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With the new academic year now in full swing and university students both fresh and jaded settling (back) into seminars and tutorials, lectures and labs, it’s an ideal time to talk about the Irish campus novel – this year more so than others, of course, with Sally Rooney’s Trinity-set second novel Normal People garnering often-feverish (though earned) praise on both sides of the Atlantic (Lena Dunham of Girls recently tweeted that Rooney is “her fave writer working in modern fiction”).
The campus novel is not as much of a fixture in Irish fiction as it is in British literature; the writers and titles that Elaine Showalter addresses in her personal, though critical, study of the field, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, are often those which set murder mysteries on Oxbridge campuses. Alongside this there are writers like Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim) and A.S. Byatt (Possession) whose take on academic life, from the point of view of the lecturers, may well be regarded as exceedingly British; and of course, David Lodge (Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, among others) is an author who owes much of his literary success to his shrewd parodies of British academic life.
In contrast, the main literary representation of Irish academic life up until recently was to be found in JP Donleavy’s 1950s novel The Ginger Man or via Samuel Beckett’s take on Dublin University (i.e. Trinity College) containing the “cream” of Ireland: “rich and thick”. But in an era where the percentage of our young people holding third-level qualifications or enrolling in same is among the highest in the EU, where 6% of the adult population are engaged in higher education and a majority of school leavers go into third level, the university setting for fiction has – understandably – become more prevalent as of late.
With free second-level education in the latter part of the twentieth century, further education became slightly more viable for the non-wealthy; with the abolition of university tuition fees in the 1990s (despite their recent creeping back in the guise of extortionate ‘registration fees’ and the ‘student contribution’) it became even more so. And this setting crept slowly but surely into fiction, with writers – as they do – writing what they know (at least in part).
Rooney’s Normal People offers up an interesting take on university and privilege, set in post-boom Ireland where young people are expected to go to college but may not be able to afford it (or indeed, as we have seen in recent years, find suitable accommodation). For well-off (materially if not emotionally) Marianne, achieving at the prestigious Scholarship exams (‘Schols’) at Trinity is a matter of self-esteem; for the more down-to-earth Connell, her friend and sometime-lover, it’s about the absolute practical reality of not having to frantically work each summer to cover all the expenses that a college degree entails.
The bind Connell finds himself in is particular to the current generation – the balance of cultural expectation and material reality. He’s caught in that post-free-fees tangle, a sliding-back into the idea of higher education as elite and in some ways indulgent (and he reflects on his own interest in literature as perhaps being such) while at the same time being the expected minimum level of education for modern twentysomethings.
He is a messy and complicated human within a system that serves as a microcosm for alleged ‘real life’ – and within a genre of novel that uses the often-strange world of academia to explore bigger truths about power, relationships, and meaning.
The Irish campus novel is nowhere near as close to finding its voice (or its clichés) as its Anglo and indeed Anglo-American counterparts but is slowly coming into focus with recent titles, Rooney’s included. Here are some others to visit, or indeed revisit:
Tender by Belinda McKeon
McKeon’s second novel follows the breathless passion its narrator has for her gay best friend, a plot that may sound simple but is portrayed on the page with such emotional sensitivity that it’s hard not to weep desperately at various places. Set mainly in the Trinity of the early ‘90s, it’s an aching rendition of what it means to be in love with (unobtainable) talent, brilliance, potential.
The First Verse by Barry McCrea
This hugely-underrated novel by an Irish-born-and-educated Notre Dame professor is the closest thing you’ll ever find to a Dublin take on Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. First-year undergraduate Niall is pulled into a secret society that uses an obscure method of fortune-telling, based on an over-analysis of texts that cleverly echoes the fervent over-reading of literature texts in English degrees, and becomes increasingly unsettled by the whole thing.
All Names Have Been Changed by Claire Kilroy
In the eighties, before a creative writing masters really existed at Trinity, one happens within the world of Kilroy’s third novel, mostly populated by women and offering up shrewd and often sly takes on how the worlds of literature and academia interact, overlap and collide. It’s a delicious read that invites squinting into the reality behind the myth, even though the mythic PJ Glynn who teaches their workshops could be one of several Irish writers.
The Abode of Fancy by Sam Coll
A modern take on Trinity and the lad who’s caught up in it in all – Sam Coll’s debut novel echoes Swift, Joyce and Flann O’Brien (among an epic range of writers that influence this tale).
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
Beyond the deeply-suspect (and Protestant!) world of Trinity, particularly in the 1950s, there was UCD, whose ‘Colours’ rivalry with Trinners appears in more than one of Binchy’s novels. This shrewd, insightful take on undergraduate life and finding your people is one of her strongest works. (The film adaptation, despite a superb cast, does not do it justice.)
Stir-Fry by Emma Donoghue
In the early ‘90s, a first-year undergraduate inadvertently moves in with a lesbian couple. The juxtaposition between what is officially known and unofficially understood is delicious; Donoghue’s first novel holds up beautifully alongside her later, buzzier works.
Juno and Juliet by Julian Gough
A rare Irish college novel set outside Dublin explores the escapades and heartaches of twin girls in their first year of college in Galway. Gough captures small-town life (i.e. what the girls go back to) wonderfully.
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