Literary Supplements

Karl Miller

  • Warrenpoint by Denis Donoghue
    Cape, 193 pp, £12.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 224 03084 1
  • Darkness Visible by William Styron
    Cape, 84 pp, £8.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 224 03045 0

Denis Donoghue has written a seductive book. Perhaps it could be said that he has spliced together two books, one of which is more seductive than the other. One of them narrates. The other contemplates. Warrenpoint is a series of passages, not unlike journal entries, some of which deal with his youth in the Northern Irish seaside town of that name, and in particular with his awareness, and acceptance, of his father, while the others consist of the annotations of the professor and man of letters. I don’t mean to do as the Leavises did with Daniel Deronda and propose a Solomonic severance: let’s just say that many readers would be very sorry to lose the memories if it were to come to a cut.

The father did not talk much, or read much, or go to the pictures. This was a Solomon whose wisdom did not propose things, or even say them. It was nevertheless a ruler’s wisdom. He ‘was the rock of ages’. When he was still he seems to have been very, very still, to have been his own statue, and when he moved he moved well. He was an exemplary walker towards undoubted destinations and the achievement of set purposes. A Catholic from the South, he was also a sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Denis Donoghue communicates, but does not enlarge on, the possibility that there may have been a dilemma for his parent here. There was never any doubt in one way as to which side his father was on, together with all the other Catholics of the place – that of the South. But there was a duty that went with the job, and he did it. For this son, though not for his brother, their father was the law, and we are brought to feel that Denis Donoghue grew strong, and professorial, in responding to his father’s strength of will. He accepted the regime at the police station, where the family lived in adjoining quarters; and he was later to be scornful of Freud’s notion of a salutary resistance to fathers. It would have been hard for any son to resist the mother of the house, who is all but written out of the account – a state, however, which has an eloquence of its own. The mother, who was subject to ‘attacks’ of a medical nature, ‘was a minor presence in comparison with my father’. Among relatives in the Republic ‘it was taken for granted that whatever my mother did, she did badly.’

This is another dilemma about which little, but perhaps enough, is said. Denis Donoghue is interested in statements, and in sentences, and his own, when he touches on family matters, are in decisive, literal vein. They are delivered de haut, straight from the shoulder of someone who grew up to be six feet seven, and to be ill at ease in that long, ‘wrong’ body. His height seems to hover over the statements he makes on such subjects, and on some others. He, too, is the law, and we are inclined to take his word.

It was his ‘instinct’ to ‘keep his distance’ from Protestants. ‘A Protestant was as alien to me as a Muslim, and Muslims had the merit that I didn’t know any of them.’ There’s a Donoghue dying fall to that, and one imagines his lips moving to this effect up there in the snow-sphere of his six feet seven. ‘A Protestant was someone who wasn’t a Catholic.’ But that wasn’t all that a Protestant was. He was also an oppressor. That there were and are many sorts of Protestant, and that some Protestants have had no known wish to oppress Catholics, has very little potency for the book. Sergeant Donoghue strongly distinguished between family and others, while remaining instinctively on the side of those others who were Catholic. His son was at ease with his faith – ‘the existence of God wasn’t a particular problem for me’ –and he is its defender against the problems and misconceptions of others.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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