The Splendor, Wit, And Saturnine Satire Of Modern Irish Fiction


Vintage Books.

561 pp. $14

(paperback original)

There's no disputing the enormous contribution Irish writers have made to English literature, from the saturnine satire of Jonathan Swift and the penetrating intelligence of Edmund Burke to the wit of Oscar Wilde, the inventiveness of James Joyce, the lyrical splendor of William Butler Yeats, and the visionary bleakness of Samuel Beckett. In ''The Vintage Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction,'' editor Dermot Bolger - himself an Irishman and writer - assembles an impressive and provocative array of writing, all of it published in the years since 1968.

Among the 50 authors represented here are William Trevor, Sean O'Faolain, Edna O'Brien, Brian Moore, John Banville, Colm Toibin, and Benedict Kiely, along with less familiar names, some newly emergent, others older but unjustly neglected. The editor's commendably broad definition of ''Irish'' not only includes writers from Northern Ireland and the Republic, but also extends to Irish-born writers living elsewhere.

The collection opens with an eerily timeless, sonorous piece by Ireland's most illustrious postwar expatriate, Samuel Beckett: ''For to End Yet Again.'' Thereafter, the editor has devised an ingenious plan of grouping the stories chronologically: not in the order of their publication or of the author's birthday, but according to the era in which they take place, beginning with stories set just before World War II, and moving on from then.

This makes for some intriguing juxtapositions, enabling the reader to reenter a given period, like the 1940s, and view its events from a variety of perspectives. An excerpt from Mary Leland's novel ''The Killeen'' shows the fascist underside of Ireland's wartime neutrality; Desmond Hogan's ''The Curious Street'' portrays a pair of young lovers against the backdrop of a world of mass annihilation.

The editor's decision to include excerpts from novels as well as short stories reflects his belief that the novel is ''as much, if not far more,'' an Irish national art form than the story. He has chosen some excellent excerpts from novels such as Molly Keane's ''Good Behaviour'' (a scene in which an adult daughter and her aging mother wage a well-bred but relentless war over food) and Jennifer Johnston's ''The Christmas Tree'' (an aspiring writer discussing her literary ambitions with her well-meaning but distant father). But these and other extracts do tend to leave the reader hanging, wondering what happened next.

The short stories, complete in themselves, are generally more satisfying. The range of themes, subject matter, and literary styles represented here is truly impressive, from the fairy-tale weirdness of Tom MacIntyre's ''The Man-Keeper,'' to the gritty realism of Bernard MacLaverty's ''Between Two Shores,'' which details the overnight boat trip of a seasick Irishman returning home from a job in England. John McGahern's ''High Ground,'' looks at vanishing village life, while David Park's ''Oranges from Spain,'' is a beautifully controlled, poignant account of a greengrocer living in Belfast. From the American-born Irish writer Mary Lavin, there's ''Happiness,'' a luminous portrait of an ordinary woman's extraordinary commitment to seeking out the joy in life. The editor points out that Irish writers in both forms no longer avoid the once-troublesome subject of sex.

Although most of the stories are set in Ireland, a good many are set elsewhere: London, Berlin, Italy, even America. Traditional or experimental, distinctively Irish or impressively cosmopolitan, these well-chosen samples of contemporary Irish writing amply demonstrate the scope and vitality of a multifaceted literature in the happy process of exceeding its boundaries.

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