Lonely Voices: The Irish Short Story from James Joyce to Claire Keegan

by John Boland

Lecture given to Kate O’Brien Winter School, February 2010

What I want to do in this talk is to celebrate the Irish short story and, in the process, to try to define what makes it so distinctive – and, indeed, to try and tease out what has drawn so many Irish writers to it. But in order to do so, I feel I must deal first with a strange fact, as I see it, about the Irish literature for which we’re famous.

We’re, proud, of course, of our literary heritage, and with good reason, and if most of what causes that pride comes courtesy of a protestant Anglo-Irish minority rather than the native Catholic majority, well, we peasants will claim it anyway.

But one thing has always struck me whenever I’ve considered our pantheon of great writers. From Congreve, Sheridan, Swift and Goldsmith, through to Shaw, Wilde, Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey, and then on to Beckett, Kavanagh, Friel and  Heaney, you’ll find playwrights and poets galore but there’s hardly a novelist among them. Indeed, there’s hardly a novel among them, and no great ones, unless you generously allow that Gulliver’s Travels fits the bill, not to mention Ulysses, that troubling elephant in any fictional room.

But apart from that extraordinary aberration of a book, I would contend that this country has produced no great, central, defining novel, such as you’ll find in France, Russia, England or America.

In other words, there’s been no Madame Bovary or The Red and the Black or The Charterhouse of Parma, never mind no Balzac or Zola.

Nor has there been a Crime and Punishment or a  Dead Souls or War and Peace or Oblomov or Fathers and Sons or Dr Zhivago.

And though most of us for centuries have spoken the same language as the English, no one here has written a Tom Jones or a Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion or Middlemarch or Vanity Fair or Wuthering Heights or Bleak House or Barchester Chronicles or Nostromo or Sons and Lovers.

Nor, unlike our American counterparts, has there been a Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn or Great Gatsby or Main Street.

These are all novels that defined both the nations about which they were written and the spirit of the age in which they were created, but we haven’t come up with their equivalents. We’ve managed Gulliver’s Travels, as I say, and Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Ulysses, of course, and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds – but these are freakish one-offs and remain resolutely outside the great tradition of the novel as developed in England, France, Russia and America.

Of course, we’ve had the admirable fiction of Canon Sheehan and Elizabeth Bowen and Brian Moore and John Banville, and of the two O’Briens, Kate and Edna, and John McGahern, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, Mary Morrissey, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright and Colum McCann. These are all very fine and important writers, and in recent years we’ve been patriotically thrilled when Roddy Doyle, John Banville and Anne Enright have won the Man Booker Prize and we’ve felt vicariously cheated when for the umpteenth time Colm Toibin has got pipped at the post for a major literary ward.

Yet even among our recent and contemporary novelists, there’s been no Graham Greene or Philip Roth or John Updike or even a Martin Amis or an Ian McEwan – no one, in other words, of immodest intentions determined to confront and examine the society in which he or she lives.

I find this reluctance, indeed aversion, to engaging directly with the country and the times they inhabit an especially curious feature of Irish novelists and am reminded of a conversation I had with Sean O’Faolain soon before he died in which he wondered at the complete dearth of Irish fiction about modern life in Ireland. After Joyce, he said, where’s the major Irish novel dealing with issues that we all recognise? He was speaking twenty years ago, but the same is true today when there are many more internationally admired Irish novelists than there were in his time.

So what are these novelists writing about? Yes, Roddy Doyle has memorably captured and given voice to a particular Dublin underclass, but where are the substantial Irish novels about the rise of the aspirational urban middle class; or the novels about the effects on our society of political and religious and financial corruption; or about the accelerating, irreversible decline of once-cherished belief systems; or about the consumerist greed that supplanted old-fashioned notions of decency in the Celtic Tiger era?
In the past few years, I’ve read just one novel that addressed these concerns directly, a book called Leaving Ardglass by William King – a parish priest, of all things, in Drumcondra, as it happens – and a very impressive book it is, too, but it didn’t reach a wide readership and anyway it stands alone.

Indeed, instead of engaging with such issues, our best novelists seem to positively shirk from them – I’m thinking of John McGahern’s loving evocations of an almost vanished rural society, John Banville’s doodlings in the margins of European literature and philosophy, Patrick McCabe’s obsessive fondness for surreal fantasy, Colm Toibin’s retreat into other cultures or other eras, and Colum McCann’s spurning of contemporary Irish concerns for those of his adoptive America – to the extent that his latest book, Let the Great World Spin, is being hailed across the Atlantic as the first great 9/11 novel.

Why there’s this reluctance on the part of our writers to confront the realities of contemporary Ireland  isn’t entirely clear, though the historical reasons for the absence of great Irish novels seem to me clear enough.

Until well into the 20th century we never had the conditions that are necessary for the creation of such confident analyses of society because, up to then we weren’t a society at all – or at least not a cohesive or influential one, having been ruled by others for most of our history. And it’s from the ruling middle class that the novel has traditionally drawn both its subject and its readership – the rise of the bourgeoisie mirrors the rise of the novel.

For similar reasons, this country has never had a tradition of classical music or of painting, which have always depended on the wealth and cultivated taste of an elite not just for their nurturing but for their very existence. The tools of these arts simply weren’t available to the indigenous Irish, and thus we remained removed, and remote, from such privileges and such possibilities of expression.
Yet if  I can’t come up with a persuasive list of unarguably great Irish novels, I find it an easy task to name scores of great Irish short story collections. Here’s a very partial list from the 1890s until now:

Somerville and Ross’s Some Experiences of an Irish RM (1899)
George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903)
James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914)
Daniel Corkery’s A Munster Twilight (1916)
Liam O’Flaherty’s Spring Sowing (1924)
Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation (1931)
Sean O’Faolain’s Midsummer Night’s Madness (1932)
Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Ridge (1943)
Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover (1945)
James Plunkett’s The Trusting and the Maimed (1955)
Aidan Higgins’s Felo de Se (1960)
John Montague’s Death of a Chieftain (1964)
William Trevor’s The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), or The Ballroom of Romance (1972), or Angels at the Ritz (1975), or Lovers of Their Time (1978)
Maeve Brennan’s In and Out of Never-Never Land (1969), or The Springs of Affection (1997)
John McGahern’s Nightlines (1970), or High Ground (1985)
Neil Jordan’s Night in Tunisia (1976)
Edna O’Brien’s A Fanatic Heart (1982)
Bernard McLaverty’s Grace Notes (1997)
Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields (2007)
Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures (2008)
Kevin Barry’s There are Little Kingdoms (2008)

And that’s not to mention scores of others, including such fine Limerick writers as Eithne Strong and Maeve Kelly,

So what is it about the short story that has accommodated itself so easily to the Irish literary imagination? No one thing, I suspect, though the native oral tradition that reaches back through centuries and the social conditions that created this oral tradition clearly have something to do with it. Even someone with such a different background as William Trevor has inherited the power of that tradition and in fact has always insisted that he’s a short story writer who occasionally writes novels rather than the other way round.

I’ve called this talk Lonely Voices and I take its title from Frank O’Connor’s great book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, which was published in 1963 and grew from a series of celebrated lectures he gave at Stanford University in 1961. A decade and a half earlier, Sean O’Faolain had written his own study of the form in a book simply titled The Short Story, yet fine though that is, it’s not as arresting or searching or, indeed, as combative as O’Connor’s analysis.

O’Connor himself was one of our most distinguished and, indeed famous, writers of short stories, most of them originally published in that magazine most coveted by writers seeking renown and a handsome income, the New Yorker. However, famed though he was then, he’s little-read now. Indeed, as Julian Barnes noted in an appreciative 2005 essay on O’Connor, since his death in 1966 “a respectful forgetting has settled over him.”

Happily, Barnes has done something to redress that amnesia and if this talk accomplishes nothing else, I hope it encourages you to buy a beautiful Everyman’s Library book that’s just been published entitled The Best of Frank O’Connor. Edited and introduced by Barnes, it features scores of O’Connor’s stories, as well as poems and extracts from his autobiographical and critical books, none of which have dated, though most are long out of print. Indeed, it’s bracing to note how vibrant his work remains.

But back to The Lonely Voice, whose basic thesis is straightforward enough – that while the novel, as traditionally defined and shaped,  is essentially social, the short story is deeply personal. Unlike the novel, which regards organised society, with all its behavioural rules, as the norm and which fills its pages with characters who  interract for good or ill with that norm, the short story deals with what O’Connor terms “submerged population groups” – outsiders, in other words.

He traces all this back to Gogol and he quotes with approval Turgenev’s remark that “we all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat,” a reference to that famous story which O’Connor says “marked the first appearance in fiction of the Little Man”

There are other elements to the short story, of course, beginning with the self-evident fact that it’s supposed to be short, though some of Chekhov’s greatest stories are longer than, say, the last two novels by Philip Roth. And it has other aspects, too. I especially like William Trevor’s description of it as “the art of the glimpse” and that of another great short story writer, VS Pritchett, who observed that “the novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely.”

Trevor also remarked that “the key to a short story is tension. At the end of a short story the reader’s imagination should be able to take the story on in his mind, but at the end of a novel he is entitled to expect a rounding-off.” You don’t find many roundings-off in short stories, which avoid cathartic completions.

But if it’s partial in scope and in possibilities, the short story can do things that the novel can’t. As Sean O’Faolain observed, it can “dive into the narrative without any explanations, elaborate introductions or apologies,” and indeed it’s hard to mistake the opening of a short story for the opening of a novel.

You know you’re about to read a novel when the first sentence declares “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.” Or when you’re authoritatively informed that “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

A short story doesn’t begin with such a sweeping, declarative sense of its own importance. But then you don’t expect a novel to begin with the mid-action abruptness of, say, these two story openings:

“When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.”

That’s the start of Hemingway’s The Light of the World, one of his greatest stories, and here’s the beginning of William Trevor’s Office Romances:

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” Angela said in the outer office. “Really, Mr Spelle. Thank you, though.” “Don’t you drink then, Miss Hosford? Nary a drop at all?” He laughed at his own way of putting it. He thought of winking at her as he laughed, but decided against it: girls like this were sometimes scared out of their wits by a wink.”

With both of these openings and with no time for the scene-setting that a novel can allow itself, we’re immediately in mid-story, and we’re not dealing with the heroes and heroines one expects to find in a novel. It’s obvious from the action of Hemingway’s bartender – shielding the free lunch bowls from the two new arrivals – that the narrator and whoever he’s with are not welcome in the bar, while in the opening of the Trevor the ingratiating Mr Spelle clearly has less than noble intentions regarding the hapless Angela.

There’s no Mr Darcy in such stories, or no Isabel Archer or Anna Karenina. Instead, these are marginalised people – indeed, in the Hemingway, they’re complete social outcasts. The short story, O’Connor argues, “has never had a hero.” Instead, it has “Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials.”

And he could have added to his list James Joyce’s dispirited clerks, John Cheever’s alienated suburbanites, Mavis Gallant’s displaced Europeans, Alice Munro’s frustrated farm wives, James Plunkett’s forlorn salesmen or Maeve Brennan’s unhappy husbands and wives.

Such people, O’Connor continues, are “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, spoiled priests.” And he adds that “there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness.”

That sense of loneliness is everywhere in the short story, where people are observed at moments of individual crisis, without the solace afforded to characters in a novel, where time can extend its healing powers and the necessities of social interraction can defer or even dilute personal grief. There are no such distancing consolations available to those who inhabit short stories – what happens to them  is happening to them here and now, and it’s seldom encouraging.

It’s a profound awareness of loneliness that pervades the stories of Maeve Brennan. The daughter of Ireland’s first ambassador to the US, Brennan left Ireland with her family when she was sixteen, eventually becoming a much admired and greatly liked staff writer for the New Yorker, but she was a troubled soul and ended up seriously disturbed and living in the women’s toilets of the New Yorker. But throughout her saner years she  hankered imaginatively after the Dublin of her childhood and every one of the 21 stories published originally in the New Yorker and later collected in The Springs of Affection are set in the house in Cherryfield Avenue in Ranelagh where she and her parents had lived.
After Joyce’s Dubliners, they are among the greatest stories of Dublin life, only rivalled by some of the stories in James Plunkett’s The Trusting and the Maimed.

I can’t think of three more desolate sentences in any short story than are to be found in Family Walls by Maeve Brennan, one of the six stories she wrote about the marriage of Rose and Hubert Derdon, who live unhappily together in their Ranelagh home. (A further eight concern another unhappy married couple, the Bagots, living at the same address).

In the first two sentences, Hubert has just arrived home from work and is in the hall. The author writes: “At the same instant that he was hanging his raincoat on the rack, he looked down the hall and saw the kitchen door close quickly and quietly, but not quickly enough to prevent him from seeing that Rose was down there. Her head was turned away from him as she closed the door.”

The other sentence describes a moment a little later and simply reads: “When Rose appeared in the doorway Hubert felt such dislike that he smiled.”

Between both of these brief passages, Brennan conveys the dreadful desolation of an intolerable marriage and what makes the passages even more desolating is Brennan’s refusal to take sides – neither Rose nor Hubert is deemed to be at fault for their dismal situation, or at least not solely at fault.

In a novel, both of these scarifying moments would be just details in a larger, more complicated narrative;  but a short story’s compression is such as to give them the explosive force of bleak, defining epiphanies. And this is what the great short story does supremely well.

Of course there are other kinds of stories. There are stories that, no matter how brilliantly told, are no more than anecdotes. The American writer O Henry excelled at this kind of story, but an anecdote by its very nature doesn’t really bear rereading – it’s all about plot and once you know the payoff or punchline, that’s it – no matter how well it’s told there are no subtleties to savour.

Then there are happy short stories, or at least stories that convey happiness, but they’re not common, though John McGahern, a writer with a reputation for bleakness, wrote a number of such stories in his later years, when his view of life had become more benign and mellow.

But in general, and partly through the demands of its brevity, the short story excels either at bleak revelations or at the dying fall that follows moments of crisis or revelation. And the Irish story is full of moments in which characters are soured by dissatisfaction, frozen with indecision or ruefully aware of a longed-for life that resides just out of reach. Here are the last lines of three stories from Joyce’s Dubliners:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

“She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”

“He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.”

Joyce, of course, was intent on capturing the “paralysis” that he felt was endemic in Dublin. As he wrote to his publisher: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories,” h said, adding that “you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely-polished looking glass.”

But you wouldn’t get away with such suspended endings in a novel, from which the reader demands some kind of completion and closure. However, short story writers not only get away with them – the form, by its very nature, seems to invite, indeed encourage, such diminuendoes. William Trevor’s later stories, in which the ruefully nostalgic backward look takes precedence over the baleful comedy that distinguished much of his earlier work, are full of such irresolutions, as characters find themselves beyond the pale or come to regret roads not taken, desires left unfulfilled or thwarted or historic or family grievances that remain unresolved.

Occasionally, this takes on a defiant, resolving poetry of its own, as when the married protagonist of Trevor’s great story, Lovers of Their Time, looks back on the doomed illicit love affair he had consummated in the otherwise unused public bathroom of a Victorian hotel in London:

“Sometimes on the Tube he would close his eyes and with the greatest pleasure that remained to him he would recall the delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two. And now and again he heard what appeared to be the strum of distant music, and the voices of the Beatles celebrating a bathroom love, as they had celebrated Eleanor Rigby and other people of that time.”

And, as I’ve said, you’ll find similarly cathartic moments in some of the stories of John McGahern who, along with Trevor, seems to me the great Irish short story writer of the last half-century. Indeed, fine though some of the novels are, especially Amongst Women, I think his short stories constitute his greatest achievement.
Why the Irish should be such masters and mistresses of the short story can perhaps be best got at by considering Sean O Faolain’s suggestion as to why the English have seldom excelled at it. Of course there have been outstanding English short story writers – Kipling and DH Lawrence and VS Pritchett and  such half-forgotten writers as WW Jacobs and AE Coppard.

But England is a country of novelists and O’Faolain suggests that “the English nature does not take kindly to the short form” because “the English way of looking at life is much more social and much less personal and individual” than that of the Irish – or indeed than that of Americans, who have also excelled at the short story.

So we’re back where we started – the English building their literature from the confidence afforded by social and political stability, the Irish living off a fugitive oral tradition and the literary scraps discarded as unworthy of its nearest neighbour’s table. The English have their Ian McEwan grappling with important public themes and we have our William Trevor worrying about unimportant private human beings, and I don’t think it’s just patriotism that has me knowing whom I’d rather read – just as I’d rather read Maeve Brennan’s tender and merciless depictions of lonely lives in Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh, than Don de Lillo’s issections of national alienation.

We also have those who came after Trevor and Brennan, and I find it cheering that the current younger generation of Irish writers are clearly just as drawn to the short story as their predecessors, with outstanding recent collections by Colm Toibin, Clare Kilroy, Claire Keegan, Anne Enright, Michael J Farrell and Kevin Barry, to name just a few. Indeed, you can simply log on to the current website of the New Yorker, that magazine which has provided a home for so many Irish writers in the last seventy years – from O’Connor and O’Faolain to Trevor, McGahern and Maeve Brennan.

On the current site you’ll find remarkable stories by Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry which have just been published in the magazine. The Keegan story, called Foster, is the one for which she recently won the Davey Byrnes prize; the Barry, entitled At Killary Fjord, was new to me. Both are ferociously good. I’m not sure that Frank O’Connor would have approved of the four-letter words with which the Barry is peppered, but he would have been happy to see that the form which he helped to define and at which he excelled is in such rude good health.

So maybe we don’t need to come up with the major Irish novel after all. Small is beautiful and, like the lyric poem, yields its own inimitable pleasures, though maybe those of us who love them should heed the cautionary advice Mavis Gallant offered in the preface to her Collected Stories.

“There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories,” she writes.. “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.”

Happily, there are hundreds of superb Irish short stories out there waiting for readers to discover them.

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