HUGH MAXTON’s Happen is a ‘memoir-novel’ about the coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s of Godwin Happen, an enigmatic young man with a taste for literature and politics from a Protestant family in Dublin.
The death of his father is the defining event of his childhood.
There is also a surprise inheritance, some dabbling in rebellion at school, ventures into the turbulent North, first love, and a murky affair in his father’s past involving abortion, blackmail, violence and politics.
However, this is a book dominated by character and conversation, not plot.
Events serve as plunge holes into the minds of the hero (who is also, mostly, the narrator) and his circle: a milieu where everyone knows the poet John Montague and can make in-jokes about him; a tangle of breezy clever clogs, including Marxists and Sinn Féiners, all sharpening their wits on one another, exchanging oblique signals from their own intellectual depths.
As one character says, “it’s grand to chat, but what’s the other fellow thinking. That’s the rub.”
Godwin himself is rather an awkward customer, aloof and haughty. Indirection “runs in his blood”.
Maxton’s style is garrulous and impressionistic, wry and declamatory, all at the same time. Readers need to brace themselves for a surfeit of literary and linguistic witticisms.
This is the kind of book where a word like ‘camac’ will not be allowed to pass without mentioning that it is palindromic; where characters drop into conversation their own Shakespearean jokes about “the stings and acids of umbrageous fortune”.
At times, the bookish verbal fencing can get a bit wearying.
However, hidden within is a means for the characters to at least half-escape the nightmare of violence that Irish history was then hurtling towards. Some great vignettes are scattered across the book.
The day Godwin’s father dies is brilliantly constructed, right down to the breeze that accompanies him up the path to the house where events unfold.
A journey to the suburbs to visit his revered, dying French teacher illuminates class distinctions in 1950s Dublin.
Godwin’s relationship with his mother is also superbly dissected with the young man “coming to dislike my mother, and be like her, in the same prolonged motion.”
Conventionally enough, mid-late 20th century Ireland does not emerge as a happy place: sullen, troubled, a “pious pigsty” in the words of one peripheral character.
Another tells Godwin to “clear off somewhere warm and bright”.
The book is dappled with literary and biblical allusions: a touch of Keats here, a dash of Hebrew there.
There is Joycean playfulness, snaring people, places and events with wordplay and semi-affectionate mockery. (Maxton even writes “rere” instead of “rear”, which I discovered is something also to be found in Ulysses.)
And, odd though it may sound, there is even a hint of Brideshead Revisited with the sensitive only child living with, but estranged from, his remaining parent, spending weekends in the country with large, eccentric, somewhat shadowy families.
The book draws to a close with the adult Godwin alone in a social desert, partly of his own making. Many of those close to him in his youth have now died unhappy deaths and Ireland remains an unhappy, unsatisfactory kind of place. He has survived like “a vulture with the conscience of a vegetarian”.
Maybe the most important thing to remember is that Hugh Maxton is a poet. Poetry, Auden said, is the clear expression of mixed feelings.
Despite leaving the reader occasionally confused about what exactly is going on, Happen feels a bit like a novelistic rendering of Auden’s dictum. And that’s no bad thing.
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