Forensic reflections of a fiction laureate
During her four-year tenure as the first Irish fiction laureate, Anne Enright often wielded her pen like a sharpened blade
No Authority: Writings from the Laureateship
By Anne Enright
YUCD Press, 109pp, ¤20
ears ago record labels would sometimes furnish press outlets with something called a sampler – usually a four- or five-track selection from a larger work to come. Anne Enright’s No Authority, a selection of lectures, essays and short fiction written during her tenure as the first Irish fiction laureate between 2015 and 2018, is too substantial an artefact to be considered a sampler, but at 100-odd pages it’s still closer to fun-sized than the full Toblerone.
Nevertheless, the production values are lavish, featuring a handsome hardback cover and elegant design, like a miniWinter Papers authored by a single hand.
“These writings are my blundering attempt to find clarity, in a confusing time,” Enright states in her introduction, referring to a period that encompassed Brexit, the rise of Trump, #MeToo, Waking the Feminists, the abortion referendum and other social convulsions.
Her opening lecture, Antigone in
Galway, an exploration of the Tuam mother and baby home scandal, leaves the reader reeling. This isn’t the first time official Ireland’s oppression of its women and children has been recast as a Greek psychic bloodbath (Marina Carr, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly and Frank McGuinness have all, as they say, gone there), but Enright’s controlled prose amplifies the sheer Gothic horror of babies’ bones found in septic tanks, of priests and family members with the power to section young women, of unofficial burial sites that “contain the graves of unbaptised infants, but also of women who died in childbirth, “changeling” children, suicides, executed criminals and the insane (infanticides were typically disposed of without burial)”.
The sense of forensic inquiry is equally evident in Call Yourself George: Gender Representation in Irish Literature, where Enright doesn’t so much make an argument for gender parity in the book business – particularly in newspaper review pages – as simply present the facts and let them speak. It’s a subject big enough to demand its own book. Why, if the market is mostly dictated by women readers, are roughly a third of the titles published by female authors? It makes one wonder if there actually has been an explosion of Irish women’s literary fiction over the past decade, or if it was always there but suppressed, awaiting anthologists and editors such as Sinéad Gleeson and Lucy Caldwell.
Of the two short stories, The Hotel is a strange vignette located in an almost Ballardian space, all airport walkways and concrete car parks, a study in fluorescent 21st-century alienation which could be interpreted as a sleepwalker’s dream scripted by Lynne Ramsay, or an analogue for the spiritual dissociation of the migrant in a nameless European city. Just beneath the surface is a closely observed, radioactive menace: “Instead of a receptionist there is a man with a gun who is so bored, he is out of his mind with boredom. He adjusts his crotch to the left, hoists his belt, he has to shake out the hand that is clutching the stock of his gun, and he checks out the tits of the women in line, he is just checking tits all night because he is so bored he just wants to f**k somebody now.”
The second story, Solstice, is an equally cool-eyed examination of suburban repression that, through some strange sleight of hand, manages to generate the promise of a thaw in its closing sentences.
Enright writes with a sharpened blade, and No Authority opens ground that demands further tilling. In the book’s afterword, she recalls her first official outing as laureate in Longford Public Library, an event attended by Louise Lovett, whose sister Ann died exactly 30 years before in Granard: “I do not think I was appointed laureate because I was a woman. The business of writing is hard enough without taking on the additional burden of gender politics. Listening to arguments about gender makes men mildly defensive and takes very little of their time. If you are a woman, making these arguments will eat your head, your talent, and your life.
“None of this ever seemed to me fair, or even useful. But that gathering in Longford was telling me its own story. If it held the promise of books to come, it also held reminders of events that had shaped my own work, some of them unbearably sad. I am, by age and stage, a kind of bridge between a bright future for the voices of Irish women and a terrible past.”
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River. He will release his first album, Cursed Murphy Versus the Resistance, in 2020
Anne Enright, with her mother Cora in 2015, when she was announced as inaugural laureate for Irish fiction.