Sunday 3 March 2013

An extraordinary book

I've spent the last two months lying limp on the sofa for most of the days and the nights, and was able to read as much as I wanted to, all meals brought to me on a tray.  I have not had the licence to read this much before and by a stroke of great luck, the right book presented itself. An extraordinary book: Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane.

I have no links to Ireland. My background includes a similarly complex political situation, which descends periodically into mayhem and violence. I am aware of the dangers of over-simplification and lacked the patience to learn about the intricacies of the Irish conflict. I was unsure I'd be a good reader of this book.

My friend LS was visiting and she picked it up and read the first page. I saw her disappear into the book, right in front of me, from the first sentence onwards:  "On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence". Very encouraging.

The novel has three parts, each divided into two chapters and each chapter subdivided into short vignettes which have brief sharp titles, mostly single words, like the crack of a whip: Stairs, Feet, Mother. Sometimes the title was longer and I wondered why.

The narrative was enthralling - both the story on the surface and the constant feeling that something else was happening underneath. I wanted to dig, to discover what was hidden, tantalising. The narrator in the book is himself 'enthralled'. The reading of this book was almost a parallel experience - powerful and a bit scary. Sometimes I could hardly breathe.

I read the book over and over, analysing and dissecting what I was reading, and I found that as I became more aware of the meaning of the words, it became almost like a reading of the Bible, the Torah - though not in a religious sense. I have been trained in Biblical exegesis and this text seemed to require and reward a similar approach. The words are fluent and gripping, and when you look again, a second or third time, you come to realise how intentional they are, how purposeful the structure of the sentences. Everything is crafted, down to the minutiae. For instance, things happen in twos in this book: two chapters for each part, people moving in twos - not couples as such - words such as the word labyrinth and others, occurring twice. A sentence repeated in the form of a mirror image. I am not sure why.

Seamus Deane is the general editor for James Joyce's work at Penguin, and wrote the introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The trajectory of the Portrait  is similar to the one in Reading: a gifted young man growing up and gradually distancing himself from the important figures of his childhood, until he leaves home altogether. The labyrinth appears in Portait as well, in the family name of the main character Daedalus. In the introduction to Portrait, Deane explains that in Greek Daedalus means 'cunningly wrought'. This is one of my favourite quotes from Reading (p. 43):
"...I felt as if 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."
Finally, here is how the Wikipedia entry for this book introduces it:
...The book won the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize and the 1996 South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, is a New York Times Notable Book, won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize in 1997, besides being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996. It has been translated into 20 languages.

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