Top critical review
Could be the tired self-exculpation of a drunk. Oh, it is?
on 2 August 2014
Confession of a memoir junky: I read a LOT of memoirs. A good memoir, and they are legion, is a place one wants linger (with the odd harrowing exception, like John McGahern's superlative Memoir, where once is plenty). Surprisingly for a much-published poet and novelist, this one doesn't cut it. How did such a self-regarding work, so limply written, ever find such favour, renown even? The sympathy vote? The first sign of life arises, bizarrely, on pages 37-8 in the person of Smokey the Cat. The Dobermann has his moment too, which shows how desperate I got. (Pets R decidedly not us.)
Shorn of its portentous intro, which more or less admits this was written to excuse the author's own bad behaviour, this is a standard in-your-face, feel-my-pain, maudlin misery memoir (so you hated your father? mine smoked Kensitas, too - good God, man, so get over it!) alleviated only by the following stray felicities (I list them all): disliking his fellow Catholics more than the other lot 'made for difficulties'; anyone who did anything remotely interesting was considered abnormal (we're talking early sixties); for his mother to have seen him reading the Beano 'would have broken her heart'; 'the priest.. sat gazing at me mournfully, his mouth full of home-made Dundee cake'; 'mornings after were reserved for remorse and sweet tea, just as they were all over Scotland'; 'old priests working in their gardens, too close to God now to hear confession' - and that, my friends, is essentially that
This is an angry book. Anger is always tiresome and never tragic. Guilt's there too, of course, grudgingly acknowledged (like his father Burnside has a tendency to self-dramatise) but both males are pasteboard. So clichéd does the writing become that we increasingly fall back on movie references, and such life as Burnside provides is in the bit players. Even the 'poetic' writing rings false: the 'swift, furtive shadows [of birds] on the rosewater-thin curtains' (rosewater-thin?); 'in the heart of a man's heart.. [God help us there's more], in the smoky, golden, myrrh-scented chambers of his own imagery'. Well, quite. What was he on? Oh, he tells us - and the druggy bits, 'partying' (being out of it - or up oneself), are as surpassingly dull as they always are unless supported by another, non-verbal art, either musical or visual. By 'My mother was a maze of contradictions' the author presumably means 'mass'. (The unfamiliar locution merely distracts.)
I found peculiarly troubling the concern this brutalized wastrel affects to show for his 'ghost brother' Rick; but then he does prime us even before the epigraphs (before the lights go down) that this whole shebang is best treated as fiction. This is called having your cake and eating it; put another way, fiction would carry more conviction. The one 'truth' is that he is a liar, like his father! Can he bear to reread this? He writes better these days; his poetry is lauded and it was a piece in the New Statesman from a recent memoir (his mother again!) that caused me to persist with this sad piece of therapy. Rarely does reading a book leave such a feeling of distaste - and for all the wrong reasons. Frank McCourt, maybe? I've not read him. I see this 'multi-award winning' book actually won precisely two, a Scotland-only prize to which it was probably entitled in what may have been a thin year (though it's a shock when we finally get to hear his mother's Scots voice - on page 298!) and a Bavarian one. No doubt in German he comes across as a bit Thomas Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard with a drinking problem? Sheesh, I can see his difficulty - I just resent the time I gave this 'fanciful tale that could just as easily have been left untold'. Self-pity, who needs it? There's one more nice(ish) moment, about 'the ignominy of dying on a bus, with strangers gawping into your face, stealing your last breath and tainting it with grease and smoke' (that 'stealing' particularly good), but the whole is tainted by the very Catholicism it strives so vigorously to repudiate. Will Burnside go for the death-bed conversion, the renegade's redemption? Watch this space. Now, where's a cleansing draught of Eric Newby - or almost anyone - when you need him?