June/July/Aug 2007

A Foolish Priest and Existential Baloney

Andrew O'Hagan talks with Bookforum

Kera Bolonik


Glaswegian-turned-Londoner Andrew O'Hagan made a name for himself as the deputy editor of the London Review of Books before publishing his nonfiction debut, The Missing, in 1995. In this profound inquiry into the worlds of the vanished— runaways, abductees, murder victims—O'Hagan wove together journalism, family history, and memoir (the project was sparked by curiosity about his grandfather's disappearance during World War II). Fiction always draws O'Hagan back to Scotland: His first two novels, Our Fathers (1999) and Personality (2003), are multigenerational family sagas. Our Fathers takes the reader to Glasgow and Ayrshire and brings together a dying master builder and the demolition-expert grandson who has destroyed his towers. Personality is set on the Isle of Bute and follows the tumultuous career of an international diva who sings "like Barbra Streisand." Both earned O'Hagan critical acclaim, prestigious awards, and a place on innumerable short lists, including the Booker, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Whitbread. His new novel, Be Near Me (Harcourt), introduces a deeply conflicted, repressed Catholic priest, Father David Anderton, a middle-aged, erudite aesthete who has cast himself into a miserable exile in the economically devastated industrial town of Dalgarnock. Most of the people there are put off by his education and "Englishness" and have no desire to be enlightened; they'd "sooner have an extra day with alcohol than an extra day with God." The only exceptions are the priest's housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, and two hedonistic teenagers, Mark McNulty and Lisa Nolan, who will unwittingly force David to reckon with his past and inadvertently bring about his humiliating downfall. I caught up with O'Hagan in mid-April when he visited New York for the Isle of Jura Festival of Scottish Writing. He said, wistfully, how very at home he feels in the West Village, as we contemplated sublimated desire, crises of faith, and living vicariously through arts and letters. —KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: As a Scottish writer, how do you feel about cultural references that might be lost on international readers?

ANDREW O'HAGAN: I think part of the fun of being somebody who really cares about writing and who thinks about it internationally is finding your way into those manners, those ways of being human that are part of your everyday life; by investing your feeling and belief in the book, you come into company with them.

BF: Early on in your new novel, Be Near Me, Father David Anderton says, "It is not always easy to know the difference between religious passion and exalted grief." That line, I think, goes to the heart of who he is as a priest and, indeed, as a man.

AO: In terms of religious faith, he's a bit of an opportunist. I don't know that I first saw him that way, but he sees in the Catholic faith a place where he can be exalted and removed and grieving and have it be called commitment rather than be perceived as just another lonely, isolated, sad man. He's taken on a role that's already been written in the Catholic Church, and it never really alters until he gets entangled with these two kids—Mark and Lisa—who, in their coarseness and attractiveness, bring him into a classic moment of self-recognition that he is falling forward into a disaster.

BF: David is perceived as an interloper and then made a pariah when he is charged with pedophilia for kissing Mark. What's it like to imagine a complex character whose motivations might go against your own principles?

AO: Interestingly, I knew from the beginning that Father David was capable of stupidity and foolishness. I think it's one of the novelist's challenges in writing a book in which the central character and narrator is slightly dislikable, because you're inviting the reader to find this man's humanity among all this foolishness and delusion. In a sense, that's what modernist writing taught us how to do. In every one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books, he invites you to find the human value in these people who are fundamentally ruined.

BF: Why do you think David puts himself on the line in court when he'd chosen such a passive path in life?

AO: It's funny: When you're forming a book, material attracts material to itself, and you're not quite sure how all of it relates to your work. I found myself almost accidentally reading transcripts of the trial of Oscar Wilde. One of the things that the Wilde trial tells you is that he couldn't help being in love with Bosie Douglas, and he would have gone any distance to satisfy and honor the truth of that feeling, including standing up in court and speaking in a way that would absolutely guarantee his downfall. In most ways, David is not like Wilde, and in nearly every way, a modern, provincial courthouse in Scotland is not like the Old Bailey in the 1890s. Nevertheless, something connected the two.

Click to enlarge

Andrew O’Hagan, 2006.

BF: David is captivated by Mark and Lisa's recklessness and is flattered by their interest in him. Mark conjures a memory of the one person the priest ever loved.

AO: I wonder if people can make others stand in for true love. I remember at a bus stop on a rainy day years ago, I got talking to an older woman, who was obviously quite emotional. She said to me, "What I'm looking for in my life is just someone to put their arms around me." I've never forgotten the way she said that, as well as the saying of it. This woman would have let anyone stand in for true love at that point. There was something deeply true and heartbreaking about it.

BF: The only other person in Dalgarnock who likes David is Mrs. Poole, with whom he shares a chaste, marital-like bond.

AO: Mrs. Poole was a voice I heard from the very beginning—as I was shaving in the morning, actually—her self-protecting, slightly edgily self-promoting way of dealing with the erudition of this priest, his poshness, his wine knowledge, poetry loving, his aesthetic superiority. This woman, who was on the brink of being ground down and was willing herself into David's world, was at the same time the only person who recognized the dangers of his selfdelusions. I could hear that in her sentences. Henry James once wrote that the moral value of a novel depends on the degree of "felt life" it contains. I say with due modesty that Be Near Me is all felt life.

BF: David, who is well educated and comes from an accomplished family, is resigned to a life of mediocrity, even as he moves to a place where the population cleaves to its feelings of resignation and anger.

AO: Absolutely. You think, Why doesn't David just run? A novel should animate, now and then, a mind-set: This guy is almost propelling himself into this disaster. It's a confrontation in his own mind with himself and his past. It may not happen if you've got him in a town full of middleclass people who think he's fine or who think that drinking wine rather than attending to the sick is cool. The last line in Camus's The Stranger is "For the final consummation, and so that I might feel less lonely, it was my final wish that as I climbed the scaffolds, I would be greeted with cries of execration." I've never forgotten that. On the one hand, it's just a piece of existential baloney, but on the other hand, it's a really dramatic piece of whirlwind disaster, to will yourself into the arms of the mob.

BF: David harbors a "large private sense of wanting to depart from the person I had always been."

AO: Actually, knowing a lot of men like that, David is from a world that's not mine. This isn't an autobiographical book in a very direct way, in the sense that his childhood wasn't really like mine. I didn't spend much of it in England or go to Oxford or the English College at Rome or become a priest. Nevertheless, there's something in him—his unwillingness or inability to apply himself to anything and achieve—that I recognize. I've known people who are affectless. It's not that they're empty, but they lack some sense of connection. We spend so much of our life looking at people and thinking, Why is he like that? So objectionable, so angry, so unhappy, so removed, so toxic. As a novelist, the question of why they're really like that becomes an artistic mission.

BF: What made you decide to tell the story of a priest?

AO: A crisis of faith and of self-belief, and a person's realization that he's been performing his whole life and hadn't been actually living. I thought it was most naturally embodied by a priest. Also, having grown up as an Irish Catholic, having gone through all those sacraments, I realized I always wondered what level of investment is being made by believers and what the past held over the question and challenge of faith. Was it really about trying to rescue yourself from death? Or was it about rescuing yourself from desire? David misunderstands even the rudiments of what we're asking of faith, dedication, commitment, belief. I wanted a novel that has a strong narrative and a drama at the center. But I wanted a moral drama centered around these questions. I learned to love David during the writing of this book, and I really struggled for many, many months to leave him. As I crossed the t's and dotted the i's and put my pen down, I said to myself, "This is the man I wanted to create, and these are the people. That's what I wanted to say."

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