Monday, March 16, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE DISTANCE AND THE DARK” by Terence de Vere White (first published 1973); “CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT – Twelve Stories” by Terence de Vere White (first published in 1977)
It’s the week of St Patrick’s Day so, as I’ve done for the last three years, I give you on this blog a “Something Old” related to Ireland. How it is related to Ireland is, however, a little problematical, as its viewpoint is very much a minority one. I caution you that this is a rather obscure novel which you are highly unlikely to read, and for that reason I do not hesitate to give away the whole of its plot, “spoilers” and all. I further caution you that its author was a respected, but not exactly a stellar, literary figure, so let me say a few words about him first of all.
Terence de Vere White (1912-1994) was for most of his life a Dubliner and wrote a total of 26 books, 12 of them being novels and nearly all of them being concerned with Irish matters. He was as well known for his biographies (of the Irish Free State jurist Kevin O’Higgins among others) and his social histories as for his fiction. For 16 years he was literary editor of the Irish Times. It was when he held that position that he wrote The Distance and the Dark. The Irish Times is generally seen as the major Irish newspaper that most expresses an Anglo-Irish or “West Briton” mentality. Because Terence de Vere White worked there; because he took his degree at the old Anglo-Irish bastion Trinity College; and because so many of his works do reflect a conservative Anglophile social class in Ireland; it was widely assumed that he was of Protestant background. In fact, this wasn’t quite true. His father was Protestant, but his mother was Catholic, and his mother had the greater influence on his upbringing as his father died when he was very young. Nevertheless, de Vere White didn’t observe any particular faith. He was twice married and once divorced. His second wife was the biographer Victoria Glendenning. But, a bit of a lad and in middle age, he also fathered a child on the (much younger) travel writer Dervla Murphy, who chose not to marry him and to raise the child on her own.
The Distance and the Dark has been seen by at least one literary historian (Derek Hand in his A History of the Irish Novel) as part of the resurgence of the “Big House” novel – the type of novel in which comfortably-off upper-middle-class Irish landowners reacted to Ireland – that occurred in the early 1970s in the first phase of Ireland’s renewed bout of the “troubles”, when the IRA was once again a force to be reckoned with.
Everard Hardy, wealthy gentry-type farmer, is informed by an honest Garda (Irish policeman) that his home is going to be raided for arms. In the raid, the honest informer and Everard’s young son are killed by an IRA group. Everard sets himself the task of finding the men responsible, not to exact revenge, but simply to confront them with what they have done and to make them see how wrong it is. However, as a member of the wealthy Anglophile landowning class, even though his family have been resident in Ireland for many generations, he finds his enquiries are pitted against the ingrained distrust of the local Irish population. Even the Garda and Irish government officials know that there is no way you can easily bring a prosecution against the IRA, and certainly no way you can indulge in a bout of moral reasoning with them.
While all this is going on, Everard’s marriage breaks down. His (young, English) wife walks out on him with a jockey who may (or may not) be homosexual. And when this happens, Everard foolishly finds solace in an affair with his best friend’s wife.
He does eventually get to confront the IRA man responsible for the murders, but his moral denunciations fall on the deaf ears of somebody who knows that he will never be prosecuted. Everard’s wife, having discovered that her flashy jockey lover really is homosexual, writes to Everard asking to be taken back. Everard sends a telegram dutifully accepting her. But before she returns, he is killed by the same IRA gang who killed his son, because in trying to get close to them, he has witnessed them carrying out a daylight robbery on a post-office.
On the last page we learn that the son who was killed was not really his, but the result of his faithless wife’s liaison with an English novelist.
Clearly Everard Hardy (whose name sounds as Anglo and as non-Irish as de Vere White) has not understood or known the people who are close to him any more than he has understood or known the larger Irish society that surrounds him.
When I first read The Distance and the Dark (the title is a quotation from Robert Browning) I wrote in my reading diary that it was “a solid middle-range, intelligent novel”. Despite the expected revenge motif (man seeks killer of son…), it actually resolves itself into a largely unflattering portrait of a particular social class – horsey Irish gentry who a few generations back would have been called Anglo-Irish (one of de Vere White’s non-fiction books, The Anglo-Irish, was a social history of this class). They are citizens of the Irish Republic, but they take English newspapers, are mainly Protestant, and basically regard the locals as either servants or barbarians. And even if their families have in a few cases resided in a particular location longer than the local Irish, they have a colonialist’s siege mentality, passing the time betting on horses or committing adultery in a bored and indifferent sort of way.
They have no particular beliefs, except in their own survival as a class. A minor character is described thus:
“He had become completely cynical about the sentimentalities of Irish politics and the sanctification of violence, provided it took place in the past. He was a completely modern man, believing in almost nothing, with a good-natured contempt for the unenlightened folk he met in the village.” (Chapter 12)
Everard Hardy is essentially a decent man, wanting to settle up moral accounts with his son’s murderers, but in this tale his decency ends up looking like naïve gullibility. I am not sure what de Vere White’s ultimate point is. The personal and the political intermesh, and not all victims are necessarily guiltless themselves. Other than that, I got only good story-telling with a slightly sardonic edge and with moments of gentler humour such as:
“She was not sociable: she loved her garden: she adored her husband, who had flattered her so much when he proposed that she had never completely recovered from the grateful surprise.” (Chapter 19)
Comparing The Distance and the Dark with the one other work of fiction by de Vere White which I have read, however, I detect a larger and more depressing theme. Terence de Vere White’s short-story collection Chimes at Midnight (1977) comprises twelve short stories. I will give you a taste of them by quickly synopsising some.
* A young woman fears her fiance’s latent homosexuality and draws sullen comfort from the death of his best friend.
* An unsuccessful novelist fritters away his time by wondering about his girlfriend’s fidelity.
* A husband prefers reading pornography to making love to his wife.
* A clerk has grandiose plans for his future, but gets fired for daydreaming.
* Through fear of not seeming “liberal”, a stuffy committee appoints to a sinecure a candidate it does not really want.
* A dithering litterateur justifies to himself his inability to get rid of the pushy lodger who threatens his marriage.
* It takes a lodger thirty years to discover that the only reason an obnoxious fellow-lodger has been able to stay on is that he is the landlady’s lover.
Get the idea? Nearly all these stories (and the other five which I have not synopsised) suggest a sense of practical impotence often expressed in sexual terms, an inability to affect other people in any meaningful way and a growing awareness of an inability to relate to society at large. Collectively, they are like the handwringing of an author who knew this was a fair judgment on his own social class.
I think these are the underlying ideas of The Distance and the Dark too.