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INK / PAUL D. COLFORD

Publishing Eyes Are Smiling at Renaissance of Irish Literature

April 29, 1993|PAUL D. COLFORD

The Irish have never lacked for words. But the island that produced William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Sean O'Casey has attracted more notice recently because of an outpouring of fiction that publishers say reflects a mini-rebirth in Irish literature.

There are the seasoned writers: Maeve Binchy's "The Copper Beech" (Delacorte), about the drama of village life, has 170,000 copies in print, while Viking has published a 1,261-page collection of William Trevor's short stories, and John McGahern's "Collected Stories" (Knopf) showcases his steady output through the years.

In addition, younger writers have emerged to put a more rebellious twist on their tales of saints and sinners.

Michael Collins, an Irishman who has studied in the United States, wields an angry hand in "The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters," a first collection of short stories published this spring by Random House. In one of his graphic tales, "The Meat Eaters," the young assassin of eight British soldiers flees to New York, only to encounter two carnivorous countrymen and their prostitute in a sanctuary of unsurpassed squalor. "Danny Boy," it is not.

Colm Toibin's "The Heather Blazing," called a "lovely, understated novel" by Alice McDermott in a recent Washington Post review, is the author's latest book published by Viking. The book presents a Dublin jurist whose lifetime of memories is loosed by his encounter with an eroding Wexford shoreline.

Novelist Roddy Doyle introduced American audiences to "The Commitments," his story about a group of rock 'n' roll wanna-bes, in a Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback in 1989. The movie version, for which he co-wrote the screenplay, came two years later. Since then, the prolific Doyle, a Dublin schoolteacher, has continued to chronicle the city's working class--four-letter dialogue aplenty--in two more novels published by Viking, "The Snapper" and last year's "The Van." A fourth, "Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha," is scheduled for next spring.

"There has been a small renaissance, a little efflorescence of Irish fiction writing which parallels the great raft of Irish poetry, particularly that of Seamus Heaney, in the '70s and '80s," says Fergal Tobin, an editor at the Gill & Macmillan publishing company in Dublin and the author of "The Best of Decades," a history of Ireland in the 1960s.

Tobin praises Doyle's ear for Dublin working-class speech, and he hails John Banville as "the best stylist writing English presently after Cormac McCarthy," the American author of the best-selling "All the Pretty Horses."

The jointly owned Vintage and Knopf are planning to get behind Banville in a big way this fall. Knopf will publish his new "Ghosts" in hard cover as Vintage issues paperback editions of the earlier "Dr. Copernicus" and "Kepler."

Knopf also has lured Trevor away from Viking for a collection of autobiographical essays to come out in the winter of 1994 and a novel thereafter. The essays are described by the publisher as the closest that Trevor may come to writing an autobiography.

"The Crying Game" appears in screenplay form in "A Neil Jordan Reader," a new Vintage International paperback that also contains stories and a novella by the Sligo-born writer and director.

For the new crop of young Irish writers, the road to American bookstores has run by way of British publishers, which have introduced their stories before American houses snap them up. The Americans' literary interest parallels the music industry's appetite for Irish rock 'n' roll acts, such as U2, Black 47 and Hothouse Flowers.

Nevertheless, in the United States, print runs are small to modest. Collins' "Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters" has only about 5,000 copies in circulation, compared to about 12,000 for Doyle's "The Van" and 20,000 for Trevor's great weight of a collection.

"The hope always remains to build a following," says Viking President Michael Jacobs, who acquired Doyle's last two novels from the writer's British publisher. "We felt that the vernacular that Roddy writes in could travel, not to mention that it's also comic. But whenever you make a commitment to a writer, you're not always expecting a home run the first time out."

Besides publishing books by Toibin and Doyle, Viking is expected to acquire the first novel of Nina FitzPatrick, whose "Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia" it published in January.

The collection of stories has been one of Ireland's great literary enigmas. FitzPatrick, born in Poland of Irish-Polish parents, was found ineligible for the prestigious Irish Times / Aer Lingus Prize for "Fables" when she was unable to conclusively prove her Irish lineage. Questions also were raised about whether the stories were written by a group.

Not that the controversy detracts from the rollicking read. A story called "In the Company of Frauds" concerns an obsessive Galway professor, Sesame O'Hara, who stops writing about her favorite poet and instead fraudulently publishes new poems under his name. The story reads like Woody Allen as distilled by Brendan Behan.

As ample evidence that Irish writers have been unusually busy, Tobin pointed to a new title, "The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction," published by a British house. "The mere fact that Picador could publish, or would bother to publish such a book is itself an indication of the growth. There's enough stuff there to anthologize."

Ink, a Newsday column about the book, magazine and newspaper publishing industries, debuts today and will run in View on Thursdays.

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