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Staring at Lakes by Michael Harding

Posted on: Monday, 19 August 2013

Depression. Not exactly a topic to get people racing to the Amazon check-out button, eh? However the subtitle of Michael Harding's Staring at Lakes is 'A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking', which sounds less oppressive and a fair bit more New Age-y and, if I'm honest, probably made me linger a little longer when I first spotted it in The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin a few weeks ago. Make no mistake, though, this is definitely a book about depression: about its physical manifestations and the way it cuts a mind to ribbons; about a life spent searching for a solution in the sanitary life of the Catholic priesthood and years later in the slums of India. A pretty nasty physical illness, some fairly 'out there' therapy methods and a significant amount of navel-gazing later and Harding has his answer to the depression conundrum. 

More of that in a minute.

You see, Harding - novelist, playwright, Irish Times columnist - is depressed, and has been for a lifetime. Late in the book he comments drily that this is perhaps literally true; he started crying from the moment he exited the womb and was a maungy kid whose constant bawling cut short the family holiday in Enniscrone one year. 

But forget the crying - the crying isn't important. Unlike so many people who write about depression, Harding isn't into describing the minutiae of the chemical cocktails he's required to take or construct pages and pages of extended metaphors of the drowning/dark veil/black dog variety. Like he says on the back cover, this started out as a book about depression, but it's not a bloated, self-important work, nor - and this is important - is it actually depressing itself. Somehow along the way, everything else in Harding's life wound its way into it: his childhood, his early vocation, his writing, his marriage, his travels,  his humour, the ever-present figure of Father Fingers, the priest of his youth who called his young charges 'asses' - they're all there in a ramshackle orderlessness, popping up wherever Harding sees fit. I suppose his point might be that these things 'drop in' to the narrative in much the same way as thoughts - welcome or unwelcome, happy or depressive - sneak up on the unwitting human mind in real life.

Let me state an obvious point that struck me about Staring at Lakes: Harding is a man. He thinks like a man and he writes like a man. Sometimes his man-ness is a perhaps a bit too much (his description of his rock-hard erection as he lies in a chaste Buddhist monk's cell in Mongolia...erm, yeah. Insert eyes-popping-straight-mouthed emoticon here). But overall I found it refreshing to get a male perspective. So much of writing that is openly and honestly (and famously) about depression is by women, it seems. There's a whole litany of wearying and teenagey Girl, Interrupteds and Prozac Nations out there, and it pisses me of a bit that some of my favourite writers - Woolf and Plath - are pigeon-holed as the poster-girls of literary misery to the extent that it dominates everything we know and think of them. But that's a discussion for another day.

So Harding takes us on a wander through the years and a wander through his mind. We see the little boy who dressed up in his mother's clothes and shoes in imitation of the Child of Prague on the mantelpiece; a step that not-so-illogically led him to the frocks and fripperies of the Catholic priesthood in his 20s. He writes of the Church as being an exciting institution in the 70s, post-Vatican II and led by Paul VI ('a cross between Hamlet and Danny la Rue' - that just about wins the Best Description Of A Pope Ever competition for me) and the arrival of John Paul with his face 'like a rock carved into love' and a voice not of doubt but of certainty and authority, under whose rule Harding had to leave.  He's critical of Catholicism without being malicious or poisonous, and acknowledges the trauma involved in losing any faith - whether an individual's or in wider society - no matter how disillusioned or corrupt it may have become at the upper echelons of the hierarchy.

He recalls his joy in meeting his wife (sculptor Cathy Carman), but how the marriage started to stagnate - 'time sucked the freshness out of it, as it sucks from everything' - and how the birth of his daughter and his never-questioned love for 'the artist' was set against his restlessness, his nagging desire to be something new or something more than what he was - he loved them, but needed to be apart from them. Hence his dabbling in meditation, his years as a Buddhist, his treks to India and Mongolia and his experimentation with New Age therapies. And somewhere along the way - perhaps after being rebirthed on a therapist's couch in innercity Dublin, or perhaps by playing a corpse in a film and, yes, both incidents are as bizarre as they sound; or perhaps after the deaths of his father and mother, and the inevitability of transience and the importance of living rather than worrying in the moment is laid out in front of him - he found the answer. Fear, or more specifically fear of death. It paralyses, it instills feelings of failure and frustration and, at the other end of the scale, it encourages crazy behaviour - the likes of which Harding indulges in on a couple of occasions narrated here and his wife deserves a medal for putting up with. His debt of gratitude to Carman is obvious, for continuing to reassure him stoically that 'it will end', but also for giving him 'time to mourn and cry for all the lives (he) had never lived.' Harding, though, by the end of the book is done with clinging on to dogmas and practices and disguises and is ready to 'begin all over again.' 

I loved it: I loved the way it was written and the ideas it explored. I loved the anecdotes and the Irishness and the truths and the humour and the beauty. Read, read, read.


What's been your read of the summer? I'd love to hear about the books that've made you fold corners and kept you up till all hours.

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