Keane play, she thinks, even though Bo doesn’t own a farm. This isn’t the story she would have written for herself, she thinks, and almost catches the bus back to her bedsitter. Then she remembers that, despite their age difference and society’s disapproval, this is the man she loves.

Looking back, Ní Dhuibhne is convinced that her initial doubts reflected the attitudes of a repressive, judgmental Ireland of the late 1970s. “The voice of the censor. Under the surface, checking and balancing,” she writes. “It’s almost impossible for a young person growing up in today’s Ireland to imagine how many restrictions there were on every aspect of sexual life.” Their first “summer of love” together swept the rest of her fears away and Ní Dhuibhne describes how falling in love transformed Dublin for her into a land of fairytales.

The world around me – Rathmines with its red library building on the corner, the bridge over the sparkling waters of the Grand Canal – shimmered and sparkled and I walked with a light step everywhere. Magical, magical, the month of May played a bright and lovely tune wherever I went.

During this happy, carefree time everything else ‑ her family, her prosaic job at the library and society’s expected disapproval ‑ all seemed unreal. “The real world was the story I escaped into,” she says, recalling happy hours of learning Danish in Bo’s flat.

The Danish lessons gave our meetings a purpose, apart from kissing and making love and having dinner. They put our relationship back on the familiar footing, student and teacher, and as a result we were totally at ease with one another.

The “student and teacher” aspect of their love affair was one that Ní Dhuibhne accepted, and Almqvist laid down the (less than romantic) rules from the beginning. “You’ll go to Denmark,” he tells her. “You'll finish your thesis. And then we’ll get married.”

The wedding did not take place for another four years, even though she would have preferred to marry sooner and finish her PhD under the supervision of a different academic. Almqvist’s insistence on remaining her supervisor, and keeping their relationship a secret, reads uncomfortably in an age that is much more aware of the power imbalance inherent in such an arrangement. Although they were in “a cocoon of love” and “a private world that transcended everything else”, Ní Dhuibhne knew that the university world they both belonged to was far from fair or equal.

In 1978, the academic world was completely, and completely unconsciously, biased in favour of men. The vast majority of lecturers and professors in UCD were male, although in the Faculty of Arts a majority of students were women. Nobody seemed to find this state of affairs in the least bit anomalous ‑ although they would, quite soon.

Ní Dhuibhne’s affair with her professor resulted in a long and happy marriage, but how would her future career and self-confidence have been affected if their May-December romance had not had such a fairytale ending?

Even the happiest of marriages has its problems, however, and Ní Dhuibhne is refreshingly honest about the realities of her and Bo’s occasionally stormy married life with children. There is a telling chapter later in the book called “A Day of Our Life” in which she briefly, but effectively, sketches a portrait of a full-time working couple whose equally passionate commitment to writing causes rifts between them.

This was a desperate need for both of us, and it caused tension and friction. There were ongoing arguments about housework and childcare ‑ I was obsessed by feminism, and aware that it was outrageous that women still did most of the housework.

With hindsight she regrets that she did not relax her theories a little (“Quarrelling is such a waste of time”) and perhaps she could have given up her time-consuming library work. But the reality of Ireland’s economic paralysis at the time meant that she feared that she might never find another job, and with Bo’s failing health she knew she might need to be the family’s main earner.

Ní Dhuibhne’s intelligent insights into grief and memory put this book into the category of memoirs she herself admires, including Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story and Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. Bo’s was not a good death, or even a necessary one, and her anger with the inadequacy of the Irish state medical system flares against the grim background of an underfunded, chaotic hospital. The final short section deals with the subsequent stages of grief, and being part of “the club nobody wants to be a member of”, as the writer Dermot Bolger, whose own wife also died suddenly, tells her in his letter of condolence.

There is a beautiful structure about Twelve Thousand Days that draws on Ní Dhuibhne’s lifelong love of Irish storytelling. Her excited anticipation of her trip to Copenhagen at the beginning of the book is poignantly counterbalanced with an elegaic later chapter called “The Last of April” when she and Bo take what will be their final journey to Sweden and Denmark together. “I had always felt that we were at our best, as a couple, travelling together,” she writes, recalling the many trips abroad they had taken. “We rhymed with one another, as we walked and flew and sailed.”

But this holiday is strangely disappointing as Bo shows little of his usual relish for travel and seems to withdraw into himself, perhaps thinking of friends and family who have died. “Denmark and Sweden were countries of the dead, for Bo.” Perhaps, she suggests, he had a premonition that this would be their last journey together. While on the Danish island of Bornholm, he translates an Icelandic story into Swedish, and gives it to her with the dedication “For Éilís, in memory of our holiday on Bornholm”. It was his precious parting gift to her, a testament to their shared life together, just as this book is her gift to him.

Postscript: Twelve Thousand Days was one of the last books to be reviewed by Eileen Battersby, for many years the chief literary critic at The Irish Times, who died suddenly on December 23rd, 2018. Her November 4th Sunday Times review is reproduced in full on Ní Dhuibhne’s website and concludes:

In honouring Almqvist, a rare individual of learning and passion, Ní Dhuibhne has courageously exposed the scandal of his death as a way of helping other people, while shaming our health system. Written with love and the relentlessness of memory, it should comfort and inspire, while provoking, even embarrassing, the people in power into trying harder, and doing better for everyone.

1/3/2019

Ann Kennedy Smith is an author and critic, with articles published in the Times Literary Supplement, Slightly Foxed and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is currently working on a biography of Ida Darwin. She is on Twitter as @akennedysmith and her blog ‘The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society’ is at https://akennedysmith.com/

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