Tuesday, March 18, 2008

ARE YOU SOMEBODY? by Nuala O'Faolain

The Book: Nuala O'Faolain, ARE YOU SOMEBODY? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. Owl Books trade paperback reprint, 1999 (11th printing). Very good condition.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2002

This was Nuala O'Faolain's first book, but it's the third one I read, and it's strange that it's the only one still on my shelves. Paradoxically, it's not because it's my favorite; it's because I've lent out my favorite (her novel, MY DREAM OF YOU), and because the first of her books I read (her second memoir, ALMOST THERE) was a loan from my friend Maeve.

If that sounds complicated, it's appropriate. My feelings about this book are complicated. It's an "accidental memoir" by a woman who lived an accidental life, in many ways, until she was almost 50. Nuala O'Faolain was the bright daughter of a Dublin theatrical critic and his alcoholic wife, one of nine children who survived her mother's 13 births. She grew up in isolated shabby gentility, because no one was supposed to know just how poor her family was, and because her father had a longtime mistress in the city who was supposed to be a secret from his wife. O'Faolain had a marvelous education, but her mother told her she cared less that her daughters succeed at university than that they get husbands and children.

O'Faolain didn't marry and didn't have children, and -- by her own description -- drifted into a successful career, as a journalist and TV producer, that she didn't really pursue and never felt she deserved. Along the way she had any number of relationships with inappropriate men, and met thousands of people but had a hard time keeping friendships, because of the lifetime of secrecy trained into her.

This memoir seems, at least in part, a response to that nuclear weapon of Irish families: "Who do you think you are?" Are You Somebody? is O'Faolain's effort to answer that question for herself. It was an uncomfortable read, not least because I recognized many of my own most-deplored character traits in her.

Her second memoir is much more hopeful, a story of life beginning after 50, and I'm glad I read that one first. Had I read this book first, the sadness of it would have overwhelmed me, and I wouldn't have read any more of O'Faolain's work. As it is, I keep this book to remind myself that life will always surprise us, as long as we keep living.


Moira said...

I got borrowed this book from you or maybe Sheila and Maeve and really enjoyed it. Enjoy, might not be the right word, since it is so honest, sometimes it's hard to take. But that candor is what makes it a great memoir.

Glenn said...

Not sure if you are American or have heard this but listen to 12th April. Very very sad. So honest.


AnswerGirl said...

Yes, I'm American, and I had not heard that interview. Heartbreaking. It's so unfair that she doesn't get to hold onto her life, once she finally found it.

AnswerGirl said...

The complete transcript of her interview with Marian Finucane is here:

It is horribly sad. I hope that she finds peace and some hope before the last.

Glenn said...

I've never heard anything as bleak, it's opening a huge discussion here in Ireland about dying and what it's like and how to do it. I hope the interview gets a wide audience,people should hear this.

AnswerGirl said...

Catholics pray for "a happy death," as if such a thing were possible. Maybe it isn't, but I think it is possible to love your life as you leave it. What's so terrible about Nuala O'Faolain's comments is that she says all the joy has gone out of life for her. I hope it comes back. I think it will, I think it does -- I think that's grace -- for the people who are open to it.

And since I believe, I hope that God makes himself (or herself) known to her, at the end.

Anthony Hull said...

For those who have not noticed, there is an earlier December 2006 interview with Marian Finucane on the same website. I think everyone who has read this far can understand the intensity of the experience of, and the reflections that are induced by, listening to both interviews together.

AnswerGirl said...

Looking for something else the other day, I came across this fragment of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which is what I want to say to Nuala O'Faolain:

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

Anonymous said...

I loved Nuala and all her work, and am having trouble accessing the earlier interview on december 23 2006. Can someone tell me exactly how to access it on the web please?

Glenn said...

Hi Answer Girl, it's sad to hear her talking about her future plans http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2006/pc/pod-v-231206-30m59s-marianfinucane.mp3

try this. Glenn

AnswerGirl said...

I've just seen the news of Nuala O'Faolain's death. The RTE obituary is here: http://www.rte.ie/arts/2008/0510/ofaolainn.html

She didn't believe, but I'll say it anyway: May hers and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.