- Modernist Afterlives in Irish Literature and Culture ed. by Paige Reynolds
The title of Paige Reynolds’s collection of essays, Modernist Afterlives in Irish Literature and Culture, deftly signals the complex relations between periodization and nationality in contemporary critical discourses of modernism. The collection avoids the tendency of some recent studies to expand the definition of modernism into the latter end of the twentieth and the beginning of [End Page 427] the twenty-first centuries, opting instead to take its cue from David James and Urmila Seshagiri’s proposal to distinguish between modernism as a historically precise phenomenon and its legacies for later writers, which they term “metamodernism.” James supplies the Afterword to the collection, as indeed he contributed the keynote address to the symposium from which it derives, and locates the volume as precisely the kind of work that is required “to reconcile [the] particularist and expansionist inclinations” of modernist studies (180).
The particularism for which modernist studies has sought to account includes, evidently, the local or national forms of modernism, without studying which, as Susan Stanford Friedman memorably put it, was “like trying to hear one hand clapping.”1 In her brief introduction to the collection, Reynolds summarizes the complexity of issues surrounding the “uneven or disrupted temporalities” of Irish modernism (Modernist Afterlives, 3). On the one hand, Ireland is often figured in postcolonial terms as among the “emergent modernities” which Friedman appealed to be heard in belated expressions of modernist style (post-1950). On the other hand, with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and W. B. Yeats, one can hardly maintain that the “clapping” of Irish modernism was unheard: indeed, for that generation of Irish writers to follow in their wake—Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan—the legacy of Irish modernism threatened to smother their own creative efforts, and each in his turn satirized the emerging cult-hero worship of Joyce. One of the great strengths of this collection, however, is that the familiar names of Irish modernism are largely confined to cameo roles in the broader vision of the persistence of the modernist aesthetic and its legacies in modern and contemporary Irish writing and culture. Reynolds makes a compelling call to recognize that this legacy is neither simply a haunting presence nor an empty formalism, but that modernism has an “enduring potentiality” in Irish writing, and cites the contemporary novelists Eimear McBride and Sara Baume as examples of how “old modernist form provides women writers with a valuable new tool for the critique of abusive patriarchal structures and practices” (4).
That said, only a handful of essays in Modernist Afterlives focus on such “enduring potentiality” in contemporary literature and culture. The collection begins, in fact, with two incisive and illuminating essays—by Anne Fogarty and Lucy Collins, respectively— that explore women novelists and poets of the 1930s and 1940s, essays that challenge the relationship between feminism and modernism, and indeed the meanings of “Irish feminist modernism.” Fogarty examines this relationship, as well as the formal intricacies of the relationship between realism and modernism, through careful attention to the symbolic spaces represented in novels by Pamela Hinkson, Elizabeth Bowen, and Kathleen Coyle. Collins investigates the preoccupation with afterlives, especially in creative and literary terms, for three poets whose work has received scant attention in Irish literary history—Mary Devenport O’Neill, Rhoda Coghill, and Sheila Wingfield—and whose neglect she reads as emblematic of androcentrism in the very critical terms in which Irish modernism has been constructed and memorialized. This is also a significant theme in Ellen McWilliams’s essay on how the novelist Edna O’Brien deals, in her fictional and biographical work, with the legacies of Joyce. Perhaps a less familiar angle from which to view modernist legacies in Irish writing is taken in Leah Flack’s engaging essay on Seamus Heaney’s struggle to “discover an enabling, liberating use of memory” in modernist writing, which Flack argues that he does through the work of Osip Mandelstam (38). An unexpectedly Eliotic image of Heaney emerges from the essay, as a...