Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here are some comments about a few modern Irish writers I admire.
It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story (although that may now be changing), just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society. Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work." The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition.
This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction. One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction. The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility. The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience. It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the story-teller.
Sean O'Faolain has argued that the short story thrives best within a romantic framework; the more organized and established a country is, O'Faolain claims, the less likely that the short story will flourish there. Although Ireland, a country that stubbornly sticks to its folk roots, has been a most hospitable place for the short-story form, O'Faolain seems to have constantly fought against the romanticism of the short story, yearning for the realism of the novel. Thus, his stories reveal a continual battle between his cultural predilection for the short story (with its roots in the folk and its focus on the odd and romantic slant) and his conviction that realism is the most privileged artistic convention.
O'Faolain's stories reside uneasily between the romanticism to which he was born and the realism for which he yearned. His basic technique might be called "poetic realism," a kind of prose in which objects and events seem to be presented objectively, but yet are transformed by the unity of the form itself into meaningful metaphors. O'Faolain is a craftsman with an accurate vision of his country and its people; however, he is a self-conscious imitator of more famous precursors, never quite able to find a distinctive voice that manifests his individual talent.
Although best known for her Country Girls Trilogy and other novels, Edna O'Brien is the author of half a dozen short story collections that have augmented her reputation as an Irish writer who has not been afraid to present Irish women as sexual human beings, who often find themselves caught in romantic fantasies. An early story by O'Brien, "Irish Revel," from her first collection The Love Object (1968) and a late story, "Lantern Slides," from the book of the same name published in 1990, both of which are anthology favorites, are good examples of her typical themes and her stylistic range.
O'Brien's "Lantern Slides," the title story of her last collection, is also a tribute to "The Dead," for it recounts a contemporary Dublin party in which a number of characters tell their own stories of love and disappointment. Just as in Joyce's story, the focus here is on the ghostly nature of the past in which all have experienced the loss of romantic fantasies. However, the power of desire has such a hold on the characters that chivalric romance seems an attainable, yet not quite reachable, grail-like goal. When the estranged husband of one of the women arrives, everyone hopes it is the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope. "You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it--a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds...It was like a spell...It was as if life were just beginning."
There are no sentimental images of the emerald isle in John MaGahern's stories in his best-known collection Nightlines, published in 1970; many are darkly pessimistic. Moreover, it is not the speaking "voice" of the Irish storyteller that dominates his stories, but the stylized tone of modern minimalism. Typical of the Joycean tradition, McGahern's stories are both realistic and lyrical at once. Also typical of that tradition, McGahern is not interested in confronting his characters with social abstractions but rather the universal challenges of guilt, responsibility, commitment, and death.
McGahern's best-known story, "The Beginning of an Idea," opens with the first sentences of Eva Lindberg's notebook, which describe how Anton Chekhov was carried home to Moscow on an ice wagon with the word "Oysters" chalked on the side. Because the lines haunt her, she gives up her work as a theater director and her affair with a married man to go to Spain to write an imaginary biography of Chekhov. However, once there, she finds she cannot write. When a local policeman she befriends entraps her into having sex, she packs up and leaves, feeling rage about her own foolishness. On the train she has the bitter taste of oysters in her mouth, and when a wagon passes, she has a sudden desire to look and see if the word Oysters is chalked on it.
William Trevor is, without question, the most respected contemporary Irish short-story writer. Trevor has said that having been born Irish, he observes the world through "Irish sensibilities" and takes for granted an Irish way of doing things. However, as a writer he knows he has to "stand back" so far that he is "beyond the pale, outside the society he comments upon in order to get a better view of it." The result is that while most of Trevor's stories are not specifically Irish, even those that are centered in Ireland transcend limitations of time and place. Stories from such collections as The Ballroom of Romance (1972), Angels at the Ritz (1975), and Beyond the Pale (1982) have been republished in The Stories of William Trevor, published in 1983.
One of Trevor's most famous stories, "Beyond the Pale," is a powerful example of his treatment of an Irish theme. When two British couples make an annual visit to County Antrim on north of Belfast, there seems to be no sign of the so-called Troubles. However, trouble in this story is submerged beneath the calm surface. The narrator, Milly, is having an affair with Dekko, whose wife Cynthia devours all the information she can find about Irish history and society. After a young man commits suicide at the hotel, Cynthia tells the others the story he told her before he died--a romantic fairy tale of two children who fell in love and lived an idyll one summer at the hotel where the two British couples come annually for their own idyll. However, the young girl, becoming involved with political terrorism, is killed, after which the boy kills himself in despair. Cynthia uses the story, which everyone thinks she has invented, to represent all those put beyond the pale by violence and deception, ultimately relating it to the deception of her husband. Thus, although the story is an Irish parable in which romantic children grow into murdering riff-raff, it is also a story of the deceiving British who try to ignore their responsibility for the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Trevor also juxtaposes Irish and British values in "Autumn Sunshine," this time in the person of an elderly Protestant cleric whose daughter has brought back a young man from England who identifies with the Irish and wishes to align himself with Rebels in the South. However, the cleric recognizes that the young man espouses the Irish cause only because it is one way the status quo in his own country can be damaged. Such men, the cleric thinks, deal out death and chaos, "announcing that their conscience insisted on it."
"Death in Jerusalem," which Trevor chose for his edition of The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, focuses on Father Paul, an Irish priest who has gone away to America to become successful in the church and society, and his brother Francis, who has stayed home to care for their aging mother. When Father Paul finally convinces Francis to accompany him on a tour of Jerusalem, Francis is distressed that the actuality of what he sees does not match the idealized images of holy places he has in his imagination. The Via Dolorosa, for example, does not compare to his imaginative notion of Christ's final journey; he closes his eyes and tries to visualize it as he has seen it in his mind's eye. When Father Paul receives a telegram that their mother has died, he holds off telling his brother until he sees more of the Holy Land. However, Francis says Jerusalem does not feel as Jerusalem should; saying he will always hate the Holy Land, he insists on going home immediately. The story ends with an image of the priest, who doesn't look and act as observers think he should, smoking and drinking alone.
William Trevor is a master of the Irish short story, not because he writes stories about Ireland and the Irish, but because he has that fine artistic ability, like his most famous predecessor, James Joyce, to write about trivial, everyday experiences in such a way that they become resonant with universal significance. Trevor's stories seem to have deceptively simple realistic surfaces, until one begins to probe a bit more deeply to discover how tightly built and powerfully realized they are. In the short fiction of William Trevor, the mere stuff of the world is transformed into artistic significance. Trevor has said that the artist "attempts to extract an essence from the truth by turning it into what John Updike has called 'fiction's shapely lies'."
Desmond Hogan's "Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea," from his collection of the same name published in 1979, is a delicate love story about a man who, after living alone for many years, meets an old love who has lived in America. After the death of her husband, she returns to Ireland, and they both discover how little of their old love has died. The man seems dazed by this turn of events, as if it were all a dream. And indeed, the story is like an embodiment of a daydream fantasy of first love regained, aging forestalled, and old hopes rekindled. "Can't you see," the woman tells him, "it's the intense moments of youth. They won't leave, try as you will."
The main development of the Irish short, from its roots in the rich folklore of the Irish people to its post-Joycean modernism, has been one in which the old local color conventions and stereotypes of Ireland and its people have been replaced with an image of Ireland as a modern European country. Although many tourists may bemoan the loss of the old rural images, lamenting that Ireland and its literature is losing its distinctiveness, the fact is, most of those stereotypes were due to the biting poverty of many of the people, the harshness of British rule, and the despair and hopelessness that lead to the stereotypes of Irish immigration and Irish drinking. The short story will probably always be a powerful literary form for Irish writers, but it will probably never again be a form that perpetuates the old local color legends of the Emerald Isle.