Modern Irish Literature Criticism: Overviews And General Studies - Essay

Vivian Mercier

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Contemporary Literature, 1940-80,” in A Short History of Irish Literature, University of Notre Dame Press, 1986, pp. 210-48.

[In the following essay, Deane presents an overview of Irish literature between 1940 and 1980.]


In the thirties and forties of this century, a number of writers emerge whose careers as artists are indistinguishable from their crusades as men of letters against the philistinism and parochialism of the new state. Sean O'Faolain is the outstanding personality in a group which includes Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor, Peadar O'Donnell and Sean O'Casey. O'Faolain was editor of a literary magazine The Bell from 1940 to 1946; Peadar O'Donnell gave it a more emphatic left-wing orientation during his editorship from 1946 until the last number in 1954. The Bell followed the example of George Russell's (AE) magazines, The Irish Homestead (1905-23) and The Irish Statesman (1923-30), by becoming a focus for new writing and for the dissenting voices which sought to articulate a critique of Irish social and political life. The literature of this generation thus combines, in a curious way, the emotions of commitment to and of alienation from Ireland, alternatively formulated in utopian and iconoclastic versions of what the country could be and what it actually was. Along with the more specifically literary and scholarly The Dublin Magazine (1923-58), edited by Seumas O'Sullivan, The Bell attempted to resituate Ireland in a wider and less oppressively devotional context than that provided by the long-standing effects of the late nineteenth-century ‘Devotional Revolution' among the Catholic beneficiaries of the Land War, whose descendants also became the chief beneficiaries of the Irish revolution.1 The recrudescence of this narrow, triumphalist Catholicism promoted the popularity of novels like those of Canon Sheehan (1852-1913), particularly My New Curate (1900), while it also contributed to the extinction, as far as reputation was concerned, of Gerald O'Donovan's novels about the death of liberal Catholicism, Father Ralph (1913) and Waiting (1914). The crisis in Irish Catholicism was precipitated by the First Vatican Council's identification of ‘modernism’ as the enemy of all that was Christian. From the decade of the 1870s, Irish Catholicism adopted this view with a remarkable wholeheartedness, reinforced by the cultural nationalism which sought to specify the uniqueness of Irish-Celtic civilization in modern Europe.2 By the 1920s, with the triumph of the Irish Catholic middle classes, nationalism had begun to yield so entirely to this anti-modernist Catholicism, that legislation such as the Censorship Act of 1929 was regarded by most people as a defence of both Irishness and Christianity. This fusion of powerful forces distressed the anti-modernist Yeats, who proceeded to formulate, rather belatedly, his own version of an essentially Irish hostility to the modern world, which had a distinctively Protestant, Ascendancy origin in the eighteenth century. But its Protestantism was also an element in its European, non-provincial nature. The debate in which O'Faolain and his contemporaries were later engaged had its terms dictated by these developments. The only antidote available to Catholic provincialism appeared to be some reintroduction into Irish life of the European heritage and background. By 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, celebrating 1500 years of Christianity in Ireland, and the year in which Eamon de Valera assumed power, the alliance between an anti-modernist Church and an introverted state and culture had been consolidated. It was, thereafter, to reach paranoiac proportions at times. Even Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War, a considerable diplomatic achievement and a genuine declaration of independence, was widely interpreted (and still is) as yet another symptom of the society's fear of and repudiation of the modern world.3 On occasion, the search for a less constricting vision of Catholicism would have its moments of literary triumph—in poetry, Denis Devlin's Lough Derg and Other Poems (1946), Austin Clarke's Pilgrimage (1929), Night and Morning (1938) and Ancient Lights (1955), and in fiction, some of O'Faolain's short stories, particularly ‘Lovers of the Lake’ (1958), and Francis MacManus's The Greatest of These (1943), a novel set in late nineteenth-century Kilkenny in which the relationship between a Bishop and a renegade priest is a paradigm of the battle between authority and rebellion which Ireland had decided in favour of the former. In 1971, Thomas Kilroy, in The Big Chapel, reinterpreted the Kilkenny episode on which MacManus's novel had been based as a parable on the mutual failure of both authority and rebellion. It is appropriate that this novel should have appeared then to remind us that the debates of the forties and fifties had their origins in the 1870s; the new state had not invented triumphalist Catholicism, it merely gave it an opportunity to establish itself in a nationalist mould. In opposing this phenomenon in 1940, O'Faolain was facing a mentality which had been formed in two centuries of Catholic humiliation and one of Catholic triumph. His awareness of this is manifest in his two famous biographies. The King of the Beggars (1938), a life of Daniel O'Connell, the great nineteenth-century creator of the Irish Catholic nation, and The Great O'Neill (1942), the leader of Catholic Ireland in the days of Elizabeth I of England. In these men, he inscribes a version of the contemporary Irish conflict between the forces of a sectarian nationalism and a more generous adaptable internationalism (or ‘modernism’). The ambiguity of their positions becomes for him an emblem of the vacillation of the Irish mind between these two destinies. These two books contain, in parvo, the chief preoccupations of O'Faolain's own fiction and of the debates on the relationship between Irish nationalism and Catholicism, which continue to the present day.

The title of O'Faolain's volume of critical essays, The Vanishing Hero (1956), serves as an appropriate epigraph to his three novels, A Nest of Simple Folk (1934), Bird Alone (1936) and Come Back to Erin (1940). The protagonist in each of them is dominated by a heroic and revolutionary past, to which he is bound by affection and tradition, which exercises a fatal attraction. The titanism of the will exemplified by the heroes of the preceding generations is an insufficient heritage for those who must live in the more complex and pragmatic world of the post-revolutionary era.4 On the other hand, the mixture of joyless religion, greed and respectability with which the middle classes have replaced that heroic rebelliousness is unsatisfactory too. O'Faolain's people seek the attractions of an advanced, varied civilization, while remaining attached to a belief in the certainties of a simpler, morally decisive world. But his elaboration of this well known contrast becomes increasingly subtle, especially in his short stories. There is in them an increasing admiration for the confident, secular world of material success and cultural enrichment, which he frowningly compares with the impoverished and restricted world of Ireland in the thirties and forties. Yet the admiration for a cosmopolitan, ethically governed society is countered by his nostalgia for that sense of liberation which he had experienced as a youth during his participation in the Irish revolution and which he merges with the passionate experience of an instinctive, sexual love. These two aspects of experience—the organized and conceptual, and the rebellious and intuitive—are the imaginative modes in which he realizes the cultural debate between modernism and provincialism, unable to give up or to give in entirely to either. His preoccupation with style and form in the short story was an even deeper symptom of this tension. Although, like O'Connor, he looked to Flaubert, Chekhov and de Maupassant as his models, he also reacted with hostility to the ‘besotted realists’ like Zola and even Joyce. He wanted the purity of control but did not want to lose the richness of extravagance in his writing. The celebration of sexual love as a revolutionary liberation and of a cosmopolitan society as a civilized ideal left the bleak, sexually repressive and Jansenist contemporary society of Ireland as the worst of all possible worlds. Yet his stories are rarely so schematic as this description might indicate. In ‘Lovers of the Lake’, two adulterous lovers from the rich and successful middle class find themselves on Lough Derg, an ancient site of pilgrimage and penance. Jenny, the woman who has come here in search of the faith that will enable her to become morally decisive and put an end to the relationship, is pursued by her highly sceptical lover Bobby, who is determined to confront this superstitious foolishness with his love. Neither ancient nor modern Ireland wins this particular battle. The desire for clarity and faith remains part of the confusion of actual living, not separable but distinct from it. The fierceness of the spiritual life and the durability of the secular life are incorporated in this story with such tact that neither is satirized as extremism. Harsh doctrinal condemnation and flaccid hedonism are both caricature descriptions of the attitudes represented here.

Frank O'Connor's short stories, translations and other writings are so comfortably addressed to an audience that the initial sense of community established by their confident and confiding tone often outlasts the substantial impression of loneliness and alienation which they contemplate. Even in his most eloquent denunciations of orthodox behaviour and attitudes, there is a softening element of camaraderie between him and his audience, which bespeaks the intimacy of a culture in which it is easy to be knowing because everything is familiar and known. He has the poise of a man who belongs and the pose of a man who is an outcast. The contradiction is energetically exploited but seldom explored. Like O'Faolain, O'Connor wanted the risks of modern individuality and the consolations of traditional community. The new Ireland provided neither. So, he fulminated against its unenviable achievement in losing the first and refusing the other while settling instead for a bogus piety and a slavish conformism. Naturally he made enemies, had his books banned and was compelled, in 1952, to go to the United States where his inclination towards bluff sentimentality was enhanced by exile and fame. The charm of the world of his stories is so potent that the most desperate situations can never be taken seriously. All his disappointed lovers and disillusioned revolutionaries and shopkeepers have a vulnerable and endearing aspect to them, which is confirmed for the reader by the sententiousness of the author. Yet, there are stories, like ‘The Bridal Night’ (from Crab Apple Jelly, 1944) in which the voice and the tale co-operate to create a solitude the more poignant for the communal source out of which it has arisen. In this instance an old woman is telling the story of her only son who went mad for love of a girl who was beyond him. On the night before he is taken to the asylum, the girl comes and lies with him to ease his agony, while the mother and a neighbour sit in the kitchen. Thereafter, the community can't do enough for her and the mother treasures the son's departing moment of peace. The lonely setting, at dusk beside the Atlantic, the woman's monologue and the narrator's marginal, listening presence show O'Connor's economy and restraint at its best. But the story itself is an emblem of his work and his time. A close society, an unbearable loneliness and a narrator caught between the fascination of both provide a telling image of the sense of displacement which characterized his most lasting work, a sense for which his calculated charm was an insufficient consolation.

O'Faolain and O'Connor were both children of the Civil War, pupils of the fiercely nationalist Daniel Corkery and, on both accounts, prone to disillusion as the phantom of a renovated Ireland receded during the bitter decades of the thirties and forties. Nevertheless, they continued to strive for a reconciliation between their vision of Ireland's possibilities and its diminished reality. O'Faolain found a way towards it in his ‘conversion’ to Roman Catholicism after a sojourn in Italy in 1946. But for Francis Stuart, who also fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, there was no possibility of reconciliation. From the outset of his strange career in 1923 to the present, Stuart has consistently adhered to an evangelical belief in the importance of a chosen few, from whom the possibility of a new preternatural tenderness of feeling and awareness would be nurtured to the point at which it would replace the existing subnormal world. The necessary prelude to this new dispensation was suffering and disgrace; the scapegoat figure, who would assume the burden of pain, was the artist. In Stuart, therefore, the religious sensibility is dominant and peremptory to a degree not known before in Irish writing. In his autobiographical novel Black List Section H (1971), Stuart tells of his rediscovery of the Bible during his married life in County Wicklow with Iseult, the daughter of Maud Gonne, Yeats's beloved:

Christ had held the most forward position of His time for several hours. And it would fall to the condemned, the sick-unto-death and perhaps a handful of unregarded artists to defend these areas of consciousness in the coming days as best they could. (ch. 20, p. 119)

Later, at dinner with Yeats, he expands on his ideas in relation to the Irish censorship laws:

H didn't share the sense of outrage of Yeats and his fellow intellectuals at the censorship law. It was a matter of indifference to him. The Irish censorship would catch the smaller fish but if a really big one was to swim into view it would be set on by far more ferocious foes than any Irish ones.

‘If somebody somewhere writes a book which is so radical and original,’ H announced … ‘that it would burst the present literary setup wide open, that writer will be treated with a polite contempt by the critical and academic authorities that will discourage further mention of him. He'll raise deeper, more subconscious hostility than sectarian ones and he'll be destroyed far more effectively by enlightened neglect than anything we would do to him here.’

Yeats had lifted his head and was regarding H intently.

‘You believe that the artist is bound to be rejected? You equate him with the prophet?’ (ch. 20, p. 121)

In 1940, Stuart accepted a position as lecturer in the University of Berlin. He stayed in Germany throughout the war and broadcast to Ireland once a week from 1942 to 1944, encouraging the policy of Irish neutrality and expressing sympathy for IRA prisoners, North and South. He had spent a year in jail in Ireland in 1922-3 and, after the war, was detained for a further year by the French authorities. He had sought disgrace and had found it. Between 1947 and 1950 he wrote a trilogy of novels—The Pillar of Cloud, Redemption, and The Flowering Cross—which (like Beckett's trilogy at the same time) fell dead from the press. These, along with Black List and the later novels—Memorial (1973), A Hole in the Head (1977) and The High Consistory (1981)—are the central works among his twenty-two novels. His deliberate alliance with Germany and, later, with the paramilitaries in the North of Ireland was a declaration of freedom from the powerful pieties of convention. He is like O'Faolain, O'Connor and Beckett in his wish to reintegrate his Irish experience with the European crisis and his work, as much as theirs, is an implicit critique of Ireland's failure to sustain its earlier engagement with the world at large. Stuart, imaginatively obsessed with the figure of dishonour, and Beckett, equally entranced by the figure of inertia, go further than their contemporaries in thus ratifying their social delinquency, making contact and even identification with a community of outcasts the central preoccupation of their work. Because of the war, the outcasts were numerous but without cohesion as a group. They were bonded by isolation. This allowed Stuart to preserve his belief in the radical isolation of the artist and, at the same time, the necessity for the artist to make contact with the outcast and despised.

Born into Northern unionism, he married into the Irish revival and took the Republican side in the Civil War. Whatever cause he joined he left it when it became successful. His element is risk; anything which calcifies into a categorical attitude—moral, social, political—is anathema to him. As guerilla, poultry farmer, gambler, philanderer, prisoner, refugee, German sympathizer, unsung artist, he risks all kinds of destruction in order to see what survives. His search is for holiness through sin. This holiness is inexplicable unless Stuart's repeated references to the New Testament are taken into account. It is the holiness represented by the innocent scapegoat figure who is put to death by a coalition of the established powers and of the people for a crime he did not commit. The artist is like Christ in this respect. He is a permanent victim of the mechanism by which the community attempts to rid itself of innocence for the sake of preserving its solidarity. There is, therefore, in Stuart's fiction a variety of attempts, some of them desperate indeed, to embody in a person the idea of a total innocence which is, nevertheless, politically and socially criminal. His meditation upon this leads him to give a fully serious treatment to the action of violence in society, something which, remarkably, no other Irish writer has done.

Women bear the brunt of this violence and are physically or psychologically mutilated by it. Yet, through it, they enter a territory of feeling which is beyond sentimentality or sexual desire or what is generally called love. They become practitioners of charity and have a redemptive capacity, which Stuart, with an evangelical longing, sees as a condition of the appearance of the new world and the disappearance of the old. Thus, in The Pillar of Cloud, set in post-war Germany, Dominique Malone is saved by the Mayerski sisters, who have suffered terribly in the war; in Redemption, set in Ireland after the war, Ezra Arrigho is finally granted spiritual peace by the reappearance of Margareta, and the imprisoned Louis Clancy in The Flowering Cross wins freedom through his love for the blind girl, Alyse. The two ‘Northern Ireland’ novels, Memorial and A Hole in the Head, are dominated by the relationship between a writer—Sugrue and Barnaby Shane respectively—and a woman—Herra and Emily Brontë—which is characterized by extreme neurosis and, simultaneously, by a tenderness not available to the normal world, where violence reigns. Violence is the climate of the institutional life; peace is the climate of the redeemed life. They are conjoined by the suffering of the scapegoat, in which evil attempts to destroy innocence but, unwittingly, makes it active and redemptive.

Few Irish novels of this period escape the stereotyped confrontation between the enervation of the social life and the desire for freedom and plenitude, which characterizes the increasingly introverted private consciousness. Because religion was so pervasive and influential in almost all aspects of existence, most emphatically so in its attitudes towards sexual matters, the heroism of the individual life tended to be expressed in an increasingly secular idiom, with sexuality celebrated as the deepest form of liberation. Further, in reaction to the various idealizations of Irish life, which had been popular during the Irish revival and which were thereafter transmuted into an ideology of Catholic Ireland, novelists tended to use all the resources of naturalism in order to present a bleak and unforgiving counter to the current propaganda.5 Although there were some remarkable successes, the polemical impulse in these novels was often dependent on the circumstances they were designed to combat. There is something dated both about the issues and about the forms in which they were engaged. The operation of the censorship ensured that novels would be noticed to the degree that they broached subjects which were under social taboo and not for any more enduring or interesting innovation in form. In a curious way, censorship retarded the effects in Ireland of experimental work like that of Joyce, Beckett and O'Brien. Books which earned the notoriety of being banned were books which were likely to be understood, because of the familiarity of the naturalistic form. Equally, to challenge the status quo, writers felt an obligation to do so with a certain directness. As is often the case, naturalism became the mode favoured by those who regarded themselves as committed, or as interested, in the facts of common life. Like all the current European versions of ‘socialist realism’, the central intimation of such novels was the existence of an authentic solidarity and community hidden below the autocratic and life-denying forms and fictions of the official order. Stuart was remarkable in his almost anarchic acceptance of a permanently deforming Pharisaic system, within which there would survive a perpetually redemptive band of apostles. For others, the enduring truths were those of the authentic community, which were taken as ‘natural’; the ephemeral, if powerful, inauthenticity belonged to the ‘unnatural’ external world of regulated society.

As a consequence, a number of complete but submerged and quarantined worlds emerge in Irish fiction, each claiming for itself an autonomy and a reality greater than that which environs it. Forrest Reid's Peter Waring (1937, a rewriting of Following Darkness, 1912) identifies one of them as the enchanted universe of adolescence as it revealed itself in the North of Ireland in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Bounded on one side by a dreary puritanism and the squalor of Protestant Belfast, his sensibility seeks satisfaction in a spacious, light-filled mansion, Derryaghy House, owned by a motherly and understanding widow. Reid's unremitting delicacy is rebuked by the contrast with the almost brutal vigour of Liam O'Flaherty's novels in the most typical of which—Skerrett (1932), Famine (1937) and Land (1946)—the will to survive overcomes all other forces in a merciless struggle. O'Flaherty's insistence on the elemental nature of existence, his concentration on the primitive and on the primary forces by which his islanders, peasants and revolutionaries are moved, contribute to the impression that the realism here is in service to the most melodramatic of all the myths of solidarity, namely that the only enemy is finally the fear of defeat itself. No greater contrast could be imagined than the fiction—primarily the short stories—of Mary Lavin. From 1942, when Tales from Bective Bridge appeared, she has established a deserved reputation as one of the most fearsomely economical of the Irish writers. Her work, largely concentrated on the experience of love lost but still treasured, articulates communal values in terms of individual experiences. At first sight, her stories are deceptively simple and subdued, but once the reader becomes acclimatized to the nefarious sweetness of the narrator's voice, the illusion of comfort disappears and is replaced by a deeply disturbed sense of the frailty of human values in a smug and complacent middle-class society. Only the world of love, represented by the ethereal and dislocated young woman who appears so often in the best stories, retains a final authenticity, even though the critique of the surrounding society is gently implied rather than loudly enforced. A more specific and aggressive advocacy for an oppressed grouping appeared in novels like James Plunkett's Strumpet City (1969), in which the working people of Dublin are stimulated to consciousness by the Labour leader James Larkin and confronted by their employer enemies, with the Catholic clergy ambiguously caught in the conflict; or in Patrick Kavanagh's two versions of pastoral, The Green Fool (1938), the soft version, and Tarry Flynn (1948), the harsh version, in which the rural region and its populace are rescued from illusory stereotyping. A variation on the elemental theme is played by Benedict Kiely in novels like The Captain with the Whiskers (1960) and Dogs Enjoy the Morning (1971), in which the only real world is that about which the most extraordinary, legendary anecdotes can be told. The violent and alienated life of an urban and politically unstable present is time and again set against a place or a time in which values were unquestioned and a sense of community securely assumed. Michael McLaverty's Call my Brother Back (1939) is one of the most tender evocations of this experience, with Rathlin island and sectarian Belfast as its polarized arenas. Janet McNeill's The Maiden Dinosaur (1964) records the plight of a lost Protestant gentility which looks back to the twenties as the period of stability which has suddenly yielded to the coarser present. It is not surprising that contrasts of this kind should be more discordant in the North, given its history of strife and its deep hunger for a healing security. In the novels of Brian Moore, this realism of the submerged life in the corrupt system finds its apotheosis.

Moore's first novel Judith Hearne (1955; republished as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, 1959) is written with an economy that hovers between elegance and meanness. There is no attempt to charm the reader into an appreciation of the endearing uniqueness of this wretched woman's life. There is no gesture towards the presence of elemental forces, either in the community or in the individual. All the detail is damning. Even where there is pathos, there is no dignity. It is a world without aura, an Ireland unenhanced by a pronounced style, its atmosphere fumigated of the scents of heroism, myth, historical crisis, nostalgia for a better time. Judith Hearne's life is a pathetic, loveless business, hemmed in by religion, class, woebegone gentilities and inexorable social and physical decay. Her dream life is her only exit but it is finally chastised by the nullity of her daily existence and she sinks into a graceless senility, a victim of deadening circumstance. The story of Diarmuid Devine in The Feast of Lupercal (1957; reprinted as A Moment of Love, 1965) is similarly humiliating. Devine, like Judith Hearne, has his growth as a person violently aborted by a punitive, fear-ridden society. It is only when Moore leaves Northern Ireland and moves, first to Canada and then to the United States, that the fascination with society's victimization of these lonely lives undergoes a modification. In The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), Ginger almost goes under but finally survives the pressures of making his incompetent way in the New World. He even furnishes himself with a rudimentary ethic of endurance. But it is in An Answer from Limbo (1962) that Moore begins to free himself from the simplisme of the battle between the aspiring individual and the stifling social form. The devoutly Catholic Mrs Tierney, who finds herself transplanted to New York as a baby-minder for her writer-son Brendan and his Jewish wife Jane, dies in utter isolation after a vain attempt to re-establish some form of spiritual values in her son's shallow and godless household. In this instance, it is the free, secular life of New York that is disobligingly seen in contrast to her narrow but potent faith. Escape from the restrictions of Belfast also means a loss of communal and spiritual values, which arise from a complex of forces richer than the merely predatory sexual-commercial universe of American success. By the early seventies, Moore had begun the search for a new form which would allow him to inquire more thoroughly into the question of the values which religious belief can provide and which the loss of that belief demands. There is here an element of the exile's characteristic crisis—the desire to belong cancelled by the repudiation of the demand that he belong to a system of failure and repression. But Moore goes further than this. He wants to investigate the sources of the desire to belong and, in doing so, finds himself obliged to challenge novelistic naturalism as a sufficient form.

The result is an astonishing sequence of parables—Catholics (1972), The Great Victorian Collection (1975), The Mangan Inheritance (1979) and The Cold Heaven (1983). Even those novels which remain within the context of naturalism—The Doctor's Wife (1976) and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981), both of them direct descendants of I am Mary Dunne (1968)—have a new obsessional quality whereby the women who dominate them seek through love and sexual experience something other than an escape from their conventional lives. They seem to have a hunger for something appetite cannot satisfy, for a sense of transcendence, on the way to which the rediscovery of personal identity is only a first step. Their surroundings are no longer squalid, but comfortable and even wealthy. The consumer world has now replaced late Victorian Belfast as the physical site of the conflict. But the fulfilment, the hedonism of their lives is for them as great a pressure as poverty and the lack of sexual fulfilment had been for Judith Hearne. In the fables, this other world is identified with ancestral belief and longing. It is not just nostalgia, although that too is there. It is a radical dissatisfaction with the actual that leads in the end to either the acceptance of or the recognized possibility of miracle, an irruption into the complex, secular world of hotels, motels, affairs, professions and cosmopolitan ease. Moore's allegiance to the actual world does not waver. Instead it learns to coexist with the possibility of another, apocalyptic place, in which the simple can wholeheartedly believe and which the sophisticated dread to accept other than as a psychic disturbance or metaphor. Thus he pushes his naturalism to the breaking point, but never permits it to disintegrate. At the end of The Cold Heaven, Marie, who was witness to an apparition of the Virgin on the shores of California, surrenders it to the semireluctant Church and turns towards ‘that ordinary, muddled life of falling in love and leaving her husband and starting over again’. Belief remains a powerful force that must be refused, and yet the effects of which in the ordinary run of experience cannot be denied. To put it in Catholic terms, Moore's people lack the gift of grace partly because it is mediated to them through a culture and through a Church, which is, in the aesthetic and in the moral sense, graceless. One has the impression that this may be an explanation but is not an excuse.

John McGahern's first three books, The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965) and Nightlines (1973), are as implacably bleak as anything to be found in Moore's early work. The psychic isolation which they describe is rendered with an actuarial tidiness, the precision of the recorded details tinged at all points with a faint, cello sadness. Even in the most casual moments, there is a conscious emphasis on bleakness, which never quite cancels an incipient tenderness:

The line of black cattle trailed all that winter round the fields in search of grass, only small patches in the shelter; always a funeral of little winter birds in their wake in the hope that the rocking hooves would loosen the frozen earth down to the worms. And in the evenings they'd crowd at the gate to low with steaming breaths for their fodder. (The Dark, ch. 9, p. 47)

In McGahern's crepuscular world, the deep energies of life have been occluded and turned poisonous. In their secret decay they are clouded by shame. Sex, cancer, drink, lovelessness are known by those who are afflicted by them to be the pathological inversions of their truly human alternatives—love, health, rationality, generosity. McGahern's people find it as difficult to live with themselves as with others. They are caught in a curious dilemma. Disdaining the usual and entrapping fictions which surround human relationships, the saccharine and oppressive notions of love and marriage most prominent among them, they look for a more candid freedom by testing experience in relation to the senses and then by scrutinizing the feelings which such a testing generates. But there are two chief kinds of physical testing. One is the sensual experience of sex, the other is the sensual experience of illness. Each develops in unexpected directions. Sexual experience, which involves another, leads to self-enclosure; illness, which is private and involves one's own body exclusively, leads to an opening out towards others.

There is no religious feeling in these novels, although there is a feeling for the force of religion in Irish social life. McGahern's world is almost entirely bereft of anything beyond the horizon of empirical experience. The melancholy discipline of his writing is most successful within that specifically secular zone. When he attempts to depart from it, as in The Leavetaking (1974), his control tends to waver and he allows his strict tenderness to degenerate into sentimentality. Even though he rewrote the last pages of this novel, he cannot quite find a convincing idiom for the description of a successful love affair. The link between sexuality and love is problematic. One can be clinically observed to such an extent that the other must appear almost absurd in comparison. This is an issue which he finally confronted directly in The Pornographer (1979).

Here McGahern polarizes the forces which have been dominating his work, the better to see them and the more courageously to interrogate their mutual relationship. The hero is a writer of pornography for a journal run by an ex-poet, Maloney. He has invented two characters, Mavis and Colonel Grimshaw, whose sexual appetites are as inexhaustible as their ways of satisfying them are ingenious. He meets a woman at a dance in Dublin, they become lovers and she becomes infatuated with and pregnant by him. She goes to London to have the baby. By this time, he is backing away from the relationship as fast as he can, despite the loud disapproval of his boss Maloney and her Irish friends in London. During this time his aunt is dying in a Dublin hospital, his uncle is visiting her regularly and his provincial childhood life is constantly being interwoven again with his self-encased metropolitan existence. The girl has the baby, he abandons her, is beaten up for doing so and goes to his aunt's funeral scarred by the punishment. Finally, the exemplary courage and magnanimity of his aunt is brought home to him as he realizes how it survived the helpless selfishness of her own family. Her shrewd charity is not, he realizes, a practical gift. It is a spiritual achievement. Her illness has clarified the nature of love, his love affair has clarified the nature of selfishness. At that point, he decides to leave Dublin, come home to the farm and propose marriage to the girl. He is redeemed. Pornography is shown to be the literary equivalent of unfeeling selfishness, illness the final opportunity to confirm values that go beyond the welfare of the self. The customary bleakness finally gives way to a pervasive tenderness, which will not deny but equally will not be denied by its chill alternative. In this novel, McGahern enriches without softening his vision of the lives of quiet desperation, which are lived out in an Ireland in which the compatability between sexuality and illness is a frighteningly natural phenomenon.

With the appearance of John Banville's Long Lankin (1970) and Nightspawn (1971), it was obvious that an important writer had arrived, although in what his importance consisted was not clear until the publication of Birchwood in 1973. This is one of the most startling of the century's varied achievements in Irish writing. It is a narrative, told by Gabriel Godkin, the child of an incestuous relationship, of the hero's quest for his twin sister in an Ireland which is by turn that of the Civil War period and that of the nineteenth-century famine. The Godkin house and estate, both in fairly ruinous condition, have their counterpart in Prospero's travelling circus, a medley of freaks, mutants and sinister cruelty, the natural home of the twin brother Michael. (There is no twin sister.) The extreme condition of breakdown, which characterizes this society, ravaged by war and famine, undermined by incest, violence, and insanity, drives Godkin back upon himself to such a degree that he lives only by the laws of his own consciousness, even though he queries its reality too. Everywhere we hear echoes of other writers and other worlds—Dostoevsky, Beckett, le Fanu, Nabokov, Flann O'Brien, Maria Edgeworth, Herman Hesse. The intensity of this self-consciousness is increased by the fact that Gabriel is writing the novel as a memoir, arranging the pieces of his past experience in the hope of discovering a design which he nevertheless knows either does not exist or will exist only because he has invented it. Thus the novel plays with a series of conventions and a sequence of puns on names. The Gothic elements are frankly borrowed. Incidents, like the death of Granny Godkin from spontaneous combustion, are stolen from Dickens's Bleak House. There is an insistence on our remembering that the story is a series of literary conventions. Prospero's Magic Circus stirs memories of, say, the Magic Theatre in Hesse's Steppenwolf (1929), but the correspondence is by no means exact. In the same way, this novel is one of the many Irish fictions about the decline of the Big House, but it wears its conventional rue with a difference. The world of Elizabeth Bowen has become interfused with that of Sheridan Le Fanu, yet neither is fully present. Banville uses literary echoes as a reminder that the essential activity is the act of writing itself and that the essential futility is manifest in the gap between a discrete, discontinuous experience and the formed plots and arranged motifs which are a necessary feature of literature. He is fascinated by the idea of the lost twin, partly for the metaphorical opportunities it offers in the way of rendering a quest for the lost or the other self, partly because it encapsulates the anguish of a consciousness which, in recognizing itself, recognizes...

(The entire section is 16081 words.)