Cen­turies of cre­ative in­ven­tive­ness

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - KEVIN GILDEA Kevin Gildea is a co­me­dian and a critic


Dalkey Ar­chive Press, 350pp, £17.50

Writ­ing is like fish­ing – the writer is try­ing to cap­ture some­thing. On one end of the scale – tra­di­tional sto­ry­telling – the writer is most con­cerned with what is caught in the net, while on the other end of the scale is the type of writ­ing that is as in­ter­ested in the con­struc­tion and na­ture of the net, as in what is to be caught. The lat­ter pos­si­bly reached an apoth­e­o­sis back in 1729 with Lau­rence Sterne’s The Life and Opin­ions of Tris­tram Shandy, Gen­tle­man.

As edi­tor Rob Doyle writes in this ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion, “Tris­tram Shandy is a novel in which the nar­ra­tor, seek­ing to tell the story of his life, never quite catches up with him­self”. It is a novel whose in­tri­cate net is de­signed to catch only it­self. It is, ac­cord­ing to Italo Calvino, “the un­doubted pro­gen­i­tor of all avant-garde nov­els of our cen­tury” and so may be con­sid­ered a foun­da­tional text in re­la­tion to this col­lec­tion of “ex­per­i­men­tal” writ­ing. Yet even this al­ter­na­tive tra­di­tion is caught in the net of all nets – James Joyce’s Ulysses – and here is rep­re­sented by the Ithaca sec­tion whose in­ter­roga­tory form can be seen in some of Flann’s O’Brien’s work. In an ex­cerpt from an early piece called Scenes

from a Novel O’Brien builds the ground­work of in­sur­gent char­ac­ters who will not be writ­ten to or­der – later ex­plored in his own novel At Swim-Two-Birds.

It is one of the many plea­sures of this col­lec­tion to see in­flu­ence and sim­i­lar­ity be­tween works of dif­fer­ent times: see­ing in Des­mond Ho­gan’s work the in­flu­ence of Ai­dan Hig­gins in the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of frag­men­tary de­tails re­plac­ing the lin­ear steps of tra­di­tional sto­ry­telling, par­tic­u­larly in the ex­cel­lent Helsin­gor Sta­tion taken from Hig­gins’s col­lec­tion Flot­sam and Jet­sam.

Ho­gan’s bril­liant story Kennedy records in­di­vid­u­als and mo­ments with im­pres­sion­is­tic strokes that build to a sweep­ing sense of time – his­tory – made all the richer for the way it seems per­ceived as col­lec­tions of ran­dom frag­ments, all shot through with the now­ness of a rich sen­su­al­ity of colours, im­agery of cloth­ing and ec­cen­tric (and of­ten very funny) snap por­trai­tures. In Dorothy Nel­son’s bril­liantly pow­er­ful and for­mally in­ven­tive ex­cerpt from her novel In Night’s City can be seen a pre­cur­sor to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Al­though Nel­son won the Rooney Prize for this novel in the 1980s she never made the leap to full-time writer.

Ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­per­i­ments

The re­minder of writ­ers who slipped from the main dis­course of suc­cess­ful writ­ing ca­reers is an­other of this book’s joys. Des­mond Ho­gan had seemed “poised to be a lit­er­ary star... but he van­ished from the lit­er­ary world...Only in re­cent years he has reemerged from ob­scu­rity, rekin­dling the pres­tige he en­joyed dur­ing his pe­riod of youth­ful prom­ise”. A writer who dis­ap­peared per­ma­nently into writerly ob­scu­rity is Hi­lary McTag­gart who’s piece here, A Night on the Tiles, writ­ten in 1973, is stun­ningly strange and pow­er­ful. Her only book – Ad­dress Book – re­mains un­pub­lished.

This col­lec­tion feels timely in that there has been an ex­plo­sion of “ex­per­i­men­tal” writ­ing in Ire­land within the last decade. It is the sub­stan­tial suc­cess of writ­ers like Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride and Mike McCor­mack that has widened the pos­si­bil­i­ties for such writ­ing to flour­ish. Of the three only McCor­mack is rep­re­sented here, with his ter­rific tri­den­tal tale. He is joined by many of the new wave: the ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­per­i­ment that is Dave Lor­dan’s highly po­lit­i­cal work; John Holten’s rivet­ing ex­cerpt from his novel The Ready­mades which leaves a last­ing im­pres­sion of Elaine, a char­ac­ter brought fully to life. There is the edi­tor’s own sub­ver­sive in­ter­ven­tion, the unique and de­tailed his­to­ries of the imag­ined artists of Jen­nifer Wal­she, and Emer Martin’s Bukowskian ad­ven­tures among peo­ple liv­ing on the edges of the cen­tres of Europe in Paris, Lon­don, Ber­lin.

Doyle makes a point of in­clud­ing some ma­te­rial be­cause he con­sid­ers its con­tent to lie out­side the re­mit of the cen­tral canon, thus we have June Cald­well’s hi­lar­i­ous story of sub/dom, Leitrim Flip which, though driven by a car­toony en­ergy, is a psy­cho­log­i­cally sub­tle ex­plo­ration of power. It shares an hon­esty with Philip Ó Ceal­laigh’s gaze on male lust in The Song of Songs. While Anakana Schofield’s ex­cerpt from her novel, Martin John, em­ploys fine for­mal ex­per­i­ment to ex­plore dark ma­te­ri­als.

The in­ven­tive­ness stretches back in time to other for­got­ten orig­i­na­tors: Alf MacLochlai­nn starts off all Robbe-Gril­let be­fore mor­ph­ing into some­thing Flann-strange, tinged with it’s own un­set­tling odd­ness. And surely Flann the man was in­flu­enced by Ei­mar O’Duffy, Ire­land’s great for­got­ten satirist, whose bit from his ex­cel­lent book King Goshawk and the Birds now sits, fit­tingly, in the same book as the un­sur­passed satir­i­cal bru­tal­ity of Swift’s A Mod­est Pro­posal.

It is sur­pris­ing how fresh most of the writ­ing ap­pears. Beck­ett’s story The End is drip­ping with hi­lar­i­ous de­spair in a style that has in­vig­o­rated much Irish writ­ing up to the present day. Or the fem­i­nist Ge­orge Eger­ton whose 1893 story The Spell of the White Elf is awash with a mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity; she has a deft psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight which, com­bined with a su­per­nat­u­ral sto­ry­telling por­tent of the time, makes for a unique read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

It is the thrill of this book to dis­cover “new” writ­ing even when it’s from the 1800s, such as James Clarence Mangan’s 69 Drops of Lau­danum. It reads as a piece that could to­day ap­pear in Gorse, or an­other of the many Irish lit­er­ary mags that have mush­roomed over last few years, con­duits for the ex­per­i­men­tal blos­som­ing of Irish writ­ing.

This book is a gen­uine de­light and a timely tome to re­mind of other ways of writ­ing. Rob Doyle is to be com­mended in his col­la­tion and on his ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion. My only wish would be to see more writ­ers in­cluded, and prefer­ably more that I’d never heard of be­fore. Hope­fully in the next vol­ume he’ll cast the net even wider.

‘‘ This book is a gen­uine de­light and a timely tome to re­mind of other ways of writ­ing. Rob Doyle is to be com­mended in his col­la­tion and on his ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion

Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen: “in­sur­gent char­ac­ters who will not be writ­ten to or­der”

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