A life-defining butter ad, then madness


A life-defining butter ad, then madness

Our books editor was enchanted by a fictitious life story told as clear as a whistle. The Irish word dásachtach means daring, dauntless, devil-may-care, grim, violent. Katherine O'Dell was all of those.


LOUIS Gaigher whetted my appetite for biographies when he wrote about eavesdropping on the lives of others. If you think about it, everything a writer fabricates is at least an emotional autobiography. Even when describing someone else's life, it's hard to keep your own experiences, emotions and insights out of the picture. And it makes for fascinating layers of experience. Even with historians, if they do not simply stick to the cold facts (which are also suspect, influenced by retelling, premise and orientation) but speculate, interpret, embroider,  then suddenly the author emerges between the lines. It's hard to keep yourself out of the story.

This week, in addition to a few thrillers that are engaging and quite forgettable, I read a novel written as if it were a biography: Actress by the eminent Irish writer Anne Enright. She won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 with her novel The Gathering. This is not a new book but it almost passed me by. Fortunately, it did not.

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In Actress, the narrator, Norah, tries to record her mother's life. Her mother, Katherine, was a famous actress in Ireland and Hollywood. She was a beautiful and talented woman who, like most actors, suffered from uncertainty. A woman who feared growing old and took to drink. She wasn't a Mommy Dearest; she loved her daughter very much. For years, she wrote down what she ate: “Everything she ate, every day for seven years — except for the uncountable calories in a bottle of red wine, clearly."

Norah is waiting for her husband, the turbulent love of her life, to come home. She heard the garden gate but no noises in the house afterwards. Where is he? It's a tension that runs through the novel as she looks back on her mother's life: “I shouted your name, but you weren't yet home."

In Enright's descriptive language, Katherine emerges memorably. She was delicate and blonde with green eyes and tended to stretch her arms out in front of her on stage, lest they hang uselessly by her sides. She didn't start drinking until five in the afternoon. Her romantic escapades were (almost) discreet. She was the Irish actress of her generation but actually she was British. Norah watches her mother's life from the sidelines as she watched her on stage from the wings as a child.

Katherine's greatest triumph was a TV commercial for Irish butter that was broadcast worldwide. She couldn't shake off that label. Everywhere, people echoed the punchline to her: “Sure, 'tis only butter."

After her mother's death, Norah patches incidents together and tries to make sense of Katherine's life. Katherine lost her mind in her fifties. She shot someone through the foot and his leg had to be amputated later. She was institutionalised. Norah suggests that the man they referred to as Fucking Duggan was complicit in her mother's decline, or was the last straw. He and Katherine were romantically involved, but with sadistic calculatedness he seduced Norah. This is how he stole the most precious thing in her life from Katherine, she felt.

The way Katherine increasingly loses her reason is memorably articulated:

Her insanity was rattling away, that day, like the lid of a boiling pot. But her syntax was good, she was making connections, and I was buoyed by that. I felt it was a good sign. When I went back the next week, I found her damped down again, gone.

Nothing is explained or spelt out, the reader has to connect the dots. The events play out in front of your eyes. The subtext is that men are not to be trusted, that they will break your heart and drive you insane. Men mostly treated Katherine with cruelty, as if they were jealous of her talent.

Katherine was fascinated by serial killers and tried to write scripts:

I brooded, many years later, over her choice in gore. She was most taken by Dorcas Kelly, a Dublin madame who killed five customers and was condemned to death in 1761. The execution happened in Baggot Street, which was only up the road from us. If we passed along that way, as we sometimes did, my mother would say, ‘You know a woman was burned to death just over there. Just there, by the traffic lights.’ On the day of Dorcas Kelly’s execution, the prostitutes of Dublin rioted in Copper Alley. Perhaps they thought, my mother said, that she should have killed five more.

Halfway off her head, Katherine shoots the filmmaker who stole her idea in the foot. In court, he explained what preceded the shooting. Norah's comments:

Boyd seemed genuinely puzzled. It was as though he could not hear what he was saying, so he had to keep saying it over again. He really thought he was doing my mother’s idea a favour by having it himself. When you see this happen, as I did that day, you see it quite a lot, and it remains a very strange thing — the ability of a man like Boyd to assume that it is their interest which makes something interesting. As though, if he shut his eyes, the world would be really dull.”

According to Norah, people always want to know what her mother was like, before: “Mostly, though, they mean before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge.”

Katherine's beloved father, Fitz, an Irish actor who lived in England, is also an unforgettable character: “… a man genetically incapable of doing wrong". Short, with a giant presence and voice. She listens to a record on which he recites Yeats' poems and it reminds me of the recordings I listened to when I was very young, of actress Siobhán McKenna reciting Yeats. Exactly like this:

He was reciting Yeats. The accent was Irish, in a mode now gone out of fashion. Each syllable sounded separate as a teacher reading with a pointy stick.

The fact that she slept with her mother's lover, more or less against her senses, but still, continues to haunt Norah. Until she lets it go. Like everything else, the moment is stunningly well described:

I cycled out to Seapoint for a swim, and the chill of the water was fabulous. The sun was low over Dublin, the sky a watery yellow, the sea flat and silent. I was halfway through drying myself before I remembered the reason I had come.

It's a book to keep and reread. Katherine explained to Norah in a park one day that a tree grows from the inside. I leave you with her words:

If you think about it, the youngest part of the tree is in the very middle. It is the little dot that will widen into a ring, next year. The youngest part of any tree is the heart.

Who, what, where and how much?

Actress by Anne Enright was published by Jonathan Cape and costs R242 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Siobhán McKenna recites William Butler Yeats' poems:

♦ VWB ♦

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