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mad-fic and showing, not telling

Yesterday I read of Julia O'Faolain's novel, Adam Gould, in the Literary Review. I then went over and bought it and now kinda wished I hadn't. It seemed such a great story - Adam Gould, an Irish lapsed priest is in a Parisian asylum in the second half of the nineteenth century, looking after the French writer/journalist Guy de Maupassant. I like de Maupassant. I went through a de Maupassant glut about ten years ago. Absolutely adored Butterball and Bel-Ami, but there is something about the way O'Faolain writes that is both highly accomplished but also detached, if that makes sense? Maybe it is just me, because yesterday I also went to the cinema with a friend to see Public Enemies. Johnny Depp, as always, looked fabulous. His hair was a masterpiece, if one can say that about a man's short back and slightly longer sides? Christian Bale cannot be fanciable, alas, with such a thin joker-ish mouth! Yet this Michael Mann film was shot beautifully and with real power, great music, and yet such bad writing - no substance in the words, nothing! So, it was both fascinating and boring at the same time. Boredom is a lack of emotion. Whether the writing has not enough substance to anchor emotion to or whether I was simpy unable to connect emotionally is another thing. The 'love story' between Depp and his girl, Billie, could have been beautiful, but it seemed grafted on as an afterthought. I was also quite pleased to see the Scouser actor from Snatch, or was it Lock, Stock in there as Baby-Faced Nelson. Anyway, I digress, wasn't I initially writing about Adam Gould? The writing is dense and O'Faolain is obviously a confident storyteller who seems never to take a breath as she goes on and on, but again, fascinating, but boring at the same time. I think the main problem is that I only hear 'her voice' in the book - it draws so much attention to her, and there's not nearly enough 'show'. I'm learning so much about tell and show at the moment - that most basic of story-telling principles. Adam Gould is yet another addition to that sub-genre of fiction set in asylums or with psychiatry as its main focus. There's Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, Patrick McGrath's Trauma, Edith Templeton's Gordon, then there was the recent The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds and also Alistair Campbell's recent dissed attempt at having a breaking-down psychiatrist as his main character. It seems to be a sub-genre I am drawn to, not least because my Mum's book is still there, somewhere on my internal memo pad. So, back to show and tell. I have realised this week that it is not just a principle within the domain of literature but also therapy. Of course, I hear you think, hasn't that long since supplanted the camp-fire and become the story-telling domain? Yet, does one 'show' distress and trauma or does one simply 'tell' it? And by telling it does one retain some sort of credibility and respectability, especially when 'telling' it can entail in-credibility and dis-respectability!? And by sticking to the 'tell' mode, and hoping to stay away from the embodiment of the story by showing, are we left only with that pit of despair that is boredom? I don't know, I shouldn't really be writing this post because this week I have still to put pen to paper on Mary Burns' story and it is driving me a bit mad. So. I shall go and pick up pen and try, try, try to engage with her story and see what happens.

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Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of t…

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