Tag Archives: Marcel Proust

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%.

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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.

Wordsworth Editions & Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘The Voyage Out’

patou.jpg

I have mixed feelings about Wordsworth editions of classic texts.

Yay

They are cheap.

They are books.

The spines are standardised and tasteful.

The introductions generally include stimulating, wide-ranging analyses involving detailed, close-reading from experts in their field.

Nay

Footnotes are sparse and selective.

The poetry editions don’t give enough space to individual poems; you might get three different poems appearing on the same page if they’re short enough. White space should be retained, it’s an interpretative matter, dammit. Where the hell am I supposed to write my marginalia? On my phone’s memo pad or something? Hah?!

Cover design is patchy. The Woolf and Mansfield ones had nice art-deco type pieces on their front, but recently they’ve begun using some awful examples of digital art. Just look at this pseudo-photorealistic shitshow.

bad

They’ve done similar things to the Joyce editions, in ways that hurt my heart, so I won’t include an image, suffice it to say that I so much prefer the ones that used to be on the cover of the Wordsworth Finnegans Wake, which features a painting by Markey Robinson. The below image isn’t what’s on the Wake cover, I couldn’t find a version of it online, but it’s from the same series, and the cover could well be a detail from this canvas.

joyce

This brings me to one of the other perhaps dubious choices made by Wordsworth editions, in publishing A Room of One’s Own, an essay based on a series of lectures Woolf gave to female students in Cambridge with her novel The Voyage Out. On the one hand, this is a good thing, and even more cheap, two books for the price of one and all that, but, what are the implications for how we read the texts when they’re sat so close to one another?

Well, it has the consequence of making it seem as though The Voyage Out is a fictionalised re-iteration of what Woolf conveys in the polemic that precedes it. I wouldn’t posit that it actually is, but the essay inevitably operates as a screed through which The Voyage Out is perceived.

The Voyage Out depicts Rachel Vinrace, a sheltered young woman going away from home for the first time with her aunt Helen Ambrose and her husband Ridley. As the narrative develops, Rachel begins to further her own education, under the auspices of her aunt and the wider group of upper-middle class ‘intelligentsia,’ partially modelled, as most of the Woolf novels that I’m familiar with are, on Woolf’s own experiences with the intellectual coterie of the Bloomsbury Group. The Voyage Out’s title is a loaded one; Rachel is travelling outwards in an inner sense, exposing herself to atheism, the abstract ideas of her day, aswell as the more literal voyage to South America.

This metaphorisation of space is also central within A Room of One’s Own; in her introduction to the essay, Sally Minogue points to the ambiguous nature of the word ‘room.’ It is not only an actual physical space, necessary for a female writer in order that she may sit down and write, but alongside this autonomy in the space of the room, there is an implied wider connection with others. A room, after all, must be within a house, which is in turn a metaphor for the wider tradition of female novelists, the Brontës, Eliots and Austens, without whom, Woolf’s writing would never have been possible, as she herself puts it.

The oscillation between being inside or outside the novelistic tradition is significant for Woolf as it becomes a necessity for female novelists to salvage their own tradition. Seeing that they have been silenced or marginalised for so long, they must exert themselves, perhaps to compensate for the lack of a cultural and financial infrastructure that a male novelist may depend on. Woolf senses that this greater imperative on the female novelist brings with it a vitality that seems advantageous.

One might disagree, and see this positive spin on enforced individualism as unhelpful and Woolf would certainly not have been called an ‘ally’ in the contemporary sense. She disapproves of promiscuity, and, references a would-be biographer, Winifred Holtby, daughter of a Yorkshire farmer, as someone who, ‘learnt to read, I’m told, while minding the pigs.’ This snobbishness and disregard for the material circumstances of women of a lower class is an unpleasant feature of Woolf’s writing, and is surprising, considering that A Room of One’s Own advocates for wider access to education for women.

This political myopia is attributable to Woolf’s aesthetic concerns, as she disliked materiality or political beliefs making themselves clear in a writer’s work. She preferred instead the notion that through art, the material may be transcended, which is ironic considering how informed her work is by her own social position; Woolf is probably the standard bearer of the English fin de siècle bourgeois class. Her own background, her material advantages seems, in this ideological position, to have been rendered invisible to her. The material condition of the lower classes is what she objects to. The disabled, too. She doesn’t like them either.

What are we to make of the fact that Rachel Vinrace dies, spoiler alert? In the Victorian novels that I’ve been unfortunate enough to read, death is often used to reinforce conservative moralising, one thinks of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, for instance, but in the case of The Voyage Out, Woolf may be protesting this usage of death for political ends. She is not, unfortunately, protesting how protracted these affairs are when they are rendered, but the language in which these are conveyed. Woolf’s style becomes mechanistically descriptive and neutral: (“The second day did not differ much from the first day, except that ther bed had become very important, and the world outside, when she tried to think of it, appeared distinctly further off.”) not sentimental, as one finds in the ghastly death scene, one of many, in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son:

“Yes, yes. No other stranger would have shed those tears at sight of him, and called him her dear boy, her pretty boy, her own poor blighted child.

‘Remember Walter, dear Papa,’ he whispered, looking in his face. ‘Remember Walter. I was fond of Walter!’ The feeble hand waved in the air, as if it cried ‘good-bye!’ to Walter once again.”

Rachel’s fever makes her inchoate and delirious; making her incapable of such indulgent faffery in her last moments. What is being critiqued here is Rachel’s failure to not get married, so soon after having achieved a degree autonomy. She merely exchanges one sequence of patriarchal variables for another in choosing to marry Hirst.

I’m not sure I find this entirely convincing. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf castigates herself for being overly attentive to material conditions, and, from what I’ve said so far, the ridiculousness of her assertion should be pretty clear, for both texts. There is obviously no other choice for a woman seeking to live independently, other than coming into large amounts of money through an inheritance. This is to leave aside the thin nature of the relationship’s development, the Proustian social comedy veers into Restoration farce as Rachel and Hirst are uncertain whether they love or loathe one another, whether marriage is the best or the worst idea, then find all of a sudden that they are very much in love, but only when they’re not speaking; when they do dialogue, they are mostly bickering and bristly with one another.

Hey, maybe it is realistic after all.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Geology of Literary Style

When I was drafting my PhD proposal, I read a few sources on literary style, in order to come to a working definition of style, or an academic consensus on the matter to rail against. I didn’t want something simplistically formalistic that referred to vehicles, tenors, modes or what have you, but I also didn’t want a post-Derridean account, that described style as a limit-case/fault line/discourse rupture, an everything and nothing at once. These kind of critical stymieings, excessive nuancing to the point of inertia have gotten a bit wearying after five years of seeing them deployed, so I was hoping to get to some kind of working definition. Emphasis on ‘working’ considering I would be carrying out pragmatic actual tasks, via computation, which were to be finalised once I had my definition.

It was surprisingly challenging to track one down, and more often than not I was thrown back onto my own reflections on literary style, and what we talk about when we talk about it. Here, I think we stumble across its primary shortcoming as a delineator. People talk about Virginia Woolf’s interior, lyrical style, Jorge Luis Borges’ staid, cold style and Ernest Hemmingway’s staccato, pared back style. The difficulty with these simplistic accounts is that an author’s style generally encapsulates what it is that makes them unique in literary discourse in general. This isn’t necessarily surprising; most of what we detect in a writer’s style is what throws us out of our reading habits. When Foster Wallace frenetically re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style.  But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like “She tied the tapes,” in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such “filler.”

This dearth of attention directed to the ‘particles’ of literary materials, is a lot of what digital humanities projects present themselves as a corrective to, by looking at the macroeconomic, we can transcend our human fixation on shiny objects (read: pretty sentences), and gain a fuller understanding of a text’s style, liberated from the shortcomings of our usual reading habits.

Of course, this newfound command over an entire text does not prevent the critic from mounting flawed arguments; many digital humanities projects from its earlier experiments in literary analysis too frequently gave into Rubik’s cube thinking, attempting to tame indeterminacy, by solving a text via enumerative techniques. This is exactly the kind of objective approach I didn’t want to fall into when visualising and narrating data trends.

Franco Moretti’s work in the Stanford Lit Lab proved beneficial in opening me up to more diffuse and multi-perspectival digital methodologies; by visualising a text on a number of different textual levels. Moretti’s contention that the data shows the activation of different stylistic features scale is directly correlated to the differentiation of textual functions is positively invigorating, as it is as far removed from the Rubik’s cube mentality as is possible to get; it essentially concedes that what we see when we look at a text depends on the way that we’re looking at it. Yes, Moretti is talking about topic modelling rather than style, but for my purposes I’ll ignore that. I also enjoy that it seems to be a computational analogue to the psychedelic nature of literary criticism – the longer we look at a text, even a shorter one, perhaps even especially a shorter one, the more we see. Diversifying our means of approach therefore provides the critic with a disparate sequence of differentiated visualisations, Enright may be meaningfully analogous to, dunno, Proust from the perspective of the entire text, but on a word to word, sentence to sentence, chapter to chapter, etc. comparison, we may turn up more unexpected results.

I still lacked a conceptual, theoretical system to connect this approach with, until I read the third chapter of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, ’10, 000 BC: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)’ In this chapter, Deleuze and Guattari make use of the discipline of geology in order to outline a number of theories concerning form, content, ideology and the articulations thereof.  The unorthodox appropriation of geology is part of Deleuze and Guattari’s wider usage of theories and concepts outside of traditional philosophy, in order to subvert the staid formula of normative philosophical argumentation, wherein a summary is given of problem 1, why the solution A posited by philosopher z is insufficient and why solution B posited by philosopher y is even more so, and how both (and every other philosophy in the history of the discipline, by extension) have overlooked a solution that I alone have realised. This is all beside the point and I mention it only to indicate how smart I am.

In any case, the earth, and, for my purposes, a literary text is composed of a number of strata, differing layers, which contain, compose and construct otherwise transitory particles, making them subject to more macroeconomic structures of order. In this way, they simplify their contents, as particles move between these strata erratically. One should think of strata as totalising senses of an author’s style, whereas the particles are more subtle, granular features that disappear and re-appear in and outside of particular strata. Form and content are singularly intermingled on the level of the stratum, and are merely a function of primary and secondary articulation.

Strata in turn are composed of epistrata and parastrata, which further undermines any attempt someone, like a mad person, would make to get a stable grasp on exactly what it is Deleuze and Guattari mean when they lay out this seemingly intractable schema. The strata model is a challenge to systematic modes of thought, such as structuralism, so it offers no stability, but for me, this is precisely its appeal. Any interpretation on a particular textual level, such as stratum d, which we could equate to word choice, for instance, samples one among many protean strata, composed of other strata, made relative to a machinic assemblage, itself a stratified metastratum, which becomes involved in its, the strata’s dual articulations along the lines of form and content. Simple.

The key here is that it avoids closure, it is a theoretical construct that is anathema to pragmatists, and on that basis, even if my numbers add up, any conclusions I reach with them will be, by virtue of association,  strictly provisional.

Anne Enright Sesh Part 3: The Green Road

When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.

When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.

I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.

I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.

I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.

‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.

‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’

‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’

So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.

 

enright

There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.

Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:

“anything, anything at all

To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”

It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).

I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and thereby The Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.

One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also, Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:

“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’

‘And?’

‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”

This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:

“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”

The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.

It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue in The Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:

“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?

Nothing happened. That is what happened.”

I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.

Read this book.