Although it may seem a day late and a dollar short to be posting my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog on the Irish short story after the grand day has passed, I have an excuse: My wife and I have been out of town for over a week, delighting in a family reunion with three children and their spouses and three grandchildren in Santa Fe, New Mexico—which just happens to be fairly equidistant from their homes in Colorado, Arizona, and California. Being happily surrounded by grandchildren, I had no time nor desire to bury my head in a laptop.
I did, of course, have some time for reading—always time for some reading—and have been enjoying the wonderful collection, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2010), edited by the very fine Irish writer, Anne Enright. My favorite general collection of Irish short stories has always been The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (1989), edited by the brilliant Irish writer William Trevor. Now I have two favorites. Trevor includes stories by Irish writers from Maria Edgeworth and William Carleton in the early nineteenth century up through such contemporary writers as John McGahern and Edna O’Brien. Anne Enright restricts her choices to writers born in the twentieth century (although she happily fudges by including a story by Elizabeth Bowen, who was born in 1899). There is some overlap of authors, but Enright does not include any stories chosen by Trevor. I used the Oxford collection several years ago when I was teaching a graduate level seminar on the Irish short story at Cal State, Long Beach; were I to teach that course today, I would also include the Granta collection.
Trevor includes the mysteriously ambiguous gothic story “Green Tea,” by Sheridan Le Fanu, as well as the George Moore story “Albert Nobbs,” basis for the current film starring Glenn Close. Also included is the wonderful story by Seumas O’Kelly, “The Weaver’s Grave,” which is not so well known by American readers, but should be, for its lyric mastery and its expert mutation into the modern/postmodern. Trevor also includes Joyce’s “The Dead,” that magnificently subtle story that manages to convert the ordinary into transcendence, as well as two stories each by Liam O’Flaherty, Sean O’Faolain, and Frank O’Connor, three of the most influential of Irish twentieth-century short story writers, including O’Connor’s famous story “Guests of the Nation.”
Among my favorites from the Trevor collection are Bowen’s “Her Table Spread,” Mary Lavin’s “Sarah,” Trevor’s own “Jerusalem Delivered,” Edna O’Brien’s “Irish Revel,” and John McGahern’s “The Beginning of an Idea,” a reverential tribute to the great master of the short story, Anton Chekhov.
I also recommend Trevor’s Introduction to the collection, in which he defines the modern short story as “the distillation of an essence.” Trevor amiably talks about what might be called the storytelling urge in Ireland, beginning with the tradition of the seanchai, the old storyteller sitting by the hearth holding his clustered small audience spellbound. Trevor, always the maker of stories himself, enlivens the Introduction with stories of his own—both from experience and from literature, arguing that it is against the background of a “pervasive, deeply rooted oral tradition that the modern short story in Ireland must inevitably be considered.”
Trevor also revisits the generally accepted notion that the Irish have always trumped the British in creating great short stories, even as the British have had no rival in the creation of great novels. As Trevor says, “when the novel reared its head, Ireland wasn’t ready for it.” As others have noted, the British Victorian novel was “fed by the architecture of a rich, stratified society in which complacency and hypocrisy, accompanied by the ill-treatment of the unfortunate and the poor, provided both fictional material and grounds for protest.” The civilized society that formed the basis of novels was lacking in Ireland, which was for the most part a peasant society.
In her insightful Introduction to the Granta collection, Anne Enright also refers to this England/Ireland schism, suggesting that much of what is written about the short story is anxiety about the “unknowability of the novel…, perhaps much of what is written about Irish writing is, in fact, anxiety about England,” Enright says, concluding, “Sometimes, indeed, the terms ‘England’ and ‘the novel’ seem almost interchangeable.”
Enright likes to make metaphoric comparisons between the short story and the novel, noting that short stories seldom creak the way novels sometimes creak. Short stories, she says, “are the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers’ tastes.” Cautioning those who make too much of the importance of the oral tradition in Irish short fiction, Enright says that those who think the short story us somehow harmless for being close to a folk tradition have not read John McGahern, “whose stories are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.”
Enright refers to the importance of the short story volume for Irish schools, Exploring English I, edited by Augustine (Gus) Martin, in 1967, which she says shaped the sensibilities of her generation. Here is a description of the book, available on Amazon. I don't know who wrote it:
Difficult as it may be in understand today, the Exploring English anthology of short stories was revolutionary when first published in 1967. For the first time the short story was to be taught as part of the English syllabus for the Intermediate Certificate. For the first time students of English were introduced to the work of Irish writers such as Liam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Connor, Sean O Faolain, Mary Lavin, Brian Friel and Benedict Kiely. Exploring English has resonated with countless thousands of Irish students. For many it provided a gateway to a life time of reading and enjoyment of literature.
I can’t resist a personal note here:
In the fall of 1996, when I went to teach the American short story as a Fulbright Senior Fellow at University College, Dublin, I was assigned the office of Augustine Martin, who had died the year before in Oct. 1995. After his death, his family came in, of course, and claimed the possessions—mainly books—that belonged to “Gus.” Then members of the English Department at University College were permitted to claim some of the books that were left. When I came into the office, there were still many of Professor Martin’s books on the shelves. Jim Mays, the Chair of the Department, said I was free to take what remaining books that I might find useful. And indeed, there were still many books on Irish literature, since that was Prof. Martin’s specialty, that I found most helpful in my research on the Irish short story. I am happy to say that they now have an honored place on the shelves of my own library in California.
Among the thirty-one stories Enright includes in the Granta collection—all of which should solidly verify the common argument that the Irish are expert in this demanding form—are many stories with which American readers are perhaps unfamiliar. While she includes a familiar Sean O’Faolain story, “The Trout,” (a delicate little metafictional fairy tale), she chooses a relatively unfamiliar Frank O’Connor story—“The Mad Lomasneys,”—which almost casually, but very calculatedly, follows the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. Whereas Neil Jordan’s sexual initiation story, “Night in Tunisia” and Edna O’Brien’s “Sister Imelda” may be familiar to many American readers, Eugene McCabe’s “Music at Annahuillion” and Maeve Brennan’s “An Attack of Hunger” may be less so. Roddy Doyle’s relatively simple but engaging “The Pram,” from The Deportees, and William Trevor’s deceptively simple, but actually quite complex, “The Dressmaker’s Child,” from Cheating at Canasta are perfectly representative of each of those writer’s craft and art.
And if you have not yet read Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, or Colum McCann, then the stories Enright chooses by those very fine new writers—Keegan’s “Men and Women,” Barry’s “See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown,” and McCann’s “Everything in this Country Must”—are very fine works with which to begin. Enright also includes stories by—and how could she not?—John Banville, Clare Boylan, Mary Lavin, John McGahern, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor, Patrick Boyle, and Bernard MacLaverty.
I am not quite finished reading all the wonderful stories in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. I am in no hurry, after all. However, I did not want to wait any longer to recommend it to you. So, while the smell of the corn beef and the taste of the Guinness still perhaps linger from St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, get yourself a copy and settle down to enjoy the genius of Irish short story writers. No Leprechauns, just lovely prose.