Young Irelanders, the name of this new anthology of short stories, is well titled with its echoes of the 1848 rebellion in famine-ravaged Ireland. In this year, a group of romantic nationalists and intellectuals heavily influenced by events in France and the broader continent made a stab at liberty from the crown. This reference is obviously intentional by editor Dave Lordan, who, in this exciting anthology, gives voice to the writers of the New Ireland, whose influences and scope extend far beyond the old literary guard, who, according to Lordan, wrote in a ‘melancholy naturalist mode.’
The renaissance of the short story form in Ireland in recent years is due perhaps to the popularity of M.A. courses in creative writing, and the emergence of world-class journals both online and in print, including the likes of gorse, The Penny Dreadful and The Stinging Fly. These lit-mags have provided a nurturing home for many emerging fiction writers, and acted as launch pads for writers such as Kevin Barry, Rob Doyle and Colin Barrett.
Anne Enright in her introduction to the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2010) writes that short stories are ‘the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little self-contained.’ The cats in this anthology are a new breed of feline, screeching, feral and howling at times, as in Alan McMonagle’s outstanding story The Remarks; purring enigmatically à la Claire–Louise Bennett’s Oyster, and warring love cats in Rob Doyle’s experimental story Summer.
This anthology, carefully curated by Dave Lordan, is a delight, all twelve stories written by true disciples of literary New Ireland. Sean Ó Faoláin famously said that the things he likes to find in a story are ‘punch and poetry.’ In this collection the punch flows like the poteen in McMonagle’s story, and the poetry is lush and poignant in the prose of Bennett and Roisín O’Donnell.
Ireland has undergone seismic changes over the past decade and these profound cultural changes in our society are reflected in the dazzling prose and imaginative prowess of these authors. This anthology is a literary exposition of the state of our nation, one no longer constrained by conservative Catholic reins. This is a society embracing a new multiculture, struggling with the demands of the brave new world of social media, and reeling from the economic devastation of the past few years. This is the prose of recession not repression, an examination through the short story medium of what it means to be Irish now.
These structural changes in society are echoed by the innovative narrative framework of these stories, exemplified in the wonderful Doon by Colin Barrett and Subject by Oisín Fagan. I read them all in one sitting and let the variety of styles and voices wash over me and leave me with a vague sense of a truth glimpsed or tenuously grasped.
While the ‘melancholy’ may not be of the naturalist mode, there are certainly tears. In Alan McMonagle’s story The Remarks, the trio of bachelor flatmates cry rivers and weep inconsolably when they accidentally try some poteen-soaked bread. The bringer of the poteen to the bachelor enclave is Mary P., who tells the boys that ‘tears are the ultimate form of communication’. Later, as the trio prepare to go their separate ways, their year of self-discovery over, they decide to cry together one more time using the poteen and bread formula. One of the boys wonders where they’ll be a year later and another foretells a year of success and glamour for them all, one as a renowned musician, another a fêted dramatist and one as a celebrity chef. The tears gushed from them all then ‘as if there was no tomorrow’, flowing with existential dread and the melancholia of futile dreams.
Roisín O Donnell’s story How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps is the story of a girl from São Paulo who moves to Ireland with her boyfriend Seán and has to learn Irish in order to use her qualification as a Primary School teacher. We witness the irony of Luana trying to learn Gaeilge in a country where everyone she asks to help her retorts that they wouldn’t have a notion about Irish. Her boyfriend Seán only remembers the words for cake and sweets, cáca and milseán. Oisín Fagan’sSubject is ambitious in its exploration of what it means to be a young Irish man navigating the new millennium, “heterosexual, Caucasian, sub-bourgeois, Irish, post-peasant, empowered, lonely, distant when sober.”
This is an Ireland where there are no De Valera maidens dancing at the crossroads. In the case of Tanya in Kevin Curran’s story, Saving Tanya, a woman who gets tagged on Facebook engaged in a sex act sanguinely declares herself to be a celebrity, because in the aftermath she received one thousand friend requests. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Oyster is a poetic, surreal bath of prose from which the reader emerges with a sense of disquiet and an insight into the feelings of someone who is ‘ineffable and freakish and remote’. This startling new voice in Irish fiction nods stylistically towards Beckett and the 1950’s nouveau roman led by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
These stories also explore what it means to be Irish in a world dominated by consumer giants like Aldi and Lidl; cyber-bullying; Twitter grotesques, and pornography. Even religious archetypes like parish priests appear playing strip poker at a writers’ retreat in Eimear Ryan’s witty and resonant Retreat.
This new wave of Irish writing in the short story tradition shows the form adjusting beautifully to modern Ireland, able to convey a sense of life and reality with stylistic aplomb. The Young Irelanders rebellion of 1848 may have ended in defeat, but this anthology, exhibited with great tenacity by Dave Lordan and New Island, shows that the order is changing. The crown has landed on new heads. If this is a revolution in Irish short fiction, then vive la révolution!
The femme fatale or dangerous woman has been stalking the pages of literature and mythology since the beginning of civilisation. Even The Bible abounds with potent, poisonous and mysterious seductresses such as Delilah and Salomē, their stories of betrayal and deceit using guile and sexual allure have both enthralled and repelled for thousands of years.
Greek mythology gave life to such notable female characters as Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into swine in book 10 of The Odyssey and Medea whose story is told in a pre-Homeric ballad, the Argonautika. This niece of Circe’s is a sorceress who uses her potions and powers to help her husband Jason through many trials and adventures. When he later abandons her for Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth, Medea unleashes her revenge. This reaches its zenith with the murder of their children and she flees the scene in a dragon-pulled chariot provided by her grandfather, the Sun-God. The pantheon of vamps and fatal women runs the gamut from the powerful and sensual Egyptian queen Cleopatra to the exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari, who was arrested and shot by the French for espionage during World War 1.
These monster female figures capable of luring men to death and destruction is personified by the Greek mythological sirens, beautiful sea nymphs who lured sailors to ship wreck on treacherous rocks after listening to the sweetness of their song. Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci or The Beautiful Woman Without Pity is a ballad which again features a seductive and treacherous woman who tempts men away from the real world and then leaves them “haggard and so woe-begone” cast adrift “alone and palely loitering.”
This femme fatale as a cruel enchantress evolved further with depictions of female sirens in the hard-boiled detective fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s The Big Sleep cements the image of the femme fatale with the creation of the unforgettable Carmen Sternwood, who attempts to seduce Marlowe and murders Regan, and who Marlowe consigned to an institution “somewhere where they can handle her type, where they will keep guns and knives and fancy drinks away from her.” These simpering vixens of the noir style in both cinema and fiction were bordering on the psychotic and bristling with mental derangement.
Helen Gurley Brown famously said that “good girls go to heaven and that bad girls go everywhere”. They are certainly going everywhere in the world of publishing with the much anticipated release of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum later in the year and the best-seller status of The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. Both novels feature women unhinged by domesticity and these anti-heroines make Flaubert’s famously malcontented Emma Bovary and Thackeray’s social climbing Becky Sharpe seem benign by comparison.
The girl on the train is Rachel, an alcoholic divorcée who rides the train daily past her old London home, spying on the domestic lives that she glimpses. Hausfrau’s anti-heroine Anna is described as a train-wreck by the author who admits that although she may not be a very likeable character, it’s a compulsive read, as the reader recognizes a little sliver of herself in her, however unpalatable that may be .The new femme fatale is a hybrid of the mythological Greek seductresses with unpredictable protagonists who are the embodiment of the anti-heroine. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was first off the mark with the creation of Amy Dunne, an all-American cool girl who morphs into a scheming supreme-manipulator, a good girl gone bad, her behaviour is transgressive, duplicitous and shocking but makes for a compelling read. Thankfully there are many more of these flawed but interesting characters coming down the tracks and careening to a bookshop near you. The last word goes to Kipling with his line “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”
EDNA O BRIEN ( born on 15th December 1930)
Edna is the queen of the Irish literary bad girls. And now at 83 her stock has never been higher as she has just become the second winner of the Charleston-Chichester Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction. She has been a heroine of mine since I first got my teenage paws on a copy of the ‘Country Girls’ and a few weeks later on ‘Girls in Their Married Bliss’. These novels had attained almost mythical status amongst my schoolfriends as the banned status gave them the exotic whiff of contraband. We would thumb through these novels looking forensically for any trace of the explicit sexual content that had irked the censorship board in 1960. We were a little disappointed with the level of indecency and obscenity that had been promised by the banned book status. Our interest had been piqued at the stories of her neighbours in County Clare burning copies because of their licentious content… but it was the eighties now and we were MTV kids.
Edna became famous for giving voice to the feelings and sexual experiences of young women in the repressive theocracy of Ireland at the time. Her amazing talent as a novelist, short-story writer, poet and playwright combined with her beauty and grace and her unmistakeable voice both on and off the page made Edna a star of Sixties London.
To get a true flavour of Edna’s trajectory from country girl to chelsea girl read ‘Country Girl:a Memoir’, which is a gripping read. O’Brien spent ten years signing over her earnings to her husband Ernest Gebler, before fleeing the marriage and losing custody of her two sons for a period. O’Brien recounts taking LSD with RD Laing, hangs out with Sean Connery, has a brief affair with Robert Mitchum, holidays with Gore Vidal and dines with Brando. Edna O’ Brien is our literary Grande Dame, with her talent and charm she put the IT girl in the LITerary Bad Girl.
To listen to her sonorous tones click on the link below:
Last Saturday I attended a book lunch ran by Dubray books, Sarah Webb and Vanessa Fox O’ Loughlin in the fabulous surrounds of the Royal St.George Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire. Our table at lunch was great fun and Liz Nugent, the author of ‘Unravelling Oliver’ was an amazing hostess. Liz has burst onto the literary scene this year with her riveting psychological thriller which in emotive prose tries to unravel the complexities behind the sociopathic Oliver. Liz’s stories at the lunch were fun and great conversation flowed with the same velocity as the wine. I for one felt a little unravelled the next day but am still basking in the memories of lunch with our new literary star.
Now that the last of the summer wine has been quaffed and the first bruised cloud has appeared on the horizon, it’s time to concede the arrival of Autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is always the busiest time of year for the publishing industry, just in time for the Christmas market. This Autumn sees the publication of new novels from the heavy hitters in both British and Irish publishing. Of all years the harvest this Autumn is particularly bountiful with a succession of serious novels vying for readers attention. Some of my favourite authors have new novels out or just coming out in the next few days and short of taking a permanent duvet day, I wonder how I will read them all over the next few weeks.
1. The Dog by Joseph O’Neill – am disappointed that this fine novel didn’t make the Booker shortlist. It’s a great read for any fan of Netherland, again the themes of alienation and dislocation are explored, this time the protagonist has fled the U.S. for the glittering shores of Dubai. It’s an interesting immersion for any reader curious about the soulless civic life of Dubai, the truth behind the facade of this city in the desert sands.
2. The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis – Fans of Amis will enjoy his latest offering, his second novel exploring the Holocaust, this time Amis moves among multiple narrators to show the seemingly normal daily lives of those involved in the horror of Auschwitz. With his usual style and élan Amis creates a darkly comedic world peopled by grotesques and allows the reader to glimpse the outline of that which is beyond words.
3. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – More entertainment from Mitchell and like the acclaimed “Cloud Atlas” interweaves large, related narratives, stretching from 1984 to 2043 and brings a variety of characters alive from Holly Sykes to Crispin Hershey, a successful English writer with just a whiff of the Martin Amis about him. Read it and enjoy.
4. The Children’s Act by Ian McEwan – Read this for a peek inside the mind of Fiona Maye,a high court judge confronting both private and work-related dilemmas; a marriage crisis and a delicate legal situation involving a teenage Jehovah Witness refusing a blood transfusion to treat leukaemia. What complicates matters is that the boy is no child and is about to turn eighteen. A must read for McEwan fans.
5. Outline by Rachel Cusk – This novel which was serialised in the Paris Review is a new departure for Cusk. The narrator is a writer, a divorced mother of two boys who goes to Athens to teach a writing course and plunges straight into a very descriptive account of her first class, in which she asks each student to talk about something they noticed en route. Their anecdotes reveal the complexity of the emotional reality of their lives and the novel continues with descriptions of encounters with other people throughout the stay in Athens. There is no major plot development , no political axe to grind. Instead “Outline”, just as the narrator is rejecting a certain way of being in the world, is a new type of fiction reminiscent of the instrospecive brilliance of Virginia Woolf fused with the modern memoiristic canons by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti.
6. Shark by Will Self – A sort of a sequel to “Umbrella”, fans of Self’s stream of consciousness and modernist style will delight in this novel peopled by a cast several dozen strong. Again a vehicle to show Self’s interest in the psychopathology of everyday life, the work is dense and a must read for any Jungian or Freudian scholars.
7. Nora Webster by Colm Toibin – Lovers of Brooklyn will love this new novel by Toibin as he returns to Ireland in the late 60’s and follows the trials and triumphs of Nora Webster and her four children in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. Character and place take precedence over plot in this quiet and atmospheric novel.
8. Funny Girl by Nick Hornby – From 1960’s Ireland to 1960’s London Hornby brings us on an adventure with the intrepid Sophie Straw as she transforms from a provincial ingenue to a television starlet where behind the scenes the cast and crew are having the time of their lives. Due for publication in early November 2014 this latest novel from Hornby is predicted to be a big seller.
9. Us by David Nicholls – I was a huge fan of “One Day” and can only imagine how difficult it was for Nicholls to write the follow up. The publication of “Us” has been eagerly awaited by readers and I have just got my copy today. This novel takes us on a European tour with a mismatched couple. This is a picaresque and poignant tale of a marriage under strain, where the biochemist anti-hero Douglas Petersen undertakes an InterRailing trip across Europe with his wife Connie and teenage son Albie. The holiday becomes Doug’s last chance to win back the affections of his wife and son, a story told with affection and humour by Nicholls whose skill as a writer helps to engage the reader’s empathy with all the characters. I expect it will be top of the list at all Book Clubs this year.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
This author of the seminal feminist tome The Second Sex was an academic, philosopher, feminist and journalist, she was a trail blazer who rejected the bourgeois concept of marraige and after graduating from the Sorbonne met the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. He and de Beauvoir maintained one of the most revolutionary relationships of their time, the couple never cohabited, but remained lovers and confidantes until his death five decades later. The couple dated other people and even formed three-way relationships one of which was with a student named Olga. Simone fictionalised this experience in 1943 in the novel “L’invitee “which explore the complexity of relationships and existential ideals. Above is a picture of her derriere taken by an American photographer in Chicago in 1950. This adds to her Bad Girl appeal! Life wasn’t all coffee and philosophy and heated discussions at the famous Cafe De Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, she also had a tremendous capacity for fun. Jean-Paul and Simone remained inseparable in death and share a grave in the Montparnasse Cemetry, Paris.
De Beauvoir has always been a poster girl for poets and musicians, listen here to a very cherubic and beautiful LLoyd Cole sing the line- “she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance.
Rachel Cusk was born in Canada in 1967 and spent most of her childhood in Los Angeles and after convent school in England went to New College,Oxford to study English. I first became aware of Cusk’s work when I happened across her novel “Saving Agnes’, in 1993, and I felt like I’d found a friend. The character of Agnes seemed to speak to me as it mirrored some of life’s frustrations at that time, and the prose was elegant and witty and lush with metaphor and allusions. I was hooked and bought all her subsequent work.
Rachel wrote her book, ‘ A life’s Work : On Becoming a Mother,”in 2001 which was a powerful and often funny account of pregnancy, childbirth and mothering that doesn’t gloss over the pain, mystery and confusion of the process. She was as she is always, brutally honest. Literary reviewers loved it and one wrote that it was as compulsive a read as a thriller. However many women hated it and she became vilified by the mumsnet brigade who accused her of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed and most often of being too intellectual.
This literary Bad Girl was, as ever, unabashed by the critisism and went on to write another memoir”Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation,” a truthful account of the collapse of her marriage written with characteristic Cuskian wry humour and honesty. The critics again had a field day that someone would plough the minutae of their own life and betray confidences and relationships for Art’s sake. However this is precisely what Karl Ove Knausgaard did in his epic memoir “My Struggle”, which was unflinching in its portrayal of his marriages, his father’s descent into alcoholism and his conflicted views on fatherhood. The man was described as a literary sensation, which of course he is, in exactly the same way as Rachel is. I was privileged to have had her as a lecturer and sat rapt as she spoke. With looks reminisent of Chrissie Hynde and the intellectual agility of Virginia Wolff she is one literary Bad Girl.
Sylvia Plath ( October 27,1932- February 11, 1963
This Boston born bad girl studied at Smith College and won the opportunity to spend the Summer of 1953 as one of the guest editor’s of Mademoiselle magazine. Out of these experiences Plath wrote the modern masterpiece The Bell Jar, where her voice is channelled through the character of the main protagonist Esther Greenwood. This wry, morbid voice explores sexism in American society, modern pop culture, her mental struggles and the psychiatric profession. As a Fulbright scholar in Cambridge this emerging poet met the handsome Ted Hughes at a book launch. The intensity of their meeting makes Sylvia a queen of the Bad Girls, during their initial discourse Sylvia bit him on the cheek so hard, her teeth drew blood. This marked an almost savage and elemental aspect to their relationship, gothic in its inception and tragic in its demise. As a couple they worked and wrote, travelled to America, taught , returned to England. She had two children after a series of miscarriages and Ted had affairs. He left her for Assia Weevil after a tempestuous five years and she committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven. What remains of this girl is her legend and of course her canon of work, her poetry collection Ariel continues to be analyzed and admired decades later.Listen her:
And Ryan Adams beautiful song about her
Read this biography by the brilliant Lilian Pizzichini to get a measure of this Bad Girl with literary talent and artistic integrity. Rhys had a dreamy childhood in the lush island heat of Dominica, the daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. A colourful life included a brief stint as a chorus girl in London, a career as an artist’s model and a vagabond and bohemian existence in Paris.
Rhys had three failed marriages, was often alcoholic and destitude, economically on the edge and abandoned by caddish men. Yet it was all these hardships that made her such a great writer, Rhys distilled her experiences into the beautiful prose of books such as After Leaving Mister Mr Mackenzie(1930) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and the unforgettable Wide Saragasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.
It is a great consolation that Rhys lived to see her work attain critical acclaim and was made a CBE in 1978. The monde recognised this fragile voice of the demi-monde and bohemia, a life full of flawed humanity and fragile dreams.
No one encapsulates the allure of the Bad Girl quite like Lana Del Rey with her haunting lyrics, eyes liquid with longing and lyrics syrupy with nostalgia as she sings her breakthrough hit Video Games. Well Lana since you asked I’ll have to confess that I more than like the bad girls, I love them. My favourite are the literary ladies who kicked up a storm, lived life on their own terms and have been inspirational for generations of others. On today’s post I’ll cover four such luminaries.
Edna St Vincent Millay(1892-1950)
She was the poet who wrote First Fig which in its few short lines encapsulates her life, where she certainly burnt the candle at both ends. She wrote all sorts of transgressive poetry and plays as well as being a very skilled sonnet writer, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her fourth book, The Ballad of the Harp Weaver. She practiced what she preached and went on to have a life time of bisexual love affairs and was also an outspoken pacifist who sometimes attracted ire. Nancy Milford’s biography entitled Savage Beauty is a great read for anyone who wants to know about the extraordinary life of this poet of the Jazz age.
Dorothy Parker famously said that every morning she brushed her teeth and sharpened her tongue. As a novelist,screenwriter, poet and critic , Parker was notorious as the hard-drinking bad girl with a talent for stinging repartee and for her endlessly quotable one liners. Her poems and stories capture the spirit of the decadent Jazz age in New York, often exposing the darkness as well as the dazzle. The philosopher Irwin Edman said of Parker that her talent was the ability to “combine a heartbreak with a wisecrack.” Although married three times, in fact twice to the same man Alan Campbell, Parker’s romantic entanglements were copious and troubled and all this emotional drama surfaces in her stories. Her vulnerability behind the acerbic manner makes her the ultimate bad girl with a heart. Every book shelf should have a copy of Parker’s collected works, the Portable Dorothy Parker.
Anais Nin (1903-1977)
The author of the erotic short story collection Delta of Venus lived a life that I’ve always found scintillating and fascinating. In an open marriage in 1930’s Paris to an American banker, Nin refused to live a life limited by societal dictates. Forays into the bohemian cafes of Paris led her to Henry Miller with whom she had a very passionate affair. A love triangle developed between Henry, his wife June and Anais, which is the subject of a 1990 film Henry and June, which explores this tangled love story. Her life story is one hell of a read, bigamy, duplicity, affairs and a searing search for self-knowledge make the pages steam with bad girl chutzpah. Noel Riley Fitch’s book is a great read for anyone curious about this most singular literary woman.
Zelda Fitzgerald( July 24th 1900-March 10th, 1948)
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, born in Montgomery, Alabama was an American novelist and wife of one of my favourite authors F.Scott Fitzgerald. She was a true icon of the 20’s and the original flapper girl who bobbed her hair, drank to excess and was a huge influence on her husband’s work. Her life has enough dramatic material to fill many books and with the re-release of the Great Gatsby last year, there has been a resurgence of interest in Zelda’s life. She was an extremely gifted woman who became torn by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent, willingly consumed in a marriage marred by alcoholism, mental-health issues and jealousy. When still riding the crest of the Jazz age her exploits included dancing on table tops, diving naked into fountains and riding on the roofs of New York cabs. For me she will always be modern literature’s most famous muse, an iconic woman who was the original bad girl.
This summer I’ve noticed a batch of novels hitting the book shelves featuring modern day Bad Girls. Lena Dunham’s Girls shows the New York twenty- something dating scene with a gritty and unflinching reality, far removed from the manolos and cocktails of Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City. This trend in TV drama is also evident in some of the new books by female authors behaving badly.
Zoe Pilger’s debut Eat My Heart Out is an anti-romance featuring a 23 year old protagonist who has dropped out of university and is
holed up in a fetid Clapham houseshare. Read it and lock up your daughters!
Emma- Jane Unsworth’s second novel Animals is a story shaken and stirred by a litany of disastrous nights out and even more dodgy sexual encounters.
Bryony Gordon’s The Wrong Knickers is her memoir of a decade of decadence as a young journalist in London. As an account of Bad Girl antics it’s amusing and well worth a Summer read.