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Real Life is Literature

Catherine Toal

The words below were delivered as the introduction to the St Brigid’s Day Festival of Irish Writers held at the Irish embassy in Berlin on January 31st and February 1st this year.

The phrase “real life is literature” appears toward the end of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Returning to Paris from a sanatorium after an illness of many years, the narrator is suddenly crushed by a long-forgotten disappointment: he’s no good as a writer. (This is the final volume of a great novel of which he is the putative author, so we know there’s a happy ending.) A conclusion he once came to, that literature is false and frivolous, yields only a bitter kind of solace. Arriving home, he finds some invitations from old friends. Why not go to a party, since there’s no point trying to work? But gloom absorbs him so much he almost gets run over by a carriage at the entrance to his host’s house and has to jump out of the way. As he recovers his balance, he is gripped by an overwhelming sensation, similar to something that happened before, when, eating a madeleine cake and drinking some tea, he was transported back to the summer holidays of his childhood.

What occurs here is a little bit weirder: the flagstones at the entrance are uneven, and they remind him of walking over two uneven stones in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. As a would-be writer wanting to imitate a famous role model on a fashionable subject, he had tried and failed to capture that city. Now, he’s invaded by all the actual sensory impressions he felt when he was there. He goes into the party, and it keeps happening: he’s having madeleine moments all over the place. Random sounds and textures connect him with whole periods of the past by linking up with impressions he had not noticed at the time. “We are not at all free when it comes to the work of art,” he’s convinced, “we don’t make it according to our will, it preexists in us ‑ and because it is both necessary and hidden, we have to discover it, like a law of nature. But this discovery that art can prompt us to make, isn’t it essentially of something that should be most precious to us, and which remains forever unknown to us, our real life, reality as we have felt it and which differs so much from what we believe …?”

Real life is not the surface phenomena of events, conscious perceptions or memories, but a hidden thread of connection independent of the intellect, which the work of art discovers and renders. Whether literature stays close to life-material or transforms it beyond all recognition, it might be said to have this aim.

Reviewing a biography of Kafka, the American writer William H Gass summarised the meaning of the story “The Metamorphosis”: “I had been a man, but a man who was treated by my parents and my sister like a bug”; “before I became a bug I wasn’t the son my parents wanted, and now that I am a bug, I am more than ever a disappointment”; “but the real me is not a bug, the real me is not the me they know either, the real me is an author … with no point of view to speak of, inhuman in that way, but alert as any small creature who needs to remain unnoticed, whose life depends upon its disappearance.” Responding to the claim that we are living in a period when writers draw increasingly directly on their own lives, Jonathan Franzen objected that “nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than ‘The Metamorphosis’”; “the most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention”. If Proust emphasises the role of the unconscious, and the discovery through it of patterns of significance across space and time, Kafka’s story finds a concrete, objectified form for feeling. A more recent modern classic, by the French writer Marie Darrieussecq, pursues a similar strategy. In her novel Truismes, a woman conforming to norms of feminine beauty and serviceability slowly turns into a pig. Comparing aesthetic enjoyment to the “repulsion” provoked by others’ fantasies, Freud once argued that the formal tactics of literary texts break down the “barriers” between one ego and another. Form allows the reader to share in the emotional sources of what the writer has created.

This idea of “form” is sometimes said these days to have entered a crisis, because the real world, or real life, has come to be saturated by fiction. Everywhere ‑ that is, on the internet ‑ we are confronted with curated, we might say formally perfect ideals of real life. How Should A Person Be? asks a novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, already heralded as one of the defining books of the century. “I can’t help answering like this,” she says, “a celebrity.” Heti pursues her inquiry by abandoning the invention of characters and plots, searching among her own acquaintance to find an ethic for this self whose clearest guideline is fame. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard takes a more tragic view of the same predicament. He says: “we inhabit two realities, one abstract and image-based, in which all kinds of people and places present themselves before us with nothing in common but being somewhere other than where we are, and one concrete, physical, which is the one in which we go about and are more palpably a part.” But he draws an identical lesson to Heti, about the imperative of giving up literary invention: “when we arrive at a point where everything is either fiction or seen as fiction, the job of a novelist can no longer be to write more fictions. That was the feeling I had: the world was vanishing because it was always somewhere else, and my life was vanishing because it too was always somewhere else. If I was to write a novel it would have to be about the real world the way it was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it with his body.”

Looking for the real, and claiming that previous aesthetic forms don’t adequately express it, is a very old gesture. But there does seem to be a search for or a hunger for the story of the body in an immaterial world, and for stories of selves that grapple with and fail to live up to some standard of ideality by which they feel surrounded. Irish writing is part of that wider development. One obvious reason for the emergence of the personal essay as a powerful form is the horizon of recent-historical change in Irish society. To borrow a term from German philosophy, it’s due to the sense of an Epochenschwelle, the division between two epochs that only becomes visible on the far side of the change that has taken place. It’s already astounding to be reminded, reading Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, of the incursions of that entity called “the constitution” into individual lives: “And even if a couple did separate,” she writes in the essay ‘Speaking / Not Speaking’ about her parents’ breakup, “they were still connected, still tied, still married. There was no other choice. Because Ireland had a constitutional ban on divorce.” Our real lives, and what we believed. As the essay “From the Baby Years” explains, “the equal status of the foetus and the mother in the constitution represents more than simply a ban on abortion. It means that in the case of any ambiguity, the life of the foetus is prioritised; and in our situation it means that it is illegal for the midwives to pronounce the pregnancy over.” Sinéad Gleeson’s essay “Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy (for the twelve women a day who left)” takes us into constitutional transformation in real time, going into the polling station at the end with her daughter, on the 25th of May 2018, “to change the future”. The consequentiality of this change for women’s bodies prompts an exploration of and a breaking away from the ideas and behaviour that have restricted women’s (our) freedom ‑ a use of literature to rescue real life from fictions that has resonated far beyond Ireland.

There have been many definitions of the essay. All of them seem to amount to framing it as simultaneously open and precise. Of course an Irish writer, Brian Dillon, has added the indispensable element of pain to this description. As he puts it, the reader of an essay wants it to be “at once the wound and a piercing act of precision”. The Epochenschwelle also plays a role in shaping the form. Rather than, with whatever degree of good or bad faith, taking a chronological life for its object as the authors of autobiographical fiction often do, the essay takes a turning-point snapshot of time, and plunges from there into the past that is relevant for it. “I am very much here” is not only an ethos but an aesthetic in Emilie Pine’s essays, where a crisis recounted overwhelmingly in the present provokes memories also to appear in the present tense. So too do rhythms and rituals crossing months or years, summed up in the strokes of a paragraph, and which are part of the dive into an experience of intensity personal to the writer and full of points of contact for the reader. The ending of each essay is poised between something learned and uncertain continuance ‑ real life. Sinéad Gleeson’s essays intersperse individual bodily experience with vaster cultural, religious, artistic and folkloric tributaries, combining them into a flow which experiments at the limits of the essay with poetry and fragment, and ultimately stakes a non-literary, wholly political claim as well. This claim is the more urgent as epochs don’t change by themselves, and the perception of change can conceal all that still needs to be done.

On the eve of a momentous political event that doesn’t immediately change very much, and whose ultimate consequences are still very uncertain [Brexit], it seems particularly appropriate to celebrate a writer who has throughout her career challenged the propagation of distorting or misleading perceptions. Martina Devlin has done this in her novels as well as her journalism. Her earlier books subverted the romance narrative that is a staple of what is called popular literature aimed at a female readership, and plumbed the secrets of family life. Temptation, from 2004 parodied tabloid discourse (nothing of relevance there) about women’s choices and opportunities; Ship of Dreams, about the sinking of the Titanic, embraces the dissolution of hierarchies that the survivors encounter at the end of their journey. The House Where it Happened, a gripping story of a witch trial that took place in early eighteenth century Ireland, brings to the fore a preoccupation with groupthink, and its relation both to confessional and gender division. Sisterland, a dystopian novel of the future, targets the assumption, quite common in debates on gender in Germany also, that “woman” is supposed to represent a superior system of values, and that women’s access to power in the public sphere is conditional on this being true. Martina Devlin’s non-fiction works have dismantled ideological fantasies as well: the dangerous inflation of inadequately regulated financial systems; a default faith in the magic of medical technology. Her latest book, returning to the genre that began her work as a writer of literature, is a collection of short stories about women who shaped Ireland. The stories are a good reminder of the importance of activism even when its achievements seem gradual. In several instances they involve the invocation of a spirit from the past. Constance Markievicz returns to ask a question about kindness and current national leadership. Who knew that this was a quality that would become so political, along with the issue of attention, to what we pay it and to whom.

I had thought that with Danielle McLaughlin’s work we move back to the classic literary phenomenon of a stunning shift in perspective achieved by invention, with no historical any more than declared biographical reference. But her short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets in fact opens out layerings of past civilisations beneath the panicked entrapment of the protagonists. This is revealed by her poem “South”—subtitled “After the memoir by Ernest Shackleton” ‑ which appears in this month’s The Stinging Fly. The allusion to real-life events in this poem, winter 1915 of Shackleton’s disastrous trans-Antarctic expedition, shares in the dramatic quality of estrangement found in the stories. Like the geologist in the poem, McLaughlin’s characters discover a new world within the world they know, but are shut out of interpreting it, relying on scraps of evidence, just as the geologist finds pebbles, astonishing shapes and sounds in the vast tracts of pack ice where the Endeavour is stuck. “He was not without material,” the poem quotes Shackleton’s memoir, which could also describe the visitors in McLaughlin’s stories, for instance the emigrants who, returning home, encounter changes that are partly concealed from them. Fixed demarcations do not help the characters with orientation, as in a visit to the northwest, where the border is reduced to “little more than artifice, a nod to some semblance of containment. It was a belt slung loosely, land and sea spilling over it like a paunch, because here, here too, it was a different country.” The stories in Dinosaurs on Other Planets have a more everyday setting than the poem “South” but they do also contain an ecological awe, a sense of sharing the world with animals, whose presence and activity provide a sharp counterpoint to human self-absorption. The shift in perspective that takes place creates a kind of shattering within a state of affairs that persists or carries on as before. Shackleton and his crew survive, abandoning ship and burying their personal possessions in the snow ‑ but not before he tears the flyleaf from his Bible, which bears the verse from Job: “Out of whose womb came the ice?”

The other day I walked into a place in Dublin that I think is referred to in Nicole Flattery’s novella “Abortion: A Love Story” as “the elite college”. One of the things that seems to have changed in the years since I studied there is its discovery ‑ we know the political reasons for it ‑ of advertising campaigns. An image flashed up on a screen of Bram Stoker, with the slogan claiming that the inspiration native to the place has “created characters that never die”. I wondered if, seeing this joke-boast, alumni skip straight over the reminder of Dracula and traditions of successful literary production to the thought of some archetypal campus nemesis ‑ of the kind which appear in Flattery’s novella. “I don’t like that acting troupe at all,” says Lucy, one of the two main protagonists, about the sneering doyens of the drama society, “they pretend to be the gatekeepers of something. What the hell are they the gatekeepers of?” In the world of Flattery’s stories, advertising is literal. Jobs aren’t real: “Management explained the procedure again. Our function was … most importantly, [to] believe.” The self is self-optimisation or nothing: “I thought I would be a different person by this time in my life, but I was actually becoming less like someone else and more like myself. It was troubling”; “I was happy for the break from school ‑ I had become too good at being who I was.” The news is there’s no future. People date as they wait for the end of the world, which is being announced on the radio. The teenagers in a Midland town talk about the pictures of missing girls that appear in the papers ‑ “we admitted we thought some of them were plain” ‑ mixing up abduction and romantic luck. The terrible and typical things that may happen to a woman’s body are gone through as mechanisms, a wind-up coming of age. Just like trauma, Ireland gets turned into a cliché that can still make its mark, through allusions to nameless country places of origin that may be usual, appalling, or at least genuine. Perhaps not very surprisingly, the word Kafkaesque is of Irish, or yet more appropriately, Anglo-Irish coinage. It describes the funny, terrifying and sorrowful predicament of characters trapped, like Flattery’s, in abstraction. Though it may not quite capture the absurdity of a question posed during an interrogation in “Abortion: A Love Story”: “would you say that you’re a typical Irish girl?”

After the apocalypse, in Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive, there are traces of where we were before. The prospect of apocalypse has never seemed more real, at the same time as it is repressed. In this light, a not very comfortable irony lurks in the fact that the disaster in Davis-Goff’s novel has the same name, the “Emergency”, as the Irish government gave to the greatest global crisis of the first half of the twentieth century ‑ accurate but somehow euphemistic. The empty but still signposted country also recalls a completely non-supernatural reference frequent in contemporary Irish literature to the “ghost estate”, groups of housing developments abandoned to bankruptcy. Reading it calls to mind other Irelands, the Ancient epic of the Táin, which also begins in a gender-war, and the nineteenth century Ireland that shocked Henry James, who wrote letters to his friends from inside Phoenix Park and Dublin Castle about the “sinister” contrast between these enclosed spaces and the desolation beyond their gates. Orpen, the novel’s main character, is trying to get to Phoenix City, which might not be a good idea (we will find out in the sequel), but as everyone from rural Ireland knows, things are a little bit too centralised. Zombies get a lot of interpretation. Sarah Davis-Goff has said that the lethal creatures who devastate Last Ones Left Alive signal addiction, its speedy transformation of the body and the personality. Their opponents are an army of female fighters. As well as symbolising the extremity of actual social threats, and manifesting a mass feminist resistance, the situation imagined in the novel achieves a feat much rarer than might be expected, to tell the story of a girl growing up.

My mother often said to me, ‘Life would’ve been much easier if I’d stayed in that night and never met your father.’
My father often said to me, ‘It just so happened to be your mother. It could have been any wee lassie in a skirt.’
They should not have said these things to me.
“People in Glasshouses”

One of Jan Carson’s themes is the surreal aspect of the relation between parents and children. The children in her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, and her latest, The Fire Starters, develop preternatural qualities. Malcolm Orange is an American novel with a lot of connections to the strange comic epics of outsider heroes in that tradition. It’s difficult not to think though, that the motif has to do with the setting of The Fire Starters: Belfast, a city with its own special talent for the surreal. Both overrepresented and obscure, it is post-Troubles also an object of (sometimes lurid) tourist curiosity. Odder types of spectacle for tourists feature in Carson’s work along with the redemption of real place. The characters in The Fire Starters have to push on through residues of darkness and inherited codes: “This is a city like a word that was once bad and needs redeeming”; “other cities do not have religion like a game where you make up the rules as you go along.” The tension of the plot turns on the panic connected with what will befall or be done by the children in the story, the worry that they bear some irremovable trace of destructiveness or intolerable deviation from normality. There is an affinity between Jan Carson’s work and a wider recent investigation of the impact of the Troubles on children. A growing obsession on the part of the main protagonist, Jonathan, with what will happen when his daughter begins to speak, is particularly searing here. The genius of Jan Carson’s writing lies in staking out the incredible within the usual, whether it’s outrageous, as when the politicians react to a contagion of fire-starting “the noise that comes out is the spoken equivalent of a deep shrug”, or reassuring, as when Jonathan sees that his daughter has taken to her babysitter: “there’s a very specific way she lights up, like a memory surfacing, every time she focuses on Christine’s face”. Her short story “Shopping” also has this effect, but it’s so total in its hilariousness that it’s impossible to choose the right lines to quote as an example. You just have to read it, if you haven’t already.

In considering various relationships between literature and the real‑ its discovery of hidden or neglected patterns of connection and significance, of imaginary objectifications of feelings and predicaments, its destruction of ideological fictions, and its abandonment of fiction altogether in search of the body ‑ there is one that should never be forgotten: the actual conditions under which literature gets produced, distributed and received. Proust often had the image of a solitary, austere figure, but he was an active, avid and even rather corrupt promoter of his own work, aided and abetted by his wealth and connections. This is not any aspersion on quality, but it does make evident something that has been increasingly in focus in recent years, that canons are not made only by quality ‑ and of course also that writing cannot take place, or reach its audience, without the means of buying time, and creating platforms for publication. As well as celebrating literary texts this event pays tribute to the efforts that have brought them into our lives: the success and consistent excellence of Tramp Press, and the Stinging Fly Press, the work of Sinéad Gleeson in anthologising writing by Irish women past and present, Martina Devlin’s service as the vice-president of the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, and the ways in which writers have drawn attention to work they find of value, in the spirit of a collaborative advancement of literary culture, of which this gathering is also a part.


Dr Catherine Toal is dean of Bard College Berlin.



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