The State of Ireland

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Benedict Kiely’s The State of Ireland collects, the book itself says, “A Novella and Seventeen Stories.” The copywriters must plead guilty to denting the truth for a phrase’s sake, since one of the “Seventeen Stories,” the brilliant “Down Then by Derry,” is thirty-eight pages long and most certainly a novella. The State of Ireland is beautifully bound and illustrated, another fine job of bookmaking from David Godine, and readers should also be grateful for the long and excellent introduction by Thomas Flanagan.

Benedict Kiely is known in America chiefly for his short stories which have appeared in The New Yorker, but his output is much more extensive, as Flanagan informs the reader: “eleven novels, three volumes of short stories, and four books of social and literary history.” Much of that work was done while Kiely supported himself as a journalist: one of the most appealing qualities of his fiction, which the reader senses immediately, is his professional confidence, the confidence of a man who has made his living by the pen (and the typewriter) without writing trash.

The stories collected in The State of Ireland are accessible, charming, resonant—no guidebooks required. Kiely possesses a sharp wit and a gentle sense of humor, a sharp ear for speech, and a well-stocked literary memory, always ready to supply an unobtrusive line from William Wordsworth or John Webster, William Shakespeare or William Butler Yeats. His themes are simple and timeless. It is no surprise, then, that most reviews of The State of Ireland have been pervaded by nostalgia for a mythical Golden Age of narrative: Kiely, “the master storyteller,” “the Irish storyteller,” in the great oral tradition.

It is perfectly true that the qualities which distinguish Kiely’s book from so much current fiction—not least, his humane spirit—are self-evident, so that a critic might easily be reduced merely to summarizing story after story, concluding: “read this book.” If, however, The State of Ireland is, first, simply a book to read and savor, it is also an artifact, made by a craftsman, and it is also, as a development of a particular form, a small episode in the history of consciousness: a small, evolutionary episode. Perhaps this approach to Kiely’s work is validated by the conclusion to Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition, in which Mercier lists “four priceless gifts” which, he believes, the “Irish background” offered writers in this century:contact with a living folklore and thus with myth; contact with a living folk speech; a traditional sense of the professional, almost sacred prestige of poetry and learning; a traditional sense of the supreme importance of technique to a writer, coupled with the realization that technique must be learnt, by imitation, study, and practice.

A modest consideration of Kiely’s technique is, therefore, no decadent French import; it is as Irish as peat and malt whiskey.

Kiely as “The Storyteller” is a good place to start. Walter Benjamin, in his celebrated essay of that title, invested “the storyteller” with mythical dimensions even as he was proclaiming his inaccessibility: “He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant.” To call a contemporary writer such as Kiely a “master storyteller” is also to evoke nostalgia for something that is lost. Now on the one hand, it is perfectly appropriate to call Kiely a “master storyteller,”...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)