A novel approach to Nuala

Hugo Hamilton’s new book travels into strange and slightly spooky literary territory. It’s a fictionalised account of a trip to Berlin that he made with his fellow writer Nuala O’Faolain just before her death, from cancer, in May 2008


As a writer, Hugo Hamilton has always explored the place where reality and story meet – or, rather, where the edges don’t quite fit. His memoir of his Irish-German childhood, The Speckled People , has the shape and heft of a novel. His novels and short stories, meanwhile, like to reshape and rework incidents from his life.

Every novelist does this to a certain extent. But Hamilton’s new novel, Every Single Minute , travels into strange and slightly spooky literary territory. It’s based on a trip to Berlin that he made with his fellow writer Nuala O’Faolain just before her death, from cancer, in May 2008.

Although it didn’t happen exactly as described in Every Single Minute – for one thing, O’Faolain travelled with a group of friends, not with Hamilton alone – the visit obviously made a deep impression, and the narrative reconstructs its intensity in loving detail. But it is not, the author says, a memoir.

“Nuala was the best person to tell her own story,” he says. “Everybody I meet knows something about Nuala that I didn’t know. I can’t stand here and pretend to be the expert. I’m not a biographer, and this is not the authorised version. It’s not about recording. This is not a document. It’s something else.”

In the book, the female character who is dying of cancer is called Una, and the narrator who pushes her around in a wheelchair is called Liam, but that just heightens the weirdness, because the text is full of references to the “real” O’Faolain: to her journalism and her feminist activism, to her relationship with Nell McCafferty and to her well-publicised difficulties with her own family.

Hamilton’s narrator is also something of a double-headed figure. He resembles the author yet is very different. He doesn’t, for example, know Berlin or speak German, unlike his creator, who is fluent in the language and familiar with the city.

Because of the way the narrative is structured his companion is rarely referred to as “Una” and much more often as “she”, allowing the reader to constantly substitute O’Faolain for her fictional avatar. It’s all a bit dizzying, but towards the end the reader who may be asking questions is told unequivocally that there are no answers here. “Who am I to describe her life?” the narrator asks. “All I can say is read her books. That’s who she was.”

Why bother with the fictional names? Partly, perhaps, to create distance. “When I wrote it I had to put Nuala out of my head,” Hamilton agrees, with a smile. “I mean, to have Nuala sitting in the room with you and to write about her would be just impossible. She would be looking over your shoulder and saying, ‘Look, no. Hugo, that’s not the way it was.’ As a writer I have to interpret the whole experience for myself.”

Hamilton admits that he and O’Faolain were unlikely friends. He is softly spoken and retiring. She wasn’t. “The first time I met Nuala was when she interviewed me for my first novel,” he says. Surrogate City , also set in Berlin, was published in 1990. Every Single Minute is his ninth. “She made this huge impression on me, and we kept meeting at various writers’ functions and festivals and so on. She had a natural gift for speaking; I had a natural gift for being silent.

“That’s one of the reasons I admired her. She was able to speak so openly. She cracked open something here in Ireland, I think. She took the lid off the family. Irish society was terribly hidden, and she was one of the people who allowed us to speak more truthfully about ourselves.”

One of Hamilton’s aims in writing the book was to re-create O’Faolain’s way of looking at the world. “Nuala had this wonderful way of being completely innocent – childlike – so that she would get the maximum information out of people,” he says. “She would pretend she knew nothing and start asking questions from there.”

Having both written high-profile memoirs – the second volume of O’Faolain’s, Almost There , came out in 2003, while Hamilton’s follow-up to The Speckled People , The Sailor in the Wardrobe , was published in 2006 – the two were often placed together on literary panels, sometimes with fiery results.

“Nuala was a troubled person,” Hamilton says. “She had a troubled childhood. And I think that was part of her great energy, what I would call her crusade for change. Like myself, she came out of a very patriarchal Ireland and wanted to change that, particularly the role of women. And part of that was arguing with everybody. I think that was a good thing.”

Even though she often argued with him, too? He laughs. “I had always thought, writing about my father, for example, that I had to do that with caution, and not accuse him. I had to understand what happened to him, where he came from. And she would just shoot me down, in public, at literary festivals. She would say, ‘That’s rubbish.’

“I think what she was trying to point out was that if you were too eager to forgive and understand, that would allow people off the hook and nothing would ever get changed. We continued to have that argument – and it goes on in the book.”

For Hamilton, opening up is a good thing. But not opening up too much. He is, he says, underwhelmed by the vogue for “raw confessionalism”. “It’s undigested. Thoughtless. Just spilling things out for the sake of it isn’t understanding them.”

Oddly, there are passages in Every Single Minute that are unlike Hamilton’s usual understated writing style, bearing more resemblance to O’Faolain’s full-on approach. An episode in which Liam clips Una’s toenails in the back of their hired limousine is reminiscent of scenes in O’Faolain’s novel My Dream of You , which fell into the TMI category before there even was a TMI category.

Other aspects of the “real” story, such as the relationship between O’Faolain and McCafferty, are handled with delicacy and grace.

In hindsight, Hamilton wonders whether O’Faolain herself had a vague idea that those two days in Berlin might form the raw material for a future piece of writing. Having already exposed her illness and impending death in a lengthy and heartfelt interview with Marian Finucane, on RTÉ radio, she certainly wasn’t in the business of hiding or airbrushing.

“I get the impression sometimes that she had a hand in it,” Hamilton says. “I mean, she was aware that I was a writer and that I was a witness to this extraordinary moment. I’m sure that if it was the other way round she would be writing about it.”

Does Hamilton need to defend his action in writing this book? He says not. It’s a novel; he’s a novelist. There will, however, be those who feel the book exploits O’Faolain’s memory. He may be accused of wreaking a kind of cynical Machiavellian revenge, on the one hand, or paying an overwrought, overemotional tribute, on the other.

How does he see his novel? “It’s almost like a smudged or blurred portrait,” he says. “That’s how I see it. It takes on meaning for me that’s beyond just the factual. The truth is terribly important, but there are ways of getting at it – and in our society there’s so much that is false. A subtle way of getting at the truth is more interesting for me. I also love the idea of doubt. That’s what artists are all about.”

Every Single Minute is published by Fourth Estate; Hugo Hamilton will be inc onversation with Anne Enright at Dún Laoghaire County Hall next Thursday, at 7. 30pm; €5 from paviliontheatre.ie or 01-2312929

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