A couple of paragraphs of this memoir were enough to convince me that this was going to be a good read. And indeed.
The first two paragraphs run as follows:
“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
These paragraphs already demonstrate the talent of McCourt: his writing is beautiful and unsentimental, melodic, and captivating – it’s a pleasure to read. Even if the theme of the book is far from pleasant.
Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in New York, the first child of Irish parents. His parents lacked even the most basic ideas about what’s necessary to raise a family, yet, they went ahead and had four more children in quick succession, and after a couple of years they moved back to Ireland and eventually settled in Limerick, the home town of the mother, Angela. This is where Frank spent his childhood, in the deepest poverty – often hungry, going about with holes in his shoes, covering himself with coats instead of blankets, and in general, living a truly harsh life full of depravity.
The 1930s and 40s were probably not easy times in Ireland anyway, but the McCourt family sinks even deeper into squalor and poverty than even the most destitute of their neighbors. The McCourts have the worst of everything: more than one child dies in the family in a short period, and after each death, Angela sinks into an almost-catathonic state, which results in her neglecting her remaining children; the father, Malachy is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, who doesn’t feel any particular remorse when he regularly spends all his unemployment benefit on supporting his drinking habit, and when he accidentally lands a job, he can stand the life of responsibility for a maximum of three weeks; when the family moves, they always end up in the most uninhabitable house on the street; moreover, their relatives are not exactly friendly towards them, not the least because Malachy is from Northern Ireland, and „has the look of a Protestant”, and it’s an almost unforgivable offense that Angela, who comes from a good Catholic family, consented to marry such a man.
Speaking about Catholicism: it wasn’t only the helplessness and irresponsibility of the parents that made it tough for a child to grow up in Ireland in that period – the church had a big part in this, too. McCourt illustrates this with descriptions about the religious education of children, which mainly consisted of teachers and priests filling children’s minds with concepts such as sin, redemption, and so on – concepts they were way too young to grasp, but at least they quickly learned that whatever they do is wrong, consequently they deserve all the punishment and all the misery they have to live through.
Should you have any doubt, I’ll try now to disperse them: this is an extremely maddening book. There’s such an abundance of foolish, weak, unstable, irresponsible, careless, unreliable adults in this book (that is, in Frank’s life), and these adults tend to behave in such pitiful and disgusting ways that I can only wonder how Frank managed to grow up into a functioning adult (and of course I also wonder that he ever lived long enough to grow up into an adult, having for parents people who were incapable of providing for even the most basic needs of a child, and who tended to cure a sick child with outlandish home remedies for weeks before ever considering that the child might need a doctor.)
As regards, however, the way the book is written, there’s nothing maddening here. On the contrary, the writing is rich and fascinating. I already mentioned the free and enticing flow of McCourt’s language, and I must also mention his remarkable humor and sense of irony. McCourt doesn’t write as cruelly and cynically about his childhood, as, say, Dimitri Verhulst does in his memoir, The Misfortunates – McCourt is more gentle and forgiving. Of course there’s some bitterness from time to time, and it’s all the more cutting and strong because it’s so rare. For example, when Frank’s father decides to go to England to look for work, Angela – despite all her previous bad experiences and her awareness of her husband’s legendary irresponsibility and unreliability – hopes that this time everything will turn out just fine. In the book this looks something like this:
“[Angela to Frank:] Don’t cry, don’t cry. Now that your father is gone to England surely our troubles will be over.
This single „surely” (clearly the laconic, ironic comment of the adult McCourt), written on a separate line, says more about how wrong the naive Angela was in her hopes than several pages of detailed litany could say.
So all my awe and respect go out to McCourt for the way he managed to write so pragmatically, so ironically, so enjoyably about all those things that couldn’t have been the least bit enjoyable to live through.