More Miracle than Bird by Alice Miller (Tin House Books, 2020), 368pp., US$16.95
A couple of years ago I chanced on a book of poems by a New Zealander I had not heard of who lived in Europe. I was so struck by the collection’s range and emotional depth, by its formal poise, that I rightly guessed how, in the current whirlpool of New Zealand poetry, it was unlikely to catch the eye of our gatekeepers, or the judges of poetry prizes. In poem after poem, Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer took on forms and approaches of rare originality, and it stays with me as one of the books in recent years that I deeply admire. Among much else, Miller was a risk-taker. So it did not surprise me, when I saw her recent novel, that what she took on in prose was risk on a grand scale.
Apart from anything else, More Miracle than Bird is fiction that takes her headlong into one of the most contentious niches of storytelling—a novel that draws on real lives, on what biographically already exists. I would hazard that it is possibly the toughest of genres, and one whose field is strewn with the corpses of good intentions. One might think of the number of novels closer to home that intend to tell us something about Katherine Mansfield that is meant to be interesting, and even enlightening. Few pages stand up. The boldest attempt to tell in the author’s words what Mansfield already has told us in hers. Or to embroil her in imaginary situations that range from banal to tasteless. I have a friend, a fine critic, who refuses to read based-on-biography novels because of what you might call the principle of unlikeliness. If you’re writing a novel about Wittgenstein, say, or Henry James, about Oscar Wilde or Jesus, then there is one barrier that clangs down with unforgiving certainty. How are you going to represent a mind so much more capacious than one’s own, without coming a cropper? Colm Toibin managed it marvellously in The Master, by following so closely what Henry James himself had written, by not assuming to know more than what already was there in James’s own writing, and by not attempting in any way a pastiche of the master’s style. But generally, the argument mounted against such fiction is a simple one. A direct narrative description may get you so far. ‘Wittgenstein took an early morning train from King’s Cross, anxious not to be late for his meeting with Russell.’ Or you might represent the philosopher’s social awkwardness from a dozen anecdotes, his manner of lecturing, his volatile tantrums. All the stuff about a person that we might see from the outside. But there’s a locked door should you try to get into what he is thinking as he looks from the train window. It is as if someone asks, ‘What is that man thinking?’, and all you do is hand over a photograph.
I mention these problems not as preliminary to Alice Miller’s novel, so much as to acknowledge the kind of challenges that are inevitable when a novel draws on actual people, with their trail of recorded lives. There is no mistaking, from her book’s title, where its freshly imagined world is located—a quotation from one of Yeats’s most celebrated poems. More Miracle than Bird is fiction that circles the mystery, not of how great poetry is produced, but of the milieu and circumstances from which it may spring. That is a very different thing to take on, and a vastly more modest one.
Clearly, Miller is deeply fascinated by Yeats. He was there, for example, as a tutelary shadow in some of her own poems. She is steeped in his biographies, she is held by the rare luminescence of a mind that some contemporaries even regarded—in his own words—as ‘out of fashion, like an old song’. He was easy enough to lampoon for his odd-ball convictions and his frank spiritualist beliefs, but all of this drops away, like the scaffolding at a rocket launch, in the glare of his ‘enduring monuments’. It was an extraordinary paradox that struck many of those who knew him. One of his nicknames in Dublin was ‘Willie the spook’, in contrast to his brother the painter: ‘Jack—now there’s a real man for you.’
Miller is far too sharp a writer to come at Yeats directly. The man is far too multifarious, far too close to hand through his thousands of published pages, to present other than obliquely, as the presence, not so much in himself, but as others take him in: as a friend, as a contemporary, as he comes across through the society he is part of. The setting Miller chooses is by and large Yeats’ literary London during the war. It was a rather pampered world, self-congratulatory, erotically charged, fuelled by serious drinking, privileged in one way or another, with many of its personalities cast in planetary roles around the poet as their solar centre.
For anyone who knows about the poet’s life, more than a few of the names are recognisable, from variously partnered lovers to the egregiously self-satisfied Ezra Pound, believing he could turn W.B. into quite a poet if only his advice was listened to. But the point you might say of the novel, and what so draws on Miller’s skill, is that all this is seen, sooner or later, through the eyes of Georgie Hyde Lees, the gifted, modest, unspectacular young English woman who later became Mrs Yeats (who deserves top marks for both patience and insight). She was the only one deeply aware of the war, working as a voluntary nurse in a London hospital for wounded officers. She was—in ‘life’, as in ‘fiction’—reserved, watchful, a touch sceptical of the whole performative mix of literary ambition, amorous pursuit and the dress-up theatrics of the Order of the Golden Dawn. She was the only one with an eye for what Henry James might have called ‘the real thing’. On a clear day, with a favourable wind, the war could be heard a hundred miles to the south, but only Georgie seemed to note it. She would pop into parties from wards agonised with the blood and guts of war, and come to see Yeats as no one else quite saw him: a man desperate for a wife, for stability, for so much more than the eloquent Celtic showmanship revealed.
The party scenes, the gossiping women together, the hospital scenarios—all are vivid and convincing. There are harrowing descriptions of young officers torn apart and patched up to return to the trenches, their beds a few streets from where ‘culture’ played out its intrigues and strutted its swollen egos. Miller is good at depicting how Yeats seemed to others. But the focus of the fiction is on how one admirable, retiring, highly intelligent woman was drawn to the devious but massively gifted poet. The book’s values derive from her. The Yeats of history casts a long and troubling shadow over a love story that comes to us almost entirely through Georgie. But that is Miller’s success. Yeats the lover, the cold egotist of the honeymoon, is wisely kept at a distance, while it is Georgie’s mind that holds our attention. Amazing as it might seem to him, there is someone more interesting than Willie on the page. And then the great flash, as it were, when poetry strikes centre stage. For what turns the honeymoon to triumph is the fact that Georgie suddenly finds herself as the conveyor of automatic writing, which husband and wife soon realise is a gift that will work wonders for poetry. Believe it or not—and scepticism comes perhaps too glibly to modern readers—the astonishing fact is that Georgie became essential to Yeats as an artist, for the great poems yet to come.
Miller, as sympathetic as she is informed, takes this gift as Georgie and Yeats took it—an inexplicable but magnificent bestowal, something ‘out of nature’—and the poems would be there to prove it, untangle it all as you will. Georgie so comes off as a fictional character because her reserve, her seriousness, her eagle eye for pretence are the driving forces of the narrative. It is consistent with what is admirable in her, that her mind so frankly is open to us as a woman deciding on love. It is the author’s deep respect for her main character that sustains so much of the telling. The occasional use of language or expressions that were unlikely at the time the story is set, as well as the odd touch of melodrama, are minor flaws indeed in a work that held me by the bravura of its ambition.
VINCENT O’SULLIVAN’s recent books include a new poetry collection, Things OK With You? (VUP, 2021), a novel All This By Chance (VUP, 2018) and, most recently, The Dark Is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere: A biographical portrait (Penguin Random House NZ), which won the 2021 Ockham General Non-Fiction Award. He lives in Dunedin.