An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on the 25 October 2020.
Michael Harding tells us that his latest memoir is “a song of joy to the simple mystery of life”. This is a commendable aspiration at a time when a lament full of fear and loathing would be understandable. However, sadly for those seeking some joyful wisdom to get through this plague year, the book is merely a rehash of the author’s familiar concerns with a few token nods towards our current circumstances thrown in (“love is everywhere”). We are all by now familiar with Harding’s tropes: his rural folksiness, his admirable frankness about his bouts of depression, his love of nature, his affection for Lough Allen and scenic Leitrim, his spiritual questing, his shifting religious allegiances, his constant and some would say well-founded self-deprecation, and of course his recurring references to his “beloved”. (This latter tic starts as being cute but with repetition becomes peculiarly irritating in its implicit denial of independent agency to his wife (the artist Cathy Carman).) Harding has revisited these themes over the past 30 years in three novels, nineteen plays and six memoirs. Such fecundity is slightly alarming coming from a man who reminds us constantly of his modest talents. And of course, if that’s not enough, Harding has his regular platform in the Irish Times in which he regales us with tall tales from rural Ireland. On the evidence of this latest offering he may be running out of steam, or perhaps hot air. In a recent interview he claimed that he makes art from the “meaningless meanderings of strangers”. In What is Beautiful in the Sky you can certainly spot the meandering but there’s little evidence I fear of the art. His ruminations and anecdotes are delivered amidst accounts of his domestic chores: making fires, mowing the lawn, and feeding the cats. Kafka it ain’t. It would be polite to call the structure of the work elliptical. We flit randomly in time from Drumshambo to Mullingar, from Cavan to Warsaw and from Donegal to Paris. The anecdotes and recollections suggest the rueful ruminations of an aging man as memories bubble up disordered and unbidden from the past. He recalls music sessions in Drumshambo, an idyll where we were “forever young and the bars never closed”. The mood is thinly elegiac – only a lost sexual opportunity in Paris seems to go more than skin deep: “I was so terrified of committing the literal act of love that I dilly dallied around the subject.” Insights are not thick on the ground. We are told, for example, that “in rural Ireland old people are everywhere.” Harding is an incorrigible romantic which probably explains his undoubted popularity. He looks back on a pre-Covid Ireland where summer tourists and locals shared a “single unifying trance of joy”. Then there’s his wearying invention the General – an old crank spouting witless nonsense and farting a lot. A character perhaps but not an entertaining or an interesting one. The coffee shops of rural Ireland are name checked (Café le Monde in Mullingar catches the eye) and celebrated in all their warm mundanity. For Harding is above all a sound man, a man of the people. If there’s a theme, it’s well buried. There are a few reflections on the Covid-19 lockdown but they’re half hearted: “It could lead to the grave…or a new beginning.” The most evident and recurring subject is the poet and playwright Tom MacIntyre who died in October 2019 and whom he still mourns. He was a valued mentor of Harding’s and their connection was confirmed for Harding when “a book belonging to him fell off a shelf in my studio the night he died.” In some ways this memoir is a love letter to MacIntyre and Harding quotes an actual letter he wrote to the poet after he died: “I too believe in angels Tom that catch us when we fall.” MacIntyre is best remembered for his play The Great Hunger based on fellow Cavan man Patrick Kavanagh’s epic (and undervalued) poem. Harding recalls the advice MacIntyre offered him as a young writer: “Walk over the cliff blindfolded and do it every day without fail”. He also admires his “relish for words and all their juicy innuendo.” Harding is much given to gnomic statements: (“ideas cannot contain truth…like the eyes hold the moon on a good night”) that mean less the more you examine them. An annoying feature of the book is the fancy notion someone got about the type-setting. Here and there throughout the text perfectly banal sentences (“It’s almost 9am; time to take a break from reading”) are repeated. They are extracted and blown up font-wise to stand out from the body of the text. Why? It’s distracting, it’s repetitive and seems to serve no purpose except to pad out the book by a few pages. Harding often describes himself as a “story-teller” but on the evidence of this book he has few interesting ones left to tell.
Hachette Books Ireland