The Irish Novel
GEORGE O'Brien is probably best known for his dazzling trio of memoirs, beginning with The Village of Longing, published in 1987, and followed by Dancehall Days (1988) and Out of Our Minds (1994). He is now emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.
In his introduction to this valuable survey, in which he selects a novel for each of the 51 years under consideration, he notes that, in method and intention, his book "participates in and reflects upon the idea of change as it pertains to the contemporary Irish novel." We have come a long way, he remarks, since Sean O'Faolain (in 1962) wrote of "the comparative failure of the Irish novel" and adds that the intervening period has seen "a remarkable flowering of the Irish novel on all conceivable fronts".
Commercial success, he writes, and literary awards have increased media interest in our novelists and their work, and critical interest has also flourished: in this context, O'Brien's bibliography, running to 30 pages, is important as well as impressive.
His approach is to write an essay (each running to approximately 1,000 words) on one novel for each year, starting with Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls and concluding with Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. This, as he points out, is not an original idea and he cites as similar surveys Anthony Burgess's Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 (1984) and The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 (1999), edited by Colm Toibin and Carmen Callil. The Country Girls certainly caused a bit of a stir on publication, and was a victim of what he calls the "antediluvian and philistine" Censorship Act. Today it seems mild, but as a fiction of its time was certainly worth including, although some feel Edna O'Brien is more successful as a short story writer than as a novelist.
The great names are here: the peerless William Trevor; Samuel Beckett (he chooses How It Is); Flann O'Brien, Benedict Kiely; John McGahern, Brian Moore, John Banville, Colm Toibin, Patrick McCabe.
The Trevor novel he picks is The Silence in the Garden, the middle volume in what may be seen as a loose historical 'Big House' trilogy that started with Fools of Fortune and concluded with The Story of Lucy Gault.
Seizing on what may be the essence of Trevor, with his modified Anglo-Irish vision, O'Brien quotes William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
He adds perceptively that this dictum seems particularly applicable to William Trevor's Irish novels (as distinct from those Trevor set in England).
Those who have admired Trevor over the years for his recognition of the creeping tentacles of history – often meaning bloodshed – that continue to permeate the Irish consciousness will concur. (It is a curious fact, though O'Brien doesn't touch on it, that there have been very few novelists from the Protestant tradition since the foundation of the State: Beckett, of course, and the splendid Jennifer Johnston, and Elizabeth Bowen, but not many more).
Looking at a book of this kind we may tend to regret writers left out.
I would have liked to see Patrick Boyle's only novel Like Any Other Man from 1966 included; and Death and Nightingales (1992) by Eugene McCabe.
Prof O'Brien does, though, examine several notable writers who may be in danger of being neglected or forgotten. Patrick McKinley for example (his marvellously original Bogmail) and Maurice Leitch, with Stamping Ground. And a personal favourite, Ian Cochrane, from Co Antrim, who died in London in 2004 aged 63.
His darkly funny novels, six in all, starting with A Streak of Madness (1973), deserve to be reissued.