Elizabeth Bowen for the Pub Wall!
From London Review of Books:
Iris Murdoch famously said that being a woman ‘is like being Irish … everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.’ I have spent most of my published life on predominantly male UK fiction lists. The best of them are great and humane company on the page, but there is a confusion at the knotty end between great truths and ones that are merely horrible. This results in books charged with male anger, male violence and male self-disgust, sometimes expressed as misogyny. Successful male writers of Irish fiction are seldom ‘manly’ in this way. Their voices are more likely to be restrained, gentle or lyrical, with a number of books taking a woman’s or a child’s point of view. There is also the modernist strand of Irish fiction in which language is chaotically disturbed and remade. I might mention our tragic muse. Sometimes it seems as though Irish fiction of the last few decades is unusually powerless: you get books in which syntax refuses to cohere, novels in which a sense of agency is punished, or fails to matter. These novelists might be said to write ‘like’ women. They are rarely misogynistic, which makes the difficulty harder to see. Fiction, as a trade, is fraught with the thrills and anxieties of feminisation. When a woman writes ‘like’ a woman this tension disappears. There is also, weirdly, an added sense of authority. Irish men writing about women are sometimes praised for their insight, as though this was something women themselves were incapable of.
The country where I grew up in the 1970s was insular and impoverished, and the idea of greatness was very important to us. Books were not just an escape from the present, difficult moment, their greatness was a talisman against shame. The fact that Ulysses, the greatest of them all, also glories in the transgressive and the filthy kept the ironies in motion. In order to become properly iconised, as he was on the Irish Writers poster, it was necessary that Joyce be dead. An awareness of writers’ gravesites, the impulse to build statues and monuments, all of this was useful when it came to the national work of building a better past for ourselves. The deadness of the writer is especially interesting because they feel so alive on the page: this makes their books a talisman not just against shame but also against mortality. Which makes me wonder –and I have no answer to this – whether women will ever seem dead in the same way.
Many people have looked at the original Irish Writers poster, that trite but effective iteration of the canon, and wondered, to take one example, why Brendan Behan should be preferred over Elizabeth Bowen. Maybe Bowen wouldn’t look right on a pub wall. She seems to be not just the wrong gender but also the wrong class, the wrong religion. This sense of wrongness doesn’t adhere to Synge, Beckett, Swift, Goldsmith, O’Casey, Yeats, Shaw, or Wilde, who were all Protestant. There are three Catholics, Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, but only Kavanagh came from the farming background so beloved of Irish nationalism. The strong representation of playwrights on the poster is a reflection, perhaps, of the role of the theatre in forming ideas of a nation. In the years after Irish Independence, women were slowly exiled, not just from the public house, but also from the playhouse, so the discussion about the canon has to include questions about public story-telling as well as ones about colonialism or the middle class.
An equivalent poster about English or British writers would lean towards the 19th century, and would not be complete without Austen, Emily Brontë or George Eliot. The few novelists on the Irish version wrote, in a way that neither Austen nor Bowen ever could, not just about the poor and the marginal but transgressively about backsides and excrement (Joyce is the only one who wrote about sex). I looked at these writers as I pondered ideas of noble rot, and I remembered instead their childish glee. Drinking is another kind of transgression, and the connection between a drinking culture and a writing culture remains a lucrative one today. Who takes their ideas of literary importance from a pub wall? The Irish tourist industry, certainly, along with their key market in the Irish diaspora. The tilt towards the male gets even steeper in America, with its emigrant nostalgia for an Irish past.
The relationship between creativity and the author’s anxiety about the critical culture is necessarily difficult; you always wonder how a book will be received.