Anthony Burgess, Preface to Modern Irish Short Stories Ben Forkner, ed., Modern Irish Short Stories [1980] (Future/MacDonald & Co. 1983)

See Roger Lewis, Anthony Burgess: A Life (Faber, 418pp.), reviewed by Hal Jensen, in Times Literary Supplement (11 April 2003), and therein called an ‘eccentric and facetious biography [which] pretty much suggests we tip the whole shelf [i.e, of Burgess’s writings] in the bin’. (pp.22-23.)

Any man, whatever his nationality, has a right to admire and to propagandize for Irish literature, but it helps if he possesses Irish blood or a mad capacity for empathizing with Ireland. Although I call myself an Englishman, my grandmother was a Mary Ann Finnegan from Tipperary and I was brought up in Manchester (like Liverpool, a kind of outpost of Ireland) by priests from Maynooth. Professor Forkner is an American from the South, and what Irish blood he may have is perhaps less important than an upbringing in an environment agricultural, traditional, and imbrued with a sense of historical wrong.

Both Professor Forkner and myself discovered our Irish inheritance through reading James Joyce, a typical Irish writer in his refusal to work in Ireland and an equal refusal to write about anything but Ireland. (It is perhaps noteworthy that I am penning this preface in the South of France, where I live, having married into Italy, and Professor Forkner has put together his anthology in the North of France, having married into France. The exilic condition comes naturally to a certain kind of Irishman.) As the other Forkner, who spells his name Faulkner, opened up the meaning of the South to several generations of American Southerners - including such an uncompromizing black writer as Ralph Ellison - so Joyce has provided a way into the whole of Irish culture, and, as an incidental bonus, the whole of European culture as well.

Irish writers excel in brief forms, Iyrical or dramatic The English stage was moribund when Goldsmith and Sheridan came along; moribund again when Shaw and Wilde arrived; moribund once more when Synge and Yeats and O’Casey showed [15] that the stage needed poetry as well as wit. The two greatest poets of the lase hundred years have been Yeats, a Dublin Protestant, and Hopkins, an English Jesuit who died while a professor at University College, Dublin, both scions of a culture of the ear which the Anglo-Saxons, who pride themselves on sharpness of the eye and quickness of the trigger finger, began to neglect when Cromwell put his curse on the Commonwealth. Because Irish literature depends so much on the ear, it seems to follow that it does best in the poem and the short story. The short story is a form you may listen to, and its length conforms to the span of attention that a listener may give to an oral narrator. Edgar Allan Poe said that a piece of literature should be like a piece of music, brief enough for the single uninterrupted session. He did not write novels, and thc Irish do not write them either.

That assertion seems demented, or, if you like, Irish. How about Ulysses, the greatest novel of the age? Ulysses, alas, is not a novel, it is a grossly expanded short story and began its life as a possible component of Dubliners. Joyce greatly admired the Book of Kells and acknowledged its influence on Finnegans Wake, another non-novel: you take a simple statement, like Tunc, and embroider it to the limit. At Swim-Two-Birds is not a novel either. If a novel is a long work whose length is justified by the presentation of characters capable of moral or temperamental change, then the Irish, who have a very idiosyncratic notion of human character, are not greatly given to the form. George Moore? Moore was a Frenchman. Maria Edgeworth? You perhaps have me there.

Whatever harebrained theory I may have about the aptitudc of the Irish for the composition of short stories, there is no doubt that, as this selection demonstrates, the brief narrative is the form in which they excel. A character is revealed, not in the imposition upon him of a large number of vicissitudes, which is the way of the novel, but in some single incident. Joyce used to talk of the epiphany (“He got some Greek out of [16] his Latin lessons”, Gogarty sourly said), meaning the showing forth of some great truth in the presentation of the ordinary. The Magi came to worship the Saviour of the World and found him wrapped in dirty blankets in a derelict stable. Brightness does not fall from the air but suddenly flashes out of the filthy Liffey or the remark of a prostitute pinning up her hair for the evening’s trade. The truth about human nature is revealed in an instant, when the epiphanic character responds to the fumes of the tenth whiskey or a chance word about his sister Kate.

It is the poetical element in the Irish which enables their writers to set up atmosphere in a few words; they do not need the laborious constructive apparatus of a Balzac. Any of these stories you are about to read establishes place, season, historical moment with the minimum of words. Then we proceed steadily, with the only economy which the Irish people seem able to manage well, to revelation of character and, very frequently, to an implied revelation of what is known as the Irish character. Nobody really knows what the Irish character is. Any attempt to define it results in the recounting of anecdotes, so we may as well eschew definition, tell the story, and have done with it. Sigmund Freud said that the Irish were the only race which could not profit from psychoanalysis. One of his followers split up human psychology into two categories - Irish and nonIrish. The Irish, like the Neapolitans, are not sure what truth is, and they have a system of logic which defies logic. They have something in common with Chekhov’s Russians, and it is no accident that many of the stories here will seem Chekhovian. I was taking a bath in a Leningrad hotel when the floor concierge yelled that she had a cable for me. “Put it under the door”, I cried. “I can’t”, she shouted, “it’s on a tray”. There is a deep logic, or epistemology, there which is far from absurd. The Irish and the Russians have one way of looking at entities (the entity in this instance was a cable-on-a-tray) and the rest of the world another. There is another aspect of the Russo-Irish [17] character which is too profound to pursue here - the discontinuity, the lack of a bundle of binding attributes. The hero of the biggest work of Irish fiction is a Hungarian Jew (really a Triestine one): he has a unity, a solidity of identity which his fellow citizens do not have. He holds together, by his very foreignness, the personages of another Dubliners.

The Irish have always something to write about. Present-day Northern Ireland recapitulates the struggles of the past and is producing, chiefly in the work of citizens of the Free State, a new literature of bitter violence. I spent two years recently as fiction critic for the Irish Press and was overwhelmed with volumes of short stories, mainly published in Dublin, which were rich in the age-old themes: the paradox of a green land dedicated to powerful faith and rural tranquillity being torn by urban struggles; the thrust of bigotry and the unexpected revelation of charity; the sense of a turbulent history as old as the papal bull Laudabilitur present in every moment of violent enactment; the baffling refusal of the “Irish character” to conform to exotic parameters. What is always most notable is the presence of a kind of grace - a moral elegance that frames all sorts of wretchedness.

But the themes, and the styles, of the stories you have here defy generalization. What they all have in common is, I suppose, an awareness of verbal tradition. When a word is used it carries not only its present meaning but a haze of harmonics derived from the long sounding of that word in the literature of the past. Such modern American novelists as Thomas Pynchon have attempted to free literature from its literary associations, to make the allusions derive from comic strip, television soap opera, Time magazine, anything but books. The Irish, tied to their past, are tied also to the literature of the past. Not even Joxer in Juno and the Paycock, seedy quoter of cracker mottoes and tenth-rate melodramas, can divest himself of culture. Irish writers try to add to the literature they already know. They are serious craftsmen aware of the devotion to craft of their own [18] predecessors, right back to the bards. That is why you will keep this book and read parts of it again and again. You will take it on journeys or keep it by the bed. Each time you enter it you will be in the presence of Ireland, the most fantastic country in the world and perhaps the only country that can be regarded as a custodian of unchanging human truth.

Anthony Burgess/Monaco, May 1979

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