Chris Arthur's title refers to a lifetime's reading, and also to the process of "reading" aspects of life. He reads his 10-year-old daughter's feet – where will they take her? – four old walking sticks, a whale's tooth, a path near the University of St Andrew's between a fence and a hedge. He reads tracks in the snow at Lumb Bank, just beyond the house where a photograph of Ted Hughes presides over gatherings of students and tutors. Arthur is also an omnivorous reader, in the usual sense: of poetry, prose, memoirs, natural histories, and of course essays. As far as his writing life is concerned, 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.
It is partly a matter of connections. "My writing," he says, "stems from specific objects and events": and from these starting points, his essays branch out into a web of allusions, without sacrificing their hold on the particular. What he is aiming for, and achieves, is "a closer, deeper reading of a few fragments of experience". As with Joyce Cary in A House of Children, for example, a branch of fuchsia and its fallen petals transports Chris Arthur, in imagination, back to long-ago Donegal and – in his case – a cottage on Horn Head. At the same time, Arthur's fuchsia sparks off a botanical exploration, some literary sidelights, a couple of paragraphs on Robert the Bruce's daughter Marjorie, and serious thoughts about suspension bridges. It's all exhilarating.
An autobiographical element, muted and evocative, runs through Arthur’s essays. It’s inevitable, he says, that an Irish perspective should colour his thinking, even though it’s overlaid by the effect of years spent living elsewhere. He was born in Lisburn, Co Antrim, into a middle-class family, and grew up during the worst phase of the Troubles. (He remembers helping to crisscross his classroom windows with clear tape, in order “to minimise glass shrapnel in the event of explosions”.) It was a Protestant upbringing – and for all his equable disposition, Arthur put himself at odds with some of his family members by washing his hands of sectarian rules and responses. An uncle looked askance at his reading of Flann O’Brien – the same uncle, perhaps, who held that “You can always tell them, ie Taigs or Fenians, by their faces”. If “O’Brien” was bad enough, however, as a pointer to tribal affiliation, “Seamus” was infinitely worse. “‘Seamus’ would have acted as a red rag . . . to the bull of my uncle’s prejudices.” Not to upset his relative, then, the young Chris Arthur didn’t disclose his great enthusiasm for the recently published Heaney.
The uncle is long gone, while Arthur's admiration for Heaney has, if anything, intensified. An engaging essay in Reading Life entitled "Coincidences, Graces, Gifts . . ." extols the poet's civilities, graces and steadfastness, especially as these are set against the darkness and perniciousness of the annihilating "troubles" years. "His was a voice speaking with lyrical authority about ordinary things which matter; things on which our humanity is founded." Heaney is paramount, but Arthur doesn't ignore other poets who achieved a similar effect, many of whom he encountered first in the pages of the Honest Ulsterman. That indispensable periodical also comes in for judicious appraisal here.
From his home in St Andrews in Scotland, where he has lived for the past seven years, Arthur goes on “reading life” to make sense of it, and to expand it beyond the quotidian. He is not a literary critic – as he says – but he is an astute literary commentator; and in the current collection he pays tribute to some of his predecessors in the essay genre. These include the daddy of them all, Michel de Montaigne, whose warmth and good humour are applauded, along with his sense of time passing and his instinct for communication. For what is the purpose of the essay, if not to communicate? More recent essayists, such as Georg Lukacs, Alberto Manguel, Lydia Fakundiny and Graham Good, provide some comments and definitions which Arthur is happy to cite as endorsements of his own modus operandi – always bearing in mind that the essay deals in fragments, moments of apprehension or clairvoyance, all the intimacy and immediacy inherent in its individual chains of association and implication. Always erudite and entertaining, Chris Arthur goes his own way, keeping his mind independent and all his senses alert.
Patricia Craig’s most recent book is ‘Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading’