- Modernism, Ireland, and Civil War
With anchoring chapters on Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett, Nicholas Allen's latest book is one of the few entirely original, archive-based scholarly studies in the field of modern Irish literature and culture. Following on the success of Allen's pioneering study of A. E., George Russell and the New Ireland (2003), this new collection of essays is an attentive, thoughtful discussion of the implications of all that the Irish archive has to offer modernist studies. Allen has an eye for the occluded, the details others overlook, the marginal notes in the Spengler tome in the famous poet's library, for example, or the telling newspaper cutting left in the famous artist's copy of Murphy. Because he has taken a great deal of time to patiently explore private libraries, manuscript rooms, and rare book collections, Allen's command of the Irish archive is extensive. Further, he is the kind of thinker who can point out the exact Dublin vantage point of a rough sketch in Jack Yeats's obscure personal sketchbook, for example, or who can quote Proust chiding a visitor for asking about his work when all Proust thought interesting was the current Irish republican Lord Mayor of Cork on hunger strike. Allen is a meticulous archive scholar committed to calling attention to telling details, inserting them into the larger arguments in the field, and bringing the force of the overlooked, unheard, unnoticed, and voiceless to bear on the modernist canon and how it is read.
That voice tends, in this volume, to be republican and dissident. To be precise, Allen introduces his readers to what is best termed the Irish republican archive. It is fleeting, marginal, underground, and dissident in character, incredibly rich in unexplored elements, and documents a far longer and far richer tradition than most had taken the time to notice. Take, for example, Allen's stunning reading of [End Page 412] James Joyce's Finnegans Wake in his chapter "Irregular Joyce." The "irregular" in the chapter title refers to the dissident Irish republicans who took up arms against the Irish Free State in 1922 and began the Irish Civil War; but it also carries a pun within it, given the extraordinarily odd nature of Joyce's last volume. Both the IRA and Finnegans Wake signal the incomplete, provisional, and contested status of the new state, and are signs of their times, according to Allen's reading.
Grounded in notebooks in which Joyce jotted down phrases, Allen's argument traces out several references Finnegans Wake makes to the Civil War, a war which started in a contest over language—the wording of a treaty with the British, the oath it obliged Irish parliament members to take to the King, and so forth—Allen's argument is summed up as follows: Finnegans Wake is "an improvising set of responses to the present that take their precedence from previous literary forms and figures." He explains:
The hyper-reference to previous literary writers and their works is evidence of Joyce's genius. It suggests too the connection between the text's particular moment and the wider project of modernism. Joyce's grand scheme, with its warring opposites, its conflicting testimonies and furious linguistic blurring, both registers and readjusts the experience of civil war, partition and state formation. The Wake's intertextuality is a constitutive strategy that keeps argument open.(34)
Only a handful of critics in the vast Joyce critical industry have produced scholarship on the politics of Finnegans Wake, mostly in fleeting, speculative essays or book chapters. Allen's is the first to solidly ground the novel in its primary political context.
The fact that Allen masterfully negotiates the politics of what is perhaps the most difficult novel in the Irish canon (if not the English language) in his first single-author chapter is a signal to the reader to expect the best from the rest. Finnegans Wake is a hard act to follow. What comes next, however, is easily as fascinating. In a chapter dedicated to underground cabarets, informal gatherings of intellectuals, and...