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A Life in Books

Carlo Gébler

A Migrant Heart, by Denis Sampson, Linda Leith Publishing, 246 pp, CAN$16.95, ISBN 978-1927535479

When he was a boy, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the author of A Migrant Heart, Denis Sampson, would often go on regular Sunday afternoon excursions with his mother, father and older brother in the family’s dark-green second-hand Morris Minor from the farm where they lived beside Lough Derg to the east Clare village of O’Callaghansmills, where they visited relatives.

There was only one route and on their way they always passed Drewsboro’ House outside Tuamgraney, and as they did, his father would slow the car and his mother would glance up the avenue at the neglected fences, the ragged lawns and the fields of ragwort that surrounded the dishevelled dwelling, and then his mother would exclaim something like “Wouldn’t you think they’d be mortified by the cut of the place? What’s going to be the end of them all?”

Poor husbandry is often a subject of conversation in Irish farming circles but in this case what gave the judgment added piquancy was the family connection. The owner of Drewsboro’ House, Michael O’Brien, had been partly reared by Denis’s grandmother together with his own father in the house where he was growing up. Denis’s father and Michael O’Brien were cousins and when Michael was orphaned at seven he went to his relatives the Sampsons.

But all that was in the distant past – the years before the First World War. By the 1960s, when Denis drove past, the O’Briens and the Sampsons were ghosts in one another’s lives. The author’s people never called to Drewsboro’ or had anything to do with the inhabitants of the house: the catastrophic decline of Michael O’Brien’s fortunes, on account of alcohol, as well as the aura of danger and violence he exuded were among the reasons for this.

Now, in the early 1960s as it happened, during the months of June, July and August, when Denis’s father slowed down to allow his wife to look up the avenue towards Drewsboro, they could very well have seen two little boys playing amidst the ragwort, or swinging on the gates or climbing the trees, and I was one of them and my brother, Sasha, was the other, for Michael O’Brien was my grandfather, his wife, Helena, my grandmother, and their daughter my mother, Edna O’Brien, author of The Country Girls, a book which, incidentally, the young Denis Sampson knew of and wanted to read at the very time he was driving by.

 Denis Sampson’s book starts in a place I know well, the east Clare of both our clans. It was and still is a place that was part of my childhood and all of his, but it tells a story, his story, about which I know nothing, because we never met back then and we have never met since. However, for the record, I am glad to have his account – incredibly so.

Denis Sampson was born on a farm. He doesn’t specify the year. This, it should be noted, is not a date- or fact-heavy book, for reasons that will become clear. As his older brother would inherit the farm (and did) his mother determined that he would in all likelihood make a life beyond Co Clare and to make him fit for the journey ahead she knew he needed a deep and robust education. She bought him books and encouraged him to read, which nourished his imagination and expanded his horizons. At Lakyle National School an inspirational teacher (unnamed in this account), building on his mother’s foundations, encouraged further reading. Meanwhile, out of school, his mother (an incredible woman, clearly) sent him to a retired woman in Mountshannon who had spent her working life in France for French and piano lessons.

At fourteen, again part of his mother’s plan, he went to boarding school where he fell under the spell of the inspirational English teacher Gus Martin and managed to obtain by stealth various prohibited texts including The Country Girls and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. It was the experience of reading these banned texts and discovering they were repositories of luminous truths that broke his faith and primed him for the life of literary investigation he was subsequently to lead.

After school Sampson went to UCD, where he became involved in left-wing politics and fell in love. By rights, according at any rate to his mother’s plan, he ought, after graduation, to have entered the Irish civil service. After all, he had the Irish, even if he was not enamoured of the language. But he didn’t go the traditional route. Instead he went to Montreal, first to McGill University and then Vanier College and there he has remained ever since, working as a teacher and academic, and publishing books on McGahern and Brian Moore. The other events of note over this period were personal: the UCD girlfriend followed him to Canada: they married, had children and bought a nice brownstone house where they still live.

These then, in an abbreviated form, are the facts more or less. It isn’t so surprising of course that there is not an abundance of facts and events. The writer is a scholar and his is a typical scholar’s life, with the great events happening in his head rather than out in the world: these inner events all have their start in literature and it is his encounters with the books that built him into the man he has become that make up in large part the story he tells here.

The first author who mattered was my mother, but that was because of the family connection and the difficulty he had obtaining her first novel. Orwell was also there at the beginning. His next passion (a passion that has endured all his life), discovered once he became autonomous, was McGahern, whose insights he felt amplified the critique of Irish life he first encountered in The Country Girls.

Later important writers were DH Lawrence, whose nature worship connected him back to his Edenic childhood in east Clare, Thomas Hardy for similar reasons, Brian Moore because he had lived in Montreal and because he had such interesting things to say about the eternal struggle in an immigrant’s interior between what he feels about the old world he has left versus the new world where he has landed, and finally VS Naipaul, especially the late English works such as The Enigma of Arrival, which explore so searchingly the experience of the untethered immigrant as he seeks attachment. There are other writers, such as Heaney, but the ones cited are the important ones.

Denis Sampson is an academic writing in A Migrant Heart about his subject – literature. However, and this needs to be stressed, his writing is anything but academic. On the contrary, his style is clear, jargon-free, and quietly compelling. It also should be emphasised that though this book is about books it is not a literary critical book but something bigger and more ample: though there’s tons of literature in it, it’s actually a memoir which not only excavates the books referred to above but describes with a lovely delicacy and honesty the way the writer’s personality and thinking developed in response to his reading. A Migrant Heart, therefore, is a sort of bildungsroman, in as much as it offers an account of how a child grows into maturity though reading, but it is also more than a bildungsroman because it isn’t just the growth into maturity that concerns the writer but also the way, once maturity is achieved, the writer changes and sometimes goes back on what he thought he had agreed or decided with himself. It is, if you like, a history not just of growth but of the revisionism that occurs in the psyche with middle age.

According to his own account, Denis Sampson was not really enamoured of the Irish language or any of the other Free State pieties. He was always somehow, without knowing how it had come about, a freethinker. He lost his religion early (though not his respect for sacred ritual), became a left-winger in his late teens and early twenties, and then later, once he had settled in Montreal, became a right-on Quebecker who voted for independence and sent his children to French language school. But since then, due in no small measure not only to his reading but also to a great deal of personal anguish and inner turmoil, he has discovered he is no longer so certain as he thought he once was and has become, on the contrary, much more sceptical, though his scepticism isn’t of the toxic variety (the Ukip variety for instance) but something much more thoughtful and tender and careful.

A Migrant Heart is not typical of the sort of memoirs which now tend to get published. It has no major dramas, all the crises described are inward and personal and the tone is resolutely quietist and pure. It is, however, not only good but necessary for the ecology of literature to have books as intelligent and thoughtful as this, which give readers a sense of what constitutes real value and the real worth of literature and  writers a sense of what is possible, which can only be good for standards. The edition of A Migrant Heart that I read was published in Canada (and well done to that Canadian publisher); it is a shame that no one on this side of the pond has published this fine, illuminating and affecting work. It really does deserve to be in print here.

Carlo Gébler is a writer. His memoir Confessions of a Catastrophist will be published by the Lagan Press in the spring of 2015 and his play about the siege of Derry, Walking to the Ark, will be performed in that city in the autumn.

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