Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Notes from Another Scandal

Andrew O'Hagan's Booker longlisted Be Near Me is one of those novels stories where you can see disaster looming for the protagonist a long way off, and feel like shouting him a warning. (But would he have listened? Would he have cared?)

Like Zoe Heller's excellent Notes from a Scandal, the novel takes as its territory the human story behind familiar tabloid headlines (in this case screaming about a paedophile Roman Catholic priest).

Father David Anderton becomes the parish priest for Dalgarnock, a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland. He's a fish out of water (Oxford educated, middle-class) in a former industrial town with high-unemployment rates and sectarian divisions as clear-cut as those in Ulster, across the water.

He befriends a group of loutish teens from the local school, and becomes a de facto member of the gang, smoking dope, popping E's, drinking, hanging out. He is particularly drawn to a boy called Mark, whom he kisses (and no more) after a night on a bender. The boy tells his father who then blows the whistle, and soon the the whole community is baying for his blood.

I could appreciate O'Hagan's depiction of the teenagers, having taught classes just like this!:

The pupils were waiting in World Religions. they hung over their desks as if they had just been dropped from a great height, looking like their limbs confounded them and their hair bothered them chewed the frayed ends of their sweaters in the style of caged animals attempting to escape their own quarters. They tended to wear uniform, though each pupil had customized it with badges and belts and sweatbands, you felt they had applied strict notions of themselves to the tying of their ties and the sticking up of their shirt collars. the small energies of disdain could be observed in all this, and the classroom fairly jingled with the sound of forbidden rings and bracelets.
David Anderton is a more difficult character to work out, since we are only gradually permitted to piece together his past. I didn't find him easy to sympathize with - he lacks conviction in his calling, he comes across as weak and ineffectual and simply to be going through the motions of running his parish.

It is a bit of a stretch that a parish priest should be so attracted to a group of yobbish teens that in some senses he seeks to emulate them, but O'Hagan does make the relationship seem credible ... and even inevitable.

Father David is attracted to the teenagers, and particularly to Mark, for their exuberance and their certainty (even when wrong-headed) and perhaps too for their sheer recklessness which contrast with his own lack of conviction and inertia. He clearly takes pleasure in experiencing life vicariously through them.

The title of the book is a line from Tennyson's In Memoriam and, as Hilary Mantel says, (reviewing the book in the Guardian) it is a prayer whispered by this celibate priest on all those lonely nights, still longing for the lover who was killed in a car accident decades before. It's a blow Father David hasn't recovered from. A sense of loss permeates the novel.

Would I recommend the book? Honestly - I'm not sure that it would appeal to the average Malaysian reader who might find it too slow and the setting perhaps too unfamiliar. (I carry the voices of the members of my book club around in my head - I know how they would react!)

But if you enjoy the kind of contemporary British literary fiction which finds its way onto Booker shortlists and longlists, you should find the novel extremely rewarding.

I did enjoy it very much because I so admired O'Hagan's craft: he writes beautifully (although some reviewers have felt that he rather overwrites) and I relished the language. Scenes were so vividly rendered, that I was watching the movie in my head. (British. Arty. Slow.) I also really liked Mrs. Poole the housekeeper whom I felt was particularly well-drawn.

Much better reviews than mine - Sean O'Brian's in the Independent and Andrew Ng's a few weeks back in StarMag. (Who says our local reviewers don't cut the mustard?)


Anonymous said...

sheesh, not another priest-gone-wrong story. it seems like it's a cool trend now to tell stories about disgraced priests. why dont they tell stories about how difficult it is to become a priest, the gruelling processes they have to go through? it seems more like everyone is trying to paint all priests as paedophiles, closet gays, etc. why is that?

The Viz

bibliobibuli said...

dear viz, read the book and don't jump to snap judgments. o'hagan turns stereotypes on their heads. What is innocence anyway?

the priest is in fact very much the innocent party (he's stupid, yes, lost, yes, but has no intention of harming the boy), the "innocent" kids are knowing and conniving and shallow.

it's a very moving, very human story

and though i don't want to bang on about a hobby horse of mine, the RC church might thrive much better (partic in UK where we have to import priests from other countries!) were celibacy an option rather than a precondition for priesthood. in earlier times, priests (inc. popes) married, but the church got worried about the heirs of priests inheriting church property so introduced the celibacy thing.

anyway (off hobby horse again) what other books of priests gone wrong have you read?? i can only think of graham greene's "the power and the glory"

Anonymous said...

i know, i know. thats what everyone claims as an after-the-fact. that it's not about the priest, it's about humanity, it's about innocence, it's about human fallibility, etc. but why priests?

well, i'm not only talking about books but also films. ever since that Robert Carlyle film, Priest. and that was in the early 90s? now there are documentaries like Jesus Camp. i mean, why priests? is it becos there's been a spate of real life cases over recent years? so doesnt that mean people are banking on making money on this "hot" topic? i don't know. what is it?


bibliobibuli said...

why not priests? there are films about lousy teachers for e.g? flawed soldiers. corrupt lawyers. dishonest cops. almost every other profession. i guess too that there is a fascination ... and also perhaps the fight of good and evil is more poignant (i mean, we know lawyers are sharks, haha, so it doesn't surprise us when their morality goes pear-shaped, ... but priests have to maintain a dignity and spirituality)

Anonymous said...

Actually I've not seen a film about a lousy teacher.

bibliobibuli said...

dh lawrence's "the rainbow" was filmed.

animah said...

Thank you Sharon, I think I'd like to be a white shark.
Sympozium, what kind of shark would you like to be?

bibliobibuli said...

i gave abu a t-shirt with sharks on it! (he's a bit of wimp as a shark though)

Anonymous said...

Purple is good... always liked it. Or pink, would a pink shark be self-conscious ? it would need therapy. Hm, but where can I get a copy of "The Rainbow" ?

Anonymous said...

I got a copy.. I must say the protagonist wasn't a bad teacher, she did teach him something :D