Anne Enright and the paradigm of the good-enough mother
In order to cater for translators with different tastes the Enright Translation Project offers different texts, both fiction and non-fiction, of different lengths. As Enright’s work has already been translated into about forty languages it was important for us to find texts which were representative and not yet translated. So we consulted with the author who generously offered us her most recent short story, “Night Swim”, published in The New Yorker in March 2020. This is matched by fragments from Enright’s non-fiction book, Making Babies (2005). In what follows we will offer a concise introduction to Anne Enright’s work focusing on the mother-child relationship in her books, as this is central to the texts awaiting your translation.
Forms of the maternal in Enright’s oeuvre
The mother-child relation (or the relation with the first care-giver, usually the mother) is the first and most fundamental formative influence in people’s lives. This is common knowledge/ experience, but wonderfully articulated by child analysts such as Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, Hanna Segal, Donald Winnicott, Wilfred Bion et al, and splendidly represented by authors and artists (Virginia Woolf, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphaël Sanzio, Käthe Kollwitz, to name but a few). In Anne Enright the mother-child-relation is very prominent throughout her work.
The name of her first short story collection, The Portable Virgin (1991), is significant. The title story is an example of Enright’s early form of magic realism: instead of criticizing the oppressive power of Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church full on, the story ironically represents not just that one institution but the whole masculine-philosophical tradition of thinking in terms of individual entities. The Virgin Mary, asexual mother of God, who long served as the model for Irish mothers, is replaced here by two “Maries” who interact, and who both love having sex with the same man, Ben. While the gospel often refers to two and three Maries, the magic in this story leaves the reader in uncertainty as to whether Ben loves two different women called Mary, or whether the love of and for his wife Mary merely contains different elements. Traditionally the virgin Mary is represented as a statue dressed in blue and white, and here the biblical figure is reduced to being just that: a “small, portable Virgin. She is made of transparent plastic […] Her little blue crown is a screw-off top, and her body is filled with holy water” (The Portable Virgin 87). Later, in Making Babies, Enright will explain that she used magic realism “because I lived in an incoherent country. [The stories] were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal. They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State” (194).
Enright’s first novel, The Wig My Father Wore (1995), also uses the magic realist mode as a kind of literary sabotage of the religious stereotypes of the day. One of the gospel stories starts with the annunciation to Mary, in which the angel Gabriel tells her she will conceive the son of God. In Enright, the angel’s name is Stephen and he is a suicide who chose to come back to become “the angel in the house” (literally rather than proverbially). So Enright inverts two Catholic forms of exclusion and oppression: in her story suicides are not damned, and women are not just the handmaids of men.
The second novel, What Are You Like? (2000) is more realistic. When the Catholic Church forbids a future mother to take the necessary medication because she is pregnant, she dies during the birth of her twins. The twins are immediately separated, and the story focuses on the insidious trauma caused by this mishandling by Catholic institutions of the mother-child relation.
In The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) it is the mother protagonist who feels dark forces in herself. The novel fictionalizes the historical figure of “la Lynch”, an Irish prostitute and later consort of the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López. But although Eliza is well aware of “the blackness of [her] …heart” (The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch 96), she also illustrates a mother’s intricate sensitivity and communication with the baby she is expecting when “My blood paints him a picture of the future that approaches, and he beats out his answer on my tender hide drum” (The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch 205). However, as Eliza shows, mothers can be cruel too. She turns out to be as tyrannical as López: together they draw the whole country into a pointless, self-destroying war.
In 2004 Enright writes her first non-fiction book, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. That the author wrote this after having suffered a breakdown, written four books and given birth to two babies is significant. The dark period of the breakdown seems to be of fundamental importance as it allowed her, as W.B. Yeats put it, to “lie down where all the ladders start”, in the “rag-and-bone shop of the heart”. The protagonist’s sense of vulnerability seems to offer the perfect preparation for being the “good enough” or enabling mother (a term Winnicott borrows from Melanie Klein). In Making Babies magic realism makes way for what we could call a kind of hilarious realism in which a mother tries to find “the right relation” to her baby, a being who is both so close and so unknown. As in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. On Becoming a Mother (2001), the exploration of motherhood turns out to be a matter of striking the right balance between empathy and letting be, of creating the “intermediate space” which gives both mother and child the necessary leeway to create their real selves. Winnicott would have been delighted to find his “potential space”, “this intermediate area of experience” which “enables the child to play” (Winnicott, Playing and Reality 18, 51, 55, 69) realized in this book.
That such a private place for self-articulation is of prime importance in any family is amply illustrated in The Gathering, for which Enright won the Booker Prize in 2007. The protagonist, Veronica, shares a darkness with her brother who committed suicide, which she ascribes to a bad relationship with their mother. Both siblings, born only nine months apart and so very close, share an intense anger with their parents and with society: they feel they have been neglected by the former and abused by the latter, which led to life-long trauma. While some magic is retained in the style, psychological realism prevails here as Veronica’s search for her true self (her “vera icon”) offers an accurate representation of the narrator’s dealing with her trauma. As she works through the images from her past, Veronica starts to see the full impact of the masculine Catholic ethos on their family and the nation-wide oppression of women and abuse of children this brought on. First she is angry with her mother’s lame victimhood, but this anger is slowly being replaced with empathy, which leads to better relationships in the family and a positively renewed attitude to motherhood at the novel’s end.
The short story volumes Taking Pictures (2008) and Yesterday's Weather (2008) offer a rich mosaic of aspects in mother-daughter relations. How does a daughter relate to a dead mother? How does a mother cope with her husband’s infidelity? Thematically “Shaft”, “Yesterday’s Weather”, and “Caravan” are the stories that most converge with “Night Swim”. Overcome with worry the young mothers in these stories fail to relativize problems and struggle to allow for the necessary intermediate area of play. One mum is criticized by her husband for getting things out of proportion, but to her the child in her care is “a new human being, a whole universe, but of course [in the eyes of men]… this is ‘nothing’” (“Shaft”, Taking Pictures 131). “Caravan” has striking parallels with “Night Swim”: the mother figures are namesakes, and both try to find a balance between love and fear, enthusiasm and paralysis, life and death drives (i.e. life-enhancing versus life-destroying tendencies).
In The Forgotten Waltz (2011), it is again motherly interactions which form the matrix of the protagonist’s perception. In order to settle in her relationship with Seán, a married man she meets at a party, Gina goes to stay in her deceased mother’s house. There she tries to come to terms with her mother’s death, while observing that she can only come into a stable relation with Seán if she can find the right ‘motherly’ distance to his daughter Evie, who seems to suffer from epilepsy: “if I can figure out what happened to Evie, I can tell the story properly” (The Forgotten Waltz 190).
In The Green Road (2015) this “right distance” is exactly what remains missing till the very end. Rosaleen, the mother figure (with the heavily nationalistically connotated name) is central to the book. She is so invasive that her children literally try to get away from her. Only the eldest, Constance, stayed in the region, and at some point Rosaleen threatens she will move in with her daughter and her family. But also her son Emmet feels her influence, even though he is about thirty and lives in Africa: “Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog. Mother” (The Green Road 210).
In Enright’s latest novel, Actress (2020), the mother theme reappears in #MeToo and other political contexts. The fiction of national identity is again obliquely criticized as “O’Dell, the most Irish actress in the world, was technically British” (Actress 24), and romantic myths of identity are all too often linked to the glorification of violence: “It was all very well singing rebel songs for nostalgic Irish Americans, but there was nothing nostalgic about an orthopaedic ward in Belfast after a kneecapping or a bomb” (Actress 21). Yet the protagonist of this novel, daughter of the once famous actress O’Dell, seems to have much of the author’s increased empathy. Though she suffered along with her mother who had to make a living by accepting roles on stage and in films, but also sad parts in real life, the narrator acknowledges “We all consider sleeping with the bad man […] one way or another, we are all attracted to the shadow” (Actress 164).
As this brief overview illustrates, fathers are much less prominent in Enright’s novels. In The Wig My Father Wore the wig is almost more important than the father: since his stroke his communication has moved from being functional to being poetical – the wig highlights how language is based on metonymies and metaphors. So the protagonist, Grace, has a good enough relationship with him; it is the mother who is victimized by the situation and by society who has to cope with Grace’s anger and frustration. Likewise the fathers in the other novels only make a rather ghostly appearance as they are either inactive (like Berts in What Are You Like?), unknown (in Actress) or dead.
“Night Swim”: the ‘good enough mother’ versus the paternalistic paradigm, or, open versus closed perception
The one authored book in Enright’s work we have not touched on yet is her most recent non-fiction book, No Authority: Writings from the Laureateship (2019). In this collection of lectures, combined with two short stories, the author reflects again on the unspeakable damage that has been inflicted on women and children by members of the Catholic Church in Ireland: “the laundries might be styled as labour camps, or prison camps, where women were sent without trial, for a crime that was hard to name” (No Authority 18). In other essays she looks at people with alternative perceptions, and finds a great example in the writer Maeve Brennan. She is a woman who reorients herself by trying “to find her mother’s voice again”, “the voice you can say anything in […] infinite, always changing, endlessly responsive and capable of containing anything, and everything” (No Authority 50). Inspired by this relationship Enright observes how “Each one of Brennan’s stories is a victory over sameness […] one sentence at a time” (No Authority 56).
This “victory over sameness”, a constant pushing of boundaries, is the watermark of Enright’s own work. Her writing always questions things; more specifically it interrogates the systems which frame people’s perception. The magic realist style and the striking metaphors are different ways of jumbling habitual, paternalistically patterned perceptions, but apart from these, Enright uses many different means, both on the thematic and the stylistic level. In Actress, for instance, the narrative voice observes “some people are closed, and some are open” (66). In what follows we will look at how “Night Swim” follows an open, explorative, motherly kind of perception in dialogue, as opposed to the closed, habitual, mimetic, paternalistic world. The difference between paternalistic and maternal is obviously not a strictly gendered one, but a question of being open or closed. As “Night Swim” is a very condensed short story, we can identify no less than ten features which allow us to distinguish between both paradigms.  In what follows I will also refer to Making Babies and some other texts.
On the basis of Enright’s works listed above it seems we can sum up the paternalistic perception as ruled by  one kind of authority, that of the father/priest, who is  an individual  who is supposed to know. He  excludes the vulnerable  from empowered positions; he is  oppressive and  intrusive in the name of  an abstract,  general and  causal kind of thinking. Enright’s protagonists counteract this.
She does so, first of all, by presenting the reader with  the position of ‘the good enough mother’. This position is not simply to be identified with “maternal”: as Klein, Winnicott and others indicate, it is only the loving mother who allows the child to go his/her own way.
In order to find “the right distance” caregivers are not so much ‘in-dividual’, but  in interaction, like Ben and his mother, Michelle, in “Night Swim”. They are involved in a dialogue which in turn fuels an ‘intra-action’, an internal struggle of life and death drives.
From the start it becomes clear that the mother is  not the one who knows, or pretends to: she needs her son’s phone to find the destination. Also she is not the initiator of the event, but merely cooperative. She is annoyed by his insistent questioning, but still goes along with it. Both the son’s questions about death and the unexpected destination (the former clinic) flashes the mother’s mind back to a time when she felt dangerously attracted to a loss of all boundaries, to death. This deepened self-awareness is something that came into being through interaction, the “call-and-response that happens when a mother is doing her job properly”, says Enright in an interview with Deborah Treisman about the story in The New Yorker. The dialogue is challenging, to the point where the mother exasperatedly answers, “I would not rather die one way or the other way. What is your problem, Ben?” yet she keeps playing the game till the end.
In this sense the mother does not eclipse or dismiss her son’s worries, but acknowledges that their deeper fears may be not simply ‘individual’, but shared. This attitude of  inclusion contrasts sharply with the mother’s past vision of being driven to the ‘loon bin’ by the taxi driver who “would know that there was a broken human being in his cab, that he would turn to sneer at her as they went through the gates”. On the contrary, the “good enough mother” does not sneer at her son; she does not belittle his fears, but she takes them seriously and confronts them.
 She also empowers him: Ben is small for his age, so he gets a booster seat; his diffidence is alleviated by the frequent interaction with his phone, which she allows; and his fear of death is contained by the rules of the game. Likewise, the mother gladly drives her son to his friend who is a newcomer to the area, so, again, the family seems welcoming to those who do not yet belong. Next, the mother explicitly tries not to be oppressive or intrusive: “She really tried not to turn into the kind of woman who said, ‘Sit up straight,’ or ‘Leave your hair alone.’ – except she cannot suppress some interference when she finally does tell Ben to leave his nose alone; “[s]he loved them too much to let them be”.
It is the old tension of the good enough mother who has to find the right balance between  empathy and  awareness of Otherness. In Making Babies Enright stresses the latter: “my high-focus bump was filled with someone I did not know. And perhaps never would. Pregnancy is as old-fashioned as religion, and it never ends” (24-25). In “Night Swim” too, Michelle is aware of the fact that Ben is very private and that she might be unwittingly sending out the wrong signals: “What was it about her eyes on him that made him shrug and shift under his clothes?”.
In this story (as in the rest of Enright’s oeuvre) nothing is just abstract: everything that happens is  always interacting with the concrete. The closeness between the two is illustrated in Enright’s characteristic use of zeugma – as on page one of the opening story of The Portable Virgin: “She loved corners, surprises, changes of light” (3). Also, unlike philosophers who (paradoxically) conceive of human beings as dualistic individuals, mothers experience them as “a set of emotions arranged around a gut.” The baby is “a shitter […] a soul” (Making Babies 42): body and soul only exist in interaction. Likewise, Enright sides with feminists like Irigaray, Rosi Braidotti, Judith Butler, Bracha Ettinger and others who invert the paternalistic hierarchy of the senses. Whereas seeing and hearing predominate, partly because of the safe distance they bring, the feminist and maternal perception pleads for more familiarity with touch, smell and taste. “It’s the problem of the body as it is experienced rather than as seen”, Enright tells Claire Bracken and Susan Cahill (22). No wonder, then, that in novels like Eliza Lynch, The Gathering, The Forgotten Waltz the tactile, olfactory and gustatory senses are prominent.
In a world in which the interactional mode replaces the individual one  general knowledge is only relevant if checked against the singular. Indeed it is but in their unique interaction that both Michelle and Ben get traction in their inner fight with the death drives (as expressed in the death-skirting night swim in her youth and in the boy’s repeated references to ways of dying) . She may use her son’s phone to steer her in a practical way, but Ben’s support is much more of an existential nature: by being his mother’s son he consolidates her endeavours of being a good enough mother now, rather than a patient of the past: “he was so very much himself. He looked at her [ …] as though he had known her for a long time, and she was not inside the building [the former psychiatric clinic]. She was here now, on the outside, with him”. Ben too has his problems, as his stature and the cracked phone screen indicate, but mother and son enable each other to escape the “nightmare logic” of the (regressive, repetitive) death drive; instead, they look forward, to progression, growth, and change” (Treisman), and to the renewal of life. This is illustrated in the son’s destination. When it turns out that his sleepover is in the clinic where his mother spent some time, this destination has now turned into new perspectives for the young, both in the literal sense (the renovated buildings) and the metaphorical (Ben is happy to forge new friendships).
Finally there is the tenth feature of the paternalistic paradigm, perception based on ‘causal thinking’. In “Night Swim” the intimate communication is not driven by causality but by  the unconscious (the fear which inspires the rupture and repetition in Ben’s questioning) and the preconscious which is not exclusive but inclusive, even to the extent that contradiction is allowed. This is amply illustrated by Ben whose verbal language (that Ava is “not my friend”, she is “pushy”) contradicts his body language (“His hand rested, in anticipation, on the overnight bag beside him”). But also the whole interaction between mother and son remains unarticulated, so that towards the end there is no causality, the narrator merely indicates “Something was resolved by the existence of the child in the back seat” (my emphasis).
It is characteristic of Enright’s magnificent writing that, in a simple story about a very concrete event, she manages to portray the good enough mother, who loves and leaves be, thinks and acts in interaction, includes and empowers, empathizes while realizing difference, interweaving past and present, consciousness and preconscious. Magic realism has, like in Taking Pictures, given way to a pure yet layered kind of realism. The story allows us to summarize the difference between the paternalistic and the good-enough mother’s paradigms in the fact that the former is based on rules inspired by metaphysics while the latter uses “serious play” to explore emotions. “It is the simple things that are the most mysterious”, Enright observes (Granta ix). In “Night Swim”, the “simple thing” is that the protagonist is “a mother doing her job properly”. This seems to work, as Michelle’s son happily runs off to face his own life: supported by his family he feels empowered to explore his own relationships. In her interview with Lisa Allardice, published a month before the short story, Enright stresses that “mental health … [is] such a day-to-day thing”. Indeed many of her stories stage an inner fight with the death drive which expresses itself in forms of self-sabotage like procrastination and worry. These have to be overcome time and again, but Enright observes how “Motherhood has made me more efficient. … I used to delay things all the time” (Making Babies 180-181).
In the eyes of babies, parents are divine forces. Their loving presence is bliss, their absence or anger utterly scary. But Winnicott states that after the stage in which children idolize their parents and the next one in which they hate them, children must learn to see their parents for what they are: just human beings. In order to see things in proportion children must take their distance, see their parents in wider social contexts and develop their own, unique self. Enright often focuses on this intricate process of extricating the self from the mother. In The Forgotten Waltz the protagonist observes she has never really done it: “If I had been able to see her, instead of being surrounded by her, my beautiful mother, then she might still be alive” (47). Finding the right distance from one’s parents seems to be as vital and as difficult as practising some ‘right religion’. Indeed the very word is derived from the Latin verb “religare”, which has a whole spectrum of uses going from “to bind together, to fasten up”, to moor (a ship to the shore) to “to leave behind, bequeathe”, and “to suffer to be”. It seems as if in previous works the features of the paternalistic pattern were highlighted, while in “Night Swim” those of the good-enough-maternal are realized. As play and leeway are central ingredients in the healthy mother-child relationship Enright often refers to it in a joking way, as when she states that in the twenty-first century “Irish writers aren’t afraid to admit it’s a big deal having a mother” and that, as mothers are lacking in other literatures, “the Irish have to have mothers for everyone else”; yet until recently even the Irish used to be reticent about mothers as they were “too sacred, or too difficult” (Interview with Allardice). In one of the texts of Making Babies we selected for translation (under the title “God”) Enright compares the parent-child relationship to the behaviour of members of a religious sect; the extended simile is hilarious in its accuracy.
Enright and the Short Story: the power and the playfulness
In her sustained interrogation of patriarchy and stereotypes, Enright indicates in her introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (which she edited in 2009) that the short story is a fine weapon. Many stories are “born from the fragmentation of old certainties and the absence of any new ones” (Granta xii). Her own stories [in Taking Pictures] are “about freedom […] about women breaking out of systems”, Enright tells Claire Bracken & Susan Cahill (16). Maybe, Enright wonders, feminist short story writing “is all a yearning for what O'Connor called ‘the concept of a society’” (Granta xiii). In the search for this concept unknowing is an important first step: “[t]he writer's ignorance may be deliberate, but it plays itself out in an established space. The sentence is one such space; the story is another” (Granta x). In their tautness and compression short stories can be considered “the cats of literary form” (x); or they can be like John McGahern’s stories, “the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor”(xii). To Enright stories are a matter of “slow recognition” (Allarice). Writing stories is a matter of articulating the preconscious: “there is so much you don’t know that you know” Enright says in an interview with Ruth Joos. In the same interview she even goes on to say that the writer might even “create the uncreated conscience of our race” – significantly differing from Stephen Daedalus by replacing “my race” with the more inclusive “our”.
Though Enright considers Frank O’Connor’s book The Lonely Voice (1963) still “a touchstone in any discussion of the short story form”, she feels she needs to “give the bag a shake” (Granta xi). In “Night Swim” Enright focused on the “rhythm [as it]…is the key to writing dialogue, because it holds the power and also the playfulness in whatever relationship we are sketching on the page” (interview with Treisman).
We hope that you will enjoy translating these texts, shaking (and reshaking) Enright’s rich contents in the bag of your chosen language (your mother tongue, or native language). “It takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is”, Enright quotes O’Connor (Granta x); and words in turn chime together to make tone, overtones, atmosphere. In the interview with Joos Enright says “you leave a lot to the reader”. A fortiori, you leave a lot to the translator, who will replace every word to create some type of parallel world, something new.
Hedwig Schwall, with thanks to Anne Fogarty for her close reading of the text.
Allardice, Lisa. “A lot of bad things happen to women in books.” Interview with Anne Enright. The Guardian 28 February 2020.
Enright, Anne. The Portable Virgin. London: Vintage, 2007.
--- The Wig My Father Wore. London: Minerva, 1997.
--- What Are You Like? London: Vintage, 2001.
--- The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch. London: Vintage, 2003.
--- Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. London: Vintage, 2005.
--- The Gathering. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.
--- Yesterday’s Weather. Grove Press, 2008.
--- Taking Pictures. London: Jonathan Cape. 2008.
--- “Introduction.” The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. Edited and with an introduction by Anne Enright. London, Granta, 2010; ix-xviii.
--- The Forgotten Waltz. London: Jonathan Cape, 2011.
--- The Green Road. London: Jonathan Cape, 2015.
---. No Authority. Writings from the Laureateship. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2019.
--- Actress. London: Penguin, Random House, 2020.
Claire Bracken and Susan Cahill. “An Interview with Anne Enright”. Anne Enright. Irish Writers in their Time. Visions and Revisions. Ed. Claire Bracken and Susan Cahill Dublin/Portland: Irish Academic Press, 2011; 13-32.
Joos, Ruth. Interview with Anne Enright, 24.03.2013 at Vaudeville, Brussels.
Treisman, Deborah. “Anne Enright on Rupture and Repetition” The New Yorker, 2 March 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/anne-enright-03-09-20
Winnicott, Playing and Reality, With a new preface by F. Robert Rodman. London & New York: Routledge, 2005.
 The pages given always refer to the edition mentioned in the Works Cited list.
 W.B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1981.
 The story is very simple: Michelle’s son Ben has been invited to a sleepover party by Ava, a new girl on the block. He pretends he is not interested but accepted the invitation . As his mother ferries him there mother and son get involved in a game in which Ben wants his interlocutor to choose ways of dying. One of the choices he offers reminds Michelle of a time in her youth when she went for a night swim in which she enjoyed the experience of mortal danger. Later, it turns out that Ava lives in a renovated building which used to be a psychiatric clinic, the same in which Michelle went for treatment twenty years before the car trip described in this story.
 About the intrusive way in which the Catholic Church mixed in family life Enright observes: “Growing up in Ireland, we didn’t need aliens – we already had a race of higher beings to gaze deep into our eyes and force us to have babies against our will: we called them priests.” (Making Babies 5).
 Mia Gallagher uses the term when she articulates what writing entails: the creative process is a combination of letting the unconscious play its role while the author has to discipline these energies with the utmost concentration of all one’s faculties. Bringing the whole range of the self into play, both unconscious and conscious energies, is something all contributors to The Danger and the Glory (Arlen House, 2019, ed. H. Schwall) mention. Most of these contributions are available on https://kaleidoscope.efacis.eu/publications.
 I follow the Database of Latin Dictionaries, more specifically Lewis and Short, http://clt.brepolis.net.kuleuven.ezproxy.kuleuven.be/dld/pages/AdvancedResult.aspx.
 Christopher Bollas has a word for this preconscious awareness, the “unthought known”; which he explains at length in The Shadow of the Object. Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.