Father David Anderton, the protagonist and narrator of Andrew O’Hagan’s subtle third novel, has never been, it would seem, a very good priest. Be Near Me, set in the Scottish town of Dalgarnock in 2005, is Father David’s account of his fifty-seventh year, the year of his unraveling, or his downfall, or his rebirth—depending upon how you look at it. Sent, at his own request, to Dalgarnock’s humble parish of St. John Ogilvie, after years spent in “pastoral oblivion” in Blackpool, David Anderton befriends Lisa Nolan and Mark McNulty, two beer-swilling, joint-smoking, pill-popping adolescents from his world religions class at the local Catholic school. Through these unlikely attachments he finds, as he eventually concedes to his bishop, that “our lives are liable to catch up with us.”
There are many possible explanations of what Father David means. The most obvious, but least humanly accurate, of these is that his sexual desires, repressed during his thirty years in the priesthood, will, perforce, find an outlet. Indeed, the novel’s central plot could be condensed into the snappy headline that appears in Dalgarnock’s Daily Record: “‘The Face of Evil,’ it said. ‘English Priest in Ayrshire Kiddie Abuse Scandal.’”
Needless to say, however, Be Near Me is not a schematic account of the sexual scandals of the cloth, or even a religious version of Zoe Heller’s probing but fast-paced Notes on a Scandal (2003), which charts the illicit sexual relationship between a schoolteacher and her adolescent pupil. In spite of the forward propulsion of the novel’s premise, O’Hagan, a lyrical and deeply thoughtful writer, has created a circular rather than a linear narrative, one in which the single, chaste, and culminating kiss that brings about Father David’s arrest is, while not wholly beside the point, not exactly the point, either. This is a literary undertaking more nuanced, and more ambitious, than plot summary can allow: in Father David Anderton, O’Hagan is giving voice to the full, disparate, often contradictory breadth of a character whose fragmented and alienated self has only rarely, and not for many years, attained some sort of unity, a state of being in one’s skin.
O’Hagan is exploring, through this fiction, the deepest questions of selfhood, self-knowledge, and authenticity. How far has David Anderton taken his mother’s admonishment, to his much younger self, to “put your faith in strangers. Sometimes it’s nice to just be on the surface of things”—and if he has been successful in this surface life, why can he no longer sustain it? In Father David’s relationships with Lisa and with Mark (upon whom he will plant his fateful kiss), the priest is drawn to many things; but chiefly, it would seem, to an enviable self-possession that amounts to selflessness, or at least forgetfulness-of-self.
Father David observes, early on, of Mark:
There are people who notice the power of themselves in any conversation. They won’t be put down, and their steady gaze can come to bare one’s nerves and cancel one’s resolve. Mark was like that. I don’t know if I’ve seen it in anyone so young before, or so small-minded….Mark behaved as if the world was invented just for him, and his face was serene enough to convince anyone who looked at him that things would be all right if one stuck close. I think in our hearts we believe that beauty is a very sincere kind of knowledge: we fall for the wisdom of beautiful lips no matter what they are capable of saying. Mark knew it. He knew it the way a bird might know where to fly in winter.
Tellingly, the true moment of fulfillment does not take place when David kisses his young friend; but rather, earlier on the same night, when they are walking under a railway bridge:
There was this perfect moment, I tell you, deep in the sapphire gloaming of the outgoing night, against the stone bench and under the bridge, when a goods train passed before us and we raised our voices and yelled like lunatics under the noise of the train. Nothing will stand in the way of that moment, when he looked over at me and laughed out loud and began shouting as the iron trucks scudded past in the gorge beneath the blackberry bushes. In the roar and blaze of his youth Mark was hardly a thing of sinew and cells, soft down and skin. Only his spirit was animal, and the very atmosphere was responsive to his presence, as if the air breathed him and not him the air.
The implication, in these two passages, is that Mark presents, to David, the possibility of a quiddity that has its own authority—a quiddity that has eluded Father David in spite of his supposed religious calling—and, more than that, a quiddity which transcends the physical, is actually spiritual in nature (“as if the air breathed him and not him the air”). Mark’s appeal may be in part his youth, in part his beauty; but it is above all his certainty, and the freedom of that certainty, that constitute his allure.
Father David, unlike Mark McNulty, is unsure of himself—is not, somehow, “within” himself—from the beginning. As he says early in the novel, “I’ve never been sure I belong anywhere in the world.” Attracted even in his youth by his father’s illustrious Catholic Lancashire ancestors, almost proud of his Scottish mother’s literary self-absorption, molded by monks at Ampleforth, the prestigious Catholic boarding school, David tells us that he veered, in his Oxford years, between a group of aesthetes known as “the Marcellists” (after their near-maniacal devotion to Proust) and the political leftists, the revolutionaries of 1968, dubbed “the Bombastics,” among whom his great love, a young man named Conor Docherty, counted himself. As David recalls, “At Oxford I seemed constantly to be moving between realms of belief.” But even at Ampleforth, he asked one of his tutors, “What is more important to the world, ethics or taste?,” a division in his own self neatly replicated for him by Conor and the Marcellists.
Neither Scottish nor English, neither wholeheartedly aesthete nor ethicist, essentially unbelonging and uncertain, David Anderton has, for thirty years, taken refuge in the Church. Strikingly, his own account of his life bears almost no spiritual traces: that he is not a good priest may be in part because he is not, in some profound way, a religious man; or at least because his religious faith remains, for him, more unspeakable than his homosexuality. Divided in his many selves, David long ago chose to cleave to the self that Ampleforth offered him: “My school’s mysterious sense of unity may have been a romantic conceit,” he writes, “but it worked to make us want to know an existence larger than ourselves, to see a manner of living and thinking and speaking to which we all might subscribe.”
Unfortunately, in subscribing to that “romantic conceit,” he has suspended life, and living:
One never buys a house or pays school fees. One sleeps in a single bed. One lives like an orphan in a beautiful paternalistic dream. As a priest one may never grow up. In a sense, one lives as an infant before the practical trials of reality.
And he says, again, to the bishop: “I think I used the Church. It was a beautiful hiding place. I’m sure it has been for others.”
Father David’s reasons for turning to the Church, and for devoting his life to acting and to hiding, are explained through his reminiscence of his time at Oxford, in a fairly long section in the middle of the novel, and, in particular, of his romance with the young renegade Conor, with whom David fell in love at first sight:
For nearly forty years I have thought about the amber light and the smile on him that evening. For I loved him the second before I saw him, just as one does with love: we know whom we love before we find them, or think we do. We feel we have waited for such a person, and when we see him, he is perfectly familiar.
This perfect union—which brought to David Anderton, albeit fleetingly, a sense of self—is recalled in what amounts to a haze of nostalgia. Just as Mark and Lisa fail to emerge from David’s account as more than highly colorful ciphers, important for what they represent, or indeed are, rather than for who they are (“We talked about other things, or they talked and I nodded, the young people’s views proving less interesting to me than the liveliness with which they were able to express them”), so too Conor takes on a mythic aura, without ever being fully conjured for us as a man of flesh and blood.
Certainly he is less concretely present in the text than are David’s Marcellist friends, such as Edward Hippisley-Cox, “an ugly former Etonian with a valiant attitude towards the smoking of cigars,” or David’s beloved tutor, Geoffrey Nashe, a man “with silver hair that seemed slick and moulded like a helmet over his head.” Conor, rather, is “a beautiful listener, an almond-eyed person with a head of chestnut hair” and a “self-possessed smile.” In David’s telling, he is unable convincingly to describe Conor, the object of his love; the source of his passion is untranslatable. As a result, Conor remains imaginary, a ghost whose perfection depends, in part, upon the haziness of his outline.
David makes clear that the loss of Conor has been the seminal and abiding bereavement of his life (more affecting than the loss of his father, of which he also speaks). It prompted his retreat, in all senses, to Rome—to the seminary at the English College there. Reflecting on this—and the narrative’s implication is that such reflection has been frequent—David says:
The world is rowdy and nothing is certain. Do not stray. None of us was meant to face the day and the night alone, though that is what we do and memory now is a place of fading togetherness. Be near me. True love is what God intends.
In short, insofar as David is a man of faith, his faith is in Love. Conor, long gone, has remained the symbol of Love: Jesus is never mentioned. Fittingly, the novel’s title comes from Tennyson’s searing “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” the relevant excerpt from which serves as the book’s epigraph: “Be near me when my light is low,…Be near me when the sensuous frame/Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust….Be near me when my faith is dry….” Tennyson’s is by no means the exhortation of a monastic.
There are, in this story, the echoes of other, similar stories of romantic sacrifice: David has consecrated his life to the Church above all in order to remain faithful to Conor. But it has been, inevitably, a tragically false and sentimental choice, whose moral implications are significant. David Anderton is, as a priest, radically inauthentic. It is surely in part to this that David refers when he tells his bishop that “our lives are liable to catch up with us.”
David’s sentimentality and his inability to contend with reality are powerfully and convincingly rendered. He is a man at once forthcoming and un-self-aware. He blithely reveals his snobberies and prejudices (“The working class was another thing back then. They had a culture. They didn’t have their gold chains or their cable television; they had their work, their interests, their families and no very obvious sense of spite or entitlement”), but his attempts at self-revelation prove paltry and evasive:
Again and again, I wonder why I didn’t talk to myself. Why I did not stop at the door and listen to my own counsel? It was as if my enjoyment of the situation and my fear of losing favour with Mark engulfed me, and I couldn’t stop going forward, ignoring whatever scraps of wisdom were left to me in the twilight world of that strange year.
It remains to the reader to try, like an analyst, to assemble these contradictory traits and aperçus, these bursts of intimate confidence and obvious elisions, into a coherent whole; and the challenge, in this case, is richly rewarding. O’Hagan’s strategy—his use of David as the unreliable first-person narrator—is all the more successful for the degree of risk involved. With the exception, of course, of his conversations with others, we see David’s world only through his own eyes, willfully blind though they often are.
O’Hagan runs the danger that his readers might conflate David’s limitations—his inability, for example, in telling his story, to convey with full concrete complexity the characters of those he loves, such as Conor, or his mother—with authorial indifference. Moreover, in its careful subtlety, in requiring that the reader serve, in some way, as analyst, the novel could risk asking more than many can give. (I am often mindful of the suggestion that while Pound imagined his readers to be intelligent, Eliot thought of his own as stupid.) Against these anxieties, however, O’Hagan has created perhaps the novel’s most moving character, David Anderton’s housekeeper, Mrs. Poole.
Be Near Me opens and closes with the story of Mrs. Poole, a forty-two-year-old local woman whose small social ambitions make her a perfect foil for David Anderton’s fussy, oenophile, gastronomic, Francophile tendencies. Saddled with a ne’er-do-well, hard-drinking husband, herself relentlessly faithful and efficient, Mrs. Poole, suffering from cancer, is determined to make the best of the hand that has been dealt her, and her religious faith is central to her sense of possibility: she is prickly and determined in her petty snobberies, avid in her zeal for “betterment.” Every small-town vicarage in Britain has surely seen a version of Mrs. Poole pass through its doors (I have certainly met such a woman, more than once, in the vicarage of my British father-in-law), and O’Hagan’s triumph lies in his rendering of this character, at once deeply individual and yet evocative of many others.
In pursuing his friendships with Lisa Nolan and Mark McNulty, Father David seeks to be seen, somehow, anew: after his first night out with them, he reflects:
For so long I had known myself only in prayers, in silent shadows and in dreams. Say I was longing for disaster. Say I was a victim of the moment, the perpetual now. But driving along the coast road I began to feel less obscured by those years of determined avoidance. I felt alive.
In his relationship with Mrs. Poole, he is, at least initially, seen as the man he purports, and hence ought, to be. She is attracted to his sophistication; they share a love of roses, a passion for French, and for French cooking. She understands at least some of his contradictions—“One minute you’re Scottish yourself and the next minute you’re more English than Churchill. I’m sure I don’t know what to be saying about you.” And she demands that he rise to the occasion:
I tried to joke with her but she would always bring me back. She believed my teases were just pauses between big pronouncements, and she wanted them more than anything, the pronouncements, as if I owed them to her.
She requires, indeed, that Father David Anderton be a priest.
As Mrs. Poole’s cancer progresses, she is the only person in the novel directly to demand honesty of Father David. When he tries to reassure her that everything will be all right, she rebukes him: “‘It is not your job to understand,’ she said. ‘It is not your job to make things smaller than they are…. I expect more than that from you. I expect you to help me prepare [for death].’” Indeed, given the blithe and self-involved indifference of David’s mother, there is some sense that Mrs. Poole may be the first person—or the first person since Conor, thirty years previously—to expect anything from Father David at all.
In the event, Mrs. Poole does most of her preparation for death herself; and indeed, while not wholly willingly, she forces Father David to confront himself also. If he is lacking in priestly qualities, Mrs. Poole, oddly, is not: in her relations to Father David, she remains stern but compassionate, engaged with the world, considerate and loving, to the end. Her family secret—the sacrifice of her son to her sister’s care, so that he might lead a better life—carries an almost symbolic Christian power. And even from the ramshackle but benevolent presence of her drunken husband, Jack Poole, who proves a reliable friend to Father David, there is some spiritual lesson to be learned.
Above all, Mrs. Poole sees David Anderton whole—as a latter-day “Marcellist,” a mediocre priest, and a flawed and transgressing man (“You have more faces than the town clock,” she says)—and, in time, accepts him nevertheless. In this sense, she is the one who ultimately grants him the whole self he has so long sought. Theirs is the most intimate and genuine relationship in the book—largely thanks to Mrs. Poole. Late in the novel, but before the state passes judgment upon his actions, Mrs. Poole comes to visit Father David in his rented flat: “It’s not a crime not to know yourself,” she tells him. “It’s not a crime to send life away. It’s just a shame.” This does not, perhaps, amount to absolution; but it is the truth, and a relief.
Be Near Me represents both a continuation of, and to some degree a departure from, O’Hagan’s earlier novels. In all his fictions, O’Hagan threads the intimately personal and the more broadly political inseparably together, and explores the ways that apparently political choices are, in fact, at root, personal and affective ones. Indeed, he reveals the organic and inevitable interrelation between the two; but from his earliest work to Be Near Me, there has been a shift in the balance of his preoccupations.
In O’Hagan’s first novel, Our Fathers (1999), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the relationship between Jamie and his dying grandfather, Hugh Bawn, is seen as involved with political questions about Scottish nationality, class struggle, and Catholicism. In Personality (2003), his second book, O’Hagan tells the story of Maria Tambini, a singing child-star from the Isle of Bute, in Scotland. The politics of celebrity are at first more obvious here than the traditionally political, but the book’s primary subplot revolves around Maria’s grandmother Lucia and her long-ago love affair with an Italian tenor who followed Mussolini. The local effects of their seemingly apolitical passion—shaped in part by the British internment of Italians during the war—are devastating and irreparable, as Lucia’s beloved daughter is accidentally killed.
Already in Personality, O’Hagan shows a deep interest in what constitutes an authentic self. Taken from her remote Scottish town and her close-knit Scottish-Italian family at the age of thirteen and thrust into the limelight (rather like a contemporary contestant on American I dol), Maria Tambini becomes a creature of surfaces, lonely and plagued by anorexia. Only when she is seen, and embraced, by Michael Aigas, a young man she knew in her Bute childhood, is she able to begin to heal. This is not unlike the role that Mrs. Poole plays for David Anderton; in truly seeing Maria Tambini, Michael releases her from the performance. (Of David Anderton, the bishop observes: “You’ve always been an actor, David. An actor will always want to play the part.”)
In Be Near Me, politics swirls constantly around the characters: Mark McNulty and his family, as Catholic Scots of Irish origin, are IRA supporters, in conflict with local Scottish Orangemen. There are long debates over the priest’s dinner table about the justice of the war in Iraq, and about Britain’s involvement in that war. Father David, in recalling his youth, is cast back into the political antiwar fervor of those times, and his love of Conor is entangled with that fervor. Tensions between the Scottish and the English, too, are alive in David’s alienation from his parish, and within himself as well. But ultimately, the novel proves to be more one of character than of politics—considerably more so than is Our Fathers—and this is greatly to its benefit. Political discussion, in Be Near Me, does not feel imposed by the writer: neither tidy nor ultimately clear, it arises out of the characters’ natures and their needs. It is, vitally, lifelike.
There are few writers currently at work who are so genuinely and unfashionably engaged with literature’s big, old questions—aesthetics, ethics, politics, religion, authenticity. To read a novel in which such engagement is palpable is quietly thrilling.