Thy Tears Might Cease
by Michael Farrell
Knopf, 577 pp., $6.95
The Land of Youth
by Richard Power
Dial, 320 pp., $4.95
Certain kinds of fiction seem almost to be commissioned, like official portraits and biographies, to meet an alleged public need. Englishmen used to demand: “Where are the war poets?” Just so, Ireland, it seems has clamored for the Great Irish Novel to signalize her miserable struggle for independence, to give some point and shape to her disillusionment. Like a “war poem,” this novel had to be in a conventional British tradition, not too clever, widely representative of common feelings. With great difficulty, Michael Farrell’s long, sad novel was dragged out of him to meet the bill. It is more of a monument than a story.
Farrell hugged it to himself for more than twenty years, telling impatient friends, “It’s not finished. It needs to be worked over.” When he died two years ago, the book was edited for publication by Monk Gibbon, who says he has removed 100,000 words and added no more than a thousand. It is now a communal effort. “The one thing on which everyone was agreed,” says the editor, “was that the book must be cut.” The author had said, “It isn’t cutting that it needs. It needs boiling down.” But eventually “everybody” had his way. For Farrell’s admirers, it is the theme and the feeling that really count, not his failed design.
Thackeray jeered, in his Irish Sketchbook, “High and low in this country, they begin things on too large a scale. They begin churches too big and can’t finish them…Letters on signboards are too big, and are up in a corner before the inscription is finished. There is something quite strange really in this general consistency.” Equally consistent is the English attitude to Ireland, that wary playfulness. While Thackeray accurately predicted the failure of Farrell’s grand plan, he also expressed that imperial spirit which probably frightened Farrell off publication. His book had to go to London, where English readers might approve, with easy patronage, his anger against their own soldiery; they would pay him for his rage and chuckle over his heroics. Much in Irish nationhood depends on a view of England; and in England’s view, Irish writers are not to be taken seriously unless they are very stark indeed.
Thy Tears Might Cease takes a long time to get stark. The very title has the ring of hammy Irish verse, public speeches turned too smoothly into rhyme and jingling metre. The novel’s hero, Martin Reilly, is intoxicated with this stuff from boyhood (around 1910). He recites “Fontenoy” to assembled aunts and servants.
King Louis turned his rein;
“Not yet, my liege,” Saxe interposed,
“The Irish troops remain!”
And from kitchen steps, dining-room, hall, and parlor, a gasped “Ah!” of satisfaction sighed into the air…”Oh, begob, Fontenoy!”
Young Reilly boasts an ancestor who “died at Blenheim, fighting for France, King Louis, the Fleur-de-Lis and Ireland. God Save Ireland!” He calls his enemies “slave-hearts” and his head is ringing with grand jingles:
They rose …
Letters November 5, 1964