Monday, December 19, 2016

Review of Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Nijinsky and Lester Piggot
  An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 December 2016. I've corrected an egregious misnaming of one of the characters.

Eileen Battersby is best known for her championing of fiction from outside the Anglophone world and for the bracing honesty of her literary criticism. She has been known to ruffle some well-groomed Irish reputations. Her first novel is quite the heavyweight at almost 400 pages but despite being replete with references to literature and high art it canters along in an entertaining way. It's a classic Bildungsroman. We follow the emotional education of the narrator Helen Stockton Defoe (a resonant surname for its solitary heroine). In the character of Helen, Battersby has created a memorably monstrous prig. While her classmates were listening to Dylan and Neil Young she was listening to Bach and Schubert. She sneers at their trite music essays which are applauded enthusiastically "While my celebration of Bach's pioneering use of counterpoint ...might not have been." Following a squalid sexual encounter in Paris our brave heroine bemoans her fate: "How easily he had fooled me, the girl voted by my school as most likely to win the Nobel Prize". Her redeeming feature is her occasional expression of rueful self-knowledge: "even a prig like me couldn't miss this".

 Helen grows up in a "fine residence", complete with stables, in Richmond, Virginia. Her austere and intellectual father is a distinguished vet who breeds horses. Her mother is a shallow, social-climber who, Helen tells us,  "Father regarded as a domestic pet". Helen has little affection for either of them. She is offended by her father's "sneering smirk, his pompous voice" and by her mother's persistent slights about her appearance. She was born with different coloured eyes and her mother once informed her that: "Those eyes, they absolutely ruin your face". The story opens with the mother being shot by a spurned lover. It doesn't seem to have much impact on the impregnably self-absorbed Helen, apart from her having to suffer the tedium of the funeral and watch the female mourners flirt with her father.

 Helen runs off to Paris after two traumatic events. Her father sells Galileo, her favourite horse (not the Galileo that is the corner stone of the Coolmore stud), and Billy Bob, her Man Friday at the stables, disappears. In Paris she spends most of her time at the Louvre giving us the benefit of her wide knowledge of European art. Then, following her sexual misadventure, when she is at her lowest ebb, she meets Hector: an old, half-blind, scruffy and incontinent dog. She is immediately smitten and touchingly indicates what's at the heart of her plight - the absence of any love in her life:  "Most of all he really liked me". From then on Hector is the centre of her universe. She can't return to the USA because of quarantine restrictions so she decides to make her life in France. An unlikely encounter at Longchamp leads her to a job at Monsieur Gallay's racehorse training establishment in the Loire Valley and to her first real romantic encounter (not counting Hector).

 Ms. Battersby knows her way around a tack room and is familiar with the routines and equipment associated with riding. But she clearly knows little about the world of horse racing and the book contains a number of howlers. A race horse can be a gelding or a colt but not both at the same time. Horses have prep races or trials but not practices. A jockey that rides at Longchamp (a flat racing course) is never going to ride in the King George VI (a steeplechase) at Kempton. Also, her heroine's throwaway comment about Nijinsky is just plain wrong. She claims he was "too high strung to settle in an atmosphere as carnival-like as that of Longchamp on Arc day". Nijinsky won the Derby at Epsom - a far more carnival-like milieu. He probably lost the Arc because of a very hard race in the St. Leger not long before. But these are quibbles about detail that will just bother racing buffs like me and leave most readers unmoved.

 Helen's rural idyll continues for a while before a series of tragedies sends her off on the road again - alone and bereft. She heads for Germany in pursuit of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and with thoughts of suicide swirling through her mind. She identifies with the character in Friedrich's famous painting "Wanderer over a Sea of Fog".  She even takes a risky journey into East Germany (it's set in the mid-80s) to find the artist's grave. Her downward spiral is arrested by an event which comes as a major surprise not only to our heroine but to every reader of the book. You can make up your own mind whether it's a wonderful coup de théâtre or a ludicrous non-sequitur.

 Dalkey Archive Press
 395 pp  

 John P. O'Sullivan

 P.S. I wonder if Ms. Battersby can drive. Her heroine can handle a stick shift but has trouble with the automatic she encounters in France. It's mostly the other way around for Americans who customarily grow up with automatics. Curious.