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12 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:16pm

Anne Enright’s Actress: a plodding, clichéd story

Enright’s new novel about the daughter of an actress finds itself in a biographical straitjacket.

By Leo Robson

Anne Enright’s puzzling new novel is a counterblast against reductive thinking that struggles to offer a satisfying rival vision. The narrator, Norah FitzMaurice, a middle-aged novelist, believes that her late mother, the actress Katherine O’Dell, has been consistently misrepresented. Like Cecilia Brady, the “producer’s daughter” in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, who says that people either take Hollywood for granted or treat it with contempt, Norah is careful to identify a pair of pitfalls – the laziness of journalism and the arrogance of cultural history. 

The old newspaper clippings about Katherine are “unreadable”. A press shot of mother and (a misnamed) daughter at Norah’s 21st birthday party is “such a fake”. Meanwhile, 30 years after Katherine’s death, the specialists turn up at her house, take notes, and then “write something enormously wrong-headed”. 

The latest visitor, a young female academic, sniffs around for hints of “maternal cruelty, narcissism, neglect”, and Norah finds it “easy enough to let her down”. When she asks how Katherine “styled her femininity”, Norah replies, “She slept with men.” “Do you ever wonder if she was abused as a child?” “No, I don’t.”

Norah’s withering assessments and stonewall responses prompt the question of what might usefully be said about her mother. Having dispatched journalism in the first chapter and academic writing in the second, Norah seems to identify a positive model: portraiture of the quirks-and-all variety. She notes that her mother “enjoyed a long Stalin phase”, but the emphasis of her reading wasn’t the headline stuff – the gulags or the Yalta Conference. It was the little personal things: Stalin’s taste for sweet Georgian wines, for example, or what his daughter said about his star sign.

But Norah complicates, or perhaps just undermines, this personal approach with the surprising announcement that she actually disdains her mother’s taste. Norah says that as a “tight-assed Virgo” she loathes all talk of the Zodiac. She also acknowledges that her rising sign is Libra, which makes her “secretly creative”. And then she says that she was a careful child who liked “facts, maps, arithmetic and science”.

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What kind of account emerges from this tangled sensibility? For the most part, a plodding, traditional one, the product of Norah’s Virgoan instincts and with a strong emphasis on the equivalents, in her mother’s life, of Yalta and the gulags. Enright is an exceptionally gifted novelist, capable of leaping comedy (What Are You Like?) as well as unblinking depictions of Irish family life (Booker Prize winner The Gathering, The Green Road), and she has been justly praised for her precise and idiosyncratic phrasing. But Actress is written for long stretches in straight biographese (“Her father,  Menton FitzMaurice, was born in 1899. He was the son of an Irish Captain in the British army…”), as it moves from legacy to cradle to grave and back to legacy via the thrill of making it and the toils of mid-career.

After you finish Actress, the title seems to signal not an archetype – ambiguous, multiple – but a stereotype: a woman who behaved in an actress-y way, did a lot actress-y things, knew Samuel Beckett a little, struggled to make it in the movies, was mistreated by men, dabbled in politics, went mad. In place of what she doesn’t like, Norah offers not the feared retreat into mystery – My Mother the Enigma – but something no less futile: a biographical straitjacket.

The problem with Norah adopting this approach is partly that she has promised the reader genuine enlightenment, and partly that Katherine’s story comes straight off the peg. She is born in London, in 1928, to a couple of “touring players”. Her early education is “haphazard”. Then she goes to a Catholic boarding school in the far west of Ireland and becomes “rapt with love of the nuns”. During the Second World War, she works at box offices and takes on small roles when asked.

One day, when someone falls ill, she is given three hours’ notice to play George du Maurier’s Trilby, the plaything of Svengali, and becomes part of the travelling company. After the war, aged 19, she gets her break, playing “Talitha” in “Jack Ashburnham’s The Awoken”, which “ran for six packed-out months in the West End”.

Then it transfers to Broadway. Katherine boards the Queen Mary at Southampton, where “her appearance at the rails was captured by Pathé News”. In New York, she samples Chicken Kiev in the Russian Tea Room. On opening night, she dines at Sardi’s and waits for the reviews. Later that year, she lands “what proved to be her defining role” – Sister Mary Felicitas, a feisty Irish nurse, in a play called A Prayer Before Morning and in the film version Mulligan’s Holy War – the hit that would “bring her to Hollywood and to lasting fame”.

Fitzgerald, in a note for The Last Tycoon entitled “Actress”, advised, “don’t let it drift away in detailed description of her career”. That’s essentially what happens here.  Norah even talks at one point “getting a little tired of the whole merry-go-round”. Along the way, virtually every cliché is pressed into service: “it did not take long for rumours to circulate of fights behind closed doors”; “She stole every scene”; “my mother was a complete professional”. Katherine is visited backstage by friends who “kiss and exclaim that she had been Marvellous, Darling”. She collaborates with a man named Wójcik, who came with “a reputation as an edgy director”. She appears in “an iconic, little-seen production” of Beckett’s Not I. 

This is Norah’s approach, but is it  Enright’s? After all, she isn’t Katherine O’Dell’s daughter, and might be expected to see with greater clarity or distance. Is Norah in denial? Is her book in fact about feminine stylings, sexual abuse, narcissism and neglect? Or is the novel intended as a slightly fuzzy-eyed view of the stage, or as a depiction of a minor novelist’s stab at an unfamiliar genre? The answer to all these questions is: maybe. 

But without a bit more authorial nudging, it’s hard to know how to interpret certain details. In the first sentence, Norah asserts, “we did not use the word star”. But on the next page, she salutes “Katherine O’Dell, star of stage and screen”; on the page after that, she says that even at the breakfast table Katherine was a star; and on the page after that she uses the words “Star struck”. Later she expands on the elusiveness of star-power (“Katherine O’Dell had it in spades”).

The novel only comes alive as a daughter’s ambivalent first-hand account, streaming with intimate detail-memories of Katherine saying “‘an’ hotel”, or the way she received her ovation, as if surprised at the audience’s presence. A number of brief, personal-snapshot chapters (“A word in passing about my mother at a funeral”) point to the road not taken. Enright might have been better served by a mode like that used by Janet Malcolm in her episodic profile of the painter David Salle (“Forty-One False Starts”), or by adopting the philosophy of how to grasp an elusive subject espoused by Fitzgerald’s Cecilia Brady – “dimly and in flashes”. 

Anne Enright appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 April

Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape, 264pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose