Melancholia in Mullingar but love still abounds

Staring At Lakes Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking
Michael Harding
Hachette Ireland, £12.99

“Everything was wonderful,” writes Michael Harding. Immediately the reader thinks: Oh dear, this won’t last.

And it doesn’t, for Harding is writing about a visit to a monastery in India as if it were a dream of beauty, happiness, and fulfilment. It was no dream, but he wakes up in Leitrim, carrying us along with him on the road to adjustment, for which, in Harding’s case and most of the time, means disillusionment almost to the point of panic. Allowing for the writer’s marital and parental dislocation in the lake-pierced Irish midlands, this book might be sub-titled ‘Melancholic in Mullingar’.

Like the newspaper columns on which the chapters are based, the reflections cover a substantial period of Harding’s life. He is a novelist and playwright with a compelling backlist of priesthood, Buddhism (it was in a Buddhist monastery that everything got wonderful), marriage, fatherhood, and fiction. This history he compresses into “a vagrant priest and a failed writer” in a neat reversal of adjectives. His choices of language move his experiences beyond the boundaries of self, even where that self is wrapped in the folds of depression, a nomadic condition which settles its tent at Harding’s heart, occasionally for months at a time. There is always amelioration, however: Breakfast to introduce a new bed-ridden day consists of porridge with honey, an omelette, toast, and tea: “I eat gently, hoping nothing damages my stomach.”

Everything damages his stomach, and the route from there to his psyche is short, but not swift. There is a sense that Harding welcomes, or at least embraces, the perils of the flesh; he describes them so graphically as to suggest actual enthusiasm, yet there is a poignant realism underlying his expositions of prolonged ill-health: “...and I wanted to tell her that each time I saw snow on the slopes of Leitrim hills, it made me sorrowful because we are all made of dust and the snow will return when we are long gone.” Others might feel glad that the snow will return even though we are all long gone, but Harding’s cataclysmic disposition doesn’t allow that kind of optimism.

However, despite the urge to skip over the pages devoted (and take that literally) to the symptoms of colitis, impotence, prostrate problems, and other afflictions of male middle age, this is an engaging book. Depression can be a fatal disease but although he might be the last to admit it, there’s a resilience, a quality of endurance, to Harding which sees him through. His humour is laconic as events pass him by, as in news of the banking bailout: “There was a sense that some great tribulation was crossing the face of the earth and would soon strike Mullingar …” but that was a tribulation whose immensity was obscured by the failure of his iPod. This memoir is also about love, something for which he is always searching and always slow, perhaps reluctant, to recognise. But it’s there, not least in the honey and the omelette.


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