Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why So Serious? The Relentless Misery of Irish Literature

First published in the Western People on Monday.

In his review of the prize-winning and more-or-less-impossible-to-read novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Professor John Sutherland wondered in an aside why it is that Irish fiction so hates Ireland. The Professor listed the culprits in the litany of literary misery in an article in the Guardian newspaper after McBride’s novel won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction a month or two ago.

Sutherland pointed out that James Joyce and Samuel Beckett high-tailed it to Paris as quick as ever they could, with Joyce charmingly describing Ireland as “a sow that eats her farrow.” Sutherland also remarks that John Banville, whether writing as himself or as Benjamin Black, is unlikely to send anyone to the Emergency Room in the local hospital having split his or her sides from laughing.

And Sutherland hit the nail square on the head. Irish literature – that is to say, those books that the chattering classes of south Dublin like to talk about – is generally one long tedious whine, with chapter breaks every now and again so you can choke back a double whiskey to stiffen your courage.

In order to successfully compose an essay on the Irish novel as part of his English studies in NUI, Galway, some years ago a contemporary of your correspondent made the mistake of putting off the necessary background reading until the weekend before he sat down to compose. As such, he had to binge-read the four novels set for the course in order to share his insights with his professor.

The first he read was A Pagan Place, by Edna O’Brien. There is no line of dialogue in that book anywhere. It’s like being stuck beside Edna herself on a bus making its way over and back on the backroads of her native Clare on a wet Tuesday night in late October.

She drones on and on in a stream of consciousness while you yourself only want to run away into the Aillwee Caves and sit in a damp, dark and cold hole until she gets bored and nods off in her seat.

But our hero got through it, in the end. Next up, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore, a laugh-a-minute romp set in Belfast about the hilarious antics of a middle-aged spinster who deals with her loneliness by sinking into alcoholism.

Unsurprisingly, our man could have done with a drink himself by the time he got through to the end of that one, but he thought that he had the back broken on the task now. He reached up to his shelf, took down The Dark, by John McGahern, and started to read.

One chapter later, the book was on the floor and our man was sprinting into town like Keith Higgins when he sees green grass ahead of him. Our man burst into a sleepy Hole-in-the-Wall bar on Sunday night and couldn’t even speak until he had imbibed a quart or two of that Heavenly soup brewed in St James’ Gate.

After reading three Irish novels in a row, each more miserable than the last, this student of literature found himself in the same position as Lucille, that strange woman whom Kenny Rogers met that time in a bar in Toledo – he was hungry for laughter, and here ever after, he was after whatever the other life brings. Anything but more McGaherism, Moore-ism or, God between us and small farms, O’Brienism. Anything but O’Brienism.

O’Brien and McGahern were giants of the ‘sixties generation of Irish novelists. Has the boom given rise to a slightly jollier style of Irish novelist? Could it be possible that the bust that followed the boom has dragged the Irish novel into a more mature worldview, the sort of sangfroid that comes from viewing triumph and disaster, and viewing both disasters just the same?

Er, no. As well as Banville the Bleak and McBride the Miserable, mentioned above, the other two greats of contemporary Irish fiction are Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright.

Tóibín’s great hero is the American writer of the last century, Henry James, a man assured of a podium finish in any list of Great Bores of Letters. If that’s what Tóibín is looking for good luck to him, but I don’t plan to plough through ten dense pages only to discover that Hector has put two spoons of sugar in his tea.

Anne Enright won the Booker Prize for a book that she herself described as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.” Be still, my heart. Not only are you wall-to-wall with the slowly dying and the terminally dysfunctional should you decide to read the thing despite all advance warning, you are also in danger of having young men in horn-rimmed glasses and beards too big for them corner you in bars wanting to talk about the work moved them. Thanks a lot, Anne.

Because Literature is Serious-with-a-capital-S, people think that means it can’t be light-hearted, even just a little bit. But we’ve known since Aristotle that the line between tragedy and comedy is a very thin one, and it can often be difficult to tell one from the other. Life itself is like that, and art is meant to reflect life, not to provide pseudo-intellectual fibre in hipsters’ morning cereal.

Shakespeare has long been considered the greatest writer in English and what people seem to overlook is that Shakespeare was a funny guy. Even his bleakest play, King Lear, is shot through with flashes of humour, chiefly involving the love triangle between Lear’s daughters and the Duke of Gloucester’s son, Edmund. Edmund is quite the boyo, all things considered.

Most appropriate of all to today’s discussion is the fate of Cinna the Poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Marc Anthony has inflamed the passions of the masses after the murder of Julius Caesar, and there are riots all over Rome. A group of rioters catch Cinna the Poet and assume he is the anti-Caesar conspirator of the same name, crying “kill him! Kill him!” all the while.

“I am Cinna the Poet! I am Cinna the Poet!” pleads Cinna. There is a pause, as the disappointed rioters mull this disappointing news over. Then one of the mob, inspired, shouts “Kill him for his bad verses! Kill him for his bad verses!” and that is the end of Cinna.

Miserable Irish novelists might be well advised to stay out of Rome. Just in case.