44: Dublin Made Me
Mr. Sheridan, now a distinguished theater director, grew up in Dublin, a city seemingly populated entirely by eccentrics. Some of them "lodged" in the Sheridan house, where young Peter's know-it-all father provoked discussions that sometimes advanced from philosophy to violence. Order was restored when Mrs. Sheridan threatened to "put my hat and coat on." As the 1960s progressed, the family acquired a television and a washing machine. Neither worked well, and Sheridan senior's do-it-yourself principles made little improvement. The author and his siblings survived a dreadful clerical schoolmaster, a passion for the Beatles, and the juvenile equivalent of a jailbreak. They lost a little brother. Mr. Sheridan describes this noisy, devoted, bright, and funny clan with great affection and a fine sense of timing, as the boy that he was develops awareness of the world, of music, of sex, and of the very real capabilities of his father. All the book's characters grow and become more complicated, as people do in real life, but few real-life observers record the process with the understanding and high spirits of Mr. Sheridan.
The Unstrung Harp
UH has been reissued for the titillation of a new generation of Gorey devotees. It depicts "the unspeakable horror of the literary life," as experienced by Mr. Earbrass "of Hobbies Odd, near Collapsed Pudding in Mortshire," with a practicality unusual for Mr. Gorey. There are no hints of obscene perversities and only one hallucination. Mr. Gorey's idiosyncratic, inexplicably sinister illustrations are another matter.
A biographer of Swift does not suffer from want of material. Swift's works, his voluminous correspondence, and his contemporaries document him thoroughly. The problems are to account for the clergyman, the Tory propagandist, the satirist, the philanthropist, and the patriot without committing three volumes, and to avoid rash speculation about a subject who remains stubbornly enigmatic. Ms. Glendinning, an accomplished biographer, deftly avoids both pitfalls. She gives little space to Swift's Tory polemics on the grounds that they were based on ambition (he longed to be an English bishop) rather than political conviction. The friendships with party authorities were, however, as genuine as those with literary figures like Pope and Gay, for they endured after the Tory regime collapsed in scandal and once-powerful men could get Swift no more than an appointment as Dean of Saint Patrick's in Dublin. Swift frankly hated Ireland, but once there, he became a fiercely eloquent advocate of fair and decent treatment of the island and is revered as the father of Irish independence. He was responsible for the establishment of a mental hospital that still exists. He never married, and Ms. Glendinning is impartial in dealing with the theories that have been put forward to account for his long, inconclusive relationships with Stella (Esther Johnson) and Vanessa (Hester Vanhomrigh). Incest, class distinctions, latent homosexuality, and money have all been proposed. The author considers the evidence for each, finds all of it both plausible and implausible, and settles for Swift's "screwed up" attitude toward women. A biographer who can resist the opportunity for elaborate sexual guesswork should be much admired.
Ms. Byatt's "Stories of Fire and Ice" have a delightful fairy-tale quality, reinforced by her extraordinary skill in creating leisurely, luxurious visual images. The effect is deceptive, because the tales are metaphors for recognizable situations. (But are not fairy tales that to begin with?) Whether the author's basic subject is art, or grief, or the generation gap, it emerges from subtle disguise -- except when it sneaks up and pounces. In either case, the reader can enjoy surprise as well as pleasure.
Trout and Salmon
"If you want to be happy for one hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for three days, get married.... If you want to be happy forever, learn to fish." The catch to that advice (source unknown) is that there are times when fishing is impossible. This collection of fishing memoirs, by anglers recent and past, offers relief for the hopelessly offstream. Mr. Atkinson's photographs are superb. The authors are veteran experts and bungling novices, casting from Alaska to Chile to Iceland to Russia and at points between. There is a quotation from "the great fly-fisherman G.E.M. Skues" that may explain the fervor of anglers to the unenlightened.
Phoebe Lou Adams is The Atlantic Monthly's staff writer.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Brief Reviews - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 137-138.