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. Seventy prominent writers backed her decision in a statement in November.
In May, Rooney had been 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 support for the Palestinian people, saying:
Like her, 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 Irish Kevin Barry, Ronan Bennett, Seán Hewitt, and Rita Ann Higgins from Ireland; Rachel Kushner, Eileen Myles and Eliot Weinburger from the US; 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. So 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 a Marxist. Her mother ran a cultural centre and her father worked for Telecom until it was privatised. 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.”
Alienated relationships prevail
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 well-informed and ready to discuss 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 characterise the next two: there is a lack of love in most relationships. The young people at the centre of the plot are unable to say that they love each other, find it hard to acknowledge a partner as a ‘girlfriend’/ ‘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.
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 convictions, never deviating from them. That they recommend reading the Communist Manifesto seems perfectly normal. Connell’s mother is also left-wing.
Culture as class performance
Class distinctions are even more clearly highlighted in Normal People, and it’s emphasised that Trinity continues to be the elite university of the bourgeoisie. The larger social themes of class struggle and political protest are echoed by the conflictual relationships between the characters, and sometimes explicitly linked, as when 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 fetishised 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 Alice, the young, successful author, 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 endings of the first two novels give only vague hope, this third one offers an alternative. It speaks for Rooney’s growing skill that this alternative is woven into the action of the novel and arises organically from it. This way out of alienation comes as at a certain cost for the woman concerned, who will now put motherhood first. However, it is unlikely that Rooney means this in absolute terms; it is what happens to this character and is not generalised as an exclusive alternative. One need only to look at this character’s partner to understand this.
Marxist readers will also be interested in Rooney’s underlying interest in religion for solace. She has stated:
How do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer (…) it doesn’t always help to read Karl Marx.
It is curious that the artist Rooney sees no role for art as a solace for the psyche, the thought at the heart of Keats’s To Psyche. Rooney’s position may well spring from her dim view of the arts under capitalism.
All art is political. Sometimes, it is the politics of turning a blind eye, or opening casements on faery lands forlorn, as Keats put it. Rooney does not write escapist literature, but a kind that confronts alienation. Her novels depict alienated relationships, alongside explicit political statements by her characters – who would no doubt stand with Rooney in her solidarity with the Palestinians. She understands that literature written from a Marxist perspective needs to go deeper than having characters make progressive political statements. Its political meanings must also be skilfully expressed in the plots and the actions of her characters, as in novels like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Rooney’s novels have struck a chord with many people worldwide because her readers recognise their own sense of isolation. It is likely that Rooney will increasingly forge her characters’ views with what they do in her novels, and the alternatives they explore.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.