Kilclief & Other Essays, by Patricia Craig, Irish Pages Press, 482 pp, €36, ISBN: 978-1838201814
Why read a book reviewer’s back catalogue? Such questions will inevitably surface when a volume like this appears. Kilclief & Other Essays features a selection of literary critic Patricia Craig’s writings – short essays, critical introductions and, predominantly, reviews – originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, The Irish Times and various other venues, from the early 1980s to the present day. But are these not simply curiosities of literary history, time-locked to the publication-day aura of their original subjects? Do they hold their intrinsic value across time? Why assemble them in this (admittedly very beautiful) hardback format, when we can now retrieve the digital imprint in an instant?
If these are valid questions, they find valid answers in a collection that is fully justified by Craig’s acuity as a reviewer and by her seemingly effortless authority over a great span of modern Irish and British writing, from Brendan Behan to Robert MacFarlane. While she is occasionally constrained by the random groupings of her commissioning editors, obliged to discuss Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist alongside David Hughes on Billy Bunter, for example, she avoids petty discriminations and ranges across children’s fiction, detective thrillers and literary criticism with ease and equanimity. And she proves that the review article can achieve standalone status; that reviewing is legitimately, as she insists here, a “craft”, far removed from the scribblings of the dilettante and intrinsic to the momentum of literary history. More important, she is enduringly readable, even when writing about the unreadable, combining wit and perspicacity with what she prizes in Elizabeth Bowen: “an essential soundness of outlook”.
I think that “soundness” comes partly from Craig’s own extensive experience as an editor and anthologist, a background that prefaces her cogent treatments, in this book, of various under-sung heroes of Irish letters working at the coalface of retrieval, selection and editing: Dillon Johnston, Ann Saddlemyer, Dardis Clarke and Barbara Haley to name just a few. There is a welcome pragmatism in her appraisal of those fellow editors dedicated to “rounding up the strays”, as she titles her review of Patricia McFate’s two-volume Uncollected Prose of James Stephens. But alongside the soundness there is a sharpness in her language, honed, one suspects, by her long-term immersion in prose favourites such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and William Trevor. While she is sometimes anecdotal, even folksy (a petulant JM Synge “flies into a paddy” in his letters to the long-suffering Molly Allgood, for example), her signature style is punchy and epigrammatic: the aforementioned James Stephens “can be taxed with quaintness but not with artlessness”; Hubert Butler is “a connoisseur of estrangement and harmony alike”; and of Bowen she writes, in a discerning account of the Collected Stories, “no-one understood better the creative possibilities of evasiveness, the power of the unstated, the fascination of the unaccountable”.
The pitches are exact, a masterclass in the necessary economy of the literary review. But there is an interesting tension too in parts of this collection. The book’s flyleaf offers an awkwardly baggy introduction to Craig as “possibly the only female non-academic Northern Irish critic who has consistently, and over a long period, contributed to every leading UK and Irish publication (and a few in the US)”. Well, that “possibly” is extraneous, for a start, but the “non-academic” is what jumps out here, drawing attention to the curious borderline status of the literary reviewer who remains well to the edges of university circles. Craig’s career as an independent critic parallels the slow but steady recruitment of Ireland’s writers to a theorised Irish Studies, and there are hints of a turf war in several pieces. In her review of WJ McCormack’s Ascendancy and Tradition, for example, she complains that “the history of Ireland is called ‘bifurcated’, which makes it sound like a pair of trousers”, while the same author’s dogged overreading of Joyce in search of latent political meanings renders him “a demented lepidopterist making an assault on a shaft of sunlight”. Fair enough perhaps, given that book’s sudden shock of high theory back in 1985. The niggling resistance to academic appropriations persists, however, flaring up again in Craig’s response to the “egregious footnotes” of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing’s Volumes 4 and 5, or in her dismay at the “dispiriting turns of phrase” in Heather Ingman’s 2013 Irish Women’s Fiction, in which Ingman (a renowned expert on gender studies) apparently refers to “fluidity of identity” with such frequency that “the whole undertaking seems in danger of becoming waterlogged”. These minor barbs begin to tell a larger story ‑ and admittedly, an important story ‑ about sceptical attitudes towards the post-1980s academic carve-up of Irish writing.
A final justification for this volume is its generous evocation of lost spaces and times. Craig takes her title and keynote from the townland of Kilclief, on the shores of Strangford Lough in Co Down, and her introductory essay on this picturesque and recessed landscape prefaces the volume’s commitment to an Ulster literary topography that stretches from the Antrim Glens of the “Irish non-conformist” John Hewitt to the ragged Rathlin coastlines of Michael McLaverty, with his “devotion to minutiae, and propriety, and tradition”. The geography shifts inwards too, in Craig’s personal recollections of her teenage years in Belfast, that “sobering and assuaging hinterland”. A local and sometimes bitter knowledge adds depth to her readings of landmark Northern Irish works of the 1980s and 1990s, notably Frank Ormsby’s brilliantly edited volume of Troubles poetry, A Rage for Order (1992), and Ciaran Carson’s reinvented Belfast in The Star Factory (1997), with its author “hovering over the city like a recording angel”. These reviews will take many readers back to the strange cradling of Northern Irish literature in those decades, and to a continued reckoning with long dark years of twinned culture and crisis. In such deft and comprehensive pieces, sparkling with insight but weighted throughout with that “essential soundness of outlook”, Craig demonstrates exactly what a virtuoso literary reviewer can achieve, and exactly why her reviews are worth re-revisiting.
Eve Patten is professor of English at Trinity College Dublin and director of the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. She is editor of Irish Literature in Transition, 1940-1980 (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and author of Ireland, Revolution, and the English Modernist Imagination, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.