Claire-Louise Bennett on Living on the Street

The narrator of this week’s story, “Invisible Bird,” has recently finished her degree. She wants to carry on living in London, where she’d been studying literature, but she has no money and has to return home. She’s anxious in London, yet the city offers a kind of promise. In contrast, her home town, as she observes, “had no capacity whatsoever to exalt my neurosis into something thrilling.” How important is the sense of being in between vocations and identities to the story?

The narrator is not much more than twenty years old when she finishes her degree. She is aware that from this point on she is expected to establish herself in the adult world. Vocational aspirations and a fixed and defined identity are both crucial to this endeavor; she knows that, and it makes her feel anxious and hemmed in. She doesn’t want to develop a sense of selfhood or indeed a life that is based upon these things; she wants to discover a way of being in the world on her own terms, rather than succumb to an off-the-peg kind of existence.

She starts living with a new boyfriend, who is just as unhappy in the town, and they decide to move to Ireland. In Dublin, the money they have soon runs out. They end up meeting a couple named Kenny and Anna and moving in with them. There’s a sense of both drift and inevitability, in a way. Do you think the narrator has any kind of control over what’s happening?

No, not really, not on the face of it. But what is control? This is something the story questions. By moving to Ireland without having any plan, prospects, or contacts, the narrator has put herself in a vulnerable and uncertain position, but the security that regular working-class life offered her was stifling, and she had to abandon it, driven, no doubt, by the conviction that she is destined for something more interesting—that’s possibly the sense of inevitability you’ve picked up on. She and her boyfriend are drifting in that way that people with limited resources generally do when they arrive somewhere new. So much in the early stages depends on luck, getting that first break—and, as she points out, some things that appear fortuitous quickly turn out to be a bind. She is not in control over what is happening to her day to day at this stage, but that’s not what freedom is—freedom is about discovering what you can live without—and, once you have identified that, you’ve cleared the way for your own volition to operate as a guiding force more effectively and consistently than any external factors ever can.

The narrator and her boyfriend start spending less time with Kenny and Anna. Some nights they’ll sleep in a hostel, and at other times out on the street. The idea of what a home might be runs through the story. The narrator describes many of the places she stays in with precision, including one particular street, Dawson Street, an entranceway on it. Did you know from the outset that the physical setting of each place would be so significant?

I’ve lived in Ireland for more than twenty years now. When I first arrived here, I slept rough on and off for several months. This story is very much a fictional piece, but it draws upon that experience. When you are on the street, the way you look at and experience a city alters. You are not participating in it in the way that it’s been designed to be participated in—cities are transactional environments, and if you are physically in the midst of one but aren’t consuming or trading anything it becomes abstract very quickly. This abstraction emphasizes the city’s physicality—its geometry, its structural features, its aesthetic particularities, and so on. And obviously I was scoping out its environs and assessing them in practical terms, often looking for a quiet spot that offered a modicum of privacy. The lack of privacy is awful. When you’re on the street, it feels like you’re on the world’s stage all the time, because there’s never a moment when you can’t be seen. That level of visibility is exhausting, but, as we discover toward the end of the story, it can also make one feel integral to the urban fabric and watched over in a peculiarly comforting way.

The story takes its title from a line of Proust’s about an invisible bird, one that is “striving to make the day seem shorter, exploring with a long-drawn note the solitude that pressed it on every side, but it received at once so unanimous an answer, so powerful a repercussion of silence and of immobility, that one felt it had arrested for all eternity the moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly.” Did you have this passage in mind before you started writing the story? Were you writing toward this, or did it come to you as you were working on the story? How hard is it to capture that feeling of an arrested moment?

It’s such a beautiful passage, isn’t it? The image it conjures for me is absolutely sublime. I can’t honestly say how it ended up in the story—I don’t believe it was there in earlier versions, but once I came across the passage the connection it had to that particular scene on Dawson Street was immediate, and very surprising, too. It was very much the lack of parity between the two situations that made this unexpected resonance so poetically striking. So I had to include it, though I recall that a friend who read over the piece said that quoting Proust wasn’t a very smart thing to do, since it made my own prose sound rather pedestrian by contrast. He had a point, but it’s not a competition.

The narrator is looking back on a period of her life, and at times she’s assessing who she was during that time. Why did you want that distance between the events of the narrative and the telling of it? Would it be a very different story without it?

I’ve mentioned to a few people over the years what my situation was when I first came to Ireland, and they often presume that it’s something I’ve written about, but I didn’t write about it at all for a very long time. I just didn’t feel that strongly about it. Yes, it was a challenging period, sometimes frightening, often dispiriting, etc., but I knew in my bones that it wouldn’t go on forever, and it would have been disingenuous, fraudulent actually, to write about it as if it were some great catastrophe. In terms of tone—which is indicative of a particular perspective—I was thinking of Maeve Brennan’s work. She has this way of writing about difficult and alienating experiences that is also highly observational and deceptively breezy. She enters into the reality of the situation and reports from within it as if there could be no other place—it’s that peculiar admixture of drift and inevitability again, which is characteristic of a lot of postwar writing, for obvious reasons. So the story has a deliberately old-fashioned kind of sensibility—there isn’t much analysis, and it’s not making any bigger statements—but that’s what, in the end, aligns most closely with my own mode of assessment of that time of my life.

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