Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Are You Somebody?, by Nuala O’Faolain

Is it possible that sound can act as a kind of comfort food? If so, then let me say up front that this interview with Nuala O’Faolain on CBC Radio’s Writers and Company is my comfort food. I’ve probably listened to it about 10 times since first discovering it online, and doing so elevates my spirits in a way that few things can. In fact, I strongly recommend that before you read another word of this review of her 1996 memoir Are You Somebody?, you should go and listen to it, too. Yes, I realize the interview is nearly an hour long but it is completely worth your time. When you finish, you can come back here and thank me in the comments area for making your day.

Okay, now that you’ve listened to it, what can I tell you about this big, messy memoir that you couldn’t probably glean from O’Faolain’s winsome, exuberant take on the world, her zest for life and for own story? Yes, Are You Somebody? is probably not the best structured book I’ve ever encountered. It hops around in time and place and doesn’t linger enough on any given person in O’Faolain’s life to give us a full sense of that person’s impact on her. But what so engrosses us in this memoir is not the bare facts of what happened over the course of this Irish woman’s tumultuous life, but the voice in which she shares those events with us. This is writing that does not contain a gram of self consciousness. This is writing that is entirely caught up in the moment of itself, in the truth it is trying to express.

O’Faolain was born into relative poverty in Dublin in 1940, the second of nine children. Her father was famed Irish journalist Terry O’Sullivan, who travelled around the country for long stretches of time and left O’Faolain’s mother – a raging alcoholic, voracious reader and a failure in most aspects of her life – to look after their ever-growing family. O’Faolain came of age in the 1960s, when freedoms and opportunities were beginning to open up for a certain class of people in Ireland, and it was during this period that she began to question her place in the world and what it meant to be an Irish woman living in the middle of the 20th century. Are You Somebody? is in one sense an exploration of a muddled personal identity, but it is also a snapshot of transition for an entire nation. O’Faolain often finds herself caught between two competing worlds: the inchoate freedoms that are slowly opening up for people of her class and gender in Ireland, and the restrictive, suffocating aspects of her past that continue to hold sway over her.

Without a doubt, the guiding principle for O’Faolain throughout her story is an abiding belief in the liberating power of feminism. Often, she sees her own feminism through the prism of what it means to be a writer – not necessarily for herself, but for the women writers she was exposed to during her time both as a student and as a producer for the BBC and Ireland’s national radio broadcaster. Here she is talking about spending time with writer Mary Lavin:

The young writers at Mary Lavin’s house were all men; the women were all women who were going out with the men. If you were a young female, no one asked you what you did, around the pubs of Dublin, or what you wanted to do. They assessed you in terms of themselves. You were welcome if you fitted in. The “literary Dublin” I saw lied to women as a matter of course and conspired against the demands of wives and mistresses. Outside the home, in the circles where academics and journalism and literature met, women either had to make no demands, and be liked, or be much larger than life, and feared.

There are countless passages like this one, each detailing the frustration that O’Faolain feels over what she sees happening to both her mentors and the women of her own generation. What’s interesting is that, despite all this systemic discrimination, O’Faolain never loses her taste for the pure passion of the classics and the sustenance they provide her intellect. This is a feminism that isn’t interested in throwing the baby out with the bath water:

I don’t have any objection to the art made by dead white males. Far from it: The thought that I might have missed this literature – that I might have been born later, when it was decided it was too difficult for young people – fills me with horror. I never think of gender when I’m reading. If questions about it force themselves on me, I have to come out of reading, into this world.

It’s refreshing to see this kind of humanism persist in the work of a feminist who had endured such hardships in her life. O’Faolain never stopped believing in the restorative, didactic and nourishing qualities of art and culture, and Are You Somebody? is as much of a memoir about her encounters with literature as it is about her life.

The other refreshing aspect of this memoir is how bloody funny it is. There’s no doubt that O’Faolain had a number of axes to grind, especially against her careless and profoundly unhappy parents. And yet she never loses sight of the sheer humour contained within the absurdity of their lives. In this passage, she describes her father’s feckless attempts to keep his dwindling family from being ruined outright by his insatiable proclivities:

He moved my mother and my little sister, who were the only family members he still took responsibility for, into what turned out to have been the flat of his mistress. She, presumably, had been moved somewhere else. My mother discovered this one quiet night when she was alone, reading in bed, and the mistress burst through the bedroom door and attacked her with the bedside lamp. It would be funny, if both women hadn’t been so desperately unhappy.

Alas, in the end, even her humour and keen eye for the ridiculous could not save Nuala O’Faolain. In 2008, she was diagnosed with cancer of the brain, lungs and liver, and, not surprisingly, died shortly thereafter. Yet she was able to leave behind one final radio interview, recorded just a few weeks before her death. If the CBC interview above is full of joy, zest and humour, then this interview recorded by Irish national radio is full of the opposite. It captures a woman in the very pit of despair, realizing that the grand party of life, that amazing bracket of noise between two endless periods of nothingness, is about to end. It’s gut-wrenching and extremely difficult to listen to. But I recommend you do so, if for no other reason than it will highlight the intensity with which Are You Somebody? was written, the fiery spirit (quickly fading away) that gave the book life.


  1. I might be a coward, but I can't listen to the bbc interview. I've loved Nuala since I heard her on CBC, then more after I read her memoir, and I think I'm pretending she's still alive so that someday we can have a drink together. lovely piece, Mark.

  2. Thanks for that, Gillian. Yeah, it's a pretty hard thing to listen to. I waited until I had finished the book before doing so. If it's any consolation, I found that even at death's threshold, O'Flaolain still displayed this amazing, irrepressible spirit. And she was still cracking jokes, even right up to the end.

  3. i'm laughing as i type, remembering myself trying to go for a run listening to the first interview many months ago, and having to stop gasping for breath in the ditch on the side of the road. clearly she didn't realize the listeners might be attempting cardiovascular exertion at the same time as she was quipping.

    i am waiting to be in a better mood so i can listen to the second interview.

  4. It is a pretty great interview. But yeah, you definitely need to steel yourself to listen to the other one.