Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan John Leonard - Essay

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Thomas Flanagan] has with one exuberant book abolished my prejudice against historical novels. I haven't so thoroughly enjoyed an historical novel since "The Charterhouse of Parma," and "War and Peace." "The Year of the French," consisting of straight narrative, snippets from journals, swatches of invented memoirs, scraps of song, sworn statements to magistrates and subalterns, hindsight and myth, is grand and sad, with ferocious sweep.

There is, necessarily, a poet—the red-haired, whisky-drinking, licentious Owen MacCarthy, a schoolmaster tormented by an image: "Moonlight falling on a hard, flat surface, scythe or sword or stone or spade." He is surrounded, whether he knows it or not, by other people putting pen to paper and equally dismayed by our Celtic Lebanon—a Protestant minister, a clerk to Cornwallis, a lovelorn girl, an ambivalent solicitor, various informers, a historian trying to make sense of the Girondists. Their truths collide with MacCarthy's. His truth is a form of despair. (p. 222)

The image that torments MacCarthy is an idea of poetry itself, the moon on sword and spade. The poem—like the cheap novels and the noble proclamations everybody in "The Year of the French" is always reading; like the songs they sing and the prophecies they listen to; like the letters and memoirs and histories they write—is a lie, when the bog runs with blood. Memory, fable, dreams themselves are "tricks of speech," wishful nonthinking.

About the only worthwhile thing England did for Ireland was to foist upon it a language it has used with genius. Mr. Flanagan may not belong with Yeats and Joyce, but he loiters agreeably in their vicinity, and he reminds us of an odd, alien time when, at the very least, we knew the faces of those we killed. We were not cowards with time bombs. (pp. 222-23)

John Leonard, "'The Year of the French'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 8, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 5, July, 1979, pp. 221-23).