‘Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett: new light on three modern Irish writers’

Edited by Kathleen McGrory and John Unterecker. Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 1976. $15.00

 

Enoch Brater

 

Despite the good intentions motivating the design and execution of this handsome volume, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett: new light on three modern Irish writers seems destined to play a peripheral role in shedding light on three complicated subjects. McGrory and Unterecker have honored William York Tindall by editing a festschrift with a difference, one combining photography, interviews, and short critical essays, all leading up to the obligatory chronological bibliography of a distinguished literary critic. It is, of course, refreshing to see a festschrift addressing itself with order and coherence to a sharply defined subject, in this case the Irishness of its three major modernists. One’s only impatience with the strategy outlined here is whether the Irishness of Yeats, Joyce, or Beckett would ever be seriously questioned.

 

But McGrory and Unterecker are in this volume less concerned with breaking new critical ground than they are with heavily illustrating their Celtic landscapes. In fulfilling this mission, the photographs reprinted here become a literary walkingtour of some of the most famous scenes in twentieth century literature. Here we pass from the harbor at Rosses Point to the Celtic cross near Yeats’s gravesite, from No. 7 Eccles Street to the bust of Sir Philip Crampton and the Wellington Monument, from the round tower at Portrane to a tinker’s van on Murphystown Road near Croker’s Gallops. The photographs make such literary landscapes concrete, showing us in black-and-white the local points of departure for the universalizing transformation of the written word. This is a welcome addition to a belle-lettrist’s coffee table. It is at the same time a useful teaching tool, one which offers us the opportunity to make references in class real as well as imagined.

 

The sections on Yeats and Joyce supplement photography with new reminiscences. Printed here are interviews with Anne Yeats and Carola GiedionWelcker as well as a glimpse of Yeats by the late Austin Clarke. There are also well-informed commentaries, alas already dated, on the spiralling status of the Yeats and Joyce industries. Both sections, however, apportion little space to the development of original studies. On Yeats one finds only a short piece devoted to Deirdre as Greek tragedy. Joyce fares somewhat better: an essay on the ‘Waiting’ in the Sirens episode in Ulysses, which appears rather specialized against the one on more generalized Joycean aesthetics.

 

The final section, on Beckett, of particular interest to readers of this journal, includes a charming interview with the late Jack MacGowran, big on enthusiasm but not always accurate in terms of specific detail. This is, in fact, the most Irish thing in the book, a perfect example of the art and spirit of the national raconteur. In this section there are two essays on the Irishness of Beckett, a semi-autobiographical sketch by Vivian Mercier, the personal approach he develops later in Beckett/Beckett (1977), and a strong piece by Sighle Kennedy on Irish prototypes in Beckett’s fiction. Under another category Rubin Rabinovitz presents us with an excellent short piece on the deterioration of outside reality in Beckett’s fiction. Such ‘new light’ on Beckett might have been pursued much further, for far more is happening in this area than McGrory and Unterecker imply by their editorial space allotments. ‘New Light’ may be an unfortunate choice of words, for this collection, in spite of several useful features looks backward more often than forward. The ‘new light’ is not as bright as it might have been, but the sidelines get some careful illumination here.