Eileen Battersby: Inquisitive and brilliant, lonely and kind
Authors, colleagues and friends pay tribute to the late Irish Times literary correspondent
Eileen Battersby near her home, in Co Meath, in 2010. Photograph: Alan Betson
Former Irish Times Literary Correspondent Eileen Battersby died on December 23rd, following a car crash in Co Meath the previous day. Her daughter Nadia, who was also in the car, survived the incident. Here, writers, colleagues and friends remember her work and her life.
There’s no best way, and surely no fullest way, to illuminate the precious life or to calculate the dismal loss of Eileen Battersby. Just choose one, I guess; hope it points toward the rest.
That she was sixty! Eileen could not have been sixty (except I’ve known her for thirty years). Eileen was thoroughly, doggedly young. She had about her, when I’d see her, a young aura: emerging as if suddenly, breathless, smiling, always late, just arrived from some place and from some complete absorption I (of course) couldn’t imagine, having only my little book in mind.
When one was scheduled to see Eileen – to discuss said book or be “interviewed” – she always seemed just to turn up as if by coincidence, or luck, or mistake. And as if the thought of seeing me had just turned up, too.
Once we conducted one of our memorable sessions seated on the steps up to the Shelbourne mezzanine, during which time we passed baby Nadia back and forth so Eileen could jot the odd note.
There was an enticing ingenue feel she brought; as if some editor had just given her a big break, and she needed to make the most of it, but really she wasn’t quite ready . . . so bear with us just a sec.
Only she was quite ready. She was very, very ready. We’ve read how ready she was – to write and think. It was just that things – life, babies, some man, horses, dogs, stories, other people’s books, her books – were constantly fizzing up like spume and congesting life. It was as if her last day on the job - a job she performed supremely - was not so different from her first.
Always - in the aftermath of talking to Eileen – I found myself asking, “What’s just happened here?” But something of moment had happened. You’d read it in a day or so. She had her ways. Possibly there’s less room for ways such as hers now.
Which leads to my point: I won’t see Eileen be old now, and am the poorer for it. Eileen was intended – more than most – to get old. She was meant to have all her teeming passions, her fruitful language, her wisdom-encrypted-by-reading-and-time, go on being useful to us in the way Walter Benjamin meant useful; which is, to be of counsel about what’s worth it and what’s not regarding the things we read and think and judge to be beautiful and true.
This isn’t to say she’d have grown old gracefully. Who in the world wants to grow old gracefully? She’d have grown old rambunctious, noisy, beguiling, enthusiastic, infuriating (of course), and beautiful. And most of all interesting.
I’m very sorry for that – for this loss, of someone who was going on being interesting. I wish, on this sunny Christmas day in Maine, that we had her back.
Conversation with Eileen was tumultuous, full of ideas, sometimes hilarious: a soul-encounter. She educated us about fiction from around the world. About poetry she could also be wise and perceptive.
I adored this brilliant woman. News of her death is devastating. I wish now that I had accepted her invitation to visit her Co Meath home and meet her dogs and horses. Eileen loved the world, its creatures and its creators.
Poet and journalist
The loss of Eileen Battersby is a blow to all writers in Ireland. Eileen was an incisive critic who cared passionately about good writing.
She kept an open mind, knowing that a talented author could be of any age or nationality. A writer had to earn her praise – she did not offer it lightly, nor was she swayed by fame. Eileen’s championing of fiction in translation meant that, for decades, Irish readers were afforded a window to a much wider world.
Because of her habit of devouring books across all genres – including history, art, music and archaeology – Eileen was able to bring to her reviews an incredibly wide and erudite frame of reference. She was also a fine public speaker, well able to share her knowledge and insights with a live audience.
When she decided to write about one of my books of poetry, I quaked in my boots. During the 1990s we were colleagues working in The Irish Times features department. She was not an easy person to work with, being inattentive to deadlines, and fond of long, rambling phone conversations. This could have gone very badly. However I need not have worried.
Eileen, who rarely critiqued poetry, gave the book her usual close attention, and I still treasure the clarity and spontaneity of her words.
Eileen had a heart of gold when it came to taking in abandoned horses, dogs and cats. The one time I visited her house I was introduced to an amazing menagerie, including Kingsley, the dog who had been abandoned in a ditch, and Treefrog, a cat who was dying of feline Aids. They all adored Eileen, who frequently neglected herself so that they could thrive.
The small sprite Nadia, Eileen’s adored daughter, accompanied her mother everywhere and was widely beloved, growing into a gentle and beautiful young woman.
And as the years went by, Eileen made good on her insistence that one day she would write her own book, producing literary criticism (Second Readings), memoir (Ordinary Dogs) and her novel Teethmarks on my Tongue. All were received with genuine praise and awe that Eileen’s talent stretched across so many genres (needless to say she was also an accomplished feature writer, with a rare gift for communicating the essence of an interviewee).
Eileen had an intense energy that drove her to pursue excellence, but her broad grin was accompanied by a wistful vulnerability as she dashed through life, always talking about books and her latest conversation with one of her favourite writers. John Banville was one such; also Seamus Heaney, and the poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll.
At this time of year, I always remember Caroline Walsh, one of the leading lights of The Irish Times and a great champion of Eileen’s work. Like Caroline’s, Eileen’s life ended with shocking suddenness. She will not be forgotten.
Oh I am saddened by the death of Eileen Battersby. What a fine critic and person. Not that I knew her well, but I read her reviews constantly. The few times I met her she was always full of the joys of literature as well as full of the joys of argument.
I shall miss her.
Publisher and author
Eileen Battersby’s absurd death, in a freak road accident at the side of her beloved daughter Nadia, is a significant loss to literary culture in Ireland and beyond.
I’ve met very few creative writers who had anything like Eileen’s all-consuming passion for literature (and music, art and architecture). She read more, and more widely and generously, than any other cultural journalist I have ever encountered.
Literature for her was world literature, a ceaseless process of discovery, translation and humane communication in a world without borders. She took more delight in discovering a Croatian or Japanese writer than she did in the latest treading of well-worn themes by eminent Irish or British figures. Eileen was sometimes the only critic in these islands who reviewed truly deserving novels ignored by her peers in England, fixated as many of them are on the already fashionable.
I was wary of her for years, knowing her reputation as a difficult and tempestuous person, but we bonded over a mutual love of the great Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose work I was reviving, with my friend Bob Weil at Norton, in new translations by Michael Hofmann.
From then on I would get occasional calls from her. Simply answering the phone to her was fatal to ordinary work, indeed to all the activities modern life demands of us. But if you set aside an hour or so and knew what was coming you could learn about serious novels you’d never heard of – as well as discovering more about the care and psychology of horses and dogs than most city dwellers ever get to know, and all of this delivered with an unstoppable urgency that made the polite closure of the call nearly impossible.
She was also an immensely kind person who knew a great deal about hardship from her own difficult personal life, and offered warm and helpful advice to friends in distress.
She managed to combine this capacity for human sympathy with a never quite fully articulated sense of the superior qualities of domesticated animals, in whose emotional lives and intelligence she passionately believed.
Eileen’s deep connection with the animals in her life found expression in her strange and moving book Ordinary Dogs, a memoir of the two canine friends who lived for over 20 years as her loyal and supportive companions. I published it at Faber, and editing the book and dealing with a nervous debut author was not an easy task, but it was very much worth the effort.
She was one of a kind.
Neil Belton is editor in chief at Head of Zeus, publisher of the paperback edition of Eileen Battersby’s novel Teethmarks On My Tongue
Write something personal, they said ... and I grinned. Eileen was not a great person to write something personal about, because she was very strong and positive. And sometimes rather angry. But none of that mattered because her book reviews were first-class. I have seldom met anyone who was quite as good a reviewer.
Quite a long time ago she had a baby and she used to take this baby wherever she went. This used to make people a bit cross with her. I always found it quite endearing. It was quite a sweet baby. And as far as I know she and the baby made a very good pair.
And she had a dog who used to come with her too. And she loved the baby and the dog. And she loved the books she read. That must be the reason why I found her not just intelligent but warm and open.
I shall miss her.
Eileen was a dear friend over the years, mainly over the phone. With her unique mixture of American and Irish, she would suddenly be there at the other end of the line, asking when Trump would be impeached, quizzing me about the latest German genius-novelist, complaining how editors were less interested in analysis than in plot summaries and potted biographies, less open to literature in translation than books originally written in English.
I would always tell her we had to wait for Trump’s departure, that I knew next to nothing about current German culture, that she must submit to editors – now I regret I didn’t make more of an effort to be up to Eileen’s standards. She was uncompromising, inquisitive, always alert to the odd angle, lonely but hungry for love and approval, and richly deserving of both.
I remember my first meeting with her seated on the staircase of the Shelbourne Hotel as her little girl played around us (Eileen couldn’t find a baby-sitter). The last time I saw her was in a deserted country hotel dining room halfway between Dublin and her farm. She was interviewing me both times; the results were witty, observant, friendly and made me sound smarter than I am.
I admired Teethmarks on My Tongue for the way it explored the genteel south and rural France, for its fully realised minor characters and its unforgettable major ones, for the way it rendered the world of horses (Eileen loved her own animals), for its dramatic tension but mainly for its sunstruck values of valour and ardour, the very values she embodied.
She always had a new literary enthusiasm; hearing of her latest excitement would rouse me temporarily from lethargy and pessimism. It can be difficult to be a writer and to live surrounded by people who no longer believe in books.
Eileen was a firm believer. She lived and breathed books and sought in them new experiences, not just reflections of her own.
Readers everywhere will mourn her loss.
John F Deane
Poet and author
She called me to meet her at a hotel in South Dublin, she wanted to do an interview for The Irish Times. I was nervous; she asked some first question, the writing pad on the table between us.
I stuttered a bit over my answer and then she was off, telling me all about herself, what she thought of Dublin literary society, how she had come to Ireland and how she found delight in her animals, her dogs and horses.
I was intrigued; an hour passed; there had been no interview, and we parted. I said, my God I have really blown that.
But next day I had a phone call from her and she just asked a few simple, but relevant questions. The interview appeared, and I was astonished at how she had put it together, perhaps, I believe now, judging my attitudes and awareness from my reception of her own story. The interview was comprehensive, generous and accurate. I had been interviewed without being aware of it.
I always relished her book reviews, benefiting enormously from her encyclopedic knowledge and the confidence of her views. I admired her push for perfection, for depth, for worth, for commitment.
I will greatly miss Eileen Battersby, her challenging integrity and the immediacy of her responses. I will remember her impatient generosity, that sparkle in her watchful eyes, the smile always ready to brighter up a conversation. She was someone in a difficult literary atmosphere on whom one could always place one’s trust.
Poet and journalist
Eileen Battersby had what Elizabeth Bishop called “the tumult in the heart” – a heart that revealed itself in what must surely be one of the finest portrayals of living with animals, Ordinary Dogs.
When we first met – after many invigorating phone conversations – in the summer of 1988 what struck me was her formidable intellect and its power of persuasion, as well as her prodigious knowledge of literature across time and languages.
Eileen first came to my attention when was she was working in London and from there producing for the arts page of this newspaper a series of insightful, informative literary interviews that revealed in the interviewer a striking independence of mind.
In her early days in The Irish Times she introduced me to the work of Bruce Chatwin; many years later I introduced her, on the page and in person, to the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who became her latest obsession and was given a place of honour in her pantheon of the “witness poets” of Eastern Europe.
I was constantly badgered until I allowed her to write about John Stubbs’s biography of John Donne but grateful for her magnificent account of the poet’s life. I once somehow managed to get her to Chicago to interview the great Saul Bellow; every detail of that encounter was relayed back to me in a series of phone calls when all I wanted was to get my hands on “the copy”.
Her list of idols was endless and conversations about them could be endless: Bach, Goethe, Hildegard of Bingen, Tolkein, Lloyd-Praegar Tarkovsky, Dickens, Rothko, Carver, Ford, Brodsky, Casper David Friedrich, Claudio Magris, J G Ballard. She liked to remind me her reviewing career began the year that Ballard did not win the Booker, and I still recall the alarm of hearing her hair-raising account of how she cycled on a British motorway to interview the author.
She could be thoughtful and on that occasion remembered that my young son was a fan of the movie version of Empire of the Sun and brought him back a signed copy of the book.
As the chief literary critic her readings were close and attentive, her keen and often bold judgments came from a valiant mind. For many readers she became their guide through the complex and diverse world of foreign language fiction – and earned the gratitude of many authors, but especially their translators, for her advocacy.
However, if a writer she admired and might have championed delivered a work that did not match her expectations, the critique could be brutally honest and always scrupulous.
Her reading habit was epic in its range; all-night sittings with a new work of fiction would be followed by a morning phone call to declare her enthusiasm or disappointment. It might sometimes have seemed that outside of these readings there was only, in Eliot’s words “ the waste sad time stretching before and after”. But no, she had too her horses and dogs, and above all her beloved Nadia.
Gerard Smyth is a former managing editor of The Irish Times
I first met Eileen Battersby through an excerpt from her book on dogs. She told the story of being out walking with one of her dogs and her boyfriend. The dog leapt a wall chasing something or other, and Eileen pictured that she had fallen to her death. Eileen went running after, hysterical, boyfriend in tow, and the boyfriend tried comforting her with the fatal words, “It’s only a dog.”
The dog was fine; Eileen dumped the boyfriend.
I wrote her a fan letter. She didn’t reply. As I came to know later on, she had a much harder time accepting praise than criticism. She didn’t believe in the former, but believed too much in the latter.
Six months later, I spent an evening with a fellow publisher, and asked him: “What’s the story with Battersby?” She was the most influential book reviewer in Ireland and I had yet to meet her. He said I should meet her and find out for myself “what the story” was.
I wrote to her again, but as a publisher rather than as a fan. And she invited me to her menagerie of books, dogs, cats, and horses. I ignored the books piled everywhere, and was soon down on the floor with a sick dog. It might have been an Eileen test of whether we could be friends: did I care more for a dog than the books. For me, dogs always win.
And so began my friendship with Eileen Battersby.
She was of course born in California. Came to Ireland to study and never left. But she’d get insulted if told she had a brogue. “A WHAT?”
In the months that followed, she told me about her novel, her “horse novel,” as I’d call it. “It’s not a HORSE novel.”
Talk of the novel began a multi-staged journey with her. She was sending it around to a few British publishers, and after each conversation with one of them, she’d call enthused about their enthusiasm.
She’d then ask: “So what do you make of it? Are they going to publish it?” I’d say no, and she’d ask why. I’d say: “Don’t trust publishers’ enthusiasm. Believe them when they say a contract is on its way.”
Then one day, I said: “There are Irish publishers you know, right here in Ireland.” She’d say: “Who, tell me who.” I said: “Me. You know Dalkey Archive, that press whose books you never review, there’s that one.”
This then became a ritual between us. “You’d really publish it? You’re not serious, are you?”
I’d say: “It would be nice if I read it first.”
“You’ll read it?”
I’d say: “Yes, I’ll read it, that’s what publishers do.”
“If I send it to, you’ll read it?”
But she continued to send it around in London. Like many Irish writers, she thought – or I believed she thought – that one wasn’t truly published until published in London.
I had heard about the novel so many times from her that there wasn’t much reason to read it. This then began another ritual after she finally sent it: “Did you read it? You didn’t like it. But did you read it?”
Somehow I convinced her that I had read it and liked it and wanted to publish it.
“Will I get a contract?”
Yes, a contract.
“Can you publish it in a few months?”
“No, it takes longer.”
“A year! It shouldn’t take a year.”
And then began her anxiety about editing. “You’re going to change it, aren’t you?”
“We edit books, we don’t change anything without your permission.”
“I know you’re going to change it. What don’t you like about it?”
This must sound like torture for us both. Underlying all of it was this deep affection that had been established. And underlying the affection was laughter. We made each other laugh.
I will miss her. I will miss those very long phone calls that would always begin with, “Hi, it’s Eileen.”
The world is a smaller place without her.
John O’Brien is founder of Dalkey Archive Press, publisher of Teethmarks on My Tongue
Former Irish Times literary editor
So far as I know, in my former capacity as literary editor I was the first staff member of The Irish Times to print a contribution from Eileen Battersby. I can’t remember the date, and have kept no relevant cutting, but it must have been sometime in the late 1980s.
Eileen was then working as a freelance in the London office of The Irish Times – yes, there was such a place, right on Fleet Street, and well-known journalists including Maeve Binchy, Dermot Mullane and Andrew Whittaker all worked there for periods.
As nobody there quite knew what to do with her, or even what she could do, at her own suggestion she was given the Wimbledon tennis tournament to cover – a tough assignment even for a seasoned hand. Yet she did it with aplomb, although she hardly saw her future as being that of a sports journalist.
She soon was asking me over the phone for books to review, although she had no obvious credentials except that she was well read, especially in contemporary fiction, and very self-confident. As an opening gamble I sent her a life of Tolstoy that was causing some stir, and got back an excellent piece that I used as my lead review.
After that she became a regular contributor, chiefly as a fiction reviewer but with a much wider, compendious brief. By then Dublin-based, she also wrote regularly for the features pages and soon became a name, almost an institution.
Eileen was then a very good-looking woman, and stylish dresser, even if in later life her style was more, well, Bohemian. She also possessed that something which cannot be faked and which we call, for lack of a better word, personality. Her intelligence and appetite for work were never in doubt, but she could show a quick temper and sometimes rub people, including colleagues, the wrong way.
Against that, she was never on the make professionally, always stood by her enthusiasms, and remained a devoted mother to her daughter, Nadia. Her essential Americanism, too, was preserved fresh and immutable to the very end.
I got along with her without strain and recognised her as something different from the run of things, although she had little patience with career mediocrities, some of whom, I suspect, basically envied her. She could also, on occasion, be temperamental – unlike Maeve Binchy, for instance, who always delivered copy dead on time and made no fuss about it.
Yet John Banville and Caroline Walsh, my immediate successors as literary editor, both valued her and knew how to handle her, Banville being an author whom she respected, while Caroline relied mainly on shrewdness and tact. They recognised in her a talented woman and an asset to this newspaper, someone whose wings should not be clipped.
One of her strongest points was her knowledge of contemporary American fiction, at a time when most Irish reviewers (not to mention literary editors) were almost obsequious in their attitude to the latest London fiction lists. Week after week, glowing notices were written about the productions of English novelists most of whom are by now quite comfortably draped in the dust and spiderwebs of oblivion.
I was not, myself, a great admirer of American fiction; for instance, I continue to find Saul Bellow virtually unreadable. But after all, the American mind, the American sensibility, is fundamentally different from our own – even if I can quite happily leave much of their contemporary writing for others to enjoy. Yet Eileen not only responded to novelists but also knew her American poets, and one of her most insightful articles concerned Anne Sexton, at one time the close friend of Sylvia Plath, who began as a poet of something like genius and ended up a self-immolating wreck.
Eileen’s literary tastes, therefore, remained very much her own, and if she were still alive she could, and would, account for them very forcibly. She wrote with style and directness, had a quick mind and could sum up tersely both the strengths and weaknesses of a book or author.
She was, however, much more than a simple reviewer; she could handle a whole range of cultural topics and was an able interviewer. And, although she flowered late as a novelist, she has established her own niche in the tough field of recent fiction.
She will, quite crucially, be missed by many people besides those who were close to her, whether professionally or personally.