Eoghan Smith

A Mind of Winter

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Eoghan Smith is the author of the novels The Failing Heart (2018) and A Provincial Death (2022). A Mind of Winter (2023) is published by Dedalus. 

Very often a writer will be asked: where do your stories come from? This very question was one I had been asked directly by a student at the beginning of a creative writing that I teach. I suspect that many writers experience of a sense of panic about having to explain the precise origins of their stories, for who can really tell, but it was not one I could avoid at that moment in the classroom. As it happened, I had been doing a lot of walking at that time, so much so that I started to notice the act of walking itself—the rhythmic sound of footfall on concrete, the downforce and upspring of muscle and tendon, the tiny, unconscious adjustments we make to our postures and spatial orientations to maintain one’s balance—and it was around these barely noticed harmonies of the body that an idea for a story had begun to form. And so, in response to the student, I said that I was working on a story about a man who is walking down a long road lined with ditches and hedges towards the nearby university town (I was thinking about Maynooth, where I live, and its surrounding farmlands). I knew it would be a novella, and I had already pilfered a title out of a line of the Wallace Stevens poem ‘The Snowman’, but I really hadn’t gotten much further than this unconvincing set of ideas (I also knew the man would be reluctantly going to visit a former lover and her dying husband), when by chance I came across a famous photograph of the Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser.

On Christmas Day, 1956, a group of children found Walser dead in the snow, having collapsed on his morning walk. The police were called and took photographs, one of which has since become an iconic image—we see Walser’s right hand on his chest, his left arm outstretched, his black hat lying nearby. Another photograph shows footprints—possibly, or at least in my imagination, belonging to the children—leading to the body. There is something terribly invasive, even voyeuristic about the photographs, but they are also arresting, tragic, absurd, sad and curious. And thanks to the relentless, algorithmic logic of the internet, Walser’s stricken form has perhaps become his most enduring image; he appears to us not as the brilliant, European modernist, author of the wonderful Jakob von Gunthen,but as a frozen, half-snow-covered, almost anonymous, faceless man.

It wasn’t necessarily the events of what happened on that day that interested me—although A Mind of Winter steals something of the imagery of the photographs (Walser’s clothes, his prostration)—but the tension we can detect between Walser’s movements just before he died (his walking and falling over, even his thinking) and the stillness of the image (his frozenness and death, and, in many respects, the photograph itself). What appears integral to this dynamic is the snow itself. Snow is both calming and callous: it transforms the landscape from something colourful into something monochromatic; it puts restless things at rest; it quietens the energies of animals and humans; it covers over living beings. The photograph seemed to me to encapsulate the dynamics of life itself. There is the passing of movement into stillness, which can be gradual and soporific, like snowfall, or sudden and alarming, like a heart attack. There is the passing of things over the course of time, such as beliefs, emotions, and passions. And in more obvious ways, there is the passing of life into death, so startlingly captured in the Walser picture.

Around these ideas and impressions, I started to sketch out some scenes of a man named Fox walking, delaying the inevitable, getting confused, and then falling over in heavy snow. As the story grew, I realised that I was thinking more extensively, and dare I say it, philosophically, about the passing of time; how time, like snowfall, is a kind of covering over, a process whereby the past no longer has any reality except in the traces it leaves, such as in the memory or the imagination.

The story of A Mind of Winter centres on a love triangle between Fox, a reclusive researcher living by himself who has given up on his ambitions of being an artist, his former girlfriend Clara, a narrowly successful academic, and her husband and Fox’s rival, a professor named Stoyte. One snowy January morning, Fox receives a phone call from Clara who informs him that Stoye is gravely ill and that he has things needs to say to Fox. So with considerable hesitation—because he is an introvert, a procrastinator, and highly prone to imaginative diversion—Fox sets out through the snow to visit Stoyte for one last time, only to become lost in the blizzard, lose his balance, and fall over in the snow in the field of a hostile sheep farmer. While there, his mind wanders to the past, to Stoyte’s impending death, of his own guilt, and of the cruelties we inflict on each other, and his own mortality. Yet though the story I wrote is not based on Walser. At the dead heart of the story is the image of the man lying in the snow.

Writers are often advised not to write quiet books, where not much happens. But in my experience, life is generally not full of incidents. It is, rather, full of time until there is no time left, full of moments where not much happens until everything happens, full of periods of silence and stillness until there are bursts of noise and restlessness. Sometimes life is full of the feeling that time is going too quickly and sometimes that time is going too slowly. A Mind of Winter, as with my first two novels The Failing Heart and A Provincial Death emerged out of similar set of understandings. When one takes the time to look inwards, to interrogate the minute, we discover that there is real drama, and in A Mind of Winter I hope that there is comedy too, lest we take start to become too solemn about all of this. To notice what we normally do not take the time to notice—in my case, the simple act of walking, and then seeing the photograph of Walser, where all his movement has ceased and become partially erased by the snow—is also to begin to reckon with forces within and around us from the very small to the very large: the dramas of the human mind, the cruelties of the human heart, the inexorable passing of time, the restiveness that causes movement through space, the unstoppable creep of death.