The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story may have been out for a while now (it was published November last year), but don’t let that suggest to you in any way that I was unwilling to pick it up and read it. For me there are few short story writers better than the Irish (William Trevor and Kevin Barry for example rate as all-time favourites), and so I come to this tome-like collection (edited by fellow Irish writer, Anne Enright), with that butterfly feeling in the stomach; the feeling that only comes from the notion that one is about to set out on an extraordinary reading adventure. Before I dive in to this glorious looking collection from the Emerald Isle however, I want to offer up some brief forethoughts, both to give you some idea of what this collection is all about, and to point out what I think may be the highlights (not easy because right now I’m thinking that the entire collection is one big highlight).
Let’s begin as I always do then, with the cover blurb:
Lyrical, dark, comic or iconoclastic, the Irish short story has always punched well above its weight. Here, Anne Enright, the Man Book Prize-winning author, has brought together a rich new collection of Irish short stories by authors born in the twentieth century – from Mary Lavin and Frank O’Connor to Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry.
With a pithy and passionate introduction by Enright, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story traces this great tradition through decades of social change, and shows the pleasure Irish writers continue to take in the short story form. Deft and often devastating, the short story dodges the rolling mythologies of Irish life to produce truths that are delightful and real.
So that’s the blurb, which certainly makes the book sound rather appealing, but it offers us no real insight as to the anthology’s raison d’être, does it? Thankfully, Anne Enright’s rather wonderfully penned introduction gives us more of an idea about that. Fundamentally Enright tells us that the anthology is trying to ask the same question that Frank O’Connor did in 1963 in his book on the short story form, The Lonely Voice – why do Irish writers excel at the short story form?
Anne Enright has a rudimentary stab at answering that question herself. She plays with a number of theories put forward by other Irish writers who have tried to answer the same mind-bender. Those answers vary greatly, from O’Connor himself saying that it stems from the loneliness to be found among ‘submerged populations groups’, of which Ireland has plenty (‘submerged’ is defined as people on the margins of society i.e. the outlawed, the dreaming and the defeated), to John Kenny putting it down more to the passing (and evolution), of tradition; in other words, the Irish are born storytellers. Whatever the reason, Enright more or less sits on the fence about it, preferring perhaps to set the cogs of the reader’s mind going, but letting the anthology try to answer the question for itself (and there’s nowt wrong with that).
You know, I have a lot of faith in Man Booker Prize-winning Enright. She’s a fine writer, and I can think of few people, short of pure academics, who would fit the bill as perfectly as she does, in presenting a sweeping overview of Irish short story writing in the twentieth-century. But I’m not naive enough to think that reading this anthology is going to give me instant enlightenment as to why the Irish are such good short story writers. Personally I think the question is largely unanswerable (much like that enigmatic puzzler – what is the meaning of life?), but I do think, as Enright suggests, that culture, history and tradition all play a big part.
The Irish by their very nature are gifted storytellers – we all know that it’s one of the things that they excel at – but the best explanation I’ve heard as to why the Irish are so particularly good at it, came from Kevin Barry at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival (you can read my rambling report on the event HERE). Barry said that Ireland is “phenomenally boring a lot of the time and so we [the Irish] make up stories to give ourselves something to do to pass the slow winter nights”. I’m no authority on Ireland – I’ve never even visited the place up to this point – but living as close to the extreme wilds of Scotland as I do, I can certainly relate to such a notion :).
So if I’m not necessarily reading The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story for enlightenment (at least not in the sense that I’ll discover the ‘secret’ as to why the Irish are good short fiction writers), what am I reading it for? Well, primarily for enjoyment but for a little bit of soul nurturing too. As I said at the outset I adore Irish short stories, so this really is an appealing read for me. However, for all of the Irish short fiction I’ve read, I’ve never really covered all that many authors. So this anthology, which includes most of the ‘giants’ of the form (see below), also serves as a perfect introduction to the writers who I’ve yet to grab a taste of.
Furthermore, as The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story offers a sweeping overview of the history of Irish short fiction in the twentieth-century – the only publication I know of (anyone know differently?) – I should come away with a better knowledge of the lay of the literary landscape in Ireland during this particular period, which for a short story carnivore like me, is invaluable. God only knows what future literary voyages may come about as a result of reading this anthology, and the prospect of that is hugely motivating for me.
I also read this anthology because as I said earlier I have huge admiration for Anne Enright. I’ve yet however, to experience her in the role of editor. As Enright admits herself, this is a very personal selection she has put together, and not only does she include stories she read as a twelve-year-old – which instilled a lasting affect upon her – she also includes selections which when read ‘defied her to read anything else that day, or that week, that matched them.‘ So a highly subjective selection this may be perhaps, but it’s one that should help an admirer such as me, take a glimpse into Enright’s soul (which sounds way creepier than it’s meant to :)).
I mentioned at the outset of these forethoughts that I’d offer up some idea of what my perceived highlights were in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. Well I do think, as I said, that the anthology as a whole is one big highlight, but I’m obviously most looking forward to reading the contributions from favourites, Kevin Barry and William Trevor. Frank O’Connor never fails to satisfy me either, and after reading Enright’s comment on him in her introduction (she said his stories are the literary equivalent of ‘a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor’ :)), I’m also excited to be taking my first dip into the story world of John McGahern (yep I know not having read him yet is borderline sacrilege).
For now then there is little more for me to say, and the lengthy but undoubtedly memorable task of working my way through each of the thirty one stories on offer, begins. Both to satisfy your curiosity, and to offer you something of a ”road map’ of my progress, I have listed each of the stories to be found in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story below. As I read each of the stories and write individual reviews, I’ll link to those reviews below. Then when my journey is complete I’ll post my final thoughts on the collection as a whole. I’ll see you on the other side.
:: Contents of The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story ::
(links lead to individual reviews of each story, when posted)
- The Road to the Shore by Michael McLaverty
- The Pram by Roddy Doyle
- An Attack of Hunger by Maeve Brennan
- Summer Voices by John Banville
- Summer Night by Elizabeth Bowen
- Music at Annahullion by Eugene McCabe
- Naming the Names by Anne Devlin
- Shame by Keith Ridgway
- Memory and Desire by Val Mulkerns
- The Mad Lomasneys by Frank O’Connor
- Walking Away by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
- Villa Marta by Clare Boylan
- Lilacs by Mary Lavin
- Meles Vulgaris by Patrick Boyle
- The Trout by Seán Ó Faoláin
- Night in Tunisia by Neil Jordan
- Sister Imelda by Edna O’Brien
- The Key by John McGahern
- A Priest in the Family by Colm Tóibín
- The Supremacy of Grief by Hugo Hamilton
- The Swing of Things by Jennifer C Cornell
- Train Tracks by Aidan Mathews
- See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown by Kevin Barry
- Visit by Gerard Donovan
- Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann
- Curfew by Sean O’Reilly
- Language, Truth and Lockjaw by Bernard MacLaverty
- Midwife to the Fairies by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
- Men and Women by Clare Keegan
- Mothers Were All the Same by Joseph O’Connor
- The Dressmaker’s Child by William Trevor
Granta Books | 4th November 2010 | £25.00 | HARDBACK | 464 PP | ISBN: 9781847080974
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.