MY DADDY IS A BETTER HORSE THAN YOURS
from Who Is Talking in My Head
‘My daddy is a better horse than yours’, boasts Belle, the daughter of the Barojas. They rent a cottage for the summer at the Old Head of Kinsale every year. She is riding piggyback on her father, a tall thin man with a loping gait. He canters obliging. I don’t think Antoine Baroja minds being a horse. Belle’s reins are the handlebars of his Salvador Dali moustache. ‘Zadie, zadie’, she encourages him.
My father observes, ‘The word for a donkey in Basque is almost the same as for a daddy in Irish’.
‘It’s the other ways around for me.’ Belle’s mount trots on-the-spot.
‘Neither of us have been historically at home with our own language. But at least we Irish have the other Celts. Basque is an isolate. The only tongue in Europe without a family. No wonder it gets distorted. Talking only to yourselves and the Pyrenees.’
‘But Basque has one word in common with Irish, ‘capall’, a horse.’
‘I suppose a horse is a horse in any language’, my father demurred.
‘And a daddy a daddy’, Antoine Baroja shouted and galloped off. But Belle was right. My daddy would prefer to pay for riding lessons than take us on his shoulders. He didn’t like horse-play.
Horsey fathers have an honourable history. Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest daughter Alice had a liking for riding fathers. ‘Ride’m pig’, she used to cry as they burst in on the breakfast table, and Brother Archie’s hangover. But Alice and father cantered on (‘Over, under, through, but never around’, was his whinny as they cut through the bushes). James Joyce’s nickname was GG when he first came to Montparnasse, and not because he played the horses, except with his daughter Lucia. Daddy Joyce took his role as a doughty steed so seriously he bought himself dark glasses that looked like blinkers. I have not been able to determine from Finnegans Wake how she incited him. ‘Ride a Cock Horse’ is a period guess, not wholly satisfactory. But that was not why JJ was called GG. French bureaucracy misheard his pronunciation of French characters. ‘J’ sounds ‘G’.
James Joyce’s daughter runs wild through Finnegans Wake. Lucia must have been aware of being under observation. She was a born actress and performed from the cradle for him. He borrowed her baby talk (‘bellysybabble’). For example, ‘Nuvoletta in her lightdress, spunn of sisteen shimmers, was looking down on them, leaning over the bannistars and listening all she childishly could’. It bring infant joy into the glot-stopping quiddities of his linguistic madhouse. Finnegans Wake is a cross between Mallarmé’s conceptual ‘Great Work’ (‘the orphic unravelling of the earth’), Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and a game of scrabble for a lost tribe of dyslectic adolescent schizophrenics. Though it’s not without its good bits, like ‘Haveth Childers Everywhere’.
up, Lucia performed in her own right as a toy doll in Jean
Joyce gave her Samuel Beckett to play with instead. Beckett’s intentions were to please her father. And he behaved well, never quite giving her up (though some say she was wispy Alba in his unpublished Dream of Fair to Middling Women, ‘not heavy enough to hang herself’). He visited her in hospital, no doubt bringing Morandi flowers, dead to the world.
Lucia became a famous patient, attended by twenty-four doctors, including Jung. They all saw her through her father’s eyes, an approach she courted because she knew he had plundered her child’s mind to graft words together that nobody could understand without understanding her, and only he did. ‘Lucia thinks no one understands a word she says’, Nora Joyce remarked to Beckett. ‘I’m a ventriloquist’s dummy’, Lucia said, and even went to Mass and prayed with passages from Finnegans Wake (‘Nuvoletta in her lightdress, spunn of sisteen shimmers’). ‘Now I know she is mad’, Joyce told Nora. ‘Where are my glasses?’
‘You’re wearing them.’
‘Funny, I can’t see a thing.’
When her daddy died, Lucia had herself committed to the same asylum in Northampton as John Clare, and languished there for the rest of her life. I don’t think she was mad. Being split in two in a magician’s act while growing up doesn’t prepare you to put yourself together as an adult. Her consolation was a continued existence as everybody’s daughter (‘How glad you’ll be I waked you! How well you’ll feel!’), a dubious one as she well knew. Nobody reads Finnegans Wake, in its entirety, other than for professional reasons, and she had had enough of doctors.
I went to the same school as James Joyce, briefly. I wasn’t expelled for secreting a copy of Ulysses under the floorboards. I ran away mid-term because I missed my mother. I heard JJ’s name mentioned only once. My English teacher, Joe Soap, gave him as an example of a writer who exploited real people’s lives for art’s sake, and recommended we read JP Marquand instead (‘He respected what he satirised’). His advice fell on deaf ears. But it worries me that as a writer of autofictions I’m catching people in a net like butterflies, to stick in an album and linger over, like the Marquis de Sade, exacting a sort of revenge against everyone who isn’t me. And have accordingly striven when I elaborate from living models to enrich them with the humidity of humanity. Like Rembrandt dressing up his local butcher as Balshazzar, or an old tramp as Saint Paul. He always had a mirror beside the sitters, to see himself seeing them.
Recently, when a bomb in Bilbao blew up a horse at a parade celebrating Spanish unity, I thought of Belle Baroja. I last heard from her in the late sixties. A postcard with the stamp of Franco upside down. The picture was of a corrida, a mad bull goring a horse while the picadors piked the entrails. ‘The Basques are still a race of strangers where they live.’ I would have liked to ask her about her piggyback days, and what ‘zadie, zadie’, meant, but I hadn’t her address. But memory, that maverick, came to the rescue. Belle had a slight lisp. She must have been urging him on with a simple ‘daddy, daddy’. Unlike little Alice Roosevelt (I can’t speak for Lucia since Finnegans Wake is not helpful), she was going easy on the whip, and her spurs were bootees. A horse is a horse, of course, in any language.