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 secondhand 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.
October 23, 1997