Legarreta Mentxaka, Aintzane. 2011. Kate O'Brien and the Fiction of Identity: Sex, Art and Politics in Mary Lavelle and Other Writings. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland.
Aintzane L. Mentxaka's book, dedicated to Irish allegorist writer Kate O'Brien (1897-1974), reads like a challenging detective story, scholarly, yet unpredictable and sparkling with great spirits.
Zooming in on O'Brien's key fiction Mary Lavelle (1936) and revealing, under different exposures, its creative environments, 'mixed-media' fabric and activist subtexts, Mentxaka succeeds in revaluating the entirety of O'Brien's writings, which are not only "high-standard" but also "non-parochial and free", and positions them firmly within the canon of European modern literature.
This multi-thematic study can be divided into a dissertative corpus per se (Preface, first four chapters and Conclusion) illuminating Mary Lavelle's anti-authoritarian politics, 'subtextual queer women' and 'intratextual' aesthetic practice; a superimposed travelling map of Basque and Bilbaian histories (fifth chapter) animating further the socio-political and cultural backdrop; and a biographical diptych (sixth and seventh chapters) unveiling the Kate O'Brien mystery that put golden threads into Mary Lavelle's poetical weave, and informed O'Brien's systematic approach to identity as a multiple self.
As a French national living in an Anglophone country, I was impressed by the historical approach to continental socialism devoid of prejudice, took pleasure in Mentxaka's chronicle of industrial Bilbao's life and struggles, and was struck by the passage on Dr Enrique Areilza, who, by designing the thalasso- and helio- treatments of Gorliz Sanatorium (1919), committed himself to 'all poor children in Biscay'. This connected with my inherited memories of two concomitant feats of social activism, which occurred on my flat and rainy land of Picardy, my own childhood playground. There is this pioneering maritime hO(s)p(it)al for orphans crippled by tuberculosis, which sprouted from the dunes of 1860s Berck-sur-mer--then a small fisherman's village on the Opal Coast of France; and there is also this realised utopia of an education-driven industrial p(a)lace, 'Le Familistere', which Godin, an ingenious stove maker, and his second wife, both inspired by the teachings of Fourier, built in the forlorn backyard of the Guises' crumbling castle ...
As a film lover, and a fan of Victorian and modern English literatures, I was equally impressed. Mentxaka does not only link up Mary Lavelle with its companion travelogue, Farewell Spain (1937), or with its high-profile predecessor in queer activist fiction, Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), but she also guides us through a maze of correspondences where 'different versions of stories and characters are simultaneously visible to the reader'. Modernism, then, instantaneously becomes a reader- (and viewer-) orientated practice, and we wish to see Mary, the eponymous heroine of the 1936 novel, transform herself as we are leafing through Without my Cloak (1931) and As Music and Splendour (1958)--which encompass O'Brien's novelistic output. What is more, we look forward to re-reading Charlotte Bronte's 'governess abroad bildungsroman' Villette (1853), and just cannot wait to watch again the prophet Maria (and her robot double) in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), or Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter's enquiry into love, gender and subjectivity, Orlando (1).
Mary's 'adventure in invisibility', in the foreign city of Bilbao (or Bilbo--the homograph of Tolkien's 'Bilbo'--in Euskara), bears all the signs of the best allegorical fiction. Away from her native Ireland, she can, without wearing her cloak, take on her true, free-floating identity of foreigner. At a formal level, the heroine's 'queer' identity is matched by O'Brien's modernist proficiency in intertextuality and intermediality (2). …