ALL THE BELOVED GHOSTS BY ALISON MACLEOD
A Gathering of Ghosts
by Naheed Patel
In her recent book of essays, Abandon Me, memoirist Melissa Febos says the following about memory: “The French philosopher Theodule Ribot, claimed memory’s location in the nervous system, and thusly of material nature. Henri Bergson, in his rebuttal to Ribot, made a distinction between practical memory and pure memory, the latter of which trades in ‘image remembrance.’ Bergson believed that the more a spirit draws from this true memory, and exists in an awareness of the past in conjunction with the immediacy of bodily experience, the more conscious she becomes. Impulsivity, according to the philosopher, is the symptom of a person trapped in her corporeal present, accessing only her practical memory.”
One finds Bergson’s theory hard at work in the latest short story collection by Booker Prize long-listed author Alison MacLeod, All the Beloved Ghosts (Bloomsbury, March 2017). MacLeod’s stories are stunning vignettes of the subconscious’ desire to transpose the lived body’s sense-memories into the pure memory of the past—the proverbial “life flashing before one’s eyes”—a phenomenon that is frequently associated with moments of loss or death. In the story “Oscillate Wildly,” Liam O’Donnell lies dying of cancer, surrounded by family members. When his brother Eoin holds his hand to comfort him, Liam is transported back to Belfast in 1957, to the cinema theatre where, as a small child, he first fell in love with an actress who played Calamity Jane on the silver screen. From there Liam’s mind travels to a cemetery where his uncle Gaston was the keeper, the place where Oscar Wilde is buried under a disdainful angel. There, a young Liam, “runs past the flower pots with rotting stems; past sad faced stone ladies with their gowns sliding off their titties; past funny street signs at the junctions of the paths, as if this is actually a town of the dead; past graves that aren’t graves but fancy stone houses with only one room because, he supposes, the needs of the dead are few.” Dying causes a tear in the continuity of Liam’s time and space, and produces an urgent need for self-reflexivity, letting him sift through his life as if through the pages of a beloved book, lingering on a scene now and then: his rough childhood in Ireland, the death of his mother, his warmed-over first marriage, the birth of his daughters, the time he did cartwheels to impress his lover.
All the Beloved Ghosts has a particular blend of fiction, memoir, and biography. In one story, a young woman fresh out of mourning spends everything on a fur coat, which she wears to a dance that changes her life. At Sylvia Plath’s Yorkshire grave, the author imagines a conversation with the poet, feeling kinship with a fellow North American settled in grey, rainy England. Other stories include a decrepit Angelica Garnett besieged by visions of her famous aunt and other ghosts from her Bloomsbury childhood, and the author, trapped in loveless marriage, sifting through newspaper cuttings on Princess Diana—a woman also similarly trapped—imagining the last night of the princess’ tragically short life, which was spent outrunning paparazzi before fatally crashing her car in a tunnel in Paris. In these pieces, an acknowledgement of the coeval origins of immortality and finitude links the characters’ present experience with their histories. MacLeod’s prose has room for vulnerability, yet is unsparingly direct; she maintains a deep, abiding empathy for her characters, but also keeps ruthless authorial control over their fates. We are close enough to feel her characters’ pain, yet distant enough to understand more than they do. To quote the critic James Woods, she makes the reader “see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens up between author and character, and the bridge between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.”
In the trio of stories titled “Imagining Chekhov” MacLeod not only reexamines memory through the discourse of time and death, but also dismantles the literary “fourth wall” to deliver a startling and entertaining mini-lesson in craft. In “Woman With Little Pug,” a riposte to Chekhov’s canonical tale, the woman’s dog (the pug of the title) simply disappears halfway through the narrative, and is acknowledged by the main characters, Anna and Guy, to be a mere device to get them to meet. In contrast to the hermetically sealed literary atmosphere of “The Lady with the Dog,” MacLeod’s version pushes her characters to be ironically self-referential and aware of the limits of their fictional world.
In “Chekhov’s Telescope,” the second in this series, Anton Chekhov and his lover Olga Knipper stand atop the deck of the Alexander II, a steamer bound for Yalta. The couple takes turns looking through a small naval telescope that Chekhov has produced from his pocket. The telescope, Chekhov claims, “can see through time as well as space.” Through it, they spy another much lonelier, more heartsick Chekhov, who is watching them through his telescope. The other Chekhov is at the window of a white house with two balconies—behind him on a desk is the manuscript of “The Lady with the Dog.” In the third and final piece in the series, “The Death of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov,” the great writer jauntily describes his own demise—at a popular German health spa—and revels in the absurdity of having his six-foot plus corpse carried out in a laundry basket from the hotel under cover of darkness:
“Olga and a small procession of acquaintances bear me to a nearby chapel. The light from two lanterns plays upon my face, and I seem to wear a most inappropriate smile.
You couldn’t make it up.
Of course travel arrangements for the dead rarely achieve the gravitas of the grave. In the end, the Russian Embassy commandeers a train—or, to be specific, a refrigerated car marked ‘Oysters.’
I never subscribed to any heroic ideal.
I am happy to be mistaken for an oyster.”
In “Imaginary Homelands” Salman Rushdie says, “It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors,” but “the broken mirror may actually be valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed.” It is perhaps obvious that we see all art through a lens molded in the crucible of our lived experiences. As an Indian immigrant who writes about home, I love how MacLeod sets up the stories in All the Beloved Ghosts to reflect not just the past—but each other as well—creating an infinity mirror out of their suggested meaning. There is a certain liminal dexterity in MacLeod’s prose, in the way her characters pull back their worlds’ temporal veils to traverse time and space, which has echoes in the Vedanta philosophy of Māyā (Sanskrit: माया). Māyā, which was also the name of Buddha’s mother, denotes the transient nature of the finite world, and the ephemerality of physical memory. The philosophy encourages detachment—when nothing is real, cathexis seems pointless.
Perhaps the best description of the stories in All the Beloved Ghosts is to be found within the book itself, as spoken by a character named Ella in “The Heart of Denis Noble.” Denis Noble is a renowned cardio-vascular specialist about to undergo a heart transplant. As the opioids take over, Denis finds himself on the edge of unconsciousness, between the corporeal and the metaphysical. When one’s heart is cut out and replaced, Denis wonders, as he lies on the operating table, what will become of those beloved memories, which are purported to reside in his old heart?
To find out, Denis travels back to when his heart first started beating inside his young mother’s body; to when, as a toddler, he lay under a kitchen table with his mother and sister during a winter blitzkrieg in 1940; to harvesting sheep’s hearts as a medical student in the 1960s; to making love on a thin bed with Ella, an outspoken journalist covering D.H. Lawrence’s obscenity trial, who would later become his wife. A good story is like a living thing, Ella tells Denis: “Every part of a great story contains every other part. Every small part anticipates the whole. Nothing can be passive or static. Not if it’s great and…true to life. Nothing is just a part. Not really. Because the whole cannot be divided. That’s what a real creation is. It has its own unity. The heart is, I suspect, a great creation, so the same rule will apply.”
Naheed Patel is an Indian writer, editor and translator. She has an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, and tweets @naheed_patel.