The Testaments is undeniably a testament to Margaret Atwood’s literary mastery. She has produced the modern equivalent of a traditional fairy tale – a young adult fantasy – but one that is beautifully written, cleverly plotted and only rarely suffers from didacticism. One might wonder, however, if it is entirely proper for a young rebel to believe in fairy tales.
A former minister for enterprise famously suggested that while Ireland was physically closer to Berlin it was spiritually, and economically, closer to Boston. As our neighbouring island prepares to push off into the North Atlantic, it is worth asking if this is still a tenable orientation for the state.
Pictorial art is more obviously mediated than poetry is. It must engage with physicality, grapple with the varying textures, densities and shapes of tangible media, as well as the unique propensities of each available painterly tool. But like pigments, words too have physical qualities.
Geoffrey Chaucer chose to write in English rather than French or Latin and is honoured as ‘the Father of English Literature’. Nevertheless his culture was a broadly European one and his career involved much European travel. Did he also visit Ireland and might Gaelic literature have been an influence?
Quentin Skinner’s most significant contribution to the history of ideas was his insistence that canonical texts do not stand outside history proposing universal and ‘ageless’ truths. They must rather be understood in the context of their publication. But does that mean they have little to say to us today?
The population of a state can be expressed in terms of nationality and in terms of citizenship. Nationality is a sense of collective identity embracing past and future. It is a social and historical construct. Citizenship, however, is exclusively defined by the state as a matter of policy.
When Poland was invaded in September 1939, the painter Jósef Czapski joined the cavalry reserve. Captured by the Russians, he escaped the fate of the officers murdered at Katyń and survived the camps, diverting his fellow prisoners with lectures on Proust reconstructed from his own memory.
Seamus Mallon was a leading nationalist politician for over thirty years. But perhaps the most singular aspect of his career was his very deliberate and visible solidarity with his Protestant neighbours during the worst of times. Now, as an old man, he hopes he may have helped plant trees in whose shadow others will sit.
Sherwood Anderson credited his mother with awakening his curiosity about what lay behind the facade of apparently ordinary lives in small-town America. When his masterpiece, ‘Winesburg, Ohio’, was published he was castigated as an ‘opener of sewers’; in his home town library the book was kept in a locked cupboard.
For decades, Northern Ireland politics meant little more than the struggle between Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists. Since the guns have gone silent it has become clear that a new transformation is taking place, and it’s not the one the paramilitaries fought and killed for.