Fiction, Modern

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Fiction, Modern

Many of the most important works of fiction that emerged from Ireland in the early part of the twentieth century are linked by the themes obsessively explored by their authors: the simultaneous ambivalence and attraction to home place and the pain felt at separation from it; and the strong ties to family and community made complicated by equally strong desires for freedom both from family and from such institutions as the Catholic Church, which traditionally have sustained the family. The first great work of the century, and one which explores all of these themes, is George Moore's The Untilled Field, which first appeared in Irish in 1902, and subsequently in English the following year. Moore, who was a Catholic landlord from County Mayo, had spent time as a young man in France and learned from Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. In addition to the short stories that comprise The Untilled Field, Moore is the author of many important novels dealing with both rural and city life in Ireland, most notably A Drama in Muslin, Esther Waters, and The Lake.

James Joyce was a contemporary of Moore's and, like him, looked toward Europe for his literary models, to Flaubert and Henrik Ibsen in particular. In Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, Joyce produced some the landmark fiction of the century. Joyce's work, however, did not find ready approval in his home country, and was considered difficult, obscure, and even obscene by some commentators. Like many Irish writers of this period, Joyce spent much of his adult life outside of Ireland, living in Italy, Switzerland, and France. Samuel Beckett was a disciple of Joyce's who provided aid while the master sought to complete Finnegans Wake. Although Beckett is best known as the author of Waiting for Godot, a defining work in the theatre of the absurd, he also wrote many important works of fiction, the most important being his trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. After 1945 Beckett abandoned English and wrote in French, the language of his adopted country. Another great modernist and disciple of Joyce is Flann O'Brien, who achieved fame as an Irish Times journalist, using the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen, and who is the author of the great comic novels At-Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman. Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille (Graveyard clay) is arguably the greatest novel written in Irish during the twentieth century and one that is similar to the work of Beckett in many respects.

Many fiction writers emerged under the umbrella of the Irish Literary Revival, which set out to examine Irish life after the Yeats model and to keep modernism at a safe distance, but also to put some distance between themselves and revival. For the most part, much of the best work done by writers from this generation was in the short story. The most notable writers in the genre are Sean O'Faolain, author of Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories and A Purse of Coppers; Frank O'Connor, author of Bones of Contention and OtherStories and Guests of the Nation, the title story of which is a classic antiwar narrative; and Mary Lavin, author of Tales from Bective Bridge. During this same period, Máirtín Ó Cadhain wrote many of his best short stories, which were later translated from the Irish in the collection The Road to Brightcity. However, some important novels, such as Patrick MacGill's The Rat Pit and Peadar O'Donnell's Storm, dealt, with great compassion, with the poor and downtrodden. Liam O'Flaherty wrote many novels, the most popular being The Informer—though Famine, his exploration of the famine on Aran, is probably his best. Some writers continued in the fantasy vein made popular by Yeats and Lady Gregory and produced some notable work: James Stephens's The Crock of Gold, Mervyn Wall's The Unfortunate Fursey, and Eimar O'Duffy's King Goshawk and the Birds.

Although the Big House novel is often most closely associated with the nineteenth century, it has also flourished in the twentieth. Edith Somerville and Violet Martin's The Big House of Inver and Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September are remarkable examples of the novel at its best. To this day, the Big House novel exerts a fascination for Irish writers, and two excellent, more recent examples are Aidan Higgins's Langrishe, Go Down and Molly Keane's Good Behaviour. Higgins is one of an important group of writers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and struck out in new directions, borrowing from both the Irish modernists and revivalists.

Brian Moore grew up in Belfast, but left the city after completing school and eventually settled in California. His best known works are The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, concerned with a middle-aged woman's fruitless search for love, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream, a coming-of-age novel, both of which are set in Belfast. John McGahern is well known both as a novelist and short-story writer whose work examines the lives of rural folk in the west of Ireland. His most acclaimed books are the novel Amongst Women and the story collection, High Ground. William Trevor has written many novels and collections of short stories, set in both Ireland and England. The Ballroom of Romance, which deals with the loneliness of rural life, is his most acclaimed. Edna O'Brien has been the most controversial writer of this generation. Her first novel, The Country Girls, was banned by the censors for obscenity and burned in her local village in County Clare. In time The Country Girls became a trilogy and was seen as a groundbreaking work which explored the inner lives and aspirations of women. Although The Country Girls Trilogy remains her best-known work, O'Brien has written many novels and Lantern Slides, an important collection of short fiction.

A New Generation of Writers

Recently, another strong wave of Irish writers has arrived, many of whom have enjoyed wide international success. Roddy Doyle's The Barrytown Trilogy is a hilarious and deeply sympathetic portrayal of working-class life on Dublin's Northside, and each part has benefited from being made into a popular film. Doyle was also the first Irish fiction writer to win the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Philip Casey is the author of the highly regarded Bann River Trilogy, a work which details the ever shifting nature of love and the often ghostly links between the past and present. Patrick McCabe has found great success, both as novel and film, with The Butcher Boy, an impressive exploration of rural deprivation and madness. Similarly gruesome and impressive is John Banville's The Book of Evidence. Both Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann are writers whose work is frequently set outside of Ireland. In The Heather Blazing, Tóibín shows how both the political and the personal worlds become tangled in post-treaty Ireland, while The Story of the Night shows how the political and the sexual become entangled in contemporary Argentina. In Colum McCann's fiction, because his characters are restless and mobile, the location may shift suddenly, as is the case in Songdogs, a novel that takes place in Mexico, Ireland, and the United States. In Ripley Bogle and Eureka Street, Robert MacLiam Wilson has provided two moving and hilarious accounts of life in contemporary Belfast. As has been the case in poetry, women have contributed important and technically daring fiction. Anne Enright's volume of short stories, The Portable Virgin, is an original and hilarious take on the contemporary scene, while Deirdre Madden's Remembering Light and Stone is an Irishwoman's reflection of her life in Italy among expatriates. Emma Donoghue frequently focuses on the lives of lesbians though her most successful novel to date is Slammerkin, a historical novel about a servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763.

SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Beckett, Samuel; Blasket Island Writers; Drama, Modern; Joyce, James; Literature: Twentieth-Century Women Writers; Poetry, Modern


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Eamonn Wall