Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book Review: Light, Freedom & Song

I sent this off to The Blanket; a shorter version I posted on Amazon. A sample of my lit crit for that common reader Woolf sought. Maybe it's you.

Many collections of essays by literary critics tend to be an assortment of talks, reviews, articles, and anecdotes strung together, closely or loosely as the arranger deems. For David Pierce, of the University of York, he in his new book places within frameworks that stretch over the past century many topics perhaps temporarily orphaned, perhaps, after being presented at 'Joyce symposia and Irish conferences' across the world. But, here James Joyce's treatment of cricket finds probably its first analysis, along more familiar subjects as Yeats and the Rising, the Celtic Revival and cultural nationalism, and the Troubles or the famine from over the past 150 years in literature.

These chapters, then, play off extended riffs. What need do we have, still, for another professor's compendium? Pierce pursues the game of the harp vs. the crown. Caught up in the paper chase, he charges past British and Irish fences. Pierce asks how authors stalk a quicksilver Irish colonial-postcolonial phantom. In Beckett, appropriately, Pierce finds a master of evasion and redeployment. Beckett jolts his words, however sparingly arrayed, to transmit precision and defiance. The latter quality, Pierce judges, energises tired clichés and rudimentary utterances. 'Beckett's language is always more than simple texture or local colouring, and not infrequently it seems to belong to a form of slippage, an Irish sense of defiance that can be seen as underlying all his work'. (113) Nothing human is foreign to me, mused a Roman a couple millennia back, and this universality, which we often associate with Joyce in his verbal largesse, also applies to Beckett, who pared down what his predecessor had heaped high.

Beckett's ambiguity as Parisian-Irish, foreign member of the Resistance, Anglo-Irish, non Irish-Irelander, Dubliner schooled in the North at Portara, satirist in English prose who chose the discipline of French: this marks a hybrid character who--as with Yeats, Wilde, and Swift elsewhere scrutinised-- becomes an emblem for Pierce. In his highly recommended anthology, Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century (Cork UP, 2000; reviewed by me on Amazon and a great bargain to boot), Pierce edited a massive tome that crams in fiction, fact, oratory, travelogue, diatribe, song, and verse and combinations thereof. This stirabout, this mulligan stew, satisfies its compiler, who explains movingly in a preface that in its personal revelations exemplifies the value for a scholar to show the hand he's played rather than hold his cards close to his vest, posing with an objective sang-froid none of us can sustain. Pierce, he explains about himself, was born in post-war England but son of an Irish mother, and drawn to the summers spent in his maternal homeland and then back to his own native but not quite home turf. This attraction and retreat, comparatively, marks a writer only beginning to be taken seriously now after years of silence. A decade ago, his first three plays, the Leenane trilogy, teased mid-90s London audiences with their disturbing mix of Synge and Tarentino, Beckett and British television satire (at least that's where I place him early on in his career). Surely the nemesis of the remorseless INLA and tender cat-lovers both (a combination rare indeed?), Martin McDonagh's other early play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, has been revived recently. He wrote seven plays, or most of them, around 1994. Suddenly, he succeeded. And, with his recent stage success after nearly a decade of lying low, The Pillowman (which is not addressed by Pierce), McDonagh again confounds-- with a non-Oirish setting of a grim taleteller collared in a police state-- jaded hipsters expecting another send-up of Man of Aran meets Father Ted.

Why bother with McDonagh? Pierce considers him only momentarily, but McDonagh for me plumbs Irish doldrums: folks mired but happy as a pig in slop. This is our greedy, ironic, twitchy mentality. Pierce seeks hybridity. Well, ghosts of Gaelic haunt the syntax of McDonagh's eagerly anglicised Gaeltacht folk. Even as they revel in cartoonish violence in his 1990s plays, they-- and I would align McDonagh's The Lonesome West cautiously with moments in Tarentino's 1994 Pulp Fiction-- trip upon a threshold beyond which beckon meanings hidden within but inimical to a tawdry existential wasteland. As an aside, Pierce's anthology includes all of Lonesome, less prominent than Beauty Queen of Leenane or Cripple of Inishmaan, but in my judgment his best Irish play to date. Speaking to Fintan O'Toole in the 6 March 2006 New Yorker, McDonagh recalled the 'lunar' landscape near his father's birthplace around Lettermore. 'Skulls in Connemara'. And, so we return to Godot. Beckett's anguish finds itself prolonged rather than terminated or abandoned, through the career of a Londoner who went back during his summers to Connemara found himself taking in much more as a teen in the 80s than he probably expected. John Lydon in Rotten tells of his early disappointment, a couple of decades earlier, when he was ridiculed on his holidays by his Galway relatives-- Lydon being a fine Connemara name, by the way, not far from Leenane in many clan manifestations. McDonagh credits listening to the Clash around 1982 (at twelve) with inspiring his distrust for regimes, whether paramilitary, clerical, or familial. For McDonagh, propelled straight after his own media blitz manipulated by/for Johnny Rotten into the notoriety enjoyed by Tarentino a dozen years ago, the self-taught playwright produced drama in a Hiberno-English that seemed to emerge without his intention, as he heard the voices of his relatives in the characters he created. He credits the Pogues for their example: the trash could be separated from the treasure that Irish tradition still offers us. With the anarchy that punks mimicked and terrorists perverted, McDonagh taunts us further. He shoves his characters within this garish spectacle. He forces them and so us to witness a neglected, fragile, all-too-human soul.

Think of Johnny Rotten onstage in the spotlight, before the mike, eyes unfocused, dazed in a too-large wooly sweater, weary, hands wrapped around his skinny frame: a well-known circa '77 snapshot. Shane McGowan hushing the mosh pit to make them listen to Eric Bogle's lyrics as 'The Band Played "Waltzing Matilida". Tarantino's protagonists wondering what light emanates from the suitcase, and why one says it's the most beautiful sight he's ever seen. Or, Pierce invites, ponder The Lieutenant of Inishmore. 'Very few characters or situations in modern Irish literature lie outside the known or familiar. Padraic tells his distended victim: "If it hadn't been such a nice fella I would've taken one toenail off of separate feet, but I didn't, I took two toenails off the one foot, so that it's only the one foot you'll have to be limping on and not the two".' (qtd. 42) Pierce observes what could be said of Beckett or Tarantino (where to place Lydon: "we're the flowers in your dustbin, your future"?): McDonagh knows his stereotypes, of the nutting squad, of republican comrades who find themselves victims of yet another INLA split to find themselves hung inverted about to be split. Recent reviews often contained warnings to the potential audience-- likely more to weep for the fate of a cat than of the torture of three men. So weary are he, we, and they of such Jacobean revenge. McDonagh parades violence but subverts power's futility.

Irish tendencies towards gallows humour, mordant moralism, superlatives, the speed of craic at 90: this element rears with McDonagh but then fades in Pierce's study. Pages whir by with asides to authors and their texts, many barely mentioned. Still, as with an itinerary that must speed us past minor points-of-interest to better spend our tour at our destination, the journey's worthwhile. No matter how familiar you are with Irish literature, you will discover in this book writers you never knew. Much more could be said. Areas of merit: he opens up fresh perspectives on Northern feminism against and within the republicanism of the 80s. He places John Banville, John McGahern, Glenn Patterson, Denis Johnston, Francis Stuart, Robert Ballagh's art, Julia O'Faolain, Kathleen Coyle, Derek Mahon, Jamie O'Neill, Medbh McGuckian, and Aidan Mathews alongside much acclaimed Irish scribes. From Padraic Fiacc, an unjustly overlooked Belfast poet, Pierce cites his horrifying Missa Terribilis [1986] from 'Crucifixus' and 'Introit'. These poems transfix Christ-figures in agony, one from sectarian murder and another in the immolation of British soldiers. Even within academia, some on this list get short shrift by critics infatuated with Heaney's new verses. The reading public's more likely to hear of whatever Malachy McCourt's press agent's promoting. I would have wished more space given to newer arrivals. Only in passing does Pierce notice Ursula Rani Sarma (...touched and Blue), Conor McPherson (a hurried nod to Shining City), Hugo Hamilton (his enigmatic memoir The Speckled People), and Rosa González in her critical essays on 'the cultural greening of Britain'. With the predictable exception of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's treatment of homosexual desire, Irish-language writing receives little notice. Still, in hundreds of references, Pierce offers plaudits to both bestselling celebrities and those still humble (both feted at 'symposia and conferences' as he attends) for the success of recent Irish writing.

One failing of this otherwise solid book is that the illustrations-- often apropos from unexpected sources-- do not always match what Pierce is on that page explaining, and what he discusses could have gained more clarity if he had selected an appropriate postcard or photo. Few errors remain, but Westland Row station was not Connolly station pre-independence (136; Amiens=Connolly, Westland Row=Pearse). Irish-language lenition as rendered into English "h" is garbled and in one case misspelled in the captions translating Seán Ó Sullivan's map of Corca Dorc[h!]a from Myles na gCopaleen's An Béal Bocht. (A novel that I find anticipates McDonagh's charmless squalor praised by tourists to this Wild West.) However, a superb semi-bird's eye view map on pg. 138 from The Sphere paper, 6 May 1916 showing locations for the rebellion reveals graphics surpassing the flat perspective we see on conventional diagrams of the Rising. The book's atypical format, halfway between standard and small 'coffee table/art book' size, makes a heavier volume to hold but worth the price for its wealth of colour and, as in the Rising map, better rendered pictorial details previous studies did not know of or could not afford to reproduce. Pierce's diligence, although intermittently erratic in its distribution, of the archival as well as the textual research gathered (as in his anthology) shows an eagle-eye rivalling that of The Sphere. He enriches context with a 1930 AA roadmap or plastic bullet photo or the infamous shot taken of Countess Markievicz with pistol ready. He displays the cover of the 2 July 1953 BBC weekly The Listener to indicate this 'extraordinarily time-warped sentence' to bolster his point about imperial British fealty: 'Her Majesty will today receive and reply to addresses of loyalty.' (30) Pierce's meticulous attention enriches his effort. This BBC caption is in tiny print under a large photo of the Houses of Parliament. Only a sharp-eyed reader would notice this regal reference on a mundane magazine page.

Pierce in his enthusiasms to link Clongowes Wood to The Crying Game to MLR James via West Indian cricket, for instance, proves unwittingly how even when he cannot stop interpreting (for then he dashes into comparing them to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano), he manages to keep you reading. Inevitably, we must give way to the trailblazer. We lag behind Pierce's furious cogitation as he associates everything he's ever read to the purported topic. (A fault I sympathise with generously.) Pierce-- as veteran anthologist-- recalls snippets from hundreds of literary works, so to deploy the mot juste, check off that text, and hurry on to another dozen references from often equally overlooked books to back up his latest bold assertion. You'll have a hard time keeping pace if you lack the stamina. The chapters are best read one by one, with pauses for mental or physical refreshment. Knowledge of Irish literature, from Pierce's own anthology or a refresher from Neil Corcoran's After Yeats and Joyce (OUP) or Seamus Deane's A Short History of Irish Literature (U of Notre Dame P), would be a wise pre-requisite. Rarely tainted by jargon or puffed with theory, Light, Freedom and Song is not for absolute beginners. But, if you already know your Yeats from your Keats, it follows one man's trail into the blizzard of print from an island prolific to the extreme in its inhabitants' wish to have out on paper what's been too long stored up inside as potential poem or persuasive prose.

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