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Alex Pheby

In June, Alex Pheby spoke to an

attentive audience about Lucia (2018),

his most recent book, which focuses on James Joyce’s troubled and troubling daughter. Alex said he wanted to ‘piece together’ the character whose story had been ‘erased by men’. Lucia was a gifted professional eurhythmic dancer, appearing in Jean Renoir’s ‘The Little Match Girl’ ballet, filmed in 1927, before she was incarcerated. Mental health runs through Alex Pheby’s fiction. Grace (2009) is set in a secure asylum; Alex’s ‘PhD novel’, Playthings (2015), ‘arguably the best neuronovel ever written’ (Literary Review), concerns the true case of a paranoid schizophrenic.

Alex was drawn to Lucia’s tragic story having discovered her medical records were suppressed and that Stephen Joyce, her nephew, had burned all her correspondence with James Joyce and with Samuel Beckett. Alex was advised not to write Lucia’s story but this proved ‘a red rag to a bull’: a motivator, in effect. The destroyed records constituted, he said, ‘a deliberate act of erasure’, opening up space for biofictional speculation.

Historical documentation reveals that, at the behest of her family, Lucia (1907-1982) was confined in several psychiatric institutions. She was injected with barbiturates, seawater and serum concocted from bovine foetuses. Her teeth were removed; she was subjected to brutal hydrotherapy regimes. She died, after spending thirty years in St Andrews’ Hospital, Northamptonshire. Beckett, once her lover, sent birthday presents, the last arriving after her death.

Alex maps how Lucia was adversely affected and abused by men: James Joyce; her brother, Giorgio; the Joyce estate; her lovers and the medical fraternity. Alex realises the problematic issues raised by his bold project. He remarked that we ‘animate and parade the dead like puppets in ways that can’t be ethical’ but, concurrently, this was ‘gruelling empathetic work’. Lucia was like a dark-edged silhouette; Alex aspired to understand why truths about her had been hidden. Paralleling this objective he prefaces each section with fragments regarding the archaeological dissection of a woman embalmed in an Egyptian sarcophagus.

[Alex Pheby appeared on June 10 2019]

Written by Gill Lowe


Alex Pheby’s recommended reads

Ducks, Newburyport

by Lucy Ellmann

Lucy’s annoyed millionaire, TV serialised crime writers across the globe by saying in the Guardian that crime fiction is overrated. Apparently, they’re all terribly victimised by the existence of books that are better reviewed in the Financial Times than they are, and Twitter agrees with them. Looking forward to seeing Robson Green in a long running BBC adaptation of Ducks, Newburyport, but not holding my breath. Lucy’s book is a brilliant, state of the nation (USA) doorstop that you have to read (or you’ll look like an idiot who agrees with the Twitter boycott). It’s 1000 pages long.

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr

by Tom Lee

This is only about 150 pages and the margins are massive, so I’d say it’s as long as about 50 pages of Ducks, Newburyport. It’s not 200 times less good though, so it represents good value for your readerly minute. It’s about a man whose life changes after he wakes up with half of his face drooping. Tom’s prose is great and the story is anxiously compelling. Well worth reading.

The Doll’s Alphabet

by Camilla Grudova

Another shorter one, and short stories too. These are creepy and odd and hauntingly puzzling. The atmospheres are troubling and surrealist without being whimsical. A disconcerting and unsettling collection.

Plastic Emotions

by Shiromi Pinto

A fictional biography of Minnette de Silva, the Sri Lankan architect. Brilliantly written and narratively fascinating, you can learn about this overlooked figure while revelling in the writing.

Encyclopaedia of St Arbuc

by Paul Stanbridge

Impossible to describe this. You’ll just have to read it. It’s online here: arbuckswiki/Encyclopaedia_of_St_ Arbuc


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