Conference Review: Innovation and Experiment in Contemporary Irish Fiction, KU Leuven

As I walk into the old quarter of Leuven centre, where the Katholieke Universiteit is found, I encounter a small, strangely proportioned creature made of grey bronze, standing nimbly on its toes. It reads from an open book in one hand, while the other pours water over its own head from a beaker. The inscription informs me that this is Fons Sapiente – the source of wisdom. It’s an auspicious encounter en route to a literary conference – even if I am later to learn that the water which ‘Fonske’ pours into his cranium is variously interpreted either as representing wisdom itself, or, more mischievously, as beer, reflecting the boozy student culture which surrounds our seats of learning. I pause to take a photo of Fonske and move on, looking for the Irish College.

The conference itself, on the topic of ‘Innovation and Experimentation in Contemporary Irish Literature’, begins with a disappointment. John Banville, scheduled as one of two ‘Invited Writers’, has had to cancel at the last minute due to a family health issue. He has written a sincere letter of apology, copies of which are distributed to attendees with their name-badge and programme, a classy touch. Best wishes to him and his family. Banville’s presence is nevertheless felt throughout the conference, with a great many papers, two book launches, and two panels focussing on his work and influence. The other invited writer, Sara Baume, has thankfully made it, and she takes their joint speaking slot that evening alone. Baume expands her talk to fit the time superbly, reading from both 2017’s A Line Made by Walking and a forthcoming ‘long essay’ about craft and art and how animals get into everything she writes. It is both a refreshing change of pace and a fascinating counterpoint to the weekend’s academic papers, filled with cut-glass one-liners: ‘“Everybody has a novel in them”? They don’t, really – they have a first draft in them.’

Those academic papers begin with Anne Fogarty’s plenary lecture on ‘writing the posthuman in contemporary Irish women’s writing’. Taking Baume’s A Line alongside Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs and Anne Enright’s The Green Road, Fogarty evokes the theories of Donna Haraway and Rosa Braidotti to argue for, in Haraway’s terminology, ‘staying with the trouble’ of posthuman feminism in the Anthropocene. Although Fogarty does not specifically entangle this paper with theories of modernism, her approach to posthumanism is certainly one which modernist scholars will find fruitful – as one might imagine from reading Saskia McCracken’s previous Modernist Review article on this same entanglement. (The other plenary, Claire Bracken’s on digital feminism, is no less engaging but perhaps less directly relevant to a Modernist Studies readership)

Indeed throughout the conference there is surprisingly little in the way of explicit engagement with the terminology of modernism. This may be partially explained by the scheduled presence of Banville, and subsequent emphasis on his work. But many other papers focus on contemporary Irish experimentalists – Eimear McBride, Mike McCormack, Kevin Barry, Baume herself – whose work is clearly conversant with the tradition of Irish modernism. Maybe it is simply that the strength and confidence of modernism in the Irish experimental tradition, and its (re-emergent) ever-presence in Irish Studies, means that a conference on innovative Irish literature need not focus on this too-obvious connection: perhaps papers like my own, which situates Barry’s Beatlebone in relation to modernism and postmodernism via the modish theory of ‘metamodernism’, are somewhat needy in this context, quibbling over narratological terminology which could be taken as a given, at the expense of deeper philosophical engagement.

Nonetheless there are papers which draw on modernist studies explicitly, and fruitfully. The panel on McCormack features three papers on his 2016 novel Solar Bones, which tackle the notion of experiment head-on. Wit Pietrzak sees experimentation in terms of an avant-garde tradition poised between Derridean and Heideggerean impulses, while Ralf Haekel argues that modernism thematises an attitude towards novelty: not a creation out of nothing but an alteration of an existing system. Deirdre Flynn opens the panel with an incisive analysis of female middle age in the post-Celtic Tiger novel, which provides the kind of concrete political context necessary to understand the current revival of Irish modernism, focusing on the ‘break’ of the 2008 financial crash. I chaired this panel somewhat nervously – my first time in this role – and I am grateful to the three panellists for making this such an easy task.

Elsewhere Filomena Louro discusses the linkage between Joyce’s Dubliners and its recent commemoration in Dubliners 100, Sylvie Mikowski discusses (with relation to Paul Lynch’s Grace) how traumatic events challenge language’s capacity, Derek Hand’s paper on Éilís Ní Dhuibhne discusses how she ‘makes the English language strange’ by contrasting it to Gaelic in The Dancers Dancing (while remaining sceptical of ‘programmatic experimentation’), Selen Aktari-Sevgi and Orsolya Szűcs dissect Baume’s A Line in terms, respectively, of Roland Barthes’ theories of photography as a ‘return of the dead’ and of post-tiger experimentation, and Kasia Ostalska notes that Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians has been ‘accused of not being Finnegans Wake’: all fertile ground for modernist studies, whether the link is made explicit or not. Other papers of potential modernist interest – Samuel Caleb Wee on the ontology of Julian Gough’s Connect, Yen-Chi Wu on John McGahern’s influence on Barry, Shan-Yun Huang on Donal Ryan – I am denied the chance to see by the two-stream format.

The conference proceeds without a hitch, with none of the AV-failures or scheduling hiccups which often come as standard. Enormous credit is due to the organising committee of Elke D’Hoker and Hedwig Schwall, Phyllis Boumans and Ciarán Byrne. After a lively conference dinner on Saturday night, I return past the little statue Fonske to the train station on Sunday morning, to meet an old friend who has recently moved to Ghent, with whom I am long overdue a few beers. Thankfully, as Fonske knows, Belgium is more than forthcoming in this regard; and after three days of intense academic discussion, my own skull is replete with his other libation.

Review by: Aran Ward Sell, University of Edinburgh

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