Academic journal article British and American Studies

Reading in the Dark: Irish Literary Identity

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Reading in the Dark: Irish Literary Identity

Article excerpt

1. Introduction. Discussing literary identity

The present paper deals with two questions: What gives a certain literary work its distinct quality within the world of literature? and How can we know that the story is Irish (apart from relying on extra-literary data)? The answer to the latter does not focus on the "national" identity as constructed in literature (Powell 2004:3), but on "literature" as a set of tendencies that we relate to the Irish literary legacy. This implies forms, structures and modes created in the course of Irish literary history that surface in contemporary literary works such as the autobiographical novel Reading in the Dark (1996) by the prominent Irish author Seamus Deane.

2. Seamus Deane and the Irish literary identity

The expression "Irish literary identity" almost always means "the identity of Ireland or Irish people" as constructed in literature. Rarely does it deal with "a kind of literature as written in Ireland or by Irish people". The explanation for this partly lies in the overwhelming insistence on the ideological concepts of identity and its various sub-forms (national, gender-related, racial, political, colonial, local, etc.). In other words, social, ideological, political and cultural concerns have taken predominance over the literary. Thus, literature, for much of its history an ancilla to history, ideology or politics as well as a "construction worker" of identities, now is estimated as a too long, too demanding, or even too risky and dangerous kind of cultural programming, acceptable only in its shorter and ideologically (assumed) harmless forms. Therefore, its "identity" - its aesthetic quality - is much too often disregarded or pushed to the margin. In this paper, however, this identity is seen in terms of the peculiarities of the literary tradition in Ireland.

2.1 The concept of literary identity

If we accept the concept of literary identity as a set of tendencies which make one literary tradition distinct from others, we can then make another point: our focus is on the concept of "tradition" rather than on "nationality". More exactly, we presume that authors were bom within a certain cultural and social ambience, that they have mastered their trade and ways of articulating their thoughts and feelings within a certain literary framework and that they have constmcted their literary identity by using the features of their literary legacy. It is the legacy that they choose from and build upon. The act of choosing makes their literary identities an open, dynamic and "open to negotiation" literary creative space. Relying, as T. S. Eliot stated, on his "historical sense", an author has not only "the whole of the literature of Europe", but also "the whole of the literature of his own country" (Eliot 1973: 505) at his disposal. This can serve as a general framework, a map of literary history, a storeroom of impressions, phrases, images and experiences. It is the material for a new work of art (that will, following Eliot (1973: 506), in its turn, have an impact "on all the works of art which preceded it"). It begins to exist when the author starts a dialogue with his social, cultural, political, as well as literary inheritance.

2.2 Irish literary identity

In Reading in the Dark (1996), there is true wealth of fictional forms and tellers of tales. One of them is the narrator's aunt, Kathie, the proponent of the original authentic oral storytelling skill. She is the one to delineate the main body of the identity framework, which has, in this novel, the form of a "labyrinthine plot" (Deane 1996:62). She tells the stories to her cousins, the children of the given family, but even when her listeners grow up, she would still tell stories of a different kind, like a true seanchai, a storyteller and historian in early Ireland, a prominent public figure and keeper of collective memories. Therefore, Kathie stands for the framework outline, a large set of stories which have found, in one way or another, their place in Deane's novel, in itself a mixture of detective, Gothic, ghost, black humour, thriller, horror, grotesque prose genres. …

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