Celebration of Irish writing fails to thrill

by John Boland

Collection: Granta 135: New Irish Writing, Edited by Sigrid Rausing, Publisher, pbk, 256 pages, €17.99

‘Granta’ magazine’s New Irish Writing special features a ­stellar cast, but apart from a couple of evocative stories, there’s little here to showcase talent of a nation.

So what’s the current state of Irish writing and who are its most promising practitioners? Anyone seeking answers to these questions may well turn to Granta, which devotes its latest issue to just these concerns, because the magazine has previous form in spotting and highlighting literary talent.

Indeed in 1983, under the editorship of Bill Buford, it caused considerable debate among the English chattering classes when it named the 20 young British novelists to watch out for – a list that included Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker and Julian Barnes.

It repeated the same exercise 10 years later and again in 2003 (when it plumped for such names as Monica Ali, Andrew O’Hagan and Zadie Smith) and yet again three years ago – this last under the editorship of Sigrid Rausing, the 54-year-old Swedish philanthropist and publisher who bought the magazine in 2005.

It’s she who writes the introduction to this Irish issue, which was launched at the Cúirt writers’ festival in Galway and which has also been celebrated with readings in London and Paris, further readings to take place next week in New York and Harvard.

A big celebration, then, though Rausing’s two-page introduction suggests she’s not entirely clear what she’s celebrating. Scholars and pundits have spent centuries trying and failing to define the elusive nature of Irish writing, and Rausing is no more successful. She speaks of “a sense of displacement” and of the Irish writer’s ability to capture “the inflections of various dialects” but the same could be said about the literature of most, if not all, countries.

More pertinent is her observation that Irish writers are closer both to America and to Europe than British writers tend to be, but the noting of such affinities has long been made about Irish people in general, whether writers or not.

“We did worry,” she says, that the issue’s three photo-essay sections might seem “objectifying”, though “stereotypical” seems more appropriate for portraits of what she terms “the rough youth; the sectarianism in the north; the beauty of the Travellers”. Yet she justifies them by simply declaring that “Ireland is Ireland”, which doesn’t make them any less clichéd, though at least red-haired, freckled children aren’t in every photograph.

Fiction dominates the written contents, with 13 stories by as many writers, one essay, and a poem each by three poets. What’s the point of including just three poems? And what happened to Patrick Kavanagh’s standing army of 10,000 poets? (Actually, a goodly number of them feature in the latest edition of Poetry Ireland Review, which devotes itself to 36 emerging Irish poets and is only let down by a questionnaire put to each of them that takes up far too much space and has too many silly questions).

A few of these Granta fiction writers were unfamiliar to me, while others are well established names, including Colm Tóibín, Emma Donoghue, Donal Ryan, Belinda McKeon, Kevin Barry and Roddy Doyle. However, you won’t find such other well-known names as Anne Enright, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Eimear McBride, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Patrick McCabe, Colum McCann or Edna O’Brien, and it would be interesting to learn the reason for their absences.

The issue begins with perhaps its most arresting and satisfying piece, a memoir by Kevin Barry about the years he spent in Cork city as a young man. When he arrived there in 1992, it was “noticeably on its uppers”, though “this did the place no harm at all”. Indeed, it had become “a city ideal for creatives”, with pubs “nearly full in daylight” and with a local pool hall that was “a finishing school for young cannabis salesmen of unusual promise”.

The essay is so evocative of place, so funny and so shrewdly observed that I could fill this review by quoting from it, and Lucy Caldwell’s Belfast-set ‘Here We Are’ is just as evocative, while telling a coming-of-age story that’s suffused with real tenderness and poignancy.

‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney (who’s working on her first novel) has a similarly wistful sense of transience in its tale of an unusual transatlantic relationship that mingles deep friendship and suppressed desire; while John Connell’s ‘The Birds of June’, which concerns a nurse who works in a rural home for the elderly, shows that there’s still a place in Irish writing for the old-fashioned well-crafted tale if it’s done as well as it is here.

By the volume’s end, though, the reader may be left wondering what exactly the editor is trying to showcase in her selection. There’s a fine Berlin-set story by Colm Tóibín, but it’s just as predictably elegant and thoughtful as you’d expect from this writer. Colin Barrett’s ‘The Visitor’, for its part, is in the bleakly brutal mode that made his name, while Donal Ryan’s ‘All We Shall Know’ treads very familiar Ryan territory.

So is this “new” Irish writing? Well, it’s new in the sense that none of its contents has been published before, but there’s little here that really leaps off the page and nothing that has a genuine shock of the new – the kind of thrill that has you wondering why you’ve never before heard of the remarkable talent whose story you’ve just finished.

Instead, you’ll encounter an obtuse tale of communal heartlessness from Belinda McKeon, a not very interesting historical imagining by Emma Donoghue, and a school story from Roddy Doyle that shows he hasn’t lost his observational touch. And then there are those three lonely poems. What’s that all about?

Towards the end of her introduction, Rausing tells us that Irish writers “have a wealth of religious and revolutionary codes and cadences to draw from”, as if that’s not also true of Spanish or French or Italian or Argentinian writers, and so finally all she can come up with is that vaguest of assertions: “There is something about Irish writing that really is exceptional”.

A pity, then, that there’s so little exceptional writing in this Granta issue.

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