“So broken was my father’s family, 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 … I felt we lived in an empty space with a long cry from him ramifying through it. At other times, it appeared to be as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it.”
That’s the voice of the narrator in Seamus Deane’s Booker-shortlisted first novel Reading in the Dark: A Novel, published when Deane was 57 (this fact gives me hope).
Seamus Deane, a Catholic poet and novelist, was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, on this day. (He died in 2021 at the age of 81.) He was good friends with the OTHER Seamus. Deane was born into the thick of politics in Northern Ireland. He was a poet and critic and editor for years, and is one of the world’s pre-eminent Joyce scholars. His first novel, Reading in the Dark, was published to almost universal acclaim, and no wonder. It is a haunted story about Northern Ireland, as filtered through a young boy’s vivid mind. Tough and well-trod terrain. Perhaps because he understands his influences so well, having incorporated them so much into the whole of his work, he doesn’t suffer from intimidation (something I have written about before). He didn’t feel he needed to re-invent the wheel, or somehow push Joyce to the side – a problem many Irish writer faces, male or female (but mostly male). Especially writers who attempt to write about male childhood, which Joyce pretty much owns. Deane didn’t let Joyce silence him. I really like Andrew O’Hehir’s words in his review in Salon (link no longer works, damn the Internet, but I’ve saved some excerpts):
But there’s a sense in which Deane is ideally positioned to tackle Joyce on the great modernist’s home ground. For one thing, Deane couldn’t conceal his debt to the Irish literary colossus if he tried; Deane is one of the academic world’s leading Joyceans, and even edited the Penguin edition of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” For another, he has grown old enough to lose the fear of Joyce all young Irish writers must feel, old enough to write a very different kind of autobiographical novel.
Deane’s book is the warmly compassionate, painstakingly gorgeous work of a mature man who wishes to memorialize the dead without yielding to sentimentality; Joyce’s is a younger man’s literary tour de force, intensely self-involved, concerned above all else with the interior world of a consciousness coming to fruition. Stephen Dedalus’ creator believed that Ireland’s three bonds — family, nation, church — were imprisoning him like a seabird in a cage. Seamus Deane understands that Ireland’s endless ability to spin stories, to tell lies, to make tragedy into comedy and history into drama, is its all-in-all, both the prison and the key.
Deane’s vast perspective of history saved him from jingoism, although he was a patriot. But he can’t help but ponder how badly things usually work out, especially for nationalist causes, and why should Ireland be any different? This troubled him. Reading in the Dark is all about that, and it was published smack-dab in the middle of the hope-filled “peace process” in Northern Ireland. Deane didn’t say what people wanted to hear in the moment. He saw the present-day hope, and he couldn’t help but look back on the times when similar statements were made by similar types, followed by another round of disaster and betrayal. I like hope without optimism. lol Pessimism is helpful. Not fatalism. More like realism. We need pessimists. We need realists. Deane was a realist.
Along these lines: the following poem shows Deane’s pessimistic side as well as the scope of his vision. One can feel the budding novelist here. “Coals ripening in a light white as vodka” … isn’t that good?
for Ronan Sheehan and Richard Kearney
‘The proud and beautiful city of Moscow
Is no more.’ So wrote Napoleon to the Czar.
It was a November morning when we came
On this. I remember the football pitches
Beyond, stretched into wrinkles by the frost.
Someone was running across them, late for school,
His clothes scattered open by the wind.
Outside Moscow we had seen
A Napoleonic, then a Hitlerite dream
Aborted. The firegold city was burning
In the Kremlin domes, a sabred Wehrmacht
Lay opened to the bone, churches were ashen
Until heretics restored their colour
And their stone. Still that boy was running.
Fragrance of Christ, as in the whitethorn
Brightening through Lent, the stricken aroma
Of the Czars in ambered silence near Pavlovsk,
The smoking gold of icons at Zagorsk,
And this coal-smoke in the sunlight
Stealing over frost, houses huddled up in
Droves, deep drifts of lost
People. This was history, although the State
Exam confined Ireland to Grattan and allowed
Us roam from London to Moscow. I brought
Black gladioli bulbs from Samarkand
To flourish like omens in our cooler air;
Coals ripening in a light white as vodka.
Elections, hunger-strikes and shots
Greeted our return. Houses broke open
In the season’s heat and the bulbs
Burned in the ground. Men on ladders
Climbed into roselight, a roof was a swarm of fireflies
At dusk. The city is no more. The lesson’s learned.
I will remember it always as a burning
In the heart of winter and a boy running.
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