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The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Terence Brown. Cambridge University Press. [pounds sterling]45.00. x+281 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-11823-1.

Unsurprisingly, there is a rich tradition of writers impaling critics on the barbs of their well turned apothegms--from George Moore's 'The lot of critics is to be remembered by what they failed to understand', to Christopher Hampton's 'Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it thinks about dogs'. No doubt Ireland has had its share of mediocre criticism, the sort that makes up in insult what it lacks by way of insight, but it is fitting that a country which has fostered so rich and varied a literature should also have produced critics of the first water. Among these, Terence Brown is widely regarded as primus inter pares. This volume demonstrates why. It offers a guided tour through some of the most rewarding byways of literary Ireland. The range and depth of the guide's scholarship is both engaging and impressive throughout.

In an age in which academic specialization produces scholars who know more and more about less and less, it is refreshing to find someone who can write with equal sureness of touch about a whole raft of writers, suggesting fascinating connections and comparisons between them. Terence Brown seems equally at home writing about prose, poetry, or drama. He handles James Joyce, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel with equal facility. He moves from Dublin to Belfast with ease and comments incisively on writers from Catholic and Protestant traditions. He even takes in en passant Ireland's master essayist, Hubert Butler--a writer too often neglected in accounts of Irish literature. Prof. Brown writes with an easy authority that belies years of painstaking study. (Until recently he was Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.) His approach invites the general reader to share his passionate engagement with the material, rather than putting them off with a plethora of technical terms.

Writing in his Introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction. (1993), Dermot Bolger noted how he refused to place within any particular tradition the writers whose work he had anthologized--'beyond the obvious one of generally using the English language far better than anybody else'. Terence Brown is as good a guide to some of the broader traditions within Irish literature as he is to the individual writers who make them up. He writes lucidly on the literary revival, modernism and post-modernism--but never loses sight of the point that Dermot Bolger makes; that it is the quality of the writing that matters, not how it happens to exemplify some tradition or sub-tradition. Excellence in writing is what is celebrated--and demonstrated--in his book.

Obviously a work of this length does not attempt to offer comprehensive coverage of the whole gamut of Irish literature from the earliest times until the present or of works in Irish as well as English. Instead, readers are given a carefully chosen selection of previously published pieces which confine their attention to the modern period and to authors writing in English. Each chapter is a self-contained study, each one intelligible in its own right, but the volume as a whole is given a sense of focus and coherence not only by Prof. Brown's style and voice--the reassuring presence of the eminence grise of Irish literary criticism -but by an excellent scene-setting Introduction in which he offers a personal memoir that maps his own intellectual development. As one would expect from something drawn from the work of so highly regarded a literary critic, nothing second rate is included. But the chapters on John McGahern and John Banville, and those on the Ulster poets (Louis MacNeice, John Hewitt, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon) are particularly strong. The final chapter, 'The Irish Dylan Thomas: Versions and Influences' offers some intriguing material on how Wales's most celebrated twentieth century poet was viewed by his Irish peers.

'Readers, real readers', Randall Jarrell once remarked, 'are almost as wild a species as writers; most critics are so domesticated as to seem institutions'. Terence Brown is, without doubt, a real reader. His approach, as evidenced by this brilliant collection, has nothing to do with the domestication of dull descriptivism or inane explanation by which some criticism deadens the writing it touches. It is, rather, an active engagement with some of the best literature that one small island has produced, in the course of which readers' understanding and appreciation of that wildest of species, the Irish writer, is taken forward.

Chris Arthur is the author of four essay collections: Irish Nocturnes (1999), Irish Willow (2002), Irish Haiku (2005) and Irish Elegies (2009). A new and selected collection of essays, Words of the Grey Wind, was published by Blackstaff Press last year. Further information can be found at
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Title Annotation:The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism
Author:Arthur, Chris
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011

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