Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Irish Story Telling Tales and Making It Up In Ireland by R. F Foster (2001)

R. F. Foster is the author of numerous books on Irish history and literature.   He might well be Ireland's highest regarded contemporary historian.   Years ago I read his magisterial two volume biography of William Butler Yeats.   The Irish Story Telling Tales and Making It Up In Ireland is in part a collection of separately published essays but Foster has shaped them into a unified book that anyone seriously into Irish literature and history should read.  

My readings of Irish literature have been greatly influenced by Declan Kiberd's post colonial interpretation of Irish literature which is in turn very much dependent on the ideas of Franz Fanon from The Wretched of the Earth.  Foster treats, as everyone does, Kiberd with great respect but he helped me see there is more to Irish literature than a working out of the very real social and psychological consequences of five hundred years of colonial rule.   Not surprisingly, Foster sees Yeats as the seminal figure in Irish literature.   Joyce in Dubliners caught the trapped feeling of the lives of the ordinary people in Dublin.  His grim realism has cast a long shadow.  His longer works, especially Ulysses, have had, per Foster and Kiberd supports this, a more international impact than Irish.   

The Irish impact of Yeats is very complicated and Foster helped me understand this.   I am already starting to see in my exploration of Irish poetry that much contemporary work is in rebellion against Yeats or in his shadow.  Foster listed many Irish poets whom I hope to read one day.  Much of contemporary Irish literature is an exploration of the world beyond the theme park interpretation of Irish history that Foster talks about so brilliantly.  

One common link I have found in the Irish literary works I have read is a deep concern about what it means to be Irish.   I do not find in the short stories of Japan, England, America or the Philippines anything even close to this concern about national identity.  Kiberd and his disciples would see this, and I am not saying they are wrong, as a legacy of Colonialism.  Foster helped me see deeper into this.   He talks about why there are very few 19th century great Irish novels.  His answer does include the obvious social factors but he allowed me to see that Irish literary identity was being forged in major historical narratives,not novels.   This is fairly unique to Irish culture.   

On a recent visit to Ireland with Max u, I saw what Foster means when he talks of Irish history being turned into a theme park,indeed the whole country, to attract tourists.   Foster has thought deeply about the nature of historical narratives and his remarks were very illuminating. One cannot get away from the stage Irishman and Foster talks about this in a very interesting fashion. 

He has a very interesting chapter on one of my literary crushes, Elizabeth Bowen.  Because of her Anglo Irish aristocratic roots, her support of England during WWII (she was an air raid warden in London during the worst years of the war), and her years lived in England some people like to dismiss her as "not really Irish".   Foster completely debunks this and shows the deep Irish roots of Bowen.  I found his remarks on Bowen as a writer about childhood very insightful and changed my perceptions.  If you want to deepen your understanding of Bowen, I highly recommend you read Foster's chapter on her "Prints on the Scene - Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of Childhood".   

Foster also talks a good bit about William Carleton.    I was gratified to see he considered a work of Carleton I greatly admire, The Black Prophet as among his very best work.   He also talked about Maria Edgeworth.   One of my favorite older Irish writers is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Foster motivated me want to read his Uncle Silas.  

There also observations about Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, a chapter devoted to Anthony Trollope's writings  on Ireland, a dissection of contemporary best sellers about Irish childhood such as those by Garry Adams and Frank McCourt, Herbert Butler ( a new to me author) and the history of the treatment of the rebellion of 1798.  

Foster talks a lot about "the job" of the historian and how historical narratives are created.  He writes in an elegant style, he admires greatly the British parliamentary historian,Lewis Napier, as do I.  The boundary between fiction and history is blurred and Foster writes well on this.   If you think you can explain the difference between a work of fiction and a historical narrative, good luck.  

I found this book a great pleasure to read and it motivated me strongly to dig deeper into  Irish literature and history.   


Robert Fitzroy Foster FBA FRHistS FRSL (born 16 January 1949) - generally known as Roy Foster - is the Carroll Builders Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, Oxford in the UK.

Mel u


@parridhlantern said...

I can definitely see a lot of modern Irish lit as being an escape from the clichéd image of what is Irish and as such would be a reaction against older writers such as WB. But as to identity I'm not so sure it is just an Irish thing
as I believe for example a lot of Japanese literature is in some way a reaction against the idealised image of Japan or is a clash between Japan's samurai/geisha image & it's more modern cyberpunk image.

Mel u said...

Parrish-very good insight-I see modern Japanese literature as a reaction to the incredible impact of their defeat in WWII.