“Arthur has taken the essay and filled it, over and over, with his singular insights and perceptions. The form is especially suited to his temperament. Beginning in 1999 with Irish Nocturnes, he has shown, through many collections, how wide-ranging, compelling and illuminating this particular, and often undervalued, brand of literature can be... What he is aiming for, and achieves [in Reading Life] is ‘a closer, deeper reading of a few fragments of experience’... his essays branch out into a web of allusions, without sacrificing their hold on the particular. Always erudite and entertaining, Chris Arthur goes his own way, keeping his mind independent and all his senses alert... It’s all exhilarating.”
Patricia Craig, The Irish Times, January 6th 2018 (the full review can be read here)
How do you read a girl's bare feet, a fallen fuchsia blossom, or the act of throwing a gun into a reservoir's deep water? In Reading Life Chris Arthur continues his essayistic explorations, using this fascinating and flexible literary form to fashion fourteen exquisitely crafted readings whose lyricism often suggests poetry as much as prose. Sometimes reading is meant literally and books are the point of focus; sometimes it's meant metaphorically with the objects and events around us being read. But whether he's considering child prostitution in Paris, Flann O'Brien's great comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, a whale's tooth, a bayonet, or the poems of Seamus Heaney, common to all of these readings is a search for the meanings that lie behind the superficialities of ordinary discourse.
The book's epigraph — taken from Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading — emphasizes its main theme:
We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.
This is how Reading Life begins:
The Shimna — whose name in Irish means "river of the bulrushes" — rises in the Mourne mountains near Lough Shannagh and meets the sea at Newcastle, County Down, a town whose setting must be one of the most beautiful in Europe. It's where, in the words of Percy French's famous song, "the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea." They really do, and Newcastle, with its main street and esplanade built only a stone's throw from the waves, enjoys the majestic backdrop of the mountains rising steeply and spectacularly behind it. For part of its way, the Shimna flows through Tollymore (from Tulaigh mhór, "the big hillock"), a forest park whose densely wooded acres on the lower slopes of the Mournes offer a delightful choice of walks. My favorite involves crossing the river by a set of stepping stones. If the river is in spate, the stones can become impassable. In a dry midsummer, when the water level is sufficiently low, the stepping stones and their foundations protrude like a recumbent section of battlements affixed to the river bed. You can walk up and down their steps quite dryly almost all the way across. With only a trickle of flow, the river reduced to a few puddled threads of shallow, sluggish movement, it's more like walking on some ruined castle's crenellated wall than crossing a stretch of water. The most challenging conditions are when the spaces between the steps are entirely submerged, just managing to contain the snaking currents coursing through them, and the steps themselves — a dozen diamond-shaped granite blocks greened with moss — seem like a little linear archipelago, the islands separated by the Shimna's powerful flow. They offer a line of steps — at once enticing and intimidating — only millimeters above the river's level. Going across under these conditions is as close to walking on water as any of us is likely to experience. It requires concentration. The river's great moving sweep right at your feet is mesmerizing. It can undermine even a strong sense of balance. I've seen some walkers take a few unsteady steps across, falter, almost topple and then retreat, preferring to continue on the bank-side path and cross at the bridge further upstream, rather than risk falling in or being stranded halfway over by a sense of water-induced vertigo.
* * *
At one point on the walk by the Shimna, not long after crossing the stepping stones, you come to a high bank that affords a good view of some of the river's largest pools. These must be seven or eight feet deep at least, but the water is so clear you can make out the precise shape of every stone at the bottom. The water has a definite greenish tinge to it. I'm not sure if this is caused by some kind of mineral dissolved in it, or if it's the color of the stones on the river bed that gives the water this particular tint. Or maybe it's a property of the overhanging trees, their verdant shade making the water take on the appearance of a weak, leafy brew. Whatever the cause of this coloration, I've often watched salmon swimming in these green-deep pools, their sleek forms moving effortlessly in their element — ghostly torpedoes hinting at the presence of a another world close to, yet different from, our own.
Watching the salmon always reminds me of the traditional tale of Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge. Finn (to use the common Anglicization of Fuin Mac Cumhal or Fionn Mac Cumhaill) is one of the great heroes of Irish mythology. Tradition has it that he was destined to become leader of the band of warriors known as the Fianna. To join this elite group — let alone become its leader — demanded more than merely military prowess. Finn knew he would have to be well-versed in traditional poetry and learning too (would that such literary accomplishments were always a prerequisite for those who take up arms). Accordingly, so the legend goes, the young Finn apprenticed himself to Finnegas the Bard, a renowned poet who had been living on the banks of the river Boyne for seven years, perfecting his art and trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge. An ancient prophecy foretold that whoever ate this fabled fish would gain all the wisdom of the world. The salmon lived in a deep pool in the river overhung by oak trees. I imagined it having the same green translucence as the Shimna's pools at Tollymore.
One day, after all his years of effort, Finnegas finally catches the elusive salmon of knowledge. He instructs his acolyte to prepare it, warning Finn that under no circumstances must he eat any of it himself. The story tells how Finn faithfully obeys his master, but that some hot fat from the cooking fish spits onto his thumb. Without thinking, he puts his thumb in his mouth and sucks it to relieve the pain — and in that moment becomes enlightened. Bringing the fish to Finnegas, the poet immediately notices the change in his young disciple. Questioning him, he discovers what has happened and instructs Finn to eat the rest of the salmon, whose knowledge, so we are told, came from having eaten the nuts of nine hazel trees that grew beside a magic undersea well.
In Theories of Everything, astronomer John Barrow suggests that myths "do not arise from data or as solutions to practical problems." Instead, "they emerge as antidotes" for humankind's feelings of "smallness and insignificance." Given our position in the world, and the fact that so much is beyond our understanding or control, it's not surprising that we feel the need for consoling antidotes that hint at fathomable meanings. Stories offer some kind of psychological compensation for not being in control, for feeling overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of things and their often baffling lack of sense. The story of Finn and the Salmon of Knowledge offers a kind of narrative balm for the fact that our understanding can only ever be partial. What I particularly like about it is the way the story celebrates the rich fecundity of fragments. A single fish that is the embodiment of all knowledge, hazelnuts that contain the secret of everything — these are wonderful symbols for the depths of meaning contained in the ordinary, seemingly simple things around us. From a tiny splinter of being — a splash of hot fat — Finn gains insight into totality.
* * *
One summer afternoon after I'd crossed the stepping stones and was watching the salmon swimming with their mysterious heavy gracefulness in the Shimna's green-deep pools, a dog appeared on the opposite bank. He too spotted the salmon and proceeded to try to catch them, jumping in with ungainly splashes — pounces of tremendous energy, but complete ineptitude. They posed no danger to the fish; depth and refraction kept them safe. The transparency of the water and the dark, alluring shapes moving below, seemingly so close, kept the dog entranced. He jumped in repeatedly, pausing on the bank only for long enough to let the ripples settle so that the swimming shapes could be seen clearly again. Their tantalizing presence caused him to bark and growl excitedly, to wag his tail uncontrollably, as the puzzlingly elusive forms beckoned to instincts that could not be resisted.
* * *
I'd not thought of Tollymore, the stepping stones, or the salmon-chasing dog for years. But faced with trying to explain the nature of this book, they came back to me again. I don't know how I knew to summon them from whatever stratum of the mind holds the ore of metaphor, nor did I do so consciously, but I'm glad they returned.
At first, the stepping stones were what I welcomed most. They seemed to offer a fitting symbol for what Reading Life attempts. I liked the idea of seeing it as building a series of crossing points across life's rivers, laying down footholds close to — right in — the water of experience so that we can feel its surge and flow, savor the rich flavors that it carries. The way each stepping stone is self-contained, yet contributes to the line of steps of which it's a part, seemed to fit my style of writing more than, say, a bridge would, with its one continuous structure, more elaborate building materials, less simple construction technique, and the promise of more distanced — albeit safer — crossings.
But it wasn't long before the comparisons I smelted out of this piece of metaphorical ore buckled and failed. There are too many dissimilarities between actual stepping stones and those in Reading Life to allow the parallel to stand unchallenged. With the Shimna stones, you can see across to where you want to go; both banks of the river are in plain sight. The steps offer a direct way across, a straight line that runs from one side to the other. The stones themselves are regularly spaced and on a uniformly solid foundation. None of them tip or wobble. You can see all of them at once in a single glance, imagine your passage across before setting out. Their flat tops are made with the size and shape of a foot in mind. They're fixed, immovable, designed to take a weight. The stepping stones I've assembled here, by contrast, offer no such reassuring certainties. They're rarely linear and walking on them often feels like attempting to cross the Shimna when the river is in massive spate, the current tugging powerfully at your ankles. Not only are the stones submerged by the surging flow of whatever river they're attempting to offer a way across, but they've also been dislodged from any pattern of secure alignment, making it necessary to feel forward precariously, testing for steady footing. There are no guarantees that there will be another stone, or that what's laid out will bring you to dry land.
I've not given up on the stepping stone comparison completely, thus its presence here. But, in the end, out of all the metaphorical ore my memories of Tollymore offered, it was the dog and the salmon that seemed to mirror most closely the way Reading Life proceeds. I've come to think of my writing as attempting to catch some of the unexpected salmon I see moving in life's pools. They're not the Shimna's sleek, torpedo-bodied fish, but instead have all manner of unlikely guises — a child's feet, a whale's tooth, a wartime pistol, three old walking sticks, books by Flann O'Brien, Michel de Montaigne, Seamus Heaney and other writers. Such things may not have been fed by magic hazelnuts growing by an undersea well, but each of the fragments that have caught my eye seems laden with a cargo that's worth teasing out, however commonplace they may at first appear. Like the Shimna salmon, they hint at the presence of another realm of meaning close to, yet different from, our workaday preoccupations.
The fact that I was born in Belfast and grew up in Northern Ireland, at a particularly turbulent time in that small country's history, means that many of my salmon bear distinctive Ulster markings — sometimes scars. The fact that I left Ireland in my twenties and that, in any case, my reading had already taken me to distant destinations, means that my salmon also swim far beyond any Irish waters. And unlike the dog that simply hurled itself into the Shimna's green-deep pools, I can fish with all the sophisticated tackle words afford. If, like the dog, depth and refraction mean I miss my targets, I can only keep on trying. If, to a reader's eye, some of my salmon of knowledge seem more like sprats of inconsequence, I can only say that as we gaze into the waters around us we each must pursue whatever shapes strike us as worth catching.
* * *
The title of the book emphasizes its major concern — reading. This is sometimes meant in the literal sense of reading books, sometimes in the broader, metaphorical sense of reading the objects and events around us. I've arranged the essays so as to alternate between these two senses. Common to all them is a search for the meanings that lie behind or beyond the superficial readings of ordinary discourse. "Reading Life" — the book's title essay — brings together the two fundamental threads of reading books and reading the world around us.
I know, of course, that I'm fishing for things I'll never catch. But the hope remains that a splash of water from the pools in which I cast my line will contain a few droplets that once brushed a salmon's side, and that these may find their way into my mouth and the mouths of my readers. Tasting them won't bring about some sudden, Finn-like moment of epiphany, a tsunami of realization in which everything falls into place. All they offer is a closer, deeper reading of a few fragments of experience. But such reading will, I hope, serve the function Alberto Manguel points to in the epigraph I've chosen for the book — namely that it will help us to catch some glimpses of what and where we are.
Further comment on Reading Life will be added as reviews appear.
"Chris Arthur has persisted, with wide critical success, in a deeply old-fashioned form of words: the essay. Arthur was once warden of a nature reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh, and his early life in Co Antrim still animates him... Few of his essays have ever been simple 'nature writing': the landscape and wildlife in Ulster serve as grist to a formidable intellectual mill. Reading Life, his sixth book, extends a seductive flow of speculation and connection."
Michael Viney, The Irish Times, 4 Nov 2017
"Few writers today can rival Chris Arthur in his mastery of the traditional essay, that endangered and slow-moving literary species which manages to survive despite the competing pressures of 24/7 journalism and the incessant clamor of everybody's infallible opinions. More interested in the glance than the gaze, the spark than the fire, Arthur — like so many great essayists — takes creative advantage of our strangest faculty: the wandering mind. I found Reading Life enchanting and invigorating, chock-full of those wonderful and surprising insights that come only from an inspired divided attention."
Pre-publication quote from Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best American Essays
"Here is an essay to be read and read, to be pondered for its dazzling originality, and studied for its graceful style. Arthur considers George Steiner, Alberto Manguel, Walter Ong, Sven Birkerts, and other well-known scholars and critics, and he cites such writers as Chesterton, Borges, and Les Murray; but his principal example is J.A. Baker's Peregrine. This brilliantly original and prize-worthy essay reveals the joys of reading as we 'navigate a way through the mysterious transience of our existence' — 'the very life of life' and 'the secret world' of that life. Arthur not only introduces us to Baker but to the author himself — Chris Arthur — the maker and shaper of five books of essays. Read him."
George Core, Editor of the Sewanee Review, in Sewanee Review, 120.4 (2012), p.87, commenting on an early version of Reading Life's title essay, as it appeared in the Southwest Review in 2011
"Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought — but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read."
- Footnotes Reading my daughter's feet
- Breath Reading an entry from the Goncourt brothers' Journal
- Fuchsia Reading a patch of fallen blossom
- When a Dog Barks Late at Night and Then Retires Again to Bed Reading Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds
- Priests Reading fishing and desecration
- When the Time Comes to Leave Them Reading Montaigne
- Tracks Reading footprints in the snow
- Sonatina for Oboe and Bayonet Reading All Quiet on the Western Front
- Describing a Thought-Path Reading a path along which I cycle nearly every day
- Containing Agostino Reading a copy of Alberto Moravia's Novella
- Scrimshaw Reading a whale's tooth
- "Coincidences, Graces, Gifts" Reading Seamus Heaney
- Memory Sticks Reading three old walking sticks
- Reading Life Reading J.A. Baker's The Peregrine
- Afterword Reading Essays