Once Irish writers had to choose between exile and conformity. Now life is too comfortable for young writers-and it showsby / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ireland has changed for the better. In roughly the same measure that Thatcher’s Britain became sullen and philistine, the Republic of Ireland has advanced artistically. More and more British writers and artists look wistfully across the Irish Sea, and unlikely comparisons have been drawn with post-Franco Spain. But these changes are not easily achieved.
Remember, to James Joyce Dublin was an inward looking, spiritually paralysed city, more Scandinavian than European or even Celtic. He considered Ireland’s culture rotten with traditionalism, reliant on extravagant memories. Joyce, Wilde, Shaw and Yeats all had to get out.
The first two decades of the 20th century were the heyday of Irish literature. But Irish independence in 1921 was followed by cultural stagnation. In a nationalistic state enforced by Irish Catholic fundamentalism and censorship, individuality was hushed. When state authoritarianism began to recede, liberated minds fought a bitter battle for their voices. They craved self-expression even before they knew how it might sound.
As little as 20 years ago, new voices still found it difficult to get published. The imaginations of some younger writers simply hardened in the mould of lip-licking autobiographical stories associated with a pack of successful fiftysomethings. John McGahern was heralded for his youthful freedom from the reflexive tics of literary gentlemen: there was no porter froth on his pages; he succeeded in avoiding shamrockery and blarney; there wasn’t that self-conscious affirmation of Irishness, all too common in the absence of a powerful culture. But John McGahern was not so young.
The new generation of dislocated urban romantics, shaped by television, cinema, rock’n’roll and drug culture as much as by the newest fiction from America and England, wanted something fresher. By comparison, McGahern’s novels were spread with Irish clich?s like symptoms of literary disease: a high priest count, farms and bogs, Catholic guilt, psychosexual beatings, these were hard to get rid of. Even in 1990 it was just such a remnant of the old Ireland, McGahern’s Amongst Women, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
One superbly fresh, artistic novelist-a writer who almost paints- sealed himself in his own Eurobubble against infection from local humbug. In a succession of lofty philosophical novels, John Banville dreamed up the lives of 16th and 17th century men of science with images that popped your eyes out. He gazed beneath local significance; he had a way of looking at objects with such clarity that they began to blush. These novels, in which every simile was born of contemplation, were a guiding standard for the most dedicated young aspirants dreaming of publication. When in 1989 Banville eventually wrote a more superficially Irish novel, The Book of Evidence, it was shortlisted for the Booker and won the more generous Guinness Peat Aviation Award. But Banville didn’t help those who wanted to find a style which was fresh but also comfortable with contemporary Ireland.
A rash of small presses appeared in the 1970s. Neil Jordan and Desmond Hogan were published by forming the tiny Irish Writers Co-operative. They managed to be naturally Irish without having to assert it and became two of the most advanced stylists of the 1980s and 1990s. Jordan’s The Past, a sophisticated evocation of 1920s and 1930s Ireland, has a blissfully difficult narrative reminiscent of Angela Carter, but he is often thought of primarily as a new Irish film maker. Hogan’s neglected, nomadic, gay novels have an Irish charm, but also the freshness of an utterly exiled and cosmopolitan mind. Patrick McCabe, first published in 1986 by a small press set up by Dermot Bolger, was to be more successful. The Butcher Boy, shortlisted for the 1992 Booker and winner of the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize, is once again about a boy in a small Irish town-but a delinquent who speaks with a suffering innocence unknown in previous Irish fiction.
The novels of Brian Moore, Jennifer Johnston and Bernard MacLaverty had suggested that the easiest way for Northern Irish writers to write with charm was to avoid the subject of the North. With the Troubles came a new generation of kids who knew the interest they attracted from outside, but their struggle was to achieve distance from an immensely self-obsessed society. Award-winning Robert McLiam Wilson seemed to recognise a problem: if you are from Ulster your voice tends to be crude; you might want to acquire a second tongue. He writes like an English novelist, careful to avoid life in the narrow furrow of the unlikely-sounding “Northern Irish novel.” Glenn Patterson’s concern was less with style; he tackled the content of Ulster’s inelegance and provincialism head on, succeeding as a result of his broad political vision and pin-sharp insight. Fat Lad drives home the psychological damage that political decisions can have, the mass suffering imposed by a confused political whim. Nations shape indivi- duals’ identities, yet they are imposed fictions and, like all fictions, subject to editing. Life in Northern Ireland, Patterson explained in a brilliant address to the Dublin writers in 1993, is a lesson in deconstruction: personal identity is as arbitrary and unstable as the state.
The commercial potential of Ulster’s extreme psychopathology was spotted by a Northern writer of Patterson’s generation who first appeared, thanks to Dermot Bolger, in the 1980s. Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man is a rare thriller with a vision. But after encountering Patterson’s sincerity one feels a bit uncomfortable with it. It leans heavily on a work of truth, The Shankill Butchers, by the much-respected Martin Dillon. The novel is an exquisite exploitation of actual murders, horrifying, elemental and erotic, but perhaps tending to the aggressively competitive.
The more the Irish writing industry took off, the less time writers had. One consequence was the creeping return, in a number of novels, of lazy thinking and old clich?s: confessional scenes, sublimations in rural isolation. Writers had fallen prey to the values of consumerism. Ambitious, they needed their works to succeed as popular commodities; literature tried to compete as pulp. The Irish media became obsessed by the new Irish writing. Since success came to be judged in terms of press appearances, the diminishing simplicities of soundbites and interviews were everything-to shun them would be to sell fewer copies.
The consummate smart mover is Roddy Doyle. His investment, with playwright Paul Mercier, in a search for a new entertainment genre-somewhere between popular theatre and comic novel-paid dividends in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Doyles’ novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, proved to be film makers’ dreams. It was realistic farce, depicting Dublin northsiders as poor, but enjoying themselves dancing in the street. The Irish novel which won the Booker was the simplest read of all: Doyle’s Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha.
Doyle’s success in Ireland can hardly be overstated. To many of the next generation of writers he represents all the glam and cash that Ireland’s recent cultural growth can bring. There are so many newcomers rapacious for careers in Irish writing that the fiction section of book shops is swollen by all the new Mc’s, easily confused names-McCann, MacCann, Mac-Anna, MacKenna. The battle for intelligence continues, to judge by Anne Enright’s The Wig my Father Wore or Mary Morrissey’s Mother of Pearl; but the threat to intelligence can be seen in rows and rows of the new literary kitsch on the shelves. What was once too difficult is now too easy. London will publish anything Irish right now.
When one writer referred to this consumer boom as a renaissance it sounded like Irish hyperbole. Bolger himself, in an otherwise sharp introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction in 1993, was anxious to emphasise Ireland’s “remarkably confident” new writing. If it’s so healthy, one wonders, why is there not a bit more bitching and a bit less mutual back slapping? When Dermot Healy published A Goat’s Song, a cross-border political epic to “comprehend the whole island” (as the Irish Times said), Bolger praised it with a blurb. “It haunts my dreams,” cried McCabe. John Banville’s son recommended it for the Booker. But is it any good?
If this seems a little tight knit, perhaps it’s because, for the first time, Irish writers no longer flee into exile, they stay at home for special tax exemption and huge prizes. Dublin is too pleasant to leave-even if its bars and cafes are crammed with self-conscious affirmations of Ireland’s literary heritage. But the country is too small to fulfil its writers’ needs: because publication abroad is the first step to serious success, they too still stare wistfully across the Irish Sea.
Ireland is more extrovert than it has ever been; but it exercises greater censorship of sexual imagery than Turkey does. And for all the eagerness to trace Irish literary trends, the new writing is just a local variation on international multifaceted post-modernism. There is no new literary movement, there are no shared values, no trends. There is tripe and there is some fine fiction. But is it art?
Only by rejecting the modern and tending to the reactionary and the provincial could the Field Day Theatre Company, which has flourished in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, find an alternative to post-modernist consumerism. It takes manifestos and convictions, like scars, to produce literature which is likely to last, including that of the most recent Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney. Until there is some grander post-post-modernist world view, probably all writers can do is flash their trash.