Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Ian Marchant: Something of the Night

The only clues to the skyline, as I look out of my window just now, are the tracers of distant street-lamps; the rest is darkness, and the glass-ghost of my own reflection, peering back at me. I’ve just finished reading Something of the Night, by my colleague at Birmingham City University, Ian Marchant. Part memoir, part exploration of life after dark in Britain and Ireland, the book is a night-scope through which the author’s own richly populated history comes into view. Framed by the story of an all-night session in the wilds of West Cork, it’s stowed full of companionable and often hilarious anecdote, and this in itself is a good enough reason to buy and enjoy it.

I could happily linger here on the true comic touch that buoys the narrative from start to finish. But in the end, the book doesn’t let its readers quite settle in that way. There’s a metaphorical force at work throughout its night-wandering, and a confessionalism rooted in the Protestant tradition of personal reckoning – complete with a between-the-lines redemptive structure. There’s something at stake in the humour here: a knowledge that comes from having come through. And as the book goes on, one realises that it has been haunted by something from the beginning: death. I think it was Saul Bellow who wrote that death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything. By the end of Something of the Night, death has indeed become a medium of vision.

But before anybody gets the jitters, let me say too that Something of the Night is also a joyful portrait of a certain kind of omnivorous intelligence – alive with Marchant’s inclusive interests and humanity. Like Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he could fairly claim Terence’s dictum, humani nihil a me alienum – ‘nothing human is alien to me’ – as his motto (and more truly than De Quincey, perhaps). Like De Quincey, Marchant is a philosophic life-writer – in whose work the experience of transgression mixes with that of wonder and laughter. Something of the Night also has its poetry fix: it is set off with a line from George Herbert, and Catherine Smith’s fine poem ‘Night’ (with Catherine herself featuring in the episode on Lewes Bonfire) – and Larkin is never too far away, beckoning from the shadows. It’s a treat of a book.

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