The Great Irish Lit Wallow

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2013.

What is it about the Irish? That they are a nation of storytellers seems to be borne out the minute you get in a cab in Dublin (though it probably helps that you have an American accent), but the fact is, whether it’s a pub culture that encourages the art of the story well told, a history of political strife retold and retold in oral histories, a well-established cultural mythology, or something else entirely, you know many Irish writers because you read them in school: William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett …*

But there are others you should know about.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Ireland, and I believe with all my heart that one way to understand a country or a culture** is to read its literature.*** So a couple years ago I wandered around Dublin from bookstore to bookstore with a list in my hand, bought a bunch of books, and proceeded to read many of them in 2013–14.

The Gathering / Anne Enright
Langrishe, Go Down / Aidan Higgins
Good Behaviour / Molly Keane
TransAtlantic / Colum McCann
The Land of Spices / Kate O’Brien
After the Rising / Orna Ross
The Spinning Heart / Donal Ryan
The Blackwater Lightship / Colm Tóibín

Here’s a brief look at them:

The Gathering
A grown woman, Veronica, attends the wake of her beloved brother Liam (who has committed suicide) and reflects on her family’s troubled history to make sense of the present. Enright reviews Dublin life in the 1920s through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s as well as the current present, casting an acid eye on how Catholicism affected men, women (Veronica’s mother experienced nineteen pregnancies, and it broke her body and mind), and families in those decades.

Daddy grew up in the west—he always knew the right thing to do. He had beautiful manners. Which, if you ask me, was mostly a question of saying nothing, to anyone, ever. ‘Hello, are you well’, ‘Goodbye now, take care’, the whole human business had to be ritualized. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’, ‘Put that money away now’, ‘That’s a lovely bit of ham’, ‘It is your noble call’. It bored me to tears, actually: all that control.

I’ve experienced enough of Dubliners to have recognized what I know in the rhythm of Enright’s dialogue. The last thirty pages are just stunning, and very satisfying. There’s a good reason this book won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. (I transcribed this bit from page 42 of a paperback published in 2008 by Vintage–Random House UK.)

Langrishe, Go Down
In the late 1930s, three reclusive middle-aged spinster sisters live on their run-down family estate in Ireland. I’ve been reading a lot of lit from this period between the two wars; the Celtic Tiger is not even a gleam in anyone’s eye, and life is just plain hard. Enter a pompous German graduate student who rents lodging from the women—and one of the sisters embarks on a passionate affair with him, until she realizes he cares nothing for her.

The first chapter was a lovely read but then it was so, so bleak, so sad, grim. In addition, the novel—which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1967 and was turned into a movie with screenplay by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize–winner!—is just difficult: experimental literature that was probably over my head (or, perhaps, simply read at the wrong time). I wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.

Good Behaviour
By the time I got to Good Behaviour, I was in the middle of deadlines and not taking a lot of time to make notes, but I’ll tell you this: it’s set in the 1920s among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—which is to say the formerly wealthy Protestants of English heritage who had once been overlords. The New York Review of Books said:

After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

This, then, is a book of manners, particularly about the concern for good ones, in the face of horrible, unspeakable events. It is hilarious. Also sad, and made me a little squeamish at times—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the mark of a great book. Published in 1981, Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.

TransAtlantic
I’ve written about Colum McCann’s fabulous book already, so I’ll direct you there.

The Land of Spices
Published in 1941 but set in 1905–1914 Limerick, this novel by one of Ireland’s most famous writers is considered a classic. The action happens almost completely within the walls of a girls’ convent school, with two protagonists—the Mother Superior and a young student. This may not sound like much, but the characters draw you in quickly and then in the last quarter of the book—bam! bam!—it punches you right in the gut, twice. It’s an allegory, really, of the “new” Ireland—the Republic—rising up and leaving the old attitudes (particularly about women) behind.

In the story, a girl of sixteen, a scholar from an impoverished family, has won a scholarship to enter college. Her grandmother, who has been supporting the family, doesn’t believe in the “education of women” and announces that the girl will decline the prize. The confrontation between this woman and the Mother Superior at the convent school is worth the price of the book. It’s not my normal fare, but I seriously loved it.

After the Rising (originally published by Penguin Ireland as Lover’s Hollow)
The Irish Civil War—which followed the war of independence from England that established the Irish Free State—is also called the War of the Brothers, because families were horribly and tragically divided, some supporting the Republicans (who wanted to be completely free from England) and some supporting the Free Staters. The Irishman tells me that—less than a hundred years later—feelings about this war are still very raw. (And in fact, I asked him so many questions he soon mailed me a history book.)

The story—set in a small village in County Wexford—bounces between present and past; the cover copy tells us …

When Jo Devereux returns to Ireland after an absence of twenty years, the last person she expects to meet at her mother’s funeral is Rory O’Donovan. The bitter conflict between her family and his, full of secrets and silences, was the one constant of Jo’s childhood. … [She] … embarks on a quest, uncovering astonishing truths about her mother and grandmother and women’s role in the conflict known as “The War of The Brothers”, the Irish Civil War of 1922. And also about a killing with consequences that have ricocheted through four generations.

I was completely caught up in both stories, and went on to read the second book of this series, Before the Fall. Once projected to be a trilogy—and my copy of Before the Fall reflects that plan—it now appears the author has moved on to other projects.

The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is the youngest author in this company, and has written only two novels to date. The Spinning Heart … was gorgeous, just gorgeous. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it won the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Prize, and, yes, it definitely deserved to be in that company.

Set in an Irish village just after the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the book is twenty-one short narratives by different characters affected by the collapse of a local building contractor’s firm. Oh, it’s stunning, really different and special because of that. It seems as if they’re each just telling their own story but as you turn the pages you realize there is a complete story arc developing, and it packs a wallop. The setting is contemporary, so the dialogue is modern, and these were voices I recognized, voices I’ve heard.

The Blackwater Lightship
Helen, a school principal in suburban Dublin, has a husband, two sons, and a brother, Declan, with whom she is close. Now Declan is dying of AIDS, and he asks Helen to break the news to their mother and grandmother, from whom they are both estranged.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, this novel hits all the notes: family, friendship, forgiveness. It’s an interesting comparison to The Land of Spices in this scene of a grandmother and nuns:

“Oh, the nuns loved her,” her grandmother went on, “and when she was in her final year … they called us in, and they had never looked up or down at us before, oh they were very grand, the nuns, a French order. And Mother Emmanuelle, the grandest of them all, told me that she believed Lily had a vocation. I smiled at her and said that would be the happiest thing for us. It was all smiles until I got out to the car and I said to your grandfather that I was going to pray to God to stop Lily entering the convent.”

“And did you not want her to be a nun?” Paul asked.

“Lily? Our beautiful daughter? Have all her hair cut off? And a veil and draughty old convent and only doddery old nuns for company? I did not! And I lay awake every night thinking about how to stop her.”

Over the Christmas holidays Lily (Helen’s mother) is sent to the next town to visit with her worldly cousins who taught her about boys and the latest fashions. And that was that:

… “So she went back to [school], and … we were called in before we took her home for Easter, and we were told that she was becoming a bad example to the other girls, and she had changed completely. Oh, I said to Mother Emmanuelle, I said, we haven’t noticed any change. It must be something in the convent, I said. Oh, she gave me a look, and I looked back at her. And she knew she’d met her match. And that’s how we stopped Lily becoming a nun.”

This scene (transcribed by me from pages 150–51 of a 1999 Picador paperback) made me laugh out loud. Tóibín is very, very good with dialogue: I can hear the Irish cadence here without even trying. And though reviewers have tended to like others of Tóibín’s books better, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

During the period of my Irish Lit Wallow, I also read Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Nora Webster, both of which were fabulous.

***

Am I finished? Nah—I still have a few more to read: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City; Tóibín’s The Master; McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (a followup to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors); and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (and also her memoir, Country Girl). And I’ll be trolling Dublin bookstores again this June, so no doubt I’ll add to the list.

If you haven’t read outside  your usual haunts, give Irish lit a try. And if you have, please tell me about your favorite title!

* Four Irish writers have won Nobel Prizes for Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.
** Does this mean I will never commit a cultural faux pas on my visits to Ireland? No. You can take the girl out of the States but you can’t take the States out of the girl. Though one does try.
*** For a more complete list of the Irish lit I’ve read in the last few years, go here.