Monday, July 7, 2008

"The best Irish writers are from Boston"

James thinks the best New York style pizza he's had is at Antonio's in Amherst. I'm in less than complete agreement, but this post is about his Judtified belief that

just as the best New York pizza is not from New York, the best English writers weren't English, yes? The philosophers were all Scottish and the good writers were mostly Irish. Discuss.

The parallel is a bad one because the Irish writers are Irish writers, not English writers; it's a very selfconsciously different tradition. If you were to take the NYC pizza recipe, move to Amherst, replace the cheese with vanilla ice cream and the topping with blueberries, and beer-batter fry the crust, the results might be excellent, but you couldn't really call it the best New York style pizza. (This doesn't apply to the philosophers, but in their case it was a misnomer to call the tradition English since two of its founders were an Irishman and a Scot.)

A better parallel -- though by no means a good one -- is that the greatest exponent of French symbolist poetry was T.S. Eliot, who wasn't French. Another, perhaps, is that all the major Irish poets now live in the US, where they have teaching gigs.

As for whether the Irish really are exceptional at writing, I'm agnostic. Yeats and Joyce are very great but the rest of the gallery -- Heaney, Derek Mahon, Beckett, Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien -- wouldn't make my top 10, much as I enjoy them. Irish novelists are unusually good at writing lyrical prose, and Irish poets are unusually readable; this means that both groups are perhaps better thought of than they deserve.

No comments: