Column | Seven Steeples

Cornelius Browne reflects on Sara Baume’s latest novel.

Cornelius Browne reading Seven Steeples by Sara Baume; photograph by Paula Corcoran, courtesy of Cornelius Browne. Cornelius Browne reading Seven Steeples by Sara Baume; photograph by Paula Corcoran, courtesy of Cornelius Browne.

Seven years ago, as I was painting my first solo exhibition, ‘Weathering’, for the McKenna Gallery in Omagh, Sara Baume published her debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. This author’s magic, I felt, was the ability to tune her readers into the music that lies just outside the noise of human life. With oil paint, I was hoping to achieve something similar. 

Dramatic skies this spring have invigorated my canvases, but frequently they are building towards landscape-extinguishing cloudbursts. Rain pelting the car, wet painting on the back seat, I reach into the glove compartment. I am protective of my painting time, and opening a book admits another presence into my space. Lately, this invitation was confined to poets Mary Oliver and Dorothy Molloy. The publication of Baume’s new novel, Seven Steeples, has seen me welcome a new sheltering companion. 

John McGahern thought the novel the most social of all art forms, yet Seven Steeples appears unsociable to the point of becoming an antinovel. A couple, Bell and Sigh, rent a remote house in the countryside, and cut themselves off from the world. Seven years pass, an aeon of apparent stagnation and neglect, during which time Bell and Sigh intend to climb the mountain that witnessed their arrival, yet always another year slips by. A sense grows that the narrative voice and this high vantage point may be entwined. From the opening sentence, the mountain is spirited, “full of miniature eyes” belonging to creatures who inhabit its slopes. Non-human life animates the pages that follow, the house becoming an insectarium, as if Baume is actually extending the parameters of sociability. 

I have been a Baume devotee since her second novel, A Line Made by Walking; particularly the line where the narrator remarks that it took “five years of formal education to figure out that what I truly wanted to be was an outsider artist.” This was also my experience, and it was heartening to see it in print. ‘Weathering’ was painted along the same road to the shore that my wife and I had walked daily for a decade before I began to paint. One of Baume’s points of departure in writing Seven Steeples was wondering if an entire novel could be written about a single road. 

Baume is a visual artist who doesn’t fence off the objects she creates from the books she writes. She described her non-fiction debut, handiwork, as a lovechild of her art and writing practices. That book, a profound meditation on living as an artist, centres on the carving and painting of hundreds of model birds. Recently, Baume has been working on a series of model container ships with sails. As I form this sentence in my head, in my hand I am holding one of the mountains made by Baume to celebrate the publication of Seven Steeples. 

During the first lockdown of 2020, I began communing each morning with a twelfth-century Benedictine nun. Aged fourteen, Hildegard of Bingen became an anchorite, insulated from the outside world. As the world closed, I found solace in her choral music and mystical writings. It was into the aura emanating from this material that the then newly published handiwork reached my hands. The fit was seamless. Seven Steeples breathes this same air. Bell and Sigh withdraw from the world as surely as Hildegard. They build shrines, their unvarying walks become pilgrimages. Bell lightly touches elements of her world as a form of blessing. Baume intimates, I feel, that it is possible to put oneself in the way of art, in the same way that cloistered individuals place themselves in the way of religious experience. 

Dorothy Molloy saw her poems as “little models” that she makes every day – “little, precise objects.” As the rain clears, and I resume painting, it pleases me to think of my glove-compartment poets enjoying the company of Bell and Sigh. 

Cornelius Browne is a Donegal-based artist.