Remembering Eileen Battersby

Remembering Eileen Battersby

In an extract from his eulogy given at Eileen Battersby's funeral on 31st December, publisher Neil Belton considers the contribution made by the long-time literary correspondent at the Irish Times:

Many people have said this in the past few days, but it’s worth repeating: we’ve lost something important with Eileen’s death, a critic and writer of huge curiosity and rare commitment who from her vantage point at the western edge of Europe surveyed the literature of the world.

Eileen decided I was worth knowing, at first, when she discovered I was reviving the work of Joseph Roth in English, in collaboration with the poet and translator Michael Hofmann and Bob Weil at WW Norton. She loved Roth’s fiction, and I suspect that she also identified something in Roth’s situation – a Jew in the age of Fascism who mourned the loss of the multilingual, cosmopolitan and relatively tolerant Habsburg Empire – that reflected her own, this American exile in Ireland, never fully at home here, certainly not at home in America, a driven woman with a strange accent, never quite worshipful enough of our literature (a supposed failing that drew on her, at times, some really vile abuse); yet certainly an Irishwoman to the English, who can rarely tell the difference between one Irish accent and another, and to the writers she championed simply a courageous and brilliant critic, a citizen of a wider world of letters few of whose languages she could read but whose literature was the central passion of her life, along with the horses and dogs in whose emotions and intelligence she profoundly and farsightedly believed, and then for the last two and a half decades above all her daughter Nadia.

Hoffman writes in his introduction to Roth’s collected letters, in terms that to anyone who knew Eileen will strike a chord, about ‘this grievously disappointed and multiply broken man [who] somehow continued to align himself toward the true and beautiful in his articles, and the beautiful and the true in his books’; he writes that ‘Roth is both contradictory and changeable, and always, always vehement with it. Something in him can’t abide and doesn’t understand hierarchies…He doesn’t pace himself or moderate himself or disguise himself. “I am wriggling in a hundred nets”, he brilliantly puts it. There is turbulence, emergency, thrashing around, panic wherever he is. He doesn’t deal in anything less than an ultimatum.’

All that was more or less true of Eileen, and in order to know her you had to navigate her enthusiasms and her discoveries, her outrages and her wounded sensitivities. Her enthusiasm was boundless: she told me that she had seen the movie "Manchester By The Sea" ten times. She was unreasonably dedicated to Sebald, in my view, even his more mannered and solemnly faux-naif work. Once in, she was all in. She advocated for writers like the Croatian Dasa Drndic or the Peruvian Santiago Roncagliolo and so many others. It didn’t matter to her that she was often the only critic in the two islands who’d noticed that certain novels had been lovingly translated and published. Many of us who’ve made the effort to bridge cultures by commissioning translations had reason to be grateful to her. She loathed the current American president so much she was going to renounce her American nationality; there were novels by eminent Irish and English writers she wouldn’t have in the house. And if she caught you on the phone you had to abandon hope for an hour or more while the current of her praise for artistic achievement and her indignation and her feuds flowed inextricably on, switching channels in a flash. I had meant to call her in the week before she died – she’d been immensely kind about a friend of mine who was in difficulties – and I regret now that I thought I couldn’t find the time, because there was no time left.

Neil Belton is editor-in-chief at Head of Zeus, the publisher of the paperback edition of Eileen Battersby’s novel Teethmarks On My Tongue.