Behan’s only novel, Borstal Boy (1958), unites two traditions of prison writing – Irish republican and queer male – which were already merged in Wilde’s De Profundis (1897/1905). As in Wilde and Jean Genet, in Behan’s novel the humiliation and pain of imprisonment is transformative and radicalising – a central trope of Irish republican prison writing – and this radicalisation is given narrative and imaginative form through the narrator’s erotic encounter with the male body as desirable and vulnerable. In Wilde the male body is that of Christ, in Genet and Behan it is that of youthful fellow prisoners (their youth taking on a symbolic significance as a rejection of development and ‘mature’ conformity to the performance principle). This style of writing homoerotic relations, as a bodily encounter of pleasure and solidarity rather than as an expression of identity, creates a literary space for imagining utopian possibilities. Echoing the narrative conjunction of two types of (republican and queer) prison writing, we can conceptualise those utopian possibilities as a political conjunction of Behan’s contemporaries, Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon – the transformation of sexuality into Eros as correlative of the transformative leap from decolonisation to liberation.
This chapter examines the material ways in which romances were preserved and categorised – rather than erased – by early modern readers. The chapter begins with a discussion of Protestant polemicists who crafted lists of romance texts to warn readers against them. Paradoxically, in doing so such polemicists created their own romance canons. Their booklists effectively define a genre. This chapter argues that these polemical catalogues expand the early modern conception of the medieval romance genre by including new forms, such as the continental prose romances gaining popularity in the sixteenth century, along with lighter, comical ‘jests’. The chapter also shows that the catalogues defined in early modern romance lists reflect material, paratextual decisions made by William Copland, the primary printer of medieval English romance in the late sixteenth century. Despite the consistency of the books included in such catalogues, however, the case studies that conclude this chapter – the romance collection detailed in Robert Langham’s letter describing the 1575 festivities at Kenilworth and an antiquarian Sammelband now housed in the Bodleian Library – demonstrate that early modern romance catalogues were used to characterise and serve very different types of readers.
This chapter centres on Edward Banister, an Elizabethan scribe and recusant Catholic who used printed books as the exemplars for his early modern manuscripts of Middle English romance. Banister’s manuscripts, which include copies of Sir Degore, Sir Eglamour, Sir Isumbras, The Jest of Sir Gawain and Robert the Devil, have received little critical attention, and since the identification of the scribe in 1978, questions about how Banister’s biography and Catholic identity relate to his romance manuscripts have yet to be asked. This chapter, thus, interrogates the connections between the scribe’s recusant identity and his interest in the romance genre and manuscript medium. The metaphor of the ‘collage’ allows us to more fully comprehend the interplay of time and technology, creation and destruction in Banister’s history and manuscripts. We see technological collage in the ways Banister combines the aesthetics of print and manuscript, and we see cultural collage when we consider Banister’s position as a practising Catholic in the midst of a changing religious world.
Attending closely to Colm Tóibín’s trio of gay-themed novels ¬– The Story of the Night (1996), The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004) – we encounter a paradox: when their political imaginary is most closely aligned with a progressive sexual politics is also when these novels are most fully in conformity with the hegemonic neoliberal norms. But when the concerns and obsessions of the fiction seems furthest removed from progressive sexual politics is when its political imagination is potentially most radical. When Tóibín writes about the male body in pleasure and pain his fiction aesthetically and tonally generates affects which unsettle the hegemonic ‘common sense’ of neoliberalism – even while his characters and stories are committed to endorsing a resigned and ‘realistic’ submission to neoliberal political rationality.
I conclude with a summary of what has been learned in this book by focusing on a final case study of the 1517 copy of Robert the Devil housed in the British Library. I then return to the idea of the palimpsest, assessing what has been gained through this attempt to find narratives that do not rely on erasure. I follow Sarah Dillon in finding value in the term ‘palimpsestuous’ as a means of moving the palimpsest metaphor beyond the idea of destruction. Overall, then, Difficult pasts suggests ‘palimpsestuous’ codicological metaphors for describing the place of the medieval within the post-Reformation world. It urges us to consider what remained, rather than what was lost, after the events of the Protestant Reformation in England. And it argues that books – and in particular romance books – continue to provide a special material site at which to explore notions of historiographic presence, distance, continuity and change over time.
Where now after the achievement of marriage equality? Meditating on the aesthetics of vulnerability in Joe Caslin’s murals prompts speculation on possibilities and potential for a revolutionary politics of sexual liberation.
Difficult pasts combines book history, reception history and theories of cultural memory to explore how Reformation-era audiences used medieval literary texts to construct their own national and religious identities. It argues that the medieval romance book became a flexible site of memory for readers after the Protestant Reformation, allowing them to both connect with and distance themselves from the recent ‘difficult past’. Central characters in this study range from canonical authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser to less studied figures, such as printer William Copland, Elizabethan scribe Edward Banister and seventeenth-century poet and romance enthusiast, John Lane. In uniting a wide range of romance readers’ perspectives, Difficult pasts complicates clear ruptures between manuscript and print, Catholic and Protestant, or medieval and Renaissance. It concludes that the romance book offers a new way to understand the simultaneous change and continuity that defines post-Reformation England. Overall, Difficult pasts offers an interdisciplinary framework for better understanding the role of physical books and imaginative forms in grappling with the complexities of representing and engaging with the past.
Henri Lefebvre and Ernst Bloch provide a conceptual framework for thinking about social space and hope in novels by Keith Ridgway, Micheál Ó Conghaile and Barry McCrea. Their fiction moves us towards grasping the neoliberal condition sensuously and dialectically, since these are examples of chronotopic writing in which styles of writing social space generate radical modes of temporal reasoning. Two chronotopes are notably expressive in these novels: the city and the gay sauna. These novels are examples of ‘hopeful’ and ‘utopianist’ writing in which homoerotic desire is a vector of utopian longing. The most powerful symbolic location of hope in this fiction is the male body as a site of desire and need, pleasure and vulnerability.
This introductory chapter situates this study within existing scholarship on the post-Reformation reception of later medieval literature. It defines the medieval romance genre and explores the various threads of the book’s methodology: its interest in periodisation, memory studies and materiality. It also introduces the book’s framing metaphors – the catalogue, the collage, the monument, and the museum – as possible alternatives to the notion of the palimpsest. The palimpsest is a useful metaphor for understanding the relationships between present and past, as it emphasises materiality and complicates notions of linear historical progress and simple chronological development. However, it is easy to forget that the palimpsest is a metaphor fundamentally based on erasure. By focusing on the genre of romance, Difficult pasts offers an alternative to a literary history centred on erasure. The new metaphors explored in this chapter embrace the temporal complexity of the past, but they also highlight early modern efforts to preserve and engage with, rather than destroy, medieval predecessors.
Critical reflections on Oscar Wilde’s writing frame an introduction to the animating concern of this book: the relationship between homoeroticism and revolution in twentieth-century and contemporary Irish fiction. Considering the contradictory place of gay men in the phantasmagoria of neoliberal capitalism leads to discussion of Herbert Marcuse, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler, who provide inspiration for some key concepts in this study: identity, injury, vulnerability and liberation.