ON ANECDOTES AND HUMAN SOUP / Madeleine D’Arcy
[This essay was written in June, 2021 – ed.]
In Tackling Foul (Geopoetika Publishing, 2011), a novel by Serbian writer Mića Vujičić, the narrator’s uncle, Sima, was imagined by all the family to be a writer, though no one ever saw him writing anything or read anything he wrote. It seems that Uncle Sima never really wrote, or if he did, he destroyed his work. In the novel, the voice of the absent uncle is heard, drunkenly bemoaning his fate: ‘The anecdote is a joke, raw, stupid, banal, transparent – the greatest enemy of a storyteller.’
What exactly is an anecdote? ‘A short, amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person,’ says the Oxford Dictionary, via my computer.
An anecdote, in itself, is not enough to create a work of fiction. However, I disagree with the fictional Uncle Sima. For me, anecdotes are jumping off points, thought-provoking fodder and inspiration for my work. Of course, an anecdote has to be twisted and turned, stretched, recalibrated, reinterpreted and wrought into a piece of fiction that works. What I am always trying to achieve is a story that has resonance, subtext, emotional heft, significance of some kind; an insight into why people are the way they are and why they do the things they do. My fiction is mostly realistic and character-driven, so the anecdotes and throw away lines I hear on a bus or a train or in the supermarket or the pub are essential and without them, I don’t have a stepping-off point that leads me into something else.
My second book, Liberty Terrace, is a linked short story collection, featuring a bevy of characters who reside in a fictional area of Cork City, Ireland, from 2016 to 2020. In one of those stories, ‘Human Soup’, there’s a scene where three women go on a day trip to visit a faith healer. The younger woman, Martha, drives the car. She’s in her 50’sand the story is told from her point of view. The two other ladies, Nora and Betty are in their 80’s and have been cocooning during the pandemic, so, finally having a window of opportunity, as Martha observes, they are ‘mad for road’.
Early in the story, the three women stop for lunch in a fictional village called Ballyboy. The restaurant scene that follows involves a rude waitress and some carrot soup and it derives from an anecdote told to me by my mother.
My mother and her very good friend Beatrice, neither of whom could drive, took the bus into Cork City one day. Beatrice must have been in her 70’s at the time and my mother was some years younger. They wandered around, did a bit of shopping and eventually stopped for lunch in a certain café. There, they were approached by a brusque, supercilious young waitress. On enquiring about the ‘soup of the day’ they misheard what the waitress said. ‘Carrot and human soup?’ Beatrice piped up, for that was what she’d heard the waitress mumble. They both collapsed in laughter when they discovered that the soup was in fact ‘Carrot and cumin soup’. I like the fact that, instead of being embarrassed, these two older women found the whole thing immensely entertaining.
In my story, I used this anecdote to create a scene that shows the dynamics between my three characters. It’s an opportunity to reveal the fact that even though the other two older ladies, Betty and Nora, are not as young as they once were, they are not stupid. They’re aware that Martha is troubled and even though she hasn’t told them, they know why. There is a chasm between what is said and what is not said, so that hopefully the reader will want to continue reading, in order to find out what Martha’s problem is and what she really cares about.
That scene does not make the story. It’s only a small part of it. However, I am glad I used that anecdote. It is also an homage to my mother’s friend, Beatrice. My parents moved, because of my father’s work, to a small town called Macroom in the late 50’s and rented a small terraced house. Beatrice was a single woman who lived a few doors away and became a great friend. She was a voracious reader, mainly of books by Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Georgette Heyer. During my childhood, she freely lent her books to me. I must have read every single book belonging to her before I was 12 years old.
Beatrice was a delightfully exuberant character, and she became more or less an extra member of our family. All through the years, she revelled in any small successes my siblings and I could report. When I won two Hennessy Awards in 2010 (at age 49 – I am a late starter) she was delighted. My mother and my husband and I went to see her shortly afterwards, for after all, she had lent me every book she had, all those years ago.
Beatrice had recently signed herself into a nursing home near our family home. My husband took a photograph. There is Beatrice, with her big smile, thrilled to bits, delighted to see my trophies, my mother and myself standing next to her. She died only weeks later. Beatrice and her brilliant smile were gone.
One of the things I have missed most, during the pandemic, has been overheard conversations, unexpected anecdotes, the quirky kind of casual conversation that people tend to produce in my neck of the woods, which is Cork City. Anecdotes, half-heard, misunderstood or fully-fledged, are grist to my mill. Zoom calls with friends and fellow writers helped. Occasional socially-distanced conversations across a garden wall were almost enough to save me. But the sameness of the days crushed and saddened me.
I was terribly envious of people who wrote entire novels during Lockdown. I struggled to finish my second short story collection (in between family hospitalizations, crises and far too many games of on-line Scrabble). I would not have managed were it not for the support of my distanced friends and of my publishers, Doire Press. I had plenty of time, most days. Time to write, to clean the house, to go out for a walk within my 2km limit or 5k limit or whatever it was that month. Yet I was often stuck, unable to think straight, exhausted.
As an extrovert-depressive (that’s what I’ve diagnosed myself as), I need a bit of social activity and fun, though afterwards I am totally exhausted from those bursts of activity. Without interaction in real life, with real people, I find it incredibly difficult to retreat and write. The pandemic has made me realise that anecdotes, bouts of conversation and unexpected opportunities for laughter are essential to my well-being.
Some of my writing friends have reported the same inability to create new work. When every day is the same as the last, and there’s a constant sense of uncertainty and dread lurking inside one’s head, it’s not easy to throw oneself into fictional worlds or even care about the work. The terrible sameness of each day is, for many, not conducive to creativity.
One might assume, because of this, that the final stories in my second collection, Liberty Terrace, turned out to be rather dark and pessimistic. Surprisingly, they are not all gloomy. Perhaps, in some part of my disordered head I felt disinclined to burden my readers with too much woe, since there was far too much of that already. So there are no stories about dying of Covid in hospital, no tales from the point of view of an exhausted nurse or doctor, not even a funeral (a story called ‘A Good Funeral’ appears in my first collection so I’ve done that whole Irish funeral thing already!). Instead, there are ordinary people, neither good nor bad, neither rich nor poor, living in a small fictional area of Cork City, making mistakes, making do, simply trying to keep going. Just like I was.
And how did I come to be reading a novel published in 2011 by Serbian writer Mića Vujičić, during Lockdown? Well, there’s a funny story about that too. An anecdote for another day.
Photo of Beatrice with the author and her mother by Andrew Lane.
Lonely Crowd cover photo by Jo Mazelis.
Madeleine D’Arcy’s début short story collection, Waiting For The Bullet (Doire Press, 2014), won the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Prize 2015 (UK). In 2010 she received the Hennessy Literary Award for First Fiction and the overall Hennessy Literary Award for New Irish Writer. She holds an MA in Creative Writing (First Class Honours) from University College, Cork. She is also a qualified solicitor in Ireland and in the UK. Her second book, Liberty Terrace, a collection of linked short stories, was published in late 2021 by Doire Press. Together with fellow Cork writer Danielle McLaughlin, she co-hosts Fiction at the Friary, a free monthly fiction event in Cork City.