Anne Enright, Claire Bracken and Susan Cahill (eds), Irish Academic Press, €22.95, ISBN: 978-0716530817
In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), Colm Tóibín suggested that the developing climate in Ireland, post-Belfast Agreement and pro-European Union, might see “a waning of the national themes in Irish writing”. This literary future, he wrote, could be spied in the work of several women writers, including Anne Enright
… who has taken up and refined the legacy of Sterne and Flann O’Brien and placed it in a Dublin which, for the first time in its long life in fiction, has become post-Freudian and post-feminist and, of course (three cheers!), post-nationalist.
That judgement is quoted many times by the contributors to this collection of essays, though each of them has silently dropped Tóibín’s three cheers along the way. They also drop Lawrence Sterne and Flann O’Brien, two of the many ancestors of Enright’s wry and playful fiction. What remains, then, for discussion is a post-Freudian, post-feminist and post-nationalist writer, and those three co-ordinates largely orientate the essays that follow. Yet Anne Enright’s work has taken some unexpected turns since 1999, and those labels – such as they are – seem to matter less than ever before. What effect might that have on the critical map that is now being charted?
Some of these essays do address the later developments in her writing, some question the suitability of different critical frames for her fiction, others confidently neglect such questions entirely. But as this is the first collection of essays devoted to Enright’soeuvre, the book’s critical co-ordinates should not be taken for granted. It will – it should shape future arguments about her work; it will direct our ways of looking at a career that is still very much in development. There is much to admire here: the collection is generous in its scope and themes, it is critically sophisticated, it adheres to its own impeccable rigour across the various essays. But to many readers of Enright’s work it will also seem a very unfriendly book. It is technical and uncompromising in many parts; it works its readers hard. Some will gladly accept that challenge, but others might find that the dark irony and humour of Enright’s fiction is sweated out along the way.
In the interview which opens the book, Enright herself reflects on the kind of questions that an author is asked over a lifetime’s writing – or rather, how those questions change over time. In the 1980s, she says, interviewers tended to ask about Ireland and “Irishness”. She did not get the “gendered approach”, she was not typically asked about being a woman writer rather than an Irish writer, because “they couldn’t do two categories at once”. Most contributors to this book remain more interested in questions of gender, even if other critics and interviewers have already moved Enright into another category labelled “Booker winner”, or into stories about the British novel or the post-imperial novel, as she dryly notes. But it is not only critical fashions that have changed. Between her 1991 collection The Portable Virgin and her most recent novel, The Forgotten Waltz, Enright has moved from an experimental, sometimes mannered style towards a more realist mode of writing, though one that retains its stylish surprises in her turns of phrase. Yet even the apparently “postmodern” elements of her work, she argues, have a sincerity that is rather unrepresentative of postmodernist literature. Rendering a baby’s cry as “hnang hnang hnang” may be a clever play with typeface, but it is also an honest attempt to accurately represent a crying baby. She is hardly unusual, among contemporary novelists, in conflating the traces of postmodernist fiction with a new realism. But Enright says that she is “not particularly interested in the labels” in any case, not even Tóibín’s “mischievous” suggestion of her post-feminism.
The contributors to this collection do not unduly worry at the labels either, but they do test their own critical bearings. Heidi Hansson, for example, explores the importance (or otherwise) of a national framework in reading Enright’s fiction. And she does so not in order to fumble about with the nature of Irishness or the condition of Ireland, as the author was so often asked to do, but to liberate Enright’s fiction from purely national concerns. To “assess new literary visions of Ireland”, Hansson writes, “the frames of interpretation may need to be changed”. Emphasising the national context of The Wig My Father Wore can provoke a misreading, she argues one that can emphasise the representational aspects of a novel that is in fact more concerned with the limits of representation.
The national question is taken up at different points in the collection. For Kristin Ewins, it is approached through the diaspora, or rather in exploring “how Enright exploits the links between the Irish diaspora, the body, sex and family history to engage with questions of nationhood, sexuality and religion”. The essay which follows, focusing on The Gathering and the short story “Switzerland”, from Taking Pictures, makes some graceful turns in its readings. Biological history, national identity, bodies, death, sex, desire and the “peculiarly Irish communion” of the family wake all find a place in an argument that does not easily bear paraphrase. But it finally draws together into an exploration of the diasporic condition in Enright’s work, the “simultaneous urge to escape and return home”.
That ambivalent condition is echoed in Matthew Ryan’s essay, which hints ominously of the effects of the liberation from nation, place and community in Celtic Tiger Ireland: “the trajectory away from an exhausted idea of the nation is not necessarily an escape into a generous global space”. Ryan identifies a tension in Enright’s writing between the forces that establish abstracted social relations beyond the local community and the draw to “emplace” and embody those relations in the local context. The self is constituted in this tension, he writes. And it is specifically manifested “in the pull between the abstracting effect of writing itself and the representation of material experiences such as sex and death”. I am not entirely sure what all this means, but it has enough of Enright in it to be tantalising. This argument frames a suggestive reading of “Green” from Taking Pictures, a story which presents as Ryan says ambivalence about both the freedom in an escape from home and the apparent stability of return. It is a story that ends in “a dream of placenessness. It is the unrealized life of the unmoored self …”.
But that placelessness is a dream, a fantasy, and Enright’s wandering characters often discover that they are still enmeshed within the Irish family and the Irish home. That condition can produce a wry humour, symptomatic of what Ewins identifies as “the alienation from Irishness within Ireland itself”. Yet, as Matthew Ryan points out, even where nationalism is explicitly challenged in the fiction of writers like Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, a trace of the nation often remains in their work. Enright’s characters might mock restrictive images of Irishness but the idea of the nation survives, even if only as a sense of absence – in the formation of identity, in a sense of belonging and community. But, then, there are other forms of imagined community.
In the opening interview, Enright expresses her impatience with endless questions about “Irishness”. And that leads her into a telling digression:
… I write very passionately for an Irish audience. I think that the Irish audience is ignored in all of these conversations about how Irish you can be if you publish abroad or are successful abroad. No one talks about the Irish readership, which is huge and extremely important to Irish writers. Too much credence is given to the mediators between the Irish writer and the Irish audience. I mean the commentators and critics.
The question is no longer about “people who have large ideas about what a nation is”, or about questions of authenticity. The question has become one about readership and audience – a rather different imagined community. The point that she is driving at is of course that Irish readers tend to be less concerned with these questions than critics. Most readers do not particularly worry whether a book is “Irish in this way” or “not Irish in that way”. But in focusing on a local readership that is “very involved, very engaged”, she leads the conversation in a direction that is more pertinent to the developments in her work over the last decade or so. Her interviewers do not push the point, but it is one worth exploring:
When I wrote that baby book [Making Babies], I thought, well nobody who thinks they’re somebody will read this book. I will have direct access to the Irish audience without any intermediary having a large opinion about it, because nobody in Ireland who thinks they’re important will read about babies. So, there I have absolute, frank, conversational access to my readers with that book, which is great.
Absolute, frank and conversational access to her readers is not something which this book itself achieves. And perhaps it is unfair to expect it to; this is not a collection directed at a general readership. But it is ironic that although Enright’s fiction has moved from a highly self-conscious, intellectually playful mode to a less abstract form with “a more generous impulse”, as she puts it, many of the critical essays in this collection tend to travel in the opposite direction.
An exception is Patricia Coughlan’s absorbing reading of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch. Elke d’hoker similarly avoids the trend with an illuminating essay on the journey from experiment to realism in Enright’s short fiction. In tracing its evolution between The Portable Virgin and Taking Pictures, “a shift from ideas to people from distance to sympathy, and from form to feeling”, she also considers this shift in terms of national and international trends in contemporary fiction. Enright herself concurs with such a reading: the characters in her early stories, she says, were really only “artefacts of language”. These stories worked towards a metaphor, and stopped. But that experimental phase had its limits:
I probably should be saying: ‘No I am a wild creature and everybody must make a greater attempt to understand me’. But that’s not my impulse. My impulse is very strongly toward the reader and so that’s where I’m going.
In that respect, many of the critical essays in this collection are out of step with Enright’s own impulse. To be fair, they produce sophisticated readings of her fiction, taking their lead from the abstractions that dominate her earlier work. And in so doing, many present intriguing analyses of the imagery of mirrors, doubles, gaps and lacks that pepper novels from The Wig My Father Wore to What Are You Like? But too often Enright’s imagery is made subject to a tortuous Lacanian, or post-Freudian, or Irigarayan logic. Among those which risk this approach, Susan Cahill’s essay on the lost mothers and dislocations of What Are You Like? is notable for achieving a particular clarity and fluency. But elsewhere the deference to matrixial borderspace or symbolic orders (and their subversion) too often gets in the way of plain readability. At the risk of seeming dismissive, it does bring to mind the father’s conversation with the television set in The Wig My Father Wore – sometimes all you can hear are gnomic shouts from the other side of the glass.
But there is a lot to work with in this collection. The only irony is that Anne Enright’s recent novels and short fiction now show a greater ease with themselves, leaving behind the taut self-consciousness of that first novel. Its jump cuts and fragmentation and “fleshed-out metaphors” have mellowed into more traditional narrative forms. Her characteristically strange metaphors have survived, but are no longer used to chase down an idea or provide the kernel of an oddly truncated story. Instead, they typically serve to wake up the language, to provide new ways of seeing. “Anything strange or startling?”, one of her characters casually asks. Always, is the answer, but her fiction does not strain so hard to show it. In one sense, this collection of essays marks the journey her writing has travelled so far; it no longer takes an angel on the doorstep to confirm that this world is strange or startling most of the time. But along the way these essays are by turns illuminating, infuriating, scholarly, sophisticated and – at times, for this reader at least – strangely uncommunicative.
Carol Taaffe is the author of Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (Cork, 2008). She teaches in the School of English, TCD and Boston University (Dublin).