Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.


A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.


I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page:



There are no Irish Women Playwrights..?

I was reading a blog post recently from Joanne Harris, who writes about the problems with the category of “woman’s fiction”, especially as used by booksellers. “We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women,” she writes. “Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.” She then continues:

It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.

It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)

It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population. […]

Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions. The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.

Harris makes a number of suggestions about what should happen:

Please, everyone, say after me:

Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.

Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.

Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.

The full blog post is here:

Alison Flood wrote a follow-up blog post on the Guardian about this –

what really caught my attention was [Harris’s} claim that “‘Women’s fiction’ is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note)”. I knew it was – or had been – on Wikipedia. There was a controversy about that last year. But Amazon? Really? I checked it out; she’s right. There’s a category for “Women writers and fiction” on the site, and within that for “Women’s literary fiction” – hi Rachel Joyce, Charlotte Mendelson, Maeve Binchy, Kate Morton and Virginia Woolf – and “Women’s popular fiction“. I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.

Flood’s post develops Harris’s in some telling ways. Harris is careful to distinguish between women authors and the genre of “women’s fiction”, as it’s defined by the industry. Yet Flood shows that, at least on Amazon, the two terms mean the same thing: women’s fiction is fiction written by women – Joanne Harris features with Maeve Binchey and Anne Rice and Donna Tart and Eleanor Catton, despite the fact that all write in distinctive genres and for very different audiences.

This debate seemed pertinent given that it coincided with the announcement of the winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange prize. The rules of that prize are as follows:

The Prize is open to any full length novel, written in English by a woman of any nationality, provided that the novel is published for the first time in print form the United Kingdom between 1 April of the year before the Prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the Prize is awarded. We encourage publishers to submit books from all genres.

In other words, the main shortlisting criterion is gender, followed by the book’s being written in English. And of course the books must be “good”, however that word is interpreted.

That prize has often come in for criticism. Most famously, AS Byatt described it as sexist, and has forbidden her publishers to submit her novels for consideration:

“You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.”

Yet the defenders of the prize claim that it gives visibility to books that might otherwise struggle to get an audience.

And to be fair, this year’s winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, certainly merits the high profile it’s received as a result of the win (I think it’s the best Irish novel I’ve read in many years). And the other books on the shortlist also deserve to be better known, especially Americanah and The Lowland. I’ve read four of the six (have not read Audrey Magee or Donna Tart’s books yet), and think that, contrary to Byatt, they are not unified by any kind of reductive “feminine subject matter” though all articulate in different ways a feminist perspective on such matters as sexual agency (stunningly so in McBride), political power, race, and the link between work and identity.

But aesthetically they are very different from each other: McBride’s inventiveness with language is very different from Adichie’s incisively politicized prose, which in turn is very different from the formal elegance of Lahiri’s writing. I don’t know if I could say that any of these books is “better” than any of the others because they are all so different from each other. Nevertheless, I am glad that many people who might not have read those works will now do so.

ANYWAY. What I’ve been wondering is how the debate initiated by Harris – and focused by the Bailey’s prize – might apply to Irish drama.

Back in the early 1990s, a festival was organized by Glasshouse Productions called “There are no Irish women playwrights”. I’ve heard two different stories about where the Festival got its name – perhaps someone involved can tell us which, if either, is true. The first is that an American academic was in an Irish bookstore and asked to be directed to the section for Irish women playwrights. The academic was told that such a section did not exist because: “there are no Irish women playwrights” (most Irish bookstores place Irish drama on the bottom shelves of their poetry sections, so our playwrights generally don’t fare well even now). The second story is that a question was put to a director in a post-show discussion about why there are so few plays by Irish women on Ireland’s stages. And again the same answer came back.

Either story is perfectly credible, of course, and different variations of these comments are made all the time. But the response of Glasshouse was to organize the There are No Irish Women Playwrights festival, which consisted of a reading of extracts from the works of 12 Irish women writers at the City Arts Centre, and which was (I believe, but am open to correction) followed by performances at the Irish Writers Centre.

Again, there were questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. In a Theatre Ireland report on the event, Caroline Williams refers to a Sunday Tribune review that criticized the plays for focusing on “alcoholism, wife-battering, babies and war”. “Surely,” moaned the reviewer, “the human condition as experienced by Irish women playwrights encompasses other sensibilities?” The reviewer’s suggestion is evidence of a common prejudice: one of the most frequent criticisms of women’s plays by (usually male) reviewers is that the topics are not sufficiently “universal” (we men tend to assume that what is normal to us is “universal”).

That same year, Theatre Ireland ran a special issue about women in Irish drama – one of that journal’s last ever issues, if I remember correctly. In addition to the article mentioned above by Caroline Williams, it also featured important contributions from Helen Meany and Victoria White, among many others. There’s also an interesting interview with Katie Mitchell, then at the start of her career, who had been asked by Garry Hynes to direct at the Peacock. While writing this blog post I had a quick glance at some of these articles, and what is particularly noticeable is that, aside from some superficial topical references, most could just as easily have been written today.

Since then, there have been other important interventions. Cathy Leeney produced Seen and Heard, an anthology of plays by Irish women, in the late 1990s. Melissa Sihra’s edited collection of essays Women in Irish Drama is useful in many ways, especially for its inclusion of a list of plays by Irish women – which runs to several pages and which will contain numerous surprises for any reader. And Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick are about to publish a new anthology of plays by Irish women with Syracuse University Press –

Yet the problems identified by Joanne Harris persist in Irish drama. As I’ve written on this blog before, roughly one in four Irish plays produced since 1990 has been by a woman (this figure has increased to about one in three in the last five years). Yet plays by women have shorter runs, appear in smaller venues, are less frequently reviewed, are less frequently published – and thus are less frequently revived, and less frequently written about by academics, which in turn means that emerging playwrights in our universities tend to read fewer plays by Irish women. And in the recent consultation for the revised Junior Cert English curriculum, there were very few plays by women (let alone Irish women). So “the canon” remains male-dominated, which in turn has an impact on how young Irish dramatists, both male and female, conceive of their own writing, their own place within the literary tradition.

Women writers are also more likely to write (or to be commissioned to write) plays that are less valued than the “conventional” play – they write proportionately more plays for children, for community groups, and for outreach purposes; and they are also more likely (in general) to write as part of a collective (which is why it took so long for the plays of Charabanc to appear in print – issues of copyright and “ownership” proved difficult to unravel, I’m told).

Furthermore many plays by Irish women are marketed specifically as “women’s plays”: as a great night out for “the girls” (this despite the fact that the theatre audience in Ireland is predominantly female anyway). This was explicitly the case for, say, Marie Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT but a lot of this is much more subtle. For example, we’ve also seen – since the nineteenth century really, and not just in Ireland – that when plays are perceived as being “for women” they are much more likely to be linked with advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, “pampering” (I’m quoting in using that word), and the leisure industries generally.

Yet when the theatre industry here attempts to challenge this problem, they are accused of sexism, rather as Byatt accused the (then) Orange prize. For example, when about five years ago the Abbey staged a series of readings of short plays by women called The Fairer Sex, they were accused variously of ghettoizing and patronizing the writers whose works they were trying to promote.

There have been some improvements since 1993, but it might still be possible to host a festival in Ireland called There Are No Irish Women Playwrights – not because this statement is literally true (just as it was untrue in 1993) but because so many of our women writers have been rendered invisible – or more difficult to see, despite some important work by, among others, Fishamble, Rough Magic, Tinderbox, and (in more recent years) the Abbey.

One of the most prolific, challenging and politically-orientated Irish dramatists around at present is Stella Feehily, for example. One of her short plays appeared in Fishamble’s Shorts about ten years ago; Duck premiered at the Peacock shortly afterwards. And her excellent O Go My Man toured briefly to Cork. But we haven’t seen any of her subsequent plays in Ireland, and I don’t think I have ever heard a conference paper about her work or read an academic article about her either. In part, this is because her plays have mostly been produced by one company during this period (the UK-based Out of Joint). But it’s astonishing that she’s not more celebrated here.

Likewise there’s the case of Nancy Harris, a writer whose debut No Romance was praised almost universally for its inventiveness and originality when it appeared at the Peacock. Her short play Love in a Glass Jar appeared very briefly at the Peacock but her other plays have been staged in London, and her recent play Our New Girl got glowing reviews when it appeared in London and has just been staged in the Atlantic in New York – check out this New York Times review . By going to the Atlantic, Harris is following a pathway taken by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. And we heard a lot about the success of those writers at the Atlantic. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen so much as a tweet about Harris’s success there, despite Isherwood’s review having appeared two days ago.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that we hear less about the successes of Irish women dramatists than we do about, say, McPherson or Walsh or McCafferty. Why is that?

There are other problems.

There are many more Irish women writers who are far better known in Britain than they are in Ireland. Ailis Ni Riain, Nicola McCartney and Ursula Rani Sarma spring immediately to mind, but there are others.

Also notable is the critical indifference and hostility that has greeted Marina Carr’s more recent plays: she was praised when working within conventional (some would say “patriarchal”) forms such as tragedy (even if she aimed to problematize and rewrite those forms from a feminist viewpoint), but her more experimental output since 2008 has been met with bafflement.

I’m also thinking of the fact that Christina Reid ha spoken publicly about the difficulty she has had in having her plays produced since the mid-1990s: the end of the Troubles meant that her works were no longer seen as politically relevant, and thus theatres lots interest in her as an artist. Why did this happen to Reid but not to Friel’s Translations or Freedom of the City or Parker’s Pentecost?

Some of this, of course, is a result of the problem of “the new play in Ireland” at present, something that we heard a lot about from Irish writers at last year’s Synge Summer School. There are so few venues for Irish writers to produce new work that there is an expectation that every new play must be fully realized, must succeed with critics and audiences and everyone else. This removes space for innovation and risk-taking: playwrights need to be free to fail occasionally – as shown in the example of Carr, who has spoken about how the failure of Ulaloo (pulled from the Peacock stage after only a handful of performances) forced the reinvention that led to The Mai. Every Irish playwright has written something that was considered at the time of its premiere to be a false turn or a failure – Friel’s Faith Healer being a prime example. And while many Irish plays do still fail, there is less acceptance of such failure as being normal and even necessary. Theatres can’t afford it, aside from anything else. And more simply the problem is that we don’t have the kind of venues that can allow new plays to be produced in a way that will allow writers to make some sort of a living..

Yet despite the fact that there has been so much talk of the Irish play being in crisis, there have been a great many successful Irish plays by women in recent years, from such writers as Morna Regan, Deirdre Kinahan, Sonya Kelly, Marie Jones, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacy Gregg, and many more, including those mentioned throughout this post. (And if you think I have omitted anyone, please use the comment box below to add details).

The phrase there are no Irish women playwrights is thus both a challenge and an aspiration. We need to do more to draw attention to plays by women, simply because so much of this work is unjustly neglected – and so much of it has to fight for the attention and respect that many male authors are able to take for granted. We need to ignore those who ask the trivializing questions that accompany all of the innovations mentioned above (“when are we going to get a festival of new plays by men/a special issue of Theatre Ireland about men/ a collection of academic essays about male authors?”). We need to praise those who take small steps rather than critising them for not doing more: a season of readings is better than nothing, even if full productions should be the norm (though of course we must also be critical of token gestures and lip service). And, following on from Joanne Harris, we need to aspire to a situation where calling someone a woman playwright is merely a descriptive statement rather than a political or aesthetic judgement.

It’s now 21 years since the There are no Irish Women Playwrights festival was staged. Things have improved, somewhat, but there’s still much more to be done. As a community – of theatre-makers, writers, producers, scholars, audience-members – we need to get our act together on this one, I think.

This year’s Cuirt Festival of Literature: an amazing line-up

I’ve just come back from the House Hotel where I had the privilege of launching this year’s Cuirt Festival, which is being directed by Dani Gill. 

As I said tonight, it’s a sign of a great festival programme when your first thought is not “what am I going to see?” but “what am I going to have to miss?” That’s certainly my feeling this year: there’s so much to enjoy that it won’t be possible to get to everything. And there’s really a sense that Dani Gill is making her mark: Cuirt is now one of those Festivals where audiences will try things out because they trust the programmer. 

If you like Irish fiction, there are lots of readings to enjoy – Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton will be there, and so too will three major emerging writers: Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan and Colin Barrett. Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is, to use an appropriate cliche, an instant classic – he has an extraordinary ability to evoke an entire way of life through the creation of vivid narrative voices, and in the process has written one of the best representations of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland – though the book will be read long after the Celtic Tiger has been forgotten, I think. And it’s also clear that McBride is a major talent: truly original and courageous in her use of language and form. 



Anakana Schofield & Dónal Ryan

There’s also a really interesting young Irish writer called Anakana Schofiel – whose work I haven’t read but who I’m really looking forward to hearing. 

I’m also looking forward to a great international line-up which includes  Patrick De Witt, whose literary Western the Sisters Brothers is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years.

For people who like poetry, there’s a double bill with Liz Lochhead and Fleur Adock. And Joanne Harris, author of Chocolatwill be there too. I suspect hers will be the first reading to sell out: I was in Eason’s yesterday and spotted two different people buying her new book about the Norse God Loki in the space of about five minutes… 

The event I’m most excited about is a double bill featuring Eleanor Catton and Rachel Kushner. Catton won the Booker last year for The Luminaries, a book that has received a lot of attention for its length, and perhaps insufficient attention for all of its other, more interesting, characteristics. It’s amazing to think that it’s only her second novel, and that she’s still in her 20s. I’m looking forward to seeing where she’ll be in ten or twenty years’ time. 

I’m currently reading Rachel Kushner’s the  Flamethrowers, which I am enjoying hugely. It’s about motorbikes and the New York arts scene in the 1970s, and lots of other things. And it’s amazingly vivid: the kind of writing that’s so good you can forget you’re reading. I keep having to pause just to take a moment to enjoy how good it is; it’s one of those books where I want to rush out and buy copies for everyone I know. 


Catton and Kushner 

One other pattern that I mentioned at the launch is that roughly half of the readings this year are by women – which is certainly a greater proportion than we often find at literary festivals. That too is a very positive development, both in terms of giving visibility to emerging authors like McBride, and in terms of inspiring younger writers. As a teacher I’m always very aware of how important it is for students to be able to encounter great artists “in the flesh” – which is why we’re so lucky that we have people like Garry Hynes teaching our students in Drama here at NUI Galway, for example. I suspect that for any would-be writers, it will be massively inspiring to see successful young authors like Catton and Kushner in this city. 

The box office opens later this week, and I’d encourage people to get booking – think it’s going to be a great week for us here in Galway and that events will go quickly. 

Full programme is here: 


Man Booker Prize 2013 Predictions

So this evening the winner of the 2013 Booker Prize will be announced. I thought I’d take a detour from the theatre-related posts to speculate about who might win. We’ll know tomorrow whether I should stick with writing about Irish drama…

It’s a very strong shortlist this year – I’ve read five of the six books and think any of them could potentially win – and any of them would be a deserving winner too.

The only one I haven’t read yet is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. There’s no significant reason for the omission – it’s been difficult to find a copy in an Irish bookstore, and the kindle edition is relatively expensive – so I just haven’t got round to it yet.

The main Irish interest is in Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary, which was first produced as a play called Testament for Landmark, directed by Garry Hynes and starring Marie Mullen (whose photo from the production I’m pasting below). I admired the performance by Mullen in that production, but came out of the Project thinking that it wasn’t a play – an opinion shared by many who saw it on Broadway when Fiona Shaw took on the role.

Marie Mullen in TESTAMENT by Colm Tóibín, a co-production between Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and Landmark Productions

The book was far more satisfying. Toibin has created a voice for Mary, the mother of Jesus – and that voice is essentially of one tone throughout the entire novel: she is a woman recounting with horror, despair and rage the death of her son. That tone builds in intensity as the novel progresses but on stage it was a bit, well, monotonous: it offers performers nowhere to come from or go to in delivery. As a novel it is tightly packed, written with discipline and economy, and utterly persuasive. It may be difficult to love it, but it’s certainly difficult to fault it too.


I think Toibin could win in much the same way that Julian Barnes won for Sense of an Ending (when he should have won for Arthur and George) or in the way that Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam (when he should have won for Enduring Love) – there is a sense that he’s such a major author that a Booker is now overdue, and could certainly have been justified for The Master and Brooklyn. I don’t mean that to disparage The Testament of Mary in making that statement, but instead am just suggesting that Toibin’s track record may come into play when the judges deliberate.

And the favourite for the prize is Jim Crace’s Harvest, which is similar in some ways to Toibin’s book, in that it’s a first-person narrative from someone who’s recounting horrible events that he witnessed in the past. And it’s also similar in the sense that it’s written by someone who could be awarded a Booker not only on the merits of this novel but also for his career to date.

Harvest reads like a historical novel but could just as easily be set in some sort of dystopian future, exploring what happens when a family of three strangers arrive at a country village at a time when the community’s lifestyle is about to be altered irretrievably. It’s paced like a thriller, but has a sense of inevitability that is also quite tragic. The perspective is decidedly contemporary – it reminded me somewhat of Ronan Bennett’s Havoc In Its Third Year. This is a very good book, but I wonder how the judges will respond to the fact that it’s told only from one perspective – which means that most characters are described only superficially. I thought this added to the sense of looming disaster, but when compared with the other novels, Crace’s can seem slightly more limited in its characterisation.

This is most obviously the case when Harvest is compared with  Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It’s a very long novel about the New Zealand gold-rush – and again it’s paced quite like a thriller, with a series of mysteries about a murder, an inheritance, a case of fraudulent identities and so on. It reminded me a little of Wilkie Collins, in that it has the tightly-plotted quality of a triple-decker Victorian novel – but it also has an uncanny tone that seems closer to the twentieth century. That said, fans of the TV show Deadwood will also find much here that they enjoy (aside from the bad language, which is absent here). Whereas Crace and Toibin’s novels give us only one perspective, Catton moves through several distinctive characters.  I thought the novel suffered slightly from using a structure based on signs of the zodiac – at times, it felt as though the storytelling was serving the structure rather than the other way around. But it’s a very entertaining book, and would become a popular winner, I think.

I didn’t much enjoy  Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being. It offers a split narrative, with one part of the story told by a Japanese teenager being bullied in school, and the other about a novelist called Ruth who finds the Japanese teenager’s diary and tries to understand what happened to her. The main story about the teenager is very compelling and it’s written in an appealing, mildly Holden Caulfield-esque tone. But I thought the book was trying a bit too hard to be self-consciously postmodern: we have the fact that Ozeki gives the protagonist her own name, inviting questions about whether the story is true or not – and we also have the fact that the authenticity of the main narrative is always uncertain. There is some interesting material in there about the relationship between Buddhism and postmodernism, both of which are seen as involving the embracing of uncertainty. There is also a nice image of a story being written on blank pages within the cover of one of Proust’s novels. And if you like Murakami, you will probably enjoy this too. But  I was disappointed by it: when I get to the end of a novel I like to feel that the investment was worth something – so if there is to be uncertainty or indeterminacy, that feeling of not knowing needs to matched by a sense that I’ve learned or gained something. Instead I felt slightly like my time had been wasted.

The last book I’ve read is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. The blurb on the back says this is about two brothers, but that’s only accurate about the first part of the novel. We’re set up with a story of two twins, whose paths diverge – one moves to America for an academic career, and the other becomes involved in radical politics in India. In the second half of the novel, a similar duality is established between a mother and daughter, both living in America and both taking contrasting paths. So that means the book overall is split between two males and two females. Where I would be critical of the structure of The Luminaries and A Tale for the Time Being, I thought this was very finely balanced. Like the Toibin novel, it’s also written with great care and precision, and like the Crace and Catton it’s also a very well paced story.

As I write above, Crace is the favourite for the prize, but I am going to suggest that Lahiri will be the winner. Mainly this is because I think it’s the best novel on the shortlist – it has everything that the other novels have, but is able to make those achievements come together. So I think it should win.

Another context, however, is that the Booker will be open to American authors from now on. Some might see that as a reason to think that Crace will win – since this is the last time there will be no Americans on the list, there might be an impulse to give the award to a Briton. Well, Crace would be a deserving winner, but I think the fact that Lahiri was put on the shortlist in the first place shows that the judges aren’t really thinking too much about nationality (up to now, she’s mainly been seen as an American author).

Overall though the most important thing is that the shortlist is good and that it’s bringing to the public’s attention a number of novelists who are relatively early in their careers. I worry slightly about whether that will continue to happen when the prize is open to American authors –  one of the things I’ve always liked about the Booker is that it gives exposure to authors who might not otherwise have received it. From an Irish point of view, the Booker has had a major impact on the careers of Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright too, and it’s difficult to see whether such successes will continue.

But that’s an argument for next year.

Staging Joyce: Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun

Last night I went to see Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun, a live performance of a section from Finnegans Wake. This morning I’ve been looking at reviews, of which so far I can only find two – one by Peter Crawley in The Irish Times and the other by Chris McCormack in his blog Musings in Intermissions.

The reviews are quite different from each other, but there are two words that appear in both. One is “academics” and the other is “frustration”.

I’d expected to see the references to “academics”. Chris suggests that Finnegans Wake is the kind of book that “has won the approval of the academics but not the public” in his opening paragraph, while in his first lines Peter says that the novel’s “warp and weft of smearing words, literary allusions, multilingual puns and rushing streams of consciousness are now primarily used to enslave academics.”

Both of those comments are fair but they encapsulate a problem that faces the reception and acceptance of Joyce.

I am not a Joyce scholar but I do teach an undergraduate lecture course on Ulysses every year. It’s something I love doing: it’s very exciting to see students discovering Joyce, overcoming their inevitable fears of Ulysses, and then starting to love the book. But I’m always struck by the fact that so many students are intimidated by Joyce, and sometimes choose not to take the course on that basis. And I’ve heard many people outside the academy express a similar fear, often in the form of resentment.

That fear is based on a belief some have that there must be a “right” way to read Joyce, a conviction that if you have enough knowledge to decode his works you will understand what’s happening, and can then smugly lord it over those who don’t know what’s going on. That belief is misplaced if not entirely unjustified, and it tends to provoke resentment in people: the prospect of reading Ulysses is for many the equivalent to the prospect of going to an exclusive restaurant where you know you’re going to be mocked by a snotty waiter for using the wrong cutlery

It is true that readers can benefit from some expert help before tackling Ulysses – even the ever reliable Bloomsday Book, which summarises the chapters, will help. But I would always suggest to students that you don’t really need any prior knowledge before reading Ulysses because the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. You need to be prepared to abandon your expectations, to be comfortable with the fact that you won’t understand everything, and you need to be prepared to wait. Often people who read the book alone abandon it in the third chapter Proteus, but once we meet Bloom in chapter four readers usually start to feel at home in Ulysses.

That is not to say the book is easy to read because of course it’s not: I re-read it every year for teaching and find new things every time, and I expect to continue doing so well into the future. And while I love many parts of it (I’m slightly obsessed with the Circe episode), others leave me cold. So again one of the exciting things about teaching Ulysses is seeing students forming confidence in being able to say that they prefer some chapters over others, since there is sometimes a belief that you can’t say anything negative about the book.

But the point I’d make is that the best way to read the book is to abandon oneself to it – to wait for it to reveal itself.

Finnegans Wake is of course a different beast, but the same core principle applies: if you go into it expecting it to communicate one central meaning to you, you’re going to find it impenetrable. But if you are prepared to open yourself up to it – ideally in a group of other people with whom you can read and discuss the text – then it can be rewarding. That’s not to say that its meaning can easily be discerned, because it can’t. But you can catch glimpses of possible meanings, especially if you are reading with people who speak languages other than English.

So while the academic industry around Joyce has done much to clarify his work for ordinary readers, it’s probably true to say that we academics may also be guilty of creating the impression that you need a PhD to understand Joyce’s works, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

That leads to the second shared term from the reviews, which is “frustration”. Chris states that “the text [of Finnegans Wake] is completely discontinuous and non-linear … and such is the source of strong frustration in the audience”, while Peter advises his readers that “Your response [to riverrun] will be somewhere between abandon and frustration… depending on your need for the stepping stones of comprehension” (and he states that he himself leaned towards frustration).

I do understand the frustration that people feel when confronted with the Wake because again it’s easy to feel excluded by an elite who have access to the novel’s codes – or as Peter very nicely puts it, there is a feeling that the book is a “goading, multilayered game”.

All of this is just to make two points about riverrun.

The first is that you certainly don’t have to be an academic or Joyce specialist in order to appreciate it. And the second is that the way to avoid frustration is simply to accept that you will understand almost nothing that you hear or see during the performance.

So why go?

Riverrun is a 60 minute performance by Fouéré. She stands in front of a microphone centre-stage for most of the performance, reciting – incanting, really – the final section of the book. Enacting the figure of Anna Livia Plurabele, and knowing the Wake’s fascination with rivers, Fouéré moves with a (literal) fluidity.

We often hear of actors ‘embodying’ the text, but I’ve never seen an embodiment happen as completely as it does here. Fouéré’s performance shows that although we (academics) often treat movement and voice as separate skills to be taught in separate modules, they are not quite so distinctive. I came out of this performance with a better understanding of how the voice is part of the body, not just in the sense that Fouéré uses her full carriage for the creation of sound and tone, but also in the sense that there is a staggeringly coherent unity between movement and voice in her recitation of the text.

I thought I could detect the presence of Yeats in the production, since there are formal links here with Yeats’s plays for dancers (some of which were staged for Blue Raincoat by this production’s co-director Kellie Hughes). And I could sense also how Fouéré’s recent performances with Fabulous Beast have helped in the construction of this piece. I don’t want to suggest that she is moving around the stage in the way that she did in, say, The Rite of Spring (she mostly occupies centre-stage, before the microphone, here), but to propose that the experience here is being created through an interaction between movement and sound.

So one reason to go is that this is like a dance piece in which the music is created by the dancer. If you think of it not just as literature but also as dance,  you’re likely to have a more satisfying experience.

As for making sense of it… Often as I watched the performance, I found myself being reminded of dreams. If you’ve ever been woken in the middle of the night and had a conversation that you were sure was coherent – even though you were speaking gibberish – then you might recognise that experience in Fouéré’s recitation. Or, to give a slightly more morbid comparison, if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who was seriously ill and on morphine, again you might find some traces of that memory in riverrun.  There are flashes of meaning, and the audience laughs with relief when they understand puns or anything more than five consecutively meaningful words. But there is a strange underlying logic – just as there is an underlying logic in dreams and hallucinations. I am not saying that viewers will be able to define that logic during or even after the performance, but they can probably acknowledge its existence.

One final reason to go is that this feels like a significant contribution to the iconography of Irish theatre and culture. Fouéré’s ALP is a clear example of woman as emblem, not just for the nation but also for the nighttime and the irrational. Just as Joyce’s words in Finnegans Wake explode outwards to have multiple possible meanings and resonances, so Fouéré’s body is at once ALP and Kathleen Ni Houlihan – not to mention Hester Swayne, Salome, Medea, Pegeen Mike, Lady Macbeth, and many others (and not just because Fouéré has herself played many of these roles). The fact that Fouéré is both speaking and embodying this character feels like a  cultural shift – like a reclamation: she’s not just an object to be looked at or to represent something else, but is also the author of meaning.

So I abandoned myself to riverrun, and was very glad to have done so. I am sure that people with an advanced knowledge of the text will find it very rewarding, and it will also reward repeated viewing, I think. But in and of itself, riverrun is unlike anything else I have seen, fusing dance, literature, theatre, vocal performance, sound design, lighting, and the presence of the audience into a strangely novel experience.

There is a trailer for the production on Youtube, which gives some taste of what to expect.