- Caroline Forbes
- Derry, Northern Ireland
- Sheil Land Associates Ltd
Critic, poet and novelist Seamus Deane was born in 1940 in Derry in Northern Ireland. He was educated at Queen's University, Belfast and Cambridge University, and now teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
He is the author of several works of criticism, most recently Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (1997), and has published four collections of poetry. He is editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) and began a volume of autobiography which, at the suggestion of Bill Buford, former editor of Granta magazine, became the prize-winning novel Reading in the Dark (1996), which was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize for Fiction, and won the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize and the 1997 Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction, as well as the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. Set in Derry during the 1950s, the book is narrated by a young boy whose family is haunted by a terrible secret, born out of the political and religious divisions which have blighted the province.
He is editor of the 'Irish Cultural Studies' series for Cork University Press.
Until recently, Seamus Deane's career as one of Ireland's leading literary critics, particularly his role as editor-in-chief of the landmark Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing(1991-2002), tended to overshadow his output as a poet.
The publication in 1996 of his evocative childhood memoir Reading in the Dark, however, secured for him a reputation as a notable creative prose writer. And to an extent, any clear-cut division between his critical and creative work is misleading: both are facets of his commitment to the explication of modern Ireland as a complex postcolonial nation, and both confirm his underlying belief in culture as a compensatory weapon against the deforming effects of violence. For Deane too, writing of all kinds is evidence of the individual's implication in the governing processes of history, a premise that defines even private memories and experiences as symbolic of broader political phenomena.
Deane's early poetry, from Gradual Wars (1972) and Rumours (1977), established both his preoccupations with violence and history, and his formal indebtedness to European and American models. Despite its stirring imagery, this early work was criticised for awkward phrasing and syntax, stylistic problems which were overcome in the more mature History Lessons (1983). This volume is carefully shaped by patterns of departure and return, as the poet moves between local and international experience, trying to make sense of his surroundings through constantly shifting perspectives. It also advances his determined engagement with the past. 'History is personal; the age, our age' (from the poem '"Send war in our time, O Lord"'), is its governing theme, and the motivation behind its intense engagement with the authenticity of historical imagination, cleverly developed in the title poem of the collection.
At times, Deane's poetic evocation of his own family background brings him close to the territory of his contemporary, Seamus Heaney. 'Breaking Wood', for example, is, like Heaney's early poem 'Digging', based on a suddenly released memory of his father, pictured amidst the rich sensory imagery of autumn. There are obvious parallels with Heaney too, in Deane's confrontation with violence, as he processes the trauma of contemporary Northern Ireland. But his manner, in 'A Killing' or 'The Art of Dying', is more direct, and more journalistic. In a vivid late poem, 'Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster, 1984', (Selected Poems 1988), he details a political landscape blighted with 'zombie' soldiers and supergrasses, and invokes Milton as a kind of co-witness to the desperate fall of his own native Derry: 'A maiden city's burning on the plain; / Rebels surround us, Lord. Ah, whence arose / This dark damnation; this hot unrainbowed rain?'
References to a personal hinterland characterise Deane's writing therefore, and even his priorities as a critic have been determined by the claims of his Catholic nationalist background. His understanding of the dynamic relationship between life and literature is also evident in his introduction to the subject of Irish autobiography in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (vol. 3, 1991). Autobiography, he states, 'is not just concerned with the self; it is also concerned with the "other", the person or persons, events or places, that have helped to give the self definition'. This ethos clearly influenced the presentation of Deane's own life, when, in 1986, he published in Granta magazine the first of a series of short narrative extracts about the experiences of a young working-class Catholic boy growing up in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s. The full 'novel', Reading in the Dark, eventually appeared ten years later, and while it retained its formal appearance as a collection of related narrative fragments, it completed a picture of the protagonist's transition from childhood to maturity against a backdrop of convoluted family history, community folklore and the fraught local politics of the Irish border region.
Reading in the Dark is a bildungsroman of sorts, charting the rites of passage of boyhood and adolescence. A death in the family, a road accident, the mysteries of sex and the absurdities of school life combine as part of the gradual learning process that ultimately forges the individual. It is also a portrait of the artist and his development towards a creative maturity. In one significant episode, the narrator tells of how, in an English lesson at school, the teacher singles out for praise an essay written by another pupil, an artless but perfect description of a simple evening meal of milk, butter and potatoes. Embarrassed by the artificiality and extravagance of his own essay, 'full of long words I had found in the dictionary', the protagonist is at once humble and inspired. 'I had never thought such stuff was worth writing about. It was ordinary life - no rebellions or love affairs or dangerous flights across the hills at night.' But the memory becomes a touchstone, and a validation of the 'ordinary life' detailed in the book.
While the stories in Reading in the Dark are disparate, they are connected by supernatural motifs and events. In the opening tale the boy's mother pauses on the stairs until a ghost has passed by; in a subsequent fragment the boy himself meets the ghost of his recently buried sister coming towards him in the cemetery. Several stories told by his relatives are of ghostly children and supernatural occurrences. But the family is most damagingly haunted by its own history, the gradually revealed facts of an uncle's disappearance and a mother's secret heartache. 'Hauntings are, in their way, very specific. Everything has to be exact, even the vaguenesses. My family's history was like that too. It came to me in bits, from people who rarely recognised all they had been told. Some of the things I remember, I don't really remember.' As he grows older, it is the protagonist's acceptance of this imprecision, surrounding not just the facts of his family's life, but those of the world in general, which finally marks his passage to adulthood.
Allusions to half-truths are thematically appropriate, finally, in a book that continues to frustrate those who attempt to categorise it as either fiction or memoir. Reading in the Dark is, Deane has acknowledged, a blurring of truth and invention, but he insists that it offers, nonetheless, a highly representative account of the kind of family common to his home city of Derry. (Guardian, 28 Oct 1996, p9). As such, it has been read by critics as a postcolonial paradigm, which positions the individual protagonist as the nation itself, emerging from a long and troubled history of betrayal and repression before gradually arriving at a difficult political self-knowledge and a perpetually haunted independence.
Eve Patten, 2002