“Only by acknowledging the ineradicable self-interest that makes each human being his own tempter, tormentor, and judge, can we face up to the challenge of Swift’s ironies.” – Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed
For as long as I can remember, I have looked for truth in literature as well as in life. Autobiographies and biographies offer a person’s portrait in words, but how much of it is objective or honest? This is one of the principle questions that plagues readers of the genre.
Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes is thorough, there can be no faulting him in that respect. Swift is depicted warts and all (something he would have certainly appreciated). The biography offers the facts of Swift’s upbringing in Ireland, a country he would perennially be conflicted with, through to his becoming a prominent member of the protestant church and his success as a satiric writer. It also informs the reader of Swift’s tumultuous relationships with women, while giving a rigorous analysis of all of his work.
Swift’s rather sanguine attitude to life may not have placed him in the best position to receive religious orders. Nonetheless, he persevered in the profession despite the pitfalls. Although he was always critical of Ireland, he attempted to inform the English aristocracy of the Irish people’s poverty, particularly through his Drapier’s papers.
I cannot criticise Nokes on his candid approach, though the biography can be dense and lacking in lustre at times. Swift lived a life that was by no means uninteresting and I think that if Nokes had focussed more on Swift’s writing rather than the political situation of the time (despite them being inextricably linked), he would have produced a more riveting piece of work. Nonetheless, his book is incredibly informative and useful to anyone looking to acquire background knowledge on Swift.
I read Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed in Dublin and thinking of my hometown of Brussels. I miss it and always bring a Belgian treat (or as many as I can realistically lug through customs) when I go away. This time I had speculoos, a Belgian biscuit made with brown sugar and cinnamon, in plentiful supply. The best ones (from Maison Dandoy) are rock hard and often made in a mould with a windmill on it. There’s nothing like a delicately spiced biscuit to get you through a heavy tome.