A COLDER EYE: The Modern Irish Writers by Hugh Kenner
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A COLDER EYE: The Modern Irish Writers

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Though Kenner flirts with a lit-crit thesis at the start (Irish Fact=lying), he quickly notes that his book could as well be called Yeats and His Shadow: it's Yeats--early, middle, and late--whose weave of life and work is followed here. And Kenner is often quite good on Yeats, particularly on what was so early wrought: ""Celtic identity,"" ""a sure-fire myth of country versus city,"" ""an unorthodox but scannable rhythm,"" and, most magisterially of all, Yeats' way with both small Saxon words and abstract nouns--the Celtic habit of vivid, static images, ""aspective. . . held in place for the looking."" If Yeats is the sun, Joyce is the moon; and Kenner (Joyce's Voices) is once again shrewd on Joyce. Ulysses demonstrates a fiction made ""of language, as deciphered by ourselves. . . . Only in cooperation with a context do we extricate narrative or description out of what we read."" Finnegan's Wake--and puns in general--demonstrate that ""the world has far more phenomena crying to be named than any language has word-sized strings of phonemes, and the names get reused."" There are additional, planetary chapters on Synge (and Shakespeare), and on Flann O'Brien, which show Kenner at his most synthetic: biographical, vaudevillian, anecdotal, etymologic, far-fetched (imputing a ""Berlitz"" style to Joyce, who once taught its method), opinionated (this is no book for professional Irishmen)--dazzlingly smart in small, but sometimes blowsily vague in large. Yet the stumbling block here finally is approach: so jump-cut is Kenner that the academic (a chapter on Gaelic pronunciation) and the dioramic (""Tuesday night now, the boyos in place again in the pit, someone had brought a bugle, and for the honor of God and was that Holy Willie?"") undercut one another. The attention-span sways in every clever little breeze; and serious apperceptions blur under the embroidery. The result may be Kenner's most virtuoso book but also his most off-putting. Still, Kenner at his best is unbeatable--and no one seriously interested in modern writing will want to miss it.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf