Overdoing the Synge-song

Terry Eagleton

  • On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
    Faber, 256 pp, £16.99, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 22653 5

In the great lineage of classical realism from Stendhal to Tolstoy, a whole history is summarised in the fortunes of a particular family or set of characters. Individuals are portrayed in all their idiosyncrasy, but are made to represent more than themselves. Things are at once unique and exemplary. A belatedly flowering example of the species is The Leopard, in which the slow decay of a Sicilian nobleman coincides with the clamorous rise of bourgeois Italy.

In a series of works over the past decade, Sebastian Barry has captured the flow and recoil of modern Irish history in the blighted destinies of the Dunne family. Taken together, The Steward of Christendom, Annie Dunne, A Long Long Way and now On Canaan’s Side constitute a kind of Oresteia of 20th-century Ireland, as the spurned, haunted, betrayed and exiled members of this modern day house of Atreus, along with the wretched madhouse narrator of The Secret Scripture, come to distil something of the long tragedy of Ireland itself. When Thomas Dunne, a former loyal servant of the Crown, loses his wits somewhere in the transition from the old Ireland to the new, we have a luminous instance of the interweaving of the personal and the social, one of the great virtues of this literary form. It is no wonder that Barry has been able to reinvent it so magnificently in modern Ireland, a country whose public history of war and political turmoil penetrated into the secret recesses of individual lives, tearing apart families and driving men and women to rancour and despair.

Fiction of this sort works by a kind of metaphor, as personal affairs come to stand in for social ones. The problem, however, is that the personal can then come to displace the social as well as embodying it. It is a possibility built into the realist form, which unlike, say, surrealism or expressionism must by its nature present political or historical forces in personal terms, and can be tempted to exploit this fact for the sake of a convenient resolution. The timely legacy, the return of the exile, the marriage between patrician and plebeian, the rediscovery of the long-lost parent: all these devices can be used as imaginary personal solutions to genuine social conflicts. The Victorians deployed them abundantly, not least because it sometimes seems as if they felt it ideologically impermissible for novels to end badly, gloom being a politically subversive state of mind.

No such sleight of hand is to be found in Barry’s writing, which confronts murder, suicide, betrayal and mental breakdown with such an unflinching gaze that one begins to wonder whether the true criticism to be made of these books is that they are not cheerful enough. Has the history of modern Ireland, a nation which accomplished the first anti-colonial revolution of the 20th century, really been merely a catalogue of horrors? Is this the country that produced Ulysses and Flann O’Brien, exports culture rather than armaments and evolved in a handful of decades from a benightedly parochial nation to a liberal, multicultural one? You might well find little positive in the place if, like Barry, you consistently adopt the perspective of those who felt betrayed, washed up and kicked in the teeth by the new republic. But why should one be so exclusive? What kind of politics does such a strategy conceal? Why is this postmodern outlook (and Barry’s fiction is decidedly postmodern in this sense, if in little else) so enthused by the marginal but so coolly indifferent to the mainstream? Barry is a finer hand at natural description than almost any other novelist in these islands, and there are one or two glorious set pieces of this sort in On Canaan’s Side; but one wonders whether his tender feel for natural processes, perhaps most superbly illustrated in Annie Dunne, compensates to some extent for a failure to find much value in human history. And one wonders whether that, in turn, springs from a failure to see that the outsider’s perspective can be every bit as prejudiced and partisan as that of the patriot.

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