Review: Fiction: Exploring English 1: Short Stories We Did For Our Inter Cert edited by Augustine Martin
Gill and Macmillan, £14.99
The calamitous downturn in the economy has led to some interesting social and cultural trends, mostly to do with nostalgia. Indeed, it seems that our experience of the grim present and our fear of what a very uncertain future may bring has led to a hankering for the simple certainties of a reassuring past.
In brief, we're reverting to memories of childhood, evidenced in the increased sales of custard, marmalade, Mikado biscuits, Battenberg cakes and other comforting foodstuffs that remind us of a bygone age when life seemed all gaiety and ease.
This need for consolation has extended to our reading habits as well, nowhere more startlingly seen than in the phenomenal success of Soundings, an anthology of Leaving Cert poems first published in 1969, taken off the syllabus in the 1990s but cannily reprinted by Gill & Macmillan last autumn. With its dog-eared replica of the original cover, it became a Christmas bestseller.
Augustine Martin, who was professor of Anglo-Irish literature in UCD until his death in 1995 at the early age of 59, was the editor of Soundings, and he was also the man behind Exploring English 1, which Gill & Macmillan has now released for the Christmas market. An anthology of short stories -- 26 of them Irish and 10 by foreign writers -- it was first published as an Inter Cert text in 1967 and now appears in its original format.
In fact, the only thing new about this edition is its foreword by Dermot Bolger, who recalls thumbing through his older brother's copy of it when he was 13 and suddenly finding himself "on the cusp of a new world. It felt like a passport, heralding a different life."
Of course, to less imaginative and talented schoolboys it probably felt more like drudgery, just as those who found teenage enchantment in Soundings were vastly outnumbered by others who thought -- and still think -- poetry (and especially the enforced study of it) a pain in the neck.
These won't be the readers of this reissue. Indeed, in his amicably combative introduction to the anthology, which is reprinted here, Gus Martin made a point of appealing to the "skilful" rather than the "careless" reader -- the latter described as someone who "merely wants to know what happens next" and who reads a work of literature "as if it were a badly written and rather long-winded tale out of the comics", while among the hallmarks of "a good reader" is "his sensitivity to words, their sound, meaning and associations".
This introduction is finely argued and the "explorations" and "exercises" devised by Martin at the end of each story are very astute and alert, but the anthology itself exists in a 1960s time warp.
William Trevor hadn't yet published a collection of short stories and neither had John McGahern, Edna O'Brien or any of the other writers we now deem to be the modern Irish masters of the form, and thus the most 'contemporary' short story writers in the book are Brendan Behan, Benedict Kiely, Bryan MacMahon, James Plunkett and Brian Friel.
These stories are well chosen and so are stories by Liam O'Flaherty, Seán ó Faoláin, Frank O'Connor and Mary Lavin, though the 10 non-Irish stories are something of a tokenistic (and very conservative) ragbag -- with Saki, Maugham, Pritchett and Mansfield worthier of inclusion than thin tales by O Henry, HG Wells and William Golding, and with nothing by such obvious masters as Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald. Similarly, Elizabeth Bowen is a notable absentee.
This anthology may not prove to be as popular as Soundings (well-loved poems are easier -- and quicker -- to peruse), but it's a solid selection of classic Irish short fiction, enhanced by a lively introduction.