Sunday 24 September 2017

Our national literary heritage is safe in the hands of these writers

JP O'Malley

Town & Country

New Irish Short

Stories

Kevin Barry (ed)

Faber €12.99

Over the past 70 years or so, various masters of the short story – including Frank O' Connor, Sean O'Faolain, and John McGahern – have all tried to explain why the Irish seem to excel so brilliantly in the realm of short fiction.

The most convincing argument suggested hitherto is that the internal gravity this form has towards loneliness sits well in the Irish national psyche: which is plagued by a history of uncertainty, ambivalence and insecurity.

If the novel speaks about an established society and firm social order, the short story is like a superstitious prayer: it flourishes in more fragmented communities, where tradition, local authority and individualism are the dominant forces at play.

In his introduction to Town & Country, editor Kevin Barry writes: "There was a time when the short story looked – to use a great morbidly descriptive Irish phrase – as if it might turn to face the wall, and the expectation was of a low-key funeral with a smallish turnout."

In recent years, Barry's phenomenal success has helped put a swagger back into the hybrid form – which lies halfway between the novel and the lyrical poem. His stories have been published everywhere from the New Yorker to the New Statesman.

Last year, Barry won the 2012 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize. But it was in The Stinging Fly that he originally cut his teeth.

This prestigious literary journal, established in 1998, has become the focal point in recent years in Ireland for aspiring artists wishing to get their first story published.

It replaced the role that the obsolete Irish Press once served for young Irish writers, under the guidance of the late David Marcus – who edited the first two of these Faber collections.

Of the 20 authors featured in this book, six have previously been published in The Stinging Fly. The most impressive of these is Mary Costello. In Barcelona she skilfully crafts a beautiful story about memory, and an exploration of selfhood that is, unapologetically, a modern-day tribute to Joyce's classic The Dead.

In Colin Barrett's The Clancy Kid, we can see echoes of William Trevor, where mysterious, unknowable forces lurk in the background of the story: here the reader is never quite sure if they are witnessing reality or the wild imaginings of the protagonist's internal mind.

The authors in this collection who honour the form with the respect of tradition it needs to flourish are the ones who execute their tales with precision and finesse.

In Images, Dermot Healy introduces us to Jack, a retired lecturer who spends his days taking photographs and thinking about the past.

His golden one-liners, such as "history is a password", "tranquility can be very noisy", and "mother nature can be very articulate", sound like the wise quotations of a wandering ancient Celtic chieftain.

In Tiger, by Michael Harding, we meet a man from Castlebar who is contemplating the importance of silence in his life as he comes to terms with the news that he has prostate cancer. Other established names, like Patrick McCabe and Desmond Hogan, offer longer, scattered, less-traditional takes on the short story form: while these passages of prose would certainly work for a novel, they lack the steady cadence required for this delicate form to work its magic.

Other names worth mentioning who make notable contributions are: Mike McCormack, Molly McCloskey and Keith Ridgway.

In my view, if Barry were a more experienced editor, he would have omitted five of the weaker stories here. In doing so, he would have made this a firmer collection. As it is, we have a handful of stories that can be easily forgotten.

The writers who really deliver on what the American short story writer, Flannery O' Connor, once called, "the experience of meaning", are those who put the music and quality of the language before aesthetics or plot. Luckily, most of the stories we encounter in this book do exactly that.

This promising collection proves that today's Irish writers are extremely qualified to carry on the noble tradition of the short story format, which is an intrinsic component of our national literary heritage.

Irish Independent

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