A fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into cre­ativ­ity, pol­i­tics and his­tory

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - SEÁN HE­WITT


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.

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