Denis Donoghue

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328

The first chapters of [The Year of the French] deal with conditions leading up to the [French invasion of Ireland in 1798]…. These chapters are recited by an impersonal narrator, the voice of history uttering its disinterested truth. Most of the later events are conveyed from different points of view and in suitably different styles. In certain chapters we hear the voice of history not in complete impersonality but as it yields itself to a particular character…. Still other chapters narrate the events through fictitious documents, such as An Impartial Narrative of What Passed at Killala in the Summer of 1798, by Arthur Vincent Broome, the local Protestant minister in the novel.

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These devices make for variety in a long novel: the several points of view keep the reader sensitive to the proportions of ignorance and knowledge in any account of an experience. Another effect is that the characters and events in the novel are held at a certain distance, as if to prevent the reader from having only an immediate relation to them; he is to see them not only as they were but as they have become. I imagine, too, that Flanagan was reluctant to produce his characters when they had nothing to show for themselves but their bewilderment: he chose to let them stay in the shadow until they had come to understand the various forms of darkness in which they had lived.

I assume that this is what it means for Flanagan to be a historical novelist. Every event, every character, has a dual existence in which past and present are diversely engaged. The reader is not gripped by the events as they occur; his concern is drawn to the events as they have occurred and to the stain of outrage and desolation they have left upon the people who suffered them. Mostly we come upon the events when their form and consequence have already been assessed. There is a loss of immediacy, our interest is not allowed to fasten upon a character as distinct from his role in the story as a whole.

But there is a gain in the depth and resonance of the characters; when we meet them, they have already been changed by their experience. Broome, for instance, is given to us not when he is in the throes of his suffering but when he has survived it; his tone of bewildered care shows that he has been transformed, driven far beyond the range of qualities he would have produced as the local Protestant minister in a peaceful town. We are interested in him mainly for what he has been through, and for the generosity of his vision, flawed as it is…. Each event is seen not only in its immediate light but in the light of the idea it embodied or humiliated: the mediations issue from Flanagan's sense of modern Irish history, the shapes it has taken in his mind.

It is my impression that Flanagan organized the novel in this way not chiefly for the pleasure of managing several viewpoints and styles but to ensure that the conflicts of class, religion, tradition, and self-interest would be disclosed and interrogated. Impartiality is achieved by admitting to the narrative several different forms of partiality. If, as Walter Benjamin remarked, history is invariably recited in favor of those who have won, Flanagan is alert to the fact that in Ireland the narrative of history is still indecisive. His rhetoric does not say that we Irishmen are brothers under the torn skin, or that our differences are the kind that can be sunk. But the many different attitudes in the book at least reveal in the characters motives far more diverse than those proclaimed by our warring ideologies. Given a favorable wind, the book might do something to make the antagonists a little ashamed of themselves, but I do not expect such a wind.

Flanagan's own position in the novel deserves a few words. He does not speak in his own person; nor does he identify himself with the voice of history. Strictly speaking, he does not come into the book at all; but in another sense he is pervasive…. [The] novel is handsomely written, but the urge to remark upon its prose arises from the fact that the book is indeed a written thing. We are made aware of the writing, not because the sentences are histrionic or self-regarding but because a pervasive unity of tone suggests that ultimately the prejudices of each style may be reconciled. Since each viewpoint is acknowledged, it is allowed to speak for itself and given an appropriately positive style: one man, one rhetoric. But the tone of the whole book is also felt as issuing from a certain perspective, and the perspective must be pretty high if it is to accommodate every viewpoint decently. None of the styles is transparent, because none can be given the privilege of appearing to issue directly from the events, undarkened by prejudice. Even the voice of history is allowed to sound troubled.

The organization of Flanagan's novel is an act of rhetoric: that is the main point. Prejudices can be entertained only by a style which runs to a certain grandeur of implication: decency, like the historical novel, requires a certain latitude of sympathy. But I must admit that Flanagan favors a rather high style even for the daily purposes of scholarship. He likes a rich mixture of tropes. In a sullen mood, you would accuse him of fine writing: even in a genial mood, you would sometimes tremble for the safety of his soul, so ardently given to the webbing of words. (pp. 21-2)

[Flanagan] insures himself against a sullen reader by ascribing most of the lush passages to the poet MacCarthy. A poet who comes from the Irish bardic tradition, bringing not only the Irish poetry but Ovid and Virgil, can get away with nearly any excess: drink, lechery, high talk. But there are also high passages in which the normally impersonal narrator leans down and gives a helping hand to a character supposedly in need of such assistance. (pp. 22-3)

Flanagan's knowledge of Irish history, mythology, religion, local customs has colored his style, but it would be absurd to ask him to bleach his style or empty his mind. When his poet MacCarthy says, "You were slaves on this land before Christ was crucified," a reader may recall that the last phrase turns up in Yeats, who received it from Frank O'Connor, who translated it from the Gaelic. The recollection doesn't matter, we are not playing the flat historic scale….

The novel ends with the fictitious diary of the local school-teacher, Sean MacKenna, in the summer of 1799. The French invasion and the battle of Castlebar are already moving from fact into mythology. The three French ships that landed at Kilcummin are now fancied by a local peasant to have "masts so tall that you could not see the tops of them and on the tallest mast of all was an eagle called King Lewis." The eagle, so they say, went with the soldiers into the midlands, "but on the night before the battle the eagle flew off and the battle was lost." Flanagan implies that we must go back through lore and mythology to find the motives, noble and shoddy, which provided the events and the need to transform them into poetry. But he is not cynical, he lets the reader see how natural it is that events are transformed, out of need and desire. The facts are not to be thought away, but they cannot be transfixed, arrested in their nature; the novel recognizes the need to transform them from their own nature into ours, so that they become at last indistinguishable from ourselves. (p. 23)

Denis Donoghue, "The Stains of Ireland," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 10, June 14, 1979, pp. 21-3.

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