Some of the novels in my father’s library illustrate the ravages of time. I came into these books at the end of the last century, when my dad passed away, and carefully preserved on my shelves what he had spent his life reading. Now I stroll these shelves and see the names: some authors I read years ago and have almost forgotten, and others I scarcely recognise. These were men and women, championed in their day by critics, beloved of illustrious publishers and frequent residents on the best-seller lists. Their star shone brightly not that many years ago – I often count more rings in the bole of a tree when it falls and I cut it up for firewood.
Who now knows of, or has read, Donn Byrne? As a young man, I read Byrne’s ‘The Power of the Dog’ and was mightily impressed. I have never since met anyone who has read this novel. Byrne was born in New York of Irish parents and returned to Ireland as an infant. His subsequent novels include ‘Messer Marco Polo’, ‘Hangmans House’ and ‘The Wind Bloweth’. He died at 39 in a car accident and is laid to rest in Rathclarin churchyard, near Kilbrittain, County Cork. ‘Now I am in my sleeping, and don’t waken me’, his tombstone requests.
The novels of Terence De Vere White were once popular. My father had read them all. De Vere White, whom I met when I first came to Dublin, was a most gracious man. At that time, he was literary editor of the Irish Times, a practising solicitor and a novelist. He would often come home late in the evening and write all three leaders for the next day’s paper. He wrote exceptionally well. His biography of Kevin O’Higgins should be mandatory reading for our young history scholars. And yet, his novels such as ‘Lucifer Falling’ and ‘The Lambert Mile’, while hilarious, and alive with wit, are period pieces of privilege and class set in an Ireland that brings to mind the England of P.G. Wodehouse. ‘My Name is Norval’, published in 1978, and described on its jacket cover as ‘A most distinguished horrifier,’ is the story about a delusional character who evolves from seeming normality into a psychological monster. The novel is dedicated to Russell Murphy, grandfather of our current Minister for Housing.
On my shelves, Jerome K. Jerome sits beside Storm Jameson. I remember when in my teens I read Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ and laughed till I hurt. Recently, I picked it up again but after 20 pages I gave up. Jameson’s ‘The Hidden River’ was translated into a dozen languages in the 1950s. Modern readers would struggle to recognise her name.
And then there is Booth Tarkington. Who? Well, exactly. And yet, there was a time when his name was on everyone’s lips. In 1922 Tarkington was the only writer to be included in the New York Times’s list of the twelve Greatest American Men of that era. The year before, American booksellers had nominated Tarkington as by far the most significant contemporary American writer. (Robert Frost came thirteenth; Eugene O’Neill, twenty-sixth.) Booth Tarkington was seldom absent from best-seller lists. He is one of only three writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice. (The others are William Faulkner and John Updike.) As late as 1933 he was still at it, winning the gold medal for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an award previously given to Edith Wharton. Appetite for his novels, which sometimes include the worst kind of racial impersonation, died overnight, as it were, as the seeds of civil rights and universal suffrage began to sprout in American consciousness. Booth Tarkington’s ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ is still remembered, slightly, but his name illustrates perfectly the ravages of time that are on view in my father’s library.