Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir is a funny, sad, well-written account of growing up Irish, lucky to have avoided the major catastrophes of life such as babies and marriage, making her way in a man’s world of literature and broadcast. It’s filled with delights for people who love words. One of the most important moments of her life is when she learns to read, and this memoir shows her lifelong joy in that pursuit. Literature begets commentary and autobiography and biography. She adored the classics. “The only thing I don’t read much of now, when time is so precious, are middle-range authors—Kundera, say, or Paul Auster. Writers who play middle-level games.” When she is teaching English literature at Oxford in the 1960s:
“I wanted my students to do something hard, to learn to hold on to the self while going out of the self to enter into the literature that someone else had made—to find a poise between subjectivity and objectivity. This poise would then be rehearsed and made more stable with each access of understanding of a piece of art. The change in the person comes in that; it isn’t a matter of learning a technical vocabulary. There is a vocabulary peculiar to the study of literature, literature itself never having asked to be studied.”
She is guilty of a lot of name-dropping, and the chapters do become a bit wearisome. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the extremely lengthy afterword she added which seemed to consist of bits of fan mail she received when the book was originally published.