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Casting a Spell

David Blake Knox

I Put a Spell on You, by John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, 288 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0224093873

I Put a Spell on You is the third book of memoirs that the celebrated Scottish poet and novelist John Burnside has written. The trilogy – if that is the appropriate term – does not however, follow a simple chronological narrative. Each book is self-contained and moves forward and backwards in time ‑ but that does not mean that there is no sense of progression from volume to volume.

The first book, A Lie About My Father, is, perhaps, the rawest, the most direct and, in some respects, the most conventional of the three. As the title indicates, its primary focus is upon Burnside’s father, and, initially, it might seem to conform to the stereotypes of miserabilist autobiography. Burnside’s childhood certainly seems to have been grim and wretched. He was born in Dunfermline, in West Fife – where his first home was infested with vermin and eventually condemned as unfit for human habitation. From there, his family was moved to a drab prefab settlement in Cowdenbeath – about twenty miles north of Edinburgh. This detached Burnside’s mother from the community in which she had grown up, but it was near a wood and open fields – which were to give ample scope for the author’s burgeoning imagination.

Burnside’s father emerges as the dominant character in the first volume of these memoirs ‑ an alcoholic, a compulsive liar and a man for whom – in the author’s striking phrase ‑ “cruelty was an ideology”. Although he terrorised his family, he was in fact seldom violent towards them. Instead, he was “one of those men who sit in a room, and you can feel ... the sense of some unpredictable force that might, at any moment, break loose and do something terrible”. Burnside believes his father may even have thought cruelty to be in his son’s best long-term interests: “Men had to be hard to get through life, there was no room for weakness or sentiment.” Viewed from his father’s perspective, a real man was one who was defined by “the pain he could shrug off, [and] the warmth or comfort he could deny himself”. In this context, any signs of Burnside’s creative imagination were, for his father, merely “signs of weakness”.

When Burnside was around six, his father uprooted the family to move to Birmingham. By then his drinking habits were well known in Cowdenbeath, and, as Burnside points out, it was easier for him to be a drunk in a large city than in a small town. It also gave him new opportunities to spin out even more extravagant lies about himself and his past. Before long, however, the family was back in its former prefab home ‑ where his father immediately resumed his former habits. He would often return home late at night, accompanied by his drunken friends, and rouse his son from sleep to fetch them fresh drinks, or clean up their vomit.

In this volume of memoirs, Burnside presents his mother as a woman who was intimidated by someone less intelligent than herself. Her ambitions were modest – “all she wanted was a little common decency” – but they were consistently thwarted by her brutal and alcoholic husband. There is also, however, a sense that his father was not the only Burnside parent who was negligent of his welfare. He describes an incident on a (rare) family holiday when he fell from a high wall and broke his arm badly. Neither his mother nor his father noticed there was anything amiss until three weeks after the accident, when his fractured arm had turned black from wrist to elbow. The dynamics of his mother’s relationship with her husband also remain somewhat enigmatic for Burnside: she may have been unhappy, but, as a practising Catholic, he suggests, the idea of her leaving his father simply did not arise. Perhaps, she would have eventually broken that taboo, but she died from ovarian cancer at the age of forty-seven. According to Burnside, she died “from disappointment more than anything”.

It soon became clear that his mother was the glue that had held the Burnside family together. In the aftermath of her death, both son and father both went into emotional free falls. The father retreated into himself: continuing to drink heavily and becoming estranged from his son. They had no contact for several years, and, when Burnside eventually decided to renew their connection, he found that his father had recently died: in his local pub ‑ “between the bar and the cigarette machine”.

Some years later, Burnside stumbled on the details of his father’s early life and discovered both the extent and the probable reason for his compulsion to lie – “even when there was no need to lie”. One of his mother’s sisters revealed to him that his father had been a “foundling” ‑ an abandoned baby who had been passed in his childhood from family to family. Unsure of his identity, he had invented stories about himself – claiming variously that his father had been a lay preacher or a wealthy industrialist. Burnside believes that his father’s desperate search for a family background was quite understandable since he “had as much right to a history as anybody else”: given the lack of information about his origins, he had little option but to invent and re-invent himself throughout his life: he lied, Burnside explains, simply “in order to be”.

The second volume of Burnside’s memoirs, “Waking Up in Toytown”, begins with the author finding himself lying naked in a strange room. Around him are a dozen or so bottles ‑ filled with blood, honey, olive oi, and urine. On the rim of each bottle, a single feather is resting. Burnside believes that that if one of these feathers falls, then everything else in his life will also fall apart. As soon becomes apparent, he has followed a similar path of self-destruction to his father. Unlike the latter, he has supplemented his binge-drinking with hallucinogenic drugs, and is about to be sectioned in a mental hospital.

In hospital Burnside was diagnosed with apophenia: the desperate and irrational search for a hidden meaning, or an all-inclusive order, in random and unrelated data. On his release he made a sustained attempt to establish some sense of normality in his life by moving to suburban Surrey and taking a series of mundane, even dead-end, jobs, combining working with computers with weekend trips to garden centres in a doomed attempt to mimic what he considered to be the essential features of an ordinary quotidian existence. What he really wanted was to numb himself – both mentally and emotionally ‑ and to silence the voices in his head. The fetishisation of everyday routine was, of course, the antithesis of his real, underlying desires, but Burnside believed it was “a perfect plan. Ridiculous, yes; but perfect.”

At one level, this volume follows a familiar trajectory – in that every story of substance addiction tends to reproduce a similar pattern of relapse and recovery. But what distinguishes this account from the others is the brilliance, power and the originality of Burnside’s writing.

The book is constructed around a number of relationships: a work colleague who solicits Burnside to murder his wife; a love affair with a single mother whose children are subject to dangerous levels of neglect; a precocious under-age girl with whom he becomes obsessively involved. All of these encounters occur in a context of the author’s intense social isolation and psychic chaos. Some form of equilibrium is reached by the end of the book, but this is not a simple story of personal redemption: as Burnside observes, “I wasn’t beginning the long journey back to community and maturity that I might have travelled had I been a character in a novel.”

Instead, he chooses to remain outside what he considers to be normal society, refusing to be fully integrated with what he terms the “Authorised Version” of reality. He believes this to be “the most graceful of refusals and, having come to this point, it seems that the only grievous error would be to allow oneself to be lured back into the entire apparatus of property values and marital status and ballot papers”. This decision to remain – in his words ‑ “not-normal” can seem rather unconvincing, even, glib, coming a little too close to a traditional romantic conception of madness – in which mental illness is conceived purely as a symptom of societal failure.

The title of the third volume of Burnside’s memoirs comes from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s classic track. Burnside first heard Nina Simone’s 1965 version of the song – and was captivated by her smooth and elegant interpretation. In I Put A Spell on You, he connects the themes of Hawkins’s song with the old Scots word “glamour” – which he defines as meaning “a different way of being in the world, a sudden and sometimes frightening openness”, in which the physical world is “invested with new energy and light”, and yet remains “beautifully perilous”.

The structure is unlike that of the preceding two volumes, being explicitly episodic. It also contains seven “Digressions”, two “Interludes”, one “Postlude” and a final “Coda”. One of the digressions focuses on Screamin’ Jay’s original “wild, voodoo, ranting” version of the title song. Burnside provides a subtle and penetrating analysis ‑ not only of the song, but of Hawkins’s role as a black performer in the US entertainment industry. Other digressions address subjects as diverse as “Murder Ballads”, the Scottish concept of “Thrawn”, and “Lost Girl Syndrome”. These are not only provocative and erudite essays – they also connect directly to the book’s major themes.

One of these is Burnside’s own perverse denial of what he most desires. At the heart of this book is the story of his relationship with a young American woman called Christina. Burnside met her in Cambridge – soon after he had completed his studies at the town’s technical college. They felt a strong and profound mutual attraction, but skirted around each other for several weeks ‑ until one balmy summer evening, towards the end of Christina’s stay in England, they found themselves alone together in Grantchester Meadows. They kissed for the first time, and it seemed that the potential of their relationship was about to be fulfilled when Burnside broke away abruptly, and returned to the company of his friends who were drinking in a nearby pub.

In the years that followed, Burnside has often thought of Christina – which may explain why she plays a central role in this narrative – and he has tried to make sense of his act of self-denial. “More than thirty years after the fact,” he writes, “I am still trying to figure out what happened that summer.” Perhaps, like his father, Burnside’s impulse to control his personal narrative proved too strong for him to resist – even when that impulse ran against his own wishes. Perhaps, like his father, he still believed that he could best be defined as a man by the degree of warmth or comfort he was able to deny himself.

Burnside’s attitude towards his parents seems to shift and develop between the three volumes of memoirs. “The older I get,” he comments at one point, “the happier my childhood becomes.” In the first book, his father is presented as a morose and threatening bully. By the third volume, the attitude seems more empathetic and forgiving, and the reasons for the brutality are explained in more sympathetic terms. Although his father spent his working life as a labourer, Burnside reckons him to have been “ten times more intelligent than his masters, though infinitely less cunning”. He is now prepared to recognise the ways in which his father “was harassed and frustrated by the world” and argues that “we should not judge the one who falls when it is clear that everything was stacked against him”.

Burnside’s mother seemed to exist as a rather passive and indeterminate presence in his first two books of memoirs – overshadowed and overwhelmed by her aggressive husband. In the third volume he acknowledges that he had forgotten “her inner strength and her shy ability to cope with the sorry detail of an almost untenable daily round”. He also feels compelled to acknowledge that, for all his disastrous shortcomings as a husband, his mother clearly – if inexplicably ‑ loved his father. He concedes that their marriage also made his father miserable, “married as he was to a dutiful and sexually repressed Catholic of a certain class and generation”. Perhaps influenced by his own sexual experiences, Burnside cannot rule out the possibility that his father could have been “a husband cheated of what might have been the only means he had to express his love”: his wife’s denial of his physical appetite causing his “desire for joy and sex” to curdle into “violent frustration”.

Considered individually – or taken as a trilogy – these three books of memoirs constitute a remarkable achievement. The quality of the writing – and of the critical insights these books express – is sustained through all the volumes and never flags; almost every sentence offers its own unexpected delight. That is not to say that they cannot be criticised. The prose in which the various incidents and encounters in Burnside’s life are described is beautifully balanced – but there is occasionally the feeling that the accounts are just a shade too precise and polished to be entirely credible. The tone is often self-deprecating, but that does not mean the author is without his own vanity. There is also much that appears to be left unsaid: Burnside writes in some detail about many of his romantic or sexual affairs, but there is no mention, for example, of his relationship with his wife. At one point, he states it as his belief that the dominant partner in any marriage is the one “who gives least”. One cannot help but wonder what his wife makes of that assertion. Perhaps that question will be addressed if there is a fourth volume.

Burnside’s work is complex and multi-layered. The books do not offer a simple story of escape from the ghosts that have haunted all of our childhoods, and none of the books end with the sense that we – or the author ‑ have arrived at a final destination. However, there is a genuine feeling that Burnside has worked through a series of individual epiphanies and disasters to find some kind of personal equilibrium – if not a resting place.

Towards the end of I Put A Spell On You, Burnside describes a journey he took in Finland a few years ago. He trekked across a vast snowy waste without remembering to bring a compass with him. Before long, he had become hopelessly lost. He wandered about for hours in the frozen landscape, contemplating his imminent death, before, by chance, he reached a place of safety. That image might serve as a metaphor for this sequence of books – manifesting, as they do, a degree of creative integrity that greatly rewards the reader, and a sense of personal courage on the part of the author that seems to border, at times, on the foolhardy.

1/09/2014

David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published in 2012 by New Island Books.

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