Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Letter from Dublin (1)

Katie Haegele, who filled in for me here briefly this past summer, and who reviews young adult books -- and much else besides -- for The Inquirer, has flown to Dublin to matriculate at University College, Joyce's alma mater. I asked her to send me a letter from time to time, commenting on what she observes of the literary scene there. Here is her first:

This Modern Life: A Dublin Diary

Hello Inqy readers! I’m writing to you from a tiny
cottage in Dublin. The house I’m staying in
is just outside the city center in an old
working-class neighborhood, nestled in a row
of what they call workers' houses — teensy,
one-story stucco joints that Guinness built for its
employees in the 1880s. Think Roddy Doyle in South
Ostensibly I’m in here to study toward a master’s
degree in modern English literature. But between me
and you, I’m also here for the experience. The
experience of living in a foreign country on my own,
of finding out how much of my personal perspective has
been culturally determined, of learning how to buy
rounds and remain standing after they’ve all been
drained. So while it’s true that I’ve been living it
up since I got here, my out-of-classroom experiences
are proving to be about as literary — and definitely as
modern — as anything on my reading list.
Last week I heard a talk given by Declan Kiberd, the
chair of the Anglo-Irish Department at University
College Dublin. He spoke eloquently, and with energy
and a refreshing directness, on James Joyce’s Ulysses and what he called the “common culture.” Ulysses is
the quintessential modern novel in many ways, of
course, not the least of which was its then-shocking,
God-is-a-shout-in-the-street sense of secularism. But
Kiberd went on to say that modernism itself was a
village phenomenon — that Joyce wanted to maintain the
sense of community they’d enjoyed in the old days
(after first chucking any residual provincialism and
ignorance). Ulysses was both a celebration and an
epitaph of the culture that produced it, Kiberd said,
because it chronicled everyday human interactions in a
city that, by the time the book was published in the
1920s, would no longer be the kind of place where
people went out strolling just to see who they might
run into for a chat.
I know Kiberd is right. Dublin has changed
dramatically over the last 100 years (especially the
last 20), and it’s now a wealthy, bustling, and
international city. On some streets you’re about as
likely to hear Spanish, French, or English being
spoken with a Caribbean lilt as you are to hear a
local brogue. There are also plenty of folks here who
rush around in suits and eat in overpriced fusion
restaurants and are about as pleasant to spend time
with as those kind of people are anywhere. (Maybe
that’s what my professor means when he talks about
global modernization — the Western world’s unfortunate
acceptance of yuppies.) But from my perspective,
Dubliners still talk and listen to each other much
more than people do in Philadelphia. The majority of
the people I’ve met here, including strangers on the
street, seem *present* in their day-to-day
interactions, not simply nodding as they mentally tick
off an endless to-do list, preoccupied with something
that seems more important simply because it hasn’t
happened yet. I don’t mean to romanticize the place;
people are just people wherever you go. Anyway, it
could be just a matter of size. With only around six
million people Ireland is a small country and, as I’m
finding out, a lot of them know each other.
The evening after our first class a bunch of us went
out to get acquainted over a few pints. I got to
talking to the only girl in my class who might fairly
be described as a hipster. Her shoulder tattoos were
on display, and she talked about postmodernism in a
cute, croaky smoker’s voice. She seemed like someone
who might share my taste in books so I asked her who
in Ireland is writing good stuff right now. She told
me about the poet Paula Meehan, who she likes because
she writes about Dublin as it is today rather than
taking some wistful stroll down a cobble-stoned memory
lane, which is apparently a local publishing trend my
classmate considers overdone and hokey. When we met
again at class the next day, she’d brought me an
anthology that contained some of Meehan's work and
also included a poet named Eavan Boland. I got all
excited when I recognized Boland’s name and started to
talk about one of her poems, which is hard to do when
you can’t remember the title or any of the imagery.
Synopsis doesn’t exactly do poetry justice. But I did
remember that the poem was about the birth of her
daughter and that it had a fantastic line saying that
the next time they meet will only be a reunion. After
I recited it my classmate looked at me evenly for a
good second and my face got hot as I worried I’d said
something stupid.
“Well,” she said drily, “I know her daughter, and
she's a bit of a bitch.”
Something tells me that writing about literary Dublin
is going to read more like a soap opera than a blog
entry. So be sure to tune in for the next episode ...

-- Katie

1 comment:

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