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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The final haunting moments of Reading in the Dark, and a guess at the meaning of the title

Some final words on Seamus Deane's excellent and under-appreciated Reading in the Dark (1995): Among its unusual aspects is that at the outset it appears to be a series of short essays that taken in sequence constitute of coming-of-age story about the protagonist, beginning in 1945 when he's about 5 years old, in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland during the "troubles." As the novel progresses, however, a plot emerges, and by the end we're engrossed in the complexity of the plot - a series of secrets that the narrator learns about his family history but that for various reasons he cannot discuss w/ either of his parents. The plot requires our attention but it never overwhelms us, leaving us free throughout to appreciate the beauty of the language, the eccentricity of some of the characters in the narrator's community and neighborhood, and the beauty and strangeness of some of the interpolated stories - all concluding w/ a harrowing set of final chapters, as the narrator looks back from a somewhat more mature vantage, age 30 or so, escaped from his Northern Ireland home community and embarked on his life, recollecting the death of his parents, the secrets about the death of his uncle Eddie, a suspected informer, and his mother's possible complicity in that death, still unspoken, a burden weighing on all of them and carried to the grave (though perhaps - if these chapters represent a true family history of the author, or even a version of same - with some alleviation for Deane through the process of writing this novel). Having completed reading the book, right down to the final haunting image that the narrator sees or envisions, I remain a little puzzled by the title: who's reading in the dark? I suspect that may be us - reading this tale of family secrets and betrayals, or a country at war with itself - picking up clues along the way as best we can and struggling to see the light.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

3 chapters from Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark could stand alone

There's yet another twist in the multi-layered and mysterious plot in Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, as the narrator learns more about his family history, a tragic history that centers on the disappearance of his Uncle Eddie, suspected of being an informer for the police in Northern Ireland. As the novel progresses and as the narrator recounts the course of his childhood, from about age 5 through (in section 4) age 18, more pieces the story fall into place, that is, the narrator gradually learns more about the fate of his uncle and of his entire family; what makes this dawning knowledge and this entire narrative especially compelling and even unique, is that the young boy is learning things that his parents don't even know - they each know pieces of the story, but he's the only one to begin to put together all the pieces - in this tale that involves Protestant-Catholic rivalries during the "troubles," police informants, double-crossing, rivalry between sisters, troubled marriages - altogether, a story with a lot of depth and dimension, but told in beautiful, accessible, and sometimes hilarious short chapters, each like an essay or a very short story unto itself. How much Deane must have saved up over the course of his life! (He was about 55 when this novel was published, and to my knowledge it is his only novel - I suspect it may be sat unpublished for a long time and maybe found its rightful audience thanks to the success of Frank McCourt's memoirs, but that's just a guess.) One of the hilarious chapters, by the way, is on religious instruction, and it makes a great triad w/ 2 of the other chapters that describe Catholic school in N.Ireland in the 1950s - Maths Lessons and the Facts of Life: these 3 chapters could be read on their own and would in themselves be a masterwork, but they're all the more impressive as part of the weave of this rich novel.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Deane (Seamus)

At the end of section 3 of Seamus Deanne's excellent (and only?) novel, Reading in the Dark, the plot tightens another notch - another "turn of the screw" we might say esp in noting Deanne's evocation of that James novel in the first story the narrator's aunt Katie tells. In the 3rd story she tells, this one more like a brief confession or cri de coeur, ( no spoilers don't worry) of a strange twist in her relationship to the narrator's mother - all of which puts the mysterious disappearance of uncle Eddie into yet another perspective. The narrator is now about 14 and bearing the burden of holding many family secrets - he actually knows more than his elders about the tortured family history, twisted and shaped by the "troubles" in n Ireland. He's also of course at this point in his life feeling his first waves of sexual desire - which leads to another hilarious chapter, the facts of life, in which a well-meaning but feckless priest speaks to the narrator about same, as the narrator struggles between his desire to ask questions and to seem cool and knowledgeable. He also goes on his first movie date, another funny chapter that, like so much else in this novel blends humor w pathos - as the narrator gets roughed up by a rival , which turns out like much else in this novel and in the culture of its time and place to have a political dimension as well. This is a truly fine coming-of-age novel, thoughtful, graceful, and accessible.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

A narrative-memoir that actually has a powerful plot: Reading in the Dark

Reading in the Dark (Seamus Deane, 1995) is not only a beautifully written memoir-like novel, with each chapter - all of them short, all with titles, as if they were short stories - proceeding chronologically across the life of the narrator, from about 5 years old up to ... I'm not sure where it will end. But also: the novel develops a compelling plot line as well. This is not just about a series of moments in the life of the narrator, who is part of a large Catholic family in Protestant-controlled Northern Ireland, beginning in 1945 (when the narrator, like the author, was 5); Deane does a terrific job slyly introducing a plot, centered on the mysterious disappearance of the narrator's uncle Eddie. In a series of revelations, the narrator learns that his uncle didn't disembark for Chicago, as rumor had it, but was actually killed because it was learned that the was a spy for the British-Protestant police officers. This narrative goes on to get more complex - there will be no spoilers here - involving both sides of the boy's family. In many memoirs, part of the energy comes from the naivete of the narrator - we know more than he can know or understand at his young age; this novel plays a trick on that familiar trope, with the young narrator actually knowing more than the adults around him, but pledged to secrecy - and he's of course tormented by the burden he's carrying inside. Death of grandparent is also a trope in many memoirs and memoir-novels, and we do get that plot element here, but Deane brings much originality to this episode - the young narrator sitting in vigil beside his dying grandfather, witnessing his grandfather's refusal to give confession and take the last rites, and then having the grandfather "confess" to the young boy - a powerful and unusual scene, which Deane follows with a harrowing chapter about the depression and delusions that the boy's mother suffers after her father dies: no one in the family except the young narrator - and us - understands what is drawing her down.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Really impressed with Seamus Deane's only novel, Reading in the Dark

I am really impressed (half-way through) w/ Seamus Deane's novel from 1996 - apparently his one and only novel - Reading in the Dark. Of course some of our greatest memoir-novels are long, multi-volume publications in fact, but among short or single-volume memoir-fiction this work represents all that a memoir-novel can and should be: concise, evocative, dramatic, informative. Not to beat a dead horse, but comparing this novel with the novel we just struggled through in book group, Testing the Current, you can easily see what works and what does not: we don't need to know every detail of every event in the writer's life; the detail selected must be sharp and telling. The narrator or protagonist may of course be young and innocent and not able to comprehend some of his own observations of family, cultural, and political life - but the writer, whether her or she is doing a first- or third-person narration, needs to make something of the innocent observations of his or her protagonist. For example, as this novel develops the narrator's childhood self is vaguely aware that his family was involved in some IRA activities, that his uncle Eddie had to leave Ireland under mysterious circumstances. Fine, but you can't just leave that fact hanging out there in the void. Deane builds on the naivete and innocence of his younger self: in one key episode (the novel is made up of short, essay-like sections, each w/ a title and date) a group of neighborhood toughs threaten to beat up the young protagonist; he has only a vague idea why - that is, others in the community suspect he and his family informed the police about a cache of IRA weapons. To get out of this jam, the young boy throws a rock at a passing police car. The car stops, the threatening toughs take off, and the police take the boy home. But that's not so good, as all the neighbors see the young boy being escorted home by the police. The father reacts in a totally unexpected way - slugging the young boy and yelling at him that he should have taken the beating from the toughs rather than squirm his way out of it by seeking rescue from the police. So what we see from this is the young boy developing a sense of the conflicts in his family and in his life, arranging in his mind a value set and set of expectations - but all done through dramatic action and concise recollection. Lest you think, however, that the entire novel is made up of politics, there are some hilarious chapters, in particular Maths Lessons (sic) that had me laugh out loud, a rare response. And in some others the young boy hears from others strange tales and legends, in particular a story of ghosts and possession that his aunt narrates that is nearly as powerful and weird as Turning of the Screw (and about 1/20th the length).

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A novel, a memoir, and what the narrator learned about "beautiful wrirting"

Started reading Seamus Deane's 1995 novel, Reading in the Dark, his first and maybe his only novel - primarily, he's been a scholar focused on Irish literature; this is another memoir-like novel with an intriguing structure. It's made up of short chapters, each like an essay, most about 2-4 pp., arranged chronologically, beginning in the early 1940s (Deane was born in 1940) and focused on the life of a Catholic family in North Ireland. So we get the expected tropes: extreme poverty, large families, childhood death, early death of parents leading to breaking up the family and various adoptions, some not so benevolent (memorably: in one the adopted child told not to eat butter, he has to take margarine, butter is for family). Also "the troubles," including complete distrust of the police force and more generally of all authority, distinction between Catholic and Protestant holidays and celebrations, and, most important, the draw of the IRA - in particular the threats to get family members to tell what they know of IRA connections, the brutal interrogations, and the disappearance of some family members, most notably the young narrator's uncle Eddie rumored to have escaped to Chicago but perhaps not - dead? returned to Ireland? nobody's sure, or at least the young narrator is confused. There are also scenes of ghosts and of haunting, and all of this Deane renders beautifully with simple, never overwrought language. Perhaps the finest chapter in the first third or so of the book is the title chapter, in which the young narrator is in class and the teacher reads an example of an excellent student essay - surprisingly, not the narrator's (this isn't Portrait of the the Artist) but a "country" kid who writes about a family preparing a Spartan but beautiful dinner and waiting for the father to come whom from work in factory or fields, a family life told simply. Beautiful writing!, the teacher says, and the narrator is surprised, as he thinks great writing has to include knights and dragons and high drama. The lesson he learned that morning applies well to this novel, though of course with a touch of irony, as there are ghosts and fights and flight and gruesome death in this novel, it's simply written but the life his harsh and unforgiving, not a simple dinner waiting on the table. The teacher (a priest, I believe) was half-right only.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why McPherson should have written a memoir

Abbreviated book-group meeting (only 4 of us) last night discussed William McPherson's Testing the Current (ca 1980), a pick we regretted as few were even able to finish the book. We all agreed: McPherson had a prodigious memory and summoned up the events of a year in his childhood (this is a personal narrative thinly disguised as a third-person narrative work of fiction), so the first chapter or so of the novel seemed promising as we meet some eccentric characters and McPherson clearly establishes a sense of time (the 1930s) and place (a well-to-do Midwest Protestant summer colony replete with all of the racial and anti-Semitic prejudices of the day). But as we proceed through the novel it becomes increasingly apparent that ... nothing happens! At best we can say that McPherson is diligent about creating a view of the world strictly from the POV of the 8-year-old Tommy; we see everything as Tommy sees it, and as a result we get no narrative guidance about any of the horrors or scandals - drug addiction, racism, marital affairs, e.g. - taking place all around; Tommy sees, remembers, doesn't quite understand. Nevertheless, in any worthwhile novel the lead character needs to develop, change, or at least participate in some kind of action. McPherson creates many opportunities for the novel to open up, and we all agreed on these in discussion last night: Tommy sees Mr. Wolfe try to sneak into the house at night while Dad's away; it's obvious to us though not to the child that there's an affair going on. Why not have Tommy blurt something out (why was Mr. Wolfe crawling into Mommy's bedroom window last night?), creating a crisis. Ditto for the explosion at the factory: Shouldn't that lead to some moral or at the least political anguish in the family after 3 men die in dad's factory? But, no - nothing happens. Other examples abound. As I have noted in previous posts, today (or even by 1990) any editor would have said trim, cut, and rework this as a memoir - which would at least give it the stamp of credibility (memoir was not yet in vogue when McPherson wrote this; he was about a decade ahead of his time). I personally am not a huge fan of memoir - I prefer authors who shape their experience into art - Proust, Powell, Knausgaard, to cite 3 of my favorites, each quite different - but McPherson's work misses the mark as a novel and he was, sadly for him, a bit ahead of his rightful time.