Barbed yet charming memoir by the noted literary critic (The Truth About the Irish, 2000, etc.).
Growing up poor and Catholic in the rundown English city of Salford, he writes, “though you were a minority yourself, you were not brought up to prize the crankish or lovably idiosyncratic . . . or clamorously approve of him who stands alone.” Yet Eagleton maintained such an iconoclastic, inquisitive stance throughout his experiences with religious education, a stiflingly bad primary school, haughty Oxford, and ingrown leftist politics. His memoir is intriguingly organized into seven sections naming the intellectual and spiritual influences he encountered on his journey: “Lifers,” “Catholics,” “Thinkers,” “Politicos,” “Losers,” “Dons,” and “Aristos.” The “Lifers” were Carmelite nuns; ten-year-old Eagleton was their convent’s gatekeeper, the only lay male they encountered. This provided grounding for his skeptical adolescence, when he spent time in a grim seminary whose eccentric goings-on turned him toward more worldly pursuits. In “Thinkers,” he is unsentimental about his education: “I was a puny, livid-faced Oliver Twist among scabby-kneed roughs [who had] the sense of honor and blood-obligation of a Palermo pimp, and a range of experience as limited and repetitive as a fruitbat’s.” Despite this society’s animosity toward literary matters, Eagleton propelled himself into the scholarly life aided by Salford’s little-recognized cultural heritage and his own compulsive writing habits. His early academic successes allowed him to infiltrate the precincts of the moneyed and tenured classes, as well as the equally calcified Marxist left of the 1960s and ’70s; individuals in both groups receive humorous drubbings. Eagleton writes deftly, merging discussion of his simple beginnings and the passions that spurred him on through strife with genuine wit and a predilection for absurdist simile. Throughout, he remains attuned to prickly issues of class and achievement, laying bare the stratifications he witnessed in Anglo-Irish society.
An endearing reminiscence that effectively relies on actual ideas considered over time rather than confessional feints.