A gallery of contemporary Irish authors
Colm Toibin has written many masterful books, but he’s just one of several Irish authors on my A+ list. I have to ask – why does Ireland produce such wonderful writers? There are many possible answers to that question. One version: the Irish have a particular gift for the gab that translates well into print. I don’t know if that’s true, but one thing I noticed about “Norah Webster” is what a wonderful job Colm Toibin does with dialog – in any conversation with the characters, you catch so many nuances and shades of feeling.
This made me think of some of my other favorite Irish authors, all still alive and writing. Good news!
First up on my book list is Colm Toibin himself. I loved his book “The Master.” It’s a novel, based on the life of the great writer Henry James, who created wonderful novels such as “Daisy Miller” and “Washington Square” and also the spooky short story classic “The Turn of the Screw.”
“The Master” covers about five years of Henry James’ life, from 1895 to 1900. These were the years of one of James’ greatest failures – after a very successful writing career thus far, his play “Guy Domville” was literally booed off the London stage (the critics largely followed the crowd). He also wrote “The Turn of the Screw” at that time, which for better or worse is the one piece of work he’s probably best-known for.
James had a brother William James (a philosopher) and an invalid sister, Alice. As Toibin portrays James, he was a master at observing human foibles, but also at keeping his distance, even from those who he loved most. Complicating Henry James’ emotional landscape was the fact that he was in all probability gay, which was not something you could admit to in England during a time when Oscar Wilde went to jail after a furious male lover disclosed their homosexual relationship. Toibin does a superb job of portraying a man who was held in high regard by friends, family and the public, but who at his core was terribly lonely.
The next author we’re going to discuss is really two authors in one! John Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for his novel “The Sea.” “The Sea” is told in the voice of an aging art critic who has just lost his wife. The mesmerizing part of “The Sea” is how the voice of the narrator changes from a man giving an elegiac account of his past and upbringing into something darker and more bleak.
Banville always had a gift for twisty (and twisted) characters, so his readers were not entirely surprised when he went off in an different direction – he started writing mysteries under the pen name Benjamin Black. What was something of a surprise was how popular they became! These books, featuring a Dublin “consulting pathologist” named Quirke (how’s that for a name!) are well written, very dark and well-constructed mysteries, all in one package. Quirke is chronically depressed and drinks too much, but he’s entirely functional when it comes to solving crimes. Black and Banville have some things in common, though – they both cast a baleful eye on the upper crust of Ireland, often turning over stones that reveal some very sinister doings among the moneyed classes. The first Quirke novel is “Christine Falls” – read them in order if you can.
On a considerably more lighthearted note, one of my all-time favorite Irish writers in Roddy Doyle. Doyle is an uproariously funny, humane and astute author who writes about an entirely different stratum of Irish society – the working class.
Doyle started out with “The Commitments,” a hilarious novel about a bunch of working class Dublin kids who decide to form a soul band. Some of our reviewers may remember 1987’s “The Commitments” from the movie that was made of it; one of the best movies with one of the best soundtracks ever, in my humble opinion.
One thing about Roddy Doyle that takes a little getting used to is that he tells his stories largely in dialogue – he has a wonderful ear for the Irish gab. You have to pay attention.
Doyle has written many books, including “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,” which won Doyle the Booker Prize in 1993. It’s told entirely in the voice of a ten-year-old Dublin boy in the 1960s. I honestly don’t know how he did it; it was like he was channeling voices from thirty years before. His latest novel, 2014’s “The Guts,” is a return to the characters of “The Commitments” twenty-five years later. They’re still making music, still getting into trouble and still providing an enormous amount of entertainment for the reader. Doyle is also very good on what the Great Recession did to the Irish people – no one experienced a bigger bubble before the 2008 economic crash than Ireland, and they paid dearly afterward.
I have about twenty other authors I would like to mention, but here’s one I have to mention – the great writer Colum McCann, author of the novel “Let the Great World Spin.” McCann is another Dubliner, though he now lives in New York and teaches at Hunter College. “Let the Great World Spin,” which won the National Book Award for fiction that year, tells the story of Philippe Petit’s high wire walk on a tightrope stretched across the Twin Towers of the now-gone World Trade Center in Manhattan in 1974. It’s far from just the story of the tightrope – it tells the stories through multiple protagonists, a whole cast of New York characters who are living at the same time, their lives unfolding as Petit walks the tightrope and….the great world spins.
He followed “Let the Great World Spin” with 2013’s “Transatlantic,” which tells the story of two aviators who make a transatlantic flight in 1919, as well as the visit of abolitionist Frederick Douglas to Ireland in 1845-1846 and U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts to negotiate peace between warring factions in Northern Ireland in 1998. Woven throughout are stories of lesser known women, telling their stories over the span of two centuries. So many stories, contained within the cover of one fascinating book.