I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

AMERICAN FICTION

The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 400 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1524712396 Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 192 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1447294016 ‘Tell a dream and lose a reader,’ Henry James warned us, but Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been listening. For sixty years he’s been writing novels that, at critical moments, use dreams to spin parables of the unconscious and to give readers a murky sense of the mystery of existence. If this sounds portentous, well, it is ‑ in every sense. McCarthy’s dream sequences may be confusing asides within a stark and diligently executed realism, but they are the surer path...
Cormac McCarthy’s vision has been grim from the start. His first novel, published in 1965, is full of macabre gloom: a savage killing, a hidden corpse, friendship between a boy and a bootlegger who, unbeknownst to the boy, is his father’s killer. The debt to Faulkner is obvious, not just in the Southern gothic ambience but in nonlinear plot and rhetorical mix of low and high styles.

CINEMA

Guns, Blood and Popcorn

Rob Doyle
Cinema Speculation, by Quentin Tarantino, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 400 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1474624220 The best bits of Quentin Tarantino’s first book, the 2021 novelisation Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, happened when the narrative was put on hold and QT spoke right at you ‑ about cinema! ‑ in a voice unmistakeable from TV interviews and the fast-talking wise guy Mr. Brown in Reservoir Dogs. Nestled within the fiction, these passages comprised an absorbing insider’s essay on the lore and backroom machinations of a bygone Hollywood. Two years later, Tarantino has delivered an entire book made up of those bits. A... Tarantino has always been a joyous appreciator of movies, and his writing has an infectious fanaticism that is there on every page. In ‘Cinema Speculation’ we are invited into the warmth of someone else’s lifelong love affair. Granted, his enthusiasm is so instinctively anti-hierarchical that it sometimes feels as if he has no capacity for critical discernment at all, but rather than serving as a fatal mark against him, this has quite the opposite effect.

Dublin Review of Books

IRISH FOREIGN POLICY

Before the Deluge

Rory Montgomery
Many elements of the Lemass/Whitaker approach were to inform nationalism as it was reconceptualised in the 1980s and 1990s: the need for co-operation and partnership; a recognition that ultimately only Irish people could solve their own problems and that Britain could not be a persuader for unity but could facilitate it if circumstances changed; an openness to flexibility on symbolic issues.

POLITICS

The Life of a Dog

Enda O’Doherty
Though François Fejtő throughout his long life kept his eye on central and eastern Europe, both in his largely anonymous professional work as a regional specialist for Agence France Presse and in his more pointed essays for various literary-political reviews, he fought his ideological battles in Paris, a city in which intellectuals have a certain importance, and a certain sense of their own importance.

DOING PHILOSOPHY

Problems, problems

Johnny Lyons
One of the main reasons why both philosophy and literature have a much more significant relationship with their heritage than subjects like physics or maths is because their canonical texts – the works of Plato, or Descartes or Kant, or Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ or Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ ‑ are not rendered philosophically or imaginatively superfluous as a consequence of the passage of time.

FOOTBALL

The Grit and the Glitter

Maurice Walsh
Two Brothers: The life and times of Bobby and Jackie Charlton, by Jonathan Wilson, Little, Brown, 384 pp, £20, ISBN 978-1408714492 It was 1972 and the Sunday Mirror was not allowed into our house in rural Tipperary. On Saturday evening, May 20th, there was startling news in the ads on television before the Late Late Show: an overwrought English voice proclaimed that George Best would be announcing his retirement from football at the age of twenty-six  in an UNMISSABLE world exclusive to be published in the Mirror the following day. What to do? My yearning to read this story was... George Best said he represented the future and Bobby Charlton the past. A subsidiary theme of ‘Two Brothers’ is the rancid antipathy between these two, which worsened as Manchester United declined from its pinnacle of 1968. It was not merely that Best carried his own toiletries; Charlton exuded modesty, prudence and respectability, the virtues a working class man of the 1950s needed to make something of himself. Best, more than eight years his junior, typified for Charlton a new generation characterised by disrespect for their elders.

VALUES

  To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.  – Cicero The late twentieth century saw the fall of both Homo Sovieticus in Russia and, a little less noticed in the wider world, Homo Catholicus in Ireland. Autocratic nationalism replaced the former, forms of liberalism the latter. It has become apparent that neither of these developments has initiated a new era of stability. Quite the opposite. The future looks difficult for Russian nationalism, while in Ireland social cohesion has been melting steadily into a sea of unprecedented prosperity and discontent. Neither society hankers for the...
The late twentieth century saw the fall of both ‘Homo Sovieticus’ in Russia and, a little less noticed in the wider world, ‘Homo Catholicus’ in Ireland. Autocratic nationalism replaced the former, and forms of liberalism the latter. Neither has generated a new era of stability. The future looks difficult for Russian nationalism, while in Ireland social cohesion has been melting steadily into a sea of unprecedented prosperity and discontent.

HISTORY

Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, by Derek Sayer, Princeton University Press, 752 pp, £38, ISBN: 978-0691185453, ISBN: 978-0691239514 (e-book) Postcards from Absurdistan is the third volume in a ‘loose trilogy of cultural histories’ in which Derek Sayer has argued that European modernity is best examined from a vantage point located, both literally and figuratively, in Bohemia and its capital, Prague. The first volume, The Coasts of Bohemia (1998), tackled the issue of national identity. It presented Czech history – from its mythic beginnings to just after the communist takeover in 1948 – as a lesson on the nature of national historiography. When a ‘small’ nation has, for most of its past, struggled for recognition, its history is bound to consist of attempts to re-invent the past in order to assure itself of a future. The form of this reassurance: a bricolage of national treasures assembled largely under the motto ‘small but ours’. Focusing on the main tropes of the Czech National Revival – especially the emphasis on the Czech language as the basis for national identity, and the encoding of Czechness as something anti-German, anti-aristocratic and anti-Catholic – Sayer presents this chequered history as a corrective to the national histories of bigger, older, more secure nations. A lot of what he marks out as specifically Czech, however, sounds very familiar in the Irish context. None better than the Czechs at understanding Irish people’s fondness for the ‘best little country in the world’ trope (including its associated ironies) and the pitfalls of turning a language into a crux of nationality. In the second volume, Prague as the Capital of the Twentieth Century (2013), Sayer shifted focus to the...
Sayer structures his material with reference to surrealist methods of composition: a chance encounter during a stroll, an unexpected juxtaposition of incongruent objects such as happens through collage, montage and bricolage, or a symbolic crossover from present to past. It is a method that is not conducive to concision, conceptual clarity or in-depth analysis.

HISTORICAL REVISIONISM

Mussolini in Myth and Memory: The First Totalitarian Dictator, by Paul Corner, Oxford University Press, 179 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0192866646 The Pope At War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini & Hitler, by David I Kertzer, Oxford University Press, 621 pp, £25, ISBN 978-0192890733 I begin writing this review on a day (October 13th, 2022), in the month of the hundredth anniversary of Mussolini’s march on Rome, when the presidency of the Italian senate passed from Liliana Segre, a survivor of Auschwitz, the only one of her family to return, to a man who collects fascist memorabilia and whose father was a secretary of the fascist party in the 1940s. The new president, Ignazio Maria Benito La Russa, can be seen in several Youtube videos making the fascist salute (as in this one ‑ at around 1.00). And this afternoon, I stepped into our local baker’s to pick up some focaccia and was greeted by a chorus of fury from the two women who own the place: do they remember nothing, was their demand. Italy, at least the Italy that I know, is in a kind of mourning. In the focacceria they are hoping that we will shake ourselves. Scendiamo in piazza, they said, a beautiful, seemingly simple expression which literally means ‘let’s descend into the piazza’ but which actually means ‘Let’s organise, let’s march, let’s protest’, because the piazza is the public space. To say something is in piazza is to say that it is being talked about publicly. The piazza is the public memory. ‘Memory,’ Paul Corner suggests, ‘concerns the ways in which people construct a sense of the past ... It does not depend on documents or archives ... Yet...
The far-right renaissance is built on forgetting, or selective remembering. ‘Mussolini was not so bad,’ they say, ‘when one considers Hitler or even Franco.’ ‘Mussolini did many good things,’ as the new president of the Italian senate once argued. That ‘Italian fascism was an essentially benign form of dictatorship’ is another common trope. None of these statements is actually true.

FROM PREVIOUS ISSUES

Mean Street USA

George O’Brien
From the novel of manners to the crime novel of bad manners

The Big D

Seamus O’Mahony
Christopher Hitchens enlists science in the face of death

Tales from Bective

Jana Fischerova
Mary Lavin was not banned, but did she leave things out?

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alex Bramwell
A Russian-Irish writer in the tradition of Bulgakov

BLOG

The presidential, and subsequent legislative, elections in France earlier this year told us a number of things about the changing nature of the nation’s politics. First, that the main contest is now, and has been since 2017, not that between left and right but that between centre and far right
The La France Insoumise movement won a creditable third place in this year’s presidential election. But with a scandal involving a possible future leader, it seems to have hit the skids.

BLOG

Brian M Walker writes: The recent TG4 documentary Marú...
Open-mindedness and compassion might usefully be applied to thinking around the killings of thirteen Protestant civilians in West Cork in April 1922.

FROM THE ARCHIVE

The Way We Die Now, by Seamus O’Mahony, Head of Zeus, 292 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1784974268 Nothing is as certain in life as death. Despite this certainty and the various kinds of death on offer, humans have little choice as to how or when their deaths will occur. Rational thought tells us that death is both natural and uncontrollable, yet humans have nevertheless attempted to master or outwit it for centuries. Until recently, these attempts to make sense of death or to keep it at bay rested on folklore, myth, religion and superstitions now largely seen as out of step with modern lifestyles. We now find it ridiculous that someone might wear an amulet against evil spirits or that a person might speak of seeing a wailing banshee, foretelling the death of a family member, or that any kind of tarot reading or tea leaf prediction might be taken as a serious warning of imminent death. Instead we put our trust in medicine and believe that technological advances and experimental procedures will save us, while preventative medicine and healthy living will provide us with the key to eternal life. Our faith in medicine is so strong that even dying patients remain under its spell, and, sometimes unaware that they are dying, pass into oblivion under the influence of morphine or subjected to the pain and stress of ineffective medical procedures which leave behind a bruised, battered and bloody corpse. This is not how it was supposed to happen, we might think, but we cannot quite envision how death was supposed to go, in part because we are unwilling to confront our mortality or that of our loved ones. Older societies had...
O’Mahony is right to point out that traditional communal responses to death have been replaced by a kind of anthropocentric narcissism that fails to see the wider picture beyond individual suffering. The problem is that these older customs were tied to larger religious belief systems and therefore cannot easily be replaced by some secular version of hollowed-out rituals.

READING AND MEMORY

Englands, My Englands

Barra Ó Seaghdha
The heavy rain that had been falling all day eased off a couple of hours before I was due to take the bus back to Dublin. Happy that I wouldn’t be leaving without at least taking a short walk, I headed down the winding, high-hedged road towards the river. At the point where a steep descent begins, I glanced over the wall and noticed a swirling motion in the water far below – not at all what a mallard or moorhen would produce. Staring more intently, I realised, with great excitement, that the dark shape now breaking the surface... I absorbed a heroic view of the Irish struggle, in which of course the main enemy was English. At the same time, I was working my way through a variety of English worlds. I read every William book I could lay my hands on: this England, with its vicars, cricket and fetes, was like nothing I knew and entirely unconnected with that of the history books. The Billy Bunter books, too, were a kind of fantasy: not just the boarding-school setting, but the honour code, the class background and the range of unfamiliar character types.

THE CULTURE WARS

Much has been written deploring the phenomenon often known as the culture wars that plays out on social media and in politics in countries where free speech and democratic choices are allowed. Such conflicts do not find the same expression in places where people are denied free speech or voting rights and where dissidents can be imprisoned or disappeared. Social media in the democratic West can be shrill, judgmental, tribal and siloed. Despite having rights to free speech, many people seem imprisoned by the conventions and orthodoxies of the online communities to which they belong. They may be afraid...
Social media in the democratic West can be shrill, judgmental, tribal and siloed. Despite having rights to free speech, many people seem imprisoned by the conventions and orthodoxies of the online communities they belong to. They may be afraid to like or share posts that come their way which express views that would not go down well with their own tribe. Self-censorship is perhaps at least as commonplace as it ever was.

GEOPOLITICS

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th of last year was at once shocking and epoch-making. Shocking in that here we had a permanent member of the Security Council infringing the basic provisions of the UN Charter and also the core provisions of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which set out the agreed parameters, including, importantly, that borders in Europe could only be changed by peaceful means and with agreement. Helsinki would eventually end the Cold War. It was not, of course, the first time a permanent member of the Security Council had engaged in armed invasion of...
While Russia’s hostility to Ukraine was no secret, the extent of China’s support for its action, beyond the rhetorical, is not clear. But if Russia’s ambition is to recover great power status in the Eurasian region, that fails to take into account a significantly changed situation. The Chinese economy is now six times the size of the Russian and much more sophisticated and competitive. China sees itself as overcoming a century of humiliation, in which Russia played a major role.

FOLKLORE

Words from the People

Síle Ní Mhurchú
An Irish Folklore Treasury: A Selection of Old Stories, Ways and Wisdom from the Schools’ Collection, by John Creedon, Gill Books, 312 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717194223 The Schools’ Collection was a scheme initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s whereby children throughout the Irish Free State were instructed to gather lore and local traditions from older people living in their neighbourhoods. The result was a substantial collection gathered in over five thousand primary schools and amounting to approximately 740,000 pages of material. Its value has long been known to scholars, but accessibility has been increased greatly in recent... There is plentiful detail on folk medical practices, healing charms and popular religious beliefs. The idea that games used to be played at wakes is one that contemporary students find odd, even scarcely believable. But such games were once commonplace, and there is actually a scholarly book written about the phenomenon. One entry in John Creedon’s selection, collected by Betty Gillespie of Easky, Co Sligo, mentions that mock weddings would be performed at wakes: ‘One fellow acts as a priest and he would marry another boy and girl, and they would have great fun at the sermon.’