Kiely, Benedict (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Benedict Kiely 1919–
Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist.
A deep sense of Ireland pervades Kiely's fiction. In addition to the seanachie's gift for a good nostalgic story, Kiely presents the dilemma of a divided Ireland with complexity and sophistication.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
At the time of Land Without Stars, World War II casts darkness over the British Isles. While Northern Ireland's soldiers fight with Britain against Germany, the Republic of Ireland remains neutral. The novel, then, chronicles perhaps nine months in the lives of two brothers who, at the beginning, return to their Northern Ireland home for the Christmas holidays. Davy Quinn arrives from the North, his brother Peter from the South, both to find the town crouching behind blackout blinds. (p. 54)
Dissension between brothers, which is at once the most dramatic and disheartening aspect of civil war, provides in Land Without Stars the clearest insight into the character of Ireland; like many of their countrymen, the ideals of Davy and Peter Quinn are as sharply different as their personalities are. (p. 57)
In presenting the conflicting viewpoints of Davy and Peter, Kiely in this novel approaches the objectivity of his later work. (p. 61)
In a Harbour Green in pure irony tells about murder, robbery, suicide, an illegitimate child, and rape in a small Northern Ireland town which stifles creativity, slanders reputations, votes Unionist, and opposes progress. (p. 62)
The novel interweaves the following plots: the destiny of the acquitted murderer, the sex experiences of May Campbell, the approaching death of Aunt Aggie, the fate of the town "bad woman," the robbery, the...
(The entire section is 1457 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly is uniformly excellent. Mr. Kiely's style is bawdy and hilarious. He writes with spacious confidence and, it is probably necessary to add, compassion. His priests—there seems to be one on every page—have earthly weaknesses. Most of his other men have a weakness for the ladies.
In "A Great God's Angel Standing", a priest takes Pascal Stakelum, "the notorious rural rake", with him on a visit to an asylum. Stakelum is mistaken for the priest and a patient insists on making a confession to him. But still he manages afterwards to meet behind a hedge a red-haired nurse who has "great blue eyes, looking up at him like headlamps seen through mist".
"The Green Lanes" features another rural rake whose doomed antics are recorded by a young man working the dispatch department of a religious magazine. There is a jolting worldliness in this tale—it is quite superb. The title story does not run as smoothly as the others, though it is undoubtedly the work of Benedict Kiely.
"Rakes and Realists," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3723, July 13, 1973, p. 797.∗
(The entire section is 199 words.)
Daniel J. Casey
To a greater degree than even he would perhaps admit, the content and technique of Kiely's fiction are dictated by a voice out of the past….
For more than thirty years Kiely has stood with one foot in the past and the other in the present, mingling joys and disappointments of the two worlds, and, so postured, he has managed to create a fiction that is more than credible; it is convincing. (p. 24)
He is symbolist, allegorist, and myth maker, and his fiction employs ambiguity, paradox, irony, satire—whatever device serves to heighten involvement at the moment. His writing is influenced by naturalism and existentialism on the Continent and by the psychological novelists of Britain and the United States. He might have been a realist, a naturalist, some sort of avant-garde experimentalist, but he has too much imagination to be any of those. Surely he is one of the last of the Irish romantics but with an abiding fascination for the darker side of man's nature. Imagination overwhelms reality, and myth and legend introduce a new level of consciousness to his work. He cannot avoid blending the strange and the real, adding song and poetry, or embellishing his landscape with a rich flow of images that stir scenes replete with illusions. (pp. 31-2)
[Kiely's early short stories and] novels were straightforward narratives. They were sometimes flawed by contrived situations, by characters that were stereotyped,...
(The entire section is 4330 words.)
Benedict Kiely's novella deals with the sinister politics of Ulster. His title, Proxopera, derives from the terrorist tactic of having bombs delivered by proxy—in this case by a retired Tyrone schoolmaster called Binchey. The story, which is mediated through Binchey's consciousness as he drives into town with the bomb, deftly manages to be both mellow and tense…. This confusion is abetted by the way Kiely's proper indignation at terrorism falls back on reminiscences of 'the last 50 years' and pushes half a century of bigotry and stupidity into a static rural nostalgia.
Tom Paulin, "Captain Fist," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 94, No. 2418, July 22, 1977, p. 123.∗
(The entire section is 110 words.)
[Proxopera is important for] the insight Mr. Kiely gives into a disturbed community. His book, he says, is "a condemnation of the interference by violent men in the lives of ordinary people".
His greatest achievement is in conveying, extraordinarily economically, and as if it was not the technical and imaginative feat that it is, the layers of time coexisting in the mind of someone who has lived all his life in one place…. All the time, Binchey is seeing the past alongside the present: when he walks in the graveyard, the men and women buried there are all alive in his memory…. When he stops the bomb-laden car on the bridge he reads the words he himself scrawled in the wet concrete of the parapet half a century ago. Everything he sees is interpreted through memory and long knowledge.
As the present is overlaid by the past, the peacefulness of the familiar landscape is pervaded by the horror of what is happening. "The birds sang round Dacchau", thinks Binchey. He curses the "gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering their neighbours"….
Proxopera is a fierce, sad little book, full of feeling and curious perceptions. The writing, mostly spare and northern, breaks sometimes into poetic keening…. In a book so short, on such a theme, immoderateness is not out of place. Though Mr. Kiely never moves out of the mind of one very ordinary man he gives a more painful...
(The entire section is 278 words.)
Benedict Kiely [is] an Ulster scholar, novelist, storyteller, talker, walker, bard,…: he knows Ireland from the stones up. And in his book about his travels around the island, All the Way to Bantry Bay, something of the true nature of the border country in Ireland emerges, something which would never be perceived by the Sunday Times Insight team if it researched for a thousand years, for that knowledge lies in the very seedbed of the mystical landscape—and in the intimate knowledge of the physical land, too….
Ben Kiely walks all over Ireland. He has a great ear for the kind of anecdote that men love to tell each other over a libation: here, it is told with the skill of the seannachi. (p. 18)
All the Way to Bantry Bay is a lovely book in the reading … and, like Ben Kiely himself, a perfect companion for a sojourn in Ireland itself. He writes like an angel, but ah! you should hear him talk. (p. 19)
Mary Kenny, "Storyteller," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7832, August 12, 1978, pp. 18-19.
(The entire section is 184 words.)
Benedict Kiely's control over his material seems loose enough, but is, in fact skilfully exercised in this free-wheeling collection [A Cow in the House & Other Stories], set mainly in pre-Troubles Northern Ireland. And 'this ground is littered with things, cluttered with memories and multiple associations', which pretty well sums up Kiely's particular gift. Each story is built up layer upon layer, grapevine upon grapevine of allusion, starting off in one direction, expanding to include more and more reference, sparkling with wit and energy, like those rambling conversations you can have in any Irish country pub. The pains of growing up, the complexity of the effect of divided politics on ordinary lives, and bonds of environment: everything is glanced on. Detail upon detail in breezily hilarious juxtaposition: 'her own true love was killed in a hunting field. She was never in a bus'. Like Louis MacNeice, Kiely knows the world 'crazier and more of it than we think. Incorrigibly plural … the drunkenness of things being various'. And these stories, like poems, compress the more of it than the more of most writers ever do.
Mary Hope, "Books: 'A Cow in the House & Other Stories'," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7839, September 30, 1978, p. 24.∗
(The entire section is 211 words.)
["A Cow in the House"] contains the stories of a man talking easily, of a man whose memories crowd in on him, some merry, some melancholy, but all demanding attention, so that their appearance on the page seems at times to follow an order dictated by the random operations of change, and inconsequentiality seems the ruling principle of life. Memories of lost days of youth in rural Ireland, the Ireland of small towns and small farms where "Edwardian days lasted until 1939", and life moved slowly; rules of logic only falsify such memories and the stories drift along, remembered experiences and people conniving with their invented counterparts to create a fiction which makes the reader say, not "Life could never have been like that", but "That is just how life would be remembered"; and if the emphasis is on tolerance and neighbourliness, it is not because memory is up to its tricks, but because, as the author, ever so gently, reminds us, "there are burned-out buildings in the main streets—and barricades and checkpoints at the ends of the town".
Mr. Kiely's head is well stocked with songs and poems and stories and conversations and people, and he hardly ever starts a hare that he does not follow, but not for long, for every page has several hares, and though one suspects he could talk on for a whole book, mingling fact and fancy down the boreens of memory…. Mr. Kiely does have his ten stories to tell and his leisurely explorations have...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Benedict Kiely, a writer in whom are joined magnificent lyrical and comic gifts, is one of the most admired of literary figures in his native Ireland…. [The State of Ireland, a selection of his short fiction, which concludes with 'Proxopera,"] exhibits not only the remarkable continuity of his themes, attitudes, and abiding concerns, but also the ways in which, over several decades, these have deepened and enriched themselves. (p. 3)
Kiely's art begins with a profound sense of place, of both physical and human geography, and of the integuments by which people and landscape are bound together. It would be entirely wrong, however, to 'place' him as a regional writer, for the strong center of his craft, in his novels no less than his short stories, is the shaping voice of the narrator. This voice may seem at first to be that of the seanachie, the traditional Irish storyteller, but in fact it is a far more complex and sophisticated instrument. Kiely moves very close indeed to the people of whom he writes—farmers, tradesmen, mechanics, journalists, doctors, priests, publicans—but the voice can complicate itself suddenly, distancing the speaker and reminding us that Kiely is a man of wide literary culture, with a deep, unyielding tolerance for almost every range and variety of human experience. It is this shaping voice within the stories that, I suspect, has fallen strangely upon the ears of a generation schooled to...
(The entire section is 1295 words.)
People, landscape, song, sex, religion and violence—this is what Ireland seems to be made of in "The State of Ireland," a novella and 17 stories by Benedict Kiely. It's a narrow world, yet in this case a narrow world seems to make for good stories. They're brilliantly contained, free of that centrifugal throw that deforms some of the more cosmopolitan writers….
Weather is still significant in Ireland, and topography. Religion figures there. People pay attention to their speech, take pleasure in its rhythm and diction. Sex is unambiguous, and there is a fierce sense of community.
One is reminded that such conditions still exist. At first there may be a bit of resistance. Who the devil are these Irish, always talking and drinking and fighting and intriguing for sex? And then, encouraged by Mr. Kiely, you will probably undergo a conversion. How wonderful it is, you think, that weather should make a difference, and the shape and color of the land. And that people don't talk like television commercials or despairing modern movies. How pleasant to find that sex is a natural force again. And that priests are necessary, among other reasons, to keep things in perspective, to put a bit of black into the landscape.
Sometimes the Irish have so much gusto that they get on your nerves—but better this way than characters who get on your nerves because they have no gusto at all. If the Irish seem to make an...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
Most of the stories in … The State of Ireland focus on strange pairings off, on mismatched people whose unlikely relationships lead to surprising revelations, if not to spiritual transformations. In some cases, the participants in Kiely's brand of "strange friendship" wind up reversing their roles and seeing themselves (and their counterparts) with new and deeper insight….
Kiely's experiments with human identity continue throughout this collection. Guides become the guided, as in "The Dogs in the Great Glen," a story about an Irish-American professor who comes to Ireland "to search out his origins" in the wilds of County Kerry. The professor's guide is the narrator who, at the start of the journey, has an amused, condescending attitude towards the eager American. But as the two travelers near the mysterious "great Glen of Kanareen," the American becomes possessed with atavistic wisdom and the narrator … admits to himself that he "was the stranger who had once been the guide." (p. 3)
These serious reflections may make Kiely's work seem more somber than in fact it is. He is a classic Irish storyteller, with all the gifts demanded by the traditions of this art: a sense of humor, an accurate ear for the way people talk, a highly evolved narrative skill. His writing, deeply rooted in a love for the land and its people, opens us to a knowledge of the authentic Ireland. And second only to his attachment to the...
(The entire section is 308 words.)
[The first meaning of "The State of Ireland"] is that it's a place where stories are still told, deliciously and by masters of the art, of whom Benedict Kiely is one, perhaps the foremost.
His skill is such that we have to distinguish between writing stories and telling stories. Once you have seen how Mr. Kiely builds a narrative, you must admit that he is not doing what Joyce or Chekhov or Maupassant were doing. His is a different art altogether….
The Irish have always seemed to prefer the mimic to the deliberate craftsman. They alone in all the world will tell you that Joyce was no great matter. There is a radiant speck of truth in this very Irish opinion. Joyce was a European writer. Ireland was his subject, not his audience. Benedict Kiely writes for anybody who loves the charm of a well-told story, but it is obvious in every line that he assumes his audience to be Irish. (p. 1)
A Kiely story is usually several stories at once, for his finest habit is to tell a story within a story to illustrate a point, and his characters all have stories to tell too. The Irish tell stories because they cherish, admire and embrace absurdities. Jewish tales are all about the foolish and the wise; French tales are about ironies; American tales are about clever tricksters; but Irish tales are about how the world is cockeyed and there's no hope for it. (p. 37)
The absurd is Mr. Kiely's grasp of...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
In the best sense of the word, Kiely is a local writer—that is, a writer who knows and loves a particular place and realizes that the life of that place can represent and clarify a larger world….
Kiely makes this affectionate commitment to place the center of story after story [in "The State of Ireland"], and his fiercest anger is reserved for those who violate it….
Remembered songs and poems echo through many of these stories. Often the crude work of amateur poets, they testify to a continual effort to articulate a love of place, and so reinforce Kiely's major theme.
So it is not surprising that Kiely's best portraits are of people who combine an intense love for place with a knowledge of its traditions—the old folklore collector in "The Heroes in the Dark House," and the returned American who remembers ancestral custom in "The Dogs in the Great Glen."…
Kiely's nostalgic affection does not blind him to the long-maintained barriers that divide his land. But he is concerned to urge at least the possibility of civility, of polity, or community, of a shared rather than a rival love for the land and its traditions.
Robert Tracy, "Deft Storyteller Captures Northern Ireland Aura" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 1981, p. 17.
(The entire section is 219 words.)