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Portrait of My Youth.

Giving his book the title he did, the writer, teacher and publisher, Sean Dorman could not have missed echoes of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Yet no two such personal works could have less in common. Their differing styles almost symbolise the authors' different backgrounds, and this is useful for the reader keen to understand how background so affected the aims of Irish writing earlier this century. On the one hand were the Celtic cultural apparatchiks led by Douglas Hyde, W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory; landed, Protestant, Anglo-Irish. On the other was Joyce, ex-Catholic, exile, and extremely out of pocket.

Where Joyce's portrait is objective, tracing the growth of the mind down paths of sensation and intuition, Dorman's is sociable, garrulous even. He tells of where he has been and who he has known with relish. Early perambulations take us through the plains and hills of Raj India (invoking Kipling's Kimball O'Hara), southern France and bohemian Chelsea; never letting go the Bildungsroman thread that tows him through Castle Park, St Columba's, and Oxford.

For all the wayfaring anecdotes and asides, one word, Raffeen, the name of the Dorman family home in Kinsale, stands like a stone in the midst of all. Where Joyce's sense of self could only crystallise by flying past the metaphysical nets of nationality, language and religion, Dorman's energy is derived from the revering of home's physical place, its originality, its relationships. This stressing of familial ties to the land is, in fact, prevalent throughout Anglo-Irish autobiography. Yeats's own grail-hunt for a unifying national mythos was of course initiated via his own local ties with Sligo. Indeed, his Autobiographies begins by figuratively nailing a genetic stake into Erin's western soil.

Dorman's young life is a rich, wandering pageant. Through impressionable eyes in India we meet ayahs and untouchables, snakes and jackals. Always fond in his reminiscences, he enjoys veering to the comic; as when describing a near collision on the drive up to Simla and the sudden appearance of a wild-looking hillman who exclaims, 'Take his number!' Dorman's Oxford is of college bulldogs patrolling the streets, saving boys of gown from ladies of the town; of nude dons panicking punters along the Isis; and of mates with huge thirsts and high aims.

Under the aegis of his uncle Lennox Robinson, playwright and director, the young Dorman (flogging copies of his arts magazine, Commentary, as he goes) is brought into literary society. And what a go-between with history he is. Here he sits next to an aged Maud Gonne on the council seeking to repeal Irish censorship; there he raises Patrick Kavanagh's hackles when asking him to pay the entrance fee at a book fair. Vicariously, we steal a glimpse of Yeats' 'leonine mane of hair', his eyes 'clouded with abstraction', and then hear him cut down to size when his missus calls him 'Willie'.

But memories of drinks with John Betjeman, brushes with T. S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford (who is found to be too large to rise out of his chair to greet him) fall away at last. With the passing of his youth and those embodiments of it, Uncle Lennox, his parents, Raffeen, the reflectiveness of the writing moves from the publicly intriguing to the personally tender. Naming his small press after the big house seems a fitting filial dedication to that loss.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wong, Nicholas
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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