Sally Rooney: In search of the Marxist novel
Author Sally Rooney. | Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

For the past weeks, successful 30-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney has been in the headlines. Following her refusal to grant the translation rights of her new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) to the Israeli Modan publishing house, 70 prominent authors have now backed her decision in a statement.

In May of this year, Rooney was among over 1,600 artists who condemned Israel’s “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” in a “Letter Against Apartheid.” Israeli apartheid, they said, is “perpetuated by international complicity; it is our collective responsibility to repair this harm.”

The signatories to the new statement reaffirmed their partisanship for the Palestinian people, saying, “Like her [Rooney], we will continue to respond to the Palestinian call for effective solidarity, just as millions supported the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. We will continue to support the nonviolent Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.” The authors include Kevin Barry, Ronan Bennett, Seán Hewitt, and Rita Ann Higgins from Ireland; Rachel Kushner, Eileen Myles and Eliot Weinburger from the U.S.; Monica Ali, Caryl Churchill, China Miéville and Kamila Shamsie from the UK.

Two bookstore chains with a presence in both Israel and in the occupied territories responded to Rooney’s decision by removing her novels from their stock.

Who is Sally Rooney and what are her books about?

Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar in the West of Ireland and describes herself as Marxist. Her mother ran a cultural center and her father worked for Telecom until it was privatized. Rooney studied English at Trinity College. In an interview Rooney said: “I don’t know what it means to write a Marxist novel. I don’t know and I would love to know. It is the analytical structure that helps me make sense of the world around me.”

Her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), focuses on two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who, having met at school, are now studying in Dublin and also performing artists. The novel is primarily about sexual relationships among young people, about the question of true love and genuine friendship in an environment where none of this seems to be possible. Most unusually for a contemporary novel, both protagonists see themselves as politically left-wing, even communist:

“Bobbi and my mother got along famously. Bobbi studied History and Politics, subjects my mother considered serious. Real subjects, she would say, with an eyebrow lifted at me. My mother was a kind of social democrat, and at this time I believe Bobbi identified herself as a communitarian anarchist. When my mother visited Dublin, they took mutual enjoyment in having minor arguments about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes Bobbi would turn to me and say: Frances, you’re a communist, back me up.”

Bobbi is the most obviously interested of the two in social and international issues, she likes to sing anti-war songs, is informed, and discusses Syria, Algeria, Palestine.

Frances, the narrator, comes from a single-parent working-class household. She is the only character in the novel’s plot who is not wealthy, the only one who has no money. While she is very aware of this, money is not something her friends think about.

Despite recurring references to left-wing views, however, they do not directly inform the novel’s plot, which revolves mainly around sexual relationships. But in a way, this is the crux of the matter. What we encounter in this first novel will characterize the next two: there is a lack of love in most relationships. The young people at the center of the plot are unable to say that they love each other, find it hard to acknowledge a partner as a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”; there is a lack of genuine commitment. Unconditional love seems impossible. Alienated relationships prevail. Many of the young people are very lonely, have no real self-esteem, are damaged in their humanity. No help is given to them, nor are there any alternatives pointed out in the text.

In Rooney’s second novel, Normal People (2018), the focus is again on young people, their relationships in their final year at school and follows the two main characters, Marianne and Connell, to Trinity College Dublin, which the author knows from her own experience. Again, one of the two is a working-class child with a single mother, the other comes from a dysfunctional wealthy family. In both novels, the working-class child’s mother is the one older character that readers get to know a little better, although drawing people over thirty is not Rooney’s forte.

As in Conversations with Friends, the central theme is sexual relationships and how people treat one another. The plot is a little more complex, goes a little deeper than in the first novel. Once more, it is striking how left-wing the main characters think—and that they stand by their opinions, never deviate from them. That they recommend reading the Communist Manifesto is perfectly normal. Connell’s mother is also left-wing.

That Trinity continues to be the elite university of the bourgeoisie is emphasized, class distinctions are even more clearly highlighted. Nevertheless, the main plot once more revolves around conflictual relationships, although this time the two main characters actually take part in a protest demonstration:

“They went to a protest against the war in Gaza the other week with Connell and Niall. There were thousands of people there, carrying signs and megaphones and banners.”

Rooney is also keen to highlight the class nature of the culture industry. Connell goes to a literature reading at the university:

“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.”

This quest for alternatives to the capitalist culture industry takes up even more space in Rooney’s latest novel, named after a Schiller poem Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). Questions of interest to the author are discussed primarily in an email correspondence running through the book between the young, successful author, Alice, and her friend Eileen. The discussion covers a whole spectrum of political and philosophical-historical issues from a left-wing perspective. On the contemporary novel, Alice writes:

“The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful.”

And although political views occupy an increasingly large space in the novels, they still stand apart from the action, which again revolves around sexual relationships and friendships, around young people, some of whom hate themselves, and who are somehow damaged. While the end of the first two novels gives vague hope, the third ends surprisingly.

Literature and art are political—even if it is by ignoring reality. In Rooney’s work, the political manifests itself in the depiction of alienated relationships alongside explicit political statements. As for the political views of her characters, they too stand behind Rooney’s solidarity with the Palestinians.


CONTRIBUTOR

Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She writes for Culture Matters and for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist party of Ireland.

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