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The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction

Edited with an Introduction by Colm Toibin

If, as Don DeLillo opined when he read from Underworld in Dublin, ‘Lists are a form of cultural hysteria’, where does that leave the unfortunate anthologist, as lonely in his or her obsessive passion as Nabokov with his lepidoptery? Collecting, selecting, anatomising and itemising are sad pursuits, best suited to those of a saturnine temperament, with its implication of suspicious tendencies towards melancholia.

But not, of course, if those who embark on such enterprises enjoy the delusion that they are imposing a little order on chaos, even as a perverse strategy for keeping Life, with all its risks and terrors, at bay. Besides, the foregoing character sketch hardly seems applicable to the tirelessly energetic and ubiquitous Colm Toibin since, along with his Booker-nominated novel The Blackwater Lightship, his pamphlet The Irish Famine, and The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950, co-edited with Carmen Callil, this handsomely-produced anthology of Irish fiction is only his fourth publication this year, although the idea behind an exercise as ultimately fatuous as The Modern Library shows all the signs of severe pre- (whisper it!) millennium tension.

Toibin provides a lively and provocative introduction here (perhaps his chief reason for undertaking the whole onerous task?), in which he advances the thesis that:

Ireland, from the time of Jonathan Swift to the present, has been,

it seems, awash with ‘national and intellectual mood’, especially

national mood, so that those writers who have sought to evade

the opportunities to interpret this, who have sought to deal

with the individual mood, however trivial, perverse and fleeting,

seem now oddly heroic and hard to place. The purpose of much

Irish fiction, it seems, is to become involved in the Irish argument,

and the purpose of much Irish criticism has been to relate the fiction

to the argument.

Later, intercut with his short discussion of Beckett, the flip side of this view is expanded fruitfully:

In 1929 the Censorship of Publications Act was passed in Ireland,

and work by most Irish writers and many foreign writers was banned;

this did not encourage Irish writers to feel that there was an audience

out there hungry for their work. The sense that there was no reader

fed into a tradition which was already strong in Irish writing, a tradition

which insisted that a book could read itself, hermetically sealed in a deep

self-consciousness. From Tristram Shandy to Ulysses to At Swim

Two Birds to Beckett’s fiction to John Banville’s Birchwood to John

McGahern’s The Pornographer, pastiche and parody combine with the

idea of the built-in reader.

This line of thought is taken into the present with the astute observation that:

While there has been stylistic innovation in the work of, say, Anne

Enright and Roddy Doyle and Patrick McCabe and Aidan Mathews,

a playing with tone, an ability to write sentences like no one had

ever written them before, most of the work being produced in

Ireland now is formally conservative. This may be because, for the

first time, there is an audience for books in Ireland. You can have

readers outside the book as well as within it. This new conservatism

among fiction writers both north and south of the border is most

clear when you compare the calmness of contemporary Irish writing

with the wildness of contemporary Scottish writing. It is as

though the legacy of Sterne and Swift, Joyce, Beckett and Flann

O’Brien had taken the Larne-Stranraer ferry; in the writing of

James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and

Alan Warner there is political anger, stylistic experiment and formal

trickery. Books are written, as in Ireland in the old days, to replace

a country.

While A L Kennedy is a glaring omission from this list, readers of the current issue of Graph magazine will know that I made a broadly similar point in my review of the terribly uneven Shenanigans anthology. Personally, I find myself making that ferry journey more and more frequently, both literally and in my work, since it is salutary to take a break from an Ireland wallowing unprecedentedly in a sea of manufactured consent and consumer blandness. Despite the prevailing mood that Ireland is now the best little country under the sun (if it only had some sun) and everybody’s happy nowadays, I take the contrary view that books still need to be written to replace it.

Toibin shows admirable restraint in ‘including himself out’ of this anthology, as it were, but it would be interesting to know where he would place his own fiction within this general rubric, since as readers of last month’s issue of this magazine will have gathered, I found his own most recent novel highly conservative formally, and ‘calm’ to the point of catatonia. Also, he has never been behind the door when it comes to relating Irish fiction to the Irish argument.

Elsewhere in the introduction he declares, somewhat contentiously, that ‘John McGahern is the Irish writer who has worked best within that tradition (ie of melancholy) and produced the most impressive body of work of any Irish writer in the second half of the century.’ Toibin’s ambivalent attitude to the achievement of that other John - Banville - is curious, since on the one hand he tries to co-opt Birchwood as a revisionist text, while on the other admitting that ‘ match his work with changes in the society is to belittle it and miss its point.’ There is more than a hint of professional jealousy in the observation that ‘Banville’s tone is often Olympian; the lives of mere mortals are both beyond him and beneath his contempt;...’, although this is mitigated somewhat by ‘...and yet he writes with a pure wonder about the world and its central mysteries.’ Banville’s fiction is full of characters who get their hands dirty, and there is always a layer of self-irony shading into self-loathing about his isolated, high, cold narrators who find that they cannot function at the quotidian level.

When it comes to the inclusions/exclusions game, while the flyleaf blurb’s contention that the book ‘...represents the entire canon of Irish fiction in English from Jonathan Swift, born in 1667, to Emma Donaghue, born in 1969’ blatantly offers hostages to fortune, most of what one would expect to find between the covers of such a venture is to be found here, along with some interesting oddities. These include extracts from Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Katherine Cecil Thurston’s The Fly on the Wheel, K Arnold Price’s The New Perspective, and Seosamh Mac Grinna’s story ‘On the Empty Shore’ (a translation, let it be known). Some would cavil at the presence of Anthony Trollope or Iris Murdoch, but not I. Women are well represented, with Frances Sheridan, Lady Morgan, Rosa Mulholland and Emily Lawless from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with the more obvious Maria Edgeworth and Somerville and Ross, so there won’t be the same furore which greeted the three volume Field Day Anthology on the score of female under-representation.

It is the contemporary scene, of course, which will invite most comment. While all those here are perfectly justified, the following, in no particular order, and whatever one’s personal opinion as to the value of their work, might have cause for feeling aggrieved at being passed over: John Montague; Niall Quinn; Eilis Ni Dhuibhne; Angela Bourke; Ronan Bennett; John MacKenna; Mary O’Donnell; Ferdia McAnna; Christopher Nolan; Michael Collins; Eamon Delaney; Philip McCann; Sara Berkeley; Katy Hayes; Anne Haverty; Martin Healy; Eamonn Sweeney; Mike McCormack; Frank McCourt and Emer Martin, and if I’ve neglected anyone else who feels left out, I apologise. As regards specific selections, most are representative of the individual writer’s work as a whole, insofar as such detached snatches can ever hope to be. (By the by, on an editorial note, the last twelve paragraphs of Neil Jordan’s ‘Night in Tunisia’ have unaccountably gone missing.)

Toibin’s introduction ends with the swipe that Dublin, ‘...for the first time in its long life in fiction, has become post-Freudian and post-feminist and, of course (three cheers!), post-nationalist.’ Would that it were so. More so, would that we were not so nervously preoccupied with wishing it were so. Even more so, would that it were not the bogus internationalism fostered by globalisation that was trying to take its place. In the nationalist/revisionist debate that has raged for close on the past twenty years, I refuse to take sides, as I see little point in replacing a worn out set of clichés with a fresh set. Besides, I’ve had my bellyful of all this incessant navel-gazing about Irish identity. If, as Bernard Shaw observed, a healthy nation no more thinks about its identity than a healthy man thinks about his body, then signs on Ireland is still in a very sick and pallorous state indeed, even if many of the ailments and much of the disease are iatrogenic in origin.

Toibin first made his name as a journalist and commentator, before he started writing fiction, and it is not stretching things to advance the proposition that he fancies himself one of the doctors. While the recent profile of him in The Phoenix magazine, which portrayed him as a networking schmoozer who in his efforts to become a power-broker punches above his weight, may have been overly unkind, he does seem always only too ready at the drop of a hat to throw in his tuppence worth about the State of the Nation and the Issues of the Day. To this end, he has never been averse to taking Dr O’Reilly’s shilling at the Sunday Independent, but then again, he’s a lot wealthier than I. While one would be hard put to detect a thorough-going hidden agenda at work in this anthology, what’s worrying is that Toibin’s political sympathies might impinge on his aesthetic judgements. (Was his presence as a judge of this year’s Sunday Tribune/Hennessy Literary Awards, announced last week, a contributory factor in the passing over of Blanaid McKinney’s ‘Big Mouth’, easily the most well-written, thought-provoking and compelling of the nominated stories by a country mile, simply because the piece engaged with the kind of IRA violence we all want to forget now?)

More worrying for Toibin himself as an artist is that the evident enthusiasm he displays for taking on all these sidebar, extra-curricular activities, even if they are not so much a means of increasing his own standing and that of his fiction as a way of staving off the dreaded ennui, may divert his attention away from that fiction, and have a deleterious affect on quality control.

All this aside, while The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction cannot hope to rival The Field Day Anthology when it comes to being comprehensive and definitive, especially given the imminent publication of a fourth volume of the latter supposed to rectify the female omissions, it is certainly, despite its not inconsiderable bulk, a lot more portable. It should prove popular with students at the survey stage in Irish Studies on British and American campuses, a kind of Norton of Irish Literature. When all is said and done, it is without doubt a welcome addition to my shelves. God knows, all this cataloguing and classifying is a dirty job, but apparently someone’s got to do it.

First published in The World of Hibernia


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