Andrew O'Hagan's fictional account of a wayward and dysfunctional priest is most striking for its discussion of the importance, and trap, of idealismby Julian Evans / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, £16.99)
Self-confidence gives way to the pathos of downfall so suddenly, and when it does it is the invulnerably confident who are the most shaken. Why? Because confidence isn’t an unbroken series of careless, high-bouncing gestures. It is, rather, a style that starts in childhood and steadily reinforces itself over a whole life. And in the same way, its undoing, however sudden, has almost certainly been germinating for decades. The form of the novel is well suited, with its forgiving kindnesses of nuance and point of view and its promiscuous embrace of future and past, to shed understanding on this slow, real-time collision. The fatally illusioned Emma Bovary, trivial, vain, overconfident of her right to romance, still manages to attract all our sympathetic attention. But can that sympathy extend to a character whom society calls dangerous? Can David Anderton, Andrew O’Hagan’s wayward and possibly abusive priest in Be Near Me—disillusioned, earnest, arrogant, overconfident of his right to beauty—still count on our compassion?
O’Hagan is one of Britain’s, certainly one of Scotland’s, best known writers. He owes his fame to his journalism as well as to his fiction: his essay “The End of British Farming,” published in the London Review of Books (LRB) in 2001, contributed to the debate that succeeded the foot and mouth conflagration, and his first book, The Missing (1995), was one of the more serious hybrid texts—the 1990s produced a tiring rash of them—to dramatise a documentary subject with fictional techniques. As a prominent member of London’s serious print establishment (contributing editor to the LRB) he himself could be called one of the priesthood of English literary orthodoxy. His fiction, however, for all its ambition, has tended not to bear that stamp. His fictional geography has not strayed from Scotland, in particular the west of Scotland—Ayrshire, Glasgow, the Isle of Bute—and its often bleak and troubled historical and sociological context. He recognises the universality of localness, the way the back of beyond can (and must) stand for the world in a novel. His west Scotland has been a rich correlative, like Flaubert’s Normandy, for the self-deception, the impassioned falsehood of his characters.
Our Fathers (1999) and Personality (2003), O’Hagan’s first two novels, are at heart sociological audits: in one the unhealthy traditions of Scottish fatherhood are under attack, in the other a girl who is the vessel…