Eileen Battersby (1958-2018) was a renowned literary critic and reviewer, my favourite, probably the only one I knew by name, reputation and avidly followed. It wasn’t just for her excellent reviews, it was because she read so much further outside of the English language and culture than any other, and because she might as easily refer back to ancient myths and classics as she would to contemporary translations in her far-reaching analysis and commentary on literature.
Sadly, tragically, two days before Christmas, at the age of 60, she died following a freak road accident in Ireland, a terrible loss to her family, friends and all those who’d come to respect and enjoy her thoughts on literature. As the author John Banville wrote,
“she was a champion of the overlooked and undervalued…a shining light in the world of letters”
Her last two reviews for The Guardian linked below, a testament to that diversity, were novels by writers from elsewhere, one of them also a translation; Tommy Wieringa’s (one of the most important Dutch literary writers of the last decade) novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated by Sam Garrett) and rising literary star, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s latest An Orchestra of Minorities.
Having so recently separated from the Irish Times she was at the beginning of a new era, she’d begun writing reviews for the FT, one of her last the English translation of Walter Kempowski’s Homeland and the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books), and was working on a literary Western, a genre it is said she was fascinated by.
No doubt she was wary of putting her own writing out there to be judged, just as many authors she interviewed had been wary of her unforgiving yet erudite turn of phrase. When Teethmarks on My Tongue was first launched in Ireland in 2016, Prof. Jennny Williams praised Battersby’s literary criticism, which had an international impact, acknowledging:
It was a special author who could cross the “shark-infested waters” between being a literary critic and a novelist.
Battersby was awarded honorary membership of the Irish Translators and Interpreters (ITIA) group in 2016 for her work raising awareness of translated novels and of translation in general, which plays an essential role in ensuring access to the work of novelists in other languages.
Though Californian by birth she came to Ireland with her family as a teenager and stayed, studying English literature at University College Dublin, working many years for the Irish Times, living most of her adult life in Ireland. She was known for her love of animals, especially horses and dogs, a significant feature in her novel and her long, engaging telephone conversations, always delighted to share her literary thoughts to a willing listener.
Teethmarks on My Tongue is a coming-of-age story about teenage Helen, the only child of a wealthy Southern family, who in the opening pages witnesses her mother’s death broadcast on television, shot by a mentally ill lover. Living on an esteemed property in Richmond, Virginia, she passes her free time in the company of horses or immersing herself in her intellectual passion, the science of astronomy, the solar system.
Father and daughter though shocked, are relatively unmoved by this death, their lack of empathy makes for bizarre reading, they seem somewhat removed from reality, making me wonder if is it supposed to be satire, particularly as the story around the murderer quickly becomes farcical and the media’s indifferent treatment of the family seems almost pointed, given the author’s years of proximity to that profession, I do wonder.
I imagine the reporters busy at their desks, yanking and pulling at the stuff of people’s lives. Making up stories that exaggerated the wrung-out facts and then just ruthlessly leaving the truth for dead, along with the raw and tender feelings of those who had been left behind.
In Part 2, now 18, she departs for Europe alone. Her father, a vet and breeder, sold the horse she called Galileo to a French buyer, reminding her it had never been hers. He denied she was a scientist, saying her interest was the history of science not quite the same as being a physicist. She lived among them, had access to everything, but the valuable animal was denied her and so too it seemed her association with science. Galileo was sent to France, and so she sends herself there too, depriving her father of them both.
I wanted to show Father that I was not content with simply taking whatever I wanted as it had apparently seemed to him. No, it was vital to prove, to him and to me, that I was capable of rational thought and had revised my old notion of who I was, now that Father had destroyed all of that for me.
In Paris she indulges her love of art, spending hours observing paintings, has a ghastly experience with an older man and is catapulted into the next experience by her foolish, misguided courage. Rescuing a stray dog she names Hector sets her on a mission to find a job in the countryside. Finally, an animal she can care for and own, despite the complications he brings to her uncertain future.
Mother always maintained that my “gray matter” as she called it would compensate for my physical shortcomings, my peculiar eyes … I am sure she had never meant to hurt my feelings and instead had given me a kind of confidence; no a resilience. That is what I had in abundance, resilience, very useful when balancing my standard issue face and ill-matched eyes, and, hopefully the dreams Father had belittled but which I would salvage.
In Part 3 she is working on a horse farm in the Loire valley with Hector in tow, riding horses to earn her keep, trying to figure out the characters who live there, blind to the relationships between people, somewhat aloof. We too are blind and slow to realise these connections, limited to seeing through her dual-coloured eyes that discover too late the reality.
It’s a voyage through late youth, and through the unknown countries and cultures of France and Germany (with the exception of their art, of which she has significant intellectual knowledge and insight), the novel and its main character observe well, comfortable analysing experiences yet it lacks emotional depth, things happen which surprise the reader because Helen doesn’t exhibit much emotion except in relation to Hector; human connections are stilted, surprising; she figures things out rather than feels them.
On realising she may be loved, or in love with one of the employees, Mathieu:
Delightful as it all was, a part of me still felt wary. It’s in my nature, always was; the doubts along with my stupid habit of putting everything said or done of any significance under the imaginary microscope in my mind.
The cryptic title finally appears near the end and I wonder if it might be a metaphor for the author writing a book, since she was more renowned for her criticism than her creativity.
In the novel it is ‘Wanderer above the sea of Fog’, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich she seeks, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; she follows a trail of his works from Paris to Hamburg to Berlin.
“Had I missed out on seeing the picture I would have sobbed, bitten down hard, teethmarks on my tongue, and then would have devised an alternative plan.”
While reminiscing on the paintings she views, we see how well informed and sensitive she is to finding solace and understanding through art, even if lacking it in life, it is here she seems able to reach inside and feel. When she finally locates the painting, she wonders:
What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realising how far he had climbed?
A quintessential Romantic artwork, it was a reaction against pre-revolutionary European values of logic, rationality and order, as writers, artists and musicians turned towards emotion, imagination, and the sublime for inspiration. To nature. Battersby’s protagonist ponders her own life’s meaning as she hovers between those two perspectives and leads us towards the novel’s shocking denouement.
It’s a novel that makes you think because of that aspect of her character that is missing, still evolving, nowhere is that more alarming than with its surprising ending, as she reaches the end of another phase of her journey, as much in her head, if not more, than when she began.
In this respect, it’s almost the anti-thesis of the hero’s journey, an anti-myth, suggesting that sometimes humans don’t learn from their experiences, don’t evolve, they become more entrenched in their own way of being, of perceiving and then life comes along and slaps them.
Remembering Eileen Battersby by Neil Belton, Editor in chief, Head of Zeus
Remembering Eileen Battersby, by Susan Curtis, LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books)
The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa – review
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma review – a stunning leap forwards