Remembering Eileen Battersby

  

Remembering Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby's absurd death, in a freak road accident at the side of her beloved daughter Nadia, is a significant loss to literary culture in Ireland and beyond. 
 
I've met very few creative writers who had anything like Eileen's all-consuming passion for literature (and music, art and architecture). She read more, and more widely and generously, than any other cultural journalist I have ever encountered. Literature for her was a devouring vocation, and she would read all day and most of the night, distracted only by deadlines and the need to feed the animals she gathered around her and who were for her as important and loving as her human friends. 
 
And literature for her was world literature, a ceaseless process of discovery, translation and humane communication in a world without borders. She took more delight in discovering a Croatian or Japanese writer than she did in the latest treading of well-worn themes by eminent Irish or British figures. This was a trait that must have tested the patience of the editors who tried to supervise her, but it was what endeared her to publishers trying to reach an English-speaking audience for translated fiction, never an easy task, and to writers who loved her attention to their own work and to books that brought them into contact with other cultures. She was admired by Ford, White, Banville and many others. Eileen was sometimes the only critic in these islands who reviewed truly deserving novels ignored by her peers in England, fixated as many of them are on the already fashionable. 
 
I was wary of her for years, knowing her reputation as a difficult and tempestuous person, but we bonded over a mutual love of the great Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose work I was reviving, with my friend Bob Weil at Norton, in new translations by Michael Hofmann. From then on I would get occasional calls from her, and the best of these required careful planning because a conversation with Eileen was a braided river flowing in myriad channels before it reached its destination. Simply answering the phone to her was fatal to ordinary work, indeed to all the activities modern life demands of us. But if you set aside an hour or so and knew what was coming you could learn about serious novels you'd never heard of and tell her what you were planning to publish and feel vindicated if you interested her in reading it - as well as discovering more about the care and psychology of horses and dogs than most city dwellers ever get to know, and all of this delivered with an unstoppable urgency that made the polite closure of the call nearly impossible. 
 
She could be obsessive, and could seem utterly focused only on what interested her, but she was also an immensely kind person who knew a great deal about hardship from her own difficult personal life, and offered warm and helpful advice to friends in distress. 
 
She managed to combine this capacity for human sympathy with a never quite fully articulated sense of the superior qualities of domesticated animals, in whose emotional lives and intelligence she passionately believed. What seemed like eccentricity twenty years ago is now taken rather more seriously by many zoologists and other thinkers, and Eileen's deep connection with the animals in her life found expression in her strange and moving book Ordinary Dogs, a memoir of the two canine friends who lived for over twenty years as her loyal and supportive companions. I published it at Faber, and editing the book and dealing with a nervous debut author was not an easy task, but it was very much worth the effort and it is a book that will, I hope, continue to contribute to the possibility of a different kind of relationship with other species than the one we've lived by for far too long.  
 
It's a brutal irony that she should die just at the moment when she was getting over her painful separation from the Irish Times. Her recent reviews in the Financial Times were superb, Battersby at her very best, and she was working on a literary Western, a genre that fascinated this Californian-turned-Irish woman. Her review in the Irish Times of Charles Nieder’s The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a restored masterpiece that reimagines Billy the Kid’s last days taking place on the Pacific Coast, showed how engaged she was by the themes of revenge and the violence of the frontier that still indelibly mark American culture.
 
She was one of a kind. My thoughts are with Nadia, but I also wish that I'd called Eileen last week and gone with the flow for an hour and heard about her latest enthusiasm for a European novel translated by some tiny press. I'll never have that chance again, and none of us will ever again have the opportunity to be excited or outraged by her severe, lucid and fervent criticism. 

Neil Belton is editor in chief at Head of Zeus, the publisher of the paperback edition of Eileen Battersby’s novel Teethmarks On My Tongue. 

 

Comments

Keith

I'm so sorry to hear this happened. Losing anyone in a car accident is a terrible tragedy. I'm so sorry to read about this. It can be very hard to move on after something like this takes place.

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