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Irish prose through a cracked lookingglass

AS the country's politicians and campaigners pounded the footpaths and wondered whether to participate in televised debates last weekend, a clutch of its best writers gathered to engage in a conversation that was probably far more fruitful.

On a chilly, snowy weekend in one of America's elite ivy leagues, Irish literary luminaries -- Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin, John Banville, Paul Murray, Emma Donoghue (the list goes on) -- touched down at Princeton to talk about their work. They were invited there by Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet and professor at the university, who also happens to be the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and poetry editor of the famed New Yorker magazine.

The weekend of lectures and readings was called "The Cracked Lookingglass" in reference to an image used by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Ulysses to describe Irish art. It marked the opening of an exhibition of an astonishing collection of Irish prose writing housed at Princeton -- including the notebooks, first drafts, portraits and letters of 102 Irish authors dating back to the 18th Century -- which Leonard L Milberg, a philanthropist and Princeton graduate, recently gave to the university. Muldoon asked those in the audience to come "through the cracked lookingglass and into the wonderland of contemporary Irish prose".

A wonderland of intellect and productivity is what Ireland's contemporary literary landscape appears to be. It was striking how many of the novelists, even those fresh from success, are already starting again. Anne Enright read a racy excerpt from her new novel, The Forgotten Waltz, about an office affair; Colum McCann, Roddy Doyle, and John Banville are all working on new books.

"Right through the boom, what writers did was we worked. No one partied," Colm Toibin told the Sunday Independent. "Look at the number of books that came out, the number of plays that came out. We're here to celebrate that idea that the word itself, and the idea of the artist working with the word, remains -- irrespective of the sort of mess people make in the country.

"It's one way of sending something out from Ireland that seems good compared to all the other things that are coming out from Ireland, which is really bad news."

The Milberg Collection is a precious set of artefacts, and a reminder of the good things that Ireland has sent out in the past. It includes correspondence by Elizabeth Bowen, and a working notebook of Iris Murdoch, books of ancient legends by Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde's mother, and manuscripts and letters of Sean O'Casey and Flann O'Brien.

By its nature, literature is always part of history. "The problem with writing a novel," said Roddy Doyle, "and I am, I'm writing one set in today, is it'll take me a couple of years. And then there's about a year between its finishing and its publication. It's already almost a historical document. So I don't think writers or creative writers, people who write fiction, are the people to capture the moment. Because the moment passes by."

Yet novels have a solidity and a permanence of their own. Doyle read Dicken's Little Dorrit lately, and found it to be all about money, and the ends people will go to to get more of it. "At the end of the story you've got people who have handed over their money to the banker -- who's lost all their money. And it's very human in that way," he said. "It's very familiar."

This recession, to Doyle, is both familiar and unique. "I grew up right through a recession. I didn't know it was a recession," he explained. "I think that's the problem with the current one. We know it's a recession, because we've known different." At first, he said, "It was as if the whole country was slapped in the back of the head by a salmon, you know? I think the whole country's been stunned." Now, people just want to get on with their lives. "You know, we're stuck in this recession so we may as well make the most of it. And I think people are beginning to come round to that sort of attitude."

Doyle stressed that even the darkest days of the Eighties held some hope. "It generated an awful lot of laughter -- an awful lot of the work in the room at the moment, an awful lot of gradual growing out of that in self-confidence."

Novelists may by their nature be latecomers to the cultural conversation; but already many are pouncing on the absurdities of Ireland in the 21st Century. Anne Enright explicitly set out to write a book about the boom. "I thought adultery was a great boom subject, on the grounds that nobody could afford it before 2001." The Forgotten Waltz is ultimately about love, she says, not betrayal; yet the topic has parallels with the nation's experience. "I thought the country's had this wild affair with money," Enright said. "And now we're looking at the consequences."

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Her novel takes place over the course of a single day, February 6, 2009, and tells the story of a young woman's affair with an older man who works in finance. On that day there was a sense, she thinks, of vertigo; the notion of a soft landing was well in the past. "I thought that this was the right day to set it on -- just the feel of the country, after Lehman Brothers went in September 2008, and this feeling of falling, not knowing how fast or how slow or where the bottom was, or when it would end. I found this really moving. It was a really moving time in Ireland.

"Nobody knew where the bottom was. Everyone was really scared to move, hanging tight, not even thinking about it, just holding the line -- if nobody breathes, the house of cards will stay up. There was a whole year after that, while I was writing the book, of things hanging, or falling. And in fact I finished the book pretty much as the IMF walked in the door. So then we knew."

We may now know where the bottom was and is, but much about what happened to cause the crisis remains unclear.

Roy Foster, the eminent professor of Irish history at Oxford, gave the opening lecture at Princeton. Asked what scholars would make of the past decade in years to come he said, "Historians are going to have to figure out what happened to a fine tradition of public probity in Ireland, established on both sides of the political divide through the first decades of independence -- which was so spectacularly abandoned from the Eighties on."

Just three years ago Foster published Luck and the Irish, a book that sceptically charted Ireland's path to success. Now he sees a great opportunity thrown away. "Historians of the future will wonder why these people [politicians, bankers and construction industry chiefs] are still walking the streets and reaping the rewards of their, at best, ineptness and, at worst, illegal behaviour."

He added: "As Yeats remarked in 1916, after the Rising, the future looked extremely uncertain; the only thing one knew for certain was that it would be very unlike the past."

"The Cracked Lookingglass" symposium took Muldoon three years to bring to life. Two Princeton graduate students, Greg Londe and Renee Fox, organised the exhibition, while Imagine Ireland -- Culture Ireland's programme promoting a year of Irish arts in America -- provided some funding.

When Irish culture is on show abroad it runs the risk of cliche -- what Colum McCann describes as being "leprecorny". Gatherings such as this one are likely to enrich Ireland's reputation for the paradoxical reason that they give a complex view of what's going on.

And at home, Colm Toibin acknowledged that writers have a mixed role. "A poem cannot actually make a job; a novel cannot open a factory," he said. "We are actually doing something that is almost useless -- and is almost the most important thing."


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