National Literatures

Irish Writers on Writing
, ed. Eavan Boland
[Trinity University Press, ISBN 978-159534032-0]
Polish Writers on Writing, ed. Adam Zagajewski
[Trinity University Press, ISBN 978-159534033-7]

In the Preface to this anthology, the editor, Eavan Boland, starts by asking: 'How does an Irish writer define Irish writing?' This question seems to betray a slight misinterpretation of the title of the volume, Irish Writers on Writing, not Irish Writers on Irish Writing. There is probably room for a book with the latter title, but I had been hoping, when I received the book, that the book would do what it says on the cover. I am not interested in Irish writing as a genre, even though many of my favourite writers are Irish. Irish writers over the years have had a lot to say about writing, as an act and as embodied in a tradition, as literature. Not much of it makes it into this anthology.

Boland answers her own question by stating: 'Not with theory or abstraction. That is not the Irish way.' Hmmm. As a thought experiment, replace the word Irish with British or English in the preceding sentences and it will make the editor seem Blimpish. Doubly so, if like me, you read these words while travelling back from the Soundeye Festival in Cork, where almost all of the writers there assembled would have claimed an allegiance with some kind of theory and abstraction.

It has often been observed that denial of theory is a way to justify one's own theory by making it invisible: other people have theory, you have experience, or life, or common sense. But the real giants of Irish literature over the last 100 years (all included in this anthology) have often had very abstract, theoretical concerns: Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, and Muldoon. None of these were exactly empirically-bounded; although it is also true that all of them had trouble staying in the country of their birth. In fact, interest or involvement in various modernisms seems to have qualified a large number of Irish writers for one-way tickets to the Continent.

Boland's emphasis in this anthology is on what Irish writers have to say about each other, and as such tends to focus largely on the Irish Revival and writers who have been in its wake, with less to say about Irish modernism. Unfortunately, the subject of other Irish writers seems to show some great writers at their least interesting, and most incestuous. Myles na Gopaleen (aka Flann O'Brien) is represented by a lacklustre humorous essay on Irish literary academies. Yeats, who had so much to say about writing in general, and his encounters with non-Irish writers, is represented by one essay, from 1903, on Lady Gregory. The list could go on, and makes Irish writing as a canon seem very inward-looking and hence insular. I know from my own experiences at Cork, and from reading Irish writers I like, that this is not the case.

The problem with this is that any attempt to consider a 'national' literature as a body is going to be a construction, and hence liable to challenge. An anthology that was less inward looking (Irish writers on foreign writing, for instance) would have been far more interesting to anyone not embedded in the construction and/or deconstruction of these kinds of canons or traditions.

I probably know even less about Polish writers and any tradition of Polish writing as a body than I do about Irish, but Polish Writers on Writing fulfils the title better, and hence makes a much more satisfying read. Like Ireland, Poland has inevitably had an element of nationalism in its literature, and its share of peasant and soily inwardness. But unlike Ireland, it kept its language and lived through not one imperialism but two. It lost its lively Jewish and important intelligentsia. Its exiles were forced to leave. Their history has been the most terrible of any European nation in the last century. IN that time they have produced some great literature and in particular great poets (their greatest writer, Bruno Schulz, was a poet disguised as a novelist).

The editor, Adam Zagajewski, does not restrict himself to one piece per author, and is thus able to give a fuller representation of the greatest Polish writers: particularly Bruno Schulz and Czeslaw Milosz. Schulz was simply one of the most original writers and artists of the Twentieth Century, and this book gives adequate some samples of his non-fictional prose which are not available elsewhere. Even for that, this book is worth its money. I found the Milosz essays here lofty in an uninteresting way, ponerous and concerned with grand abstractions, but this was made up for by the writings of the generation following Milosz, many of whom I had not heard of before. The published diary seems to be a lively form among Polish writers; many of the extracts show a lively engagement with the world of letters, mixed with impressionistic takes on daily lives. Often writing in exile, their diaries and journals show a constant concern with what is happening in the present both of the country they are living in, and of Poland. The one thing the book lacks is a bibliography; although most of the pieces here seem to be commissioned translations, I would have wanted to know where I could find more of the works of say Anna Kamienska, Julia Hartwig, Slawomir Mrozek, in translation. Perhaps these writers are available in English nowhere else.

      Giles Goodland 2007