There are artists whose public performance is so flamboyant … that their contemporaries, repelled or dazzled by the man, have failed to measure his artistic quality. This has been the fate of Brendan Behan…. That Behan's writings have some virtue is allowed—but of what kind is it? For in all assessments I have read of writing in English in the past decade, while significance is bestowed on many a dullard whose productions are deemed, by the critical investigator, to conform to the "trend" or "pattern" he discerns, the name of Behan somehow gets forgotten. This surprises me, for of all the writers of my generation, including myself, the only one who I am certain will be read a century from now, is he.
Or rather, this does not surprise me; for the reasons that make the unwary undervalue his achievement are so evident. Chief of these is that he's an Irish writer…. [We] seem to believe a benevolent magic makes it so easy for Irishmen to be fine writers, that this gift of nature deprives them of true merit. (p. 53)
I exaggerate, of course; but wish to suggest this patronizing attitude to Irish writing, largely unconscious and totally detestable, has as its basis—even in the most enlightened English minds—a political motivation…. It strikes me as significant, for example, that while dozens of Irish writers (including, of course, Brendan Behan) have found in [our centuries' old war with Ireland] the chief material of their creations, not one English writer, so far as I know, has tackled it on the scale that it deserves….
Having failed in this task of self-assessment—as much in our national thinking as more particularly in our writing—we have fallen back, in both these areas of consciousness, on the negative device of patronage and denigration. The Irish … remain worthy and slightly comical….
[Borstal Boy] describes Behan's arrest, imprisonments and final liberation (that is, expulsion) when, at the age of sixteen during World War II he attempted, as a volunteer of the IRA, to set off a bomb in Liverpool. (p. 54)
The whole attitude of the Irish patriot to England—motives we can understand well enough, it seems, in Indians or Africans, but not yet, even today, in Irishmen—is the chief theme of Borstal Boy. Yet though I do not think Behan could be described as a "forgiving" person, his amazing triumph, as a man and an autobiographer, is to have given the English at every possible point—and even in the most appalling circumstances—their human due. He is the best, the only real patriot—a man whose love for his country never denies the love others have for theirs, or fails to respect this love. And the portraits of English fellow prisoners, screws, and coppers is unfailingly sympathetic, whenever sympathy seems possible at all. Also, the English temperament, even when its manifestations most repel him (and make his life a misery) is entirely understood by an intelligent imagination. I am not sure how long after his first imprisonment Behan wrote Borstal Boy, but even supposing a maturer Behan bestows on his younger self a greater wisdom than he then possessed, there can be no doubt the Irish boy he was did win, by his humanity, an astonishing moral victory over his captors. This was possible because he is so clear-headed about himself: indeed in many ways, the most satirical portrait in the book is the one the writer draws of the young Brendan.
The language of Borstal Boy dispels another illusion about "Irish writing". The hackneyed convention is that the Irish are beguiling chatterboxes; and of course, Behan knows very well this is expected of a "Paddy", and turns on the blarney at times to amuse his captors (and divert their ire) or, more usually, to trick them and take the mickey. But the overall style of the book, though eloquent and passionate, is trim and lucid. Short scenes, portrait vignettes, swift emotional developments, are conveyed with admirable economy. (pp. 55-6)
I call Behan a poetic writer (and can offer no higher praise) not only because of his frequent quotations of Irish folk and political verses (the reverse of intrusive, and always heightening the dramatic or emotional effect), nor even because some of these verses are written by himself, but in the truer sense that his prose and poetry are almost the same thing; and that his prose, even in passages of factual description, is sustained by a vision which interprets fact imaginatively in evocative speech. This is never "poetic" in a lush purely verbal sense—and in fact, the more one reads Behan the more one is persuaded this rhetoritician has a...
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