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Pinning Down the Protean

Philip O’Leary

Titley, by Máirtín Coilféir, Leabhair COMHAR, 264 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-0993494628

It must be a daunting challenge to write the first critical monograph on a major writer, a challenge compounded when that writer has a publishing history stretching back over a half-century and involving a wide range of genres, styles ‑ more than few of them hybrid ‑ and settings from the Crusades to Africa and from Beckett’s wasteland to seventeenth century Puritan Boston. That is, however, exactly what Máirtín Coilféir has undertaken in this study of Alan Titley, quite likely the most important writer in Irish since the death of Máirtín Ó Cadhain in 1970 and one often discussed in terms of the “difficulty” of his language and his frequent experiments with narrative, style, and tone.

Coilféir also had to take into account audience expectations of what an introductory study and overview of Titley’s work in its entirety should be. Such a book could have been written earlier in his career, but at this point, and with no other books on the subject to fall back on, any such attempt to engage with the whole output might well seem unwise if not impossible, producing no more than a mix of short descriptive sections and some sweeping generalisations. Titley has, after all, published novels, plays, short story collections, poems, pamphlets on diverse subjects, collections of essays in Irish and English and books for children. And that’s not to mention a weekly column that has run in The Irish Times since 2003. Instead of attempting to include everything, Coilféir provides a brief chronological survey of what he sees as distinct stages in Titley’s career over the decades. Thus we have “saothar luath (1966-1970)”, “borradh agus fás (1971-1979)”, “airc chun úire (1980-1989)”, “mórscríbhneoir, mórshaothair (1990-1999)”, and “páistí, polaitíocht, drámaí, dánta (2000-2016)”. The neat breakdown by decade might create some uneasiness, but Coilféir is well aware of the difficulty and takes into consideration that any such scheme is arbitrary and will involve anticipations, backtrackings and overlaps. On the whole, however, he makes a convincing case that for Titley at least this kind of outline gives us a useful and surprisingly non-reductive way of making our way through an enormous and diverse body of work.

One could argue that an appropriate critical methodology might provide another and better roadmap through the material. Such an approach would, of course, be anathema to Titley himself, one of whose best-known and most controversial essays was “An Cogadh in aghaidh na Critice” (1994), which Coilféir describes as “ionsaí fada ar mhórstádas na teoiricíochta liteartha i measúnú na litríochta” in which Titley champions “breithiúntas pearsanta seachas a bheith i dtuilleamaí múnlaí réamhdhéanta smaointeoireachta nach féidir leo a cheart a thabhairt d’intinn uathúil an scríbhneora cruthaigh”. As is evident throughout this book, Coilféir is comfortably familiar with contemporary critical methodologies, but it is equally clear that he shares Titley’s reservations about any approach that sees literature as raw material on which a predetermined theory can be imposed. Thus while the book not infrequently makes mention of such concepts as romanticism, liberalism, anti-colonialism, anarchism, and postmodernism as ways of thinking about Titley’s work, it always makes clear that such terms are no more than suggestive frameworks, always inadequate to summarise the complex and unpredictable workings of the creative process. For Coilféir as for Titley, the critic should always “tús áite a thabhairt do fhriotal agus do thuiscint an údair féin”.

What Coilféir finds in Titley’s language and understanding may seem at first surprisingly traditional, even old-fashioned. His guiding belief throughout the book is that the most illuminating way to read Titley is “trí lionsa na heitice”, although he is explicit that when he speaks of ethics he is by no means talking about “córas foirmeálta moráltachta oibrithe amach ag Alan Titley a gcloíonn sé leis gan teip”. Rather, he has in mind “coincheap scaoilte, leathan” focused on “na bealaí ina n-iompraíonn muid muid féin . . . na prionsabail nó . . . na heiseamláirí a roghnaíonn muid chun an t-iompar sin a mhúnlú, agus . . . na bealaí a gcaithean muid le daoine eile”. As we will see below, Coilféir knows just how flexible Titley’s understanding of this concept can be and how this flexibility creates its own problems for the critic dealing with a fair amount of his writing from the 1980s.

In his discussion of the ethical values that he sees at the heart of Titley’s work, Coilféir makes effective use of the “Crobhingne” columns he has been writing for The Irish Times for sixteen years now. Because in so many of the columns dealing with political and social developments in Ireland and the wider world Titley expresses his saeva indignatio directly and unambiguously, they provide us with the most obvious and explicit sense of his beliefs and guiding principles. And as is often the case with major – and even “difficult” – writers, many of those beliefs and principles can be simultaneously profound and simple, controversial and widely held – though much less generally put into practice. For Coilféir, at the core of Titley’s vision is an unshakeable conviction that all cultures and individuals have the inalienable right to live, develop, and express themselves as they choose to, always of course keeping in mind that others have that same right. Any interference with or suppression of that right by an external authority, be it imperial, governmental, ecclesiastical, economic, social, or individual is intolerable. Central here is the belief that free expression, particularly that of artists, be defended and advanced. If we find the most straightforward and forceful, even aggressive, expression of these principles in “Crobhingne”, it is in Méirscrí na Treibhe (1978), Titley’s first published novel, that he brings these abstract concepts to life in an unforgettable and deeply challenging way. Méirscrí na Treibhe is set in sub-Saharan Africa with no white, never mind Irish, characters. It was this novel, with its dense, on occasion onomatopoeic, often arcane language marked by resurrected words from earlier stages of Irish, neologisms, disguised borrowings from other languages and outright creations, that more than anything led readers to see Titley as unduly “difficult”. Coilféir does full justice to that linguistic difficulty and the way it deliberately draws readers into the novel, leaving them as lost and baffled as they might and perhaps should be by Africa itself. But his primary interest is not in the language of the novel, but rather in the how the author seeks to express rather than exploit the world and worldview of his African characters, insisting on their absolute right to autonomy and free expression on both the personal and cultural against the tyranny of imperialism and its postcolonial successors. Coilféir also offers equally enlightening readings of Titley’s rejection of capitalist materialism in his comic play Tagann Godot (1991), of the exploitation of and bigotry towards asylum seekers in his novel Gluaiseacht (2009), and of enforced servitude and state violence in his verse novel An Bhean Feasa (2014).

As noted above, there is nothing limiting or reductionist about Coilféir’s reading of Titley as a writer most profitably read in terms of his ethical concerns. As he stresses throughout the book Coilféir sees Titley as a brilliant comic author, although that comedy is often bizarre, dark, twisted, violent, subversive, or various mixtures of all of those qualities. Coilféir finds this kind of humour especially prominent in the short stories Titley wrote in the 1980s and ’90s, most notably those in Eiriceachtaí (1987). In perceptive readings of some of these problematic stories, Coilféir questions whether they and others like them undermine or even contradict his reading of Titley’s work in ethical terms. At times I think he does make too much of the amorality and violence of these stories, coming close to confusing distasteful narrators like the one in “Cibé Scéal É” with the author himself (as Anna Heussaf seems to have done in criticism of Titley’s latest novel, Lámh, Lámh Eile). In the process he can lose sight of the enormous ethical power pointed satire can wield. What is, however, most important here is Coilféir’s critical integrity, his willingness to confront directly and on its own terms material that challenges his main thesis.

If Titley’s humour can often be shocking, it can also seem at times, however hilarious, rather nihilistic. Once again, however, Coilféir faces up to the fact that this kind of humour, especially when coupled with Titley’s mastery of all the resources of postmodern narrative and stylistic legerdemain, could well call into question his whole project in this book. With well-chosen examples, Coilféir analyses Titley’s extensive use of intertextuality, with perhaps his best example being An Fear Dána (1993). In this novel Titley resurrects the thirteenth century poet Muiríoch Albanach Ó Dálaigh, weaving throughout the narrative Ó Dálaigh’s own poetry and that of his contemporaries, Seosamh Mac Grianna’s story “Creach Choinn Uí Dhónaill 1495”, the Innti poet Michael Davitt’s “Mo Bheirt Phalaistíneach” and more. Coilféir is by no means claiming to be exhaustive in his discussion of Titley’s intertextuality, but the examples he cites certainly suggest how rich the topic is.

Does, however, this technique, like Titley’s use of disturbing black humour, threaten Coilféir’s reading of the author’s work in its entirety? Do both in some way make Titley’s work and indeed literature itself into a hermetic game with little connection to the world in which we have to live? Coilféir finds these questions ultimately irrelevant, rejecting any meaningful possibility of separating Titley’s vision from his style and concluding “gurb í an stíl seo, a chuireann sé ag imirt ar oibríochtaí mire a shamhlaíochta, a osclaíonn doras na heitice dúinn sa gcéad áit . . .’ Doubtless it is “annamh a bhíonn scéal na gcarachtar nó an chaoi a n-insítear é sin ríshimplí ríshoiléir” and “bíonn orainn sonraí na saothar aonair a chur sa meá”, but it is precisely this intellectual exercise “a théann chun leasa dár scileanna smaointeoireachta agus dár n-acmhainn chomhbhá” and “seo í eithne na litríochta eiticiúla agus is eiseamláir di sin é saothar Titley”.

Coilféir’s Titley is worthy of its subject, presenting both an authoritative introduction to the author’s extensive and varied oeuvre and the kind of perceptive analyses of individual works that should both inspire new readers to pick up his books and suggest to scholars intriguing new directions for research and debate In his introduction, Coilféir writes that he wants his book to be “eochair do na gnéithe is tábhachtaí dá shaothar” and “go n-osclóidh an eochair sin, ní hamháin go leor dá bhfuil curtha amach ag Titley go dtí seo, ach go leor dá bhfuil le teacht uaidh chomh maith”. Mission accomplished.

1/5/2019

Philip O’Leary teaches at Boston College.

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