Mar 25 2022

Sally Rooney and Sherlock Holmes: Romance and Exhaustion

pencil shavings

SALLY ROONEY AND SHERLOCK HOLMES: ROMANCE AND EXHAUSTION

(Consider the following to be a supportive response to Mary Ann Sieghart’s “Why Are So Many Men Still Resistant to Reading Women?” at Literary Hub, March 8, 2022.)

While St. Patrick’s Day has just passed, we nonetheless remain in an Irish holiday season, with the Spring Equinox, Easter Rising, May Day, (the 100th!) Bloomsday on June 16, and the Battle of the Boyne on July 12.

In such a season, and being an American, I feel free to admit that, more than Saint Bridget, and more than the mythical figure of Deirdre, has actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015) served as the central icon for my ideal Irishwoman––an ethic and ethnicity which she defines in her memoir ’Tis Herself (2004):

An Irishwoman is strong and feisty. She has guts and stands up for what she believes in. She believes she is the best at whatever she does and proceeds through life with that knowledge. She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins. She is loyal to her kinsmen and accepting of others. She’s not above a sock in the jaw if you have it coming. She is only on her knees before God. Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman. (p. 3)

Yet so much of the conversation in Irish writer Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: a Novel (2017) comes across as mundane, moribund, university-centric banter that feels very far from being either “strong” or “feisty.” And though Rooney is said to be something of a socialist as well as a novelist—and I’m sure she could sock me in the jaw if she wanted to––no working-class Joes from Finglas show up in this novel. No sisters to hooligans from Glasgow pop up. No Shankill-type folk mucking about. Hers is instead a modern Dublin without a housing shortage.

Here I must admit to never really having understood the attraction some readers feel for reading about college-age romantic relationships, particularly in fiction. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of how romantically unwanted I felt way back when I was that age. Or maybe I followed Simone Weil’s advice too literally as when she writes in her essay “The Great Beast” how, “relationship breaks its way out of the social. It is the monopoly of the individual. Society is the cave. The way out is solitude,” (Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986), p. 142).

 Or perhaps I simply haven’t been trained to read that kind of prose properly––just as, as C. S. Lewis (native to Belfast), similarly reminds modern readers of their ineptitude for reading medieval allegory:

Young readers in the not ignoble ardours of calf-love, and elderly readers in the mood of reminiscence, whether wistful or ironic, could all find in it [the French Roman de la Rose, 1230–75 AD] the reflection of their own experience. But we are not so fortunately placed. We have to reckon not only with the unfamiliar erotic psychology, but with the unfamiliarity of allegory in general; and, to speak plainly, the art of reading allegory is as dead as the art of writing it, and more urgently in need of revival if we wish to do justice to the Middle Ages. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936), p. 116)

On the other hand, just as Sherlock Holmes once noted that the most commonplace crime can, in fact, be the most mysterious, who’s to say the most commonplace of college flings may not contain their own profound, ineffable mysteries? For as Holmes explains:

“You failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clue which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything which has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and, indeed, was the logical sequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure, have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.” (A Study in Scarlet (1887), (I, vii) “Light in the Darkness”)

Rooney’s novel may in fact contain certain “rules of deduction” with regard to the contortions and conversations of college-age relationships:

[Said Holmes to Watson]: “I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully. Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature.” (Study in Scarlet, (I, ii) “The Science of Deduction”)

My own ineptitude, meanwhile, has probably, as Holmes would say, “aroused” “scorn” when in fact Rooney may actually be providing “invaluable,” “practical work.”

For Sally Rooney is a true artist—she isn’t just disguising passages from some diary she journaled in adolescence as authentic, literary fiction—she is capable of an occasional strange, sublime metaphor, such as when the narrator informs readers:

He hung up. I closed my eyes and felt all the furniture in my room begin to disappear, like a backward game of Tetris, lifting up toward the top of the screen and then vanishing, and the next thing that would vanish would be me. (Conversations p. 272)

As a reader, I wonder whether Rooney’s character here is, in an emotional sense, thinking backwards the way Sherlock Holmes suggests analytic thinking should proceed:

“I have already explained to you that what is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance. In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much. In the every-day affairs of life it is more useful to reason forwards, and so the other comes to be neglected. There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically…. If you told them a result, [they] would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.” (Study in Scarlet, (II, vii) “The Conclusion”)

Though it isn’t requisite for composing in an analytical style, Rooney’s prose is quite colorless. That’s not meant metaphorically. I found only two mentions of color in the book. First: “The tip of Bobbi’s cigarette glowed a spectral orange color and released tiny sparks into the air,” and, “On my first day a woman called Linda gave me a black apron and showed me how to make coffee,” (pp. 244, 277). As a reader, I almost feel that Rooney feels nothing new can be given to readers of her prose by including certain hues, just as Samuel Beckett once rewrote Ecclesiastes in the opening lines to his novel Murphy (1938) by penning that “the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

I suppose Rooney should be extended the benefit of the doubt. For some of her descriptions of relationships possess both artistic merit as well as commentary on the (literary) arts. And that commentary involves a feeling of exhaustion of “the nothing new” in the humanities––the sterile, fatigued spirit of those who engage with works of art and literature with a chronic, political gaze, as in this moment:

I’ve never worked hard at anything I said.

That must be why you study English.

Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.

Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets. (Conversations pp. 200–01)

Similar to the exhaustion found in Rooney’s novel is a line from Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s short story “The Slave” (from his 2011 anthology Bullfighting, Viking), where the narrator reflects how “I can read, for fuck sake. I’m a two books a week man; I eat the fuckin’ things. So, yea. But I don’t remember learning how to read,” (p. 43). In this case it seems his attitude of exhaustion was produced by an overexposure to the arts, while his ignorance of how he learned to read seem rather unintentional.

But to this one might also contrast Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. (Study in Scarlet, (I, ii) “The Science of Deduction”)

And later Holmes admits aloud:

“Excuse the admiration of a connoisseur,” said he as he waved his hand towards the line of portraits which covered the opposite wall. “Watson won’t allow that I know anything of art but that is mere jealousy because our views upon the subject differ. Now, these are a really very fine series of portraits.” (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), “XIII. Fixing the Nets”)

So regarding the above moments in Rooney’s novel and Roddy Doyle’s short story, I wager they contain cases involving an exhaustion with poetics, and possibly, unintentional ignorance; with Holmes, it’s a case of willful ignorance.

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), likewise, contains a passage in its eleventh chapter where a character reflects on a seemingly similar attitude of aesthetic nihilism from his son’s friend from college: “Nicholas Petrovich lowered his head and passed a hand over his face. ‘But to reject poetry?’ he asked himself again. ‘To lack all feeling for art, for nature.’” In this case, Nicholas doesn’t know whether the poetic nihilism he has encountered is a product of exhaustion or willful ignorance. It might even be both.

Though I began this piece by dismissing a certain form of literary romance, Arthur Conan Doyle has informed readers that there is always romance:

“There is one other point,” said Inspector MacDonald. “You met Mr. Douglas in a boarding house in London, did you not, and became engaged to him there? Was there any romance, anything secret or mysterious, about the wedding?”

“There was romance. There is always romance. There was nothing mysterious.”

“He had no rival?”

“No, I was quite free.” (The Valley of Fear (1915), (I, v) “The People of the Drama”)

Whether or not Rooney is as exhausted with aesthetic contemplation as I sometimes am when reading about romances occurring among a college-age demographic in a university environment, there is something “quite free” in her writing. And that means I’ll have to keep reading her. Because:

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately as I do so.

––Simone Weil, “The Self,” Simone Weil: an Anthology, p. 103.


Mar 13 2017

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 4 of 7

pencil shavings

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 4 of 7

I had a book on top of my head. I had to get up the stairs without it falling off. If it fell off I would die. It was a hardback book, heavy, the best kind for carrying on your head. I couldn’t remember which one it was. I knew all the books in the house. I knew their shapes and smells. I knew what pages would open if I held them with the spine on the ground and let the sides drop. I knew all the books but I couldn’t remember the name of the one on my head.

Doyle, Roddy. (1958–) Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. London: Secker & Warburg. 1993. p. 75.

See also “Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 3 of 7” and

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 5 of 7.”