A fascinating insight into creativity, politics and history
WRITERTOWRITER:THEREPUBLIC OF ELSEWHERE CIARAN CARTY Lilliput, 240pp, ¤16
Meeting writers away from home – some in exile, some forced into hiding, others migrated under happier circumstances – gives veteran broadcaster and critic Ciaran Carty a rare and fascinating insight into creativity, politics and history in this intimate collection of interviews and essays. Clearly positioned as a book for our times, the array of writers here gives weight to Carty’s overarching idea that literature (and those who create it) exist outside borders, are (to reappropriate Theresa May’s infamous phrase) “citizens of everywhere”. Literature, Carty suggests, exists in a separate country: the land of the imagination, “a republic of elsewhere”.
Writer to Writer: The Republic of Elsewhere works to subvert moves towards cultural exclusion, undermining the rhetoric of nationalism. Of course, this isn’t always a model that holds true: many writers have held fast to the regimes of fascism, have propagated extreme political views – rather than subverting nationalism, they have entrenched it. Such writers, however, are not part of Carty’s topography in this imagined “republic”.
The efficacy of literature, then, is central to this volume. Though it is filled with voices from across the globe, each with their different angles, anecdotes, and insights, Carty’s introduction frames these encounters as a necessary multitude, “an eclectic fly-on-the-wall portrait of the 20th century and beyond”. Drawing on the causes and effects of Brexit, Trumpism and an emboldened fascist turn, Carty creates a chorus of these writers, speaking back, undermining the corruption of language into doublespeak and the spread of falsehoods. Though the book’s utopian sense of a collective humanity, of writing’s inherent benevolence, might seem rather optimistic, Carty’s conviction, and the passionate statements of the writers he interviews, are affirming.
Carty’s skill, here, is to catch writers off-guard, to capture something anecdotal of their personality. Allen Ginsberg, at Cheltenham Literary Festival, is on his way to read in Ireland, where his fee will be an Irish tweed suit. Beryl Bainbridge, in the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge, is on the hunt for a place to smoke her cigarette. Alan Ayckbourn keeps one eye on the cricket while he chats about Chekhov. Elsewhere, we meet Edna O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Anne Enright and Margaret Atwood, each at some earlier stage in their career, giving glimpses into both their own history and the world they inhabited. Some are very brief encounters (a page or so with JG Ballard), others are longer.
These aren’t laid out as taped interviews, but are given context and narrative, placed side by side to allow the reader to make their own connections. The Republic of Elsewhere is full of insights into creativity and politics, is often humorous and wise, and does justice to the vast intelligence of the writers we meet, from Nobel Prize winners (Walcott, Heaney) to bestselling novelists. The book is accompanied by a number of black-and-white portraits and we often stare into intimate worlds.
Discussing Salman Rushdie, sent into hiding after the controversy of The Satanic Verses, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, victim of a fatal homophobic attack, Carty also wades in on identity politics – a new kind of censorship, in his opinion – whereby “social media’s arbitrary power to name and shame without challenge can make literary value subordinate to a writer’s perceived moral acceptability as in the worst days of censorship”. That scraps on Twitter might be akin to the censorship enacted by the institutions of church and State over the 20th century is surely over-egging the argument, though the point (if not exaggerated) might stand.
The range of writers covered crosses traditions, languages and cultures, and arranging the accounts in alphabetical order confounds any sense of national, or even formal, isolation. In his introduction, Carty recalls meetings with Wes Anderson, Richard Kearney, and Michael D Higgins, tracing the evolution of the idea of the mind in Ireland as a “fifth province” transcending geographic or sectarian divisions. In a powerful statement for our times, Carty draws on the voice of Mary Robinson, in her inaugural presidential speech: “The fifth province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each one of us; that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in.”
The effect of The Republic of Elsewhere is like that swinging door: writers step through it in constant, almost dizzying array, welcomed at each turn by Carty’s considered and weighty voice.
Ciaran Carty with poet Paula Meehan.