Archives for the month of: April, 2013

This debut novel by the Norwegian author Kjersti A. Skomsvold was my second read on the IMPAC Dublin literary award shortlist.

An intriguing and intense book, I liked it when I read it, and it has lingered much in my thoughts ever since.

The central character is Mathea Martinsen, an elderly widow who lives alone, leading a solitary and almost agoraphobic life, “I Mathea am alone”. The details of her life are subtlely revealed, interspersed with Mathea’s own musings:

‘I never got the point of flowers, they’re just going to wither and die.’

‘I like it when I can be done with something. Like a knitted earwarmer, like winter, spring, summer, fall.’

We know that Mathea has been married to Epsilon, and that they did not have children, a loss that is not dwelt on but more obliquely alluded to:

‘I identify with bananas, for not only am I hunched over, I’ve also got a flower without sex organs and fruit without seed, and therefore I am, according to the Buddha, meaningless.’

Now widowed, childless and alone, Mathea spends much time considering her own approaching death:

‘It may take a long time before anyone realizes I’ve died.’

However, her thoughts are neither maudlin nor self-pitying as she considers, in a sometimes peculiarly detached way, her last moments:

‘It’s getting dark, I’m trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be.’

Obituaries preoccupy, and distract:

‘LIVE LIFE. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally, I decide to do what I always do: read the obituaries.’

Yet she is also philosophical, and knowing, about her own life and its inherent solitude:

‘”MATHEA MARTINSEN – deeply loved, dearly missed,” I write at the top of the page and underline it.’

‘Today I’m glad my name isn’t there. Still, an obituary would be proof of my existence…’

‘I used to read obituaries to gloat over all the people I’d outlived, but now I don’t think it matters, we all live for just a moment anyway.’

She is not afraid to consider death, and does so with much pragmatism and wry humour:

‘I need to expose myself more and more to death – without going too far, it’s a delicate balance – but then at last I’ll be able to live with the fact that I’m going to die. I figure this can be done in two ways and so I draw up a list.

1. I can visit graveyards, go to funerals, or I can plan my own funeral…

…It must be terrible to plan your own funeral. It’s probably easier to plan other people’s.

2. I can begin living dangerously. I can cross the street without first looking left, then right, then left again.’

But part of her obsession with dying also connects to her struggle with living, and her solitary existence:

‘I’m still sitting here in my apartment and I’m just as afraid of living life as I am of dying.’

Mathea appears profoundly lonely, despite her fear of others, a loneliness that she has experienced all her life:

‘Now I hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, they should be coming to get me because I’m wearing clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead…’

The tragic irony is that she does want to connect with others, but does not know how:

‘I usually buy what other people buy, it’s nice to have boiled cod for dinner if the woman in front of me at the checkout is also having boiled cod.’

‘I let myself imagine that someone might notice me on the way to the store. But what would I do if that happened, probably nothing, and whoever it is might be disappointed by what they see. I’ve never heard of anyone being impressed by nothing at all, and I don’t like to disappoint people.’

‘You’re only fooling yourself if you think you can’t be lonely just because you’re busy, but the most important thing is that no one else thinks you’re lonely.’

Ultimately defeated, Mathea arrives at her own denouement:

‘I’m not afraid of dying anymore, I’m just afraid of dying alone, and I’ve already done that.’

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am addresses very significant themes, around what it means to be human and to have lived, such as solitude, loneliness, the inevitability of death, the need to belong, to be visible and noticed, and to matter.

Big stuff, which lingers and makes you think…


Modern neuroscience first emerged in the late 1800s, and our interest, both lay and scientific, on how our brains work has increased exponentially since.

George W Bush declared the 1990s the ‘Decade of the Brain’.

This month, the current US President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to map the human brain.

It is not surprising that we humans are so fascinated by the workings of our most invisible organ. Our brains are unique to our selves, and largely define who we are. Yet, an understanding of how they work, what the relationship is between the brain and the mind, continues to elude. Much public and scientific consideration is ongoing, however, snippets of which now regularly appear in the press, whetting our appetites with the tantalising prospect of answering questions on who we are, and what makes us think and behave as we do.

One such journalistic piece appeared in The New York Times this month- What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (

The writer of the article, Eric R. Kandel, challenges us to consider what we can learn about the mind by examining how we view art.

Kandel focuses on the modernist school of art in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, and the three defining artists of the school, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, who ‘sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the people in their portraits, but each painter developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate those mental processes.’

These artistic efforts – explorations of the idea that truth lies beneath the surface – were mirrored at the time in the world of psychoanalysis. Freud, who trained at the Vienna School of Medicine pioneered the practice of using psychoanalysis to explore the subconscious, which ran in parallel with similar explorations by the Austrian modernist painters in their portraits.

Kandel draws our attention to this era in terms of how it addressed the question of how art and science might be brought together. The importance of the viewer in the artistic process arises, and with it the notion that art is by definition incomplete without the observer’s involvement and contribution.

‘Art is inherently ambiguous’, and thus we all have different interpretations of the same image. We interpret as individuals because the brain is ‘a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it.’

How we respond to art depends on our own previous and unique experiences, and what our brains remember and store, and also what connections they make. As we look at a picture, we use several interacting systems to analyse and experience what we ‘see’.

Our brain’s representation of faces is particularly important when we see and respond to portraits, as our brains devote more space to reading faces than to any other visual analysis.

We may ‘see’ with our eyes, but we experience, and each of us differently and uniquely, with our brains…


I have set myself the challenge of reading all the books on the IMPAC (International Dublin Literary Award) short list – 10 in total – before the winner is announced in early June.

I am currently on number three, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane. Thus far, I have really enjoyed the idiosyncratic and diverse mix.

For now, I want to focus on my first read, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka’s novel tells the story of Japanese mail-order brides who embarked on a journey into the unknown hinterland of America during the interwar period, and into the arms of men that they had never met, and how their lives unfolded thereafter in an adopted homeland.

A large part of the magic of this book lies in its style, which is inextricably bound to the poignancy and tragedy of the narrative that it delivers.

The style is unusual and unique. The Buddha in the Attic is not about one woman, or any named women in particular, but about many. It is a composite narrative where individual stories and happenings merge to reveal, perhaps surprisingly, something in the plural that feels even more powerful than anything an individual voice might provide.

We first meet the anonymous group on the boat that is transporting them from the Japan they grew up in to a land they can only imagine. As they prepare for their new lives, they discuss amongst themselves how they should behave in their new homeland:

‘A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist.’

They are excited and hopeful, and also clearly desperate to leave Japan for a better life:

‘I took one look at his photograph and told the matchmaker, “He’ll do.”‘

On arrival, hope for this better life is quickly shattered. The husbands, strangers who greet them, are not what they expected:

‘They were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors…’

The men are desperate too, and quickly claim their mail-order brides:

‘They took us swiftly, repeatedly, and all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.’

Thus ‘owned’, the identity of these transported women becomes subsumed in their roles as wives, workers, and mothers, their own selves disappearing in an unwelcoming world:

‘Say “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.’

Not all managed to overcome the disappointment and disillusionment that greeted them on arrival in America:

‘One of us filled the sleeves of her white silk kimono with stones and wandered out into the sea, and we still say a prayer for her every day.’

There were few alternatives. Returning to Japan was not an option:

‘If you come home, our fathers had written to us, you will disgrace the entire family.’

We follow the cycles of their lives. Babies arrive, rarely joyously:

‘We gave birth six weeks after our husband had left us to a child we now wish we had never given away.’

Despite all this, hope continued for some until the very end, ‘Still, they dreamed’, even though they knew for certain, particularly post Pearl Harbour, that their presence in this unwelcoming land was finite:

‘And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.’

As they gradually disappear, so too does the voice of the first person plural, shifting from ‘we’ to ‘they’:

‘The Japanese have disappeared from our town.’

It feels as if the ‘invisible world’ that they inhabited has finally engulfed them, and no trace of their ever being, and mattering, remains:

‘All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.’


This film (2011) tells the story of the impact of the recovery of three boxes of photographs, the ‘Mexican Suitcase’ of the title, that had been lost during WWII and only reappeared in 2007.

The boxes contained negatives of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), as taken by the war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David “Chim” Seymour.

The negatives are fascinating, and essential, because of the amazing story of war that they reveal, at the frontline and with the immediacy and urgency and authenticity that photographers who were actually there at the moment of action could witness and share. Thus, the images allow us, today, to gain an unique insight into war, with all its attendant brutality and destruction and tragedy.

I had not realised that the Spanish Civil War is one of the most unspoken events in the nation’s history. It is shrouded in silence, or has been until relatively recently, and few who lived through it have chosen to speak publicly. This culture is changing, as younger generations begin to question and to demand answers on their national inheritance – one commented that the Spanish Civil War, of which he personally played no part being born many years later, was the single greatest influence on his life and upbringing.

Photographs play a unique role in both our personal and national archives. They serve to corroborate the truth of the existence of place, and of people. For many of those who died during the Spanish Civil War – over half a million people in total – no bodies have been found, and relatives, reminiscent of Pinochet’s legacy as depicted in Nostalgia for the Light, continue to search for their remains. In the meantime, the only tangible legacy they have are photographs, and the contents of the ‘Mexican Suitcase’ significantly contributes to the reality of their remembering.

All three photographers, Capa, Taro and Seymour, died during combat. Taro was killed during the Spanish Civil War, and the other two later, in the 1950s. It is now extraordinary to see the extent to which all three were involved in frontline action, willingly risking their lives for representations of the reality of war.

And thus, long after the event, we can witness, as we should, the horror of it all.



Currently at The Print Room (a very lovely and intimate theatre near Westbourne Grove that I have only just discovered), Molly Sweeney first appeared in 1994. Inspired by the playwright’s own cataract operations in 1992, the play consists of a series of monologues from three performers: Molly Sweeney (Dorothy Duff), who has been blind since 10 months of age, Molly’s husband Frank Sweeney (Ruairi Conaghan), and the surgeon Mr Rice (Stuart Graham), who operates on Molly in an attempt to restore her sight.

This is an intense piece, superbly acted, which explores not just the meaning of sight and vision and the disconnectedness between seeing and understanding, but also addresses issues around identity, how we define ourselves, how we allow others define us, and the tragic consequences that can ensue when we change who we are, not for our own sakes, but for those we love.

The play is primarily the story of Molly, but it is also the story of Frank, whose mission and obsession becomes the restoration of Molly’s sight, and of Mr Rice, whose interest in operating on Molly takes on a personal agenda that goes beyond his patient and her needs.

A microcosm of life itself, the three characters represent the world at large, the interconnectedness and conditionality of all our relationships, and how self-serving and destructive they can become.

Thought provoking stuff…


This collection from the Australian poet Peter Porter (who lived in Paddington, London, from 1968 until his death in 2010) first appeared in 1978.

The Cost of Seriousness was written in the aftermath of tragedy, Porter’s wife having committed suicide in 1974. In the preface, the poet states that the book’s ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife.’ This is most overtly seen in two laments, An Exequy and The Delegate.

From An Exequy:

‘In wet May, in months of change,

In a country you wouldn’t visit, strange

Dreams pursue me in my sleep,

Black creatures of the upper deep –

Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography…’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private…

…The channels of our lives are blocked,

The hand is stopped upon the clock,

No-one can say why hearts will break

And marriages are all opaque:

A map of loss, some posted cards,

The living house reduced to shards,

The abstract hell of memory,

The pointlessness of poetry – ….’

Despite this last line, Porter viewed poetry as “a tub into which you can pour anything”.

For poets (Christopher Reid’s A Scattering comes to mind), writing about traumatic life experiences appears to be less an issue of choice than a compulsion. For Porter:

“I never intended to make those events my subject…but there was a compulsion, something my better self couldn’t suppress. It’s not a question of telling the truth or a lie; it’s not even a question of special pleading. It’s a question of the mind being forced to find a way of dealing with something, not in extenuation and not in therapy, but as a means of presenting the material to itself. I was writing for myself. Poetry was its own answer, its own end.” (

The poet Christopher Reid, whose collection A Scattering concerns his wife Lucinda’s illness, dying and the aftermath of her death, said something not so dissimilar:

“[Poems] must be truthful and they must have a specific formal beauty to them. It is when you bring these two things together – deep emotion and technique – that you get something genuine.” (

And that is largely why I love poetry and why it is so important in my life: its capacity to combine the aesthetic with the authentic to create something real and immediate, and its potential to communicate that which might otherwise elude language and a shareable experience.


I listened to ‘How to Have a Good Death’ on BBC Radio 4 last night ( Hosted by Dr Kevin Foy, the programme aimed to explore how death, despite its universal certainty, is such a taboo subject, and as a result, discussions around dying tend to be avoided. The programme also specifically addressed the current controversial Liverpool Care of the Dying Pathway (LCP) and its implementation.

Contributors included Dr Kate Granger, who I have spoken about previously ( Dr Granger is a junior doctor who has incurable cancer. She has broken with convention and chosen to openly and publicly (including on twitter) speak about her experience living, and dying, with terminal disease.

Recent years have seen a dramatic improvement in the care of the dying. As discussed on air, death is ‘complicated’ and requires its own specialty, Palliative Medicine. I have my own views on this, which I will come back to another time, but I do wonder whether we have over medicalised dying as a result of such specialisation…

Contributors also included the originators of the LCP. Whatever one’s views on the pathway, at the very least it serves as a platform from which issues around death and dying can be openly addressed and discussed, which potentially facilitates those affected having a say in their own dying process.

The prospect of death and the certainty of our mortality fills most people with fear. We tend to speak less about what we fear most, which epitomises how we deal with the subject of death and dying.

Which is why I welcome programmes such as ‘How to Have a Good Death’. I may not fully understand the concept of a ‘Good Death’, but I embrace opportunities that expose us to the taboo subject of mortality, and which challenge us to stop and consider our own dying, and even perhaps ultimately accepting it…


… not a title, or description, that I usually subscribe to (I have some idea of what a ‘bad death’ might mean, but a good one feels much more difficult to qualify, although it seems to appears frequently, and often glibly, in both the lay and medical press), but this is an interesting piece that I recently came across in The New York Times:

The New York Times photographer Joshua Bright visited and photographed a dying man, John R. Hawkins, for more than a year. He seems to have decided on his topic first, and then sourced his subject through the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.

Hawkins was ‘being ushered’ from this life by his long-term friend, Robert Chodo Campbell, who is a Zen priest and co-founder of the Zen center.

At the outset, Bright states that he ‘went in search of both a photo project and a profound experience.’

He appears to have found both: ‘ We could use news of a good death. Not a tragic death or a famous death, just a good one, the kind that might happen to any of us if we are lucky.’

Check out the slide show particularly. I remain unsure as to what constitutes a ‘good death’, but I was moved by the images and the intimacy shared.
I defer to Kafka: ‘The meaning of life is that it stops.’ We surround ourselves with living, often ignoring the fact that dying is an intrinsic and inevitable part of it all.
Thus I welcome a redress of the imbalance with portrayals of death and dying as delivered by Bright, but even more so, I applaud John R. Hawkins’ generosity and sharing.

… and I am with the poet on this one.

From The North Ship:


If grief could burn out

Like a sunken coal,

The heart would rest quiet,

The unrent soul

Be still as a veil;

But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,

The grey ash soft:

And I stir the stubborn flint

The flames have left,

And grief stirs, and the deft

Heart lies impotent.’


I have been eagerly awaiting the novelist’s new book, Levels of Life, which will be on the bookshelves on Saturday.

Last night, on BBC 4’s Front Row programme, Barnes was interviewed by Mark Lawson ( I was struck by how open and candid the author was, particularly as he has always been intensely private about his personal life.

During the interview, Barnes spoke of the “private devastation” he experienced following the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008. Resistant as always to publicly exposing himself, Levels of Life appears to be part biography and autobiography, and part fiction. The grief Barnes has experienced since the death of Kavanagh, who was “the heart of my life; the life of my heart” ( appears to resonate strongly throughout the entire book, irrespective of the different genres involved. Barnes himself refuses to categorise the book, or to attach any definitive label to it.

In the interview, Barnes refers to the power of grief to reconfigure time and space, creating a new geography of sorts.

Each individual’s experience of grief is unique, and as Barnes discovered, there is no way of predicting how one will deal with it until it happens. Some things surprised him following his wife’s death, such as his new found love of opera. Sport also unexpectedly served a purpose, providing an ‘ocularly involving’, but an emotionally detached, distraction.

Barnes also spoke of the suicidal moments within his grieving process. For him, the ultimate antidote to suicide lay with his role as the principal rememberer of Kavanagh, a moral responsibility of sorts to continue on as a repository of his wife’s life and memories.

The author challenges Nietzsche’s maxim (as did Christopher Hitchens), “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. For Barnes, grief weakened him, and in no way gave him strength. Time has helped, and he has to some extent experienced a physical and mental recovery. When he questions himself about how he should now live, he allows himself to be guided by his wife, leading his life as she would want him to.

Barnes challenges the notion that time diminishes grief. It is clear that his love for his wife did not diminish during their time together, on the contrary, and he therefore questions why his grief should fade with time.

I look forward to reading Levels of Life