In 1928 Virginia Woolf was asked to give a lecture at Girton College, Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction. Her first line was “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction- what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”
This important feminist polemic explain the difficulties of a woman equally as gifted as Tolstoy and Shakespeare in writing great works of literature. Woolf explains that poverty and domestic shackles have always limited women’s capacity to contribute to the canon and that “women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”
Modern woman has the financial freedom not alone to write fiction, but can dictate her own reality and occupy and enjoy not only a room of her own, but an entire house of her own. She also has the power to both write and live by a narrative of her choice. She is the woman celebrated as the heroine of Destiny’s Child’s song Independent Woman. The house I live in / I’ve bought it / The car I’m driving / I’ve bought it / I depend on me.
The question of how a woman moves through the world alone is explored with bold candour by Kate Bolick in Spinster, described as a triumph by Malcolm Gladwell. This polemic for our time is a marvelous meditation on what it means to be female at the dawn of the 21st century. The cover of the book shows the author sitting on a sumptuous gold velvet sofa sipping tea from a porcelain cup. She is glamorous and smiling, the photographic antithesis of the archetypical spinster. Bolick wrote the book as she approached forty and was ruminating on whether she could spend her life alone and still be happy. Bolick states that the dual contingencies of “whom to marry, and when will it happen” impact on every woman’s life regardless of where she was raised or of her religious background, and continue to “govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”
She believes that the single woman has always been stigmatized and reviled. Social psychologist Bella DePaulo coined the word “singlism” to describe this bias and discrimination against people who are single. Bolick notes that the single woman stereotype is continually evolving and perceptions of her have fluctuated wildly over the decades. From the cat-loving spinster of the popular imagination, she can be perceived to be selfless like Florence Nightingale, a charming eccentric à la Mary Poppins or Holly Golightly or as a powerful icon as Joan Of Arc.
The author structures the book around the lives of five female authors, weaving their experiences and struggles with her own narrative path. These writers become her “awakeners”, female spirit guides didn’t conform to societal demands and proclaimed the joys of freedom from domestication. These women were all true pioneers, women who secured the freedom and range to develop lives independent of home and family. Her awakeners are the Irish writer Maeve Brennan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick’s book was inspired by her “spinster wish,” which is her shorthand for the extravagant pleasure of simply being by herself, it is a sensuous vision of solitary self-care and self indulgence.
The terrain of the modern single woman is explored with psychological depth in Other Hood by Melanie Notkin, A Life Of One’s Own by Ilana Simons and Rocking The Life Unexpected by Jody Day. These new books are blue prints for living a single life with confidence, they put a new spin on spinster and rebuff the taints of singlism. In the words of Sylvia Plath they encourage single women to take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of the heart “I am, I am, I am”.
Nobel laureates Faulkner, O’Neill, Hemingway and Steinbeck were alcoholics, as were Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Jean Rhys and many more. Anne O’Neill explores why
Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”
There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday. ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.
Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction. The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.
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.