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.

It cannot be simply a stricture on this novel, then, that its hero is something of a zero. Nothing in himself, he yet multiplies into other selves; and he multiplies the scale and the stakes of all those with whom he engages. If he is a cipher, this, too, he multiplies into both of the senses of a cipher. Certain honourable satisfactions are therefore honourably not forthcoming from this novel, and the would-be poet Mangan is not himself a centre of interest in the way in which the would-be novelist Brendan Tierney is, in Moore’s earlier superb novel An Answer from Limbo. Yet this isn’t a defect in the book, it is the ground (grounds constituting limits, true) of its success. The nature of that success can be glimpsed within the ‘glassed-in bookcase with leather-bound books on its shelves’, there within the scrubbed cottage which belongs to the respectable branch of the Irish Mangan family. Pride of place within that sentence, and so within the bookcase, is given to ‘the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott’.

It is Waverley itself which defines the kind of success gained here, for it is Waverley which Donald Davie celebrated in these terms in The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott: ‘The hero in the lost-father fable has to be what Scott and the others have made him – wavering (there is a sort of pun with “Waverley”), inconstant, mediocre, weak. How else should he behave, since, not knowing his father, he does not know who he is, nor where his allegiance lies?’ For The Mangan Inheritance, too, is a lost-father fable. Jamie is credulous when he finds the demonic hermit, ‘this poet who bore his face, his true spiritual father’. Yet he is inconstant – fortunately, since he is thus able to recognise where his allegiance lies, acknowledging that his true spiritual father is … his father. In the words of the book’s last page: ‘Through his father – who knew nothing of Gorteen, Duntally, Norman towers, and lonely headlands – the uncanny facial resemblance, the poetry, the wild blood had been transferred across the Atlantic Ocean to this cold winter land, to this, his father’s harsh native city in which he now lay dying. He looked at his father’s face and wished that those features were his own.’

Much of Davie’s spirited salute to Waverley (’one of the greatest novels in the language’) would constitute a firm basis for a true reading of Mr Moore’s markedly good novel. Like Waverley, The Mangan Inheritance ‘shows the victory of the un-heroic over the heroic’: ‘“Heroic” and “un-heroic” may both be misunderstood, unless we admit that for “heroic” we may substitute “barbarian”, for “un-heroic”, “civilised”. The second pair of terms tilts the scales of approval towards the English, as the first pair towards the Scots; the novelist’s achievement is in tilting neither way, but holding the balance scrupulously steady.’ For ‘English’, we may substitute ‘North Americans’, and for ‘Scots’, ‘Irish’.

Likewise, if Mr Moore’s presentation of Mangan is, like Scott’s presentation of Waverley, ‘a strong portrait of a weak or weakish character’, the perceptive critic has brought out what the strength is for:

Thackeray, when he subtitled Vanity Fair ‘a novel without a hero’, meant by that something very interesting but quite different from what it may mean as applied to Waverley. The formula fits the Scott novel just as neatly. And the enormous advantage of the Scott method in this particular is that it makes of the central character a sounding-board for historical reverberations, or else, to change the metaphor, a weathervane responding to every shift in the winds of history which blow around it. This device, and this alone, of a weak hero poised and vacillating between opposites allows the historian to hold the balance absolutely firm and impartial, giving credit everywhere it is due. If the central figure is exempted from judgment, this is not from any moral laxity in the storyteller; but is designed to permit judgment of the parties, the ideologies, the alternative societies which contend for his allegiance.

Jamie Mangan is the precipitator, not the passer, of judgments. He is no longer the person he was: ‘That person would have made guilty judgments on this girl’ – a beautifully equivocal use of ‘guilty’, one which is the disconcerted counterpart to Beatrice’s hideously undisconcerted use of the word when she announced her defection: ‘I realise that I’m the guilty party, so to speak.’ Jamie in the end believes himself incapable of judging his odious double’s poetry, but he judges it all right: ‘I can’t judge it. I’m completely hostile to its content.’ Poetic justice? The phrase is one which the blackguard poet uses twice – ‘If there was any poetic justice, which there’s not, I’d be as well known as James Clarence himself’: this, with a smirking disregard for the nemesis which is part of this locution for ideal rewards and punishments.

Henry James said that ‘Waverley was the first novel which was self-forgetful.’ No modern novel can be thus self-forgetful, and The Mangan Inheritance is instinct with conscious memory of itself and of its proceedings. But its life as a novel is a matter of its having at its heart a strong portrait of a weak character, naggedly unable to be self-forgetful, the more so as his doubts increase as to whether he even has a self to forget – and yet finally becoming capable of the strong form of self-forgetfulness which is self-abnegation.

The Mangan inheritance is a double one, as befits its involving a search for a double. The literal inheritance of money is what makes possible the search for the heritage of blood. But it is one of the lacerations within the book that though ‘the Mangan inheritance’ is a straight description in that it is Jamie Mangan who inherits all that money (about $800,000), it is askew in that the money could as well be called the Abbot inheritance: Mangan inherits it from his wife Beatrice Abbot (who assuredly is not known as Mrs Mangan), and moreover she had inherited half of it from her father. Mangan knows that the honourable thing to do would be to renounce the money, left to him by a wife who was cutting him dead but who had not yet had time to cut him out: but his urge to discover his forbear makes forbearance impossible. In the bitter end, though, he cuts his ill-gotten losses. The vital and honest spending of the Mangan inheritance will be its caring, not for Mangan, his father’s child, but for another child of his father.

Jamie Mangan has inherited, from someone not of his blood, blood-money. He has inherited too the wild blood and the poetic lust of the Mangans, the line running back to ‘the first poète maudit’. For James Clarence Mangan ‘was the prototype of that sort of poet. Before Baudelaire or Rimbaud. Before the term itself was invented.’

Jamie often wonders what to wear, and Beatrice used to unleash a psychiatrist on to this: ‘Narcissistic, wouldn’t you say? Or perhaps, said Dr H., some deeper problem of identity. Beatrice could quote an analyst to suit her purpose.’ Devilish. But then someone is citing Shakespeare to his purpose. The book’s purpose brings out the way in which quotation and allusion are intimate with the deep problem of identity. An earlier novel of Mr Moore’s, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, had made serious play with the Wallace Stevens poem, gravitating from the delicious chill to the coldness of death. But it is inheritance which makes allusion central and indispensable, since literary allusion is itself an act of inheritance. To use the wording of previous writers is to acknowledge oneself an heir. But heir to what?

For the Augustan poets, the crucial acts of allusion were those which alluded (with a witty self-reflexiveness which was not narcissism) to inheritance royal, legal and literary. For Wordsworth, the previous poetry which was now his heritage was alive with a sense that the central human inheritance was perceptual, being the human senses, especially the eye and ear. The great achievements of allusion, in this sense of inheriting the words and phrases of previous poets, are precipitated by a coinciding of whatever is seen in life as the central or crucial inheritance with those particular acts of literary inheritance which are allusion itself. The Mangan Inheritance is in this tradition – a most intelligent, resourceful and surprising quest for a family inheritance which is at once an uncanny facial resemblance, poetry, and wild blood. The black blood of the Tennysons, you might think of murmuring, except that James Clarence Mangan was secured neither within the laureateship nor within genius.

The first explicit allusion, half a dozen pages into the novel, comes when Jamie reflects from Byron:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
’Tis woman’s whole existence.

‘He picked up the coffee-pot. By Byron’s standards, he was not a man.’ But is he even an existence? Twenty pages later, and now in that foreign country from which he had emigrated, Canada, his rage splutters into the murder of rhythm:

Time to rewrite Byron’s lines:

Her love was of her life a thing apart,
’Twas my whole goddamned existence.

What looked like salvation from this, namely the Mangan quest, turns into the damnation of Mangan look-alikes. ‘Be damn and you have the look of a Mangan, so you have.’

But Byron’s wise levity had early been replaced by T.S. Eliot’s wise gravity. Jamie does not know how to be himself once Beatrice is glitteringly back in the apartment for some divorce-chat:

Eliot’s lines came into his head:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.

In the three weeks since she left me another one walks always beside us.

It is a great stroke, to turn Eliot’s mysterious third person into the adulterous lover who has created a triangle which will now be collapsed back so that it will be Jamie who is to become the third person, left behind. A true stroke, too, not only in that The Waste Land is (among other things) a poem of marriage misery, but also in that it is a masterpiece of allusion, including the uncrystallised allusiveness at this very point, with Eliot not altogether sure who is the other one to whom he is indebted for this evocation of another one: ‘The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.’ From one point of view, the third person is the poet Eliot himself, who provides Jamie with the painful solace of these lines, with their companionship in grief and loss. Again, given the hideous amputation at the novel’s climax, the novel might be seen as a nightmarish perversion of Eliot’s italicised words: one more member.

Allusion plays throughout the novel, with cunning and versatility. Not only does it embody a great variety of inheritances – guilt, disease, talent, money, physiognomy, property – it also allows James Clarence Mangan’s work to figure in the book with a substantial solidity and yet with an acknowledged insubstantiality. What is so right about the choice of the poet James Clarence Mangan is exactly that you can be happy neither simply to grant him, nor simply to withhold from him, the name of poet. Lines of his keep recurring:

O, the Erne shall run red,
With redundance of blood …

Are they any good or not? Jamie Mangan, goaded by praise of his forbear which comes from lips which he loathes, lips of Mangan’s kin and his, is driven in the end to total rejection:

Oh, for God’s sake, you stupid old fool, who in hell do you think Mangan was? Nobody ever heard of him, outside of a few English professors and the people who live here on this godforsaken island. Mangan’s not a world poet. He never was, He’s dead, buried, and forgotten. Second-rate, rhyming jingler, doing translations from languages he didn’t understand, dull, and pathetic, just like the crap you showed me today.

But the book doesn’t endorse the judgment. Not only was there, as it happens, a last-minute revision to the last page of this novel’s proof-copy, so that ‘the bad poetry, the bad blood’ became, with studied abstinence from conclusive judgment, ‘the poetry, the wild blood’, but James Clarence Mangan’s poetry remains memorably bizarre and hauntingly apposite:

Would give me life and soul anew,
A second life, a soul anew …

My royal privilege of protection,
I leave to the son of my best affection.

T.S. Eliot is by no means the only poet to haunt the book and the consciousness of Jamie, but it is his art which walks beside all of the art called up, whether actual, like James Clarence Mangan’s, or imagined, like that of other Mangans.

Mangan, James Clarence (1803-49), Irish poet and attorney’s clerk, whose life was a tragedy of hapless love, poverty and intemperance, till his death in a Dublin hospital. There is fine quality in his original verse, as well as in his translations from old Irish and German.

The entry in Chambers’ Biographical Dictionary is as recent as 1974, and yet how right of it to speak with that touch of archaic falsity about a true suffering, as ‘hapless love’. Mangan himself, in ‘The Nameless One’, was happy to tell of his miseries:

Till, spent with toil, dreeing death for others,
  And some whose hands should have wrought for him;
(If children live not for sires and mothers),
               His mind grew dim.

And he fell far through that pit abysmal,
 The gulf and grave of Maginn and Burns,
And pawned his soul for the devil’s dismal
           Stock of returns.

Abysmal, yes, and dismal; the rhyme has something of the demented unignorability of Tennyson’s rhyme of ‘abysm’ with ‘Zolaism’.

The first page of the introduction to John Montague’s Faber Book of Irish Verse moves at once from saying that ‘the true condition of Irish poetry in the 19th century’ is ‘mutilation’, to ‘Loss is Mangan’s only theme,’ this sentence then speaking of castration in a way which is grimly germane to Brian Moore’s novel. But there is another shadowy name which looms unnamedly large in the book, that of the bland charmer who had all the graces which were denied to the poète maudit who yet perhaps was man enough for damnation:

Oft in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me …

The lithe and lying Kathleen sings all of this, with great beauty, at a very important moment of the book. Moore’s lines are alive as part of the Moore inheritance.