When I became a dad two years ago, in my usual way of interpreting existence through literature, I had the urge to read books about fatherhood. I had already done Philip Roth’s superb Patrimony, and stocked up on titles such as Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and this, John Burnside’s first memoir (he has since published a sequel, Waking Up in Toytown). Burnside has been a busy literary practitioner anyway, with eleven collections of poetry and half a dozen novels in just over 20 years. Although I enjoyed his debut novel The Dumb House (“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins,” it brashly begins), I found his next The Mercy Boys to be grim and depressing without providing much balancing literary thrill, and his third The Locust Room to be mostly dull (an achievement for a book about the Cambridge Rapist). For that reason I stopped reading him, until the clamour of praise for his more recent stuff became too insistent to ignore.
A Lie About My Father (2006) has the cover appearance almost of a misery memoir (an impression not aided by the additional blurb between title and author on my copy: A moving, unforgettable memoir of two lost men: a father and his child). What saves it is that title: odd, rhythmic – a marker of the author as a poet – perhaps like a hardened version of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father. Misery memoirs, by contrast, have a sometimes comical aspect to them. Their lurid titles, like those of TV shows in the age of on-screen guides, must grab and describe immediately. Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes. God’s Lapdancer. Daddy’s Tomato Ketchup. Burnside’s title, by contrast, has multiple meanings. The book begins with him travelling in America and picking up garrulous hitchhiker, Mike, who talks about his father, Martin, and then asks about Burnside’s. Burnside reflects on all he could have said, and for three pages gives us what turns out to be the most sustained depiction in the book of his father’s conduct. “I could have added that, before my father died, I hadn’t seen him in years, but I hadn’t been able to relax, quite, as long as he was still alive.”
Finally, however, and with some misgivings, I abandoned that idea and, as Mike wanted me to do, not just because his head was full of beautiful, simple scripts, but also because he was a certain kind of son, and because Martin was a certain kind of man, I told him a lie about my father.
What Burnside does next is unexpected. Rather than wade through more details of his father’s shortcomings, he softens the reader toward him by explaining his father’s early life. “He really was a nobody: a foundling, a throwaway,” abandoned by his biological mother as a young baby and taken in by – well, that was the problem. Not only did Burnside’s father not know who his ‘real’ parents were, he didn’t even know who had taken care of him at first. He “wasn’t chosen so much as passed on.” He had “no history he could talk about with others. Nobody reminisced with him about the old days.” No wonder then that he turned out as he did, and no wonder that his account of his origins, told in later life, varied depending on the occasion: “all that mattered was that he was somebody’s son.” The reader might think that the least he could do when he had children of his own was not to pass on his own dread, uncertainty and sense of loss. To do so would have required a strength of character that was, perhaps inevitably, beyond him.
Nonetheless, Burnside is kind to his father at this stage. “Nobody I have ever known was there to witness his abandonment, so I can imagine it as I like.” A cold day, “wet and windy, the blanket sodden”? No: “my father wouldn’t have liked that image.” Instead, “what I choose to imagine is a summer’s morning.” In this smallest act of kindness, creating an infinitesimally better start in life, Burnside might also be wondering how his father might have changed, and how his family’s life been improved, with such seemingly unimportant alterations to its beginning. And if we needed any reminder that man hands on misery to man, it is in Burnside’s reflections when he looks at his parents’ wedding photographs (“Did they really not have the least inkling of what was to come?”).
Every time I see a wedding, I wonder what the bride and groom expect from it all, and why none of the others there, the old ones, the long-married, do not step up and warn them about the enterprise.
The reader expecting vivid tales of violence and sexual abuse will (thankfully) be disappointed. Burnside’s father’s speciality was psychological abuse, “persistently eating away at my confidence, questioning my right even to occupy space in his world.” But the nagging had a perverse good intention to it. “What he wanted was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father’s circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself.”
Burnside’s father was a drinker (not to him and his ilk, felt Burnside, a pleasure or a vice, but “an act of self-abnegation”) and a gambler. He was “irrational,” and kept his family under a passive-aggressive control. His petty acts of vindictiveness continue to haunt Burnside’s dreams, forty years on. He was a product too of his time and place, “99 per cent act,” veiling his emotions so thoroughly that he himself no longer knew they were there, and “like most of the other men I encountered, seemed to like nothing at all.” Burnside’s mother was frustrated, thinking of a better life, but loyal and with a Scottish Catholic’s mid-20th century aversion to divorce. Ultimately, Burnside in his teens turned to LSD and other drugs, deciding not to fit in to a society that offered him nothing.
A Lie About My Father is like a closely argued essay, where the narrative moves unnoticeably from one subject to the next. It could be mistaken for one of those books which consists of one long sentence; or one long exhalation. When Burnside is at his most self-critical, we see a second meaning for the book’s title. He spends pages analysing and explaining his father. “I’m sure my father felt these things – but these are my words, and this is the real lie about my father. I cannot talk about him without talking about myself, just as I can never look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face.” Of course, Burnside does talk directly about himself too, at greater and greater length as the book goes on (“What a great pleasure it is to be lost“), and some of the scenes, had he known then that he would write a sequel, might have been better off there.
Near the beginning of the book, one of the things Burnside contemplates saying to hitcher Mike is “that I’d come to believe that, when a man becomes a father, he is – or he ought to be – transformed into something other than the man he had been until that moment. Every life is a more or less secret narrative, but when a man becomes a father, the story is lived, not for, but in the constant awareness of another, or others.” The problem for Burnside’s father was a failure to be transformed. “He was only really happy when he was alone.” The raw material with which he had to work was not well suited to happiness, or its propagation in others (“Happiness is hard work”), but he tried anyway, doomed as the effort was. What he created, apart from good raw material for his son’s literary work (and now I know where the depressing milieu of The Mercy Boys came from) was a murky whirlpool of hope, boredom, and fear – you know, all that traditional family stuff.