Sex and the city
MEMOIR: A Preparation for DeathBy Greg Baxte,r Penguin Ireland, 224pp. £14.99
WHAT IS YOUR NATION? The question is put to Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s classic description of the outsider whereby the Citizen asks the Dublin Jew to declare where he belongs. There are a few hundred thousand Blooms walking the streets now, claiming a foothold for themselves without the ability to play the Irish card in Ireland.
Greg Baxter is such an outsider, a wanderer, caught in the ongoing struggle between doubt and certainty. Like many newcomers, his honesty is clattering. His language belongs to a different landscape. His road map is out of register. His memory is secured to something lost, to a place left behind that he can only reclaim by travelling back there to reconnect.
His inability to feed into the legendary Irish code of social communication in which every conversation yields a common history, a mutual friend or enemy, even a shared relative, reinforces Baxter’s need to draw his own map and claim his place in the world. It is through the enterprise of mapping his family memory that he establishes the shifting, elusive nature of his identity.
Baxter declares himself to be a failed writer from Texas who has come to Dublin to find refuge and inspiration. With an abandoned novel in his locker, he works in a dead-end job as a medical journalist and commutes from a desolate housing estate on a battered Vespa. But his ambitions are more literary. He takes up teaching creative writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre and begins to write a running commentary of his life, the unabridged version of himself and his inner thoughts.
His hardcore honesty makes him appear like a true vagrant, a lunchtime pint drinker, a serial lover, a scientist of sex and disobedience, a lover of literature with the singular ambition to do something “violent” to that art form. He does so early on in this book, not un-Bloomlike, by describing a masturbation scene in the filthy office toilet, dreaming of Evelyn sitting on his lap at the back of the Irish Film Institute while watching a Korean masterpiece on screen.
How much reality can a reader take? “Eviscerated” is the word used most effectively by Baxter himself to describe
the hyper-realism of his own mind, turned inside out on the page. The confessional momentum of this autobiography is quite striking in its unfiltered exposure of personal facts. The Dublin rain seems initially to be the warmest emotion to reach these pages.
But as Baxter continues to claim his own personal map, he moves steadily away from a “condition of permanent aimlessness” towards explanation. His Austrian grandmother, Maria, turns out to be a core attachment as he reconstructs the horrors through which she lived when the Russian soldiers entered the city of Vienna at the end of the second World War. She was raped “hundreds of times”, she tells him openly as a child. Only the “old and ugly” women were spared.
This may be the most vulnerable pressure point in Baxter’s own biography.
He carries that brutal inheritance with him through the streets of Dublin, a prosthetic agony that he can never shake off. He has no right to abandon that memory because it is the source of his dislocation, the reason why he describes himself as the “dream of somebody who is no longer alive”.
Baxter makes no attempt to dress up his story. He becomes all the more an outsider in Dublin, a stranger in the presence of other human beings, wandering from one partner to the next, sabotaging the shoots of any lasting attachments, becoming a voyeur in his own life and writing his log of sexual encounters with telescopic intensity.
The emotional connections finally assert themselves on a return journey to the US to visit his divorced parents. His mother is described as a violent woman. When her declawed cat is killed by a neighbour’s Dobermann pinschers she takes out a rifle and shoots two of them; then, when the neighbour threatens to call the police, she dares him to. After visiting his mother, Baxter walks straight into a strip club called the Glitter Gulch where the women inside are all “old and ugly”.
The most affecting revelation of all is the description of Baxter growing up unable to defend himself in a fight on the street, taking repeated summary beatings without ever raising a hand to protect himself.
Perhaps his passivity and subsequent raging lust for life also have their origins in history. His mother pleads with him to stand up for himself, but by the time he learns any of those essential survival instincts it is too late, and he has become a boy living inside his own imagination, a watcher of his own helplessness, a writer in the making.
“I live in Ireland,” he finally declares with casual conviction on a journey back to Vienna. He continues mapping streets where his grandmother once lived, and, in reconnecting himself to the German language, he discovers a kindness in himself towards his homosexual cousin, Walter, who is portrayed as in a state of decline.
Every self-portrait is ultimately an illusion, a dramatisation, an attempt at truth and self-location. The unremitting precision of Baxter’s self-revelation often takes on the appearance of incontrovertible exhibits in a medical journal, something you cannot take your eyes off. He wears his heart on his sleeve, but he also avoids self-pity and self-loathing, mapping everything he comes in contact with, women’s bodies, the furniture in his room, the books he admires.
In one key, illuminating moment, he quotes the author Tim Robinson, the great map maker of Connemara, who describes the landscape with such accuracy through the eyes of an explorer as “frightened”. And perhaps the idea of nationhood and belonging are forever “frightened” from here on.
It is through this bold self-exploration that Baxter finds his feet and establishes a certainty of place, reaching a raw, distressed beauty of its own in the writing. The triumph is in the steely courage it takes to put a life down with such uncompromising clarity.
Hugo Hamilton’s latest novel, Hand in the Fire,is published by Fourth Estate.