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Books: Can they write about happiness?

Aisling Foster on a doorstep of Irish fiction; The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction Edited by Colm Tibn Viking pounds 25
This great big doorstep of a book demonstrates the size and breath of the genre called "Irish Fiction". Inevitably, some names are missing. But with almost 100 writers, collected on over 1,000 pages, this is not a selection which can be taken up lightly. Nor, as Colm Tibn's equally heavyweight introduction shows, is it simply a romp through the Irish imagination from Jonathan Swift to the gay thirtysomethings of the European Union (though it is this, too). The presence of the editor is everywhere. His singular eye encompasses an extraordinarily wide range of subject and viewpoint. And despite so many voices speaking English in tones which extend from the early 18th century to today, the work is indefinably "Irish". Always there is some shared difference, with that particular take on words, history and personal experience somehow locating an accent and recognising an identity which spreads across divisions of time and class.

Tibn's introduction is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a marker which the reader may return to again and again. Whether reading Maria Edgeworth or John McGahern, one remembers the claim that "The purpose of much Irish fiction is to become involved in the Irish argument and the purpose of much Irish criticism has been to relate the fiction to the argument." Reading Daniel Corkery, Frank O'Connor or Benedict Kiely shows how so much Irish fiction is "awash with national and intellectual mood". Writers as different as Edith Somerville, Elizabeth Bowen or Sebastian Barry recall Tibn's question of whether the Irish can write "well or easily about happiness"; or indeed, about sex.

Sometimes Tibn forces his own arguments. Reading stories about the Catholic middle class, one wonders about the editor's claim that there was "something heroic" in Kate O'Brien's determination to describe her world, or whether Sean O'Faolain's images of new wealth and liberalism really was "forcing things". Elsewhere, an extract from Francis Stewart's Blacklist Section H exposes a less written-about aspect of the Irish mindset. Published when the author was in his late sixties, the "novel" recalls his fascination with Nazi Germany and his eventual joining of the war effort there to broadcast propaganda for the Fascist cause. As with all Stewart's best-forgotten works, the writing is leaden, his characters and detail non-existent. Yet the book is fascinating, not, as Tibn claims, because it is "his masterpiece", but because it is so true, a gawky forerunner to the avalanche of thinly fictionalised memoirs pouring out of publishing houses today. Thus the editor's attempt to link Stewart's stance as outsider with the genius of Samuel Beckett is too much to bear. Beckett, like Joyce, is something else entirely, and this anthology gives both those names the space and consideration they deserve.

Their effect on Irish fiction is more difficult to gauge. As the book's chronological arrangement of authors shows, attempts to confront realism, or imagination, or simply take human thought by the neck and shake it, throw up new forms of Irish writing in almost every generation. Tibn offers a brilliant line-up of Gothic fiction from Charles Maturin to Bram Stoker. Their influence on later novelists, and eventually filmmakers, is unquestioned. But works like Ulysses and Malone Dies still stick out of the swim of Irish literature like icebergs. The love of word-play and irony continues, but only Flann O'Brien took up Joyce's baton, passing on some of his own crazy echoes to writers like Patrick McCabe or Anne Enright.

Tibn admits that "most of the work being produced in Ireland now is formally conservative". He wonders if this is because "for the first time, there is an audience for books in Ireland". For the first time? Surely book readership there has always been unusually high, even in the days of poverty and censorship? More likely that conservatism comes from publishers and magazine editors, who, like Hollywood producers, now look for what has gone down well in the past and order more of the same. And if gay Irish writing is as important as the editor believes, names like Desmond Hogan and Frank Ronan are not doing it any favours. Far better if we got a different take on life itself, in fiction like Paul Smith's country people in Dublin slums, J M O'Neill's navvy life in London and Olivia Manning's wartime Europe: Irish novelists, all of the first rank.

But such omissions are a matter of taste. In the end, what stands out is Tibn's exactly appropriate extract from each author he chooses. Reading such work is a journey into an imaginative terrain which is, at its best, at once uniquely Irish but recognisably universal.