Gerry Smyth
Liverpool John Moores University, England | Views:

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The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel

ed. by John Wilson Foster (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 286 pp.

ISBN: 9780521679961 (paperback) £17.99

ISBN: 9780521861915 (hardback), £45.00

The latest volume in an Irish strand of the extensive ‘Cambridge Companions’ series follows fairly predictable titles on Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, twentieth-century Irish drama, contemporary Irish poetry, and modern Irish culture  all beautifully produced by one of the world’s leading university presses and all edited to a high standard by a variety of the great and the good. The volume represents a welcome recognition that the novel once the poor relation amongst Irish literary genres  has arrived (although it remains the case that poetry and drama continue to rule the roost – in view of which it might not be long before we see dedicated Companions to the likes of Heaney, Friel and Muldoon.

The ‘Companion’ is a strange critical beast. The commendable intention would appear to be to delineate a certain field or subject for student use and to introduce the principal debates attending that field or subject. The guiding criterion informing this scholarly mode seems to be non-evaluative coverage rather than thesis-led intervention, in which sense the ‘Companion’ contribution differs markedly from the monograph, the journal article and the essay collection. Of course, no intervention can eschew ‘interest’ entirely, and therein lies a general issue concerning the nature of criticism as well as a specific editorial dilemma.

After a useful Chronology, this volume commences with a sympathetic introduction by John Wilson Foster who discusses the evolution of the novel within an Irish cultural framework. In a gesture that will recur throughout the volume, the editor immediately remarks the influence of the British tradition. The constant presence of the larger island to the east was once an influence upon more or less everything in Irish life, including literary as well as political representation. It has not proved possible to say whether a change in perspective lessened that influence, or whether waning influence occasioned a change in perspective. Most commentators are content with noting that change occurred, and that this change enabled new forms of Irish literature (including fiction) to emerge.

The volume does not exactly conform to the familiar pre-/post-Joyce structure which has tended to dominate accounts of the Irish novel since the mid-twentieth century. Chapters on the Big House, the Catholic novel, modernism, regionalism, the novel in Irish, and women novelists actually straddle Joyce’s active career. Nevertheless, the presence of the great man remains difficult to avoid. Bruce Stewart’s astute chapter on Joyce is number seven of fourteen here, and this (approximate) numerical centrality is indicative not only of the critical temporality connoted by the Irish novel, but of Joyce’s continuing impact upon both the formal and the conceptual development of this particular tradition.

The latter part of the collection features a star turn by Terence Brown on Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and a consideration of ‘the Northern Troubles’ by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews with particular emphasis on the period since 1969. There is also a welcome chapter on ‘Life-writing in the twentieth century’ by Elizabeth Grubgeld which acknowledges the constant and ineluctable interaction between biography, autobiography and the novel in Irish literary history (to which list some might like to add historiography). The novel’s function as a literary form specifically equipped to register change is revealed in Eve Patten’s final chapter on ‘Contemporary Irish fiction’.

There are no great surprises in the contents list, then. The volume fulfils its aims (stated on the back cover) to provide ‘the perfect overview for students of the Irish novel from the romances of the seventeenth century to the present day’. As the term suggests, however, any ‘overview’ is going to reflect the perspective of the viewing subject(s), and more particularly of the editor who recruits the contributors and is responsible for the overall ideological slant of the volume.

In this respect it is interesting to note both the frequency and the context of references to certain concepts and persons, as well as (and perhaps more revealingly) the absence of any extended engagement with certain other concepts and persons. For example, besides one reference in the introduction, the term ‘colonialism (colonisation)’ features in the main body of five of the fourteen essays and in a footnote in one other. One of the leading contemporary theorists of colonialism’s impact upon the evolution of the Irish novel, David Lloyd, merits three mentions. Some of the other figures whose work was implicated in the theory wars of the immediately preceding generation (Deane, Eagleton, Gibbons, Kiberd, for example) are invoked, although not in any extended or systematic way. There is no mention in any of the contributions of leading postcolonial critics such Edward W. Said or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, nor of the post-structuralist theorists (such as Derrida and Foucault) who inspired them. Most tellingly, there is no mention of influential figures such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Fredric Jameson and Wolfgang Iser who between them have provided much of the scholarly framework within which modern criticism of the novel has developed.

It is always annoying when people overlook what you did say in order to point out what you didn’t. That is the respondent’s stock in trade, of course, and it applies to critical endeavours ranging from the most modest undergraduate essay to the most ambitious scholarly publication. Obviously, The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel is located towards the latter end of that continuum, and just as obviously it is a successful and coherent volume when considered in terms of the criteria by which scholarly work in the humanities is valued. It is always worth remembering, however, that the ‘coherence’ of any text is always achieved at the expense of other ways of seeing, and that the ‘success’ of any text is always dependent in large part upon a range of non-textual criteria. In this instance, it is particularly important to point out that the seemingly neutral designation ‘companion’ belies this volume’s status as an intervention in ongoing debates – the nuances and implications of which not all of the target audience may be fully aware.

The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel includes a typically brilliant intervention entitled ‘The Gothic Novel’ by the late Siobhán Kilfeather who died on 7 April 2007 in Belfast after a short illness.