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

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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.

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