This year’s LSE literary festival, held around the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, takes ‘Revolutions’ as its theme, examining various forms of upheaval and regeneration in literature, politics, religion, and science. I was fortunate enough to attend ‘Revolutions in Literature’, a talk which brought together author Eimear McBride and Toby Lichtig, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. McBride and Lichtig discussed literary revolution, considering the innovations of modernism at the turn of the 20th century alongside the methods being used in today’s contemporary fiction. Given my PhD research in contemporary Irish poetry, the event was hugely beneficial in furthering my understanding of the new beginnings currently underway in recent Irish novel writing.
McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) and The Lesser Bohemians (2016), has made a name for herself with novels which are formally daring, inventive, and original. These qualities of her own work were evoked in her definition of modernism as literature premised around ‘resistance’ – bringing the reader closer to a text’s form instead of its content, and ‘making the “how” as important as the “what”.’ She illustrated this with a reading of an extract from James Joyce’s notoriously experimental and difficult Finnegan’s Wake (1939), highlighting the way in which the novel’s form confuses and obscures its content. However, she also discussed the potential radicalism of content, suggesting that considerations of literary innovation should not be limited to formal and stylistic concerns. Irish author Edna O’Brien, herself influenced by Joyce, instigated her own form of revolution in Ireland with her 1960 novel The Country Girls, which was formally conventional but caused a scandal in its narration of a relationship between a teenage girl and a much older man. Like McBride, O’Brien proves that the revolutionary in literature extends beyond the ‘high modernism’ of the early twentieth century; McBride herself suggests that everything after this period might still be in some way modernist.
McBride’s own affinities with Joyce are manifest in her radical use of an allusive, stream-of-consciousness narrative technique in her novels. However, she also distances herself from Joyce, pointing out that the frequent comparisons are frequently misrepresentative. The figure of Molly Bloom in Ulysses is an aspect of his work against which she is particularly keen to rebel by representing a more authentic version of female subjectivity in her own novels, which centre around the experiences of women protagonists. In conversation with Lichtig, she also cited the work of other women writers. In this she included the groundbreaking and revolutionary work of late playwright Sarah Kane and the fiction of Ali Smith, originally billed to speak alongside McBride at the event but sadly prevented from attending due to Storm Doris. Smith’s Autumn, written in 2016 and celebrated by reviewers as the first Brexit novel, is the first part of a four-part series, written in real time during the year from Autumn 2016 to Summer 2017 when they will be set. By producing fiction whose focus and scope is precisely contemporary to the time of its publication, Smith joins the ranks of literary innovators such as McBride who are championing revolutionary new beginnings in literature. Both are part of a current vanguard of writers producing work whose form and subject matter are refreshing and novel, hearkening back to the experimentation of high modernism at the same time as they speak directly and relevantly to the current social and political climate.
Erin Cunningham is a first year PhD student in the English department at King’s College London, and her research examines the sonnet in Irish poetry from the late nineteenth century to the present day.