Tuesday 25 June 2019

Life's exquisite pleasures

Anne Enright tells Patricia Deevy about 'dangerous' motherhood and the fun she has had with the 19th-century courtesan character in her new novel

ANNE Enright came across the name of Eliza Lynch, Cork-born mistress of a 19th-century Paraguayan dictator in a pamphlet about the Irish in Latin America. Her husband said she should write about Eliza: Eliza was beautiful, powerful, rich, mysterious and celebrated before the invention of celebrity. Enright thought Eliza had the makings of literary fun.

"I'd just had a baby. Everything was fine. I thought: 'Oh for God's sake, can't I do a story-story and have a good time? I just wanted to relax a bit and it felt like going back to when I started writing, where you just have a good idea and then you write it, as opposed to the very dense world of getting the right image into the right book. All of that kind of stuff."

Enright is a small, dark, ferociously intelligent bundle dressed in loose blacks. She has cropped hair, and though she applies a slick of lipstick for the picture, as people who see her on TV arts programmes will know, she doesn't go in for adornment. Her charisma lies in a playfulness with language, entertaining in conversation but dazzling when written; quirky thinking; an ever-present laugh which is half-cackle and half-chuckle, and an unusual physical ease (during our interview she tucks into a plate of white-bread sandwiches with gusto, feeding both herself and the baby which is due in January).

Enright's obsession with colour, texture and sensual excess makes The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch a luscious read. At the age of 19, Eliza is a young courtesan in Paris entrancing the heir to a Paraguayan fortune, Francisco Solano Lopez. The book is both a first-person account of a pregnant Eliza's river journey with Lopez from Buenos Aires to the Paraguayan capital Asuncion, on the couple's return from Paris, and a third-person account of the years that follow, an era of over-indulgence, abuse of power by the dictator Lopez, of war and of death.

At its centre, Eliza's is a heady story about money, greed, power and sexuality and has one of the most arresting first lines you'll ever read: "Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854." Eliza offends Victorian sensibilities arriving in Paraguay as Lopez's mistress, enchanting the men who meet her and frightening the women but the offence is of a woman who openly uses sexuality to get ahead.

I see that as resolutely contemporary, but Enright resists lazy parallels. "I'm sure there are still women who use their sexuality for ultimately financial reasons. But isn't it better just to have a good time? Isn't that rather more the way we're heading?"

Playing with Eliza was a grown-up version of playing with a doll. Every day she could dress her creation in exquisite detail. "I really missed her when I'd finished, because there I was, back in my tracksuits again. I wear black. And when I don't wear black I wear a T-shirt.

"Because I can't wear pattern I'm always looking at people's patterns. And my garden looks like Barbara Cartland's: it's pink. Everywhere is pink shell pink, pastel pink. I only discovered it [the devotion to pink] in the garden centre, and thought I can't be buying another pink rose here."

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is Enright's third novel. The first, The Wig My Father Wore (1995), was an absurdist account of the life of an over-worked TV producer, her father's wig and her sudden passion for an angel called Stephen. The second, What Are You Like? (2001), was the story of identical twin girls, separated at birth, who live lives of variable displacement and discontent before finally connecting. In those, as in her Rooney Award-winning first book, a short story collection, The Portable Virgin (1991), Enright's writing is smart, tart, as detailed as a still life and sometimes deliciously surreal.

Before the real writing there were the obligatory bad schoolgirl poems ("I think a rugby match came into one of them") at St Louis in Rathmines and later for two years in Vancouver where she won a scholarship to the international school, the United World College. She started writing properly when her family bought her an electric typewriter a 21st birthday present. She was still only getting on her feet when she won a scholarship to the University of East Anglia's prestigious creative writing MA (whose graduates include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Deirdre Madden). "Everything's so slow when you're writing. Everybody's interested in 25-year-olds who sit down and write a good book. For so many other writers it's not like that at all. It's just confusion."

After the MA she went into RTE as a trainee producer but always she thought of herself as a writer. The Portable Virgin' s publication allowed her to inhabit that identity fully. "I thought: 'I am the girl who writes the books now. That's who I am. I'm not necessarily the girl who's going out filming again tomorrow and hasn't got a script and doesn't know where the actors are."'

Between Vancouver and East Anglia there had been an English and philosophy degree in Trinity and a spot of acting with Rough Magic. But she couldn't stick with theatre all the auditioning and vulnerability to the whims of directors, and that going on for the rest of your life.

She met the man who is her husband Martin Murphy during the Rough Magic period. He's a performer and director who runs the theatre-in-education company Team. They were living together and dirt poor when she got funding for the MA so that finally propelled her away from theatre.

Her eye for the ridiculous and her performing background explain a lot about the late-night RTE show Nighthawks's delicious mix of spontaneity and off-beat humour. She was its producer for four years. "I was incredibly politically naive in terms of doing satire on Nighthawks and slagging off politicians: it was mostly the cut of their jib really. No wonder I got quite a hard time."

Someone on high complained about the de Valera-in-our-fridge motif [a recurrent sketch where Dev would show up in a suburban fridge, like a not-so-cuddly alien]. Then there was always the possibility of running into one of the politicians who had just been slagged off.

"What do you say? Ireland's too small, you can't do it."

Nighthawks's ending was traumatic for her: it left the schedules while still riding high in popular affection.

"I think in terms of Nighthawks there was a lot of political paranoia: now we know why. They didn't think it was some 24-year-old eejit going out and laughing at their suits; they thought we knew something. Well, people did sort of there was a sense of it and how much fun it was that they were so corrupt but we weren't honing in on a particular deal. Scrap Saturday was much more aware but at least we played, and we had fun."

AFTERWARDS she went to children's programmes and finally she left the organisation ("I'm trying to think when. It's like asking: 'When did you get married?' In '93, I think.") to become a full-time writer. It was not brave, just inevitable.

"The brothers and sisters all sort of mooched up after I left RTE and said, 'If you're ever stuck . . . ', which is very, very decent."

Enright grew up in Dublin 12, in the borderland between Terenure and Crumlin. Her mother is bookish and likes fiction. Her father is less taken with fiction so he doesn't say a lot about her work. They were both civil servants when they met, and Enright laughs when I use the words "good" and "solid". But it was, it seems, a good and solid situation growing up. Having the confidence to go for full-time writing must come from somewhere deep inside.

She agrees that it is impressive to have been able to do it full-time. She is impressed with herself. "I get enormous pleasure from, say, going to Canada on my holidays. Enormous pleasure." Pleasure, that is, that she has the freedom and the means. But she always intended that she wasn't just embarking on a trial period of writing, but that this was to be her life, that she would have to scrape money together somehow.

"I don't know how I survived the first while because the book deals weren't exactly [lucrative]. It wasn't as if I had decided I had to make a living now and I sat down and I wrote a blockbuster. I did a lot of radio work in the BBC, Radio 4. And articles in the London Review of Books. Now they didn't pay [well] at all. I suppose I didn't really spend much." American publications which do pay well like Harper's and The New Yorker also take her work.

Literary gossip had it that she barely missed a Booker Prize nomination in 2000 for What Are You Like? Is she above caring?

"I'd love to be pure, but I ain't. I was raging. I just rang my mother and complained."

In fact, the talk was that the book failed to make the cut because it didn't appeal to one judge, the glamorous Mariella Frostrup. She heard that as well. "So I'm there thinking: 'Yeah, I'm really interested in your relationships column in The Observer at the weekend. Mariella. So what was Mick Jagger like. Then. Mariella. Great." Take it that she does not utter those syllables Ma-ri-el-la with affection.

If there is any justice Enright will have attracted a new tranche of readers from two Guardian pieces last year about her experience of pregnancy and birth. They were funny, earthy, moving and brilliant in making the ordinary extraordinary. "I looked at the world around me and listened to my own blood," she wrote of early pregnancy. "There was a deep note humming through me, so low that no one else could hear. It was in every part of me, swelling in my face and hands, and it felt like joy."

There is less joy in her words about Rachel's birth, when she found herself in the shower. "When I clean between my legs, I am surprised to find everything numb and mushy. I wonder why that is. Then I remember that a baby's head came out of there, actually came out. When I come to, I am sitting on a nurse. She is sitting on the toilet by the shower. The shower is still going. I am very wet. She is saying: 'You're all right, you're all right, I've got you.' I think I am saying: 'I just had a baby, I just had a baby,' but I might be trying to say it and not saying anything at all."

I tell her that "mushy" got me (a non-mother). "Ah, you'll survive," she cackles.

Somehow the writing and the body get all mixed up once she talks about children. She starts to make a point about the book "Somebody else was saying that Eliza particularly is full of stuff about the body" and gets sidetracked into: "It's not as if I'm down to the gym every morning. Probably should go down to the gym. I've been sporadically fit in my time."

Her thought at having her first baby in her late 30s was to wonder why she hadn't done it years earlier. "You do get, as you get bigger, more and more stupid when you're pregnant. But, I think something remarkable is happening in the back of your head. It's like some very slowly developing film. You get a lot of domestic-interior-with-baby books, and I always think it is a much more ferocious thing than that. We know that about women and their children. We know that it's not 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'. It's not all flannel pajamas. There's something quite dangerous about it, I think."

A bit like writing, then.

'The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch', Jonathan Cape, stg£12.99

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section