The Irish Times New Year Reading List by Dave Alvey
On or near New Year’s Day every year the Irish Times publishes a list of what various eminent persons, mainly writers, consider their favourite books of the previous year. The list is a mildly interesting guide to the internal politics of the literary set. The entries speak volumes about modern literary life. Bernard O’Donoghue, an Oxford professor, lists the second volume of Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats among his favourite reads. Quite by coincidence, Roy Foster who is also an Oxford professor, lists Bernard O’Donoghue’s volume of poetry, Outpourings, among his favourites.
Then there is the entry from Caroline Walsh, current Literary Editor of the Irish Times. One of the books she recommends is Prague Pictures by John Banville, a choice quite unconnected from the fact that Banville was her predecessor in the job and remains on the staff. Medhb McGuckian, a poet, makes the unusual choice for a poet of Angus Mitchell’s biography of Roger Casement, unusual unless you know that McGuckian and Mitchell are good friends and that McGuckian launched the book. And so on.
The winner, if such an uncouth concept can be allowed among such refined company, the book that gets the highest number of mentions, is the second volume of Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats. It was chosen by no less than eight of the twenty-eight contributors: Colm Toibin, a pretentious novelist who is well got in literary circles; John Banville, former literary editor of the Irish Times ("The biography of the year—of the decade—is surely R. F. Foster’s W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol II—The Arch Poet, a magnificent account of a magnificent life, and a timely redefinition of that difficult concept, ‘Irishness'"); Bernard O’Donoghue; Frank Kermode, a retired English professor of literature; John Montague, the poet; Caroline Walsh; Ian Duhig, an English literary celebrity; and Angela Bourke, a feminist writer.
The Irish Times is clearly putting the full weight of its influence behind Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats. Foster, of course, is well known to us as the leading light among revisionist historians. His account of Irish history amounts to a polished rant against Irish nationalism from beginning to end. I have not read the Yeats biography but a reviewer in the latest edition of Irish Political Review makes, what is for me, an insightful comment on it.
"Yeats could not come to terms with the Democracy of the 20th century. This was vulgar and debasing and he did all he could to save himself from it and escape from it-hence his varied preoccupations. The situation in any country in the Western world of his time would have engendered such attitudes in him, regardless of where he lived. This is the substance of him and to explain him it is necessary for any biographer to make a valid assessment of his attitude to Democracy and, even if Yeats did not make it, it behoves a writer who is lauded as his definitive biographer to attempt to make it and so allow Yeat’s behaviour to be properly assessed. It seemed to me that Foster does not try, or even seem to realise that such an approach is necessary. In the absence of this Yeats is a pathetic public figure and Mr Foster’s big book will only confirm this." (Saving Yeats From Mr. Foster, Helen Hilton ,Vol 19, No 1.)
For all his machinations in Irish literary politics, W. B. Yeats deserves a better biographer.
It is about ten years since I last looked at the Irish Times list of favourite reads. At that time its interest lay primarily in the undertones of vicious in-fighting that was raging between feminists and the literary mainstream. This year’s list has very little of that, possibly because the feminists have moved on, having found the legacy of ‘dead white males’ too difficult to dislodge. But an echo of the polemical barbs of yesteryear survives in the entry from Claire Kilroy, even if it is tongue in cheek.
"I picked up The Very Man by Chris Binchy (Macmillan) because I wanted to know why men are righteous gits. Apparently they just can’t help it, but it makes for cruelly entertaining reading watching one such git self destruct."
The other noticeable change in the list is that a number of contributors are not Irish and have no connection with Ireland. Frank Kermode is a retired professor from an English university, Marina Warner is an English novelist, George Szirtes is an Hungarian poet now living in London and Ian Duhig is English. In the past the idea behind the favourite reading feature, presumably, was to show what important members of the specifically Irish literary world were reading. As well as being a mere list of books it was therefore a contribution to a national debate about literature, however pretentious. The inclusion on the list of writers from outside Ireland who have no connection with Ireland changes the gameplan significantly. The choice of books has imperceptibly moved onto a cosmopolitan plain. The reader is not being addressed as a member of a developing national community but as an individual whose reading tastes is just as likely to be influenced by British as Irish authors. This is one more indication of how national reflexes are being undermined by the Irish Times. The paper is treating its readers like citizens of a Western province of Great Britain.
Before finishing a shock must be registered. The list contains a reference to Athol Books! Among the titles mentioned by Declan Kiberd is The Revision Of European History by Desmond Fennell which Athol Books launched in October of 2003. While this must be noted as a worrying development, we can draw solace from the extreme unliklihood of any of the core titles in the Athol list ever finding favour in the Irish Times.
In his entry, John Montague refers enthusiastically to a revival of interest in the works of James Clarence Mangan. The increased interest in Mangan is a direct result of the publication of a book, The Dubliner—The Lives, Times And Writings Of James Clarence Mangan, Athol Books 1988. Despite Montague’s optimism it is doubtful that a full Mangan revival will ever take off: for the Irish literary community, a community that owes its very existence to the Irish Times, to initiate a trend that has not originated on the British mainland, is unthinkable.
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