Books: An immodest proposer

Christopher Hope is delighted to meet the savage Dr Swift, large as life and twice as strange; Jonathan Swift by Victoria Glendinning Hutchinson, pounds 20, 324pp
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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Swift did not merely attack the inhumanity of man. As he never did things by halves, he entered into it as well. Swift was a very good hater; his genius was for insult, for invective. But it was founded on a good deal of self- loathing. He was a fistful of contradictions: a Dubliner with English ambitions; a Protestant with Irish sympathies; a cleric who, perhaps, did not believe in God.

In her new life of Swift, Victoria Glendinning's greatest strength might be called wise restraint. She has read the sources; and then happily thrown out whole reams of stuff. She has not got bogged down in the letters. Letter-writing was a kind of tic in the 18th century. People wrote wadges of them, and Swift's letters to his London friends, John Gay and Alexander Pope, throw little light on this strange, furious man. Glendinning has tried, instead, for an impressionistic likeness. And that is what she gets. The great Dean swims out of the dark; this is a portrait of pointed insights, vivid hauntings, wild accents and sympathetic sightings.

Such agility is absolutely necessary. With Swift, everything runs counter to conventional expectations - even his dates. He was born in 1667 and died in 1745, and though this suggests a man of the Enlightenment, he reaches back to earlier, more "fanatick" times. Just as he reaches forward to our own barbarous age. He hated the two-party system. Yet he sold his pen to the Tories, hoping preferment lay that way. But he might have served the Whigs just as well. And he was extremely rude about both parties.

Queen Anne's London, from 1710 to 1714, saw him top pamphleteer in the war against the Whigs. These were his glory years. As Glendinning points out, it was a remarkable achievement for a country curate from distant Dublin. He was the first political spin-doctor, the Tories' own Prince of Darkness.

Anyone out of Africa will recognise the innate tribalism of English affairs - Jacobite and Royalist - that Swift knew so well. Assassination, by any means, was its yardstick; graft and corruption its useful oil.

Victoria Glendinning is never too respectful. Never too kind, either. And that's a relief. Swift wasn't after money. Slipping him a brown paper envelope got you nowhere. Yet the Doctor had his price. He hoped, expected an English bishopric - and a big one.

It never came. Swift returned to Ireland, and exile, and took what he could get, the Deanery of St Patrick's in Dublin. He was a very doubtful patriot, too. If anything, he grew to be related to Ireland by rage. And how well one draws Swift depends largely on how well one draws his Ireland.

One of the pleasures of this compact life is Victoria Glendinning's extraordinary knack for making such intangibles palpable. She prefers plain words and homely examples. Swift would have liked that. Think of Ireland, she says, as a kind of new-world colony, like Virginia. Or, better still, like Kenya of the Twenties.

Exactly so. Ireland existed to be settled, plundered, bought and sold. Sometimes the bold migrated - more often the second-best. A colony was a place where "settlers" were given every encouragement to rip off the natives, and call it upliftment. Those who could barely cross the road unaided "at home" lived well at half the price.

Swift did pretty well out of it. But Ireland hurt him into life. The world, seen from Ireland, sickened him. There had been boisterous rudeness in his English broadsides. Now he got down to business. He warmed up with The Drapier's Letters. With Gulliver's Travels, he had heated up to magnificent loathing we now call "Swiftian". Human beings, the King of Brobdingnag pointed out to Gulliver, are probably the most odious race of little vermin ever to have crawled upon the face of the earth. Such is the genius of Swift's peculiar calm fury that one always feels the King was putting things rather mildly.

Swift famously rated horses more highly than humans. The Houyhnhmns were superior to the bestial Yahoos in honesty, civility, sagacity. But the Dean was the father of both - and a very dark horse himself. He was a clergyman, an Irishman, and a madman. Sometimes all at once. And he was never an agreeable man.

Glendinning never sentimentalises him. He was abrupt, obsessed with cleanliness, brutal to the women who loved him. He spent much of his last decade ill, deaf, increasingly demented. She casts a cool eye over the coprophiliac anguish of the late poems, in particular Strephon's notorious lament: "Oh Celia, Celia, Celia, shits!"

She estimates that the "dirty" poems add up to just 3.33 per cent of his verse. The oddest thing about them is the way they continue to give offence, even in our own times. When every crime, from the sadistic liquidation of peoples to the methodical murder of infants, has been pursued with a diligence to make a Yahoo blush. How odd, and consoling, that Swift's scatologies can still scandalise.

How does one explain his force, his saving grace? Why do his readers feel such gratitude for this rough, dangerous, demented man? How can someone so awful be so cleansing?

Victoria Glendinning reaches for contemporary parallels. And that is right because Swift is shockingly modern, though I think she is wrong to fetch on Quentin Tarantino. Blowing holes in human beings is merely Hollywood horror. Tarantino aims no higher, or lower, than the testosterone levels of his target market.

Swift far more closely resembles Lear - in his anger, childishness and his cloying yet monstrous hold on the women who loved him. Glendinning is wonderfully sharp and sympathetic on lies, sex, and obfuscation.

There was Esther Johnson, "Stella" of the famous Journal; whom Swift met when she was eight. And he went on talking and writing to her in excruciating babytalk for the rest of her life. There was the passionate Hester van Homrigh, "Vanessa ", of the long poem "Cadenus and Vanessa".

Both women loved him, and followed him into exile in Ireland. He may have married the first, and slept with the second. Or not. What is sure is that he bullied them both cruelly. Swift was a pincher, a pusher and, perhaps, even a beater of women. In Glendinning's chilling line: "On a woman's thin shoulder is the shadow of a bruise."

That is Glendinning's method: quick, clear-eyed, unsentimental, deeply sympathetic. She is after the very shape, step and sound of the man. His linen, his wigs, his speaking voice, his appalling habits, his way of going for the jugular, his helpless wanton rage. But anger is only useful for writer if turned to some point. Swift's way is paradoxical: as his rage mounts, as his spleen overflows, so his prose cools, its temperature drops until, and rather as a gas does, it liquifies into the fluid icy weapon he wields like a cauterising knife.

It was never better deployed than in "A Modest Proposal", where mass murder is married to good housekeeping. And feeding factory-farmed, freshly- cooked babyflesh, "delicious, nourishing.and wholesome" to the starving Irish, is urged with all the suave earnestness of a Mrs Beeton run mad. Swift's cold eye and loving, outrageous cadences are half his genius; the other is to use, with a vengeance, the very thing he hates - the obscenity of sweet reason in the face of human suffering.

Victoria Glendinning begins this splendid, poignant life with a confession of failure. Jonathan Swift, she regrets, is out of sight, and "his mocking voice is hanging in the silent air".

Not entirely. Her proposal is fittingly modest. She aims for "a written portrait", built of plain words in good order. And she succeeds wonderfully. But in this intimate seance with the Dean's shade, she does something remarkable. She summons up a speaking likeness.