I’ll deny if I want to

Sally Rooney’s Irish childhood informed her politics

Sally Rooney – Photo by Chris Boland / chrisboland.com

Sally Rooney wants us to know she takes her Marxist politics seriously. Questions of economic precarity, housing, and career security concern her young Irish characters. In Conversations With Friends (2017) they chat idly about the refugee crisis. In Normal People (2018) they muse over the ills of capitalism. In her most recent novel, Beautiful World Where Are You (2021), they exchange discursive emails on the nature of conservatism, religion, and dying for the revolution.

Rooney’s eagerness to politicise her novels likely emerges from the political landscape she grew up in. Born in 1991 and from the West of Ireland, several seismic moments in history will have served the backdrop to her early years: the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent financial crisis, and the liberalisation of the nation with gay marriage and abortion referendums. All these real-world incidents reverberate – some overtly, some indirectly – throughout her work.

And though Rooney once confined the majority of her radical proclamations to the abstract, she has recently crossed the threshold into the novelist-cum-activist realm. In October she announced Beautiful World will not be released by Modal Publishing House, thanks to her cultural boycott of Israel.

The move has generated its expected backlash. Thanks to her vertiginous success Rooney is a headline-generating machine at the best of times. The British media’s collective surprise at Rooney’s bold political stance strikes me as a little short-sighted for a media landscape so obsessed with parsing every detail of Rooney’s novels (and increasingly every detail of her life).

Rooney takes great care to prove her characters’ actions are driven by the political and economic landscape they operate in. In Normal People her dialogue is littered with appeals to various and often ill-defined injustices, and one character attends a protest against the occupation of Palestine.

We should not conflate Rooney’s own views with the ones expressed through her novels. But it does not seem mere coincidence that the political forces exerted upon her characters cohere with the author’s real-world pronouncements. Her personal ideology seems inextricable from the stories she tells.

Looking beyond the novels, Rooney’s position on Israel was forseeable. Trinity College Dublin exists as a character in its own right in Normal People – the characters are students there and the story is moulded around its buildings. It also happens to be Rooney’s alma mater. In 2017 a talk by the Israeli ambassador, Ze’ev Boker, was cancelled following protests. Just last month Trinity’s nonfictional students held an anti-apartheid week in protest against its links to Israel.

For those of a certain leaning, the Palestinian condition is written into the political culture of Ireland. So it’s not surprising this had a significant impact on Rooney’s work, and her boycott
might make perfect sense in that light. But that doesn’t necessarily make it defensible or worthwhile

It’s not unusual for students to be alive to these debates. But Trinity – as an Irish university – has a long-held tradition of activism as a result of historical grievances. Many in Ireland see the occupation of Palestine as allegorical to their own plight – as a small nation subjected to colonial rule. These perceived parallels find their expression across contemporary Irish politics too: City Hall in Dublin brandished a Palestinian flag in 2017; Sinn Féin are frequent and vitriolic critics of Israel; in 2018 Dublin city council passed a resolution endorsing a boycott of Israel.

For those of a certain leaning, and Rooney is comfortably among their ranks – the Palestinian condition is written into the political culture of Ireland. So it’s not surprising this had a significant impact on Rooney’s work, and her boycott might make perfect sense in that light. But that doesn’t necessarily make it defensible or worthwhile.

Rooney emphasises that she’s not objecting to her novel being published in Hebrew and is taking a stand against specific Israeli publishers. But perhaps they are functionally the same: how many non-Israeli publishing houses are jumping at the chance to release a Hebrew version of her work? Even if the distinction she employs is defensible in theory, does it mean anything other than discrimination against Hebrew speakers in practice?

Sam Leith, the literary editor of The Spectator, has asked what her boycott might actually achieve, pointing out that denying publishing rights of her novel will not disadvantage the Israeli state (economically or culturally), but might hurt Hebrew speakers. So what is the point? “Perhaps an Israeli boycott will be good branding [for her novel] in the liberal west. But it’s hard to imagine it will do a damn thing for the Palestinians,” Leith concludes.

If we believe Leith is right, and I think he is, it seems a hollow gesture, the primary effect of which is to furnish Rooney with cultural capital, signifying her membership of a particular political group.

Considering all this, Rooney emerges as a writer who goes to great lengths to demonstrate her political allegiances. But they don’t necessarily translate well into her novels. The narrative of Beautiful World is split up by wordy, philosophising emails between Alice (a successful novelist) and Eileen (an editorial assistant at a literary magazine), both of whom – as far as I can see – demonstrate a frustratingly superficial grasp of the politics they are so keen to discuss.

In one missive Eileen muses on the bronze age collapse. She posits that for “every one member of the elite, thousands more were illiterate and impoverished subsistence farmers,” a surprisingly glib observation from a character who apparently takes her leftist politics seriously. At another point Alice complains about her fame and the laurels that accompany it, asking: “Why should anyone be rich and famous while other people live in poverty?”

The reader is naturally left wondering about the extent to which Rooney is commenting on her own experience as a famous novelist, and whether these fictional emails are vehicles for Rooney to impart her own ideas about the world.

In this I can’t help feeling Rooney falls into a trap of her own making. She has proven herself so accomplished at observing the millennial experience of love and anxiety – and she writes about sex better than most – that these political interventions seem flimsy by comparison. Of course they might simply be an authorial commentary on the shallowness of her characters. But while Eileen and Alice mature emotionally as the narrative moves on, there is no corresponding depth or enlightenment in their intellectual ruminations.

The Irish Woman Novelist is not a homogenous mould, no matter how many critics have attempted to impose one. But Rooney is not out of step with one specific tradition: the female novelist unafraid of controversy. Edna O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls (1960) caused considerable disquiet – it was brave for a woman to theme an entire novel around sex at the time, and political and religious figures took umbrage. The Irish censorship board banned the book. Whatever radical politics we might ascribe to Rooney’s novels, they can’t help but appear milquetoast in comparison to the shockwaves made by O’Brien.

Back in modern Ireland, Naoise Dolan is the latest young woman to be touted as “the next Sally Rooney”. It seems unfair that few can escape this comparison at the moment. But Dolan and Rooney share commonality. Her debut novel Exciting Times (2020) concerns an Irish expat teaching English in Hong Kong, as she navigates two romantic relationships. It’s consciously more “funny” than Rooney’s writing. But the author similarly goes to unnecessary lengths to demonstrate the central importance of politics to the narrative, bursting with observations on colonialism, class and excessive wealth.

This is not to say that books about relationships and the listlessness of youth cannot also function as serious political texts. There are plenty of examples where the two modes are the perfect complement to each other. Jane Austen comes to mind. And Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series is a portrait of two friends, Elena and Lila, through whose relationship the reader sees the political and economic struggles of Naples.

But where Ferrante succeeds, Rooney struggles. Ferrante’s characters are inextricably tied up with the political universe they occupy. Neapolitan ideas, history and politics are embedded in the lovers and careers and friendships described. Rooney’s Alice and Eileen, meanwhile, have their stories buttressed by a confected discourse about the state of the world that I believe detracts from, rather than enhances, the work as a whole. Ultimately, Rooney thrives in expressing her characters’ feelings of shame, upset, unloveability, and desire. This is what gives her claim to being the great chronicler of millennial ennui. And it is clear how forcefully she roots this in the political conditions of Ireland. Whether she does this convincingly or not in Beautiful World is of secondary importance. It tells us who she is as a writer. And makes the source of her Israel boycott easy to locate.

Finn McRedmond is an Irish journalist based in London. She writes columns for the Irish Times

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