by Kevin Power
I was there to hear Anne Enright, but I was thinking about Henry James. In March 1895 the Master was a guest at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (back then it was the home of Lord Wolseley, Commander of the British Forces in Ireland). James found the Hospital “a most picturesque and stately thing,” possessed of “one of the finest great halls in the British islands.” But James disliked Ireland. To his friend Theodora Sedgwick he wrote, “I was not made for Viceregal ‘Courts,’ especially in countries distraught with social hatreds.”
One hundred and twenty-three years later, and I was at the Royal Hospital to attend the closing event of the National Day for Writers: Anne Enright in conversation with Declan Meade. Social hatreds were much on peoples’ minds. It was referendum day. We were about to find out – or so it seemed – just how distraught our country really was. It was intensely hot. Across the baked cobbles of the IMMA courtyard tourists ambled, with their maps and bum-bags, their rucksacks and Ray-Bans – no referendum worries for them. But for the local crowd assembled in the Baroque Chapel to hear the former Laureate for Irish Fiction talk about her work, there was a mingled feeling of anxiety and relief: relief that the campaigns were over, anxiety about the next day’s news.
How better to spend such an afternoon (I thought) than in the company of Anne Enright? – who is, of course, not just Ireland’s greatest living prose stylist (with all apologies to John Banville), but also one of our most perceptive social critics, as we stumble out of Catholic gloom and into the ambiguous light of market-state modernity. To everything she writes, Enright brings a lucid, finely tangled intelligence. Her essay on the referendum, commissioned for Una Mullally’s Repeal the 8th anthology and published in the Guardian, is penetratingly sane. “If all life is sacred,” she writes of natural miscarriages, “then all life did not get the memo.” If it is the aim of all writers to see clearly, then Anne Enright has the best eyesight in contemporary Irish literature. She is 20/20, 24/7.
In deference to the theme of the day, Enright’s conversation with Declan Meade largely eschewed politics and zeroed in on the topic at hand: the writing life. Ensconced in a high-backed ecclesiastical chair, above which climbed the stained glass of the Royal Hospital’s 18th-century Baroque Chapel, Enright seemed relaxed. She was, of course, playing on home turf. There was no need to observe the formalities. “Declan Meade, who’s able to read,” Enright said, when Meade had finished his introduction. “That’s what we call him in our house.”
Banter aside, Meade (who, as the distinguished editor and publisher of The Stinging Fly, is definitely able to read) was there to extract some useful ore: he wanted Enright’s advice about how to sustain a career in writing. But it wasn’t a “career” that Enright wanted, starting out: it was, she said, “a writing life.” “And a writing life isn’t possible any more. Because everyone has instant careers.” Nonetheless, Enright did offer some highly practical suggestions. “Get the right partner,” she said. “Or no partner. If someone envies the creative danger of it all, they’ll undermine you in the most ferocious way.”
Writing, Enright said, is “a lonely fucking profession,” and it would be wise to come to terms with this early, rather than late. “Don’t show your manuscripts to your friends,” she said, “or they won’t be your friends for very long.” In the final analysis, a writer is on her own. “All you can control at any given time are your sentences.” The key, Enright said, is “daily practice.” You might write only 200 words. But the thing is to do it every day. How to sustain your confidence, over the long haul of a book? “If somebody says, ‘I’ve no confidence,’ I say, ‘Yeah, you’re special'” – and that’s the end of that. “I say to my American students, ‘You’re going to fail every day of your lives.’ They say, ‘Fuck off.’ I say it to Irish students, and they laugh and say, ‘Yeah.'”
In its closing moments the conversation turned, rather delicately, to the referendum, and to the questions it raised about Ireland’s past and future. “I really wish I knew what to say,” Enright said. “It took dredging for me to write about this subject. The younger women are amazing in their clarity and their simplicity. I’m snarled up in it.” This is surely false modesty. Very few writers have addressed with such luminous clarity the agonies and ambiguities of what Enright refers to as “that Ireland, which we’re extracting ourselves from with such pain and shame and such astonishingly strong stickiness between us and history.”
“You don’t want to write against something,” she was careful to say. The point being that the writer’s task is cognition plus empathy – with no axes to grind. In this task, Enright succeeds afresh with each new short story, each new essay, each new novel.
We were about to discover that the “stickiness” gluing Ireland to its history had dissolved considerably – or so it appeared. Watching the referendum result, it occurred to me that Anne Enright, of all Irish writers, is the one least likely to be seduced by popular notions about a “new Ireland.” As a writer, she said, she wants to “leave myself open to the time.” Which also, of course, means leaving yourself open to history – that sticky history, with all its social hatreds, as well as its rare and hard-won victories.