Fiction and the Changing Ireland


Richard Rankin Russell

University of North Carolina

Copyright © 1999 by Richard Rankin Russell, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Gerry Smyth, The Novel and The Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction. London: Pluto Press, 1997.

  1. Despite a plethora of studies on recent Irish (especially Northern Irish) poetry and drama, Irish fiction after Joyce has suffered no little critical neglect. The few critical books on this genre include John Wilson Foster's 1974 work, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, James Cahalan's two studies, Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel (1983) and The Irish Novel: A Critical History (1988), Ann Owens Weekes's Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition (1990), and Vera Kreilkamp's recent ground-breaking study, The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House (1998).

  2. As Cahalan points out in his introduction to The Irish Novel, one source of this paucity of attention to Irish fiction in the second half of this century has been the "American-dominated 'James Joyce Industry,' [which] is a more subtle but even more pervasive form of cultural imperialism" than previous incorporations of Anglo-Irish fiction into books and courses on British fiction. (xvii) While Callahan may overstate his case here, the juggernaut of the Joyce industry shows no sign of stopping. However, there are some recent hopeful signs that Irish studies criticism is finally exploring and critiquing some of the marvellous fiction which has been emerging over the last twenty years, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

  3. One recent book on the genre is Gerry Smyth's The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction, published by Pluto Press in 1997. The author, a lecturer in Cultural History at John Moores University in Liverpool, endeavors to introduce a number of new Irish novelists to the reader, while contextualizing their work within a "postcolonial" framework. As he notes in his introduction, "A fundamental premise for what follows throughout this book is that Ireland was England's first colony . . . . Therefore, the principle of colonisation has structured relations between the two islands since the twelfth century. . . ." (2-3) As he perspicaciously goes on to point out, the major legacy of Irish resistance to this colonisation has been an "identitarian imperative" which set up a binary of similarity (in terms of Irishness) and difference (in terms of Englishness); this simplistic model held sway in the period leading up to the Republic's independence and has continued to largely dominate thinking about Irish identity to the present day. Because of the continued hold of this us versus them mentality on the Irish psyche, Smyth holds that it is misleading and premature to characterize Ireland as postcolonial, as it is still evolving notions of identity which fixate on the colonial linkage between the United Kingdom and Ireland. (4)

  4. However, during the 1980s, Ireland changed at a rapid pace, due in part to an influx of money and technology from the European Union; the election of Mary Robinson, a feminist and civil rights lawyer, was a progressive response to this change and has helped initiate new thinking about Irish identity which is not dependent on definition against, or reaction to, Europe, Britain, or older forms of Irishness based on nationalism or racialism. For Smyth, "The novel is important in modern Irish culture because as a genre it evolved to formulate narratives in which social, political and historical change could be accommodated" (6). Its importance in Irish culture, especially since the mid-1980s, is such that it has overtaken poetry and drama as "perhaps the pre-eminent Irish cultural form" (6). However, this bold statement is at least heavily qualified, if not negated, by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Seamus Heaney in 1995 for his many poetic contributions to fostering reconciliation in Northern Ireland; by the continuing explosion and prominence of Ulster poetry generally; and by the sheer popularity of Irish drama on the island, in Britain and in the United States. Moreover, in Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, it is simply much easier for the general public to read a poem or go to a play than invest time and energy in reading a novel. But for Smyth, the Irish fiction which has emerged over the last fifteen years, especially since Mary Robinson's election, is the most appropriate literary genre for coming to terms with the rapid developments in Irish culture, economics, and society. He even terms this newer fiction "Robinsonian" due to the willingness of the new Irish novelists "to confront the formal and conceptual legacies of a received literary (and wider social) tradition alongside a self-awareness of the role played by cultural narratives in mediating modern (or perhaps it would be better now to say postmodern) Ireland's changing circumstances" (7).

  5. One is tempted to say at this point that the seemingly egalitarian Smyth-witness his generous inclusions of novelists in later chapters, without regard to sex, race, or denomination--is himself guilty of setting up an imperialist genre, the novel, to the exclusion of the other two genres. His argument that the novel, out of all three genres, is best suited to portraying the fluid dynamics of contemporary Irish society, is ill- founded. First, not all contemporary novelists consistently write about Ireland; most of the fiction of John Banville, Iris Murdoch, and Brian Moore--three of the most accomplished Irish novelists--is set outside Ireland and has only faint resonances of Irish influences. Second, much recent Irish poetry--Derek Mahon's Yellow Book comes to mind--and drama--Sebastian Barry's The Steward of Christendom, for example-- show just how well the other two genres can portray the current changes in Irish culture. I would add--and this is not a retreat to an art for art's sake viewpoint--many Irish writers do not write with the implicitly didactic and heavy-handed goal of representing the changing Irish experience. Many end up doing this anyway, but this is not their sole intent. To do so turns art into mere pamphleteering.

  6. But to give Smyth his due, this paradoxical attempt to elevate one genre over the others in a book seemingly dedicated to eradicating hierarchies, is a limited, though striking instance of critical misapprehension. He goes on to present a wonderfully concise and engaging discussion of theories which inform his study: the continuing conflict of (post) nationalism (the critical camp which sees nationalism as a necessary step in achieving a pluralistic society) versus revisionism; cultural nationalism; novel and nation as imagined communities, largely in Benedict Anderson's now-famous terms; the novel as national allegory; the novel as resistance; the novel as carnival. His reading of these theories and their intersections with the Irish novel is refined and sensitive, avoiding the simplistic reactions against Empire which have characterized at least one major strand of postcolonial criticism. For example, postcolonial theory's typical response of refusing "the representational discourse of the dominantformation," epitomized by the realist novel, brings this response from Smyth:
    Realism is not "bad" in itself, and it would be unwise for the post-colonial critic to write off a whole tradition of realist Irish fiction simply because within the terms of an abstract theory it is understood to collude with colonialist discourse. . . . It seems clear, rather, that in different contexts, the most "collusive" text could be read subversively, while the most "radical" anti-colonial text could be ignored or recuperated by colonialist discourse. . . . A second and more fundamental criticism is that colonial reality can never be completely denied, as it constitutes the preestablished terrain upon which all cultural initiatives within the colonial formation must operate. A discourse of resistance which refused received realities completely would be psychotic. The tactic has to be refined therefore, so that the decolonising subject may change from within a situation that he/she is forced to inhabit. . . . The most effective post-colonial tactic according to this theory is not one which seeks to replace colonial reality with a pristine national reality which has somehow miraculously remained unscathed from colonial history. . . . (23-4)
    Instead, Smyth's favored strategy is a now-familar one for postcolonial critics: novelists should engage in subversive mimicry, parody, and difficult allusion in order to create an ambiguous but tenable position. I cannot help thinking, however, that the "cunning middle voice" which Seamus Heaney's speaker hears in "Making Strange" (from Part I of Station Island) said all this more succinctly: "be adept and be dialect."

  7. Chapters two and three examine forms and themes of Irish fiction, respectively, and are especially attentive to how both emerged during the colonial period. For example, in chapter two, Smyth approves of Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent in terms of its balance between the anthropological and narrative impulses, but faults the later novel The Absentee because of its de-emphasis on the plenum, or world of the novel, and over-emphasis on political reality. That chapter also contains intelligent and sensible discussions of stereotypes, alienation, narrative as event, metafiction and the unstable novel, decolonisation, writing for the coloniser, and writing for the post-colonial. It is impossible to do justice to his deft handling of these issues in a limited space.

  8. Chapter three discusses three major themes in Irish fiction -- madness and dreams, family matters, and the city and the country -- and how these and their subthemes have been created from interactions between the colonizer and the colonized. Other themes of course, suggest themselves: both the continuing themes of an emphasis on language for language's sake and of the outsider would seem particularly suggestive for a discussion about literature which was written out of this complex nexus of interactions. Still, this is a valuable chapter and if it seems a bit short on novelistic illustrations of these themes at times, we would be well advised to reread the introduction, where Smyth notes that his book is meant to be suggestive and pedagogical. In true reader-response fashion, he maintains there that it should be relatively easy for the reader to apply the theories, forms, and themes of Part I to readings of the individual novels discussed in Part Two.

  9. Part Two of the book focuses on close, contextualized readings of many new and emerging Irish writers. I detest his epigraph to this section: "The novel: a piece of extended prose fiction that has something wrong with it." An epigraph no less, which has an unknown source. Why must the novel have something wrong with it? And why start a discussion of recent fiction with Roddy Doyle, when, quite frankly, there are many better Irish novelists out there? Taken as a whole, his trilogy is impressive in its idiomatic vernacular and reworking of Joyce's theme of paralysis in Dubliners, not to mention its emphasis on the marginalized underclass of Dublin's northside. And Smyth is right to insist on a wider artistic heritage for Doyle in these respects than Joyce and O'Casey; strong contemporary resonances, if not influences, he might have pointed out are the Scottish novelist James Kelman's How late it was, how late and the Scottish dramatist Jeff Torrington's Swing Hammer, Swing, about working class life in Partick and the Gorbals area of Glasgow, respectively. Doyle is crucial to the new Irish fiction, according to Smyth, because of his duality of quintessential realism and postmodernity, the latter created by the juxtaposition of "the effects of mass international culture with a residual local culture" (67). I have no quibble with this characterization of Doyle's fiction, but I do with Smyth's assertion that Doyle's "books will sustain second and third readings" due to their suggestive qualities which somehow will induce the reader to make connections and yes, "subtle links that were missed [the] first time" (67). Never have I had the urge to reread any of Doyle's trilogy, mostly because I think the writing, outside of the wonderful dialogue, is so uniformly bad and pedestrian. Certainly, it does owe a great deal to the oral tradition of Irish story-telling, as he goes on to point out, but it lacks the subtlety of this tradition. Either John Banville, one of the absolutely best writers in English today, or even Patrick McCabe, a fantastic younger writer who displays a sheer virtuosity of voice in The Butcher Boy and The Dead School, would be a more appropriate choice for the epitome of the new Irish fiction. Banville's absence from this book is particularly distressing but airily dismissed by Smyth in his introduction, where he notes, "This text does not represent an exercise in canon-formation" (1). What it does represent apparently, is the coronation of Roddy Doyle as the king of current Irish fiction, a title which Doyle himself probably would not accept, given his relative surprise at being studied by critics and students in the lengthy interview appended to this chapter. Further, it does seem disingenuous to claim on the first page of a critical book subtitled Studies in the New Irish Fiction that this is not a book -- even implicitly -- about canonicity. Besides readings of all five of Doyle's novels, other works discussed in this chapter are Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home, Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, Kathleen Ferguson's The Maid's Tale, Mary Morrissey's Mother of Pearl, and Lia Mills's Another Alice.

  10. Whereas the fourth chapter is appallingly weak on readings of novels in the Republic, the fifth chapter is the best assessment of Northern Irish fiction since John Wilson Foster's Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction twenty-five years ago. Just as Irish writers and their works have been traditionally marginalized by an Anglophilic academy, so too Northern Protestant writers have been in Irish studies. In studies of Northern literature, Catholic writers such as Seamus Heaney still tend to dominate the literary scene despite their (until very recently) political exclusion; Protestant writers, even the best of them, are viewed with some skepticism and suspicion, no doubt a carry-over from the unyielding images of "NO SURRENDER" omnipresent in Derry and Belfast, and from the unbridled triumphalism of Orange marches, a highly contentious topic. What we have here is a political majority whose creative writers rarely claim affiliation with the dominant images of Protestantism. Yet they still are marginalized, despite having explored varying facets of Protestant identity, including the liberal strain stretching back to the 1798 rebellion (seen in Stewart Parker's Northern Star), the regionalism of poet John Hewitt, working-class Protestantism (seen in Parker's Pentecost, about the Ulster workers' strike of 1974 and several of Christina Reid's dramas), and the Britishness of Ulster Protestants (seen in many of Michael Longley's poems about his father's World War One experience and Glenn Patterson's novels Burning Your Own and Fat Lad). Even criticism which does examine Northern literature tends to focus on poetry and drama, not fiction, and within these genres, it often, but not always, treats work by Catholic writers more than that by Protestant authors. This latter fact is especially strange since Catholic authors such as Heaney continually speak of their debt to Protestant writers such as the Northern poet Louis MacNeice, who has been largely appropriated into a British poetic tradition. Significant exceptions to this relative critical neglect of Northern Protestant writers include the work of John Wilson Foster, Edna Longley, Terence Brown, and now, Gerry Smyth.

  11. This chapter should be required reading for anyone even somewhat unfamiliar with the explosion of current fictional talent in the North. Puzzling absences, however, include Belfast authors Bernard MacLaverty and Brian Moore, both perhaps excluded because of their status as emigrant writers: Moore went to Canada in 1948, MacLaverty to Scotland in 1975. MacLaverty especially should have been included, both because he is the best Northern Irish novelist and short story writer over the past two decades, and for his continuing concern with conditions there; this concern should make his work ideal for Smyth's conception of the Irish novel as mirroring or helping change its surrounding culture. Writers who are included are Deirdre Madden (Hidden Symptoms), Eoin McNamee (Resurrection Man), Colin Bateman (Divorcing Jack), Glenn Patterson (Burning Your Own and Fat Lad), Robert Macliam Wilson (Ripley Bogle), Mary Beckett (Give Them Stones), Eugene McCabe (Death and Nightingales), and Kate O' Riordan (Involved). Patterson and Macliam Wilson are two of the most promising of these young writers both stylistically and in their concern for reconciliation by moving away from identitarian politics. Macliam Wilson's later novel Eureka Street should also have been included for the best narrative description of a bombing in Northern Ireland and also for his depiction of the Protestant Chuckie Lurgan's friendship with the Catholic Jake. Wilson blurs and obfuscates the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant there, instead stressing affinities between them, and offering a scathing rejection of the "Just Us" and "Just Say No" parties.

  12. Smyth's final chapter picks up where the previous one left off, on the borders between traditional boundaries of Irishness. It is thus fittingly titled, "Borderlands," and is comprised of three sections: "Far From the Land," "Queer Nation," and "Bringing It All Back Home." The guiding principle for this chapter seems to be change and fluidity in notions of Irishness. To wit, he notes that:
    The novelists of the 1980s and 1990s are having to engage with a proliferation of possibilities in which the idea of the border -- defined geographically, sexually, or culturally, as in the remainder of this chapter -- is becoming increasingly important. Moreover, these writers have shown themselves willing to make use of whatever was to hand by way of example -- realism, fabulism or experimentalism -- in their drive to expand the limits of Irishness. Indeed, the borders between these literary traditions become another of the received structures that has to be transgressed as national identity enters a new and possibly terminal phase. (146)
    The first section of this chapter discusses novels of exile and emigration -- specifically, James Ryan's Home from England, Joseph O'Connor's Cowboys and Indians, and Desmond Hogan's A Farewell to Prague. A revised edition might include such works as Bernard MacLaverty's 1997 novel, Grace Notes, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, about a young woman living in Scotland who returns to Northern Ireland for her father's death, and Colum McCann's SongDogs. The section on gay and lesbian writers discusses Emma Donoghue's Stir-fry and Hood and Tom Lennon's When Love Comes to Town. The last section looks at recent novels which display some formerly dominant concerns of Irish fiction -- the land, religion -- which have now been made residual, in the terms of Raymond Williams. These include Elis Ni Dhuibhne's The Bray House, set in the early twenty-first century and narrated from the perspective of eco-criticism; the philosopher Richard Kearney's Sam's Fall, which "insists that the island's religious practices should be seen within the framework of European history"; and John McGahern's Amongst Women. With his discussion of McGahern's remarkable novel, Smyth admits that "it displays a formal sophistication and a narrative control not always apparent amongst the newer Irish novelists for whom it sometimes appears that publishing opportunities have impeded technical development" (171). One would think that for Smyth, McGahern's straightforward narrative could not portray the rapid changes now occurring in Ireland since it does not seem to fit the chameleonic description of the novel Smyth offers early on, but Smyth argues that McGahern achieves a nice balance between "what the narrator tells the reader and what the reader is enabled to infer from the characters' actions and words. . . ." (173)

  13. This book concludes with a brief discussion entitled "The Politics of Change," which attempts to give an account of the rise of the new Irish fiction in the terms set up by David Lloyd in his Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment, a poorly written but very influential book in recent Irish studies. Three of these "states," Smyth argues, are the current revival of all things Irish (in music, culture, and writing); the question of the role of the artist in society; and "the loss of an accepted regime of critical and/or accepted value," which is symptomatic of a new uncertainty generally in Ireland. (178) In keeping with his thesis of flux throughout this book, Smyth finds real potential in this profound uncertainty, arguing that out of it, "we may be witnessing in modern Ireland the conditions for the emergence of the world's first truly postcolonial state" (179). The book is supplemented by bibliographies of influential older Irish novels and current ones, criticism and theory in an Irish context, and general criticism and theory. Its primary strengths are the author's insistence on theory as a point of departure, not as a template; its conciseness; and the chapter on Northern Irish fiction. Its weaknesses include the elevation of the novel through the denigration of the other two genres and the glaring omission of Banville, MacLaverty, Trevor, and other outstanding contemporary Irish authors, with a baffling over-emphasis on Roddy Doyle. Despite these flaws, this book is a strong contribution to Irish studies and a useful primer to studies of recent Irish fiction.

Works Cited

Cahalan, James. The Irish Novel: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

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