Whether the festive season fills you with humbug or goodwill, there is a Christmas story or poem for every mood. Anne O’Neill selects 11 works that capture its spirit.
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
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.”