Truths from an unreliable tribe

 

For months the Man Booker-winning novelist ANNE ENRIGHThas been reading and selecting stories for ‘The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story’, which will be published next week. In this abridged extract from her introduction she gives her take on the genre

FRANK O’CONNOR’S book The Lonely Voice, which was published in 1963, is still a touchstone in any discussion of the short story form. The question he asked – as this collection also asks – was why Irish writers excel at the short story. The answer, for him, lay in the loneliness to be found among “submerged population groups”. These are people on the margins of society; the outlawed, the dreaming and the defeated. “The short story has never had a hero,” says O’Connor, offering instead a slightly infantilising idea of the “the Little Man” (as though all novels were about big ones). Americans can be “submerged”, because America is made up of immigrant communities, but the proper subjects of the short story are “Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers” and, we might note, not a single English person of any kind. The novel requires “the concept of a normal society”, and though this, O’Connor seems to say, is available to the English, there is in Irish society a kind of hopelessness that pushes the artist away. The resulting form, the short story, “remains by its nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic and intransigent”.

In his useful essay on the subject, Inside Out: A Working Theory of the Short Story, John Kenny says that the short story has flourished “in those cultures where older, usually oral forms are met head on with the challenge of new literary forms equipped with the idealogy of modernisation”. O’Connor’s theories place the short story as the genre of the cusp between tradition and modernity. The story is born from the fragmentation of old certainties, and the absence of any new ones, and this produces in the writer a lyric response, “a retreat into the self in the face of an increasingly complex . . . reality”.

The first thing to say about O’Connor’s ideas is that they rang true at the time. Whether or not the short story is, in essence, an assertion of the self – small but powerfully individual – to the writer it certainly felt that way. It is interesting to test that sense of “the Little Man” against a new, more confident, Irish reality, one in which good writing continues to thrive. Is “submerged” just another word for “poor”? Is the word “peasant” hovering somewhere around? There is so much nostalgia about Ireland – especially rural Ireland – it is important to say that this is not always the fault of its writers. Irish novels may often reach into the past, but the stories gathered here show that the shorter form is light and quick enough to be contemporary. If you want to see life as it is lived “now” (whenever the “now” of the story might be), just look at the work of Neil Jordan, Roddy Doyle or, indeed, Frank O’Connor. Irish writers may be closer to the oral arts of folk tale, fable, gossip and anecdote, but speech is also a modern occupation. Whoever thinks the short story harmless for being closer to a “folk” tradition has not read John McGahern, whose stories are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.

THERE IS A LINGERINGunease about how Irish writers negotiate ideas about “Ireland” (the country we talk about, as opposed to the place where we live), for readers both at home and abroad. We move, in decreasing circles, around the problem Seán Ó Faoláin voiced in his book The Short Story,published in 1948. “There was hardly an Irish writer who was not on the side of the movement for Irish political independence,” he writes. “Immediately it was achieved they became critical of the nation. This is what makes all politicians say that writers are an unreliable tribe. They are. It is their metier.”

Ó Faoláin, that other pillar of the 20th-century Irish short story, was wary of the sentimental view. “Irish literature in our time, came to its great period of efflorescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer.”

Indeed, the number of stories about priests, and the sadness of priests, that have not made it into this volume are legion: parish priests, curates, bishops, all lonely, all sad as they survey the folly of their congregations, and 99 per cent of them celibate. I left most of them out for seeming untrue, and offered instead a couple of stories, by Maeve Brennan and Colm Tóibín, about the more interesting loneliness of the priest’s mother.

I FIRST READ FRANK O’CONNORwhen I was maybe 10, maybe 12 years of age. I chose his story The Mad Lomasneysfor the way it stayed with me, quietly, ever since. If you wonder whether this is the selection of a 12-year-old, I admit she is certainly here too, that the reason the short story remains an important form for Irish writers of my generation is because the work of O’Connor and Ó Faoláin and Lavin was commonly found on Irish bookshelves, alongside, in my own house, The Irish Republic, by the nationalist historian Dorothy McArdle, and Three to Get Married,by the reverend Canon Sheehan (the third in question, I was disappointed to discover, being God). Our sensibilities were shaped by the fine choices of Prof Augustine Martin, who set the stories for the school curriculum, among them Michael MacLaverty’s The Road to the Shore, a story that revealed as much to me about aesthetic possibilities and satisfactions as it did about nuns. We were taught French by reading Maupassant and German through the stories of Siegfried Lenz, though if the short story is a national form it did not seem to flourish in the national language of Irish, where all the excitement, for me at least, was in poetry. The fact remains that I grew up with the idea that short stories were lovely and interesting and useful things, in the way the work of Dorothy McArdle and the Canon Sheehan was not.

This may all be very “submerged” of me, but that is to patronise my younger self. I still find the modesty of the form attractive and right. How important is it to be “important” as a writer? The desire to claim a larger authority can provoke work, or it can ruin it. In fact, writers claim different kinds of authority: these days a concentration on the short-story form is taken as a sign of writerly purity, rather than novelistic incompetence, though it still does not pay the bills. (This was not always the case. Ó Faoláin lamented the popularity of the form which “is being vulgarised by commercialisation”. “Readers and editors,” he writes, “must often feel discouraged.”)

I PUT THIS SELECTION TOGETHERas an Irish writer – which is to say as one of Ó Faoláin’s “unreliable tribe”. Some of these stories made me close the book with a slam. Music at Annahullion, by Eugene McCabe, for example, defied me to read anything else that day, or that week, to match it. I found it difficult to finish Maeve Brennan’s An Attack of Hunger,because it came so close to the pain it described (is this a good way to whet the reader’s appetite, I wonder?). The world in Claire Keegan’s Men and Womenstayed with me from the day I first encountered it. I looked for stories that had made me pause when I read them the first time around: stories such as Colum McCann’s Everything in this Country Must that I finished in the knowledge that I could not, in any conceivable universe, have written such a thing myself.

THIS COLLECTION CELEBRATESa fact which I have so far failed to explain, that so many Irish writers also love the short story. They defy current wisdom about the books business and, in their continuing attention to the form, refuse to do what they are told. This may be partly because of the small but crucial distance Irish writers keep from the international publishing industry. The stories in this collection were written for their own sake. They were written in rooms in Monaghan or Dublin, in New York, Dún Laoghaire, Devon, Wexford, Belfast, Bucharest. It seems to me remarkable that the members of this scattered tribe, each in their solitude, has managed such a conversation. The stories in this anthology talk to each other in many and unexpected ways. Is this another aspect of the short story that we find unsettling: its promiscuity, its insistence on being partial, glancing and various?

My romantic idea of Ireland did not survive the killings in the North and the realisation, in the 1980s, that Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception: it foundered, you might say, between Dorothy McArdle and Canon Sheehan. Perhaps as a result, I found it difficult to lose myself in the dream that was the recent economic boom. My romantic idea of the writer, meanwhile, did not survive the shift into motherhood – I might have felt lonely and wonderful, but with small children I just never got the time. But though I am not a romantic, I am quite passionate about the whole business of being an Irish writer. Ó Faoláin was right: we are great contrarians. When there is much rubbish talked about a country, when the air is full of large ideas about what we are, or what we are not, then the writer offers truths that are delightful and small. We write against our own foolishness, not anyone else’s. In which case the short story is as good a place as any other to keep things real.


T he Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited and with an introduction by Anne Enright, is published by Granta on Thursday, £25