The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Elisabeth Tova Bailey
Algonquin Books, 2010
Emerson’s “holiness of all living things” is put to the ultimate test in Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s slim, evocative new book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, because when the author finds herself bedridden for a stretch, she doesn’t adopt a sedentary basset hound or even a turtle: She takes in a woodland snail, surely a creature most non-mollusc fans would hardly associate with abundant personality.
Tova Bailey spends recumbent hours watching her new companion as it (the ‘it’ is not the standard impersonal usage here—it turns out snails are hermaphrodites) explores its new surroundings and settles into new routines of eating and sleeping and tentacle-waving. So still has her illness made her that she can even hear the sound in the book’s title: a snail almost inaudibly munching on the decayed vegetable matter it prefers to eat.
There’s quite a bit of fascination in the odd pet-relationship that grows between the two, and it’s that strange bridging that virtually guarantees this book its immortality alongside such classics as Born Free, That Quail, Robert and Rascal. The book is characterized by some fine, slyly playful prose:
Three and a half billion years ago, when life on earth began, the snail and I shared some common ancestor, some kind of simple worm that over time evolved into two animal groups. The protostomes, which in the embryonic stage develop a mouth first and then an anus, branched off into gastropods and the species of snail at my side. And the deuterostomes, which develop the same characteristics, though somewhat embarrassingly in reverse order, branched off into mammals, including Homo sapiens.
There’s also a good deal of artifice here, and that may be off-putting for some readers. It’s fairly obvious that Tova Bailey’s illness itself is a figment of her imagination (tip #1: If a person talks about their illness being in any way socially redemptive—in Tova Bailey’s case, “sacred”—there is absolutely nothing physically wrong with that person), and when she “recovers” enough to read all the mollusc books that fill her bibliography, the reader may feel practiced upon. And Emerson’s holiness is never pushed: Our author freely admits she loathes simple slugs, which are all but identical to snails except aesthetically.
But such conceits are a staple of the genre, and they’re seldom put to such graceful use as they are here. This is a quietly instructive and altogether memorable little book—after reading it, you’ll want to go outside after a rainstorm, find the nearest snail, and simply watch it live for a while. And that’s always a worthwhile thing to do.