EVERYTHING seems alive and almost human in Benedict Kiely's Ireland: Fields dance, boats dance, streets grasp the ground, water-beetles live "vicious secretive lives," glens open out and sing, rivers and "talkative," dogs patrol the countryside like solders, a town sleeps "like a loved woman." "Proxopera," the longest of the stories in this new collection, opens with a discussion between Mr. Binchey and his son. A murder victim has been discovered in the local lake and Mr Binchey believes that "the lake will never be the same again. . . . Water may know more than we think. And grass, And old rocks." "Water is a sort of a god," he says. Kiely's druidic reverence for the sanctity and power of nature animates his fictional world and helps to set up a tension between the mundane ambitions of people and "the wonder of half-comprehended worlds."
But it is the very real people entangled in those worlds who stand at the center of Kiely's fiction. At the end of "Proxopera," Mr. Binchey says to his son, "Oh I've been watching people in this town for a long time. Their faces. Their families. The books they read. Even their feet. If you looked a little else but the way people walk you could write a history of a place." Mr. Binchey is here a spokesman for Kiely himself, whose stories comprise a history of the people and town of Omagh, the city in Northern Ireland where Kiely was born.
Like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg and Joyce's Dublin, Kiely's Omagh is a microcosm filled with a great variety of people. He brings to life old priests, pretty girls and IRA guerrillas with equal authority and skill. The Irish consider Kiely (who has published more than a dozen novels and short story collections) one of their best writers. But the impressive repertoire of human experience revealed in these stories makes his fiction significant beyond the borders of Ireland.
Most of the stories in this new collection, The State of Ireland , focus on strange pairings off, on mismatched people whose unlikely relationships lead to surprising revelations, if not to spiritual transformations. In some cases, the participants in Kielyhs brand of "strange friendship" wind up reversing their roles and seeing themselves (and their counterparts) with new and deeper insight. "A Great God's Angel Standing" is the story of "Pascal Stakelum, the notorious rural rake, and Father Paul, the ageing Catholic curate of Lislap . . ." At the start of the story, Pascal accompanies the priest to the local "lunatic asylum" where one of the inmates mistakes Pascal for a priest and presses the unrepentant womanizer into hearing confession. The rake is transformed into "Pascal the priest" and conducts himself admirably. The counterpoint occurs at the end of the story when Father Paul, a few days befoe his death, gives Pascal an old and beautiful book of poetry (apparently The defence of Guenevere , by William Morris). The book, inscribed "for Paul with a heart's love," had been given to Father Paul long ago by a woman who was, says the priest, "the dearest friend I ever had." The discovery of Father Paul's long-lost love gives us a new sense of his character and inspires Pascal to confront the superficiality of his own exploits.
Kiely's experiments with human identity continue throughout this collection. Guides become the guided, as in "the Dogs in the Great Glen," a story about an Irish-American professor who comes to Ireland "to search out his orgins" in the wilds of County Kerry. The professor's guide is the narrator who, ath the start of the journey, has an amused, condescending attitude towards the eager American. But as the two travelers near the mysterious "great Glen of Kanareen," the American becomes possessed with atavistic wisdon and the narrator (who in may of these stories -- as Thomas Flanagan points out in his perceptive introduction -- is Kiely's most fascinating character) admits to himself that the "was the stranger who had once been the guide."
Robert St. Blaise Macmahon, in "Maiden's Leap," is a pretentious, foppish writer of novels and travel books who is deflated by his lowly housekeeper-cousin, Miss Hynes. Macmahon believes that Miss Hynes "had no life of her own" until she disappears one day, leaving behind her journal and, in her be, the body of her recently departed lover. The journal is a savage attack on Macmahon ("he should have frills on his underpants," she claims), as well as proof that "She was, she had been . . . an observer, a writer." The best of these stories -- most especially "God's Own Country," A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly," and "The Weavers at the Mill" -- involve similar kinds of transformations and revelations. In "Proxopera" and "Bluebell Meadow" the political conflice in Ulster becomes a chilling part of the context in which Kiely's characters are tested and changed.
These serious reflections may make kiely's work seem more somber than in fact it is. He is a classic Irish storyteller, with all the gifts demanded by the tradtitions of this art: a sense of humor, an accurate ear for the way people talk, a highly evolved narrative skill. His writing, deeply rooted in a love for the land and its people, opens us to a knowledge of the authentic Ireland. And second only to his attachment to the land is his passion for music -- bits of Irish songs blend, almost unnoticed, into his prose and add to the resonance of his work.
"It's a little thing doesn't last longer than a man," is the proverb Kiely cites at the end of one of his stories. His own fiction will outlast us all.
The Writers: A Sense of Ireland , a new anthology (with photographs) of 44 Irish writers, includes a five-page extract from a new novel by Benedict Kiely, but the sample is too brief to carry much impact. This, unfortunately, is in the case with most of the prose collected here -- the two- or three-page parts of novels or stories provide more frustration than satisfaction. There is work here by some of the surviving giants of modern Irish fiction (including Samuel Beckett, Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, Francis Stuart and Mary Lavin), as well as by younger, less well-know writers (the selections from Neil Jordan, Aidan Higgins and Jennifer Johnston are among the most notable). But all the bits and pieces of stories and tiny fragments of novels make one feel that the editors should have put more effort into finding finished, even if brief, selections.
Brian Friel, in "Extracts from a Sporadic Diary," suggests that there is "an anti-art element in theatre in that it doesn't speak to the individual in his absolute privacy and isolation but addresses him as an audience." This tendency to treat art as a vehicle for public address seems to affect much of contemporary Irish poetry as well. Irish poets do not take the same chances with structure and convention that characterize the work of many American poets. James Liddy, who is not represented here, is an exception. There are, however, poems in this anthology which are outstanding, particularly the work contributed by Michael Hartnett, seamus Heany, Brendan Kennelly and Thomas Kinsella.
Almost all of Mike Bunn's photographs of the writers have a posed, staged look to them. Bunn is obsessed with props (typewriters, chairs, telephones, books etc.) and his portraits consequently look to cute, or literary, or dramatic. This theatrical heavy-handedness is carried to an extreme in the "photo" of Samuel Bekcett. Beckett (who, one assumes, did not make himself available to Bunn) is represented here by a picture of an old hat, a beat-up pair of shoes, and a bare twig: a collage of cliches that trivializes Beckett's work. Beckett would have been better served by a blank page.