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The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 379-382 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0071

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It is curious that so few Joyceans are inspired by their interest in Joyce to read many other novels by Irish writers. A Joyce scholar researching the cultural context of Ulysses is more likely to look at Revivalist poetry or drama or even at The Freeman’s Journal or Titbits than to compare Joyce to other Irish novelists. Joyceans are possibly most drawn to Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien. Of course, Beckett and O’Brien are among the small number of Irish writers who respond to Joyce’s transformation of both the forms of realist fiction and the literary representation of Ireland—although usually only Beckett is regarded as having gotten beyond the position of disciple or imitator. Nor are international admirers of Joyce alone in this estimate of the Irish novel; many Irish critics imply that no other Irish novelist is particularly important. As Adrian Frazier puts it in his essay on “Irish Modernisms, 1880–1930,” “[e]verything that came before, and everything that came after, is small compared to the weight of one great novel, ‘Stately, plump’ Ulysses, the sacred book of modern fiction” (129). It can be argued that George Moore anticipated Joyce’s adaptation of modes of European naturalism to Irish fiction or that Gerald O’Donovan produced a Catholic bildungsroman that prefigures A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,1 but accounts of these influences or parallels may appear to be motivated by a wish to reduce Joyce’s achievement to more manageable proportions. Equally, the adjective “Joycean” is sometimes applied to any contemporary Irish novel that breaks out of the conventions of the rather narrow, grim social realism so characteristic of twentieth-century Irish fiction—and sometimes even to novels that do not.

The Irish novel, as a distinct genre, is generally taken to be about two hundred years old. Just as nineteenth-century novelists often complained that Ireland was too factionalized, turbulent, or primitive to lend itself well to the protocols of English literary realism, so novelists in independent Ireland lamented that their society was too narrow, stagnant, or repressive to produce good novels at all. As John Wilson Foster notes in his introduction, several of these mid-century writers, including Seán O’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, excelled in the form of the short story (17).2 Nevertheless, they continued to blame the country, rather than themselves, for the small scale of their literary ambitions.

Irish literary historians have tended not to be specialized Joyceans. To this day, Irish critics have produced few monographs on Joyce. Indeed, Joyce may be as much of an inhibiting presence for critics of the Irish novel as he seems to have become for some later Irish writers. In this serviceable but somewhat unadventurous The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel, Bruce Stewart’s essay “James Joyce” at least makes due acknowledgement of Ernest Boyd and Vivian Mercier—two often overlooked early contributors to what we might call Irish Joyce Studies (141).3 But while Stewart’s essay shows that it is impossible to make much headway with the question of the “Irishness” of “Irish modernism” without at least alluding to the themes of linguistic colonialism or uneven economic development, he makes no reference to the critics associated with Marxism and postcolonialism who have done so much to energize and extend debates on Irish culture over the last two decades or so. In fact, it falls to some of the essayists who are discussing far less well-known and critically celebrated early Irish novels, such as Aileen Douglas, Miranda Burgess, Vera Kreilkamp, and especially Siobhán Kilfeather, to show how key studies of Irish culture by Terry Eagleton, Seamus Deane, and David Lloyd may not only illuminate the works of individual authors but also help us to track the emergence and development of particular literary tropes and conventions over several centuries.4 Kilfeather examines the aesthetics and politics of the Gothic mode in relation to gender, religion, and rebellion and also considers the strange afterlife of the Gothic in contemporary Irish fiction. Such an approach might well have served as a model for this volume as a whole, rather than the author...



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