Her world, our stage
Published in the Sunday Times (16/08/2020)
Jonathan Cape, R290
Never mind that Anne Enright's latest and seventh novel, Actress, has accrued some of the most lavish praise she's ever received
in a literary career studded with prestigious awards and accolades. "I don't think it's put me back," laughs Enright, "but I think it's going to be four or five years before I can look back on this book, and say, 'well what was
that all that about?'
"It takes a long time for you to know what
a book is in the world," says the author of
such novels as The Gathering, winner of the 2007 Booker Prize; the 2012 Orange Prize shortlisted The Forgotten Waltz, and The Green Road, which was shortlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award.
But what she does know about Actress,
which is, at one level, the story of Irish acting legend Katherine O'Dell as told by her not so famous daughter Norah Fitzmaurice, is that "it's about a lot of things, and it can't be possessed that easily".
Actress resists categorisation in much the same way its narrator, Norah, as Enright reminds me, resists the request of a young student to write a doctoral thesis on her famous mother. When the student asks early on in the narrative "what was she like as a mother?" Norah replies "she was mine". She then decides to write her mother's biography herself, and so it is that Enright unfurls a beguiling double narrative that is freighted with mother-daughter love, yet remains threaded with this notion that although the world claims to know Katherine O'Dell, she remains Norah's to the end. Indeed, declares Enright, "I think Norah doesn't really let the reader have Katherine O'Dell."
But the Katherine O'Dell that Norah does yield to her readers is one of the most vivid, contradictory, yet believable, fictional creations to ever hit the page. "My mother was a great fake," writes Norah, whose account of her own quiet life and modest successes, including a happy marriage, entwines around that of her famous mother so skilfully that the novel becomes not only a kind of double memoir, but cleverly uncovers a family secret or two. It also serves as a luminous accounting of the closing down of possibility and happiness in one life and the slow blooming of both in another.
"Norah just gets on with it quietly. So the book is an advert for modesty, I think," laughs Enright, "and it's against the big life. It moves towards a small life as a more fulfilling life."
Enright in conversation is a vibrant reflection of her novels, which famously glimmer with wit, intelligence and a heart-stopping honesty. Nothing it seems is off limits. Whether it be the theatrical world, or the historical origins of the fictional Irish Romanticism that Kathrine O'Dell gives herself over to in Actress, Enright is as forthright as she is eloquent. And as for her famed skill in writing about sex and intimacy, she says in writing Actress, "I wanted to join a conversation that seems to be happening now, especially with younger female writers, where it's like sex is something terrible. And I think that's a real hangover from misogyny, that female experience of sex should be continually misrepresented. I mean, if it was so awful why do we do it?"
Nor does she shy away from discussing the way she used her position as inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, a three-year term bestowed upon her in 2015, to call out the gender imbalance in literary realms. "I decided if I was going to talk about it I was going to do it properly, and it was an immense amount of work. For me it was a matter of almost civic engagement and I think the tactics I used in those days did have leverage within the culture in Ireland. And it's quite an important little culture, so I'm glad I did it. But I'm not going to give another year of life to that, thanks very much. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life complaining to men who think that women should do nothing but complain."
Now that she is on the other side of her efforts as Laureate - not to mention her ever-burgeoning international renown as one of the most significant writers of her generation - Enright says: "I feel that I can own my authority a little bit more easily, that I don't need to look at what is, anyway, a pretty worn-out remnant of a culture, that actually the state of female literature in Ireland and elsewhere is so strong and so self-evident," she adds, "that we have enough momentum not to care about the old fuckers."