A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Chris Arthur: Reading Life, Negative Capability Press, Mobile, Alabama, 2017
RRP: US $15.95
Chris Arthur’s essays are to look forward to, to relish slowly, to reread. Over the years, I’ve read many and have often thought about the pleasure I got from the genre as an adolescent – I think the appeal was that of getting into the mind of the writer indirectly, learning one’s humanity, and its boundless possibilities of expression, vicariously.
Sitting somewhere on the borderline of meditation and poem, Arthur’s gracefully composed essays are often profoundly moving. And this set, Reading Life, offers up much for deep contemplation. A tender game with his young daughter’s child’s foot leads him to think of the life journey that little foot will take, including the one to his own grave. Or a fallen fuschia blossom might evoke a former love affair, a cottage in Donegal, and a history of the botany and introduction of an exotic species into Europe. An orca tooth leads entertainingly from his dentist’s extraction techniques to scrimshaw, a word I had only dimly apprehended, but now know much more about thanks to Chris Arthur. In particular, he is a Northern Irish Protestant with very broad sympathies who is able to open up the complexities of affiliation across sectarian borders, long a feature of his work. As a reader, I feel I’ve been invited to dialogue with a writer who feels deeply, communicates warmly and conversationally, and who has enjoyed a privileged life among books and people. His is a kindly but also a self-conscious and sometimes critical eye, but mostly the writing is benign and opens up new ways of apprehending the particularities of where we are and when we are, and the choices we’ve made to become who we are.
Writing essays is for Arthur, as it is for some poets, an invitation to exercise one’s curiosity and an excuse to become deeply literate in many fields. You never know when knowledge of the mating habits of frogs (Heaney comes to mind), or cyclometers, or the killing freshwater fish with a priest (curious word for a bludgeon), might come in handy. Can sensibilities, the affections, be honed by reading such essays: I think so. Not perhaps directly, but certainly in responding to those quotidian objects he places value on, one is led to appreciate correspondences in one’s own experience.
This collection is perhaps more self-conscious of the art of essaying, or should that read assaying? Each chapter, as the (unnecessary) ‘Afterword. Reading Essays’ makes clear, alternates the two senses of Reading Life (reading material objects and reading books), and we are offered insights into Arthur’s life as a reader. It is not just landscape and history and personal objects and events that shape us, but also the more casual and systematic reading we do, so it’s wonderful to enter that quite private world and reflect on how it changes over time. As a long time teacher of literature, I’m always returning to particular books, and some more frequently than others, and it is intriguing how one’s responses change over time, but I’m often excited by what I missed in earlier readings, bemused by my marginal editorials (and wonder about the continuity between the readers revealed?), and rarely disappointed in a book, so I felt very keenly for him that his earlier obsessive readings of At Swim Two Birds were not validated by his 60-year-old reading. However, the account of how even to read such a book, or Heaney, might be seen as acts of treachery in Northern Ireland (his place of growing up) more than compensated for my disappointment for him in the novel. Another very moving excursion into literary reading was his account of reading All Quiet on the Western Front alongside his gently-brought-up early teenage daughter (the one mentioned in the toe-caressing essay). I understood his qualms about it as an unavoidable curriculum requirement (something all teachers of literature confront) and his modest allowing of the process to unfold. Many parents would have resisted this exposure of an innocent sensibility to a dangerous and disturbing set of phenomena, like combat with bayonets as long as the daughter’s oboe.
This is a book also that invites readers to read books they loved or may have missed. I didn’t need to return to At-Swim-Two-Birds, having recently indulged this somewhat eccentric pleasure recently, and I didn’t go all the way down the track with him in picking up again a book I’ve often discarded, McCabe’s Butcher Boy, but I was delighted to pick up for the first time a book that has a cult status among twitchers as well as literary folk – J.A.Baker’s The Peregrine. The life of the reader is one of ever widening circles of wonder. Baker’s obscure masterpiece is a good metaphor of the art of the essay as practiced by Chris Arthur: he is a master elicitor of Wonder. It’s a good principle for Life.
Having read many of Arthur’s volumes of essays, I was struck by the increasingly insistent metacritical comments about his own process as an essay writer. I’m not sure if this is the result of teaching creative writing, or he’s been encouraged by a new publisher/editor to do this, but for this reader, I’d have preferred he’d trusted me to notice.
This is an exquisite collection, written in lucid plain English, and one I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys poetry, their literature subtle and exfoliating, and who enjoys meditating. I’d love to listen to these on audio-books late at night when the eyes are too tired to read and the mind wants quietness and gentle stimulation, and to be taken out of its own diurnal grooves into fresh mental spaces.
Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.