SOURCE: "The Specked Hill, The Plover's Shore," in Encounter, Vol. XLI, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 70-76.
[In the following excerpt, Dunn identifies the consequences of violence as the principal theme of Gradual Wars, noting the effect of the collection's artificial tone on its themes.]
Seamus Deane avoids superficial negations [in Gradual Wars], either in favour of the kind of specifics Simmons finds "boring"—
The unemployment in our bones
Erupting on our hands in stones
or, more rewardingly, in favour of complex ironies and ambiguities. He frequently toys with lush and sophisticated styles, as if pointing out their uselessness at the same time as implying he would prefer to write more like Wallace Stevens than himself, faced as he is with the subject of Derry, where he comes from. Literacy and intelligence are embarrassments in killing times, and in "The Thirtieth Lie" he out shovels the slogans and intellectual props which he had "spat out, for years, like pap," reducing himself to an identity.
Deane writes of being "snared" by the past. He steps off a train at Derry and,
Once more I turn to greet
Ground that flees from my feet.
The place rejects him; he is not alienated by will. This imaginative idea, however, is as vague as Montague's mystified History, or Longley's "something." Elsewhere he writes of "the ghost that comes by the wall," a spectre of the past that marauds for vengeance. This is surprising in Deane's case, because the main drift in his poems is towards a hard-headed ambivalence about real issues. He is not afraid of feeling, but he wants to be accurate; at the same time, he is not afraid of intellect, but doesn't want it to get in the way: head guides heart. The excellence of his writing can be seen in these lines:
Now unless I feel
Attrition as our strategy,
I cannot edge nearer you.
What once was fidelity.
Nor need this be wrong.
Look! The razors
Of the perception are now
So honed they cut
The lying throat of song.
Important as it is that a man should continue to write well while the society he comes from erupts, Deane's poems are particularly interesting in that they are about what violence does to people. His most powerful theme is the intrusion of violence on love, while there are frequent suggestions that violence is itself created by a lack of love, by loneliness, as well as public repression. Much of his writing is still more literary than it need be, which could also be said of Longley. Literary artifice does seem in this context like a haven from realism—although on such difficult subjects realism is often the haunt of mediocrity.
SOURCE: "Accepting the Inevitable," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3948, November 25, 1977, p. 1381.
[In the following excerpt, Ewart assesses the themes, poetic diction, and imagery of Rumours.]
Rumours is Seamus Deane's second book. The simplicity of the equivalents invoked (Governmental kindness=school milk=cold, inhuman) marks it as not very sophisticated—though none the worse for that. He uses the unrhymed lyric mostly but also, not quite so successful, the spasmodically rhyming lyric. Poems about his relationship with his father ("The Birthday Gift" for example) are some of the best. The language is apt but sometimes on the edge of rhetoric ("Little phoenix. The cold ash / Of your feathers holds no spark / On which I may breathe") and sometimes almost over the edge ("And came into the light their grooms / Blood-stained from their honeymoons"). Potent images are within his grasp—"The steeple of slamming iron let...
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fall / Delicate ikons of tinkling glass" (church bells); but sometimes he may be writing more wisely and more glibly than his experience entitles him to ("Piety and rage / Change their ratios with age") and sometimes the rhymes force archaic words on him (ruth/truth). Poetic diction still lurks in the background ("Their world was as a cloud"). "A Fable", about Belfast's sectarian violence, is a tale confused in the telling—the dead body of what could have been a good poem.
These are faults, but there are some faultless poems, within their limits highly satisfying: "The Brethren" (rhymed memories of childhood), "Shelter" (wartime reminiscence), "Scholar I", "Scholar II" (life and lit), "Signals" (a love poem), and "Watching. It Come" (life and love, an excellent stoical rhymed lyric). The book, as a whole hints at even better poems on the way.
SOURCE: A review of History Lessons, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, p. 608.
[In the following review, Keefe focuses on the emergence of a distinct persona in the poems of History Lessons.]
Seamus Deane is a distinguished member of a literary movement that has emerged from the North of Ireland and has the "Troubles" of the last few decades as its mainspring. His third book of poems, History Lessons, continues the poet's quest for an answer to the intolerable burden of history and the bloody explosions it fuels. The poems are wrought with tension and a nervosity that in the personal lyrics occasionally tend to overwhelm that fragile form. In "Breaking Wood," however, there is an autumnal resignation as the poem moves serenely and surely to a memorable conclusion.
Two poems in an assured and commanding voice stand out as examples of a direction Deane is creatively pursuing. The dramatic content of both hints at a dramatic persona the poet has hitherto not allowed full play. "Christmas at Beaconsfield" is an impressive and clever dramatic evocation needing only, perhaps, the actual presence of the poet himself—as a character, ghost, observer—rather than a distancing of himself with "imagining …" and "almost certainly…." Dramatic command is at the center of the poetic force of "Directions." In these poems we can detect the poet discarding tentativeness for a firm intention of moving to center stage.
SOURCE: "Cult of Blood," in The Observer Review, August 18, 1985, p. 18.
[In the following review, O'Brien addresses certain nuances of Irish politics, nationalism, and revisionism examined in Celtic Revivals.]
The modern writers examined in these essays [Celtic Revivals] are Joyce, Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Patrick Pearse, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Brian Friel, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney.
At his best, and especially when contemporary politics don't come into play, Mr Deane is a very good critic. Most of his essays are illuminating in one way or another—though sometimes verging on the precious or the pompous, and sometimes going over the verge. Some pages are brilliant; some are profound; some are both (and a few are neither).
The essay on 'Joyce and Nationalism' is, I believe, the best thing that has been written on this subject. Mr Deane shows that what is often called 'Joyce's repudiation of Irish nationalism' is something considerably more complex than a repudiation. The essay ends with the words:
Ireland as an entity, cultural or political, was incorporated in all its mutations within Joyce's work as a model of the world and, more importantly, as a model of the fictive. In revealing the essentially fictive nature of political imagining, Joyce did not repudiate Irish nationalism. Instead he understood it as a potent example of a rhetoric which imagined as true structures that did not and were never to exist outside language. Thus, as a model, it served him as it served Yeats and others. It enabled them to apprehend the nature of fiction, the process whereby the imagination is brought to bear upon the reality which it creates.
The essay on Patrick Pearse is also I believe the best on that subject; though this is a less impressive feat, since the critical literature on Pearse's writings is neither abundant nor impressive. Mr Deane is good on Pearse's relationship to the British imperialist ideology which dominated these islands, and a lot of other places, in Pearse's day:
In Ireland, the only mythology which could compete with this imperial one was the nationalist ideal. They were, in some respects, remarkably similar. Each lived in the conviction that there was a sleeping giant, liable to be raised to life again by the spectacle of the Hun at the Gate or by the Fenian Dead.
Mr Deane is also interesting on Yeats, who comes into several of his essays. There is a pretty phrase on the Celtic Twilight: 'an idea of tradition and continuity so vague as Ireland's needed all the dimness it could get.' (The use of the rather moth-eaten word 'Celtic' in the title contains, I take it, various shades of irony. These may well elude some Anglo-Saxon readers.)
As the jacket of Celtic Revivals says, these essays 'examine the close connection between literature and politics in Ireland,' and that examination does produce some good insights. But the reader is likely to be confused—and may well feel some disquiet—about the political angle from which the examination is being conducted. At times Mr Deane may sound like some kind of Marxist. Thus he writes that 'separation from socialism left Irish nationalism ideologically invertebrate.' So you might think, when he comes to compare the socialist Sean O'Casey with Yeats—whose 'sympathy for fascism' and 'support to the philosophy of fascism' Mr Deane acknowledges—that O'Casey's politics would be found more acceptable than those of Yeats.
Quite the reverse; for Mr Deane's basic political criterion is nationalist not Marxist. It is in Yeats's plays, he says, not O'Casey's, that we find 'a search for the new form of feeling which would renovate our national consciousness….' Poor O'Casey, on the other hand, is no more than 'a provincial writer whose moment has come again in the present wave of revisionist Irish history, itself a provincial phenomenon.'
Brief note on 'revisionism,' as used in Ireland: An 'Irish revisionist' is not a deviant Marxist, a Hibernian disciple of the late Eduard Bernstein. An Irish revisionist is one who, like me, believes that the cult of Patrick Pearse and of blood-sacrifice has helped the emergence of the Provisional IRA, is in other ways unhealthy, and ought to be challenged. O'Casey's sin, in the eyes of anti-revisionists like Mr Deane, is to have written plays—'Juno and the Paycock' especially—that depict manic nationalism, and its consequences, in an unfavourable light. Yeats, on the other hand, was generally pretty sound on subjects like blood-sacrifice, as anti-revisionists see these matters. 'The script calls for freshly severed human heads.'
Another good example of the anti-revisionist approach is contained in the essay on Seamus Heaney. Mr Deane quotes the following lines from the poem 'Punishment' in Heaney's collection, North:
I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings, who would connive in civilized outrage yet understand the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.
The reference is to girls tarred and chained to chapel railings by the IRA in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. Mr. Deane comments (in part): 'Heaney is asking himself the hard question here—to which is his loyalty given: the outrage or the revenge? The answer would seem to be that imaginatively, he is with the revenge, morally, with the outrage.'
That antithesis seems to me a sight too neat. 'Morality' and 'imagination' cannot really be segregated like that. The poet's imaginative reaction is not free from moral concerns and contradictions: it clearly contains pity and horror and guilt, as well as an acknowledged complicity—through 'understanding'—with the punishers. To classify the poet as being 'imaginatively … with the revenge' is to do him much less than justice. But the critic's phrase is illuminating, as to the role of the imagination in the 'renovated national consciousness' to which the anti-revisionists aspire.
I believe that the present political orientation of this distinguished but uneven critic is regrettable, both in itself and as now affecting his critical work. His impulsion towards manic nationalism may have helped him with the understanding of certain aspects of modern Irish literature, but it obscures or distorts others. His future progress as a critic seems to depend on getting that Old Man of the Irish Sea off his back. The essay 'Joyce and Nationalism' could perhaps be the beginning of that dislodgement.
SOURCE: "Valorising Valentine Brown," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 15, September 5, 1985, pp. 10-11.
[In the following review, Craig favorably compares Celtic Revivals to contemporaneous cultural critiques of literary constructions of "Anglo-Irishness."]
In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word 'valorisation' which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. 'To enhance the price, value or status of by organised … action' is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: 'the literary critics' valorisation of tradition'. This phrase occurs towards the end of W. J. McCormack's dissection of Anglo-Irishness as a literary and historical concept, Ascendancy and Tradition. 'Valorise', indeed, is a verb much favoured in this book, along with others like 'energise' and 'traumatise'. There's a word that might be applied to this style of writing: unstylish. At one point we catch the author of Ascendancy and Tradition considering the way in which Joyce and Yeats 'as a binary and mutually dependent cultural production confront the totality of history'. There the two unfortunate literary figures stand, symbiosis thrust upon them. At another moment, the history of Ireland is called 'bifurcated', which makes it sound like a pair of trousers. It is very provoking of W. J. McCormack to write in this benighted way. The less he has to say, the more fussy and fustian his manner becomes. On the poem 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen', we get this:
The title employs words, not numerals, but it employs one of several possible verbal formulations. It prevents us from particularising the year as One Thousand. Nine Hundred and Nineteen; it prevents us from slurring it to a loose Nineteen Nineteen. Thus, the element Nineteen is repeated but not emptily so, for we are directed to the middle term, indicating the completed nineteenth century and its nineteen year excess. The post scriptum date, on the other hand, is unpronounceable or at best variously pronounceable.
Close scrutiny, you might say, is one thing; obsessive and fruitless scrutiny another.
McCormack's main contention seems to be that 'ascendancy' and 'tradition' alike are figments of the imagination of W. B. Yeats. It's well-known, of course, that the Protestant Ascendancy of the 18th century (a term not current, in fact, as McCormack reminds us, before 1792) didn't actually embody all the qualities Yeats attributed to it—courtesy and decency; a high-minded approach to political matters and an aristocratic lineage. As far as the last is concerned—well, there's the hidden Ireland uncovered by Daniel Corkery in 1928 (his study of 18th-century Munster appeared under that title), inhabited by people who took a very poor view indeed of the new English-speaking aristocracy that had ousted the old Irish-speaking one. 'Valentine Brown', as these purists saw it, was the sort of ludicrous name an arriviste landowner might call himself—someone who'd installed himself in a demesne of the great McCarthys, now dead or dispersed. In this world, the speaker of 'cunning English' quickly got himself condemned for opportunism, everything English being associated with the kind of baseness Yeats decried. Still, it was quite another Ireland the poet had in mind when he singled out the 18th century, labelling it 'the one Irish century that escaped from darkness and confusion'. Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Goldsmith and Sheridan: all these stood for clarity of thought, while Dublin gaiety, Belfast liberalism, and the sense of national consequence acquired at Dungannon, all contributed something to the Yeatsian image of a mellow era. That this particular form of Irishness was conceived in opposition to an unsatisfactory present—'Man is in love and loves what vanishes'—and (as Louis MacNeice has it) 'in defiance of the Gaelic League' and all it stood for, doesn't in the least detract from its efficacy.
As for 'tradition' and the literary critics' 'valorisation' of it—McCormack advises us to bear in mind the original legal meaning of the word ('handing over'), and to ponder on the 'distinction between the handing over of an object or a property, and the handing over of ownership or rights to such an object or property'. Doesn't this smack somewhat of obfuscation? McCormack (who has written far more cogently on tradition elsewhere) goes on to specify the social and cultural dynamics of the process of handing down—whatever these are—as the crucial factor in the business, but he doesn't uncover them in any individual case, or tell how, once enumerated, they can enlarge our understanding of what isn't, after all, a concept especially difficult to grasp. Such assertions can only arouse in the reader an urge to stick up for 'tradition' and the way in which it's commonly interpreted. The search for a precise terminology resulting in convolution and imprecision: that is one of the things that's gone wrong with the book.
Still, the book has much to recommend it. Its consideration of Edmund Burke is exhaustive. Burke, one of the 18th-century figures whose apotheosis was ordained by Yeats, has lately been attracting the attention of academics like McCormack and Seamus Deane, both of whom have written about him in The Crane Bag. Burke's social observations are worth repeating: Irish cabins, he said, were 'scarcely distinguishable from the Dunghill' and the furniture they contained 'much fitter to be lamented than described'. The food eaten in these places wasn't up to much: potatoes and sour milk, and even worse in times of famine, when many people were driven back on boiled weeds and blood stolen from cows. 'Pain, destruction, downfall, sorrow and loss'—in the words of the poet Aoghan O Rathaille—doesn't seem too strong a term to apply to the condition of the penalised Irish. From Burke, opponent of anarchy and advocate of Catholic emancipation, came a formula for British liberalism in the 19th-century, as Seamus Deane points out in an article on 'Arnold, Burke and the Celts', reprinted in Celtic Revivals. McCormack, in a Crane Bag essay, has linked Burke's writings, and especially the Reflections, to the body of Anglo-Irish fiction which began with Maria Edgeworth. (In this essay, he sensibly remarks that, 'though there are difficulties attaching to the term "Anglo-Irish literature", it is too late to purge it from our critical vocabulary'—an attitude one wishes he'd displayed more often in Ascendancy and Tradition.) The Reflections, as he now asserts, uses the 'big house' as a dominant metaphor, and moreover shows it getting into a familiar state of ruin. From Maria Edgeworth's 'the wind through the broken windows … and the rain coming through the roof' to Caroline Blackwood's Dunmartin Hall (in Great Granny Webster), with puddles in the corridors and warped doors, the Anglo-Irish house has characteristically fallen a victim to disrepair. There are, of course, a good many symbolic points to be adduced from this.
McCormack goes to some lengths to show that Castle Rackrent was only 'a house of the middle size', not great at all by the standard of English houses, and he jots down the probable cost (between £1,000 and £1,100), with the number of bedrooms, living-rooms and so on that a typical 'squire's house' might contain. However, as he says, Castle Rackrent shrinks or expands at the author's whim, just as the events of Le Fanu's Uncle Silas are cast in a perpetual autumnal haze (as Elizabeth Bowen noted), in defiance of the usual arrangement of the seasons. Anglo-Irish disdain for the tedious requirements of naturalism? Certainly a moral pattern takes precedence over verisimilitude, in Irish fiction of the last century, and it's usually to do with some form of reconciliation—typically the interdenominational marriage. You also find—as the effect of Burke's ideas worked its way further and further down the literary scale—a lot of aristocratic heroes who believe in a strong form of government tempered with kindness to the governed.
In his effort to let none of the latent meanings of a text escape him, McCormack sometimes pounces on a particle of import that isn't there, like a demented lepidopterist making an assault on a shaft of sunlight. Take the Joyce story 'Eveline'. The most satisfying account of this story that I have read comes in Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, and is properly mindful of Joyce's Dublin knowingness. 'Eveline' opens with a perfectly felicitous and unobtrusive metaphor: 'She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.' McCormack gets his teeth into 'invade' and won't let go of it until he's forced a connection between it and the 'soldiers with brown baggages' alluded to in part two of the story. Next, we're told that 'behind both nominal heroines' (the Countess Cathleen is hitched to Eveline here) 'lies the personification of Ireland as Patient Woman, an tsean bhean bhocht'. Leaving aside the fact that an tsean bhean bhocht can only be translated as 'the poor old woman', not a tag applicable to either the Joyce or the Yeats figure—leaving that aside, isn't the grafting on to Joyce's story of another, nationalist story a bit gratuitous? When McCormack goes on to wonder if Eveline—poor, romantic Eveline—opts for 'some domestic form of Home Rule in North Richmond Street', or 'alternatively', if she can be termed 'an abstensionist', he is being either fatuous or facetious.
The book covers roughly the same ground as "'The Protestant Strain'" (playfully subtitled 'A Short History of Anglo-Irish Literature from S. T. Coleridge to Thomas Mann')—McCormack's contribution to Across a Roaring Hill, a collection of essays on 'the Protestant imagination in modern Ireland'. In both these undertakings, the short and the long one, McCormack shows a salutary urge to acknowledge all the complexities, social, ideological or whatever, underlying the term 'Anglo-Irishness', and affecting its outlets in literature. However—through a fear of what he calls 'isolationist aesthetics', meaning, I think, an insular approach—he draws altogether too much into the vicinity of his subject: economics, Nazism, authoritarianism and all.
It's McCormack who quotes Louis MacNeice on the benefits of being Irish, with the sense of belonging to 'a world that never was' among them: but it is Seamus Dean who incisively enumerates the sources of the various transformations—heroic, chivalrous, folklorish and so on—to which the idea of Irishness was subjected. Deane quotes Joyce on Ireland's 'one belief—a belief in the incurable ignobility of the forces that have overcome her'—and goes on to consider the ways in which the concomitant notion of Irish integrity was enshrined in literature. In 1903, when Joyce made this remark, it was customary to differentiate between the adulterated and the 'real' Ireland, though not between the real and the chimerical. The West of Ireland was the place in which the country's strongest substance was thought to reside (as McCormack points out). It was through his contact with the West that Padraig Pearse devised his prescription for a nation (as he put it) 'not only Gaelic, but free as well; not only free, but Gaelic as well'. Synge, however, believed that the essence of the Gaelic West—bursting with colour and vitality—could be rendered in English, though an English not current in any locality before or since, if we leave aside the haunts of those playactors observed by Miles na gCopaleen, who 'talk and dress like that, and damn the drink they'll swally but the mug of porter in the long nights after Samhain'. Synge's Irish-English, true enough, achieves its narcotic effects at the expense of both Irish dryness and English wryness of tone.
Seamus Deane has included in his collection a couple of good essays on Pearse and Synge; nothing is missing from the latter but a touch of mockery at the succulent Irishness portrayed by the author of The Playboy. On Pearse, Deane remarks that the 'former apotheosis of the martyr has now given way to an equally extreme denunciation of the pathological elements involved' (you can see a comparable process, considerably speeded up, taking place in the literature of the First World War). Pearse's programme for national regeneration certainly contained elements not in keeping with the properties of the present. 'His nationalism tottered on the brink of racism,' Hubert Butler noted in 1968, in one of the pieces assembled in Escape from the Anthill. Deane doesn't go as far as this in his appraisal of the architect of 1916: but he does, astutely, connect Pearse's Gaelic revivalism with 'what used to be called "muscular Christianity"'. Going into the fight 'white', indeed, was a concept Pearse would have cherished.
Deane and Hubert Butler are both authoritative commentators on the depleted condition of Irish letters during the middle part of the present century—'once the major excitements of the Revival were over', as Deane has it, and when a pair of gauche states, one north and one south, were struggling to find their feet. The atmosphere prevailing in both parts of the country, at this time, would greatly have discomfited the fosterers of Irish spirituality. Butler, in a Bell article deploring the unruly literary views of Patrick Kavanagh, distinguished between the parochialism of 1901, which contained the potential for enlargement of outlook, and that of 1951, which didn't. He likens the mind of the Mucker poet, when it's not engaged with poetry or fiction, to 'a monkey house at feeding time'. It was in the same year, 1951, Deane tells us, that John Montague, also writing in The Bell, called for an end to the apathy which seemed the predominant feeling about cultural matters, and at the same time 'demanded of his generation that it reflect Catholicism as a living force in Irish life'. His implication, like Kavanagh's contention, was that the Anglo-Irish Protestant impulse in literature had run its course—as indeed, by 1951, it had. However, for some time before this, and in the wake of the major achievements of the Revival, writers like Sean O'Faolain and Frank O'Connor had been reflecting Catholicism like billy-o, as a force to be repudiated or encouraged, or just in acknowledgement of its inescapability. Hadn't the time arrived to dispense with sectional assertion in any interests whatever? Or perhaps it couldn't be done, given the tendency of every social group to claim exclusive access to certain tracts of the national consciousness. Thus we have Patrick Kavanagh (as Butler says) light-heartedly arguing that 'you cannot be Irish if you are not Catholic,' and Butler himself insisting that to be Irish and Catholic debars you from possessing any insight at all into the mentality of Anglo-Ireland.
Hubert Butler—born in 1900, and Anglo-Irish to the bone—goes in for amiable castigation of the bumptious or unenlightened, and for discursiveness and frankness of manner. He also has an aptitude for the diverting comparison: 'Her intellect, like a barrage balloon that has lost its moorings, hovers uncertainly between Fishguard and Rosslare.' He has a thing or two to say about Catholic Ireland, especially in its odder, less Christian manifestations: for instance, we have the case of a man who, in 1895, roasted his wife in full view of relations and neighbours, having convinced himself—or so it appeared—that he was trouncing a changeling. Butler reminds us of the interest in fairy lore which prevailed at the time in scholarly circles. The colourful business at Ballyvadlea—fairy rath, herb doctor and all—shows the obduracy of superstition in the face of priestly admonitions. A more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism asserted itself in a Wexford village, in the late 1950s. A Protestant mother, married to a Catholic, chose to enrol her six-year-old daughter at a local non-Catholic school. The outrage aroused by this act was such that a boycott was organised against every Protestant in the district. A bishop congratulated the people concerned on their 'peaceful and moderate' protest. In the third of his articles considering the peculiarities of Catholic life as they get reported in newspapers, Butler recounts the tussle which occurred in 1955 between Honor Tracy and the Sunday Times. A 'graceful sketch of an Irish village', complete with ironical aspersions on its frantic fund-raising operations when a new house was wanted by the canon, appeared in that newspaper. Its author was Honor Tracy. The paper's staff had taken the village to be imaginary. However, once the sketch was published, an angry canon from Doneraile in Co. Cork promptly surfaced clamouring for restitution. The Sunday Times capitulated. Miss Tracy, who read into its apology to the canon a criticism of her conduct as a journalist, turned on the paper. A court case ensued. The author of the article was awarded costs and damages. At this juncture, the inhabitants of Doneraile, on whose behalf Miss Tracy had thought she was campaigning, took up the cudgels for the canon. A demonstration in support of him and his new house was organised, with the parish choir, the Gaelic League and the Children of Mary out in force. Such exhibitions of Catholic fervour aren't uncommon. We're reminded of an episode in Peadar O'Donnell's novel of 1934, On the Edge of the Stream, when a similar crowd assembles to repudiate in public the message of a socialist agitator. O'Donnell views this outbreak of Catholicism with mock amazement: 'grown-up men and women,' he assures us, stood there singing in unison 'I am a Little Catholic'. It's not unusual either to hear heated voices raised in Ireland against the avarice of clerics. However, Hubert Butler isn't writing to endorse any such emphatic view. He isn't on anyone's side in the Doneraile dispute. Miss Tracy, not an Irishwoman, is taken to task for implying that she had got the measure of the natives. So are those who attribute the whole thing to Irish dottiness. The spectacle of Catholic solidarity, and its implications for moderation in Ireland, can hardly have pleased Hubert Butler, any more than anyone else, and neither can he have relished public debate on the messy business of possible self-interest in priests. Yet, as he says, it is no very comfortable matter for an Irish Protestant to criticise any instance of priestly greed, even if it should exist, when the countryside has so many half-empty rectories, deaneries and episcopal palaces, 'for whose maintenance Catholics and Nonconformists once paid tithes'. There is scarcely one of them, he mentions, into which the Doneraile canon's 'little house would not fit several times over'. It is this fair-minded attitude, as well as his perceptiveness about the achievements and the charm of the Anglo-Irish, that makes Hubert Butler's essays so agreeable.
SOURCE: "Celtic Revisionism," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 13, July 24, 1986, pp. 16-17.
[In the following excerpt, Parrinder delineates Irish cultural history as defined in A Short History of Literature, deconstructing Deane's bias against Irish national mythology.]
[What] today can we mean by 'English' literature? Seamus Deane begins his Short History of Irish Literature by asserting that the term 'Anglo-Irish' for the body of writing with which he is concerned is now anachronistic. Deane here is lending powerful support to the modern tendency to appeal to national divisions, rather than language divisions, in defining a literature. Such a tendency will not be confined, I believe, to the other side of the Irish Sea. In future, we may need to distinguish Modern English literature, a Romantic offshoot of the same type and vintage as Irish, Scottish and American literature, from an older English literature as well as from the generic subject of Literature in English. In other words, the 'English literature' which began with Shakespeare and Spenser may be seen to have started to splinter irrecoverably during the lifetime of Samuel Johnson. If English imperialism, beginning with the Tudors, had allowed English to become one of the great literatures of the world, it also hastened its eventual disintegration into the separate national components of Literature in English. Modern English literature can then be read as an affair of (native or naturalised) English writers, expressing a complex but initially local English identity.
Before too many readers protest, let it be said that the foregoing paragraph is an experiment in taking an 'Irish' view, looking at English literature to see if it will conform to an Irish (or Scottish or American) model. The new books by Seamus Deane [A Short History of Irish Literature] and Liam de Paor [The Peoples of Ireland and Portrait of Ireland] are judicious and informative in their own right, but they have the added interest of embodying two influential and competing conceptions of cultural identity from an Irish perspective. De Paor is closest to the traditional Romantic outlook. His writing is sometimes reminiscent of Sean O'Faolain's vigorous study of The Irish (1947), a book which its author described in the uncomplicated idiom of forty years ago as a 'creative history of the growth of a racial mind'. Seamus Deane, by contrast, offers a political reading of cultural nationalism, bringing a steely scepticism to bear on the Romantic tribal mentality.
Of de Paor's two books, The Peoples of Ireland is straight history, while Portrait of Ireland is a personal (though scholarly) essay which the publishers have unfortunately tried to transform into a coffee-table book by the addition of a job-lot of tourist-board photographs. Both works reflect the historiographical advances and changed political perspectives of the last four decades. Nevertheless, de Paor's very readable summaries of Irish history, literature and topography in Portrait of Ireland are the prelude to a chapter, 'Time out of Time', in which (like O'Faolain) he seeks to define permanent features of, or at least permanent influences on, the Irish character and temperament. In this chapter de Paor's training as an archaeologist, which is a strength in both books, is very much in evidence. Much as Wordsworth turned to Stonehenge, the author of Portrait of Ireland turns to the Book of Kells and the Tara brooch for intimations of what is truly Irish. These masterpieces of ancient Celtic art share a grotesque and fantastic profusion of ornament, 'following a kind of mad logic through bewildering convolutions'—a pedantic intricacy similar, it has often been argued, to the fiction of Joyce and Jonathan Swift. Joyce himself was a firm believer in such 'Celtic' qualities, and they offer an obvious context for his own art. Do we have here—as Vivian Mercier, for one, has implied—an unbroken tradition of genuinely Irish expression reflecting the national character? De Paor, for all his appealing mixture of archaeological enthusiasm and scholarly caution, seems to me to imply that we do. Seamus Deane would almost certainly disagree.
As a Northern Catholic, Deane has the best of reasons for being suspicious of Romantic cultural nationalism. 'Reference after reference was made to Edward Carson, the Relief of Derry, William the Third, the British Empire and the Battle of the Boyne,' runs the newspaper report of a recent Ulster rally. Once the past is accepted as a legitimate guarantee of contemporary identity, the Book of Kells and the Tara brooch are not necessarily any better than the Battle of the Boyne. It is the fervour of the belief, not the beauty and antiquity of its symbols and totems, which seems to matter. Both in his Short History and in his distinguished recent collection of essays, Celtic Revivals, Deane mounts a fierce and even-handed attack on the pieties of Irish national mythology. From his revisionist viewpoint Yeats's championship of the Protestant Ascendancy and Patrick Pearse's sentimentalisation of the Spirit of the Gael are equally deplorable. Instead of a continuous national tradition, Deane's sense of Ireland's cultural history is of a series of discontinuous, and heavily ideological, historical revivals. Historical assertion in Ireland, he implies, has been one of the prime vehicles of false consciousness.
As a scholar and critic, Seamus Deane seems to have little interest in the long perspectives: his chapter on 'The Gaelic background' is much the shortest in his Short History. What unifies Irish literature, for him, is principally its status as the literature of a colony given to outbursts of historical revivalism. As a colonial literature, it has no proper beginnings, no founding epic (the first substantial work analysed at any length in the Short History is [Swift's] A Tale of a Tub), and no settled relationship to the Irish people or their language. It strengths lie in its interrogation of forms and the wariness of its language. The unspoken parallel history of Modern English literature is needed to put the tradition that Deane surveys in its literary context. This 'colonial' reading of Irish literature is forceful and candid, and much of its impact comes from its pithy and penetrating assessments of individual writers. The book is generous in its use of quotation, and contains some memorable epigrammatic judgments. Deane's bias may, however, be questioned in two respects. First, his hostility to Romantic cultural nationalism perhaps leads to a few forced readings. Secondly, my suspicion is that cultural nationalism is too formidable an adversary to be slain by any individual critic. A state of complete detachment from nationality and of imperviousness to its myths is unattainable in the contemporary world. To attack one set of cultural-nationalist presuppositions may be an effective way of endorsing another set.
Deane's impatience with Romantic antiquarianism can be sensed in the Short History when he comments on John Montague's poem about a group of old country neighbours: 'Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.' These old people, who inspire mixed feelings of tenderness and repugnance, are compared by the poet to a 'standing circle of stones'. For Deane this is a 'petrifying inheritance', and he credits the old people with a 'Gorgon stare' which is in danger of distracting Montague from 'the appeal of the sensual, the sexual, the living landscape'. Though Deane has few rivals as a commentator on contemporary Irish poetry, the misjudgment here is doubly ironic. It is ironic that Deane misses Montague's Wordsworthian reverence for the dolmens, which by no means belong to a 'dead' landscape (whatever that might be), and ironic too that he expresses his distaste for these monuments of Irish prehistory by means of a metaphor derived from ancient Greek mythology. Above all, what Deane has missed is the subtle sensitivity and tact of Montague's evocation of old age and its impact on the young.
Part of the general vocabulary which Deane brings to bear on Irish literary history consists of terms like 'culture', 'community', 'solidarity' and 'dispossession', which seem to be indebted to Raymond Williams. Following the implicit direction of some of Williams's work, one senses that Deane might have written a short history of Irish literacy—a cultural history, that is, of the practice of writing and reading in Ireland—rather than sticking to a chronological account of the literary canon. Many of his comments on language, on the deliberate construction of a nationalist heritage and on Irish writers' perceptions of (and failures to perceive) their country's colonial status seem to point this way. Such comments cannot be followed up within the conventional literary-historical textbook format. The result is something of a compromise.
One sign of the compromise is that prominence is given to a number of confessedly very bad books, on the grounds of the historical significance that is claimed for them. The myth that the Short History endorses (though it cannot altogether sustain it) is, I believe, that of an ultimately seamless relationship—almost a profound congruity—between a country's political history and the development of its literature. The literature is stunted by the politics, but it also in some way completes the politics. The one is a distorted and often inverted, but still recognisable, reflection of the other. Seamus Deane's Irish literature is political in origin (its birth being effectively marked by the assertion of a non-English identity within English literature), and it is still political today. This means that in the Short History a political and a literary-critical vocabulary exist side by side; neither subsumes the other, and each is tacitly supposed to have renounced its hegemonic claims. The results are often highly persuasive, even if a doubt remains about the method. 'Irish literature sometimes reads like a series of studies in dying cultures; the moment of political death is the dawn of cultural life,' remarks Deane at one point. Contemporary writers, he adds, have been intent on finding a way out of this labyrinth of 'Irishness'.
The achievement of Samuel Beckett, whose 80th birthday we are currently celebrating, does not directly challenge this Caudwellian view of Irish literature, though it may make us wonder about its relevance. Beckett surely stands as the archetype of the kind of modern writer who has tried to put his work beyond the reach of any political thesis. In Deane's words, Ireland functions in his work as a 'mode of absence': but Beckett is now being reclaimed by the Irish. (Shades of Stephen Dedalus—is Beckett important because he belongs to Ireland, or is Ireland important because it functions as a mode of absence in Beckett?) The Beckett Country records a photographic exhibition, including superb pictures by David Davison and Nevill Johnson, of locations mentioned in Beckett's writings. These have been devotedly traced—and in a few cases tactfully invented—by Eoin O'Neill.
Cultural tourism, as Deane observes in Celtic Revivals, found its most influential Irish apologist in J. M. Synge. Yeats added his considerable support—notably in 'Under Ben Bulben', when he ordered his epitaph in Drumcliff churchyard (citing a clerical ancestor of whom remarkably little had been heard until the poet needed an Irish burial-place). The 'Beckett country' around Foxrock and the Dublin mountains, though attractive enough, can hardly match the resonance of the Yeats Country and the Aran Islands. And though Beckett's father was an Anglo-Irish Protestant, there is little of the aura of cultural death about this prosperous Dublin commuter and his family.
SOURCE: "The Razors of Perception," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1989, p. 20.
[In the following review, Halpin provides an overview of Selected Poems, outlining the general characteristics of Deane's poetry.]
In the course of an interview several years ago, Thomas Kinsella was challenged to assert the value of the artistic act, conditioned as it is both by the inevitable limitations of the artist as a human being and by the apparently unrestructurable nature of reality itself, its random disorder and dispiriting contingency. Kinsella's reply was clear: "If an artistic response is called into existence, that itself modifies the situation. It's a positive response even if we never solve anything. It colours reality in a way that makes it more acceptable." This is not the only way of understanding poetry and its relation to the material of the writer's experience, but for certain temperaments; particularly when the realities they are challenged by are of an exceptionally heart-rending and intractable nature, it is frequently all that can be envisaged in coping with the brute facts of life. If there is a fruitful way of responding to the poetry of Seamus Deane, it seems to me to be in some such terms as these.
Deane's Selected Poems is garnered from his three published collections of the last seventeen years, Gradual Wars (1972), Rumours (1977), and History Lessons (1983), together with a number of new poems and translations. One implication of a selection like this is that the writer is taking critical stock of the work he has already done, that he feels he has reached a point in his development where he can indicate its main lines, and, however unconsciously, suggest something of the way in which he wishes to be read.
Deane's poetry reflects his life from his childhood in Derry City in the 1940s and 1950s (remembered in "Counting" as "a radio / Childhood, lived in the backwaters of reception"), through marriage, parenthood, a vocation in scholarship and teaching, journeys to the United States and the Soviet Union—a widening front of experience and possibility shadowed, however, by the memory of an inheritance of hurt and depression (recalled in "A World Without a Name" as "always a street / Hissing with rain, a ditch running / Svelte with fifth, mouths crabbed / With rancour and wrong, the smooth Almond of speech burnt"), and then overshadowed by the irruption of the violence which had always simmered never far beneath the surface of his world. The matter of Ulster, both in its more overtly abrasive as well as its more implicit manifestations—"The unemployment in our bones / Erupting on our hands in stones" ("Derry")—has been the inescapable and intensely painful catalyst of Deane's imaginative and critical processes. At the same time, he is nervously aware that what has happened and is happening at home is essentially a manifestation of a more general malaise: traveling across the United States to teach for a time in California (in "Hummingbirds") he is forced to note how "The times work like a virus"—"We have driven from Atlantic to Pacific / Time, through zoned cities where / Local rapists force the Israelis / Off the front page." All around, "crimes / are created afresh in the young": violence is generic and universal, reality is menacing and sinister everywhere. The awareness towards which one is forced by experience is as forbidding as experience itself is ineradicably tainted:
Pollution entered everything and made it Fierce. Real life was so impure We savoured its poisons as forbidden Fruit and, desolate with knowledge, Grew beyond redemption. Teachers Washed their hands of us. Innocent of any specific crime, We were beaten for a general guilt. ("Guerillas")
What emerges everywhere in Deane's poetry is the extent to which the natural human aspiration towards alliance with a place or a person is felt to be vitiated from the outset by impending or actual misalliance. Early in the selection, in a poem significantly subtitled "After Derry, 30 January 1972," we read that where one's place had been concern, "The Peace/ Had been a delicately flawed / Honeymoon signalling / The fearful marriage to come." Near the end, one of the new poems, "Homer Nods," begins by broaching more nakedly personal apprehensions: "Were the seas the surge beneath / The marriage-bed? Was this unbelonging / Man escaping over the wine / Of water the fate of having / To belong?" This continuous awareness of apparently foredoomed abrasion is reflected in turn by the persistent struggle, at the level of the actual writing, to find forms and structures adequate to the material: the problem is one of how to integrate, as a poem, and without falsification or evasion, that which is of its very nature subject, apparently, only to disintegration. Insofar as the problem is a formal one, it is also a moral one, for what is the point of artistic performance if disintegration and disorder are ultimately the only meaning of what the imagination engages? The possibility that there might be another, imaginatively healing or enhancing dimension of meaning to be elicited from apparently random disorder through the very exercise of an artistic response, is made all the more difficult when the temperament or outlook in question is Deane's. His faith in the possibility of an even provisionally satisfying artistic response is marked by a deep, almost paralyzing scepticism: "The razors / Of perception are now / So honed they cut / The lying throat of song" ("Fourteen Elegies: Eleven").
Admittedly, these lines—registering the extent to which the forms of understanding forced upon us by historical experience make the consolations traditionally associated with art seem anachronistic and hollow—come from early in Deane's first collection, Gradual Wars, which is painfully scored by the shock and terror of newly-awakened violence. But the same can be said, in some degree or other, of Rumours ("History is your wall of pain. / Garrison, the planter's warp / In the rebel climate's grain") and History Lessons ("History is personal; the age, courage."). The present selection ends, significantly, with the fine recent "Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster, 1984," a powerful but desolate cry in the face of what seems predestined and irreparable in his inheritance ("ah, whence arose / This dark damnation, this hot unrainbowed rain?"). And yet what remains as an undeniable aftertaste from reading this volume is a sense of the increasing triumph of the poetry itself, even if it never solves anything, and perhaps most of all when it accepts this limitation as inseparable from the mysterious ambiguities and satisfactions of the poetic enterprise and thereby releases other energies to play.
Probably the most insistent characteristic of a poem by Deane is its unremitting intensity of concentration upon the subject, a quality often inseparable from an embattled sense of the difficulty of clarification. There is a recurring impression, particularly in his earliest work, of something close to anguish as the dominant emotion informing, indeed determining, the taut, nervous, sharply-cut movement of the lines. Equally often, though, even miraculously, the subject seems to arrange itself in such a way as to most clearly disclose its inner meaning, as if in answer to the desperate insistence of the imagination in the face of equally powerful knots and tangles of resistance. Memorable explosions of imagery signal the imagination's triumphant, if provisional, penetration and containment of the intractable matter in question—"And the red startled sopranos / Of the sirens settle / To a blue yap. Whatever you call it / Night after night we consume / The noise as an alcoholic / Drinks glass after glass until his voice / Is hurled like a flaw / Into his numbed palate." A moment like that, from the beginning of Gradual Wars, is representative, as is this focal passage from the collection's title poem: "Darkness / Is pierced by it, it / Has the blind focus / Of a nail shuddering / In the quiet wood / Which is going to / Split as pipes / Choked in ice do." The matter shows itself capable of yielding to a language and a music, however tense and spikey, which is now part of our understanding of the matter itself. By disclosing its accessibility to transmission in terms of significant verbal from, the hard facts of brutality and horror have been permanently colored by Deane's artistic response. But it has been a close-run and hard-won performance: the pressures of the reality upon which the art has encroached are evidenced in the recurring intensities of image and rhythm.
By the time we reach the poems culled from History Lessons, there is a markedly deeper trust revealed in the form of the poem itself as the measure of its authenticity and completion. Without any slackening in concentration or in characteristic verbal brilliance—passages and images that impact upon the ear "as though / A small shrapnel of birds scattered"—there is less overt reliance upon the single arresting image as the focus of a poem's meaning, and more confidence in the sustained singing quality of the voice in tune with the more elaborately organizing imagination. Poems which dramatize the tensions between the poignancies of personal feeling and the more implacable determinants of history and politics, like "Osip Mandelstam" (with its lovely singing lines on the self-delighting poetic act: "the gold light / The goldfinch carries into the air / Like a tang of crushed almonds"). "History Lessons," "Send War in Our Time, O Lord," "Hummingbirds," as well as poems which are more exclusively private and self-communing, like "Daystar," "The Party Givers," "Breaking Wood," reveal a voice which is more at home with itself over longer stretches, relishing its capacity to stay with its subjects until they have, as it were, told themselves. A more varied blend of lyrical possibilities is also explored within these poems—the tone of the voice speaking is more confidently flexible and supple, by turns passionate, reflective, sensuous, muscular, plangent—and this development in turn signals an exploration of his characteristic concern with vulnerability and contingency in terms that are different in degree from those connected with the attrition of the individual reality by the terrorizing force of contemporary historical experience. The latter element, of course, is still pervasive: "Send War in Our Time, O Lord," a moving enactment of the fall from innocence to experience, sets the individual finally in the context of a maelstrom in which his own reality is marginal, where "The history boys are on the rampage, / The famous noise in the street / Where a jaguar camouflage / Ripples on armoured cars / In a skin of symbols." But experience in History Lessons is felt more frequently now in other, more interior ways than heretofore, as in "The Party Givers," for example, at the end of which the couple, having played the perfect hosts throughout a long evening and seen the last guests on their way, find themselves standing momentarily stunned at the edge of an unwonted and chilling self-recognition as "Morning knifes in":
The window wanes Into rainlight, you cup your Face in your hands, and drink Abandon. Is such weariness the price For being so wonderfully at home To others? Or is the party simply over And we familiars in a foreign life?
Experience in this sense, something painful but potentially at least the condition of emotional clarification and renewal, is the theme of the exquisitely delicate "Daystar" ("I sensed / The sheer transparency of spring / In which the kitchen shines. / The night fever convalesces.") and the strong and moving "Breaking Wood" ("Soon / the fume of wood upon the air / Will take my feeling to the night").
That poems such as these may, in some measure, represent Deane's truest, most authentic voice coming into its own is reinforced by the fact that, for me at least, some of the best things in the book are his presumably recent translations from the Italians Zanzotto and Luzi, and the German Rilke. I am not qualified to say to what degree they are actually "translations," but they have a remarkably first-hand feel about them and read as work in which Deane's imaginative temperament has found memorable release. The results fuse a haunting sensuousness and delicacy of detail ("Like a vowel / In the valley's mouth, the hours / Of moonlight speak my strange / Life with the connivance / Of the hedgerow's leaves") with a challenging richness and density of implication.
One can quibble, of course, with this or that in the volume as a whole. The omission of the short sequence "Scholar" (from Rumours) is a loss. The elaborate legal conceit at the heart of "Summer Letter" (from the same collection) seems to me to have been overdone; the poem suffers rather badly when compared to the freer flow of a later poem like "Daystar." The Kafkaesque and/or early Auden echoes in "Directions" are distracting. That the volume is brought to an end with "Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster, 1984" (immediately preceded by "The Churchyard at Creggan," Deane's translation of "Úr-Chill a' Chreagáin" by Art MacCumhaigh) could be interpreted as betraying a needlessly programmatic impulse; frankly. I can't make up my mind whether it does or not. But these are quibbles. What we have here, overwhelmingly, is a body of work which compels recognition as a memorable, muscular, courageous testament to the imagination's resistance and resilience in the face of circumstances that threaten to usurp and immure its essentially self-delighting energies. Again and again, and with an increasing sense of the inward satisfactions to be derived from the exercise of the artistic response. "The kerosene flash of his music / Leaps from the black earth" ("Osip Mandelstam"). Deane, in the process of facing unflinchingly into the storm of contemporary disruption and breakage that is his inheritance, has made his poems earn their keep in what has frequently been the hardest way possible. In the thinnest and most fragile of margins between desolation and hope, paralysis and possibility, the poems have, somehow, come into being. Yet their very existence represents the supervention of something positive, though never equivocally hopeful, upon the situation; they constitute a strengthening and a clarification of the thin margin in which they have come into being, and their incapacity to resolve anything other than the question of their own right to exist is both a definition and a guarantee of their artistic integrity and authenticity. Poetry, in Auden's famous phrase, may "make nothing happen," but the imagination that has made these poems happen is one without which our consciousness would be even more incomplete than it is.
SOURCE: "Effervescence," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 21, November 9, 1989, pp. 10-11.
[In the following excerpt, Ryan examines the main arguments of The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, emphasizing the ways in which British writers explored the British political character through their preoccupation with the French national character at the turn of the eighteenth century.]
The view expressed by Monied Interest in Dickens's story 'The Flight' might have made an epigraph for Seamus Deane's The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England. It was Monied Interest who declared that it was 'quite enough for him that the French are revolutionary—"and always at it".' The eight essays that make up what Froude would have described as 'a short study on a great subject' cover both more and less than the title of Professor Deane's book implies. The Revolution itself looms large and obtrudes less continuously than one might expect, while the Enlightenment looms rather larger. But what really holds the book together is an idea that is at once illuminating and obscure: the idea that in responding to the Revolution and to the Enlightenment which had produced it. British writers were engrossed with its Frenchness.
In tackling this theme, Seamus Deane covers a period of some fifty years, ranging back to Condillac, Helvétius and Holbach, and carrying the story on to the 1820s. 1789 is anything but salient. Burke's Reflections were an early response to the early hopes of the revolutionaries and Deane is mostly concerned with later reactions: Coleridge came to terms with Rousseau between 1799 and 1809, British responses to the politics of the French émigrés were affected by Napoleon's seizure of power in 1799 and by the Peace of Amiens in 1803, while Hazlitt was carrying on his Jacobin campaign against English conservatism and Benthamite radicalism down to the 1820s. The central issue around which everything rotates is the French national character, and whether there was something in it that caused the Revolution, and doomed the Revolution; and if so, what that was.
It was not merely that 1789 had turned out to be something wilder, more violent and altogether less intelligible than the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That was certainly true, but it was only a part of the truth. What was more important to those who thought in these terms was to discover what it was that caused the French to take up ideas that were the common stock of advanced European thought and to make them the pretext for regicide and terror; and whatever that was, it could emerge clearly only in the light of a contrast with the British character. Though Professor Deane has a lot else to say, his distinctive theme is the various ways in which British thinkers explored the British political character in their obsessive exploration of the French.
That this is the way to read a good deal of Burke, we probably take for granted. Burke's Reflections were provoked by Richard Price, an English Dissenting minister, and addressed to an anonymous French gentleman, but when Burke says 'you' he is apostrophising the French nation at large, and when he says 'we' he claims to speak for the whole British people—or at any rate for all those among them who were politically active. What is more surprising is that Burke's categories of analysis and polemic recur in Sir James Mackintosh, permeate Coleridge's ruminations on Rousseau, and provide an unexpected link between Carlyle and Southey. On Hazlitt, Deane puts forward the startling but in the end persuasive hypothesis that Hazlitt thought Jacobinism had been defeated both in England and in Europe less by British Toryism than by the essentially French philosophy of self-love put forward by Condillac and Helvétius and naturalised into England by Adam Smith and Bentham. Hazlitt raged against reaction and tyranny in England, but the intellectual roots of what he raged against were French, not English.
Even the group which welcomed 1789 most warmly, the politically active ministers of the Dissenting Churches, felt the same doubts about French tendencies. French sexual mores were too lax; the Philosophes had gone too far in broadening a justified attack on the superstitions and despotic affinities of Catholicism into a general assault on Christianity as such. Since most Dissenters had only wanted their own legal and political disabilities removed, it took very little to persuade them that 1789 was not 1688, and that the French had, as was to be expected, gone too far.
Professor Deane is properly anxious to point out that not everyone went down the same xenophobic track. Godwin, for one, switched from rationalism to the philosophy of moral sentiment between editions of Political Justice, but retained a lofty cosmopolitan perspective from which one nationality was scarcely distinguishable from another. Bentham and James Mill thought the subject of national character would have a place in a rational science of legislation, but agreed that as things stood appeals to national character were largely an aspect of political abuse—a view spelled out in one of John Stuart Mill's earliest essays in the Westminster Review and defended all his life.
Professor Deane is equally scrupulous about distinguishing one antipathy and its objects from another. In the early stages of the Revolution, émigré priests were made much of, since it was the Revolution's attack on the Church that caught the eye: but it was not to be expected that British political opinion would remain attached to a vengeful and reactionary group that looked forward to the restoration of just the kind of Catholic absolutism the British had rid themselves of a hundred years before. After 1799, a more lasting affection lighted on Mme de Staël and constitutionalists like Mallet de Pan, who admired the constitutional compromises of the British system of government and were sworn enemies of Napoleon. The British propensity to congratulate themselves on the unique perfection of the British constitution was quite consistent with a hunger for congratulation from other sources too.
Seamus Deane begins, as we all begin, with Burke. It has long been fashionable to find in Burke a divided consciousness, less unequivocally anti-revolutionary than he liked to think. His acute consciousness of the fact that his career had been built entirely upon his own merit must often have made him wonder whether the Ancien Régime deserved the devoted service that men like him had given it. His Letter to a Noble Lord, written in 1797 after the death of his only son, gives vent to a deep bitterness at the contrast between his concern for the welfare of aristocratic England and aristocratic flirtation with revolutionary ideas that would bring down the whole edifice. The delicate balance between his sense of his own abilities and his belief in the virtues of aristocratic government must always have taken some preserving, especially when the estate he purchased at Beaconsfield did so much more to wreck his finances than to elevate his social standing.
Many commentators have argued that his Irish background, and his awareness of the grievances of the Catholics in his home country, must have made him more sympathetic to the siren songs of the revolutionaries than his ferocious assaults on them would suggest. Seamus Deane extracts a neater and more persuasive analogy. In his unpublished Tracts Relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland, written in 1765, Burke took issue with the English historians who depicted the Irish as naturally rebellious. He denied that nature had anything to do with it: it was oppression that made the Irish rebellious, not a flaw in their nature. Burke drew the obvious analogy between Irish Catholics fleeing Ireland and the persecuted Protestants fleeing France: both were an indictment of the policies that drove them from their homeland. Whenever he considered the Protestant Ascendancy, Burke attacked it as a monster of bigotry and injustice, fuelled by no religious feeling and expressing only a passion for persecution. During the 1790s, the full moral lesson could be drawn. The Protestant Ascendancy was an abomination because Irish Protestants formed a plebeian oligarchy, and in Burke's opinion, 'a plebeian oligarchy is a monster.' This was Burke striking at all his enemies—the other two plebeian oligarchies on his mind were Warren Hastings's East India Company, and the Jacobins.
What the English did in Ireland was what the Jacobins did at home by proscribing their enemies in the name of a fictional national interest. The policies of the English in Ireland looked all the more wicked because they were so much at odds with the character of English politics at its best. At its best, English politics relied on a chain of affection and duty, stretching from the humblest to the greatest, and based on the love for place and family celebrated in Burke's emphasis on the 'little platoons'. As Seamus Deane puts it, 'France was a threat, Ireland a dire warning, England the ideal middle term between the two.'
SOURCE: "There's Music in the Ould Sod Yet," in The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1992, pp. 3, 23.
[In the following review, Kenner outlines the contents of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, assessing its strengths and weaknesses.]
At four times the word count of the King James Bible, the new three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing makes an Irish Statement: We've been here from Time's Beginning, and we're silver-tongued. What else it states is harder to paraphrase, so tangled has been the long Irish story of co-opting some past to serve some present end.
Cu Chulainn for instance, a noted skull-basher; the way a scribe wrote the story down in Irish maybe a millennium ago, this hero, attacked by such a dog as needed to be held by nine men, simply "put one hand on the apple of the hound's throat and the other at the back of his head, and dashed him against the pillar-stone … so that all the hound's limbs sprang apart."
An unlikely role model, you'd think, for W. B. Yeats, who could resemble a hearthrug ornament. But Yeats during his long life would devote five plays to Cuchulain, who in a time of windbags could seem Homeric; who moreover, mortally wounded, arranged that he'd be killed swinging his sword while tied upright to a stake. He became the very incarnation of Heroic Defeat, something Yeats's Ireland cherished with part of its mind. Patrick Pearse, who led the 1916 rebellion and died before a firing squad's volley—Pearse "summoned" (wrote Yeats) "Cuchulain to his side." The Dublin Post Office lobby, where Pearse's men held out for many hours, offers a bronze statue of Cuchulain bound to that stake.
Cu Chulainn? Cuchulain? That difference is part of the story. As Yeats used a legendary time, so a later age is using his, and one way of distancing the Age of Yeats has been to hint that its scholarship was amateurish, its revival of the old language merely enthusiastic. Still, however it's spelled, say "coo-HULL'n." Then reflect that uncertainty over what sounds to make remains one way to fence out aliens. Nowhere does this huge anthology offer a mite of help with the likes of "Eibhlin Ni Chonaill" (say Evelyn O'Connell) or "medhbh" (say, as Yeats did, "Maeve.") It's a great help just to know that "bh" everywhere makes shift for "v."
Such a sequence—era after era redefining preceding eras for present use—has called forth a big anthology indeed, since what's being framed is less a sequence of texts than a sequence of redefinitions, notably the one whose pages we're now turning. Thus a hundred pages of the chapter "Anglo-Irish Verse, 1675–1825" help make the point that, despite modern scholars' inattention, there were versifiers then about besides Swift. One is Nahum Tate, whose "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" is retrieved from English hymnbooks to enforce a continuing theme, that many "English" writers were really Irish, including such diverse figures as Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Thomas Sheridan, Oscar Wilde and Joyce Cary. (Tate's "seraph," by the way, gets footnoted "angel," though generations of hymn singers haven't been baffled; who needs help with what is a topic the editors don't address with any system.)
Volume One takes us to 1850; Volume Two, which includes Synge, Joyce and Yeats, to 1945; Volume Three, which includes Ronan Sheehan's story "Paradise," here published for the first time, to 1991. (The set was first published by Field Day Publications in Ireland.) The 1850–1945 range is especially interesting. Readers of Yeats and Joyce have long been aware of a foretime when a Great Past was being somewhat clumsily revived. Young Ireland (Thomas Davis) has been heard of, also Sir Samuel Ferguson; little else. But now the first half of Volume Two, some 550 pages, prepares us for the Abbey Theater period (1904 onward) with much that's been scarcely accessible, so unlikely would seem the rewards of dredging it up.
Thus we've 111 pages of "Poetry and Song 1800–1890," headed by Seamus Deane's tart observation that "some of the best-known poems are, to present-day taste, among the worst." That was because "incoherence of purpose was disguised in the language of utopian possibility," a likely outcome when Catholics, Protestants, Gaelic fanatics, Temperance zealots, others, were vying to identify an essential Irishness that might surge toward rebellion, or revolution, or separation from Britain, or independence under the crown, or an orgy of head-bashing, or just the threat of it, or any combination (or none) of the above. Utopian possibility, everyone was agreed on that; all agreed too that Literature should bespeak the soul of the people. Hence—O Lord—hence
Why leave I not this busy broil, For mine own clime, for mine own soil, My calm, dear, humble, native soil! There to lay me down at peace In my own first nothingness.
—which is George Darley in 1835, pretending in London that he longs to be back in dear Ireland, where all is serene, composed. (Hah. Why did he linger in London?)
Or here's Thomas Furlong (1829, two years posthumously) identifying Irish Song with the simply natural:
Fling, fling the forms of art aside— Dull is the ear that these forms enthrall; Let the simple songs of our sires be tried— They go to the heart, and the heart is all.
What's being flung aside would include Campion, Mozart, Schubert…. But, ah, Irish Eyes Are (artlessly) Smiling. (That song, by the way, the one "Irish" song everyone knows, stems not from the Ould Sod but from New York, where its intent was to nudge exiled Irish lads toward smiling-eyed Irish lasses. Racial purity, yes.)
Or here, in another section, is (amazingly) Fred Higgins, who in 1940 feigned he'd been given some bones of Queen Jezebel's:
And as once her dancing body Made star-lit princes sweat, So I'll just clack: though her ghost lacks a back There's music in the old bones yet.
Though Yeats in his final phase made that possible, in no incarnation could Yeats have written it. It's remembering "Archy and Mehitabel." Assimilations were nothing if not eclectic.
Volume Three though, 1945 to now; and look, where's Desmond Egan? The first Irish poet who hasn't had to find ways to sound Irish? Yes, he's absent. Totally. Not a mention. In a clique-ridden land, he may have got on someone's nerves. Or some schema or other doesn't accommodate him, the way it seemingly accommodates … oh, look for yourself.
But if "Contemporary Irish Poetry" (120 pages) disappoints, Volume Three can offer riches aplenty elsewhere, notably the best short introduction to Beckett ever printed (it's by J. C. C. Mays); a wondrous selection of "Political Writings and Speeches: 1900–1988" gathered by Mr. Deane, the general editor of the anthology and a professor at University College, Dublin; or a "Revisionism" section, where you find Sean O'Faolain asserting (in 1944) that a slogan like "Not merely free but Gaelic as well, not merely Gaelic but free as well" could set mouths a-watering Pavlovlike. That's still true after half a century.
One could wish throughout for better proofreading, also for some sense of what doesn't need annotating, also for a scheme of cross-references that would tell us how the Irish original for this in Volume Two is available in Volume One. Still, if you're interested at all in Ireland, forgo two meals on the town and buy the set.
SOURCE: "Growing Up in Ireland's Shadowlands," in The Observer Review, August 25, 1996, p. 17.
[In the following review, Devlin evaluates the narrative structure and style of Reading in the Dark, indicating the relation between stories and reality.]
From the moment on the opening page of Reading in the Dark when the boy is stopped on the stairs by his mother, because a shadow has fallen between them, I was disarmed, though I had to wait 134 pages until the shadow surfaced again in its original context, in the tale 'Mother', before I understood that it was never possible to go straight at this thing that has fallen between them.
I am of the opinion that women and men have different strategies when it comes to telling stories—as with everything else. My favourite book of a haunting is Toni Morrison's Beloved—but not for Seamus Deane is Morrison's confrontational opening: '124 was spiteful.' Morrison says she does it so the ones who won't like it leave immediately. Deane lays out his book like a collection of folktales—and though I started after his shadow on the landing. I was soon halted by the next tale on people with green eyes.
Reading in the Dark is built like a labyrinth—a labyrinth of separate passages which in the end turns into one at the centre. The father tells the story of the field of the disappeared because he is unable to tell the actual story of his brother's disappearance. The boy hears the story of Larry's silence—he has had sex with a she-devil—only later to hear another story that on the same night Larry executed an informer.
The visionary stories and folk-tales are invented to disguise something more dangerous to the community's sanity. And trapped at the centre is the heartbreaking tale, 'Mother'—where the family watch the woman go mad from a knowledge she cannot share.
I wanted to run into the maw of the sobbing, to throw my arms wide, to receive it, to shout at it, to make it come at me in words, words, words,—no more of this ceaseless noise, is animality, its broken inflections of my mother.
The boy is bewildered by the fact that his father is burdened by a secret which his mother knows is a lie; but if the secret lie only burdens his father, the revealed truth would kill him.
In 'Accident', the boy sees Rory Hannaway killed under a reversing truck, but feels nothing for Rory's mother or the driver when they see the crushed child. Yet when a policeman arrives and is sick, the boy suspends his fear despite his family's persistent persecution by the police and loathing of the traditional enemy, and feels only sympathy for the man. His sense of treachery is only abated when he accepts a lie from another boy who tells him that it was a police car which killed Rory. Only then can he experience true sorrow for the legitimate sufferers—Rory's mother and the driver who will never work again. In other words, the lie—the distorted narrative—becomes an antidote when the sensibility has become impaired or traumatised through fear or shock; this must be, if not the cultural function of narrative, at least the psychological function.
Art comes out of distortions: the distortions also make us ill. They make us ill because no one else accepts them.
When the boy translates all he has gleaned about the family secret into Irish and reads it to his uncomprehending father while his mother listens, it is an impulse to end the isolation imposed on him by knowing too much. Other languages do seem to provide a safer zone than the mother tongue for certain kinds of experience. Deane aptly demonstrates this in the marvellous encounter where the priestly master attempts to explain the facts of life to the boy in a series of Latin terms: 'Emittere, to send out. The seed is sent out …' Finally, the boy is forced to ask himself: 'Do you have to have Latin to do this?'
We are in the territory of the power of the word. No more so than when his mother finally finds words to articulate her grief and she says: 'Paradise was not far away when I died.' I found myself holding my breath here. This is the language of shock.
Paradise is very close to catastrophe; this is the nature of opposites. The boy does give us a glimpse of what this paradise might be in a vision of the druids' herbal spells and the gorse-tainted air around the old fort at Grianan in Donegal—the home of the sleeping and legendary warriors and where too the sounds of the druid women's watery voices can be heard murmuring with sexual pleasure: 'Yes-ess. Yes-ess.'
The location of Paradise is on Lough Foyle, and the catastrophic feud farm is on the opposite bank, Lough Swilly with Derry between and everything to be fought for.
But that paradise has been violated and catastrophe is the norm. The whole family tragedy has been set in motion by a lie perpetrated by a policeman. Burke, in an act of revenge against the boy's grandfather. Knowing the truth doesn't help: we have to know how to deflect grief enough to let love flow undiminished and undisturbed on its true course, if paradise is ever to become anything more than an elusive longing for a past that never existed and a future—a day—that will never come.
A law has been broken—a taboo older than the laws of consanguinity. It is this that the boy knows and the father does not. So the boy must go away to allow the mother to love the father without his eyes on her.
It is contact with reality that is killing, not the magical shadow worlds we create to combat it. That is why we need our stories. I have nowhere read a portrait of a woman going mad with grief as shattering as the portrait of the mother in this tale nor anywhere a sense so achingly described as that of the boy's distress at losing her, through having too much access to her history.
SOURCE: "The Bogside Bard," in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4299, August 30, 1996, p. 46.
[In the following review, Eagleton concentrates on the public appeal of Deane's fictional rendering of personal memories in Reading in the Dark.]
A colonial culture is a culture of secrecy. Seamus Deane's superb first novel [Reading in the Dark], set in the Derry Bogside of the 1940s and 1950s, is all about who knows what in a place awash with rumours, hauntings, metamorphoses and misinformation. People and things materialise and evaporate, mysteriously change shape or sex, cocoon themselves and others in ever thicker layers of deception. It is a world as materialist as Balzac's, splashed with scents, tastes and patterns of light, yet spectral as Henry James', as the certitudes of the present are infiltrated by the ghostly fictions of the past.
Set in an actual border region, Reading in the Dark also occupies some transitional zone between fiction and autobiography. In doing so it acts out the crossings of fact and fable over which the narrative broods. Its youthful protagonist, a kind of cross between Lawrence's Paul Morel [in Son and Lovers] and James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus [in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], grows up in a postwar Northern Ireland of rural beauty and state brutality, son of a Catholic Republican family with a shattering secret at its heart.
In a venerable Irish tradition, the secret turns out to involve betrayal, and locks the mother into a paralytic, untranslatable sorrow: one of the most poignant aspects of a story rich in emotional subtlety. At the core of this dazzlingly eloquent narrative is something muffled and labyrinthine that beggars speech. This is a domestic tragedy, to be sure, but, in the complex interlacings of public and private histories of a colonial society, it also becomes an allegory of a people's grief.
In this parochial, lovingly rendered world, it is no longer possible to disentangle family feuds, hauntings and buried terrors from a wider politics that blights and shrivels lives. The scent of rain or earth or hair in this atmospheric book is threaded with the smell of injustice. It is a working-class, Republican version of Irish Gothic, which is similarly full of domestic violence, festering secrets, the return of the repressed. Like such Gothic tales, this novel is on the cusp between past and present, aware that a past which has poisoned the present might also, suitably reconstructed, help to repair it.
How salvageable that past actually is, or how likely it is to fragment into fantasy, is one of Deane's most pressing preoccupations—both here and in his attempt, as general editor of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, to coax some coherence from the ruptured traditions of his country's literature.
Of all genres, autobiography seems the most confident that the past can be recuperated; but that form is crossed here with a fiction that threatens to undermine its self-assurance. And if myth and history interbreed here, they do so with a vengeance in the Northern Ireland that is the book's subject.
It is part of Deane's artistic triumph that Reading in the Dark is at once an act of loving fidelity to the social landscapes of his childhood and a hard-headed refusal to idealise them. Its sombre depth is laced with a wry humour.
The book is least successful in its cuffing of autobiographical material into fictional shape: we don't see the political betrayals at stake, we don't know the characters involved, so that for the hero's grandfather to have arranged the execution of his uncle is a more gripping matter for him than it is for us. The past that determines the tale is too notional, as autobiography gets the edge over imaginative recreation.
Yet the past, after all, is what we are made of; and in the Derry and Donegal of this book it is literally coeval with the present, strewing the contemporary landscape in the form of ruins. Seamus Deane, perhaps Ireland's finest literary critic, is also a well-known socialist Republican, and reading this novel one can already hear the grinding of the literary Unionist knives. Isn't this just the sort of nostalgic, superstitious, violence-ridden stuff one would expect from a Bogside bard?
In fact, Reading in the Dark takes the hackneyed mode of childhood remembrance and wrings from it a literary masterpiece, couching its story in a prose at once serviceable and beautifully poetic. A work of adroit artistry, it is also the kind of story one can imagine the plain people of Derry eagerly devouring. A work with the sophistication of a John Banville might thus have the potential readership of a Maeve Binchy.
SOURCE: "The Boy Who Wanted to Know," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4878, September 27, 1996, p. 22.
[In the following review, O'Faolain identifies the narrative value of folktales in Reading in the Dark as compromising the novel's realism.]
This first novel by the poet Seamus Deane has the focused compression of poetry. Short sections—lots of white paper here—present carefully chosen incidents whose meanings expand into complexity as the narrative gathers momentum.
Reading in the Dark is, on one level, an optimistic tale. As an Irish Bildungsroman, confronting familiar hurdles, it follows a Catholic Derry boy through his childhood in the 1940s to the great day when he can tell his family that he's got his degree: "a First". It is a first for the family, too, and the father, an electrician's mate who "would have loved to have been educated", waits hours for his son to come boozily in the door with the news. Remorse at seeing his father's face makes the boy relinquish a teasing plan to pretend failure. He says at once, "I got it." His father smiles, and the bitter-sweet moment could be the climax of a simpler novel. But this family's emotional life is strangled.
The hidden side of their story emerges slowly, as what starts out like a classic account of a bright working-class boy's growing to consciousness, joining the middle class and being detribalized, reveals a darker dimension. Political treachery has leached into private experience, and the boy's relations with his mother have been damaged, for, far from being the wan, positive but passive mother-figure so familiar in Irish fiction, she turns out to be an Eve who carries and transmits a taint.
This is not the only reversal of expectancy. But then, reversals are normal in a place where a teacher's pep talk warns pupils that each year is bringing them "closer to entering a world of wrong, insult, injury, unemployment, a world where the unjust hold power and the ignorant rule". Small wonder in such a context—Catholic Derry, 1948—that the boy who wants to know more than his siblings finds himself reaping rue. Knowledge does not empower, and, with or without a dark family secret, life for Deane's unnamed hero was never going to be easy. Frustration has half-deranged his community, including the priests who teach him and the policemen who have him and his mates always in their bad books. Two chilling sequences feature bullies from these corps. Running their gauntlet clearly took the sort of resourcefulness which turns woodcutters' sons into ogre-killers.
The first incident shows a priest setting traps for his pupils, while allocating numbers of canestrokes for all likely contingencies. "Every morning, at nine o'clock sharp, he came rushing into the room his soutane swishing, his face reddened as if in anger, his features oddly calm." Soon he claims to "owe" one boy eighty-four strokes.
This is realism. Pedagogic sadism was widespread in the Catholic Ireland of those years. I know this because my father wrote about it in a Dublin paper, and the seething letters he received from all over the country included some about boys being hospitalized. Priests and those they appointed were untouchable then.
So the "black uniforms", as one character calls them, were indeed ogres. But the encounter with Police Sergeant Burke is pleasing, because our hero gets the better of him. Burke, knowing the family shame—a relative was a police informer—forces the boy to ride in the police car, so that people will think him too an informer. The boy is then ostracized by all, until, in desperation, he turns to the bishop. He is sincerely eager, he claims, to beg Burke's pardon for throwing a stone at his car. But how can he? If he's seen entering the police station, people will think he's informing. The bishop sends a priest with him to see Burke. This manoeuvre is observed and, later, the boy tells his mates that the priest was scolding Burke for "his lies about me. I think Burke's going to be excommunicated…." The boy is welcomed back to the community. The occasion is a rite of passage.
What shows through this incident like a watermark is its use of folk-tale elements, both formal and thematic. The past may be "blood under the bridge", but its after-effects need neutralizing if you belong to a family with a blight on it. This wisdom, like the two tricks—Burke's and the boy's—belong to the mental world of the yarns which Deane's characters enjoy telling each other. His novel is pod-full of these, and it is clear that their use is therapeutic in the stricken Derry community where few things can be said clearly. Ghost and fairy lore is a useful source of metaphor when you need to tell children why one man was struck dumb, others disappeared, and their own mother is unhinged. The outcome of score-settling and murder is falsified memory.
So the folk-tale works credibly here. By contrast, there is some Yeatsian hokum in the invocation of the saga heroes who might rise "from their thousand-year sleep to make final war on the English". As though registering this, the prose cringes into cliché when Deane's nameless—universal?—protagonist looks out from the old heroes' fort to "where cottage lights twinkled, as distant as stars".
Throughout, the novel counterpoints old and new. Even on its last page, armoured trucks are followed past the house by a gypsy boy riding his horse bareback out of an almost lost past. This and the substitution in the "haunted" mother's mind of her old obsession by thoughts of her newly dead husband, provide a resolution which would probably work better in a poem. The effect here, though seductive, diminishes the vigour of the realism which becomes doubly distanced by being seen both through the lens of memory and those of a writer as manipulative as Seamus Deane. There are, as I hope I have indicated, beautifully told passages in this intelligent book. Its realism is impeccable, but our collusion with the story is interrupted a little too often by authorial nudges, inviting us to savour yet another artful effect.
SOURCE: "The Endless Possibilities of Ordinary Life," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 19-20.
[In the following review, Hand connects the narrative perspective of Reading in the Dark to aspects of Deane's critical career.]
It is inevitable that a first novel by an author with a well established academic and critical career will be approached—certainly by other critics and academics—with the lumbering baggage of various expectations and preconceptions of what will be found there. This is very much so with Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark. One reason for this is that the novel has been a long time coming—in a biographical note in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing published in 1991, Reading in the Dark was listed as having been published the previous year.
Whatever the explanation for such a delay—and six years is a long time—these preconceptions and expectations cannot be said to be based solely on a casual curiosity engendered by an overly long gestation period. Rather they are bound up with a knowledge of Deane's own substantial critical output as one of Ireland's foremost commentator on Irish literature and culture. And, at a time when that culture and literature are being subjected to various conflicting readings and interpretations in an ongoing act of definition and redefinition of Ireland and Irishness, it is understandable why there should be so much interest in this first novel.
It is as a part of this wider quarrel that the very minor controversy surrounding Reading in the Dark when it is was short-listed for the 1996 Booker Prize can best be appreciated. Some commentators protested that a work so autobiographical could not be, and should not be, allowed into a competition for fiction. It was, and is, a spurious argument. Reading in the Dark is a novel; in terms of structure, plot and characterization it reads like a novel and therefore should be treated accordingly. And, anyway, autobiography is not so much about past fact and reality as about an act of creating the self in the present. It too, then, is fiction and it is naive to think otherwise.
Basically some people do not agree with Seamus Deane's interpretation and analysis of the "matter of Ireland." One needs only to think of the barrage of criticism which met the publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing of which Deane was General Editor. Some of the criticism, while actually being fair, was used as a means of diverting attention away from the very real achievements of the project. It was a situation, as they say, where an attempt was made to throw the baby out with the bath water. Sadly, it was an attempt that for all intents and purposes succeeded.
Similarly with Reading in the Dark, and the spurious argument about the different claims of fiction and autobiography: rather than do the difficult thing and deal with the book as it is and not as one expected it to be, the easy option is preferred and diversionary tactics employed. Happily, in this instance, these begrudging commentators were in the minority and, though the novel did not win the Booker Prize, it has been well received critically and commercially.
Happily, too, Reading in the Dark confounds any such presumptions and presuppositions we may have had of it being merely a continuation in fictional terms of Deane's critical stance and viewpoint. Deane does not intentionally attempt to tell the "big" story of Ireland or the north of Ireland; rather he focuses on a "small" story through which larger issues may be viewed. At this point it is worth saying that the novel is not an overtly self-reflexive, highly self-conscious and knowing fiction that others, like John Banville for example, might engage in. This work does not bend character and situation to some abstract idea or end; instead it foregrounds the story it has to tell, thus allowing the reader to engage in an act of interpretation.
Reading in the Dark tells the story of how the young unnamed narrator growing up in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s pieces together a mysterious secret that quite literally haunts his family. But this secret—this story—is not the only story that the young boy meets with: the world presented in this book is made up of stories, each one vying for the boy's attention. Early on he learns a valuable lesson about stories and their worth. The first novel he reads is The Shan Van Vocht and it thrills him with its love affairs and rebellions and deeds of daring do:
I'd … lie there … re-imagining all I had read, the various ways the plot might unravel, the novel opening into endless possibilities in the dark.
However, in school his teacher reads out a classmate's essay which describes in detail a typical evening at home: the mother laying out the dinner things, the sound of the kettle and the ticking of the clock.
This is a revelation for our narrator, and he is embarrassed because his own work had been full of big dictionary words that allowed him to tell of places found only in his novel: "I'd never thought such stuff was worth writing about. It was ordinary life." Now it is the ordinary and the everyday—his own life and his family's story—which possesses endless possibilities.
In recent times there have been a number of books dealing with childhood: Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha for instance, Deane's work is different from these in that the narrator's perspective is that of looking back from the vantage point of the present, thus permitting a certain depth and substance that is lacking in Roddy Doyle's book, for example. It is this aspect of the novel that allows a connection to be made between this work and Deane's critical career. For, in a way, what we are presented with is "A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man" or "A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Reader."
The world is full of signs and wonders—stories—to be read and interpreted. Be it the world around him, the ordinary world, or the world of myth and legend and song: all need to be made sense of. An ardent desire for knowledge drives the young narrator in his search for the key that will unlock the family secret. It is desire common to all critics and scholars and, indeed, Deane in his poem, "Scholar I" admits: "Is there a book that I / Would not burn for the truth?"
The problem is that real life and the ordinary world are fraught with many difficulties, not least of which is that in the real world real people feel real pain. Deane shows that an act of criticism and/or interpretation never exists in a vacuum, that there are very serious and real consequences to engaging in such acts. In short, the story he tells highlights the human dimension to critical acts.
Of course, this does not mean that such knowledge should not be striven for; it must be, but the human cost must be acknowledged also. One presumes that is a lesson the author himself has learnt, and it is one we can all learn from in a time when the stakes are very high indeed in terms of Irish literary and cultural criticism.
Though this family secret, unspoken yet frighteningly palpable, permeates everything and impacts upon everyone in the novel, it does not follow that Reading in the Dark is a bleak book. There are many wonderful scenes of growing up in Derry, playing in Grianan Fort, going to the pictures, the facts of life. There is a chapter, "Maths Class," which is perfectly executed and possesses an underlying rhythm that reads like music. Another chapter, "Roses," captures beautifully the frustration of youth and the tragic excesses youth will go to in an effort to express that frustration.
It is the central plot of a slowly unraveling mystery, however, which gives the novel a certain edge, allowing an at times humorous "coming to consciousness" tale combined successfully with a story of deadly seriousness.
It is certainly a magnificent first novel, assured and confident and well worth a wait of six years. It being so personal a story, though, one wonders if Seamus Deane has the ability or the inclination to craft another novel. One hopes that he has.
SOURCE: "Ghosts," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 102, May 4, 1997, p. 6.
[In the following review, Humphreys summarizes the theme and plot of Reading in the Dark, praising the characterizations and "animated" descriptions of inanimate objects.]
Two memories rise, ominous as thunder on a clear day, in the opening pages of this first novel by the poet Seamus Deane. The narrator, an unnamed young man looking back on his childhood in Northern Ireland, remembers climbing the stair when he was 5. His mother had just started down, and they were about to meet on the landing when suddenly she said. "Don't move." He could see nothing between them except the window, where the Derry cathedral seemed to hang against the sky. But she saw more. "There's somebody there. Somebody unhappy. Go back down the stairs, son." And although later she reassured him there had been no ghost, "Just your old mother with her nerves," he found her crying near the kitchen stove. The child was left excited and shaken, alert to every tick and glimmer in the house—and to the mystery of his mother. "We were haunted!" he realized.
In language strikingly lucid and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Mother has a secret; but so do Father, Grandfather, Aunt Kate, Crazy Joe the local oddball and almost everyone else in the squalid, rubble-strewn town of Derry. A priest tells a cryptic tale of murder, a policeman hints at untold intrigue. Even something as innocent as a circus, the boy's second early memory, suggests how hard it is going to be for a child like this one, with a great capacity for trust and love, to recognize in the world around him exactly what is lovable and trustable.
At the circus with his brother Liam, he's dazzled by Mr. Bamboozelem, the magician in high boots and red satin coattails who pulls rabbits and rings from thin air only to make them vanish again. "When everything had stopped disappearing, he smiled at us behind his great mustache, swelled his candystripe belly, tipped his top hat, flicked his coat of flame and disappeared in a cloud of smoke and a bang that made us jump a foot in the air." Only the magician's mustache remains, hanging for an instant in the darkness before it, too, fades away. Liam scoffs; it's a trapdoor trick, he says, and the clown who seems to be wiping away a real tear is only part of the act. But the boy is unconvinced. "Was Mr. Bamboozelem all right?" he worries. "Everyone was laughing and clapping but I felt uneasy. How could they all be so sure?"
As the title implies, this novel is about ways of knowing. How can truth be apprehended under conditions of little light? This particular boy, unlike his tough brother, needs a clear picture of how things really are. Carefully he watches not only his parents but the world at large for hints and clues. But clarity is rare in Northern Ireland in the 1940's and 50's. Truth is no more likely to come from mother and father than from priest and policeman. A chum may be an informer. People disappear. Derry itself is a hellish town where wild bonfires are a relief from the cold gray landscape, and the major entertainment is an organized massacre of rats at the bomb shelter ruins. Landmarks are the slaughterhouse, with its sound of squealing hogs, and the burned distillery where in 1922 the boy's uncle, an Irish Republican Army gunman, was last seen on the parapet moments before the place blew up, casting Uncle Eddie, it is said, into "that rosy glow of exploding whisky."
Little hope is offered by church or school; one priest teaches by ridicule while another prefers insult. And always there is the danger of the police. At 8 the boy is beaten by a sergeant; four years later the same sergeant frames him as an informer. When friends and family turn away from him, life becomes a daily torture. In desperation he concocts a scheme to pit the clergy against the police and reclaim his reputation. Clever deception becomes his own device, and he learns to survive the way his father, a boxer turned electrician's assistant, did before him.
Amazingly, however, given the bleak poverty and violence of Derry, Reading in the Dark is a novel suffused with magical loveliness. Beyond the town is a green zone of countryside into which children may escape, wander through an ancient fort, look down on the seacoast. Even richer is the web of Irish legend and folklore woven through every aspect of daily life, transforming the mundane into something spine-tingling and enigmatic, sometimes grotesque but never dull. At night in bed, the boy reads of shadowy romantic figures, wind and fire, heroes of the Irish rebellion. He hears stories of children who change sex, and of a beautiful woman who seduces a young man on the eve of his wedding, then suddenly vanishes from his arms, leaving him with a smoking crotch and no language.
One day in school a teacher reads aloud the essay of a classmate, a simple description of a country supper: blue-and-white jug, slab of butter with the shape of a swan pressed into it. "It was ordinary life—no rebellions or love affairs or dangerous flights across the hills at night. And yet I kept remembering that mother and son waiting in the Dutch interior of that essay, with the jug of milk and the butter on the table, while behind and above them were those wispy, shawly figures from the rebellion, sibilant above the great fire and below the aching, high wind." To accurately read life, to know, must require a combination of two visions, the plain-seeing with the imaginative. If there is truth to be found in myth, there is also magic in real things.
And it's the specificity of real things that most enchants him—a candle "stubby in its thick drapery of wax," the linoleum pattern "polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory," "a long, chill pistol, blue-black and heavy." In fact, there seem to be no inanimate objects; everything is charged with energy and significance. This is the real "haunting" of the novel: an inspirited, animated reality. A boiler bursts, angry and hissing; a pond has the look of "sexual velveteen." Chimneys breathe, shadows watch, ice snores. Odors have a powerful exactness, from the acrid smell of diphtheria and the whiff of soap on his dead sister's pillow to "the police smell" that sometimes wakes him from sleep, leaving him breathless and panicky.
Increasingly, the boy becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about his uncle's disappearance, and the more he learns, the more tangled the mystery grows. If the novel has a weakness, it is in the management of this intricate plot of betrayal and error and secrecy; yet the very cumbersomeness of truth is one of the lessons of Reading in the Dark. The question of Uncle Eddie's fate is incidental, anyway, to a more crucial question: how does a boy preserve his own innocence?
Answers come in bits and pieces, from unexpected quarters—from the very sources of deception. Reading in the Dark suggests that while there are deep flaws in the church, the law and the family, all have, a core of reliability. So when Father Regan reminds his class that "our transient life, no matter how scarred, how broken, how miserable it may be, is also God's miracle and gift," he delivers a nugget of truth. With a hand raised in blessing over the boys who will soon enter "a world where the unjust hold power and the ignorant rule," the priest assures them of an inner peace that everyone can find, "Hold to that; it is what your childish innocence once was and what your adult maturity must become. Hold to that, I bless you all." It is a genuine blessing, trustable.
"Hauntings are, in their way, very specific. Everything has to be exact, even the vaguenesses," the boy says when he has finally hunted down all the specifics to reveal the exact truth at last. The revelation brings him no bursting dawn, only an attenuated half-light. Gunfire will erupt again in the streets of Derry and the Troubles will return. In the end the cathedral will still hang in the window, the mother will descend the stairs and truths arduously unearthed will slowly begin to be reburied. But, for Seamus Deane's readers, life has been illuminated, washed in an elegiac, graceful and forgiving light.
SOURCE: "Ghost Story," in Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1997, p. 2.
[In the following review, Eder comments on the function of family secrets in Reading in the Dark, highlighting the thematic significance of pivotal scenes.]
It begins, puzzlingly, with a series of disconnected childhood memories from the 1940s in Derry, in Northern Ireland. The little boy's mother senses an invisible presence on the stair's landing and sobs inconsolably. An aunt tells a terribly frightening ghost story of a brother and a sister who drive their nanny mad by exchanging features—hair, eyes, smile, even gender—with each other.
The kindly, mournful father, a shipyard worker, takes the boy and his brother for a seaside walk and points out a patch of turf overhanging the cliff's edge that the birds seem to avoid. It is, he says, "the land of the disappeared."
Less mistily, there is his glimpse of a neighbor run over by a van, a policeman vomiting while getting the body out and, later, the inevitable neighborhood rumor that it was the police who were driving the van. There is a violent standoff between the police and the Catholics on St. Patrick's Day, and fireworks and booming drums on the Protestant marching days.
There is the rough interrogation of the family after the boy sneaks a pistol out of his father's bureau and shows it to a friend. There is the mystery of why the father, whose long-vanished brother fought in the IRA, was not arrested for possessing the weapon.
These scenes and others make an initial blur, but it is the blur of a film developing. Gradually it takes on a fearful, unforgettable clarity. Northern Irish poet Seamus Deane devises as a fictional memoir Reading in the Dark, the web of legend, secrecy and obsession with betrayal that choked and still chokes the history of his country.
It is the story of a Catholic family and its beleaguered community. It looks back to the 1920s and the beginning of Irish partition and leads up into the 1970s. In a larger sense, it is a story of the intractability of civil division, the crippling, ineradicable energies of defeat and the twin curse of too much remembering and too much silence.
These are devastations, but Reading in the Dark evokes them not as rhetoric but as the moth holes and rotted-out pieces in the fabric of one family's life. We would not be so enthralled and moved if Deane had not evoked the life itself with so much humanity, delicacy and fierce wit. Yeats' "terrible beauty," a cliché by now, could have been waiting for this near-magical book to arrive.
The darkest devastation in the family is its secrets. The book begins with ghosts and mysteries as a 6- or 7-year-old might apprehend them. It continues with an obstinate search for answers when the same boy achieves the fearsome lucidity and utter lack of caution of a 12-year-old. The search takes him up to 19 and 20, when, knowing the answers, he begins to know the moral and intellectual ambiguity to which all answers lead.
The family secrets are interlocked. First is that Eddie, the father's brother, was executed by his IRA companions as an informer back in 1922. The second is that it was the wife's father—the boy's grandfather—who ordered the execution. The third is that Eddie was the wrong man; the fourth is the identity of the real informer. The grandfather, dying, blurts these things out as the boy sits with him.
There is a fifth secret and a sixth. But this is enough disclosure, considering the choking urgency a reader shares with the boy as he pieces together other scraps and clues over the next few years.
The damage that half-destroys the mother, a brave and loyal woman, and the father, a man of simplicity and kindness, is not so much the secrets themselves as the fact that he knows only the first of them and she comes to know them all. She cannot bring herself to tell him about the tragic error, her father's role or the rest of it, out of dread that it will destroy their marriage.
Her compunction condemns her husband to think of his brother as a traitor. Silence is the killer. It sends her into a two-year breakdown from which she never entirely recovers; in him, it nurtures a perpetual, leaching pain. The tragedy is both personal and historical—it leaves us wondering what other reading in the dark is being done at this moment by some 12-year-old in Bosnia, for instance.
The beauty of Deane's lament—as is true of Frank McCourt's Irish childhood memoir, Angela's Ashes, a lovely but smaller work—is that it is not told as such. The narrator speaks with all the vitality, the appetite for life and discovery and the pleasurable distractibility of his age. Those news shots of children playing soccer in some bombed-out ruin may spell tragedy, but the thunk of each kick is young nature's irrepressible high spirits.
Some of the book's high spirits go to depicting the classes at the boy's school, taught by priests. They are arrogant and sarcastic; they use wit, wordplay and the unconditional authority they possessed back in the 1950s to prevail over their charges. It is a familiar kind of scene by now, going back at least to the whiplash classroom thundering in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and reworked by Catholic writers ever since.
There is a difference here. For one thing, the boys are not cowed. They stand their ground and score, an occasional point—one, for example, in a wonderfully kinked duel in algebra class and another in religion. It is as if they were enduring tennis instruction from a vastly superior player, victims of verbal smash-shots but growing in their own proficiency. For another thing, the priests are presented with complexity as well as wit.
There is a comic and touching scene in which the director of spiritual studies gives the boy his customary one-on-one sex talk. It is no penitential warning; the lesson is mild, in fact, and expounded in valiantly conscientious detail. The boy, about to meet a girlfriend for a real-life smooch, submits with patronizing glee and skips out as soon as he can. Yet:
As I ran, I imagined Father Nugent hesitantly closing his door and looking at the armchairs on either side of the fire, now mute and emptied of all confidences in the whitened light of his lamp and the tall windows.
Deane gives a nuanced portrait, in fact, of the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland at mid-century. Belligerent and constricted, it played a role in both holding together and restraining the minority community. In the book's most complex and ingenious scene, in fact, the local bishop comes to the rescue of the boy who, through a mischance and the malice of the local police, finds himself labeled as a neighborhood informer. It is a brilliant upending of the police sergeant who engineers the rumor.
Bishop aside, the episode is pivotal. For a week or so, the boy is a pariah, not only among the neighbors but within his own family. The shock sets him on the long path of replacing ghosts and mysteries with truth. It is more than the moment when a child begins to grow up. It is the moment in history when primal myth gives way to the clarity of tragedy.
Over the next half-dozen years, the boy achieves his tragic truth. As he does, there is one more pivot, one that elevates Reading in the Dark beyond brilliance. Looking at his mother and father grown old, he realizes that the truth that would ease them would also destroy them. From deliverer of secrets he grows up to become their guardian.
SOURCE: "Identity and Diffidence," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 20, May 19, 1997, pp. 33-6.
[In the following review, Boyers traces the development of betrayal as the central theme of Reading in the Dark, explicating narrative implications about the political character of Northern Ireland.]
Irish history is bad history. So says one character in Seamus Deane's first novel [Reading in the Dark], and no other character in the novel seems much inclined to deny it. In a land of "small places," as it is described here, people have too often made "big mistakes." They lie to themselves and to one another. They rely on old certainties when they might better have abandoned them. They carry around "stale" secrets and bitter resentments. Their courage is too often merely a willingness to absorb meaningless defeats and inflict pointless damage. For all their eloquence and their gift for storytelling, they are not, typically, much good at distinguishing truth from fiction, the past from the present. The language of feud and retribution, of shame and fatedness, is on every tongue.
Of course, clear-sighted Irish men and women can also see plenty to be proud of in their past, but all agree that the history of Northern Ireland contains every kind of motive for resentment, rage, and hopelessness. "The whole situation makes men evil," says one of Deane's priests, and "evil men make the whole situation." To live in a place like Derry in the 1940s and '50s, when Deane's novel is set, is to remember failed rebellions and to confront, day after day, British policemen whom one has learned to regard as intolerable, in their casual brutalities and in their unwelcome efforts at commiseration and intimacy. Most of what goes on in such a place has nothing to do with politics, as it happens, but always there is a sense of "the whole situation," and persons who might well have looked to themselves as the source of present difficulties are embittered and coarsened by the long sense of injustice that they have had to bear. The priests speak, when they can, of "an inner peace nothing can reach" and "no insult can violate," but the Irish refuse to forget the "cruel birth" of their country, and they suffer their history like a perpetual humiliation.
Deane's novel is no polemic. It presents no case for or against his countrymen, no brief for a particular reading of Irish history. It is mainly the story of a boy's coming of age, and it is told mostly in very brief chapters with titles such as "Maths Class," "Crazy Joe," "The Facts of Life" and "Sergeant Burke." The chapters mostly cover minor events: the boy encounters and engages with family members and strangers, with schoolmates, priests, and teachers. He goes to classes, gets in and out of trouble, and generally behaves very much in the way we might expect of a boy in such a time and place. The sequence is strictly chronological, and incidents are often "necessary" only in the sense that they convey the flavor of the narrator's experience.
The novel is haunted by the story of a series of betrayals, a story revealed in bits and pieces picked out of fragmentary confessions and intimations. The betrayals are personal and political, and, though they have the power to corrupt lives in Deane's little world, they never take control of the narrative. The boy at the center of the novel makes what he can of the fragments, understanding dimly, then more clearly, that members of his own family are implicated in the various betrayals. At times he is angry and confused, at other times he is overwhelmed by pity and tenderness. Alert to the deceptions of priests, policemen, and politicians, he is properly skeptical of traditions and myths, but he entertains no serious possibility of reversing deep-rooted customs or assumptions. Blindness, like love or hate, is a condition that persists, no matter the inducements to see or to change.
A reader who comes to Deane's novel without substantial understanding of "the troubles" of Northern Ireland will learn little from the narrative. It refers, vaguely, to early struggles and uprisings, but it offers no hard information, and its ideas are rudimentary. Dramatic encounters are briefly recalled. People refer, occasionally, to protests "at the founding of the new state" or to retaliation for a particular injustice, but the encounters as recalled are not especially important in themselves. The IRA gunmen on a roof are no more comprehensible than the policemen who surround them. Riots are just events that happen, like the death of a child or the infidelity of a husband. If people sometimes behave in particular ways for particular reasons, they are rarely good reasons, and acknowledging them leads nowhere. "There was a belief" in this thing or that, in this cause or that dark necessity, but it does no one any good, apparently, to persist in the belief or to abandon it.
Deane tells the stories of people's lives with a crisp lyricism, though it is not always easy for a reader to remain interested in characters who have few thoughts and little inclination to open themselves to sharp sensory experiences. People are said to live in silence, to feel hopelessly separated from one another, "trapped," desiring routinely "to be free of the immediate pressures." The regret for missed opportunities darkens every consciousness. My Father? "He would have loved…." My Grandfather? He "realized for sure the mistake he had made…." My own life? "Rehearsing conversations I would never have." To make something of lives so committed to the desultory and unconsummated is a challenge, and Deane is not always up to it.
Lacking the will to analyze and the appetite for metaphysics or morals, Deane is content to set things down as if they spoke for themselves. But often they do not say much more than "failure" and "regret." Deane's people are so inured to the facts of their lives that they are almost constitutionally averse to development. To his credit, Deane resists the temptation to claim for these characters qualities that they do not possess, but too often we feel that they are important to him for reasons that he does not know how to share. The work sometimes reads more like a memoir than a novel, in that people and events matter only because they were actually a part of the narrator's experience.
As if alert to the prospect that Deane's book will seem to many readers thin, lacking in ideas and development, Seamus Heaney has praised it as "sudden" and compares it to Isaac Babel. But Deane's book is not "sudden" like a Babel story, and it is without many of the virtues that make a Babel story distinctive. Deane's irony, only occasionally in evidence, is broad, more an irony of circumstance than of voice. We do not find in Deane the internal conflict—as between the physical and spiritual—that seethes everywhere just beneath the surface in Babel. Deane knows and accepts his people and his place as they are; he does not allow what he knows to raise in him the self-doubt that gives such edge to Babel's laconic fictions.
In Deane's book, we have the material for moral inquiry, but the inquiry is not pursued. Still, there are passages of exceptional vitality. The boy sits through a memorable "facts of life" session with the school's spiritual director and is confounded by unfamiliar words and concepts. ("Ask him, you stupid shit, ask him, that's what you're here for, but I couldn't do anything except stare at him.") The mother suffers a breakdown and begins to communicate long-buried thoughts in a language strangely suggestive and obscure. ("Paradise was not far away when I died.") The voluble police sergeant confesses that he has beaten suspects he knew to be innocent, since not to have done so "would have looked strange." Throughout the novel, often in unlikely places, things come suddenly to life. We remember that these people are more than the sum of their refusals and resignations. The mother, who absorbs several varieties of humiliation, is eloquent in repudiating the "dirty politics" of the British and the routine admonitions directed at those who struggle and resist. The father, hardworking and forlorn, is stubbornly faithful and resilient, and his aversion to posturing is so powerful that he chastises his young sons, on their knees in prayer, for making "a meal of it" and "trying to look like little saints."
Though Reading in the Dark is a first novel, Deane has been a literary presence since 1972, when he published the first of several volumes of poems. More recently he attracted attention as the general editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 550–1990, a massive three-volume compendium that presents not only an extraordinary range of literary voices but an abundance of "texts," from incendiary pamphlets to political speeches and historical accounts of public events. The controlling idea of the anthology appears to be that it is futile and misleading, at least in the case of the Irish, to isolate literature from politics. And Irish writers have been more or less unanimous in affirming this sense of their work. Yeats wrote that Irish writers were necessarily "maimed" by the "great hatred" that they carried around with them, and that his own meeting with the Fenian leader John O'Leary was singularly important in bringing "the poet in [to] the presence of his theme." Even those who did not choose to dwell on political themes, such as Joyce, were deeply absorbed with questions of marginality and identity. Deane himself has said that "the dominant public experience of my career has been the political crisis in Northern Ireland."
What is most remarkable about Deane's novel, then, is its refusal to permit the lives of its characters to be wholly swallowed by politics. Desultory their lives may be, but the presumptive causes are more various than any single-minded obsession with "the situation." And, of course, the novelist who, like Deane, immerses himself in various lives is always likely to discover occasions for verbal extravagance and merriment. Examples abound in this book. A classroom instructor in mathematics leaves an indelible picture of manic aggression and wit, unleashing a relentless verbal assault on the "brain dead" and "memory-less" among his charges. Is this a reflection of an inveterate Irish inferiority complex that can issue also in physical brutality and torture? Deane does not instruct us to read it that way. Does the instructor's emphasis on "corruption," and on the "evolutionary cul-de-sac" represented by especially recalcitrant students, not produce in them a resentment and defensiveness that can be fed and turned to violence by skillful demagogues? Deane charts no such consequence. His chapter on "Maths Class" offers, in place of diagnosis, the marvelous and the unaccountable, an expression of verbal playfulness that, in spite of his punitive sarcasm, requires neither justification nor relevance.
Where the political does take center stage in Deane's novel, moreover, it may well seem indistinguishable from the dissemination of propaganda. In 1956, an Anglican priest in British army uniform visits the boy's school as a part of the "battle for the hearts and minds of men" against the specter of world communism. The battle is represented by the genial priest as "a battle of faithlessness against faith; a battle of subtle wiles against manly freedom; a battle of cold atheism against the genial warmth of that Christian faith that has lit so many Irish hearts down the centuries." In the face of this battle, the disputes that divide Irish men and women are said to be "no more than family quarrels." A "traditional" society, whatever its internal dissensions, will wish to uphold "the eternal verities, says the priest; its people will know what is truly important to its survival and what is, in the long term, incidental.
The boys, of course, are mostly deaf to these appeals. Accustomed to hearing things that they know to be untrue, they rarely pay much attention to the particulars of the case presented to them. What they are likely to hear in the way of political discourse can be readily dismissed. It is encouraging to note how little susceptible to the priest's calculated pieties are the Irish schoolboys. Yet neither are these children on their way to anything approaching a mature grasp of political issues. At least Deane makes no such claim for them.
The best that can be said for the political intelligence of the adults in Deane's world is that occasionally they feel sorry for the troubles of others and reflect, in a spirit of resigned incomprehension, on the way that events elude their grasp. "It's a strange world," says the boy's father, moved by his own encounter with the father of a British soldier shot dead by an IRA sniper in the course of a street search. "I feel for him. Even if his son was one of those," the father says. No more comes from him on this score, no more is to be expected. His reality does not demand complexity of him, or a sustained reconsideration of old positions. The facts are what matter; the curfews, the street barricades, the armored trucks, "the avocado battle-dress of the soldiers," the intermittent gunshots, the routine humiliations of search, suspicion and seizure.
Does it matter that the story of these people is told from the perspective of a working-class boy? Deane wrings from the tale very little of the easy charm and naivete of the usual first-person child's narrative. No effort is made to simulate the familiar headlong rush of infant volubility, the childish locutions or fragmentary reticences intended to evoke innocence or embarrassment. Even where there is an immediacy in the language, in the contrivance of a retrospective present tense, the language belongs to an adult voice: "She would come down with me," he writes of his mother, "her heart jackhammering, and her breath quick … her face in a rictus of crying, but without tears."
Just so, where sequences are organized to make a point, we feel that it is a point elected by the adult novelist, who is at once inside the experience he narrates and well past it. "Was that house really a brothel?" the boy wonders, retreating from an open door and the painted face of "a young woman with tousled hair … What would it be like with her?" he wonders further, later whispering to himself the chastening words of St. Ignatius on the subject of mortal sin. But we stand always a little outside of this confusion, kept deliberately out by the poetic cadence and elevation of the writing, as in the following conclusion to the chapter called "Brothel":
And still the vision of that young woman drifted there, vague one moment, the next vivid, reaching for me, unloosing the clasp of her skirt that rustled down as I leapt back and came forward, blurring inwardly, making my election.
More important than the boy's perspective is his working-class background, however little Deane wishes to make it an issue. There are, in this world, few places to hide from the indignities that the boy comes to expect. The occasional beatings or taunts administered by local policemen are matched by the assaults of street gangs and the bruising insults of others alert to every prospect of inflicting abuse. Growing up among unsophisticated persons nursing their own memories of want and hurt, the boy has little chance of escaping the vindictive parochialism of his community. Sometimes, in Deane's world, it seems that the worst thing a decent person can do is to talk to a policeman, as if to do so were to sell one's soul to the devil.
As in other Irish works focused on betrayal, the central term in the lexicon of abuse here is "informer." To inform is to forfeit any semblance of self-respect and to sever irreparably one's ties to the community. Forgivable in principle, the informer is in practice regarded as grotesque and out of bounds. When the father utters, about a member of his own family, the words "he was an informer," the son can only beg him to unsay them. "Say nothing," he repeats to himself. "Never say. Never say," Members of families thought to have contained an informer are tainted, carry a curse and may expect at any time to be punished for the unhappiness that has befallen them. To marry into such a family is not only ill-advised, it is a breaking of "sacred laws."
Like everything else in Deane's world, his people may regret certain attitudes and practices regarding informers, but the attitudes are too deeply rooted to deplore or to reform. When the boy finds himself suspected of informing on a few street toughs who had intended to rough him up, he finds no support, even within his own family. Never mind that he gave no information to the policemen who questioned him. Never mind that no movement or organization was at stake, no oath violated. "Have you no self-respect, no pride?" screams his mother.
"Thank God my father's too ill to hear about this—the shame alone would finish him. A grandson of his going to the police!"
"I didn't go to the police. I threw a stone at them."
"Same thing in the circumstances…."
Nor is the usually more generous father more understanding. "Why didn't I take a few punches …? Didn't I know what sort of people the police were? Had I no guts, no sense, no savvy, no shame?" Tempted to mark up the entire demand system of the community to "stupidity," the boy concludes that his father and all the others are "right" but "wrong too." To live in such a place, it seems, is to accept that wisdom consists in learning to tolerate what in any case will not change. If it is stupid to be battered for no good reason, and stupid to regard as "informing" what is no such thing, and stupid to live perpetually in fear of disapproval by persons who are ignorant and malicious, it is also stupid to pretend that one can get along in such a place without making substantial concessions to the reigning shibboleths and expectations.
Of course, Reading in the Dark is a novel. What would seem contradiction in another genre is here variousness and complexity. Deane need not tell us that he disapproves of much that passes for the facts of life in Derry for us to grasp their awfulness and their sometimes terrible vitality. And, for all the stubborn blindness in many of Deane's characters, there is a tenacity that can seem almost wonderful. The situation of Northern Ireland, discernible here only in fragments, allows for a complicated communal life, however crippling its myths. Deane's novel is driven by an impressive power of remembrance, and by a conviction that the proper business of the novelist is to make ordinary lives in their own way eventful, so that possibility exists even where fatality reigns.
SOURCE: "Two Novels Look at Life in Northern Ireland," in Chicago Tribune Books, June 8, 1997, p. 8.
[In the following review, McGonigle commends the narration of Reading in the Dark.]
The North, Northern Ireland, Ulster, The Six Counties. How you name that part of Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom reveals your politics, religion and attitude toward what has been going on there since 1968 and, of course, how you think about the 800-year entanglement of Ireland and England.
There is no neutrality when it comes to this situation, and if I write about Seamus Deane's autobiographically driven novel, Reading in the Dark, as being a tremendously moving depiction of a sensitive Catholic boy's growing up in Derry, I have already given myself over to the Nationalist Republican side of the argument, because no Protestant, no Loyalist would ever refer to the city of Derry as anything but Londonderry. Such scrupulosity on my part might seem excessive, but it echoes that of Deane, one of those Irish writers who is engaged in the long project of trying to precisely and coldly define what it means to be Irish, thus freeing Irish men and women from the encrusting sentimentality that attaches itself to every aspect of Irish life.
Lois Gould's novel No Brakes, while outwardly a worldly wise and hip romp of a mock thriller set during a three day vintage car rally in Northern Ireland within the last few years of The Troubles is actually of a much older tradition in Irish life: A foreign writer goes to Ireland and by opportunistically setting a novel there is able to carry on about how the Irish are peculiar and picaresque, the very notion contemporary Irish writers such as Aldan Higgins, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Francis Stuart and Deane himself have been trying to dispel.
A terrible family secret—one that is both public and private and that involves the Irish Republican Army—is at the heart of Reading in the Dark. Despite the skill with which Deane constructs the unfolding of the secret, the reader is far more impressed by the mind of the unnamed narrator, which remains as an exemplar of measured reflection and admirable reticence.
Tracing what it was like to be an intelligent boy in Derry from 1945 until the late 1950s, Deane avoids every cliche of what is often presented as Irish life. There is a complexity to the family life and an acceptance of the ordinary pain that that entails—agonizing illness, death and the slow, sure withering of age.
Like an alcoholic who never forgets his first drink, the bookish narrator has not forgotten the experience and consequences of reading, in the dark, his first novel, The Shan Van Vocht, a highly romantic story set during the rebellion of 1798. Later in school, the narrator's English teacher reads a simple, descriptive, model essay about ordinary country life, and the narrator remembers:
I felt embarrassed because my own essay had been full of long and strange words I had found in the dictionary—'cerulean,' 'azure,' 'phantasm' and 'implacable'—all of them describing skies and seas I had seen only with the Ann of the novel. I'd never thought such stuff was worth writing about. It was ordinary life—no rebellions or love affairs or dangerous flights across the hills at night. And yet I kept remembering that mother and son waiting in the Dutch interior of that essay, with the jug of milk and the butter on the table, while behind and above them were those wispy, shawly figures from the rebellion, sibilant above the great fire and below the aching, high wind.
… Reading in the Dark is proof that it is still possible to find words to precisely language ordinary human life, a heroic act in this degraded moment of human history.
SOURCE: "Violent Griefs and Seductive Hopes," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 14, September 8, 1997, pp. 16-17.
[In the following review, Conlon compares the autobiographical elements of Reading in the Dark to those of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, finding Deane's novel representative of a more general Irish identity than McCourt's.]
The word "mystery" derives from a Greek term for someone who kept his mouth shut: an initiate into the sacred rites and transcendent experiences of the ancient world. To outsiders, such individuals were distinguished by their refusal to speak of their secrets. So a mystery became what we don't understand, whether in the secular realm or the holy. Both are explored in Reading in the Dark a first novel about an Irish childhood by the eminent scholar and critic Seamus Deane.
As with many first novels, generous helpings of autobiographical material not only lend an emotional warmth and weight to Deane's book but invite speculation concerning its degree of factual content. This being the case, it may be read as a kind of fraternal twin to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, a memoir, for all its awful and hilarious candor, related with the somewhat suspect panache of the raconteur. The two authors have had long careers as teachers. Their successes with the general reader have been late (Dean is almost 60 years old, and McCourt is over 60) and sudden: Angela's Ashes is a bestseller; Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. And the stories have obvious commonalities beginning with their hoarily familiar backdrops (church and pub in one, church and the Irish Republican Army in the other). In each, the shapeliness of fiction and the rude force of fact combine to potent effect.
Yet McCourt's memoir about the viciously circular odyssey of his early life in the slums of Brooklyn and Limerick has the feel of singularity. His family was dysfunctional in a way that goes beyond jargon (it could not even feed its children). His chronicle is about the exceptional, about failure and misfortune and survival that are extraordinary, and largely self-wrought. Its terrors and delights have the consoling remoteness of legend. A progressive might argue that the lack of condoms, penicillin and Alcoholics Anonymous is all that stood between the McCourts and stability, but the book exhibits a surpassing conviction that character and fate were the true agents of destiny for them. Angela's Ashes is bardic and vaudevillian, stage Irish in both senses, recalling Brendan Behan and J. P. Donleavy as much as Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris.
Deane's nameless narrator on the other hand, is the transparently ordinary every child of literature, a watcher and listener, self-revealing primarily through and against his revelations of others. His is the story of stories: of history, of ghosts and of family secrets. It covers the public epic of the Irish struggle, with its slogans and rebel songs, and the profoundly articulate silences of a family whose martyrs and traitors evade easy judgment. The tales are not so much what you tell, or what you do; they define who you are.
Deane was born in Derry in 1940, a period of orderly oppression between the civil wars of his parents' generation and the continuing Troubles. His narrator's coming of age is ironically undercut by the recognition that progress, personal or national, is both an honorable ambition and a fool's desire. The forward march of time brings less the liberation of adulthood than a deepening immersion into a "haunted forever." The border between past and present and between good people and bad, seems as arbitrary and penetrable as that between the Irish Republic and the North. What happened to the McCourts happened only to the McCourts but what happens to the characters in Deane's book happens to everyone in the neighborhood, and keeps on happening
Reading in the Dark gathers little episodes as if they were tiles in a mosaic to create an image of a child's life in a family and a country where division is the norm. But for Deane the opposition of Catholic and Protestant is less significant, and less interesting, than the tensions between for-giveness and forgetting, memory and myth. The narrator's family is working class, Catholic, large and loving, a sturdy vessel seemingly able to withstand the upsets and losses they encounter.
The disappearance of two uncles—his father's brother, his mother's sister's husband—adds a note of color and mystery to family conversations, but to him as a child the vanished uncles are quaintly folkloric figures. The similarity of their supposed exits (both are suspected of having gone to Chicago) foreshadows a link between their fates, as well as a failure of the imagination on his parents' part, and perhaps the failure of stories themselves as a power to explain and protect, tame and pay tribute to an unruly past. Something has to face the past, and since it can't be the family. the stories must try. As Deane has written of Seamus Heaney, "writing has itself become a form of guilt and a form of expiation from it."
The narrator learns as he grows older not only what his parents sought to keep from him but what they kept from each other, out of kindness and guilt, and the potency and terrible burden of secrets that travel through generations like a curse. Deane describes their toll on his mother with heartbreaking tact: "She cried for weeks, then months. A summer passed in a nausea of light, and we took turns at the cooking and shopping…." His mother observes, when she later recovers, that "people in small places make big mistakes. Not bigger than the mistakes of other people. But there is less room for big mistakes in small places."
There are wonderful set pieces of familiar scenes, like the narrator's sit-down with a priest to learn the facts of life. It begins with the metaphysical preamble ("First, the life-is-a-mystery bit …") and moves on to the anatomical particulars, leaving him to wonder: "Do you have to know Latin to do this? Does He say to Her, 'Here you are. This is from the Latin for throw or send.'" Typical boy and archetypal moment are rendered with an unforced freshness that rescues the scene from cliché: "What I had heard was certainly improbable. It sounded like a feat of precision engineering, one which I couldn't associate with what the church called lust, which seemed wild, fierce, devil-may-care, like eating and drinking together while dancing to music on the top of the table." The book has many similar moments of quiet comedy and casual poetry that heighten and relieve the dark drama of historical reckoning.
They are also essential because the mystery in the plot, although highly satisfying, is unpacked a little too soon and a little too neatly; the narrator still has to tug at loose ends after the curtain has already been torn open. Eventually, it becomes clear that for the author the mystery of what happened is secondary, subsumed by the mystery of why it did. We never get more than a partial explanation, but this must suffice: It allows the truthful stories and the useful, protective ones to compete in shaping a past that has a defining grasp on the present.
Deane is persuaded that being Irish is a very specific way of being human, one that permits the determined to have the last laugh, no matter who the joke is on. For him the question is less whether Ireland will ever be free than whether the Irish will be free of Ireland, with its violent hopes and seductive griefs. Reading in the Dark's answer, in its confession of sins, betrayal of secrets and outpouring of songs, is—not so sadly—that no one can say yet.
SOURCE: "Tradition and Modernity," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1997, p. 21.
[In the following review, Hughes addresses the ambiguities he finds in Deane's definition of modernity in Strange Country.]
Taking Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France as his "foundational text," Seamus Deane examines the "contrast and contest between tradition and modernity" which extends through and beyond the Irish nineteenth century. This discourse appears in a number of oppositional pairings—culture and economics, the national and the rational, speech and print, Ireland and England—and issues in the nineteenth century in "a narrative of strangeness" about Ireland because Ireland cannot be absorbed into a normalising narrative of progress and economic development.
Moving from Burke to Flann O'Brien, Deane's concern is with the way in which writers have negotiated between oppositions with the aim of destabilizing stereotypical ascriptions. The theoretical co-ordinates of Strange Country are, then, broadly deconstructive with a Foucaultian sense of discourse as a series of negotiations rather than a stable position. Thus Burke's defence of tradition is part of the anti-revolutionary thrust of his work, and yet, with regard to Ireland, that defence of tradition becomes revolutionary. Thus, Ireland's "strangeness" is both a cause and an effect of the way in which it is treated by Britain and can then be taken as both a sign of dependency by the English and as a sign of independence by the Irish nationalist. Either way it remains discursively locked in.
Deane pursues his argument through a variety of authors, texts and topics stretching from Edgeworth to Flann O'Brien and taking in inter alia Mangan, Mitchel, Yeats's "The Second Coming," Synge's Playboy, Irish typefaces and revisionism. Deane, it goes without saying, is a powerful and shrewd critic with whom it is at times a pleasure to agree, and an equal pleasure to disagree when in the face of his persuasive power one is forced to rethink. His readings, to take just a few examples, of Mangan, of Yeats's "The Second Coming" and of Flann O'Brien are therefore all to be recommended.
Of the questions that the book raises, Deane's own position is probably the most important, partly because the broadly deconstructive force of the book is destabilizing of position and partly because of its lack of acknowledgement that it participates in the very discourses which it addresses. As a lecture series the book emerges from speech into print. Deane is in the position of the rational intellectual translating the strangeness of Ireland to an English audience; and finally he is just as much subject to his question about whether an impartial spectator position is available as the revisionist historians he attacks in the final pages.
Now, I am not asking for Deane to have produced a set of lectures which took their own form and occasion as their subject matter but this absence of self-reflexivity is of a piece with the absence of definitions of the key terms of the book. To understand Deane's position we need to understand how he defines tradition and modernity. In regard to the former, Deane seems to accept Burke's sense of tradition, especially as his definition of a "foundational text" ("one that allows … for a reading of a national literature in such a manner that even chronologically prior texts can be annexed by it into a narrative that will ascribe to them a preparatory role in the ultimate completion of that narrative's plot") is so reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's definition of "tradition." But if Deane accepts Burkean "tradition," there is a curious lack of definition of "modernity."
Deane is right that we need to be wary of accepting modernity uncritically, but that wariness needs to be informed. "Modernity" for Deane is associated with global capital and distinct from modernism and modernization, but these implicit definitions beg numerous questions. Is nationalism to be seen (as has traditionally been the case) as anti-modern, or as itself part of modernity; Benedict Anderson's association of nationalism with the technologies of print and time defines nationalism as a phenomenon of modernity which asserts a claim to be traditional. Does "modernity" have an aesthetic aspect; if so then what Deane has to say about the difficulties of representing Ireland may be better understood not as difficulties with existing representational modes but as modern forms of representation.
Alternatively, modernity may take in issues such as migration and urbanization about which Deane has only passing comments to make. Then again modernity may be understood in its industrial, scientific and technological aspects, about which Deane is again silent. 1916 provides a moment at which these various aspects of modernity all occur. This is the year of book publication of A Portrait; the year of both the Easter Rising and the Somme; and the year in which Ireland adopted Greenwich Mean Time partly, at least, for the convenience of modern transport systems. At the end of reading Strange Country I know that I am to be wary of modernity, but which of its aspects I should be particularly wary of I am not sure.
I cannot therefore escape the sense that at some level Deane is himself a Burkean, concerned to maintain tradition as both concept and practice, in the face of a modernity which he still (however much he protests and deconstructs it) sees as somehow English. Certainly this would explain the puzzling absence of Shaw's John Bull's Other Island which explores exactly the same range of issues, stereotypes and ambiguities which make up Deane's discursive archive. Similarly, Deane's reading of Synge's Playboy is traditionalist; his sympathies are clearly with Christy whose "language of heroic solitude" he reads the play as celebrating.
Pegeen is then an anachronism confined to the zone of the sexual; but isn't hers the true language of heroic solitude within the play? Aren't her final grief-stricken words only an acknowledgement of the consequences of her opening words, spoken as she writes them in a letter, thereby connecting herself to the modern world of print and postal systems? She is the modern hero who having lost the traditional past must face into an unknowable future.
For all of its power in addressing the ambiguities of Ireland and in deconstructing stereotypes Strange Country is an oddly stifling book, buried under the weight of collapsing polarities with no way out. Modernity is not only about losing the past; it is also about losing any secure sense of the future. Traditional societies have a firm idea of what the future will hold because the future is for them always already prefigured within the past. Robbed of tradition by progress such societies now have no such prefigured future but rather must face the condition of futurity. This can be contrasted with Deane's interesting passages on boredom which relate back to his Foucaultian and deconstructive models in which everything always already is; futurity as promised by the modern is the sense that something else will be. He approaches this in his reading of Yeats's "The Second Coming," but seems to me to fail to realise that Yeats's desire for apocalypse is tempered by a sense that the future is unpredictable that it is the future which is the truly strange country.
SOURCE: A review of Reading in the Dark, in America, Vol. 177, No. 10, October 11, 1997, p. 28.
[In the following review, Deignan considers the thematic relations of the title of Reading in the Dark, noting the influence of Deane's poetic skills on his narrative technique.]
Set in post-World War II Northern Ireland, Seamus Deane's debut novel, Reading in the Dark is a panoramic story of—what else?—family ties and political trauma. But more unusual than the novel's subject matter is the talent Deane, a Notre Dame professor and Derry native, brings to his task. Narrated by a nameless boy-turned-man, Reading in the Dark moves seamlessly from 1945 to 1971 through a series of highly poetic vignettes, stories and memories, introducing along the way a mysterious uncle who may have informed on his I.R.A.-connected relatives, a dying grandfather who may have ordered the uncle's execution and a tortured mother and father torn between illusion and reality, neither of which provides comfort or stability.
Following a youth spent learning to pronounce the names of the diseases that regularly befall family and friends, Deane's narrator grows up near Lorne Moor Road in Derry, a "city of bonfires." Without once mentioning his age, Deane portrays his narrator's maturation skillfully, his slow but sure comprehension of the myriad complexities and blunt truths of Catholic family life in Northern Ireland—the mythic landscape, the borderline poverty and the personalized politics. While mastering the unwritten codes that govern public life in the North for a Catholic "marked family," the narrator also begins to grasp the more intimate problems under his own roof. "So broken was my father's family," he comments, "that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire."
Deane also hints at a (likely autobiographical) burgeoning interest in books and ideas. "For Christ's sake," the narrator's brother yells one night, "put off that light. You're not even reading, you blank gom." Of course, the narrator was reading, but of course he must also put out the light, "and lie there, the book still open, re-imagining all that I had read, the various ways the plot might unravel, the novel opening into endless possibilities in the dark." This is the strongest allusion Deane makes to the novel's title, but it is only one of many. Early on, Deane firmly establishes the themes and imagery that are the sturdy spine of this novel: darkness and light, illumination and ignorance, the dual nature of heat and fire, which can comfort but also burn and kill. The book's title, in this sense, becomes a metaphor for growing up and groping for certainty in this troubled, opaque landscape.
Deane also dips deeply into the timeless pool of Irish folklore, which also mystifies and unnerves his narrator. In one quiet, charged scene, the narrator and his brother are shown the "Field of the Disappeared" by their father, where "the souls of all those from the area who had disappeared, or had never had a Christian burial … collected three or four times a year—on St. Brigid's Day, on the festival of Samhain, on Christmas Day—to cry like birds and look down on the fields where they had been born. Any human who entered the field would suffer the same fate."
The narrator cannot resist approaching the field, drawing a stern warning from his father. "I don't believe all that," the narrator counters. But the daunting landscape is clearly as intimidating as it is alluring to him, as is evident in Deane's evocative prose.
This also reflects a larger theme pursued by Deane-the dual nature of existence. The life experience that comes with age is coveted, but also feared, since revelations can scar a life forever. In this sense, Reading in the Dark is a human detective story, as Deane's narrator stitches together hints and clues on his way to constructing some sort of tattered personal history. Learning what lies in the far reaches of one's family—as with one's country—is a necessity, but a frightening one, a process approached with equal doses of restlessness and regret.
Deane, who has written three short works of literary criticism (including the valuable A Short History of Irish Literature), has also published four books of poetry, a fact evident in his lush prose and sharp descriptions—there is "exploding whiskey," and the narrator's sister, coughing up blood, sounds like a "fox barking." That Deane can use such a fractured, poetic form to tell a story so lucidly, is a testament to the fact that Reading in the Dark marks the arrival of yet another talented Irish writer of fiction.
SOURCE: "Family Secrets," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 16, October 23, 1997, pp. 54-5.
[In the following review, Flanagan establishes the literary and cultural contexts of Reading in the Dark, comparing the novel to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and providing a historical background to Derry and its environs.]
On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.
It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory. Eleven steps took you to the turn of the stairs where the cathedral and the sky always hung in the window frame. Three more steps took you on to the landing, about six feet long.
"Don't move," my mother said from the landing. "Don't cross that window."
I was on the tenth step, she was on the landing. I could have touched her. "There's something between us. A shadow. Don't move."
I had no intention. I was enthralled. But I could see no shadow.
"There's somebody there. Somebody unhappy. Go back down the stairs, son."
I retreated one step. "How'll you get down?"
"I'll stay a while and it will go away."
The opening page of Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark suggests, in its deliberate spareness, qualities which in the unfolding will more fully reveal themselves. It is a childhood experience, but the voice speaking across the years is poised and literary—"a plain silence," "the look of a faint memory." We learn that it is a working-class house—the staircase brief, the lino pattern rubbed away. It is a house across which shadows fall that may be supernatural visitants. This is a culture, we soon learn, in which spirits are given a half-credulous, half-skeptical acceptance. "People with green eyes were close to the fairies, we were told; they were just there for a little while, looking for a human child they could take away."
The novel's short, crisp chapters, carefully dated and intricately linked by image, carry the narrator from childhood, in 1945, to the beginning phases, in 1968, of Northern Ireland's most recent troubles. By then, what had earlier seemed emanations from another world have resolved themselves—perhaps too neatly—into occurrences of another kind, natural but just as sinister as menacing to the minds of the living. Near the novel's close, brusquely and almost as afterthought, the "Troubles" as we have known them from headlines and television enter the story: "We choked on CS gas fired by the army, saw or heard the explosions, the gunfire, the riots moving in close with their scrambled noises of glass breaking, flashing petrol-bombs, isolated shouts turning to a prolonged baying and the drilled smashing of batons on riot shields." But it is not afterthought. Reading in the Dark, as might have been expected of its author, is a book centrally and subtly historical and political, and offers evidence that, at least in Northern Ireland, the political and the private are bound together.
This is his first novel, but Seamus Deane, who was a schoolmate in Derry City of Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel, has long been established as one of Ireland's most challenging literary critics. His criticism, whether of literature or of public life, is acerb, shrewd, independent, and enlivened by a brisk and not always genial wit. In Ireland's always-lively culture wars, a significant event was the publication, in 1977, of "Literary Myths of the Revival," his sardonic demythologizing of the movement led by Lady Gregory, Synge, and, first and foremost, Yeats: "Yeats had demonstrated throughout his long career that the conversion of politics and history into aesthetics carries with it the obligation to despise the modern world and seek refuge from it." His harsh strictures are not entirely palliated by his deep responsiveness to the beauty of Yeats's verse. Deane himself is an exact and probing poet, angular and lean. Reading in the Dark has been long in gestation and execution, and bears the marks of this: it is polished, adroit, and deeply disturbing.
For one thing, it deliberately subverts two modes of fiction. One is formed by the novels—so numerous as almost to constitute a genre—that have sought to express the atmosphere and terrors, the emotional scars, the crippled lives, which constitute a portion of life in present-day Northern Ireland. Deane's novel, set in the decades before the present troubles and convincingly displayed as their inevitable prelude, quietly establishes a historical perspective lacking in most of those novels. And Deane stands apart from these writers in a second way: his identification with his nationalist community is guarded from sentimentality by the formal severities of his structure and language.
The other mode, the Bildungsroman, has as its great Irish instance Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is a central text for modern Irish literature, and Deane plays off it, sometimes for comic purposes, and at other times to mark the distance between Stephen Dedalus and his own unnamed narrator. (Almost nameless: by detective work one discovers that he is named Seamus Greene.)
Three of Deane's chapters ("The Facts of Life," "Retreat," "Religious Knowledge") deliberately and almost jokingly echo Joyce's in setting and even in imagery. Deane's narrator is in a Christian Brothers school in Derry, and Stephen far to the south, first at an elite Jesuit boarding school and then in the clerically dominated Royal University, but they have similar encounters with the clergy. Stephen is summoned to the room of the Dean of Studies, who is having trouble with his fire; Deane's narrator is summoned to the room of his Spiritual Director, who has a fire blazing even though it is a warm day. In each novel, the fire is given a little useful life of its own. Deane's encounters, though, allowing for the element of parody, itself a Joycean technique, possess a warm-blooded humor far removed from Stephen's Byronism and Joyce's icy distance from his protagonist.
A Portrait, with its suavities and ambiguities, expresses the progressively more severe separation of Stephen Dedalus from his culture. "When the soul of a man is born in this country," Stephen tells his nationalist friend Davin, "there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets." As Deane has written elsewhere. Stephen supplants the language of the tribe with his own, so that the subject of the book becomes its author.
In that light, the novel is a series of carefully orchestrated quotations, through which we see a young mind coming to grips with his world through an increasing mastery of language. Further, we recognize that this is a moral not merely a formal achievement.
In one of the diary entries, theatrical and faintly ambiguous, which bring the Portrait to its close. Stephen writes: "Mother is putting my new second-hand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels."
The mother's prayers in Deane's novel arise from her perception of a guilt which cannot be lifted. His is a close, warm family, despite crippling strains that are nursed in bitter silence, in partial truths and half-revelations, in multiple misunderstandings of what lies in the past.
I felt it was almost a mercy when my mother suffered a stroke and lost the power of speech, just as the Troubles came in October 1968. I would look at her, sealed in her silence, and now she would smile slightly at me and very gently, almost imperceptibly, shake her head. I was to seal it all in too. Now we could love each other, at last, I imagined.
It is a family that is close even as it shatters.
For the mother, the shadow at the window has several identities, but chiefly it is that of her husband's brother Eddie, who disappeared in the April of 1922, after a big shoot-out at a local distillery between the IRA and the police. By some accounts, he fell into one of the exploding vats of whiskey when the burning roof collapsed. But rumors have placed him abroad, in Chicago or in Melbourne. One winter's day, the boy overhears the matter discussed as his father and his mother's brothers repair the boiler in his small house. Eddie's story blends in with other tales of disappearances, returns from the dead, exorcisms.
We are given no direct historical information, and are expected to know that 1922 was a crucial time in the history of Northern Ireland—was in fact the time that marked its creation as a political entity. The Black-and-Tan war against England had ended in a treaty, of which the most disastrous consequence was the partition of the island, with Ulster's Catholics hived off into what would in short order become a police state, in which they were bullied and severely discriminated against by an armed Protestant majority. The conflict had dark, tangled roots stretching back into earlier centuries, but now it was to bear poisonous fruit. The new statelet, memorably described by one of its prime ministers as "a Protestant state for a Protestant people," kept a vigilant control over its minority, within which a few—the IRA—attempted from time to time a futile armed resistance. The others kept their sullen, sardonic distance from a state whose very reason for existence would have made ineffective and humiliating any vow of allegiance.
The economy bore down heavily upon Catholics. The narrator's father is an electrician's helper who, when times are good, works at the British naval base: "going out foreign," it is called. His Aunt Katie works in the shirt factory, the traditional women's job, from which the women stream home, "arms linked, so much more brightly dressed, so much more talkative than the men, most of whom stood at the street corners." The neighborhood police informer, Fogey McKeever, is "a young, open-faced man of twenty or so with a bright smile and wide-spaced, rounded eyes." It is Fogey whose information sends into the narrator's house the RUC men who beat up the father and his sons. And he is far from being the novel's only informer: this is a police culture in which informers thrive.
For the Catholics, there are two spiritual resources—the Catholic Church and the neighboring county of Donegal. The city of Derry (which British cartographers insist on calling Londonderry) is separated from the rest of its county by the River Foyle, which empties into a great lough and thence into the Atlantic. It is embedded into the flank of County Donegal, which politically is not part of Northern Ireland at all but rather is the northernmost part of the Republic of Ireland (or, as it is known in the north, the Free State). It is a great, mountainous, sea-girt reservoir of what remains of Ireland's Gaelic life. Both sides of the narrator's family came into Derry City from Donegal, carrying with them songs, folk beliefs, tales of fairies and revenants, music, the memory of dark, unspoken betrayals. Donegal is a repository, also, of the Irish language, of which the parents can recall only school-learned rudiments. Later, when the narrator thinks he knows the family's secrets, he writes them out, for his own satisfaction, in Irish. The parents cannot understand this account of their own secrets when he reads it out to them.
Near a lost farmhouse in Donegal lies "the field of the disappeared," where the souls of those who never had Christian burial return on Saint Brigid's day and on the festival of Samhain, "to cry like birds and look down on the fields where they had been born." On a high hill commanding both Fough Foyle and Lough Swilly stands the Grianan of Aileach, an ancient and enormous stone fort, built, tradition holds, by the ancient gods, but more likely in some early Christian century. The Fianna, Ireland's heroic warriors, lie sleeping below, waiting for the special person who will rouse them to make final war on the English. All this lies a day's walk from Derry City, behind its border. It has always offered easy refuge for rebels on the run. Early on in the novel, alone or on visits to his ancestral Donegal with friends, the narrator encounters them all—the ruined farm, the field of the disappeared, the fortress. By the close of the novel, he has unriddled their meanings in the life of his family. They have held, for the narrator at least, the unwinding and ironical mysteries of what happened to Eddie, the IRA uncle, in 1922.
The Catholic Church plays a pervasive and deeply ambiguous part within this subjugated Derry culture. It shares with its people a sense of injustice and a conviction that beyond the borders of the United Kingdom it is recognized as the true church. But the priests, negotiating with the governing power, are complicitous with it. Brother Regan, delivering the Christmas address in primary school, counsels the boys in acceptance and inner peace as they prepare for a world of "wrong, injury, insult and unemployment, a world where the unjust hold power and the ignorant rule." Sergeant Burke of the Lecky Road barracks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, brutal by profession and an associate of the policemen who beat up the narrator and his father, is himself a Catholic. When he dies in bed, his priest-sons concelebrate the Requiem Mass. It is attended by the Bishop. "'How dare he do that,' hissed my mother." But it is received wisdom that "the police and the priests were always in cahoots," a knowledge that cohabits easily with a deeply held Catholic faith.
In 1957, at the height of the cold war, the boys at secondary school are addressed by a priest, a chaplain in British army uniform, who has been sent by the government's Ministry of Education. He reminds them that Derry, a naval port, is "part of the Western world's preparations for the defeat of the international Communist threat,… a battle of cold atheism against the genial warmth of that Christian faith that has lit so many Irish hearts down the centuries. Our internal disputes are no more than family quarrels, local troubles, transient divisions." This inspired chain of cold war platitudes runs on through long paragraphs, reminding us, and perhaps by Deane's intention, of the famous sermons on Hell in A Portrait.
Next day, in history class. Father McAuley reveals to the boys that this was no true Catholic priest, but a class of English heretic called Anglo-Catholic. Nevertheless McAuley is at one with him, sharing a global vision which looks beyond troubles in "our little streets toward the approaching world conflict." Outside the classroom, the narrator's tough chum, Irwin, clarifies matters as seen from those streets: "Propaganda. That's all that is. First, it's the Germans. Then it's the Russians. Always, it's the IRA. What have the Germans or Russians to do with us? It's the British who are the problem for us. McAuley's a moron."
The British officer concealed in priestly robes is an old theme, running from the rebel ballad of 1798 to the pyrotechnic of Ulysses. Ben Dolland, in Ulysses, sings the ballad: "The false priest rustling soldier from his cassock. A yeoman captain." And Bloom reflects: "They know it all by heart. The thrill they itch for." But of all the traditional themes which this novel touches upon, one dominates over all the others, and sets the key for both the theme and the music.
A pair of contrasting icons can be used in a rough-and-ready way to separate out two shaping motifs of the Irish novel—the Ruined Big House and the Informer. Deane himself has written of the former: "The Big House surrounded by the unruly tenantry. Culture besieged by barbarity, a refined aristocracy beset by a vulgar middle class—all of these are recurrent images in twentieth-century Irish fiction, which draws heavily upon Yeats's poetry for them." In fact, this specifically Anglo-Irish tradition stretches back far beyond Yeats to the very first novel of Irish life, Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent in 1800. The Protestant Ascendancy, in a move that would have won Faulkner's admiration, began to mourn its own passing when it was at the very height of its political, economic, and cultural power. And thus forward through the Victorian Charles Lever and the Edwardian Somerville and Ross into our own times, with the derelict gardens and gates, the burned-out big houses of Elizabeth Bowen and Jennifer Johnston.
The Informer, who betrays to the conqueror the secrets of a submerged people is the theme that runs through the songs, legends, history, art, even the folk beliefs of that "other" Ireland from which Deane comes. The hulking shadow of a drunken and remorseful Victor McLaglen, flung across rain-glistening Dublin slum walls, falls from John Ford's The Informer into the dark bog of the Irish past. "The indispensible informer," so the incorrigible Stephen Dedalus calls the breed.
Reading in the Dark dramatizes the shattering consequences for a family of informing, suspicions of informing, constructions of the past by which a supposed informer's face, pressed against window glass, carries to the generations of a family the conviction of tangled sins against the heart of a community. Near the beginning of the book, the narrator discovers that Eddie may not have died in the 1922 shoot-out, or vanished into Chicago or Melbourne. More probably, he was killed as an informer, and upon orders of the narrator's grandfather, an old Republican stalwart. But only a part of this is true: truth, the narrator discovers as he grows up and goes off to the university, is complex and twists back upon itself. Just possibly, it may at last become fully known, but it can never be fully communicated.
One can only read Deane's fine novel with admiration. It has much to say about families, about a beleaguered but tenacious culture, about a compulsion to unravel the riddles and misheard language of the past and the pain which this can engender. And it does so with a skillfulness which never diminishes its emotional power. One's only reservation has to do with its very skillfulness. Everything in the book, everything, is put to work as symbol, from a cathedral framed by a window to a Chekhovian German pistol to the tinted darkness of a church interior. But this may be what happens when poets write novels. And it is this heavy structuring by images that allows the book its triumph, which is to impose order and the loveliness of meaning upon disorder and violence.