Roddy Doyle, British Novelist?

A few days ago, I posted about the Donmar Warehouse’s PR campaign for The Weir, which describes Conor McPherson as one of “our” greatest living playwrights.

I was suggesting in that post that the “our” might just have been a mistake but observed that Irish writers, especially the successful ones, are often referred to as British, and that this can often feel like appropriation.

A few people contacted me either directly or via Twitter, mostly expressing frustration and citing examples of similar errors. But a few others suggested that perhaps the “our” meant “belonging to world drama”: that McPherson is “ours” in the way that Sophocles and Ibsen belong to the world… That is entirely possible, though I would note that no British theatre would ever refer to David Mamet or Bruce Norris as one of “our” (i.e. “their”) greatest living playwrights.

But really we’re just talking here about how plays are marketed, so to a certain extent it’s not worth getting too upset about a bit of inaccurate hyperbole.

That PR line contrasts with a profile of Roddy Doyle that appears over on the Guardian website. It was published yesterday. Here is the first paragraph:

Roddy Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers. He is also my favourite teacher. His books arrived when I needed them most and, like the best of educations, changed my perceptions and the course of my life.

The rest of the article goes on to pay tribute to Doyle at length, referring in some detail to many of his novels and also displaying awareness of his former career as a teacher.

The full article can be read here, and its author is Kerry Hudson. And I should thank Emily Mark Fitzgerald for pointing it out to me via Twitter.

Needless to say, the comments soon started flooding in to the Guardian website, mostly from people pointing out the error. As one user stated it is very difficult to take an article seriously when it has so egregious an error in its opening line.

Hudson posted an apology almost immediately:

I completely understand why people are unhappy and I can only apologise. I did initially draft the copy to (incorrectly) read ‘greatest British writer’ but then realised my error requested this to be changed in advance of the piece being filed with the Guardian. For whatever reason that didn’t happen.

She goes on to say that she hopes people will ignore the error and try to follow the spirit of the article in its entirety: “I was just trying to acknowledge and say thank you to someone who had a massive impact on my writing and life,” she said.

Most of the people commenting accepted that explanation/apology – and I have to say it’s refreshing to find someone who is willing to admit a mistake in the way that Hudson does. For anyone who writes anything, this kind of howler is both a perpetual fear and a perpetual risk: there are things that you know, have always known, and will always know – but for some reason will forget for the entire period that you spend writing something. So I think anyone is capable of making this kind of mistake. That is what editors are for, or used to be for.

And for some reason those kinds of massive blunders almost always appear in an opening paragraph.

Well, one commentator, using the name Pat Jackman, then raised a very pertinent question:

I mean, what is the context in which an obviously intelligent, obviously educated, presumably thirty-something journalist describes an obviously Irish author who writes specifically about the working class experience within the Irish Republic’s capital city come to actually make a statement like “Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers”?

And – again, admirably – Hudson actually took the time to respond to this:

In response to the question of why I ever wrote that line in the first place I think (I wrote the article a wee while ago…) I was thinking about the reach of his books – I found mine in a tiny council estate library in Great Yarmouth – but as I’ve said this was never the wording that was meant to be published. By no means was I ever trying to ‘claim’ him.

This explanation trails off slightly, but is still interesting: it’s likely that what she means is that Doyle’s work feels like an important part of the fabric of her cultural life, not as something exotic or foreign but rather as something that is recognizable and immediate.

This is probably how many Irish people would feel about Coronation Street or Manchester United, or perhaps the novels of Ian McEwan or the music of Radiohead and so on. They wouldn’t describe those things as “Irish” but they would probably use the word “our” about them in some contexts (and I’m not just referring to the way in which Irish people will say “we” when talking about their favourite English or Scottish football team) – or they would in any case feel a sense of ownership, possession, fidelity, and so on. When you really love something, it can feel like it belongs to you, and I think that’s what she was trying to express.

It’s also possible that some of this may be caused by the status of some Irish novelists within the London literary scene. It’s been observed before that sometimes Irish fiction is presented by UK-based publishers not as a national literature but as a genre. “Irish” novels may be very different from each other on the surface: Banville is very different from Enright, who is different from Toibin, who is different from Sebastian Barry, who is different from Joseph O’Connor. But novels marketed as “Irish” do seem to have similar traits: lyricism, mordant (if not morbid) humour, a focus on the past that fuses nostalgia with acts of historical retrieval. And quite recently we’ve seen a few that are set in the past and which deal with the liberation of some unusually self-possessed young woman (Ghost Light, Brooklyn, On Canaan’s Side).

And it’s also notable that the novelists I mention above play a significant role in the discussion of fiction and ideas in Britain: Enright and Toibin’s essays for publications like The London Review of Books are widely read, as are John Banville’s reviews in London and New York.

And it’s also often been observed before that these writers constantly write blurbs for each other’s novels, thus heightening the sense that they are all inter-related by more than just their place of birth.

Again I think much of this is caused not just by marketing but by the ways in which marketing in turn influences the placement and commissioning of reviews – which in turn has an impact on other reputation-building exercises such as public readings, invitations to festivals, appearances on TV, and so on.

So I can understand what Hudson felt when she led off an article about one of her favourite writers by saying that there is no-one quite like him in all the land. I feel something similar about Zadie Smith and David Greig and many other writers and musicians. I know they’re not Irish, but the worlds they create feel like they belong to me.

Commentators over on The Guardian website are characterising Hudson’s error as arising from ignorance. But perhaps rather than seeing these mistakes as evidence of the divisions between our countries (so many of the Irish complaints are tinged with annoyance at not being noticed by a bigger neighbour), we could instead see them as an example of the ways in which the two countries are intertwined in important ways, especially when it comes to our literature(s). This intertwining is not necessarily an entirely bad thing – or an entirely good thing – but it certainly needs to be better understood.

Likewise I think there needs to be an acceptance that when Irish writers have been so warmly and so thoroughly welcomed into British theatre and fiction (albeit when they write in ways that conform to some extent with expectations of what an Irish writer ought to do), this will inevitably blur some boundaries too. We in Ireland celebrate the Booker victories and Tony Awards of people whose careers are to a great extent driven by forces in London: there is a risk in doing so that we are trying to have it both ways.

And at least Hudson has admitted the mistake and tried to correct it.

Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, Faust and post-Celtic Tiger literature

I recently finished reading Claire Kilroy’s very enjoyable novel The Devil I Know. It’s a satire about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, narrated by a man called Tristram and written as a testimony to a tribunal taking place shortly before Easter 2016.

One of the things that makes the book so enjoyable is that there’s a strong Faustian element to the story. Tristram finds himself back in Ireland after many years away, and reluctantly joins forces with a cute hoor property developer, in order to construct luxury apartments and a hotel in Howth – sometime shortly before the bust in 2008. He does so under the instructions of his AA sponsor and boss, the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, who only ever contacts him  by phone. Tristram soon realises that his boss may not have entirely benign motivations (and realises also that he may be mispronouncing the first syllable in his boss’s surname – “deh, not doh”). The crash comes, and – of course – everything goes to hell.

The inclusion of a satanic character – who is mostly off-stage during the novel but who exerts plenty of influence anyway – owes something to Flann O’Brien, I think. But for some time I’ve been very interested in answering a question that this book gives rise to: why is it that so many Irish writers who set out to tackle the Celtic Tiger do so by writing about people who sell their souls to the devil? Two of the best examples of this trend are Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, two plays that were actually written before the boom came to an end (I’ve written an academic journal article about both and it is online here). And internationally I’ve read countless articles that describe the credit-fuelled bubble that burst in 2008 as having occurred because people “sold their souls to the devil” – metaphorically, of course.

It’s interesting that the metaphor has such currency these days. I’m writing a book about this at the moment, so don’t want to go into too much detail (if I start I won’t stop) – but the Faust story has two elements that seem relevant nowadays. The first is that the Faust story conveys the idea of how wrong it is to apply a material value to something that should never be sold: this can be our ‘soul’ or it can also be things that we should value for their intrinsic worth such as love, national character,  loyalty to a cause, family relationships, or something similarly abstract but essential. For example, in Ireland, many people say that we ‘sold our soul’ by losing touch with many of the things that made us distinctively Irish, such as hospitality, humility, and generosity to others (I’m not saying that I agree with this – just noting that this point has often been made).

And the second is the idea that when you strike a deal with the devil, you will always regret it once the reckoning falls due. Much of the writing about the banking crisis focusses on this aspect of the Faust story.

I see a lot of different explorations of both of those ideas in popular culture at the moment – from things like Public Enemy’s brilliant album title How Do you Sell Soul to A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul to the growing number of TV characters who have (in some way) sold their soul, of whom the best example is, I think, Walter White from Breaking Bad.

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Anyway, I’ll have more to say about that in about two years when I get this book I’m writing finished….

But Kilroy’s novel is very good. When I started reading it, it reminded me a lot of John Banville, since it’s a first person narrative, delivered by an erudite and slightly snobbish Irishman who has fallen on hard times. So it seemed slightly influenced by The Book of Evidence (still his best novel, I think), and I wasn’t surprised to realise that Banville has written a blurb for the front cover of the book.

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However Kilroy’s novel soon takes up territory that is distinctive and fresh. The characterisation of property developers and politicians is well handled: the already overused phrases about the Celtic Tiger (“we all partied”, “the fundamentals are sound going forward”) do appear, but they’re placed in such a grotesque framework that the shots don’t feel cheap. Kilroy’s greatest achievement here is to write a book that features ghosts, the devil, resurrections from death, and similarly fantastical events – yet it is the real occurrences from the last days of the Celtic Tiger that seem unbelievable. So the most exciting thing about this novel is that the moments that place most strain on your suspension of disbelief are the ones that Kilroy isn’t actually making up. I can’t think of a better way of satirising the Celtic Tiger period than by showing how  it reads like a rather predictable horror story.

I do have to confess to having a slightly negative predisposition towards the many books, tv programmes, comedy routines, newspaper columns, and plays that are now satirising the Celtic Tiger. Many of them are in their own way very good – but I think the effect of such work can often be to confirm what we already know while creating the impression that the author is bravely attacking the status quo.

In fact though, in Ireland, the new status quo is that the old status quo was very bad. It’s not true that “we all partied”, but from watching or reading a lot of that work, I think that we in Ireland are now in danger of perpetuating the myth that the entire Celtic Tiger bubble was caused by Someone Else: property developers, bankers, politicians, public servants, Angela Merkel – take your pick: but It Wasn’t Me.

That’s not to say that the post-Celtic Tiger material that’s being written is bad – far from it. Some of it’s very good: I really loved Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, for example (and don’t consider it guilty of any of the criticism I mention above). And even during the boom, there were excellent novels that sought to come to terms with the consequences of the Celtic Tiger: Keith Ridgeway’s The Parts and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies stand out, but there were others – and there were also films like The Tiger’s Tail and plays like Declan Hughes’s Shiver. All of those works set out to the challenge the orthodoxies of the boom when it was underway, and thus attempted the difficult job of confronting audiences, demanding that we ask questions about our lives and our society… But I think there’s a risk that some of the work now being produced to attack the Celtic Tiger is just confirming the dominant narrative that’s been built since 2008 – and the lack of dissent from dominant narratives was one of the problems that caused the excesses of the Celtic Tiger in the first place.

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All of this is just to say that there may be people who will dismiss The Devil I Know because they may worry that it is another one of those ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’ critiques of the Celtic Tiger. I have to admit, I wavered before buying it myself for that reason. But it’s not that kind of work at all. Its central character is a recovering alcoholic – and if the addiction to alcohol is used as a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger’s addiction to the accumulation of wealth and status symbols, the reverse is also true. I mean, that is, that this is a novel about addiction first and foremost. The Celtic Tiger is the setting and context for the story, but the novel transcends the local or, more specifically, the parochial setting to create a story that could travel widely and survive into the future.

I think this is important. One of the best books I’ve ever read about what debt does to people is Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit – while Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock can be seen as having in some ways predicted what would happen to Ireland if the country ever became rich. In other words, the most relevant works of literature are those that tell us something about human nature – rather than recreating the events of one particular epoch in one particular country.

This is not to say that The Devil I Know is in every respect perfect.  There is a very under-developed female character, whose purpose in the novel seems uncertain (another link with some of Banville’s work, perhaps). But what I most admired were the varieties of style and sensations employed. The book is very funny, for example – but it’s also quite creepy. There’s one scene in which Tristram and the property developer drive in the middle of the night to an isolated rural farm – and the novel at that point is actually quite scary: not the kind of thing you’d want to read in a dark house alone on a windy night… So it is (to use one of its own repeated words) often uncanny and unsettling.

One last thing to say about it… It runs to about 360 pages, but because the novel is written in the form of a cross-examination by a barrister, there are quite a lot of ‘chapters’ that are no longer than a single sentence. In other words, it’s much shorter than it looks – it could easily be read in a single sitting (I read it over three days) and actually merits re-reading too.

So – worth a look.

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