James Mangan, the central character of the novel “The Mangan Inheritance” by Brian Moore, is a Canadian journalist whose beautiful actress wife has just left him. The novel starts with him visiting his father on New Year’s Eve. Understandably, James is feeling depressed, and his father tries to cheer him up, saying “You’ll get over this. You’ve got your life ahead of you.”
“Have I?” James replies. “When you were thirty-four, you were already managing editor of The Gazette. At thirty-six I’m nothing. Just an underpaid CBC hack.”
“Well, most people don’t achieve just what they hoped for”, his father says. “Not the very ambitious ones. And yours is a special ambition.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Was it?” his father says. “I wonder.”
“No, no, I’m not a poet. Nobody thinks of me as a poet.”
The fact is, having had some of his poems published when he was a teenager, James became dispirited after receiving a few rejections, and put his poetic aspirations on hold, while he concentrated on a career in journalism. While staying at his father’s, he stumbles on an old photograph of an Irish ancestor; a man who was also a poet and James’s exact double to look at. The photo is, apparently, of James Clarence Mangan; a poet who became famous – briefly – for a few powerful poems including “Dark Rosaleen”, but ended up dying of malnutrition, penniless, a drunkard and a drug addict. Fired by the coincidence, James sets off for Ireland, to search for more links to this intriguing ancestor. He secretly hopes that his own poetic ambitions might be revived.
The novel really “takes off” once James arrives in Ireland, and his researches unravel a troubling family history that seems to link the poetry inextricably with alcoholism, incest and madness.
I cannot recommend “The Mangan Inheritance” too highly as a gripping novel of a man coming to terms with himself through the past. Brian Moore (1921-99) was a highly regarded author, whose books – e.g. “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne”, “Black Robe”, “The Doctor’s Wife” – regularly found their way onto Booker Prize shortlists. It was well-known that he was Graham Greene’s favourite novelist. “The Mangan Inheritance”, however, has been somehow overlooked, and is rarely mentioned in discussions of his work. I think it should be read as widely as possible; particularly by anyone who has any interest in poetry!
The only poem of mine that has any discernible links with Irish Literature is one that was inspired by my drinking a can of Murphy’s Stout:
‘IRISH Stout’, the can proclaims,
ushering presences, illustrious names:
O’Brien, Behan, Beckett, Joyce . . .
Prodigies of prosody, vibrant of voice.
Poured into glass, blackness pervades,
biding its time, as whiteness cascades.
In tenebrous torrents, surging flow,
climactic currents of chiaroscuro,
shapes can be seen; their beckoning shades.
You drink in the darkness, in your dream,
sipping and surfing the endless stream.
You invoke the spirits, hear echoing calls;
see candle-lit shadows dance on the walls.
From disordered whispers and mutterings, you scan:
‘A pint of plain is your only man!’