Books: Literary Lives Criss-Cross Generations; Seamus Heaney Helen Vendler HarperCollins Pounds 15.99 Brian Moore the Chameleon Novelist Denis Sampson Marino Books Pounds 20.00
McKEOWN, Ciaran, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)
TWO of Ulster's most famous writers, Nobel Literature laureate Seamus Heaney and recurrent Booker Prize nominee Brian Moore, are the subjects of new biographies, both more concerned to reveal the writers through their work, than through the chronology of their lives.
Brian Moore is, of course, almost a generation older than Seamus Heaney, and it is only in recent years that I have come to know and appreciate his work, and for a reason on which the biography by Denis Sampson casts a chastening light.
The early novels, such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, had sounded to me, from the opinions of elders, like `angry young man' stuff of an earlier generation of rebels against the Irish Roman Catholic/Nationalist syndrome.
In my youth, like most keen readers, I read and loved James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and adopted the prejudice that Moore was among the second-rate parochial imitators.
To my embarrassment, when I finally got around to reading Moore, I found a quality which my prejudice had denied me: and in Sampson's biography, I read that Moore, a lifelong admirer of Joyce's work, had consciously noted and avoided becoming an echo or derivative disciple of Joyce.
My prejudice, in fairness to myself, was encouraged by some of the literary efforts which I encountered in the early Sixties. At the time, being a science student, I used to buy and read the literary magazines shoved up our noses by arts students, and I regarded most of it as self-centred rubbish.
But one day, reading one such magazine (I cannot remember whether it was called Interest or simply `Q' - perhaps some contemporary can put me right) I came across a poem and exclaimed aloud at an old Students Union coffee-table: "Hey, there's a real poem!"
One of the literati at the table looked at it, and said something like "Oh yes, Seamus Heaney: he's not bad."
A few days later, the same friend poked me and said, "There's your man Heaney you were on about, with his girlfriend", and pointed to a tall, well-built chap with a large head, and quiet manner. I was struck most by the set of his eyes, that seemed to take in everything without seeming sleekit.
Heaney and the good-looking girl with him (his future wife Marie, as it turned out) did not join any of the coffee-table `in-groups', either political or literary, and I did not see him again for some time. But I watched out for his work, first in the pamphlets, and then, once he began to be published by Faber, to follow his progress over the years, also getting to know him personally as time went by. …