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.

Barry’s fiction does not resolve political conflicts by personal means. Even so, the personal in his novels quite often displaces the political. His great-grandfather was a Dublin chief superintendent of police who early last century led a baton charge on strikers in which four men were killed. In his play The Steward of Christendom this historical personage appears as the protagonist, Thomas Dunne. But though Barry’s embarrassingly arch introduction to the play leads one to expect that the incident will figure, there is strikingly little allusion to it, even though it constitutes what one might see as the original sin or primordial crime of the Dunne family, which was to spread its sickness down the generations. The only trenchant criticism of Dunne’s actions comes from a foul-mouthed nationalistic prison warder, whose snarls are easily discounted.

Something of the same applies to Barry’s masterpiece, A Long Long Way, in which Thomas’s son Willie volunteers in the First World War and meets a wonderfully poignant death in battle. One expects the novel to make much of the clash between its hero’s fighting for the Crown and his ambiguous sympathies for the Dublin insurrection of 1916, viewed by some modern Irish historians as an event only slightly less catastrophic than the Black Death. Apart from one stunningly powerful scene between Willie and his father, however, the issue is not a central one at all. The Easter Rising is glimpsed with remarkable brevity, and Willie is too limited and confused a figure to hold any coherent political allegiances. Indeed, the novel is careful to prevent him from joining up out of military or political zeal, which might lay him too open to criticism. Instead, rather absurdly, he becomes a soldier because he is too small to be a policeman.

War is a matter of politics killing people, but it’s also a great mystifier of the political. This is because its horror as an experience tends to make any inquiry into its political foundation look heartless. The poetry of Wilfred Owen registers the horror with unrivalled power, but is quite unable to reflect on the First World War as a political phenomenon. For A Long Long Way, similarly, the war is a human affair rather than a political one. It is a distinction on which the act of warfare itself casts considerable doubt. The book ends with the evasive reflection that you cannot blame the conflict on king or kaiser. Instead, a conveniently abstracted and personified Death takes the rap. The novel is unable or unwilling to transcend its protagonist’s restricted outlook on the question of why all this is happening. Willie’s view is not restricted because he is a common man. Plenty of socialist and pacifist working men saw this clash of imperial powers for what it was, and bravely refused to serve. For Willie, by contrast, bravery consists in serving, since he will have to confront the displeasure of Irish republicans at home as well as the kaiser’s guns abroad.

Blaming is not Barry’s forte. The point is not to judge but to understand. Literature, in a familiar liberal wisdom, yields the felt experience of things rather than delivering moral lessons. This is a remarkably recent view of the function of fiction. Jane Austen observes of one of her characters that he would have been better off not being born. Dickens sees no discrepancy between bringing his figures vividly to life and telling us what creeps or buffoons they are. Barry, by contrast, writes of Thomas Dunne in the introduction to The Steward of Christendom that ‘I was no longer looking for demons, but trying to wrench a life from the dead grip of history and disgrace.’ But why cannot one both rebuke and re-create, as one would need to in a play about Attila the Hun or Charlie Haughey? Cannot understanding sharpen criticism as well as mollifying it?

If Thomas Dunne or his real-life counterpart broke the skulls of working men who were desperate to earn a living, then he should not have done. Barry’s plea in the introduction to The Steward of Christendom that his ancestor was doing his duty is an excuse with a particularly unsavoury history. One of his own characters, Lilly Bere in On Canaan’s Side, counters this by protesting that she will not make excuses for Dunne, who’s her father, though she adds with revealing contradictoriness that she will not criticise him either. Nor should Dunne have collaborated with a colonial power. A good many other Irish citizens suffered hardship for not doing so. Willie Dunne should not have volunteered for an imperialist war that slaughtered men in their millions, and Tadg Bere of On Canaan’s Side should not have become a Black and Tan, one of the thuggish band of mercenaries hired by the British government to quell a popular revolution. (The novel is careful to protect Tadg from too much opprobrium by pointing out that there was no other work to hand, a path down which one would hesitate to wander too far.) There is no reason why imaginative sympathy for one’s characters should not coexist with such judgments. If Barry is reluctant to make them, it is not because he is a spinner of fictions but because, to adopt a phrase from The Secret Scripture, he is ‘master of the neutral tone, if not of neutrality’.

Equipoise, to be sure, is often attempted. Lilly Bere, Tadg’s girlfriend and the narrator of On Canaan’s Side, reflects after he is murdered by Irish nationalists that there were probably evils on both sides of the struggle. It is just that what we are shown is the violence and cruelty inflicted on those who are hostile or indifferent to the anti-colonial movement, not on those who fought in its name and came in for their fair share of torture, murder and vilification. The reader is carefully not allowed to know whether Tadg committed atrocities or not, which makes his assassination seem even more horrific. Lilly doesn’t know whether her father practised torture. Perhaps this is just as well, since if he did Barry would need to do rather more than present him as a foolish, fond old man to rescue him from the verdict of history.

To cast impersonal events in personal terms in the manner of classical realism is inevitably to humanise them. It would be hard for a novel about Eichmann not to make him seem less of a monster, given that it would have to show him eating, grinning, flicking dust from his sleeve. Presenting Thomas Dunne as a feeble old fellow in a madhouse, his wits sorely addled, makes him seem a lot less unpalatable than showing him cracking the heads of the poor. Only at a single point does Barry appear to appreciate the perils of his strategy, when the narrator of On Canaan’s Side reminds herself that even Beria was probably kind to his children. Otherwise, we are invited to modify our moral judgments through our imaginative sympathy with those who are the object of them, as though sympathy and censure cannot coexist. But we are not given an opportunity to do this with the strikers belaboured by Thomas Dunne’s officers, the rebels of 1916 or the killers of Tadg Bere.

The form of Barry’s fiction conspires with this political bias. Because he favours monologic narration, there are few voices available to challenge the narrator’s account. And since realist drama dispenses with a meta-narrative, the same is true of The Steward of Christendom. There is a curiously complex relationship in the novels between the voice of the author and the voice of the narrating character. There are times when this amounts to so-called free indirect speech, as the two languages become hard to distinguish and a Wicklow idiom inscribes itself within a more sophisticated discourse. At other times, as in The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, the voice of the character has the edge over the author’s, while in the preternaturally slow-moving Annie Dunne, the narrative discourse is clearly beyond the powers of Annie herself. A well-nigh perfect blending is achieved in A Long Long Way.

This subtle ratio of voices lends these novels much of their extraordinary richness. Yet it also means that the voice of the novel itself is too closely intertwined with the consciousness of its protagonists to pass critically distancing judgments on them. And there are times when this abstention from judgment is politically convenient. As far as politics goes, it is worth noting that though Barry is a deeply nostalgic writer, full of delectable memories of rural Wicklow, this is rarely held against him by the militantly modern, urban Irish literati, as it is sometimes held against authors like Brian Friel and Seamus Deane. This is because in their case, but not in his, the backward glance to rural Ireland is associated with a currently unfashionable republicanism.

On Canaan’s Side is a less impressive piece of fiction than A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture, books whose unstaunchable eloquence and imaginative fertility (never far in Barry from excessive facility) mark them as among the most powerful works of fiction in English of the past decade. This latest offering is yet another Barry novel recounted by an elderly, marginal, grieving, abused Irish female on the sticky end of the Catholic nationalist set-up. Because the language is more the narrator’s than the author’s, the verbal texture is sparser than usual, without the gorgeous inventiveness of Barry in full lyrical flight. There is, however, some gain in this loss of verve, since the shimmering beauty of Barry’s imagery can sail perilously close to sheer fancifulness, even absurdity: ‘Her eyes had the green of the writing on a tram ticket,’ ‘Her legs are like the slender pillars of the courthouse in Baltinglass,’ and other such embarrassments. Barry can produce prose of great splendour, but there is a soft-bellied sensibility lurking beneath it, breathless, cloying and rhapsodic. He can overdo the Synge-song. The playwright Frank McGuinness has remarked that Barry writes like an angel, and there can indeed be something too ethereal and impalpable about his language, as in ‘she has entered her fold of silence like a star accused by the dawn light,’ which is entrancingly meaningless. If Colm Tóibín is too costive with words, Barry is too spendthrift. In contemporary Irish fiction, John Banville strikes just the right balance between opulence and discipline. Even so, Barry’s verbal extravagance makes for an intriguing, typically Irish tension between bleakness of content and richness of form, a contrast equally notable in Synge, Joyce and O’Casey.

The plot of On Canaan’s Side is action-packed enough – indeed, a little too much so, as one disaster follows hard on the heels of another. Lilly and Tadg Bere are forced by the IRA to flee to the United States, where Tadg is assassinated; Lilly’s son Ed is broken by fighting in Vietnam; her sister Maud kills herself, as does her grandson Bill, and we leave Lilly herself contemplating suicide at the age of 89. Such is the perversity of the human mind that there is something mildly comic about any such train of unremitting calamities. There is also an improbable narrative twist to top it all off.

In a curious inversion, the victors in Ireland have these days become victims. Northern Unionists who ruled the roost for more than half a century complain of being marginalised. Those who fought alongside their colonial masters in the First World War met with ingratitude, while those who fought against them in 1916 have been honoured. But this has not been true in Ireland for quite some time. Barry wonders rather coyly in his introduction to The Steward of Christendom whether his ‘credentials as a real Irish writer’ will be challenged now that he has lifted the lid on his politically dubious great-grandfather, but he need not have worried. In an Ireland desperate to bury its revolutionary history, he would have fared far worse by rehabilitating Jim Larkin or James Connolly. No doubt some enterprising Irish author is currently at work on a novel which shows that the Victorian civil servants who helped Ireland along the road to famine in the 1840s by refusing to rein in market forces were decent, family-loving men who have been lamentably travestied, and who lie among the obscure and discarded of history waiting to tell their story. Barry seems to embrace the postmodern dogma that whatever is hidden from ‘official’ history is likely to be of more value than what is affirmed by it. But Martin Luther King belongs to official history, and a good many scoundrels have been rightly buried in oblivion. Not all margins are precious, or all mainstreams noxious. One can, however, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, to use the kind of quaint rural image of which Barry might approve, and in this marvellous series of stories he has certainly done that.