But with Eavan Boland’s “Irish Writers on Writing” (Trinity University Press; $24.95), a few things tipped me off that this anthology would be different. In her introduction she eased my mind straight away: “How does an Irish writer define Irish writing? To start with, not with theory or abstraction. That is not the Irish way.” Thank God! The relief was immediate, but was quickly followed by the question: well then, what’s going to hold all of these writings together? Which, I soon learned, is the wrong question to ask. Boland further explains, “I have wanted these pages to be a rich, various, unlikely account of a small island and its writers — not a textbook but a theater.”
Theater indeed! I read these pages not searching for some general sense of Irishness, but just enjoying the diverse styles, opinions and obsessions as various as any nation’s should be. In showcasing Irish literary figures from the past century, Boland is not interested in what argument she can shape from these authors. Rather, she delights in the camaraderie, antagonisms, convergences, divergences, irrelevancies and chains of influence (positive and negative) that refuse to adhere to any structure. The topics range from the importance (or non-importance) of Irish language and history to internationalism, feminism and sexuality. The material Boland draws from is as various as the topics and writers themselves. She showcases each author with a single passage, be it an excerpt of fiction, a letter, a poem, academic essay, an autobiographical account, an article, scenes from a play, or an interview. And as varying as these writings are they articulate tensions that have no easy resolution.
Boland’s own contribution to this collection is contained in short biographies that precede each passage. In these paragraphs, she introduces us to each writer, giving us enough context to understand where in the ongoing, incomplete puzzle a particular author fits. We get their origins, education, publications, and then a summary of that writer’s major themes and preoccupations, and their influences. These concise passages allow us to compose a larger picture with a single poem, or a few pages of memoir. I was surprised at how much one could glean in such limited space, due to Boland’s careful selection and thoughtful, unobtrusive instruction.
As with any history, there are a few major players that reappear. Here, they are the figures of W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, friends who headed the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In their idealizations of Irish literary inheritance, they established the Irish National Theater. Their efforts to create a national literature made them many friends and followers, but also many enemies. Throughout this collection, other writers recall favorable, bizarre, and unflattering encounters with them, in addition to speaking more formally of their influences on their own writing.
An almost given setback to anthologizing so many writers in a single book is the limited view we get of each. But here, complex and intriguing portraits are drawn of both Gregory and Yeats, through the writings of others. This characteristic launches “Irish Writers on Writing” beyond anthology into the entertaining realm of storytelling, but without losing its informative aspects. Boland, in simply telling the stories of these writers, composes the story of a nation — a nation that refuses to be categorized. This refreshing take on national identity frees these writers from anyone else’s agenda. As Colum McCann so eloquently puts it in an excerpted interview, “F*** it, I stand where I stand, I write what I write.”