This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian
Whether it’s a secret ingredient added to the water or the magical powers of the Blarney Stone, Irish authors have always been able to make the English language perform wonders. From Jonathan Swift to James Joyce, from Flann O’Brien to John Banville, their prose has a distinctive, satisfying cadence and a sometimes dark but always unique way of looking at the world. For author and broadcaster Frank Delaney, “the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors”.
Over the years, several anthologies have tried to showcase the best of such writing. There was the mammoth Penguin Book of Irish Fiction put together by Colm Toibin which, in over 1,000 pages, had selections from over 100 authors from the 17th century to the present day. More manageable are the collections that focus on short stories, a form close to the heart of Irish writers, with notable anthologies edited by Frank O’Connor, Joseph O’Connor and William Trevor, among others.
The most recent of these, with 31 selections from the 20th century, is The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by the redoubtable Anne Enright. Any such anthologist faces a daunting task, given the sheer wealth and breadth of material on offer. Enright appears to have pulled it off with élan, stating that she simply chose the ones she liked. (One wishes that she had set modesty aside and included a story of her own, too.) In a memorable phrase from the introduction, she says that short stories “are the cats of the literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers' tastes”.
Enright goes on to mention the strong tradition of Irish folk tales and oral storytelling as a possible reason for her fellow citizens’ penchant for the short story, and combines this with Frank O’Connor’s observation that the form is the natural home of loners and misfits. What emerges is a vision of the short story writer as a contrarian, going against the grain to bring us “truths that are delightful and small”.
In her collection, one finds many familiar voices that are a pleasure to listen to again. Among these, William Trevor’s destiny-driven ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’; John Banville’s impressionistic ‘Summer Voices’; Edna O’Brien’s sensuous ‘Sister Imelda’; Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, with almost every sentence a perfectly-framed photograph; Frank O’Connor’s quirky, moving ‘The Mad Lomasneys’; John McGahern’s quiet yet powerful ‘The Key’; and Roddy Doyle’s Gothic-tinged ‘The Pram’.
What’s of more interest are the new – for me, anyway – voices: the dreamlike, dissociated rhythms of Keith Ridgeway’s ‘Shame’, the bittersweet swing of Hugo Hamilton’s ‘The Supremacy of Grief’ and the urban, existential drama of Philip O'Ceallaigh’s ‘Walking Away’. There’s also Kevin Barry – whose new novel City of Bohane has been making waves – with a twisted ode to love in ‘See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown’.
Overall, the anthology demonstrates how Irish writers have changed with changing times -- for example, there are fewer priests, pregnancies and less politics than you’d expect. The spectrum is wide: the old, the young, the conservative, the modern, the violent, the peaceful, the schemers and the misunderstood, in Ireland and out of it.
A common thread is an intermingling of pathos and humour; not black comedy exactly, more a wryness of tone and an arch of the eyebrow at the miseries that life can toss in one's way. This is a world in which rain falls incessantly on a grey city, sweeping over to the adjacent county. Shamed by desire and held hostage by history, characters listen to the inarticulate speech of the heart, knowing that they have only a few weapons in their arsenal, among them silence, exile and cunning.
A word of caution, though. The stories here are so rich, and there are so many of them, that to consume them all in one gulp – as I tried to do – is most unadvisable. Far better to take them in small doses, preferably accompanied by sips from that other recommended produce of Ireland, a dram of Jameson’s whiskey.