by Alex Pheby (2018)
Galley Beggar Press (2018)
357 pp

Lucia Alex Pheby

There are times when beauty trumps truth, but these are very few, for truth is beauty and even in the fantastic there are forms of truth – fabular truths, allegorical truths, wider human truths – that are beautiful in an universal manner.  In this, a dancing puppet can exceed any philosophy in approaching both universal truth and perfect beauty – who could say otherwise after a visit to the Louvre, or the Musee d’Orsay, or the ballet, or the countryside, or the, or the, or, all the others.

The dancer Lucia Joyce, daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, performed for the famous director Jean Renoir at Les Ateliers du Vieux Colombier, Paris, France in the summer of 1927, and her performance was filmed.  She had been commissioned to perform for a role in Renoir’s La Petite Marchande d’allumettes, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s La Petite Fille aux allumettes, but her dance was cut from the final edit. She was removed.

This is apt.

Truth and beauty, perhaps they are inseparable, and so lies and ugliness.

Lucia is another excellent novel from the wonderful Galley Beggar Press, publishers (astonishingly for such a small operation) of, among other books, We That Are Young, Forbidden Line, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Feeding Time, Tinderbox, and, also by Alex Pheby, Playthings.

There are already excellent reviews, listed below — including a brilliant review by David Collard in The Times Literary Supplement where he describes Lucia as “an ambitious and daring investigation of consciousness, agency, selfhood, mental disorder, medical callousness and misogyny,” which sums it up perfectly — so rather than cover the same ground I will focus on what I saw as the development of Lucia from Pheby’s previous novel Playthings.

Playthings was based on the real-life case of Daniel Paul Schreber, who was diagnosed with what was to be later known paranoid schizophrenia and who described one of his periods of mental illness in a memoir Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken. The memoir became famous mainly because Freud drew on it heavily in his work, giving Schreber’s condition a, well, very Freudian interpretation. But for Schreber, a distinguished jurist, the book was actually intended to answer the moral and legal question: “In what circumstance can a person deemed insane be detained in an asylum against his declared will?”

Playthings, although written in the third person, is told from the perspective of Schreber and draws on his work and on the considerable volume of analysis of his case and Freud’s interpretation. Indeed the one drawback of an impressive novel was that I felt it perhaps required, for a full appreciation, much more prior knowledge of the case than I had (which was precisely zero).

Lucia by contrast is a much more accessible novel, at least to this reader. And Lucia herself is the absent center of the novel, which is largely written from the perspective of those who encountered her during her life. And, far from having a wealth of documentary evidence to draw upon, very little is known about Lucia. A surviving 1936 letter from James Joyce one of the few mentions that remains in his correspondence:

Her case is cyclothymia, dating from the age of seven and a half. She is about thirty-three, speaks French fluently . . . Her character is gay, sweet and ironic, but has had bursts of anger over nothing when she has been confined to a straitjacket.

This requires, but also enables, Pheby as a novelist to fill the gaps. As he explains after one particular anecdote where the novel has Lucia’s brother Giorgio torture her pet rabbit to ensure her silence as to his incestuous relations with her:

If there are those of you reading this who know Giorgio, you might say this never happened. But how do you know? How does one ever know what it is that occurs outside the range of one’s experience? You may not know that it did happen, but this is not the same as knowing that it did not happen. Perhaps if there were documentary evidence; but who keeps such records? Is it even possible to keep evidence of things that might happen that someone wishes to keep secret? If one has secrets, and then burns the evidence on a pure, one invites speculation, and speculation is infinite in a way that the truth is not. Speculation is limited only by the sick imaginations of those who speculate, where truth is not. Why shouldn’t Giorgio have tortured Lucia’s rabbit to prevent her from speaking? All things that are possible are, in the absence of facts that have been destroyed that might have proved them incorrect, equally correct.

The moral of this story is: do not destroy documentary evidence of the truth, since it will come back and bit you in the arse.

This last a reference to the Joyce estate and their destruction of much of the relevant material including Lucia’s own letters. In 2003, Carole Schloss wrote a biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, stating that “this is a story that was not supposed to be told,” and found herself in a legal battle with the Joyce estate, which initially forced her publishers to redact significant parts of the book (in turn leading to early reviewer’s arguing some of her claims were unsubstantiated) but which she eventually won.

An article from Jezebel, “The Disappearing Act of Lucia Joyce” (here), provides both a good summary of Lucia’s life, but also suggests the need for an appropriate fictional treatment. Pheby’s wonderful new novel rises to the challenge he sets himself:

This woman had gone into the afterlife friendless and I resolved to address that lack.

Other reviews:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!