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Read Me, I'm Irish

Last year for St. Patrick’s Day, Mark Salter took a literary tour of Ireland and wondered why so many of the greatest Irish novelists are unknown in America.

03.17.09 8:31 AM ET

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of listening to a lengthy recorded interview with the Irish novelist, Roddy Doyle. Doyle’s books rely heavily on dialogue to reveal the interior and exterior lives of his characters;, dialogue that is as disarmingly rowdy and chaotic as his character’s lives and yet subtly illuminating, sharp-witted, and insistently and darkly funny. This probably explains why several of his novels have been successfully adapted as screenplays that retain more of the book’s essence and allure than do most adaptations for the screen.

It’s no surprise, then, that Doyle the conversationalist is as captivating as Doyle the writer. Discussing with his interviewer, Don McKellar, how artists from Ireland are popularly perceived outside their country, he explained “the problem with being Irish... is having Riverdance on your back. It’s a burden at times.”

Roddy once explained, “The problem with being Irish... is having Riverdance on your back. It’s a burden at times.”

I thought about that quip later in the interview when Doyle offered the opinion that James Joyce was nearly unreadable. It wasn’t the criticism of Joyce that caught my attention. Doyle had said the same thing four years earlier on the centenary of Bloomsday, the day in which Joyce’s most celebrated work, Ulysses, takes place, provoking considerable consternation among Joyce-admiring literati. It was his subsequent declaration that Jennifer Johnston was the best writer in Ireland that provoked my curiosity. Doyle isn’t the only prominent Irish writer who so esteems Ms. Johnston. She is prolific and typically very well reviewed. I consider myself a pretty thorough reader of contemporary Irish writers. I’ve read and enjoyed Doyle, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, John McGahern, Bernard MacLaverty, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin, and others. There is no author whom I more admire than William Trevor. But I had never heard of Jennifer Johnston.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Trusting Doyle’s judgment, I attempted to purchase some of her books. I went to eight bookstores and found not one of her 14 books in any of them. Nor had any Johnston book ever graced their shelves. Amazon didn’t stock a single title. She doesn’t have a U.S. publisher. I eventually purchased a half-dozen of her novels from online used-book dealers, all but one of them shipped from overseas.

I’ve had few reading experiences that were as revelatory as reading Ms. Johnston. In an introduction to a Johnston collection, Sebastian Barry wrote of “the special shock of reading an original writer for the first time.” To experience that shock can be one of the sublime pleasures of life, and I shared Barry’s exhilaration upon reading Johnston’s first novel, The Captains and the Kings. There is in her art an empathy for her characters shorn of all sentimentality, a truthful and moving appreciation that withstands the depredations of human frailty and history. Barry, who appraises her more insightfully and eloquently than can I, remarked on the “complicity” the reader senses in her work, “the speaking directly, succinctly, and at the same time, discreetly, familiarly, strangely. The recognizable contours of the complete stranger’s face.”

Excited by my late discovery of Johnston, I called my good friend, Roxanne Coady, proprietor of the great independent bookstore, RJ Julia, and one of the widest read and most perceptive readers I know, to share my enthusiasm. To my surprise, she had never read her either. Until then, I had assumed every single English-language writer of note had come under Roxanne’s intelligent scrutiny. Our mutual ignorance of Ms. Johnston sparked an ongoing conversation about why some of the best Irish writers lack the readership in this country their talents deserve.

William Trevor, for instance, has been called by many the greatest living English language writer. Yet, his last and most popular novel, The Story of Lucy Gault, sold only 16,000 hardcover copies in the United States. Every one of His stories and novels contains some of the most elegantly constructed, discerning sentences ever written. But it is Trevor’s great power as a writer, like Johnston, to be able to move his characters and his readers, without resorting to sentimentality, through harsh and unsparing experiences caused by human error or unkind fate or Ireland’s never-quite-past history not to some ultimate triumph, but to a livable place,. It is a resignation, perhaps, but not one achieved in despair. His characters and his readers find themselves remarkably and simultaneously settled—not quite serenely, but not desolate either—having comprehended some way of living not known or not well understood when the story began.

It is a powerfully, powerfully moving experience to read Trevor’s epiphanies, and I always feel myself wiser and more compassionate for having read them because I think he has shown me irreducible qualities of our common humanity, the things that connect us to strangers, whose lives might bear little if any similarity to our own. Few writers could extract from readers an understanding of and even a little reluctant sympathy for a serial killer. Trevor managed the feat in Felicia’s Journey. But other than those regular readers of the New Yorker or other magazines that publish his stories, few Americans have ever known the deepened empathy his writing engenders in readers, all the more exquisite for it having been achieved without sentimentalizing anything about the human race.

Roxanne suggests that perhaps it is the quietness of much Irish writing that makes it hard to market here. I’m not sure I agree. Some gifted Irish writers do unfold their stories quietly. Their gracefulness is in spare but precise observations, and in prose that is unostentatious but transporting nonetheless, and vivid if you’re an attentive reader. There are moments when I read the late and missed John McGahern, particularly his masterful, That They May Face the Rising Sun, when I feel myself almost straining to hear the story he is trying to tell me. Johnston can put me completely in a natural setting with a few words, a miserable dark and rainy night, for instance, rendered economically with a reference to glistening pavement and wet roofs. But with others, Roddy Doyle for instance, the writing is almost raucous, lyrical, a but jazzy but not a plaintive air, carried along by his characters’ voices.It is quite audible to the mind.

I do understand Roxanne when she talks of how hard it is to sell some Irish writers to her customers, writers she loves, because it is hard to describe the affect they have had on her. Often she encourages her trusting customers to pick up a book just for the elegance of the writing, hoping that the ineffable qualities of storytelling those cleverly constructed sentences conjure will captivate her customer as they captivated her.

There are, of course, critically praised contemporary writers in Ireland who do sell respectably well in America. Doyle does, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize, sold very well here. But often it seems some well-publicized event subsequent to their publication is required to build an audience for them. Doyle, Enright, and Banville have all won the Booker and the attendant publicity surely increased their American readership. Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture was a favorite to win the 2008 Booker, but did not. It did, however, win the Costa Book of the Year, formerly the Whitbread. Doyle’s The Commitments was made into a successful movie, and The Snapper and The Van, while perhaps less widely seen here, were very successful adaptations of Doyle novels and have, at least, a cult following in the U.S. However, even prestigious awards aren’t guaranteed to increase market share for authors. Johnston won the Whitbread for The Old Jest and her Shadows on Our Skin was short-listed for the Booker. I have yet to find a friend with similar tastes in literature to my own who has read either.

Surely, as Roxanne also suggests, their publishers need to do a better job of promoting their books here. Maeve Binchy and a few Irish writers might enjoy the kind of PR campaigns that good-selling American writers are given, but few of the most original Irish writers are given that kind of attention by their American publishers. But I think the problem is more of a cultural one than it is the consequence of inadequate publicity, and I think Roddy Doyle hit on it in his interview.

As I wrote this, I kept wincing every time I wrote the words “Irish writers.” I’m fairly certain that in the unlikely event Mr. Doyle were to read this, he would make a mental note of every such assertion, and consider me an “arse” for having written it. He rejects the label “Irish writer,” and argues the distinction that he is a writer who lives in Ireland. He is right, of course. The authors I have mentioned here were all original writers, powerfully so. But their power—and I would not write this if I thought Mr. Doyle would see it—draws not only from an originality of style or a particularity of subject matter. There is something common to them, and how could there not be. They write of their place, Ireland. Doyle may write of North Dublin’s working class and Johnston the deteriorating gentility of the big country-house family, but it is Ireland, a small country, with a history that is as consuming of an entire people as any nation’s history has ever been.

William Trevor, who hasn’t actually lived in Ireland for decades, understands this, I believe. He is often called an Anglo-Irish writer, which he objects to as much as Doyle objects to being classified as an unhyphenated Irish writer. Trevor says that if he is to be hyphenated, he prefers Protestant-Irish to Anglo-Irish. But the sad history of Ireland, even today, when one perceives a modernity that finally seems to be shaking off the sectarian and colonial resentments of its stubborn past, still seems more alive than is history in our own country.

Ireland’s is, of course, a longer history than ours. And our history has proceeded at such a breakneck pace, and can be so disorienting for its swiftness that we don’t let it influence us all that much. We are a changeable people, reinventing ourselves almost compulsively. I know it’s not a consensus view, perhaps only a minority view and a small minority at that. But I don’t believe Americans are much interested in their history beyond an interest in certain of its characters and accomplishments. We have little regard for it as a living force in our current affairs. There was a time when Faulkner could assert that for Southern writers or Southerners generally, Pickett’s Charge was always about to commence. But I don’t think we can say that today.

History is often but ceremony to us, and if we think about it much at all we tend to sentimentalize it as attractively heroic and not much else. Irish Americans, and even many Americans not of Irish descent, tend to do the same to Irish history. We love Irish step dancing, Irish reels, Irish jokes, and a pint of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. We love Riverdance. And we love sweeping, romantic Irish epics in films and books. Most Americans of Irish descent are Catholics, and we are sympathetic to the Republican cause, sometimes quite actively so. Even the few Irish-American Protestants I know are all Irish Republicans. And our romance overlooks, as most romances do, the disconcerting flaws that every people, every political cause possesses. In our sentimental regard we have often failed to distinguish the truly heroic from the gangster, the murderer of innocents.

The great Irish writers are, as I’ve asserted, free of that kind of feckless sentimentality. They won’t pay for our affection by writing history as romantically as we would like. They don’t, I suspect, want to make us feel a particular kinship for the Irish. They want for their readers what all great writers do, to make us better comprehend our own condition by better understanding someone else’s. They write of their people, driven here and there to good places and bad, by a violent and tragic past that is only just passed. They write of a country that has only very recently known widely acquired wealth and only recently come to believe that the gun can ever be completely removed from politics; a country where sentimentality unrestrained by sensitive regard for the common attributes of humanity has up to the present ruined families and destroyed lives. Such dangerous sentimentality is present here and other countries, too. It has long figured in our troubled race relations. But these writers recognize it for what it is, and all its influences, perceptible and barely so, on the lives of their characters, and they are wise to expose it for the trouble it can cause.

My publisher, Jonathan Karp, gave me the sales figures for Trevor’s last novel that I cited above. I had been attempting to write fiction recently, and as a means of discouraging me from that pursuit for a reason other than what I suspect he and I know is the more relevant one—inadequate talent—he wanted the fact that it’s hard to make a living at it writing fiction persuade me to stick to what I am more capable of accomplishing. And I’ve written these thoughts not just as a token of affection for writers whom I love to read, but to encourage other Americans to read them, too. They have earned our attention and the royalties, and they shouldn’t need a prestigious award or a movie adaptation to recommend them to us.

But, more importantly, not reading them is to deny ourselves something we should very selfishly desire. I won’t, I suppose, ever be much of a story writer. But I am a good reader. And that is something. For I have felt the “special shock” of reading something original, and recognized “the contours of the complete stranger’s face.” I commend the experience to my compatriots.

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Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Senator John McCain and senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.