Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Text 2010)
Is it just me, or is that a really bad first sentence? That deep is surely doing nothing at all or far too much, and really, the Alps beyond? Things don’t improve in the second sentence, where the verbs are respectively mannered and cutely passive: Twilight vanishes the hills into the mountains; then all is lost to the dark. I read on with dread in my heart. But, marvellously, within two or three pages the book’s tiny hero had appeared, the prose stopped trying so hard and I was eating out of Ms Bailey’s hand.
The hero is a wild snail. Soon after leaving the hotel of the prologue, Elisabeth Tova Bailey was laid low by a mystery virus. For years afterwards she was so debilitated that it was a major undertaking to leave her bed, and even to sit up or turn over was a big deal. She couldn’t play with her dog, and even the most welcome of visitors left her feeling exhausted. While she was in this state of enforced passivity, a friend brought her a gift of a tiny snail she had found in the woods. The author initially responded unenthusiastically, but as time passed she found that the snail provided not only a distraction during her long stretches of solitude, but also a deeply comforting companionship.
The story is beautifully told. As the relationship with the snail develops, we follow the illness’s progress, share the writer’s reflections on her subjective experience of time, are treated to snail-related gleanings from literary greats and not-so-greats (Oliver Goldsmith, Kobayashi Issa, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainer Maria Rilke, Patricia Cornwall – the list goes on), and learn fascinating information about the anatomy, habits, defences and mating behaviour of snails, some observed directly by Ms Bailey and much garnered from the reference books that took up a lot of her bed time.
I would say the book is charming, and that would be true, especially perhaps of the marginal drawings by Kathy Bray. But it’s also much more than that. What emerges is a profound sense of respect for living things and for the connectedness between them. The chapter epigraphs include a number of marvellous haiku. Oddly, it strikes me that there’s something haiku-like about the book as a whole: where those tiny poems capture a moment, this book, really an extended personal essay, captures a much more substantial swathe of time, but because of the mental state induced by the author’s illness it has a haiku-ish sense of quiet discovery.
It’s all done, after that awkward opening, without straining for effect, without heavily emotive language or any whiff of religiosity. Richard Dawkins would be delighted. I was.