St. Paddy’s Day is only half a week away from spring, so even if there’s no Irish in your family line, it’s a good holiday to enjoy. Since we’ve been focused on literary genres lately, Irish literature is a good one for its rich history and literary contributions. Let’s look at a handful of the most highly regarded Irish writers. Chances are excellent you’ve read some of their books. They are in no particular order.
Bram Stoker. That’s right, the guy who brought us Dracula in 1897, although the notion of vampires goes back a lot longer. To emphasize again how fluid genres can be, one site tells us, “Dracula has been assigned to many literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, the gothic novel, and invasion literature.” Despite the fact that every line I’ve read of Dracula echoed in my head with a Romanian accent, the story was written by an Irishman. If you’ve settled for vampires only on television and movies, you really do owe it to yourself to read the original. It’s terrific.
Let’s go back from Dracula another 150 years or so to the 1726 publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Just in case you have a hard time locating it under that title, the whole title is “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.” This book is still the measure of satire when teaching rolls around to that concept. We still use terms derived from the book such as Lilliputian. But why not read about all Gulliver’s travels instead of the short version we might have encountered in school.
The next book is as iconic as the first two: James Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1922. This one we almost certainly escaped in high school but shouldn’t neglect forever. Here’s one critic’s comments on why it is important: “Ulysses was first serialized in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920. It has been called one of the most important works of Modernist literature.” Since we are arguably still in post-modernism, it’s only fair to read a defining book. If you only read one book by Joyce, this is the one. (If you only skip one book by Joyce, make it Finnigan’s Wake unless you have a Wake scholar on retainer. If you do, thank you from the bottom of my soul for giving much needed work to an English PhD candidate somewhere.) Ulysses is excellent reading.
We cannot forget C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe published in 1950. Chances are you haven’t escaped a film version of this much-loved book or the book itself. (Shout out to Sheri.) The most popularly read of the Narnia series, the book was the first published but is second in the Narnia chronology. It is both fantasy and young adult fiction and has been listed as one of the top 100 YAF books of all time
Last in this column but first in my heart is Samuel Beckett who wrote in both English and French. When you read or see Beckett, you are squarely in post-modernism. His work defines it, and that’s specifically obvious in his famous play Waiting for Godot (1952). Beckett intends his work to be dark comedy, i.e., theater of the absurd. You’ll never see that from reading one of his plays, though. You must see it performed. If you already know Godot and wonder what other Beckett would be “fun,” I suggest Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). I had the joy of watching Brian Dennehy play Krapp in this one man play in a tiny theater on opening night loaded with critics. He held us all in thrall while he peeled a banana for the first few minutes, Dennehy a master of timing. What isn’t that engaging when you read it (“Krapp peels a banana”) is hilarious on stage.
We have some time to read at least one work of Irish literature between now and St. Paddy’s Day and contemplate how Irish we all feel every spring. In terms of literature, we owe the Irish a great deal.
See you at the Library!