Writers gather in Dublin to explore ideas - and Joyce country. Locals mix with Nobel laureates and debate role of writer as healer

Gore Vidal was a no-show. William Kennedy, current favorite of Irish-American writers, arrived too late to participate. And Samuel Beckett sent his regards and regrets from Paris. Thus began the International Writers Conference here - ironically, the first gathering of its kind in the country that has produced three Nobel Prize-winning authors, and, appropriately, was planned to coincide with Bloomsday, the annual celebration of Dublin's favorite son, James Joyce.

The three-day conference, which concluded last Friday with a marathon poetry reading, was sponsored by the Irish Arts Council as one of the highlights of this year's Dublin Millennium Festival. The gathering brought together some 27 authors (half of them Irish) in a star-studded cast that ranged from Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky to Irish critic Edna Longley. Other luminaries included American critic and essayist Susan Sontag, Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, Latin American novelist Luisa Valenzuela, and the current stella nova on the Irish literary horizon, poet Seamus Heaney.

The theme of the conference, held in Dun Laoghaire, halfway between downtown Dublin and the Martello Tower, Joyce's one-time abode in Sandycove, was ``Literature as Celebration.'' Topics ranged from Se'an O' Tuama's discussion of Ireland's pre-Christian nature poets to British satirist David Lodge's dour insistence upon irony rather than celebration as ``the proper stance of modern literature.''

The threefold purpose was: ``To allow Irish writers to meet with international writers at home in the year of the Millennium, because Irish writers normally tend to go abroad; to mark the growth of the Irish publishing industry; and the third reason will come to me in a minute, I'm sure,'' said a somewhat frazzled Laurence Cassidy, Arts Council literary manager and the conference organizer, during an interview overlooking sun-dappled Merrion Square, once home to William Butler Yeats. It was this Irish spontaneity that characterized this conference.

``It's a relief not to have to address politics,'' said Ms. Valenzuela during a conference break. ``A lot of us have never been to Dublin, which is Mecca for a writer.'' Seamus Heaney, who could usually be found holding court in a knot of Irish writers, grinned at reporters over his pince-nez. ``Writers,'' he said, ``are the most resistant to hard sell and blandishments. We're not pretending this is anything other than a causerie.''

Discussions ranged from the relevant to the ridiculous. If any common thread emerged, it was this theme of the writer's role in relation to history. What began on Tuesday with the unfocused discussion of lyricism and irony had by Thursday hardened into an often polemical discussion of contemporary politics and, at times, an almost jockeying one-upmanship among the writers about which nation's writers had the greater task.

Yehuda Amichai, the German-born Israeli novelist, suggested that his countrymen write from a desire ``to be able to lead an everyday life; to reach the level of ordinary people who simply work and have families.''

Polish translator Adam Czerniawski said that, while Irish writers were divided by their colonial past and present, ``you had an easier history than the Poles. Poland, as an entity, ceased to exist. At least Ireland is an island.''

Seamus Heaney, whose speech drew a standing-room-only crowd, gave one of the most relevant addresses, on the all-too-familiar debate about the relationship between Irish writers and Irish politics. ``After the '69 uprisings,'' said the Derry-born poet, ``it became difficult for Irish writers to express the loyalty to Yeats's [nationalistic] values without allying ourselves with a terrorist faction.''

The proceedings took an unexpected and poignant turn when a member of the audience asked whether, in light of the recent IRA bombings of six off-duty English soldiers in Lisburn, the writer doesn't have a responsibility as ``healer.''

Exiled Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, speaking for the first time, said, ``Murder doesn't leave a lot of room to maneuver for a man or a writer. If the priests can't take a stand for the Ten Commandments, at least a writer can.''

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said, ``Literature stands for humane values against all forms of extremism. ... It tones down the growth of fanaticism.''

In a less serious vein, swipes were taken at (in no particular order) the Millennium, RTE (Ireland's BBC), the Irish Times, Gay Byrne (Dublin's equivalent of Johnny Carson), and the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser. Indeed, one session marked by exceptional circumlocution might have borne the title ``Susan Sontag Labels Spenser's `Faerie Queene' a bore.''

The conference generated more substantial controversy over the lack of women writers, the absence of younger, less well-established authors. ``There are lots of younger writers who are not here and should be here,'' said Irish novelist Jennifer Johnston. ``Ireland is only now coming out from under the influences of Joyce and Yeats, and the new writers are necessary to that ongoing cycle of art.''

Several other local issues were aired, including the state of Irish publishing and the city's literary climate.

``Literary Dublin? That's a '60s reality and an '80s myth,'' declared Paddy Kehe, a local writer and one of the conference's 1,300 attendees. ``Dublin has been yuppified like every place else.'' If Dublin's literary community is a thing of the past, Ireland's publishing industry is thought to be at an all-time high, with some 65 houses, up from a handful in the 1960s. A government report on publishing, due to coincide with the conference, won't be released until later this summer.

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