Émile Zola was not just a minute recorder of French life through his novels. He was also an enthusiastic photographer. But he seems to have felt that when it came to close-range Naturalist realism, he had ‘done that’ with his pen, and there was no need to do it again with a camera. Here, in his evocations of the visual textures and timbres of urban life, he is trying to achieve something different.
The extreme right in France in the 1930s lacked electoral support but pursued their enemies with a constant stream of scurrilous attacks in the press. Carried to power in 1940 on the backs of the invading Germans, they harassed their opponents and were complicit in the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. After the war they had to pay, but even here some were more fortunate than others
Johnson also published books by women, and included them socially at a time when the dining clubs, literary societies and coffee houses of the printing district excluded them. His most celebrated author and friend was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose first book he published while she was still working as a governess. He wrote to her, promising to stand by her if she wished to forge a path as a writer. This she did. He recorded that ‘Mary came from Ireland in 1787 … having determined to try to live by literary exertions & be independent’.
Ireland’s precarious position both outside and inside modernity presented, to conservative sensibilities in England, the appeal of a pastoral retreat from the modern world, but to more progressive minds it was a means of re-imagining the modern itself, retrieving it from the catastrophes of two world wars. In some London socialist circles the Irish rising was hailed as ‘the first crack in the as yet undisputed rule of the imperialists’.
For classic liberals and neo-liberals, freedom is understood largely as freedom from constraint. In its active aspect it is the ability to make choices as ‘consumer’. But this ignores the myriad social constraints that conspire to inhibit various groups of nominally sovereign consumers from actualising their potential, or the circumstances whereby certain individuals, given their pre-existing disadvantages arising from legal status, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender or class, must submit to some capricious authority out of desperation and thereby forgo their rights to participate in political, social, and cultural life.
Nothing in the essentially manufactured nature of the Stones’ presence speaks of, or directly derives from, actual experience or personality. Stylised sneering doesn’t count: it’s no more than, at best, contrarian affectation. Jagger’s campness and Richards’s outlaw posture are just two raised fingers from a speeding Caddy, naughty gestures surely not be taken at face value.
His recall of the fog rising from the Severn and mingling in a golden glow with the lights of the school Houses wraps his account of Shrewsbury in nostalgia. He reads Hill’s ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ but finds it a ‘stupid, cruel, futile story’. Oxford’s cloisters and crenellations appeal more to his imagination.
Popular immiseration comes about because of ‘the wealth pump’, the funnelling to elites of an ever greater proportion of wealth. Where wages stagnate, the money produced has to go somewhere. Since the proportion taken by the state in the US has remained relatively constant, this has meant increasing profits for the very wealthy.
Kundera presents his communist past as a youthful aberration, mostly in the vaguest of terms, in metaphors and through figurative shortcuts. These metaphors fail to capture what long-term communist loyalties entailed in practice – from sitting in meetings where policies were adopted and people denounced and sacked, to skilful negotiation with censors; from enjoying privileges only granted to prominent communists, such as travel abroad and stays in subsidised writers’ resorts, to receiving exorbitant fees for poetry serving communist propaganda.
Why write a biography of a philosopher? The pattern of Derek Parfit’s life became increasingly fixed and ascetic from the early 1970s: he spent the vast majority of his time in hermit-like isolation, punctuated only by annual teaching stints in the US. Apart from the show taking place between Parfit’s ears, few noteworthy events took place in his life.
Liam Lynch’s commitment to the Republican cause was an unyielding one, which viewed with hostility and suspicion anything seen as too ‘political’ or removed from the military side of the project – indeed for Lynch the republican project seems to have fundamentally amounted to military resistance alone. His death opened up a path for de Valera, enabling him to take republicanism in a democratic direction.
Despite a sense that they now had to defer to the US there was still a breezy self-confidence in London about the prospects for maintaining imperial grip. Official estimates for the lifespan of empire ranged from sixty years to centuries. Even the Americans acknowledged it would take time to guide backward peoples to the maturity necessary for self-rule.
The Macarthurs, who came to Catholic and stagnant Ireland in a rush of idealism and optimism, went into decline as soon as they arrived. Their money and their dream evaporated. Malcolm could not escape the family curse. He squandered his inheritance trying to escape a childhood of loneliness and neglect and, like his father and grandfather, he fabricated and fantasised. Yet he struggled to have love in his life. The ensuing conflict was to lead him to desperation and murder.
For forty years and more, governments have been accused of seeking to bring Ireland into NATO by stealth. Yet it is clear, even after the shift in the Swedish and Finnish positions, that no government has the slightest intention of doing so. A government applying to join NATO would, politically if not legally, have to call a referendum. And there is little or no doubt that the proposition would be roundly defeated.
Then there is the question of Jewishness – the key reason for the Wiener family’s forced migration. Her parents keep this central fact from the sisters – until they come home from school one day bandying about an antisemitic slur – was it directed at them or did they innocently join in the hateful chorus? That is not clear. But only then do the parents reveal to the girls the fact that they are Jewish. ‘Many years later I came to acknowledge and treasure my Jewishness. But during childhood and adolescence I hated and resented and hid it.’
Though Nicole Flattery’s restrained sensual cerebration and deceptive reticence are far from the geometric naturalism of John McGahern, his ‘The Pornogapher’ and her ‘Nothing Special’ have, in theme and intensity, much in common – the making of art; intergenerational tensions and ties; sex and death. And also much not in common: one set in the grim homes, bars and hospitals of 1970s Ireland, the other in the world-altering milieu of Warhol’s 1960s New York.
They were a resilient people who knew how to dribble round impediments and avoid confrontation. The women were proud, voluptuous and sensuous, some stunningly beautiful, with a Levantine sweetness. Shame was unheard of in sexual affairs. If they met someone in the street who was not family, they were either neighbours or sisters-in-arms. They were disinclined to leave their birthplace since they knew it was the village at the centre of the universe.
Lyndall Gordon’s revelations of the autobiographical content of Eliot’s work have the potential to change our vision of Modernism itself. She concedes that it is not necessary to know the poet’s private life to interpret ‘The Waste Land’, and that focusing on Vivienne Eliot and Emily Hale as primary characters in its drama is merely one possible approach. But given the weight of the epistolary evidence she presents, it is hard to see how future readers can disregard it. The women in Eliot’s life will compel us to recognise them within their deliberate disguises.
What Carson was doing was employing the age-old device of inferring an artist’s views from his writings. Wilde objected from the dock: ‘You must remember that novels and life are different things.’ But the realm of the law is the realm of the literal, as a very flat citation of Wilde’s proverbs and paradoxes in court proved.
Being working class and passionate about a British-invented game was not the road to either prosperity or popularity in the early years of the independent Irish state. And soccer by this time was overwhelmingly a working class game: in the years up to 1994 for example, 38 Irish internationals had come from Ringsend alone.
The far right tries to undermine democracy from within, their campaigns characterised by ferocious denunciation of opponents and the stoking of fear and anger. In power, they undermine the judiciary and restrict press freedom. Neoliberals, by contrast, lay claim to a democratic mantle but seek to diminish the capacities of the state.
Orwell’s distinctive take on Spain was that there was little to choose between the Republic and Franco, just as there was, in general, little to choose between liberal democracy and fascism, which were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In the late 1930s he doggedly opposed going to war to stop the advance of Nazi Germany. Later he abandoned these positions, denouncing them with as much vigour as he had once supported them.
Ruth Russell (1889-1963), a left-leaning journalist and activist from Chicago, spent six months in Ireland in 1919. Mixing reportage with statistical analysis of economic and social conditions, she left vivid impressions of the slums of Dublin, the Limerick Soviet and of figures such as Constance Markievicz, Éamon de Valera, Harry Boland and Sylvia Pankhurst. Some of her writing was collected in ‘What’s the Matter with Ireland?’ (1920). We may dismiss her predictions of a left-wing breakthrough as over-optimistic, but the injustices she described were real.
John Gardner wanted novels to make people better. Later, he wanted them to improve society. This can seem hopelessly old-fashioned, but how much has really changed? What we talk about now instead of morality is politics, and form. But underneath the language, it’s the same old story. We want art to make us better. And we’re still waiting to see if it can.
Wilson might look like one of those deep-dyed reactionaries who hide nasty views behind a facade of studied archaism, but actually his conservatism is less political than deriving from a general aversion to change. And as any student of politics will know, the figure who engineered the greatest measure of change in British society over the last fifty years was Mrs Margaret Thatcher.
- Issue153, Autumn 2023
- September 2021
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- Irish Literature
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