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The Judas Kiss: Treason and Betrayal in Six Modern Irish Novels. Gerry Smyth. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 248. $105.00 (cloth).

The study of betrayal seems to be a growth industry. Gerry Smyth’s Judas Kiss is a worthy addition to a critical literature—including Kristina Mendecino and Betiel Wasihun’s Playing False (2013), James Heffernan’s Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature (2014), and my own forthcoming Joycean Betrayal—that has increasingly recognized betrayal as not merely a recurring theme but as a fundamental part of the way we think (and write) our relation to those around us. This near universality is, of course, both a boon and a burden to any academic study, and at times The Judas Kiss is caught between two desires: to explore betrayal in its most general and in its most specific formations. So though Smyth explores betrayal specifically in the “modern Irish novel,” the book is framed by an awareness that “Betrayal is everywhere: in the books we read, the films we watch and the music to which we listen” (14). If betrayal is indeed “everywhere,” then the process of selecting and refining the contents of any book on betrayal is necessarily fraught. Smyth’s subtitle announces his intentions cautiously: rather than the potentially hubristic “Treason and Betrayal in the Modern Irish Novel,” he chooses the more literally descriptive “Treason and Betrayal in Six Modern Irish Novels.” But despite the title, the author is not at all reticent to tackle the bigger questions.

Smyth sets his stall out clearly and early: “I want to reject at the outset the idea of some kind of inherent Irish proclivity for or susceptibility to treachery” (3). This is an obvious point, but one that nevertheless needed making. Irish history really does appear at times to be unusually rife with accounts of treachery and betrayal, and any commentator needs to carefully consider what has caused this particular narrative to accumulate. Smyth, at least, reads the role of betrayal in Irish history as partly self-selecting (Irish history is full of betrayal because, from early on, it was being read and written with betrayal in mind) and as partly a response to the unusual (though by no means exceptional), real-life range of opportunities for treachery in Ireland’s complex history. In this sense, this book is, without ever really saying so directly, a postcolonial critique, since it is specifically Ireland’s history of colonial occupation and subjugation that drives the kind of split loyalties on which betrayal thrives.

Few, I imagine, would be eager to disagree with this basic approach, though I wonder whether more time could have been spent considering the implications of the opposite argument. Smyth briskly (and rightly) dismisses as a “propagandist” Gerald of Wales, who wrote in 1185 that the Irish “above all other peoples … always practice treachery” (3). Yet for very different reasons James Joyce makes essentially this same argument repeatedly in his fiction and non-fiction, suggesting memorably in “Fenianism: The Last Fenian” that “in Ireland … an informer always appears.”1 However, the key point is that regardless of any spurious racial or cultural propensity to “break oaths,” Irish history, with its “faction and strife,” is a “context primed for deception.” The argument, simply put, is that a history of suppression, of mixed and competing loyalties constantly redrawn, of disappointingly regular failures, is bound to take something that is implicit in communal life—betrayal—and make it an unusually constituent part of that history. Smyth’s point is not so far removed from those made by Seamus Deane, who has depicted Irish history as an “inescapable category,” as something that “happened to” the Irish subject in an endlessly repeating series of re-enactments of violence, disappointment, and suffering—a “nightmare,” as Stephen Dedalus would have it, from which one must try to awake. Irish culture, in its broadest sense, can be seen to return repeatedly to betrayal as one particularly appropriate way to express this experience of powerlessness and fatigue. The fatigue of a nation of people for whom, in Deane’s terms, history is synonymous with “usurpation, deceit, self-cancellation.”2 [End Page 270]

Smyth’s model for making this connection can perhaps best be seen in his account of James Stephens’s Deirdre, not included among the six novels of the title but as part of a preparatory “case study in Irish betrayal.” Smyth closely and convincingly ties this 1923 retelling of an old Irish tale to the “questions of sovereignty, authority and loyalty” thrown up by the Treaty negotiations that dominated the early 1920s: those “competing accounts of authority and morality, each of which regarded the other as in some way and to some degree traitorous in relation to its own narrative.” This was, Smyth contends, simply “part of the fabric of Irish life” at this time (64–65). Throughout he argues, I think, that while Irish writers keep coming back to betrayal, the specific contexts of their treatments cannot be set aside. Betrayal perpetually returns in new and pressing ways. Whatever enduring cultural legacy might be explored or voiced in these works, these are also responses to specific and traceable betrayals alive at various times in Ireland.

Following this “case study” are chapter-length accounts of: Joyce’s Ulysses (1922); Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925); Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949); Francis Stuart’s Black List, Section H (1949); Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales (1971); and Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007). While most readers will I’m sure be aware of Joyce, Bowen, and Enright, those less familiar with Irish literature may not know Liam O’Flaherty’s and Francis Stuart’s works in depth. These readers will find this book an excellent introduction not only to the texts but also their authors, since Smyth offers a detailed biographical and political background to both. Indeed Smyth’s method throughout is to preface his textual analysis with an outline of the relevant biographical, historical, and political contexts. This approach won’t appeal to all readers, despite its obvious merits: it makes the material accessible to a non-expert readership (Smyth even titles his sections programmatically: for example, “Historical Context,” “Literary and Cultural Contexts,” etc.), but it might grate for those who come to the book looking for a more in-depth scholarly consideration of betrayal in the chosen works.

This may particularly be the case in relation to the chapter on Joyce. Despite its promising title, “Trust Not Appearances: James Joyce’s Ulysses,” less than half of chapter 3 is dedicated to an analysis of Joyce’s novel; Smyth spends the rest rapidly moving through the majority of Joyce’s oeuvre and certain key biographical moments. As a result, the chapter tends to stress Joyce’s “pathological obsession” with betrayal at the expense of other important aspects of what might be considered his “master theme.” Thus, although Smyth offers some excellent examples of how Joyce responds to and manipulates certain moments of treachery in Irish history, he fails to show what determines the relevance of these particular examples over others. The slippage between the catchall term “betrayal” and the more specific notions of “treachery” and “adultery” (the latter marks the focus of Smyth’s discussion of Ulysses) also isn’t fully acknowledged. Certainly adultery is most often represented as a kind of betrayal, but Joyce’s work radically questions what precisely, if anything, constitutes this betrayal. For Joyce, it is not only a matter of the what but also of the where, the when, the who, and the why. Smyth’s chapter structurally occludes these discussions, and at times this works against the kind of insight he offers elsewhere.

This book is at its best when it observes betrayal as a narrative that is particularly available and compelling for Irish writers. In seeking to open betrayal out, there is a corresponding loss of specificity about exactly what the word means. This is liberating in many ways, but also results in a looseness of terminology throughout. The question of what we can reasonably call betrayal—or at least how each of these writers would have conceived of betrayal—could have been more clearly asked and answered.

A better example of Smyth’s contribution appears in his discussion of Enright’s The Gathering, which he persuasively relates not only to the emergence in the 1980s and ‘90s of more and more damning evidence of “clerical turpitude—and the extent of the Church’s attempts to keep that condition secret”—but to the broken promises of the “Celtic Tiger.” These two contexts alone seem sufficient to fuel at least one monograph on the development of the “Modern Irish Novel,” where the meaning of “modern” comes to approximate “post-crisis,” whether religious [End Page 271] or economic. And this is, after all, the greatest compliment that one can pay a book: that it opens the way to further thinking. I certainly hope that this book initiates the kind of wide-scale reconsideration of the role of betrayal in Irish culture (and beyond), the potential richness of which Smyth proves in Judas Kiss.

James Alexander Fraser
University of East Anglia

Notes

1. James Joyce, The Critical Writings of James Joyce, ed. Ellsworth Mason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 190.

2. Seamus Deane, introduction to Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), xlii. [End Page 272]