Thursday, March 19, 2009

Five best of Irish fiction

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Stefan Beck has offered, over at the New Criterion’s Arma Virumque blog, a “Five Best of Irish Lit” (no Angela’s Ashes, he promises) in the style of the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best” format:

(1) James Joyce, Dubliners.
(2) Flann O‘Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds.
(3) Frank O‘Connor’s 1952 story “First Confession.”
(4) J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man.
(5) Roddy Doyle, The Commitments—by which he really means Alan Parker’s wonderful 1991 film based on the novel.

Assuming that such native Irish writers as Swift, Wilde, Shaw, and Beckett do not qualify, because they turned their backs on Ireland, here are my five (taking for granted the place of Joyce and O’Brien on any such list):

• Sean O’Faolain, Bird Alone (1936). Banned as obscene by the Irish Censorship Board, this novel tells the story of a staunch Fenian, looking back over his participation in the Troubles, now ostracized and living alone.

• Elizabeth Bowen, A World of Love (1954). Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899. Her best novel is The Death of the Heart (1938), but it is set in England; her best book about Ireland is her history of the family estate, Bowen’s Court (1942). This late novel, about the discovery of love letters from an unknown woman to a soldier who died in the First World War, is carefully plotted but simply told.

• J. G. Farrell, Troubles (1970). If Beck can include one ringer, so can I. Farrell was born in Liverpool, but his family was Irish. And this novel is set in a hotel on the South Wexford Coast. The Irish War of Independence looms in the background.

• Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance (1979). Moore was beaten to the punch by John Irving’s World According to Garp (1978), a novel on a similar subject, but this is the better book. A failed poet, descended from the famous Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, is left a fortune by his wife, dead in a car accident, making it possible for him to set off in quest of his bizarre family history.

• William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (2002). There is not much by Trevor that is not worth reading, but this novel is truly haunting. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Gault family decides to leave Cork after the father shoots an arsonist, but nine-year-old Lucy does not want to leave—and then, through an astonishing chain of entirely credible incidents, she gets left behind.

Speaking of the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best” series, by the way, Shelley‘s Heart (see below) was named one of the five best political novels, second only to The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope, a novelist who spent eighteen formative years in Ireland.


Brian Busby said...

I was pleased to see The Mangan Inheritance made the list. Not the usual choice for Moore, but then no one title dominates his oeuvre. I think his most accomplished novel was I Am Mary Dunne (though, for personal reasons, my favourite is An Answer from Limbo). I would argue (and have: that no male writer was his equal when it came to writing from the female viewpoint.

D. G. Myers said...


Nice to meet another Moore enthusiast. Truth to tell, I could just as easily have named The Temptation of Eileen Hughes in this category—a Moore title that is usually overlooked, although it abundantly proves your point about writing from a woman’s point of view. It was also, I believe, Moore’s last novel of character before he began writing thrillers.

In The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel listed Cold Heaven among his “non-canonical” favorites. Patrick Kurp and I selected Black Robe, my own personal favorite (although for political reasons I like The Statement too), for inclusion in our list of Best American Fiction, 1968–1998.

Jonathan said...

When you write that Beckett, Shaw and Wilde "turned their backs" on Ireland, are you referring only to their subject matter, or also to their leaving the island?

I only ask, because Joyce spent most of his adult life (after 1904) outside of Ireland. It seems then that Joyce's subject matter alone ensures his continued characterization as Irish.

The attribution of nationality to various authors who immigrate is something I think on often. The standards are so fluid and unequally applied that I find myself often struggling to properly characterize an author.

Joseph Conrad - Polish or English?
I.B. Singer - Polish or American?
Nabokov - Russian or American?
Michael Ondaatje - Sri Lankan or Canadian?

If Nabokov becomes an American writer then why doesn't Joyce become a French one?

Heck, Malcolm Lowry only spent six drunken years in Canada (while he revised Under the Volcano), and I've seen that book referred to often as a Canadian classic. If geography was the sole standard then some people might refer to Ulysses as a great Swiss novel.

Ultimately, I believe it doesn't matter a whit which country claims an author as its own. The words on the page, won't change either way.

I'd be interested, however, to read your thoughts on this topic. Yet if time is pressing, could you suggest an article or book on the subject?


Jonathan said...


It should read: "...then why doesn't Joyce become a Swiss one."

shade said...

Don't Watt and Murphy at least qualify as Irish novels, just as The Gift qualifies as a Russian one? I don;'t know whether they'd make your list (though Murphy would probably make mine) but it seems a shame to simply rule them out.