I enjoy reading personal essays, diaries, and memoirs, particularly when penned by authors with whom I’m familiar in other genres, such a fiction or poetry. It gives me additional insights into their personalities, into what might have informed their writing (although I know the literary critics say biography shouldn’t be taken into account when analyzing a writer’s work). I enjoy hearing their “normal” voice in my mind’s ear, as they write about their family life or experiences at school, their travels, their sorrows. I’ve read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries several times, and devoured Virginia Woolf’s. Caroline Knapp’s collection of essays, The Merry Recluse, is always close to hand on my bookshelf, as is her memoir, Drinking: A Life. Reading Frances Mayes delightful books about her home in Tuscany make me feel as if I’ve spent an afternoon reclining on her warm, sunny terrace, drinking prosecco nibbling on bruschetta. Through their letters, their travelogues, the baring of their very souls, these authors begin to feel like friends – I become attached to them.
So I was saddened today when I read of Nuala O’Failan’s death. Several years ago, I found her memoir Are You Somebody? on a sale table in Barnes and Noble. When I opened it and read these words, can you doubt that I felt as if I’d found a soul mate?
The most useful thing I brought out of my childhood was confidence in reading. Not long ago, I went on a weekend self-exploratory workshop, in the hope of getting a clue about how to live. One of the exercises we were given was to make a list of the ten most important events of our lives – the key moments that brought us from birth to whatever we are now. Number one was : “I was born,” and you could put whatever you liked after that. Without even thinking about it my hand wrote, at number two: “I learnt to read.” Now, “I was born and learnt to read” wouldn’t be a sequence that occurs to many people, I imagine. But I knew what I meant to say. Being born was something done to me, but my own life began – I began for myself – when I first made out the meaning of a sentence.
And though I’d never met the woman, or read another word she wrote, I felt a kindred spirit. Our formative years couldn’t have been more different – she was one of eight children, raised on the outskirts of Dublin in “shabby bohemian circumstances,” her father a “dapper, reticent man” who treated his children as if he had “met them at a cocktail party”; her mother a “voracious reader who never wanted children.” O’Faolain herself struggles with alcohol, with finding and keeping love, with discovering who she is and what she’s meant to do with her life. She finally ended up working as a radio commentator, and in 1968 The Irish Times discovered her unique voice and hired her to write an opinion column. It was this column that made her the “somebody” she refers to in the title of her memoir.
Sometimes when I’m drinking in a lounge bar, a group of women, say, across the room, may look at me and send one of their number over to me, or when I’m in the grocery store someone who has just passed my by turns back and comes right up to me and scrutinises my face. “Are you somebody?” they ask. Well- am I somebody? I’m not anybody in terms of the world, but then, who decides who a somebody is? How is a somebody made? I’ve never done anything remarkable; neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable. That self importance welled up inside me. I had the desire to give an account of my life.
And so she did.
O’Faolain, aged 68, died May 9, 2008, of lung cancer. In a recent interview, with her characteristic poignant sarcasm, she had this to say about her impending death:
“I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me,” she said. “The world said to me, ‘That’s enough of you now, and what’s more, we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end.’ ”