Named for James Joyce’s fictional alter-ego, Dedalus Books (not to be confused with Irish poetry publisher Dedalus Press, which started in 1985) was founded in Britain on Bloomsday 1983 by Eric Lane.
From the very first, Dedalus Books adopted a strongly European perspective, publishing, alongside contemporary British authors, translations of the most innovative new and out-of-print works of fiction from the continent – 30-odd years ago, my first Dedalus purchase was Grimmelhausen’s 17th-century picaresque novel Simplicissimus.
Since then, says Lane, “Dedalus has invented its own distinctive genre, which we term distorted reality, where the bizarre, the unusual, the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European.”
Given the origin of its name, one might wonder why it has taken four decades for Dedalus to take on its first Irish authors – Brian Keogh, Eoghan Smith, and myself, Dara Kavanagh (aka David Butler) – particularly when so many canonical Irish writers openly embraced a European rather than Anglophone tradition. But this year, for their 40th anniversary, Eric Lane has decided to go one better, and to launch an Irish imprint of Dedalus Books.
Central to the Irish literary tradition, from Swift and Sterne through to Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Behan and Molly Keane by way of Edgeworth’s Thady Quirk and the gallus talkers of JM Synge, runs a spinal cord of comic exuberance. Harking back to Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes and Diderot, its impulse might be referred to as carnivalesque. Here, the essence of carnival is irreverence, exaggeration, bawdry. Drawn to hyperbole, it celebrates the coarse, the monstrous; suspicious of solemnity, it employs bathos, expletive, eructation.
Language, when not openly parodic, is in excess – think of the baroque flights of oratory of the derelicts who inhabit the Irish stage, from Boucicault, Synge and O’Casey to Beckett, Friel and Murphy, to the foul-mouthed grannies of Marina Carr. In the carnivalesque, content is constantly overwhelming form, so that whether Gulliver’s Travels, Tristram Shandy, Castle Rackrent, Ulysses, At Swim Two Birds, Cré na Cille or Malone Dies remain novels under this pressure has become something of an academic parlour game. So too, whether or not our national obsession with Hiberno-English derives from the supposed trauma of the loss of a mother tongue.
Whatever the truth of such a psychological trauma, and indeed regardless of their relative fluency or lack thereof in the lost mother tongue, on the one hand, with the Revival and the stalwart work of Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde et al, the Irish modernists had an ancient Gaelic tradition to tap into which itself had a bawdy, earthy side with a tendency toward hyperbole – think the Feast of Bricriu, or the pillow talk of Maedbh and Aillil. It is a tradition whose pieties, moreover, where perceived, might be satisfyingly deflated with bathos, parody and pastiche.
On the other hand, there has long been a (post)-colonial impulse to step over the neighbouring island so as to tap directly into the European mainstream. George Moore, Synge, Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett all at one point or another took up residence, physically and spiritually, in Paris – for Kate O’Brien, it was Spain that was to become a second imaginative home. It is absolutely to the point, here, that for young Stephen Dedalus, for whom the book imprint is named, as he ponders going into permanent exile, language, together with nationality and religion, are the nets he must fly.
Such are the obsessions and considerations which lie behind my latest novel – in fact my fifth, but my second with Dedalus Books writing as Dara Kavanagh - which after 20 years’ gestation is being launched this October as a flagship for the new Irish imprint. In Jabberwock, an attempt is made throughout to conjure up the ghost of language and make it corporeal.
Set in the 1930s, it envisages one Ignatius Hackett, a down-at-heel journalist dispatched by no lesser figure than the great RM Smyllie himself to investigate a dastardly plot by disgruntled republicans to bring down the British empire by spreading a counterfeit language, their steps dogged by Chief Inspector Quibble of the Semantics branch of the CID.
The cat-and-mouse game of spies and informers that results, the national paranoia, the restrictions and rumours and book burnings and denunciations at length morph into a madcap pursuit through the Home Counties, France and the dark heart of Germany, reaching a climax at the annual carnival of Bowberry Jack. But language is a slippery and profligate customer, and the narrative overflows with puns, non-sequiturs, ambiguities, fonts, accents, asides and footnotes, many of them spurious.
If the reader picks up parallels to the present anxious age of information overload, conspiracy theories, bots, hyperlinks, fake news, alternative facts and ChatGPT, so much the better.
With characteristic generosity, Rónán Hession has described Jabberwock as “fizzing with wit and ingenuity – a linguistic riot of hiberno-anarchy”. So is this linguistic riot in a specifically European tradition? Certainly, as the text itself makes abundantly clear, it draws on the irreverent tradition of Swift, Sterne, Joyce, O’Brien, Beckett. But let’s not be narrowly chauvinistic here. After all, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the carnival king par excellence, and as should be obvious from its title, the puns, paradoxes and logical tangles of Jabberwock owe as much to the wonderful madness of Lewis Carroll as to any other author.
But I’d argue there’s a quasi-religious solemnity to the English modernists – Lawrence, Eliot, Woolf – which you simply don’t find in their Irish contemporaries, nor indeed in the likes of Pirandello, Kafka, Bulgakov, Grass. If any solemnity has crept into Jabberwock, then as the seanchaí of old used have it, ‘ní mise a chum ná a cheap é.’
Jabberwock by Dara Kavanagh is launching along with Eoghan Smith’s A Mind of Winter in Dublin’s Hodges Figgis on Thursday, October 5th from 6pm