Wednesday 11 December 2019

Insights and pleasure from great essayist Hubert Butler

Less polemical than George Orwell, Butler is nonetheless of comparable moral and literary stature

Hubert Butler
Hubert Butler

John Boland

The Lilliput Press, which was founded in the early 1980s by Antony Farrell, has published more than 400 books – many of them impressive, though none more prestigious than those by the late Kilkenny-born essayist Hubert Butler.

Indeed, in the preface to The Appleman and the Poet, the final volume of Butler's essays, Farrell declares that "if ever Lilliput had a mission statement it resides in bringing to light the works of Ireland's most elegant and far-reaching prose writer of the past century".

Farrell first came upon the essays of Butler, who was born in 1900, just after he set up Lilliput. "We were hungry for material", he recalls, "and I hastened to meet this man as old as the century, who awaited his first publication". That turned out to be Escape from the Anthill (1985), which was followed by three more collections of Butler's wise and humane reflections on Irish and European history, politics and culture.

And now, 23 years after his death, there's a fifth volume. This features 45 essays, a quarter of them hitherto unpublished in any form but every one of them evincing the author's telling insights into politics and history and his mostly tolerantly benign view of human nature and its failings – the most acerbic observations here reserved for his old friend and intellectual colleague Seán Ó Faoláin.

Fintan O'Toole contributes a fine foreword to the book, just as John Banville provided engrossing introductions to the two lovely Notting Hill editions of selected essays – The Eggman and the Fairies and The Invader Wore Slippers – that were published in 2012.

Less polemical than George Orwell, Butler is nonetheless of comparable moral and literary stature and is certainly the greatest essayist this country has produced in the past 100 years. And with tyrannies throughout the world reasserting their baleful powers, his political insights serve as warnings from history while also offering the reading pleasure that only a consummate writer can provide.

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