A fresh look at Ireland's gifts to 20th-century literature

Even in this era of unromantic hardheadedness, a kind of nostalgic-sentimental mist colors our preceptions of nearly everything Irish. That country's troubled history and its artists' bold efforts to outwit those who'd stifle their voices get mixed up with the image of the Hibernian writer-talker as an appealing rogue. The result is an enduring fascination with Irish literary subjects.Hugh Kenner's ''A Colder Eye,'' for example, is a study of the Irish Literary Revival that just might appeal to the general reader. Kenner is a professor of English literature at Johns Hopkins, who has written several books on modern writers, including Pound, Joyce, Beckett, and Eliot. Kenner's thesis is that Irish writers are notable for the varieties of ingenious havoc they wreck with language and their unanimous empathy with the national ''craving for occasional emphatic assertions,'' whether or not these are facts.His approach is a chronologically arranged series of essays on such central literary figures as William Butler Yeats, playwright John Millington Synge, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, and on ancillary topics like the fate of Gaelic (''The Lore of Irish'') in modern times.Language and Yeats are the subjects Kenner returns to again and again - the versatility and slipperiness of both. The puns and jokes fall thick and fast, and the book nonchalantly settles into a pattern of digressions and repetitions that's sometimes pleasing, sometimes maddening.Yet Kenner's insights, overall, seem fresh and authoritative. He casts an amused skeptical eye on the celebrated efforts of Yeats and Lady Gregory ''to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature.'' He provides a very funny description of the public outcry attending the first performance of Synge's ''The Playboy of the Western World,'' which challenged ''the myth of Irish peasant saintliness.'' He analyzes the changes in Yeats' rhetoric over the years as embodiments of his changing political and metaphysical opinions. He finds the roots of Joyce's sleight-of-hand prose style in the writer's early experience teaching English in Italy.There's a fine section on the neglected Austin Clarke's sophisticated and intricate verse (''in an odd way, he is Yeats' furtive shadow''), and a spirited portrayal of the legendary journalist, logician, prankster, and alcoholic Flann O'Brien (''The Mocker''). ''A Colder Eye'' is not the stuff of literary prizes, but it's an enlightening and entertaining book.The same must be said, with qualifications, for James Matthews' exhaustive biography of an important modern writer, now shown to have been a troublesome husband and father. Frank O'Connor was a contentious, opinionated public presence throughout the years when his short stories, portraying ''middle-class Irish life, with all its encrustation, crankiness, duplicity, and self-deception,'' made him a universally beloved public figure.''Voices'' provides fine accounts of all the major events and affiliations in the life of ''Michael/Frank'' O'Connor. He was born Michael O'Donovan in Cork in 1903, endured a troubled childhood and a brief involvement in the Easter Rebellion, then rose to local eminence as a county librarian and beginning writer.We learn of his persistent battles against censorship in all forms, his illicit romantic entanglements, and physical sufferings - and the ''ordeal of public success'' that came to him in middle age, as writer of those brilliant stories, translator of traditional Irish poetry, and guest-lecturer at American universities.His biographer relies frequently and effectively on O'Connor's correspondence and autobiographical writings. This long book is never for a moment uninteresting. Though Matthews sometimes seems to harp on his subject's annoying personal qualities, he is shrewd and fair when examining how O'Connor ignored the claims of domestic and social life by listening instead to ''the voices inside his own head.''''Voices'' fully credits Frank O'Connor's obsession with the condition of his country (''his idealism about the glories of the Irish past was tinged with stark terror about the future of Ireland''), and offers sound critical estimations of the wide range of his published work. Bruce Allen is a contributing editor at Saturday Review

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