A bibliographical essay by,
John Wyse Jackson
Anyone who reads books for pleasure and instruction possesses various yardsticks for measuring how good they are. This is perhaps especially true in the case of booksellers – such as myself. So it was with some initial reluctance that I approached the task that the Edmund Burke Institute had set me: to name ten books related to Ireland that I thought everyone would be both pleased and instructed to have read.
About three weeks ago, after lengthy brain-cudgelling, note-taking and agonising, I produced a carefully modulated list, almost immediately lost it, and then couldn’t remember very many of the books I had chosen. So now, under editorial pressure from the website supremo, I have done another one. This one shares a few titles with my initial attempt, but it was the product of a quite different method: I have simply allowed books that mean a lot to me to pop gently into my head, without any straining after categories or canonical importance.
Here, therefore, is my list, in no particular order:
Father Ralph (Gerald O’Donovan)
The English Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, once said that this was his favourite novel. First published in 1913, it’s based on the author’s experiences, first at Maynooth, where he trained for the priesthood, and then in a parish in the west of Ireland. The hero’s conflict with the reactionary forces of the Church is the coiled spring of savage indignation that drives the plot. In 1904, after several years of futile struggle against the powers of indigenous darkness, O’Donovan left the priesthood (and Ireland), disgusted. There were to be more novels, but none as good as this one.
A book we often think we have read properly, but rarely have. Swift’s prose is as clear and comic as it is clever, and the subtext behind his greatest novel (more savage indignation) should engage adult readers even more than the story did when they were children.
The Unfortunate Fursey (Mervyn Wall)
One of the most delightfully humorous books I know, it was written in the 1930s by a Dublin civil servant. It tells the unlikely tale of a medieval monk who is thrown out of the monastery of Clonmacnoise because, against his will, his beehive hut is the venue for nightly revelry by members of the devil class. As Fursey is afflicted by an incapacitating stammer, he cannot intone the ritual of exorcism to get rid of them, and so none of the other monks gets a wink of sleep. The story continues … (The book could inspire a hilarious and beautiful animated movie, on the lines of the Oscar-winning The Story of Kells.)
Less famous than his monumental life of James Joyce, this book shows the American biographer in marginally less academic mode – perforce: he wrote it at some speed before motor neurone disease finally silenced him. It contrives to be witty, moving and authoritative, a rare combination, as well as immensely readable. Naturally, a good deal of the credit must go to the extraordinary Mr Wilde himself.
In the 1930s and ’40s this quintessential Anglo-Irish writer wrote several enjoyable novels about hunting and big houses; then fashion decreed that such trivia weren’t worth bothering with, and she ceased publishing. But not writing: when a houseguest discovered the manuscript of Good Behaviour in a drawer, she urged Molly to send it to a publisher. It almost won the Booker Prize. Set in a similar setting to her earlier books, it is no Somerville-and-Ross romp, but the wicked, sad, hilarious tale of a girl in her teens who is just too innocent. (I don’t wish, by the way, to impugn Somerville and Ross, whose ‘Irish R.M.’ stories have for a century and more beguiled the leisure hours of many of their fellow countrymen and women – even militantly nationalistic ones. Indeed, their best book, The Real Charlotte, is one of the greatest Irish novels of all, and it would have made this list had it not been so long since I read it.)
Doctor Copernicus (John Banville)
Unashamedly treating fiction as an Art, Banville is frequently mentioned as a Nobel candidate. This is one of his earliest novels, the first of his so-called ‘scientific trilogy’ – the others being Kepler and The Newton Letter – and it is an enthralling, elegant study of the man who united the sciences of astronomy and physics. The fetid intense atmosphere of Germany in the seventeenth century seems to emanate from the pages of this book, and one finishes it with a renewed admiration both for the great astronomer and for its author. Incidentally, it is to Arthur Koestler – and particularly The Sleepwalkers – that Banville ascribes his interest in matters scientific. No doubt there is a thesis in preparation as we speak.
An tOileánach / The Islander (Tomás Ó Criomhthain)
This is a gritty, sensitive and honest account of a hard life on the westernmost scrap of Ireland. However, even for those of us who can read his book in the original, the book’s reputation has for generations been coloured by Robin Flower’s 1929 translation, which made an international success of it. Flower did his best, and there are, God knows, many worse translations from the Irish, but his version aped in English the cadences and even structures of the original, leaving much of the clarity of the author’s words obscured behind a quaint variant of Kiltartanese. I’m glad to say, a new translation (by Garry Bannister and David Sowby) has just appeared, written in good English, and with various censored ‘earthy’ passages restored. It is a revelation. Seek it out!
An Béal Bocht / The Poor Mouth (Myles na gCopaleen)
Better known as Flann O’Brien, author of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, Myles, a native Irish speaker, wrote this sharp, disgraceful satire in the early 1940s, partly in response to the flood of rural memoirs in Irish that had been inspired by the success of An tOileánach. It is also an attack on the ‘Gaelgóirí’ – Irish language fanatics who governed the country’s policy on the language, and in their holidays thronged the villages of the west of Ireland, notebooks at the ready, pestering the natives for obscure words. But satire aside, in either language, this is a very funny book indeed.
Collected Poems (Austin Clarke) `
Overshadowed in early life by Yeats, in middle life by Kavanagh, and in later life by Heaney, Clarke (1896-1974) was a brilliant, innovative poet and social critic. This volume is a trove of treasures. First almost a poet of the Celtic Dawn, and then later almost an avant-garde one, Clarke liked to set himself technical challenges in his work (‘I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free’). For example he borrowed conventions from Gaelic verse for his (English) poems, and he sometimes wrote poems that formed quasi-rhymes from homophones – not always entirely happily, admittedly: I seem to remember, in a poem about eating horses, ‘hippophagy’ ‘rhymed’ with ‘hip off a gee’. Perhaps my favourite of Clarke’s works is Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, a long verse chronicle based on time he spent as a young man in a St Patrick’s Mental Hospital in Dublin. His early novels (banned, of course) are good too, and his memoirs, particularly Twice Round the Black Church.
Giacomo Joyce (James Joyce)
Of course there are other books by Joyce that I might have chosen (and Joyce has dominated my reading for some years), but I am very fond of this short book. It is the only considerable work that he did not set in Dublin, an impressionistic, beautifully cadenced piece, almost a prose poem. Revolving around a love affair – more accurately, perhaps, a ‘crush’ – that the writer had with a young woman in Trieste, it was not published during the author’s lifetime – and so is probably the only remaining creative prose by Joyce that is still in copyright.
That concludes my list of ten books – but I cannot resist adding one more, by Iris Murdoch.
The author’s fourth novel, chosen by me almost at random, is set largely in a lay religious community. In it, practically all the characters are tortured by love, religion and their own flaws. In fact, if you like this book, you will like ALL Murdoch’s books. (I do – and in fact many years ago I spent several months reading them one after another. I scarcely lived to tell the tale!)
But (I hear you cry) why should Iris Murdoch be on this list? Was she really, properly, Irish? Yes she was, I contend, very much so. Though admittedly, later in life she tended to avoid her fellow-countrymen, finding them gushingly friendly and over-emotional, in her younger years she made a telling statement about herself on a book jacket. I quote it in its entirety:
‘I was born in Ireland and come of Anglo-Irish stock on both sides. I am glad of this, in a sentimental way, because this particular race has produced so many good writers – though as far as I can discover my own ancestors were mainly farmers and soldiers.
‘I should like to write about Ireland – but I think I should find it very difficult not to be, in some way, absurdly emotional about it.
She concludes, with disarming eccentricity: ‘Since I gave up painting I have no hobbies. If I have any time to spare I talk to my friends. I like being alone in big cities, especially London and Rome. I like animals very much.’
Yes, indeed, Iris Murdoch was Irish.
(John Wyse Jackson is a bookseller and a part-time writer. Most days he can be found among some 30,000 of his favourite secondhand books in Zozimus Bookshop, 86 Main Street, Gorey, Co Wexford. Among his publications are books concerning the Irish writers Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and John Lennon. He has also edited several volumes of Ireland’s ‘Other’ Poetry – i.e. light, satirical or otherwise entertaining verses that might otherwise be forgotten. He can be phoned on 086 123 3137, or contacted through ‘Zozimus Bookshop’ on Facebook.)