On the Shelf: July 2016

Michael Conaghan considers the immortality of Ireland's literary icons and hand-picks six titles to sink into this month

One of the perks of being a famous writer is a kind of immortality. The Irish Valhalla being a pretty crowded place set only to get more crammed, how best do we remember our geniuses? The Linen Hall Library this month sets out to honour one of our most enigmatic, with a series of talks on Samuel Beckett.

Being clever enough to be equally adept at drama and prose, these talks cover both facets staring out with a talk on the novel Molloy by poet and critic Kevin Quinn (Saturday, July 28 1pm) which is followed by Beckettian Form and the Theatre on Saturday, July 30 at 1pm, where acting teacher Rosie Phelan and a team of performers look at selected dramatic texts. Of course Beckett has a kind of street level immortality which occurs every time we contemplate a pint of forgetfulness and utter that ubiquitous phrase 'Happy Days!'

Ironically James Joyce, arguably the chief of our immortals, is dependent on a fictional character to carry his name forward. Bloomsday, every June 16, does have the advantage, like Christmas, of falling on the same day every year. Joyce, notoriously superstitious about dates to the point of having Ulysses published on his birthday, would no doubt have approved. 

WB Yeats, the haughty Roger Waters to Joyce’s Johnny Rotten, has bequeathed a darned good annual summer school to remember him by, but was a poet innately aware of his status. His own epitaph: ‘Cast a cold eye on life and on death, horseman pass by’ implies a supreme indifference as to how he would be remembered, yet indicates a supreme confidence that he always would be.

Seamus Heaney was a figure celebrated for his modesty and approachability, yet again he was aware of his importance in the scheme of things. He recounts in his collection The Spirit Level how he was approached by a prominent republican on a train who demands 'When are you going to write, something for us?' Poetry, of course, provides Heaney with the ultimate esprit d’escalier; 'If I do write something, whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself,'.

It’s a famous declaration of independence which was an important factor in establishing Heaney as a world poet, not just a local one. There will be, no doubt, some annual event that will celebrate this status but perhaps his greatest legacy is to have placed Irish poetry on such a level as it is almost the first destination when one thinks of poetry at all.

Those who follow in his considerable slipstream might consider this a daunting responsibility, but if you really fancy a bit of immortality and a decent pension, write a Christmas number one.

Six Books to Look Out for This Month

New Selected Poems, by Derek Mahon (Gallery)

In the post-Heaney landscape, the title of greatest living Irish poet would appear to be up for grabs, but there are those who would argue that it belonged to Derek Mahon all along. This just-released selection is therefore a timely reappraisal, running the gamut from his early work to recent, as yet uncollected poems.

Originality was an early trait – who else would have come up with a line like 'there was a sea far off, as bright as lettuce' from 'An Image from Beckett'? But his best known and best loved work remains 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford' which has an almost Keatsian mix of lyricism and starkness – 'We too had our lives to live' - or my own favourite, 'The Mayo Tao', where we see the poet working on a 'four line poem, about the life of a leaf'. Pick up this book and marvel once more.

Derek Mahon

Multitudes, by Lucy Caldwell (Faber & Faber)

This new collection of stories sees Belfast-born novelist Lucy Caldwell return to the form she began writing as a teenager. And Multitudes, which is a kind of love letter to the home town she misses, contains short stories which encapsulate the intensity of adolescence.

In 'Thirteen', a teenager mourns the loss of her special friend Susan Clarke to London and we embark with her on a roller-coaster of bullying, rumour, first kisses (good and bad) and a sense of growing up. While Caldwell’s novels often major in ideas, here we get uncut emotions, all sorts of love including a crush on a teacher and a sense of Belfast’s new diversity. In 'Here We Are', Caldwell riffs beautifully about the city’s nicest spots as girls discover real love. 'The summer is a washout…We don’t care. It is the best summer of our lives.'

Beatlebone, by Kevin Barry (Canongate) - Waterstones' Irish Book of the Month for July

The idea for this terrific one-off comes from an oft-quoted Beatle legend that John Lennon once bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. Barry places the disillusioned ex mop-top, now in full late ‘70s retreat and with writer’s block to boot, on a quest to redeem his purchase, aided and just as often hindered by the enigmatic Cornelius O'Grady. On the way he has to deal with his own demons and the fag end of 60's idealism.

Barry's anti-hero is an immediately recognisable mixture of streetwise Scouse comedian and cosmic buffoon. Lennon always said that he wanted to end up on an island 'looking back at our scrapbook of madness'. Here it is in all its ragged glory.

Aphrodite's Kiss, by Rosemary Jenkinson (Whittrick)

Brian Friel was a respected and well liked short story writer before becoming our greatest playwright. With this collection, dramatist Rosemary Jenkins has reversed the process. But these tales have a dark cutting edge befitting a writer examining Northern Ireland's uneasy post-Troubles era coming to terms with both itself and the world.

From the gawking tourists in Kelly's Cellars ('Scenes from an Empty Attic') to the disastrous encounter with the exotic and erotic in Greece of the title story, danger lurks. Often the characters inhabit prisons both literal ('Licence to a Black Limousine') or metaphorical such as the characters of 'After the Peace' holed up in a pub, desperate for a past where they had a role and an identity, and for whom peace has left then both literally and metaphorically redundant.

Rosemary Jenkinson

Forever Young, by Oliver Kay (Quercus)

The umbilical link between Northern Ireland and Manchester United which produced the likes of George Best and Norman Whiteside is rightly a source of local pride, but what happens when the dreams come crashing down? Oliver Kay's sobering account of the fate of Adrian Doherty, United's 'lost' genius from the golden era that produced Giggs and Beckham, is a tale of football's dark side.

His career blighted by injury, he drifted in and out of work until a fall into the canal at the Hague left him in a coma from which he never recovered. Questions remain over his treatment by the club, but Kay emphasises Doherty's love of music, poetry, and especially Bob Dylan, bohemian attributes that sat uneasily with the somewhat inarticulate and philistine world of British football.

War! Hellish War!, by Jim Maultsaid (Pen & Sword)

The high profile given to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme seems to have infused the rest of us with a large dose of survivor's guilt. Our own country's involvement deepens the feeling. Jim Maultsaid was born in Pensylvania to Irish parents who returned almost immediately to Donegal. He joined the British army in 1914, and this is the second volume of diaries recounting his experiences.

Yet these are more than just simple entries on a dated page. The illustrations, often cartoon like, give the whole thing a feeling of a scrapbook put together by an excited schoolboy, which indeed many of the recruits resembled. The Somme, where Maultsaid was wounded, features centrally and chillingly. 'It was a shambles ... it was hell with the lid off.'