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The Gatekeeper: A Memoir
Terry Eagleton
London: Penguin, 2001.
£8.99, 178 pages, ISBN 0-14-100592-0.

Valerie A. Reimers
Southwestern Oklahoma State University

Terry Eagleton’s The Gatekeeper: A Memoir unfolds in seven chapters classifying types of people who have made some kind of impact on his life. The one-word chapter titles include “Lifers,” “Catholics,” “Thinkers,” “Politicos,” “Losers,” “Dons,” and “Aristos.” Some characters, such as his Cambridge supervisor, Dr. Greenway, appear in more than one chapter, and floating references to his father surface throughout the book.

The title, The Gatekeeper, might be assumed to have a metaphorical basis in terms of academic gatekeeping, and Eagleton does make a direct reference to that meaning in his final chapter, but the term appears in Chapter One, “Lifers,” in a very literal sense. A ten-year-old Terry actually served as gatekeeper at a Carmelite convent. In addition to his duties as altar boy, he opened the convent gate for novices and their families since the nuns themselves could not have contact with the outside world.

One difficulty in reviewing Eagleton’s memoir arises in his deft use of language. His humor and his own particular slant on any number of subjects from money to Wittgenstein are best conveyed in his own words, making it necessary for the reviewer to avoid the desire to use too frequent quotations. Throughout this work, Eagleton acknowledges how language gave him a life different from that which might have been expected from his impoverished background. His crafting of arresting sentences, liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and his storytelling abilities support Eagleton’s claimed connection to language. The second sentence in the book illustrates a literary device he commonly uses to advantage, the listing of elements to create an exaggerated description, most often laced with dry British humor. In depicting the convent where he served as gatekeeper, he states, “It was set among high walls spiked with shards of glass, forbidding enough to repel voyeurs, religious obsessives, nun-stalkers, sex offenders, militant Protestants, enraged atheists” (1).

After this opening image of the convent, a place mostly barred from traffic in or out of its secure confines, Eagleton proceeds to introduce what he learned of the Carmelite nuns, those mysterious creatures who have no contact with males, except their dog Timothy, occasional priests, and altar boys, and he must supplement pure description with imagination because he rarely saw the nuns except brief glimpses of their mouths appearing on the other side of a little window as they received communion. Part of his boyhood speculation about them includes the possibility of their wearing scratchy undergarments and considering whether they might participate in secret rituals and orgies. He also speculates about how the Carmelites might view history from their cloistered existence, a history, however bloody and tangled, which nevertheless requires belief in hope for the world because, otherwise, constant prayer, the nuns’ most prevalent activity, would be useless.

It may occur to some readers that Chapter One could have been titled “Catholics” as well as “Lifers,” because most of its focus is on those who have chosen to serve in the Roman Catholic faith. He describes the changes to the faith after Vatican II and how the times reflected the opening of ritual and tradition. He compares a group of nuns, of various orders, whom he taught in an MA program near New York, with the Carmelites of his boyhood. Of the Carmelites, Eagleton states, “Their role was to symbolize the kind of drastic self-abandonment which the world would need if it were to become just” (15-16). In contrast, the nuns in training he encountered as a teacher in the 1960s, “sang a strange blend of Joan Baez and Gregorian plainchant and enjoyed Being Themselves,” expressed through mascara, lipstick, high heels, casualness in their approach to academics, overt enthusiasm for everything, including smoking and drinking (18-19).

Next he shifts his focus to another group of “Lifers,” the male clergy, one of whom, Laurence Bright, found a permanent place in the literary theorist’s memory. This fascinating friar, who died too young of cancer, is credited by Eagleton as the friend who liberated him from his “stiff-necked papist correctness” and gave him permission to go as far left as he needed to go, a tendency which he delineates further in later chapters.

In Chapter Two, “Catholics,” Eagleton indulges in definition and includes several one-sentence pronouncements about the nature of Catholicism while also examining where Catholics stand in relation to postmodernism, the left, liberalism, and finally the Queen and the concept of Englishness. He notes that Catholics feel the Queen belongs a little less to them than to the Protestants. To complete the definition, he uses a stereotypical Dickensian headmaster, a Brother Damian, whom he calls a “career sadist” (38). Brother Damian’s presence looms in larger-than-life proportions when Eagleton describes his father’s intimidation at the hands of the headmaster, to the point of lying about what he did for a living, the only lie his son had ever known him to tell. (However, in Chapter Two, Eagleton has not yet shared with readers just what it is that his father did do, and he does not reveal the information presented in the lie, either. He does later give more information about his father, but not about the particulars of the lie.) Given to tossing out interesting bits of remembered experience mixed generously with quantities of philosophical reflection, Eagleton allows readers approximately three pages of his excellent storytelling in relating the tale of his brief sojourn at a seminary as an impressionable thirteen-year-old and his decision not to remain. He concludes the chapter with the confession that he “returned home to crestfallen parents, a spoilt priest” (46).

The sketchy information of Chapter Two, “Catholics,” points to another difficulty in reviewing this memoir—its tendency to skate around the edges of the genre as it threatens to become a series of essays, or opinion pieces, loosely strung together with witty anecdote. While Eagleton has included “memoir” in the title, which gives more room for playing with genre than the term autobiography might, his own description of what he calls “anti-autobiography” might best describe his project. Definition is one of Eagleton’s favorite devices in this text, and he defines “anti-autobiography” as follows:

[…] anti-autobiography means not just not writing your autobiography, an astonishingly prevalent practice, but writing it in such a way as to outwit the prurience and immodesty of the genre by frustrating your own desire for self-display and the reader’s desire to enter your inner life. (57)

This statement gives a fairly clear picture of a writer moving near self-revelation (as we would expect in a memoir) only to move away from it when it comes too close; in Eagleton’s case, he accomplishes the resistance to do more than flirt with revealing his memories by offering up opinion, which may be seen as philosophizing (or on a rare occasion perhaps as a bit of ranting), rather than experience. We find out how he almost fell in love as a college student, only to have the romance disintegrate with an unfortunate statement, “I’ll ‘ave a buun,” which too readily revealed his northern lower-class origins for the girl to continue to take him seriously (174), but we do not find even a glimmer of information about how he came to marry a girl he apparently met in Provo, Utah, a place he deemed more frightening than the hell to which his Mormon students feared he would be condemned (149). Just as Eagleton notes a certain degree of puzzlement or frustration even in his undergraduate days with the apparent lack of ability in literary analysis on the part of some of his Cambridge professors (129, 142), some readers expecting The Gatekeeper: A Memoir to recount memories of a life lived, may wish for more of the story, whether or not they appreciate the sharing of mini-essays on capitalism, communism, Catholicism and both imagined and actual sexual behaviors of politicians and clergy.

However, even as he backpedals from the kind of immersion in memory we might expect of this genre, in between philosophical flights to distract too curious readers, Eagleton does present some poignant statements about his distance from his father and many wonderfully humorous tales of Cambridge dons, his self-pitying maternal grandmother, aristocrats he has had the misfortune to bump up against, the ineffectiveness of political machinations, and his own overzealous academic productivity. Anyone who has been rescued from the tangle of trying to make sense of literary theory by Eagleton’s approach to the field will surely want a further glimpse of his wit and thought.

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