Proust and the A-type personality

Martina Evans on the Proust-influenced deep dive into memory behine American Mules

Martina Evans: Mammy could have given Proust a run for his money when it came to narratives with boundless associations

Martina Evans: Mammy could have given Proust a run for his money when it came to narratives with boundless associations

 

It is the early hours in the casualty X-ray room of the Mater Hospital, Dublin, the mid-’80s. The consultants have been forced in from their comfortable suburban homes to man the on-call barricades while the junior doctors are on strike.

One consultant sweeps in, white coat billowing, to the Dark Room where I sit with my legs up on another chair, reading Part Two of the Penguin Classics’ Remembrance of Things Past. I jump up, embarrassed. He is bored or has forgotten what he came to ask because he picks up my enormous volume, examines it front and back. He leafs through the pages, he wants to say something but can’t find the words. He settles for, “You’re an A-type personality like me!” I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’ve never been praised for my personality or told I was an A in anything. I thank God there are no witnesses to laugh at us because that is something I am familiar with.

I was a 25-year-old reluctant radiographer, planning an English degree, working my way through the Penguin classics in Fred Hanna’s bookshop. I couldn’t even explain to myself why I loved Proust. Half the time I was bored but then one or more labyrinthine sentences would add up to something personally electrifying. The way he skewered characters was radical –true and funny. I’d never seen these kind of thoughts written down but I knew them. His obsessiveness, fetishisation of objects and art spoke to me. He didn’t seem to suffer from embarrassment and he helped me with mine.

Drawn by Proust’s examination of time and memory, I wanted to dive down into memory too. He made me want to write. What was my madeleine? I decided on cream crackers buttered with Blue Band margarine (popular in the ’70s when butter was “bad for the heart”). I enjoyed pressing them, watching the squiggles of margarine emerge from the tiny holes like when I was a child. But when I ate my buttered cracker, no “Combray” sprang up like a Japanese paper flower garden in my mind. Involuntary memory is just that – involuntary. It calls you. It decides the time and place. Lately, my feet have been portals to the past, especially my X-ray days:

Chopping the stitches with the side
of his hand, he took out the heart and massaged

it in front of me while I heaved in my forbidden
open-toe sandals. I’d stopped wearing shoes

after my first 24 hours on call in Cork Regional.
They rang from Casualty, RTA –

get up out of that quick! the porter who knew
the whole of the Yangtze River menu by heart

shouted there were two stretchers coming up
from a road traffic accident. I sat at the side

of the narrow bed, felt for my shoes only
my feet were tender watermelons now that refused

to go in. Forcing them, I couldn’t manage one
step - like an ugly sister or a step-mother,

dancing in hot iron shoes. I hoped bare feet
wouldn’t be noticed in an emergency.

And is it a gypsy you are now so? the A&E Sister
snapped out of her blue lead apron, as I padded

around the immobilised blood & alcohol
smelling bodies with my sandbags and cassettes,

marking right and left with my metal marker,
concentrating on not mixing them up like I had

before. That bossy Sister noticed everything I did.
Next day I woke at half four, in the stuffy

on-call room, my day off already disappeared
into November darkness as I hurried

to the shoe shop in Wilton Shopping Centre.
The assistant told me that feet never stopped

growing, Half a size for every year,
I’m telling you, girl
– sleepy and bewildered,

I bought a big size seven. It was only when
I revived over beans & toast at 8 o’clock

that it hit me – by that reasoning I’d be size
eleven at the age of thirty, with yards

to go ahead of me. The coffin that would hold me
hasn’t been built yet!
I shouted into the empty

beige kitchen. Back in the shop next day
for an exchange – no sign of the first assistant.

The bee-hived older woman said she’d never
heard of her.

(Excerpt from Nighttown)

I was surprised and not at all surprised when the writing which emerged from my pen was the opposite of Proust’s oceanic brilliance. Nothing complicated, my voice close to the rhythm of Co Limerick women like my mother and her sisters although I knew I could never surpass their inimitable style. Although Mammy could have given Proust a run for his money when it came to narratives with boundless associations. “Get to the f-ing point!” my brother would shout in agony. Embarrassed by my efforts, I tried to do just that, I cut them down to the smallest pieces.

From age three, I escaped into books. Anything to get away! Yet by my late twenties, the process of remembering lost time – speeded up by leaving Ireland – became urgent as the original “getting away”. It was not nostalgia then, especially not now as I am much happier. I was, still am, amazed by the existence of younger selves. Was that me? Was I really there?

Time is the ultimate enigma and lately, place seems like an idea, too.

I peer backwards into that Dark Room – the hot film processor where I warmed my hands, beyond its door – the rickety skull table where I laid so many bleeding heads:

Skulls

Getting the angle right meant

staring into people’s eyes,

getting close, some of them

giggled. But they had to stay still

because of the radiation.

Keep still please! I said.

I didn’t like to think of the oozing

grey matter inside. So soft

it gave me the shudders.

A baby’s fontanelle made my knees

go from under me. The huge gaps

between their bones - sometimes junior

doctors took them for fractures and

scared hell out of young parents

in the middle of the night.

I’m always banging mine - in Belfast,

I ran up and down the hotel

corridor looking for 12 B.

The manager told me it was

really number 13 -

But you’re not superstitious surely! he laughed.

Not superstitious in Belfast?

Oh I am, I said. Please can I have 12 A?

Which was tiny. I went in and bang!

against the angled ceiling.

I had an egg on my forehead for

the public reading. Sometimes junior

doctors followed me into the Dark

Room for my opinion but I fled

because I was sure there was nothing in

my head apart from the nineteenth century novels

I squeezed into my uniform pockets.

The Category A prisoner from Mountjoy

noted this when he sat down for his X-ray

at 4 a.m. in ‘87. Angling in at thirty degrees

for the Townes view, nervous

before his bleached eyes, I forgot

the lead cone left on the tube. It flew for

his head but he was faster-

catching it in his two blue tattooed hands.

Lucky for you I caught it! he kept saying.

We saw nothing! said the two prison

officers as they cuffed him again,

laughing hysterically. I watched them

walk away,

chained to each other.

Returning to Proust is a little like meeting up with my former self. I’m surprised to find we like the same things. I thought she was a terrible fool. Now I go back to find out what it was like to be her. It’s a neverending addictive labyrinth as Johnny O’Hare – whose inner quest takes up half of American Mules – finds out:

Prologue

If you tell your dream, you don’t have to dream it

any more, says Alan Ladd, This Gun For Hire (1942).

I can tell you now I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.

It’s your subconscious! Your subconscious my eye!

They were just over-excited about Freud in the 40s.

Ingrid Bergman clucking over Gregory Peck in Spellbound (1945)

driving him mad with her fork on the white tablecloth.

Well, I, Johnny O’Hare, video-shop proprietor, (2008)

thought if I wrote it all down, I’d get those

girls out of my mind, that my sister Greta would

agree what the Ould Fella did, along with

Attracta, the skivvy, to our bed-ridden mother

& Blackie the cat & how we’d have been finished

if wasn’t for Mrs Savage the Post Mistress.

American Mules is published by Carcanet Press and is launched online tonight here.

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