University College Cork
Cork University Press, 2022, 286 pp.
Val Nolan’s Neil Jordan: Works for the Page, marks the first dedicated scholarly engagement with Neil Jordan the fiction writer and “unveil[s] a person sometimes perceived as merely ‘dabbling in prose writing’ to be a serious author” (2). This book perhaps reveals the vagaries of Irish studies, that so prolific an author, tackling so many of the core concerns of Irish literature, has been so long neglected. The book charts Jordan’s oeuvre from his first foray into fiction writing, to the present day, engaging exclusively with works set in Ireland or about Irish identity and moving chronologically through Jordan’s work to uncover his place within contemporary Irish fiction. Nolan highlights Jordan’s relationship with his contemporaries, and makes extensive reference to Jordan’s creative influences, revealing his love for Irish literary traditions. The book also serves as something of a record of the shifting perception of Jordan and a cultural discomfort with his dual identity as a writer and filmmaker, though it ought to be noted that Nolan makes only scant reference to Jordan’s cinematic career and draws only lightly on literary theory; the book is instead intended to provide a “substantive first reading” (6) of Neil Jordan the writer.
Nolan sets himself this undertaking in the introduction, where he highlights the dearth of engagement with Neil Jordan’s fiction in Irish literary criticism, despite the wealth of praise and accolades which Jordan has received for this work, a scarcity made more baffling by the wealth of engagement with Jordan’s directorial output. While Nolan acknowledges that Jordan’s films are his most obvious contribution to Irish culture, Nolan places conceptions of Irish identity in Jordan’s written work at the centre of this study, while simultaneously engaging with concepts of authorship and selfhood, unique to Jordan’s experience. Nolan, drawing on Jordan, writes “[Jordan] claims to regard writing as the more self-reflective and more private of his creative affairs, being less about an examination of the world and more about an enquiry into his mind and imagination” (9). The first chapter of this text provides a brief biography before outlining Jordan’s fiction writing career to date. Nolan describes the young Jordan ultimately finding himself at the forefront of the Irish literary scene and his collaboration with other notable Irish creatives of that era. This section of the text makes clear Jordan’s influence and participation in the late 20th-century sea change of Irish literary fiction. Nolan writes Jordan back into a narrative which he has largely been erased from, though Nolan might have answered more comprehensively to this erasure. Whether the shadow cast by Jordan ‘the director’ left his writerly counterpart in the dark, or whether the national appetite for Jordan’s work simply failed, is never made evident.
The second chapter explores Neil Jordan’s first short story collection Nights in Tunisia with particular reference to the stories “Last Rites”, “Nights in Tunisia” and “A Love”. Nolan highlights and deftly explores Jordan’s use of the themes of water, liminality, music, isolation and history. There is reference made to biographical details in Nights in Tunisia which would seem to invite the reader towards an autobiographical reading, however, Nolan dismisses this, arguing that the stories are autobiographical “insofar as, in almost every case, they describe things that [Jordan] had seen or witnessed in real life and are presented in a photo-realistic style” (57) choosing instead to identify the collection as encapsulating the essence of 1970s Ireland, with the young men of the narrative standing as cyphers by which the nation might be interpreted, convincingly arguing for a reading of these works which places Irish identity at the centre.
The third chapter of this text focuses on Jordan’s first novel The Past, the defining characteristics of which Nolan identifies as an “overwhelming devotion to descriptive imagery and [a] dedicated effort to utilise Ireland’s past as a way to make sense of the nation’s present” (64). The Past follows an unnamed narrator’s attempt to decipher his genealogy by researching the lives of his parents and grandparents during the early years of the twentieth century. Nolan points out the novel’s concern with notions of historical fallibility and a “complex engagement with the notion of ‘Irishness’” (88) which Nolan claims “[provides] a thematic baseline for Jordan’s future fiction” (88). It is in this chapter that Nolan argues most persuasively for the power of Jordan “the writer”. The chapter is well researched and meticulously outlines Jordan’s understanding of and profound exploration of Irish life and politics in the early twentieth century.
Chapter four of the text examines Jordan’s often overlooked novel The Dream of a Beast. In this section Nolan explores the generic makeup of this work, ultimately arguing that, despite contemporary commentators describing the book as “horror” or “fantasy”, it is more usefully understood as the first incidence of Jordan’s engagement with the gothic, which will continue to inflect his oeuvre both written and cinematic from this period on. Nolan also highlights the collaboration between Jordan and the late Angela Carter during this period, noting the parallels between The Dream of a Beast and Carter’s profoundly influential short story collection The Bloody Chamber, and the story from that collection The Company of Wolves, which Carter and Jordan adapted for the screen and which Jordan then directed. This particular section is perhaps one of the weaker parts of the study. Nolan is keen to stress Jordan’s neglected status within studies of Irish literature and, to this end, deftly creates a literary genealogy from Yeats to Jordan and beyond. However, the construction of this continuity of tradition comes at the cost of equally exciting avenues of exploration which might also satisfyingly provide insight into Jordan’s relationship to history, violence and self-determination. Nolan understands Carter’s influence to have ended after The Dream of a Beast, reiterating the Irish context of the gothic Jordan engages with. Carter’s influence can be identified throughout Jordan’s work, both as a filmmaker and writer of fiction to the present day. For Nolan, however, the potential influence on Jordan’s work of Carter’s gothic and subversive retelling of the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, The Magic Toyshop, (1967) is disregarded in favour of Hopper’s suggested influence of Yeats’ Leda and the Swan (1923) (110). In chapter six Nolan explores Jordan’s Mistaken and Carnivalesque, novels which bear more than a passing resemblance, both thematically and ideologically, to Carter’s Love (1971) and Nights at the Circus (1984) respectively, while not examined in this volume Nolan has certainly broken ground, although there is scope for further exploration.
Chapter five concerns Jordan’s novel Sunrise with Sea Monster, which charts the narrator’s experiences in the Spanish civil war, before their eventual return to Ireland during the Emergency era. Nolan notes that “the novel’s Second World War setting does more than comment on the conflicts of the novel’s protagonists; it reinforces the sense of Ireland as island, isolated from Europe and the world” (122), serving as a further meditation on Irish nationalism and individual and collective relationships to history. Nolan skilfully explores Jordan’s re-examination of the themes which he first explored in Nights in Tunisia, successfully highlighting a continuity of purpose and growing complexity within Jordan’s writing. In chapter six, Nolan describes Jordan’s novel Shade which follows Nina, a ghost doomed to haunt her own life until her violent death, when the cycle begins again. There is certainly scope in future analyses of Jordan’s written work for dedicated engagement with Jordan’s treatment of women, given the recurrence of the female body and violence against it in his work. Nolan is inclined to read this violence as a metaphor, regarding the drowned women of the novel less as victims of violence enforced by a patriarchal system but as conceptual beings who have died “through neglect of their mythologies” (165). In this chapter, Nolan also primes the reader for his examination of “the two Jordans”. The two Ninas of Shade (the ghost and the living woman), Nolan argues, are the inception of “the two Jordans” in the writer’s work.
Chapter seven explores Jordan’s “film stories”. Describing these three works as an uncollected collection, Nolan draws parallels between the stories, which seem to reflect not only Jordan’s shifting experience of the contemporary filmmaking system, through the medium of fiction writing, both in Ireland and in Hollywood, but additionally, (given the extended periods between the writing of each story) “they allow us to see how his engagements with the Irish —and world — literary traditions have evolved over the course of his writing career and how they have done so in concert with his work as a director” (194).
Nolan concludes this study of Jordan’s work with the novels Mistaken and Carnivalesque, which he explores in tandem, to examine how Neil Jordan views, not only Irish culture, but himself as a creative. This proves an innovative and effective means of exploring the concept of duality in Jordan’s fiction. In this final chapter, Nolan deconstructs the idea of the “two Jordans”, writer and director, arguing that “the question of whether Jordan is primarily a creator of film or of fiction is, in the end, irrelevant. He is in fact all possible versions of himself. He is in the end infinitely, brilliantly Neil Jordan.” (221).
Neil Jordan: Works for the Page argues compellingly for Neil Jordan’s place as an influential and important Irish writer. This text stands as a useful and meticulously researched first reading of Jordan’s fiction work and serves to expand the field of Irish studies and indeed the reader’s conception of multi-faceted creative practice.
Carter, Angela (1971). Love. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.
____ (1984). Nights at the Circus. London: Chatto & Windus.
____ (1979). The Bloody Chamber. London: Gollancz.
____ (1967). The Magic Toyshop. London: Heinemann.