Many years ago, while idling away at postgraduate studies, I lived in an overpriced, rundown basement flat somewhere near Dublin’s Grand Canal. The fault was my own, for I insisted on living in the more salubrious parts of the city. Inevitably, I quickly ran out of money, having neither the regular means, the entrepreneurial ingenuity, or the courage for theft to sustain myself. Over the course of six months, with my bank balance diminishing by the week, I lived with the growing threat of eviction. This was of course a ludicrous state of affairs, but such was the petty psychodrama I had concocted for myself. I had chosen the flat as a sort of caul for my natural introversion and, theoretically at least, to find the space I needed to work, but the whole venture proved in the end to be a miscalculation. My fears were doubtlessly not helped by the unpredictability of an eccentric and self-infatuated landlord, who would unexpectedly enter the flat without forewarning, demanding his rent in cash while simultaneously (it seemed to me), mysteriously enlarging his presence in what I felt was an ever-shrinking space.
It was not the actual intrusion, but the persistent sensation of feeling intruded upon, significant of the way things insist upon their own existences, that found its way into the first scenes that I wrote for The Failing Heart. But I cannot say for certain that it was in those moments that the novel originated. Instead, it seems to me that The Failing Heart has no specific origin, but instead fell out of a repository of fragmented experiences, memories, images, and phrases that were nonetheless bound together by some larger sense of the incommensurability of existence that has followed me around ever since my undergraduate days. Over the years, the text grew haphazardly, without any sense of true origin and without apparent destination. As time passed, new scenes developed, superficially untethered to each other. Snatches of literature, philosophy, sciences, all pilfered from my reading, crept in in unexpected ways. People, places, objects, things I had encountered, became reconfigured and imaginary ones conjured up. The Failing Heart may well have become a collection of short sketches. But the more I wrote, the more I was guided by some prevailing sense that a certain atmosphere and set of images would form the substance – if that is the word – of a single narrative.
Eventually, a structure began to emerge: a birth and death to bookend the beginning and ending of the novel, and everything in the middle to tend towards the processes of nascency and decomposition, and this tendency intensifying until the structure itself had the texture of the dreams that lie under dreams. I wrote 50,000 words and gave it a title it no longer has, but the story had gone on too long, it seemed to have no end, there seemed no point to it, and how was I to recognize that moment when I had penetrated through to the impenetrable ground? And what if there was no ground at all, just loose earth that kept giving way beneath the feet, infinitely? There were multiple drafts and rewritings until I eventually stopped writing. These were questions for which I had no clear answers. In the end I submitted it to anyone who I thought might be interested.
When Dedalus offered to publish The Failing Heart, they suggested that I resubmit an edited version of the text. This version then went through a number of further edits, until a 50,000-word document had been condensed and refined into a text of just under 40,000 words with a new title. This crucial, collaborative editorial process refined the novel until – in so far as they can, for nobody doubts the limitations of language – the words gave expression to the ideas. I was fortunate to have a publisher who understood and supported the vision I had for the novel. The editorial process took at least a year. The cover, in corvid black and white, is a detail from an Odilon Redon charcoal drawing entitled ‘On the Horizon, the Angel of Certitude, and in the Dark Sky, A Questioning Glance’ (another of his drawings, ‘A Mask Sounds the Death Knell’ had appeared on the cover of a previous book I had written). These surrealist, dread-filled, hard and melancholy sketches are perhaps the closest in visual art to the atmosphere that I have attempted to capture in The Failing Heart.
(c) Eoghan Smith
About The Failing Heart:
The Failing Heart is a dark, surreal tale set in Dublin. Haunted by the death of his mother and the impending birth of his ex-lover’s child, a young man embarks on an obsessive quest for knowledge. Abandoning his home, running out of money and increasingly paranoid, the people he encounters and the places he inhabits become mysterious sources of terror and anxiety. Everywhere there are intimations of a world that demands to be known, and yet refuses to yield up its secrets. A contemporary fable of existential melancholia, The Failing Heart plunges the reader into the psyche of a tortured individual who struggles to come to terms with his life.
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Eoghan is reading at the Sunday Session in Books Upstairs, Dublin on Sunday 28th April 2019, alongside Wendy Erskine and Nicole Flattery.