Tag Archives: eimear mcbride

How modernist are the contemporary modernists?

I initially began my doctorate with an investigation into a literary trend which was at that stage was already beginning to wind down, in favour of the resurgence of a critical theory inflected magical realism, which I would probably argue has now achieved hegemonic status. In and around 2014, five or so Irish and British writers, as well as their critics, were using the word ‘modernism’ to talk about their more recent work, and I’m thinking here in particular of Will Self, Eimear McBride, Anne Enright and Sara Baume. I was interested in investigating whether or not these trends could be detectable on a quantitative level and what words were indicative of the more obvious points of comparison, twentieth century modernism as compared to twenty-first century modernism, as well as the more implicit co-ordinates, such as twentieth-century realism or twenty-first century realism. For various reasons, primarily institutional, my area of study has changed quite significantly, but I feel I would be remiss if I did not in some respect answer the question I began with, now that I am actually equipped to do so from a logistical point of view. The following few paragraphs talk about the adopted method, so if you’re a stranger to some of this stuff or, like me a few years ago, you’re broadly ignorant of statistical and regression methods, feel free to skip to the results section.

Method

The first problem which confronts us in a study such as this is the definition of a baseline of modernist style, against which we can locate our contemporary modernists. Once we’ve done that, we can identify the degree to which any given text deviates from this ‘norm’. The most established means of quantifying the literary style of any given text, is to perform distance clustering on the normalised relative frequencies of a text, i.e., the percentage a particular word commands in the text’s overal length converted into z-scores. Transforming numbers into z-scores involves altering them such that their mean is 0, the standard deviation is 1, and each number basically indicates the number of standard deviations they reside from this mean. Peforming distance clustering on numerical vectors which represent novels is called the ‘Delta’ method and I talk a bit more about it and how well it works here. Below is an image of a frequency table which gives some indication of how these frequencies look.

1*6zDKHJpVOZEgVU7Csndwyw

On the far left we see author, title and date of publication and in each of the cells we see the relative frequency for seven of the most frequent words in our corpus. As we would expect, these are words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’, etc. If we look at the figure in the top left, we see that the word ‘the’ appears 3.65 times in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, whereas it appears 4.7 times in Louisa May Alcott’s A Modern Cinderella. As far as the word ‘the’ goes, then, A Modern Cinderella exists at a distance of 1.05 from Agnes Grey (4.7–3.65 = 1.05). Now imagine that this process happens for every word (5000) between every novel in the corpus (1173), divided by the total number of words we extracted (again, 5000). This is what is at the basis of Delta distance.

We have a relatively even spread of nineteenth century fiction (568) versus twentieth century fiction (605). There’s also one eighteenth century text, written by Maria Edgeworth, which I labelled as nineteenth. At an early stage I anticipated trying to divide these two categories into modernist, anti-modernist and proto-modernist as opposed to classical realist versus continuity realism, but given the current state of the discourse, wherein what was revanchist victorianism is now modernism etc., I decided not to, and to adopt time as a less contentious variable instead. Effectively then we are tracing the stylistic change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. This is a slight adjustment to the goal posts in terms of the aim of this study and reflects the assumption that what we trace when we analyse the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century will organically correspond to a modernist signal. As far as the actual contents of the corpus goes, the contents in the image above are symptomatic, I’ve gone for standard bearers of nineteenth century and twentieth century literature, whoever you can name off the top of your head I probably have in there, Woolf, Dickens, Lewis, Barnes, Joyce, Conrad, Mansfield, Stein, Wells, Kipling etc. etc. It is quite skewed towards canonical texts, but in my defense, it’s almost impossible to find digital copies of texts by non-canonical authors.

Since we are interested in the words which come into prominence from one century to the text, one potential method which were considered are t-tests, which are used in order to assess whether or not the mean difference between two numerical vectors are significant. We could loop t-tests along our data, identifying whether from the twentieth century to the nineteenth century the words ‘the’, ‘we’, ‘of’, ‘days’ or ‘thought’ increase in their relative frequencies. We would then identify the words which do manifest a significant change, whether this is an increase or a decrease. However, there are complicating factors here, not least that we don’t have an equal number of samples from the nineteenth century, which is something that t-tests would require. If we are not interested in randomly sampling the twentieth century, we would have to omit them. Large numbers of t-tests also give us back large numbers of false positives, even with a false detection algorithm applied to our results after the fact.

Regression then, seemed to provide the best chance of a result, given that we are dealing with what is effectively an either/or problem; was this novel written in a style more indicative of century a or century b? Regression is a method for investigating the relationship which exists between one variable and another variable. We might, for example, wish to investigate the relationship which exists between the age and the height of fifty people. We plot the results of our data, then we place a regression line through the data. There is a very slight upward slope here, which would seem to indicate that there is a relationship between how old you are and how tall you are.

1*AnwpqW82dwyqVnBH19r2Qg

This is a stupid example of course, but it gives an indication of what regression is supposed to do, namely, investigate the relationship between two variables and fit a line or model which offers the most robust explanation. If you look at how the data points scatter along the regression line, we can see that it makes a decent stab at predicting how 30–45% of the data falls out. It’s really wide of the mark at predicting that there is a 35 year-old in our dataset who is 3 feet tall, there is quite a significant distance there between the predicted value (4′ 10) and the actual observed value. This is called a residual. When all the residuals are summed and squared, they are referred to as the sum of the squared residuals and it is the aim of regression of this type to minimise the value of this figure as much as possible by coming as close as we possibly can to hitting as many of the observed values.

However, before throwing our data into a linear regression, we need to ask ourselves if this really suits the problem. As we can see, age is any number between 18 and 60, making it continuous, whereas our dependent variable is categorical, i.e. it is either ‘nineteenth’ or ‘twentieth’ century. This is an either/or problem, the answer is a probability between zero and one. Logistic regression is therefore the best means of approaching this problem. However again, complications remain. We have a large number of variables here (relative frequencies of about 5000 words) and we don’t know which ones are important and which ones are not. It’s relatively straightforward to regress for a categorical outcome when you have a relatively small sample of variables, but here we have a lot, all of which might be potentially interesting. If we throw thousands and thousands of variables into our logistic regression though, we will get what is referred to as an overfit model. Rather than creating a model which can capture and identify borderline cases, the corpus will separate absolutely into nineteenth and twentieth century, which sounds like it would be a good thing, but would actually result in an overly rigid template unfit to make actual judgements. Therefore we attenuate the influence of particular variables, reducing their value across the board to the same extent; this is called regularisation and the amount by which we regularise each variable is arrived at, again, by minimising the sum of the squared residuals and is embodied in the value attached to our lambda value.

Results

A lot of what I’ve been describing in the previous pararaph functions, for the most part, in the backend of R, most statistical libraries that carry out regularised regressions contain standard implementations. So, this is the type that we use, a cross-validated model obtained from glmnet, such that each variable is made regular according to what minimises our residuals. We can then extract the most significant predictors, the words which are best suited to identifying a text written in the nineteenth century as opposed to the twentieth. Initially we tried to use the predict() function, which would provide us with a figure between zero and one which would give us the certainty of a particular judgement. We would then correlate this vector of numbers with our word frequencies and identify which words are most closely correlated with relative certainty. Unfortunately in this instance there were no high effect sizes, so we looked at our co-efficients given optimal lambda; lambda which reduces the sum of the squared errors. Now, on some level we should be wary of these co-efficients, these are selected almost at random in order to explain the most data variation, but they’re better than nothing and furthermore interesting from the perpspective of content.

It is interesting to note first of all, just how parsimonious this model is; cv.glmnet() manages to reduce us down to just 138 words as opposed to the 5000 we present to the model. Secondly, it is interesting to note that there are far more predictors for the nineteenth century (82) as opposed to the twentieth (56). This suggests that the nineteenth century possesses a far more coherent style, whereas the twentieth century is obviously pulling in too many heterogenous directions to be summarised to the same extent. Before we talk about them in detail, in roughly descending order of importance, I’ll readily admit that yes, how we interpret these can vary, some nouns are verbs, some verbs are nouns, some are both and separating one for the other has everything to do with context, there are broad generalisations here on offer, but this seems to me to be both the fundamental hazard as well as the asset of CLS in general.

The nineteenth century vocabulary breaks down into a few different categories, the first are words to do with emotions, the overwhelming majority of which seem to be on the negative end, between ‘vexation’ , ‘reproach’, ‘despair’ ‘dismal’, ‘misfortune’, ‘sorrow’, ‘spite’ and ‘tears’, only ‘delight’ represents an exception to this rule.

Present-tense verbs, the sort of things most characters in these novels find themselves doing are difficult to synthesise but all seem within the realm of what people in novels spend most of their time doing: ‘entering’, ‘declaring’, ‘noticing’, ‘pointing’, ‘throwing’. We also have the infinitives of ‘resist’, ‘tread’, ‘wish’, ‘allow’, ‘deceive’, ‘fetch’, ‘comprehend’ , ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘lend’ and ‘induce’, all of which seem to suggest the general traffic of social interaction and interchange.

We have some past tense verbs including ‘proposed’, ‘treated’, ‘obtained’, ‘seated’, ‘ascended’, ‘fastened’, ‘obliged’, ‘expressed’, ‘consented’, ‘fancied’, ‘quitted’, ‘cried’, ‘accompanied’, ‘returned’, ‘took’, ‘darted’, ‘promised’ and ‘taken’. We also have ‘retired’, which I found very satisfying, being as it is within the realm of the sorts of verbs Joyce uses in his parodies of nineteenth century writing.

The nouns on offer in nineteenth century writing seem to vary slightly, breaking down into vague references to the immediate environment, with words such as ‘heap’, ‘circumstances’, ‘particulars’, ‘companion(s)’, as well as more clear references to social contracts and milieu ‘occupation’, ‘character’, ‘account’, ‘intellect’, ‘deal’, ‘manner’, ‘fortune’, ‘heir’, ‘prospects’ , ‘promises’ and ‘present.’ The adjectives break down into good: ‘earnest’, ‘good-natured’ and ‘respectable’ against bad: ‘low’. We also see a few more abstract or idealistic nouns associated with otherworldly values such as ‘temptation’.

Nouns to the fore in the twentieth century are far more concrete and seem to foreground a commodity economy, with the nouns less significant and opening up less to broader values with ‘moustache’, ‘electric’, ‘apple’, ‘hat’, ‘chimney’ and ‘wire’. More abstract tendencies are manifested in words like ‘jesus’, ‘adventure’, ‘problem’, ‘response’, ‘comment’, ‘personality’ and ‘humour’ and ‘vision’.

Present-tense verbs drop off quite significantly, and those that remain are far less active in any sense, we get far less moving around in an environment and much more in the way of ‘wearing’ and ‘slipping’. ‘Whistle’ also appears. Past tense verbs like ‘picked’, ‘faced’, ‘slipped’, ‘smiled’, ‘sighed’, ‘protested’, ‘knew’, ‘realised’, all emphasise social interchange, but also seem to point more towards a bit more of an inward focalisation.

Colloquial words like ‘anyhow’, ‘weren’t’ and ‘aren’t’ seem to be predictors here, as well as adjectives which are far more toned down aside from ‘amazing’, which is the exception, we have ‘normal’, ‘decent’, ‘grey’, ‘responsible’, ‘main’, ‘quality’ and ‘different’.

Finally, we have words which make overt references to the passing of time, such as ‘dusk’, ‘later’, ‘latest’ ‘afternoon’ and ‘spring’.

Grouping all these findings impressionistically, it would seem as though twentieth century literature can be defined i) by its attenuated affect, ii) more of an interior disposition iii) a movement away from physical action, iv) a concurrent movement away from the material facts of social relations in toto in favour of their symptoms in the form of a commodities, v) the introduction of colloquial language.

Some of these trends in macro detail on the barplot below:

1*QQoLs3QG5I3FlO-SoOwqzg

We then used this model trained in order to prise nineteenth and twentieth century literature apart on the contemporary modernists, the complete works of Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Will Self and Sara Baume (at time of writing) were presented to the model. Now, some of you may have noticed the problem with this approach. We have trained the model to differentiate nineteenth century fiction from twentieth, and therefore it’s hardly well set up to differentiate twenty-first century fiction influenced by modernism from twenty-first century fiction not influenced by modernism. It’s a fair point, and if I were writing my thesis on this subject, training a proper model would be what I was doing here. However, I’m not committing as much of a statistical no-no as might at first be thought. For instance, a key part of my analysis of this modernist resurgence has to do with its status as a revanchist, rather than a revolutionary, modernism. And I do mean this more particularly for Will Self and some of Eimear McBride’s most well-placed, and misinformed, critics, these are the only ones truly on record as saying ‘this is modernism’ ad nauseum. Take Self’s observation that post-modernism offers no classicism from which a truly novel aesthetic can be formulated. This is not an aesthetic which emerges concurrently with a period of social and political revolution which affords some degree of insight into the newly emergent bourgeois individual in the proletarianised urban environment, rather it attempts to scoop up the literary prestige associated with modernist literature, understood as Woolf, Joyce and one or two others, the hegemonic criterion by which literature departments, publishers and literary monthlies assess ‘worth’ and sell it back to you wholesale against YA, Netflix or whatever else it is you have to set yourself against in order to be a serious reader.

I expected that the passage of time would fill the gap and that all these novels would be judged as modernist, but in fact the opposite happened; only Anne Enright’s novel What Are You Like? came back as such. Trying to find out why this was the case, we used glmnet’s predict() function, which gives us a figure between 0 and 1 indicating the level of certainty one way or the other. We then correlated this figure with all the word frequencies we have, in order to identify where this certainty that all the contemporary modernists, are in fact quite traditional in their approach, originates.

Words which were decisive in identifying these texts as nineteenth century in the overwhelming majority of cases include their use of past tense verbs such as ‘walked’, ‘opened’, ‘married’, ‘tried’, ‘liked’, ‘talked’, ‘watched’, ‘decided’, ‘kissed’, ‘lifted’, ‘pushed’, ‘stayed’, ‘slept’, ‘slipped’, ‘ate’, ‘wiped’ and ‘spoiled’.

Adjectives like ‘easy’, ‘middle’, ‘clever’, ‘ordinary’, ‘foolish’, ‘fierce’, ‘sober’, and ‘irish’, pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘herself’ and finally, nouns like ‘side’, ‘dress’, ‘floor’, ‘sorrow’, ‘blame’, ‘cloth’, ‘veil’, ‘rail’ and ‘treasure’.

In conclusion then, we might say that contemporary modernism in fact fails to embody modernism’s stylistic disposition in a key number of ways and in fact harkens back to a pre-modernist stylistic tendency in its investment in action verbs in the past tense. The relative abscence of modern also technology seems to be a feature here too and a more pronounced affective turn also seems to undermine these novels in their aspiration, real or formulated, towards a modernist aesthetic. It is finally interesting to reflect a bit on What Are You Like?, within Enright’s career it reflects a crux from the magical realism of her short stories and The Wig my Father Wore more towards quite an affectless reflection on identity and psychology. I’ll update this post with more examples once I have a copy of the book to hand, for the moment you’ll just have to trust me on that. Interesting to note as well, that towards the end of the novel the main characters’ mother delivers a soliloquoy from hell in a way quite reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, an encouraging parallel within a study of this kind.

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.

Collocations in Modernist Prose

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 14.51.47I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

The Political Economy of the New Modernists

 

0_f8f35a66-5c0f-4e93-bd4d-aecc410e5ba7

A few weeks ago I saw the inaugural event of the Dublin Book Festival, which was a panel discussion between the novelists Anne Enright, Lisa McInerney and the poet Pat Boran. They were speaking on the publication of a book entitled Beyond the Centre, a collection of 26 essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Irish Writer’s Centre, from the perspective of various figures from within Dublin’s literary scene. It was a great panel, and Seán Rocks did one of the best jobs as a moderator that I can recall seeing. Enright was caustic and witty, going off on how The Irish Times will commission hundreds of articles by female writers about being a woman watching the US election, but none about policy, how she doesn’t think men have a gender, and her recollections of the younger writers of her generation being shunted into the backs of vans at the start of their careers while the Johns Banville and McGahern were driven around in limos.

As someone writing a doctorate which involves an analysis of Enright’s fiction, I was hoping that the things she said would stray into areas pertinent to my work. I knew she was unlikely to talk about quantitative analysis, and the sorts of things that my dissertation will actually be pivoting around, but if at all possible I hope to cram some stuff about the socio-economic milieu that the new modernists come out of, into my dissertation, as a refutation to the infuriating yet pervasive canard of industrialisation + world war = first-wave modernism.

Enright obliged, and I got a substantial amount of notes on how the currently established generation of authors got a leg up early in their careers from a cultural exchange in the nineties arranged by the then Irish and French presidents, Mary Robinson and François Mitterand. Enright has written in the past on what it was like to live in the Ireland of the 80’s, with the intensifying contradictions between the Republic of McQuaid, with its laws against suicide, contraception, homosexuality, and the newly globalised, open to foreign investment Ireland, beginning to become apparent in our public discourse.

As Diarmaid Ferriter writes in his book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970’s, these signs of ‘increased modernisation, secularisation, Europeanisation and consumerism have to be placed in the context of a republic that…had ultimately created a conservative, authoritarian governing culture, that…created a very wide definition of dissent’. There is in this quotation, a nuanced and useful reading of these two different Irelands in tandem with one another, rather than as divergent. Too often in cultural studies of Ireland, I’m made aware of the phenomenon of the ‘time warp,’ and the ways in which parts of the Irish political landscape seem to be rooted in truisms not from the last century, but the one before that. Ferriter’s take is more subtle than this, thankfully.

Richard Hearns Ireland of the Welcomes Cover.jpg

The time warp is a conceptual tool that tries to account for the ways in which Ireland as a state can simultaneously manage to be the beneficiary of an economic boom powered by the development of information technologies on the West coast of the United States while being complicit in the captivity and enslavement of women, to give just one example. As we well know, the capitalist nation state, both historically and in our present moment, is not a static enough concept to abhor contradictions of this kind. It might even be said to thrive on them. It is for this reason that the concept of the time warp is a bit useless, in that it instantiates a notion that we are always moving forward in some way; despite the appearance that some of these ‘kinks’ might give off, they’ll be ironed out in good time. (There’s a well-meaning senator with a report on the matter brewing in some back office on Kildare Street for nigh on half the term of the currently sitting government, and a seventieth of the Dáil might even show up on the day it’s to be discussed, just sit tight.) In order for particular ideologies to function, pockets of our society in which the most vulnerable reside must have their existences subject to relegation or dismissal as time warps, as if artefacts of the nineteenth century have the habit of peskily colonising the twenty-first. This gesture allows us to dispense with aspects of our national identities which might otherwise bring us to a point of contradiction. To take one example, Ireland can simultaneously believe itself to be a nation that is charitable, and LGBT-friendly, while placing many of those fleeing persecution (sometimes for their sexual orientation) in detention centres for an indefinite span of time.

Enright, among other things I’m sure, considers herself a product of this particularly Irish cultural discord, writing rather brilliantly in her work, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, about a particularly divisive time in Irish public life, the eighties, and its role in her attempted suicide, which I will now quote from at length:

I fell out of the world, temporarily, on Easter Monday 1986…Maybe I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, maybe it is genetic, maybe it was me being in my twenties, maybe it was Ireland being in the 1980s.

The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties, and I sometimes think that the crack happened in my own head. The constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes — including my own — with unfathomable bitterness. The country was screaming at itself about contraception, abortion, and divorce. It was a hideously misogynistic time. Not the best environment for a young woman establishing a sexual identity, you might say, especially one with adolescent morbidity and tendencies towards ecstatic suffusions of light, one who was over-achieving, but somehow in all the wrong ways, one who was both maverick and clever. I mean, what do we need here, a diagram?

…I…wrote some books. They were fragmented books, because this is what I knew best, but also, I fancied, because I lived in an incoherent country. They were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal. They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State (well that was my excuse). But they were also full of corpses. Beautiful ones, speaking ones, sexual ones, bitter ones; corpses who did not forgive, or rot. Who was the corpse? It was myself, of course, but also Christ, the dead body on a stick. And it is the past that lies down but will not shut up, the elephant in the national living-room.

400255

To read these paragraphs, and the other paragraphs in the same chapter (do pick it up, it is so, so good) is to become aware of how irrelevant women’s health and their autonomy was to the Irish establishment of the time. It’s no surprise then, that the Irish literary establishment was mostly suspicious regarding the raft of new wordists who came to a kind of prominence in the late eighties and early nineties, the vanguard of whom was probably Roddy Doyle, though Enright also named Patrick McCabe as a trailblazer. This generation’s early novels weren’t reviewed, and when they were, they were eviscerated. This apparent lack of a domestic audience, or the unwillingness of the tastemakers to cultivate one, required that Irish authors sell themselves abroad, and only then, by commodius vicus of recirculation, return to the domestic market. This route generally led to euphemistic conversations about formal qualities such as ‘lyricism’ and other such words acting as stand-ins for question marks over one’s authenticity.

This is why the cultural exchange’s timing was so opportune, and made, by necessity, Irish authors far more permeable to international influences. They all gained hugely from it, ‘they’ meaning, I assume Enright, Joseph O’Connor and Deirdre Madden.

3725FB7900000578-3734775-image-a-65_1471015661159.jpg

Donal Donovan and Antoin C. Murphy’s study, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland and the Euro Debt Crisis requires us to take a leap forward about by just under two decades and outline the ways in which Ireland’s position changed from a peripheral, insufficiently industrialised state, ‘the poorest of the rich,’ to a contemporary globalised market economy within the framework of the European Union. No Irish citizen who remembers the eighties will be unaware of the effect that this union has had on our general standards of living. I think. I wasn’t alive at the time. But I am interested in what this change from peripheral backwater to post-modern globalised economy has on our self-perception. It is perhaps inevitable that we encounter the time warp once again, albeit in the context of Ireland’s leap into means:

while the ‘catch-up’ paradigm explains part of the story, the speed and extent of Ireland’s transformation was primarily driven by high-tech multinationals, the vanguard of a major worldwide revolution in information technology…in the post-industrial high-tech world, these concepts had started to become anachronistic.

So too do many governing metaphors of the literary landscape become de-legitimised. The matter of literary influence in particular, becomes increasingly knotty in a global marketplace. Brian Dillon writes in the London Review of Books that if there is a modernist resurgence in Irish literature today, it is less a return, than a demonstration of the extent to which authors today can draw from any number of traditions, even experimental ones. As such, it is less important to talk about the new modernists because they’re Irish, but what this literary self-identification signifies. Not all of this is voluntary, of course; just being a female novelist in Ireland has a profound political resonance, as anyone familiar with the career of Edna O’Brien will know.

The Irish free State made clear its suspicion regarding modernism and modern art in general, by introducing film censorship in 1923. The first Irish review of Ulysses was also blocked by the printer of The Dublin Magazine, forcing its author, Con Levanthal, to set up a one-off journal, Klaxon. The Catholic Truth Society took an active role in Ireland’s cultural life over the next few decades by stymieing the dissemination of anything perceived as indecent, modern, or Protestant. Those of the literary world reacted to this with outrage, as these bans generally effected avant-garde works rather than pornographic ones, but their objections never translated into popular political support. David Dickson, in Dublin: The Making of a Capital City,points out that this emphasis on censorship can ignore the extent to which musical and theatrical forms often thrived, but for the most part, Dublin was a place to leave in favour of other urban capitals, where one was more likely to obtain a patron, public or private.

This policy didn’t make for good neighbours, of course. As Eavan Boland wrote, ‘No two establishments in this community regard one another with more suspicion than those of the Arts and the State.’ This was due to the fact that the Free State’s scepticism regarding modernism extended, to the arts in general. The Arts Council existed, in name only, up until its role was formalised in the late seventies. Up until then, it provided cheques to artists on a hand to mouth basis, had no women on its board and had no particular remit or code of behaviour. Public funding for the arts was also about 30% less than in the United Kingdom.

Related to this, (I know I’m moving around a lot, but it’ll come good in the end), Garret FitzGerald’s analysis of Ireland joining the EU was as follows:

Our independence was won for us just in time to enable most of Ireland to enter to European Community as one of Europe’s ancient nations, rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state…the voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not all in vain.

Despite the gloss that FitzGerald puts on Ireland’s joining the union as in a continuity of Irish independence movements, Ferriter argues that Ireland joined primarily because England was joining. The dominant understanding of Ireland’s membership is one of economic, social and cultural gain; lucrative agricultural grants, social justice legislation, worker protections, consumer and environmental regulation, all have their origins in EU initiatives. In a cultural sense however, it can be seen an inducing another form of peripherality, relative to the wider continent, rather than to England. Ireland is, after all, a relatively small state in a union driven by larger nations. Joe Lee has argued that joining the union has had the effect of encouraging our leaders to continue to apportion blame for their failures to external factors, rather than scrutinising and reforming our own industries and regulatory frameworks. The playwright Brian Friel viewed the Irish state around this time as a ‘tenth-rate image of America’ and indeed, there seemed to be little to distinguish the Ireland open to multi-national capital and foreign direct investment, a consumer-driven economy in the post-modern sense, from any other Western city.

Works from Enright’s oeuvre such as The Portable Virgin, The Wig my Father Wore and The Forgotten Waltz, all fit rather nicely within this interpretation, and inventively engage with the conversation between traditional mainstays of Irish identity and the post-modern market economy which had grown up around them, which made the old certainties complicit, as much as it ‘unsettled’ them.

I’ll talk about the ending of the short short story ‘The Portable Virgin’ because it seems to encapsulate a lot of what I’m talking about:

I am sitting on Dollymount Strand going through Mary’s handbag, using her little mirror, applying her ‘Wine Rose and Gentlelight Colourize Powder Shadow Trio’, her Plumsilk lipstick, her Venetian Brocade blusher and her Tearproof (thank God) mascara.

My revenge looks back at me, out of the mirror. The new fake me looks twice as real as the old. Underneath my clothes my breasts have become blind, my iliac crests mottle and bruise. Strung out between my legs is a triangle of air that pulls away from sex, while my hands clutch. It used to be the other way around.

I root through the bag, looking for a past. At the bottom, discoloured by Wine Rose and Gentlelight, I find a small, portable Virgin. She is made of transparent plastic, except for her cloak, which is coloured blue. ‘A present from Lourdes’ is written on the globe at her feet, underneath her heel and the serpent. Mary is full of surprises. Her little blue crown is a screw-off top, and her body is filled with holy water, which I drink.

The narrator is having an affair, the ins and outs of which we can never be totally certain -each player’s identities remain fluid throughout the story. Dollymount Strand is a significant enough place to consider sumjex and objex, but when one’s extra-marital activities have been ironically genuflecting before a Judi Dench costume drama, also about infidelity and inappropriately stately furniture, the stakes feel as though they have been heightened. The various accoutrements of contemporary female identity ‘Gentlelight Colourize (note the American zee) Powder Shadow’ are to the fore, and while the tacky symbolic representation of old Ireland has been discoloured by the errant make-up, it’s still there. At least until it’s sent surging out to sea at the end. Enright, being a sophisticated as well as an intellectual novelist, doesn’t foreground this sort of thing, that is to say, it doesn’t place demands on the reader as such, it never gets in the way of the fun.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with its profound sense of formal dislocation, and an origin point within the economically depressed, culturally stifled Ireland of the 1980’s, is another important node of discussion here; McBride has encouraged such analyses by making reference to it as a sort of a refracted autobiography. But while tracing over the wrecked and bloodied sockets of a fragmented subjectivity, it also aims to revivify the cornerstones of the institutionalised modernisms as practiced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. No part of the novel makes this point clearer than the novel’s beginning, because it is its beginning, and uncompromising off the bat:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Not as much to ‘play’ with as Enright might give us, shorter sentences, shorter words, less things, but more baggage, meaning this, of course, in the best possible way. What we have is a swift and deep immersion into the materiality of language, all the rhymes, assonances, repetition and rhythm of which it’s capable, which, in an increasingly bland literary marketplace, is revolutionary. After having read The Lesser Bohemians, and Claire Lowdon’s review of the two of them, I’m slightly loathe to praise it without clarifiers, but I do think there is a lot that it is good in its incorporation of the elements familiar to the Irish misery memoir within a high modernist register. Because misery is for life, not just for the realists.

I hope it will be clear from all this that contemporary modernists draw on a history of formal experimentation, regarded with suspicion by the Irish state with a view to challenging the received wisdom of its theocratic tendencies, marginalisation and violent oppression of women.

Samuel Beckett’s ‘More Pricks Than Kicks,’ and James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

To compare James Joyce and Samuel Beckett would be nothing new for a critic. When Eimear McBride recommended a familiarity with early-twentieth century Irish modernism in order to grasp her 2013 novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, it was fairly obvious who she was talking about.

Beckett met Joyce in Paris and helped him to translate the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of Finnegans Wake into French. Joyce also dictated some sections of the novel to him, necessitated by Joyce’s failing eyesight. While this process was ongoing, there was a knock at the door. Joyce called for whoever it was to come in and proceeded to have a conversation with them, all of which Beckett dutifully typed. Joyce was confused by its presence in the proofs when Beckett read them back, but was amused enough to keep it in the final version. As such Beckett proved himself handy not only as a stenographer, but a co-writer.

John Banville points out that this friendship had its price. Not only did Beckett take to holding a cigarette in the same way as his mentor, but he also emulated his sartorial quirks and wore shoes that were too narrow for his feet. There is a fine line between hero worship and masochism. Furthermore, Beckett’s early writing is stultified by a Joycean tenor, in his shorter fiction from his early career, he too often opts for clattering neologisms and wry allusiveness, rather than the morbid tautologies and minimalism that he became known for.

When reading his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks, I was struck by the comparisons that could be made between Beckett’s protagonist Belacqua Shuah and Joyce’s analogue in his own fiction, Stephen Dedalus. Both are notable for their solipsism, terrible attitudes towards women and pseudo-intellectual faffing. However, I found a far more engaging link towards the end of the short story ‘A Wet Night,’ in which one can see Beckett wryly negotiating Joyce’s hallowed ground. ‘A Wet Night’ parodically re-iterates the conclusion to Joyce’s legendary final paragraphs in ‘The Dead.’ I’ll include it here because it’s out of copyright and always worth reading:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

‘A Wet Night,’ shares a setting with ‘The Dead.’ Both take place at Christmas dinner parties and feature a number of Dublin socialites. The conversation at both is insipid, but Beckett’s lacks all the warmth and nostalgia for Dublin hospitality that Joyce probably felt, writing it as he did in Trieste. While Gabriel Conroy leaves Usher Quay in high spirits, feeling himself to be passionately in love with his wife Gretta, Belacqua leaves his dinner party drunk and bereft:

“But the wind had dropped, as it so often does in Dublin when all the respectable men and women whom it delights to annoy have gone to bed, and the rain fell in a uniform, untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.”

I really enjoy the bathos of this passage. It teases the reader with its lyrical realism and its suggestion of universality, revealed in the rhythm of its slow, gently undulating sentences. It then subverts itself with a banal academic tone, all turning on the word ‘notably’ and the repetition of the word ‘uniform,’ as if the narrator had something more important to do than to vary their word choice.

In his alcohol-induced fugue, Belacqua throws away a new pair of shoes and we are told that his toes enjoy their newfound freedom which they are ‘rejoicing’ in. I hope it is not labouring the point to propose this as a pun that confirms the rain’s genealogy.