Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Two spatial poetics: Niamh Campbell’s ‘This Happy’

Niamh Campell’s This Happy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020) plots Alannah’s uncanny experience of her love life repeating itself from when she was a ‘young’ 23 to an ‘old(er)’ 30 years old. The two experiences—first with a married man, Harry, second with her unnamed husband—are not identical, but there are enough similarities for the storylines to blur and mix in Alannah’s telling.

I’m firm in the belief that we’re all a bit Proustian. I mean that Proust’s description of ‘involuntary memory’ now applies to us all: that we might be taken back involuntarily to memories by metonymical parts of the memory, be they smells (as in Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past), sounds, or sights. In 1957 Gaston Bachelard developed ideas related to ‘involuntary memory’ in The Poetics of Space. I think that Bachelard’s ideas, still insistently relevant in scholarship today, can help us think through This Happy‘s great depths, particularly because a persistent point of overlap between Alannah’s experiences are shaped by the homes in which the two men live.

Bachelard’s focus in The Poetics of Space are ‘simple images of felicitous space‘, investigations he calls ‘topophilia’: the love of space. His focus is on space because ‘Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor’.[1] Put more simply, our relationship to space is not purely objective, and is conditioned by emotion: by love for a bedroom, by fear of a basement, by excitement for a hiding place. Ultimately,

Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them.

Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. xxxvii

This person–home interconnection is unquestionably important in This Happy. For example, Alannah confesses that ‘I dream houses, as I think everyone does, with cascades on the stairs and warm pools of water in the living room’ (p. 202). When talking about her marriage home that was owned solely by her husband, Alannah observes that at first the flat ‘was so indistinct to me’ (p. 26). However, after a few months, she adjusts her response:

[I]t was home, I realised with excitement, for real, my home, I had a right to it, my life. I could not believe it. And I mean that I could not in fact believe it, not even when it was right before me, because I did not feel entitled to it, not really, even though I wanted to feel—pretended to feel—entitled to it.

Niamh Campbell, This Happy (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020), p. 41

It would be simple, if a little too simplistic, to describe Alannah’s narrative as a journey to finding a space to which she is fully entitled and in which she fully belongs. It is not a straightforward journey. For example, after a fight with her husband, the anger manifests in her relationship with space and her memory of feeling unwelcome in Harry’s cottage several years earlier:

[T]his terrain was that was new to me and which I could not command yet. I did not own the place, I could not clear the demonic corridor of junk and grit—much like [Harry’s] cottage, really, much like the cold and black-soled morning when I knew I would be evicted.

Campbell, This Happy, pp. 135–6

The feeling of discomfort accompanies Alannah to the cottage where she hides away with her lover, Harry, when she is twenty-three. ‘Entering the cottage for the first time,’ Alannah tells the reader, ‘I became nervous and hovered by the door, considering a long mirror’. This exploration of space quickly turns to Alannah’s exploration of herself: ‘I looked in the mirror: I looked at myself. At twenty-three it might be said that I had singular looks.’ (p. 54) Of course, mirrors encourage this kind self-examination, regardless of the relationship between the person and the space where the mirror is installed, but in this novel in which two home spaces are constantly juxtaposed, Alannah’s self development in these spaces is a central part of the novel.

When Harry leaves Alannah, she takes to a ‘straw-bottomed chair’ before she lies ‘in his bed for a while, peeling off my fingernail-tips, leaving jagged surfaces behind’. This self-mutilation (albeit to a surface and artificial part of her own body) leads on to her ‘throw[ing] open the wardrobe’ and, ‘[w]ith the bone-handled knife […] scratch[ing] Bluebeard into the wood’ (pp. 264–5). By using the very fabric of the house to attack Harry for leaving her—and also imprisoning her, Bluebeard-style, in his cottage—it becomes yet clearer that the home spaces are the novel’s emotional lodestones.

The way that these places are constructed and juxtaposed in the text are, in the final pages, connected with another element of Bachelard’s thinking. Describing W.B. Yeats’s infatuation with Maud Gonne, Alannah cites Yeats’s own simile of the experience, ‘as if a gong had been struck and the reverberations of this continued dimly but persistently throughout the rest of his life’. For Alannah,

The gong and the bell struck me as such passionately accurate reflections of my own life and experiences and especially in the way they broke down time frames through the levelling distension of solid sound. […] Married, and panicking, I dreamt of flocked wallpaper fading into plaster, I dreamt as though my gaze was tracking slowly all along the paper. Houses inside me and houses outside, and houses all around. A great house is a statement that was made, carefully and firmly, a long time ago: now it iterates and exfoliates and regrows wings that only ever existed in dreams.

Campbell, This Happy, pp. 292–3

The houses—Harry’s cottage, her husband’s flat, her parents’ semi-detached house—all reverberate memorially inside Alannah. Bachelard describes the nature of the poetic image in similar terms:

The poetic image is not subject to an inner thrust. It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away. Because of its novelty and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism of its own[. …] [T]he poetic image will have a sonority of its own being. [… I]n order to determine the being of an image, we shall have to experience its reverbera­tion[.]

Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. xvi.

The idea of reverberation that underpins Bachelard’s understanding of the poetic image leads him to undertake his topophilic exploration. Moreover, the idea of the reverberation having a ‘sonority’—i.e., a basis in sound—connects these ideas directly to the tolling gong in Campbell’s novel.

But this passage from Bachelard also contains the possible end of the reverberation (‘it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away’), an idea also resonant for Alannah: ‘Of course this isn’t a flawless category of metaphor because gongs and bells eventually go silent.’ (p. 292) The strength of feeling about Harry’s cottage, as also her comfort in her husband’s flat, may well fade away at some unknown point in the future. The virtuality of this—it may happen, it may not, and no one knows when it will/won’t—is the projected end point of Alannah’s journey; however, there’s no telling whether it’ll be a positive outcome—forgetting her anxiety about the way her relationship with Harry ended—or negative—growing uncomfortable in the home she and her husband create.

This Happy offers no definitive conclusion to these ideas, and the text’s final lines hold open the metaphoric possibility of continued sonic reverberations, suggesting that they are far outside any human control. This is not necessarily a negative concession: ‘Above ground, in the sunlight: breezes, occasional crackle of flower-foil, birdsong, baby’s cry, wind chimes.’ (p. 309)

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994) [1957]), pp. xxxv–xxxvi.





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