A Novel without a Hero

Christopher Ricks

  • The Mangan Inheritance by Brian Moore
    Cape, 336 pp, £5.50

Jamie Mangan, left at 36 by his wife and then suddenly left all her money, takes it into his heart to go off from New York to Ireland to find out whether or not he is the great-great-grandson of the poet James Clarence Mangan. Jamie’s father had once halfheartedly tried this, but he wasn’t prey to a sufficiently insatiable hunger for the quest. But then it is Jamie, not his father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man in an heirloom daguerrotype which has ‘J.M. 1847?’ on the back of it. The resemblance – a newly missing tooth, for instance – eerily increases once Jamie is in Ireland, entangled with disreputable Mangans who are probably his cousins (ah, how treacherously and sluttishly lovely, and how erotically practised, is 18-year-old Kathleen Mangan), and likewise with respectable Mangans who are very guarded (and what are they guarding?). Jamie starts to sense that the daguerrotype is not so much a passport to a past world as a death-warrant in a present world.

‘We are the same, all of us. We look the same, we write poetry, and we come to a bad end.’ For his double or Doppelgänger monstrously multiplies. It is not just that Jamie has the face of James Clarence Mangan (and the poetic aspirations, and so the bad end?), but that the face is also the face of two more Mangans along the line, a line which is cursed with their lineaments, with their versifying lines, and with their palm-lines of violence and death. What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Jamie, though, looks like being the end of the line. Meanwhile the double-goers double into triple- and quadruple-goers.

So the jacket of the English edition of Brian Moore’s latest (tenth) novel, the blurb of which is superior to that of the American edition in that it doesn’t betray the plot, is inferior in that it limns the daguerrotype and then splits the face down the middle, tonsorially and sartorially, as if the novel were your usual Caledonian-type antisyzygy, the story of a contrastive double rather than of a double double. What the Mangan face beseeches is recognition, of itself and for its writings.

At the centre of The Mangan Inheritance is a person who has – as yet? – no centre. As long as Jamie Mangan was married to the very famous filmstar Beatrice Abbot, he had no other identity than that of her husband. Karl the doorman equably calls him ‘Mr Abbot’, and in the anger of a quarrel Jamie rams the truth of Beatrice’s words into his head: ‘I’m your husband. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what I am. That’s exactly what I am. In fact, it’s all I am.’ Yet when she walks out on him, he is released only into a different sense of the same vacancy of self: ‘Nothing happens. It’s as though I’d ceased to exist.’ And what has he ever achieved? ‘At 36 I’m nothing.’ But then the quest to Ireland cannot simply restore him to being someone. ‘Like the man in that photograph, he had once been someone, was now no one, and might here, in this small wild country on the edge of Europe, discover who and what he would become.’ Yet to find oneself the latest incarnation of the Mangan face, the Mangan ill-fortune, and the Mangan poetic itch: this is to find an identity, perhaps, but not to find one’s own identity or individuality, even apart from the fact that the face which later beetles into his, the face of his aged double, is that of a wheedling pervert and poetaster.

When Mangan arrives in Ireland, he thinks of himself as ‘reborn but not renamed, searching a new identity’. At first, comparatively blithely, that searching means ‘searching for’ or ‘seeking’: the climax of his search, though, is not his searching for a new identity but his searching it. He searches it, through and through, and what he then diagnoses looks like a disease in his blood. Perhaps he will be saved. For, off the end of the book, beyond its chastened close, there is at last a duty for Jamie Mangan, and duty is nothing like so stern and jealous a god as is the dearth of duty. Someone yet unborn is going to need this man who, now knowing what is the blight Mangan was born for, might otherwise wish that he had never been born.

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