Learning to navigate the intersections between different identities is an almost constant process when one inhabits supposedly conflicting spheres of existence. What has fascinated me throughout this process has been the questions: Where do these identities come from? How are they formed? Who gets a say in how they should be performed? I’ve decided to look specifically at Irish Literature due to the history of English occupation and the tensions created through defining identity as what one is not just as much as what one is. The political and the personal become inseparable when we look at national or cultural identity as a construct both adopted and assigned.
Published in 1929, following both the First World War and the Irish War of Independence, Elizabeth Bowen’s second novel, The Last September, follows Lois Farquar as she navigates what it means to be a woman in the post-war era but surrounded by the murmurs of Irish unrest. Lois Farquar is living with her Aunt and Uncle, Lady and Lord Naylor, and their nephew, Laurence.The family goes through the motions of the everyday–receiving visitors, attending social events, eating meals, reading, playing tennis–while the presence of conflict becomes ever more integrated into their thoughts and story. Their lives are marked by the arrival of long-term guests, such as the Montmorencys and Miss. Norton, who continue to complicate Lois’s understanding of her family and personal identity.
This novel has been held up as a prime example of Big House literature, in which Anglo-Irish families are given positions of power due to their economic success in the colony. The novel itself is separated into three parts: The Arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency, the Visit of Miss Norton, and The Departure of Gerald. This separation of story, of time and action, by the people who arrive feels important for understanding the way that Lois comes to learn about the world. In the final section, Gerald, the romanticized British soldier who Lois had been hoping to mary is killed by an Irish ambush (307). The novel ends with the three big houses of the neighborhood vacant, burning to the ground (314). The novel therefore ends with the violent dispelling of anything perceived as English and imperial from Cork, however throughout the work, the younger generation of Anglo-Irish occupiers are relatively detached from the politics that will determine their own lives. The ways in which similar, yet distinctive, identities are navigated throughout the novel (such as English v. Anglo-Irish v. Native Irish) demonstrated the complexities that come with who creates identity, how they decide what counts as “in” or “out,” and how this impacts individuals without them necessarily recognizing it.
Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), is the story of Marcus Conway, a deceased civil engineer from county Mayo who has been pulled back into consciousness on All Souls’ Day. Told in a first person limited perspective, the novel begins with the ringing of the Angelus church bells and the confusion of Conway as he is transported into the moment and then realizes that he is home alone (McCormack 1-3). Over the next few hours, as he waits for his wife, Mairead, to come home, Conway sits reading the paper, and later watching the news, reflecting on current events and diverging quickly into his own train of thoughts about his own history, focusing on his relationships with his father, and children–Darragh and Agnes. His thoughts linger on media, politics, environmental disaster, and the economic crash that have all shaped his county, Ireland, and his understanding of the world.
What is deeply fascinating about this work is that the entirety of the 217 pages are comprised of one singular sentence, which never receives punctuation at its end. The stream of consciousness and continuity between one moment to the next flows in a slightly disorienting, but entirely captivating fashion. The transition between the personal and the political is seamless, as Conway considers himself a well informed and politically conscious individual. Conway repeatedly connects the body and existence of those around him to the political at large through short comments, often interrupted by another thought. In thinking about the “metaphysical reality” of his daughter’s birth, Conway comments on her status as a citizen and maps the political onto her body within days of her coming into the world (McCormack 34). He maps the environmental crisis in Mayo following the introduction of an oil pipeline in the north of the county on to the body of his wife through her illness as a result of environmental contamination (McCormack 96). This novel is deeply entrenched in the relationship between the personal and the political, in a way that is unexpected from a man who only has a few hours of consciousness due to peculiar circumstance. Solar Bones complicates my research thus far by forcing me to think about how form factors into remembrance of personal, local, and national histories, since McCormack’s structure can not be ignored.
Both novels contend with what it means to exist in both a local, personal, and political manner. Both manipulate temporality as a way to comment on identity. McCormack collapses an entire life, an entire history, into a few short hours, making the reader feel scattered throughout time and space. Bowen, on the other hand, lilts time, making her characters feel trapped in a repetitive circle that Lois can not seem to break. Solar Bones was published in 2016, meaning that there is no real body of criticism addressing the work yet. However, using a contemporary piece which interacts with Ireland’s history in the way that this novel does would be interesting in mapping how perceptions of norms, culture, local identity and national identity evolve or change over time. Writing about Bowen, on the other hand, means trying to contend with decades worth of scholarship, which would leave me unsure of where my own voice and thoughts fit into the conversation. Currently, I am leaning towards McCormack’s work due to its form.
Bowen, Elizabeth. The Last September. The Dial Press, 1929.
McCormack, Mike. Solar Bones. Tramp Press, 2016.