January 15, 2005


A literary giant gets his due
(Tim Rutten, Jan 15 2005, LA Times)

Of all the truly great men of letters America has produced in recent years, surely none now seems more neglected than Thomas Flanagan, the novelist, scholar and critic, who died three years ago.

In part, that's because two of the things most central to his work and art — the pleasures of serious reading and memory — seem to slip further out of fashion with each passing month. Those who still cling to them, and to the belief that they will come back into their own when cultural sanity is restored, are now indebted to New York Review Books, which last month published a superb collection of Flanagan's critical work, "There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History," and reissued a handsome paperbound edition of his first novel, "The Year of the French." The former includes a revelatory preface by the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, and the latter is introduced by another distinguished Irish writer, novelist and critic Seamus Deane.

It is a measure of these books' importance that a writer placing titles in apposition to Flanagan's name must pause and carefully weigh their order. Novelist, scholar and critic will do, but the list could be shuffled with equal justice.

Flanagan, born in 1923, served in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy in World War II and was educated at Amherst and Columbia. As Christopher Cahill, who selected and edited the pieces in "There You Are," puts it in his introduction, Flanagan "began his writing life as an academic critic, before that term had become wholly pejorative." He went on to hold important academic appointments at Berkeley, where he taught American and Irish literature for many years, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. While at Berkeley, he embarked on an astonishing trilogy of historical novels — "The Year of the French," "The Tenants of Time" and "The End of the Hunt" — loosely linked and set in Ireland from the rising of 1798 through the order "to dump arms" that ended the civil war in 1923.

Cahill calls "The Year of the French" a "great American novel set in the bogs of 18th century Ireland." When it appeared in 1979, the reputation of historical fiction as a serious literary genre was at a nadir in American critical circles. The response to Flanagan's novel was instrumental in sweeping away the cobwebs of critical reservation that had attached themselves to historical themes. The New York Times' John Leonard wrote: "I haven't so enjoyed a historical novel since 'The Charterhouse of Parma' and 'War and Peace.' " Newsweek called it "not only a serious book … but a distinguished one as well."

In his introduction, Deane — whose own first novel, "Reading in the Dark," is no mean achievement — assesses "The Year of the French" as "a great historical novel created by a great literary scholar and raconteur, that has already been incorporated deeply into the contested literary and cultural history of modern Ireland." He aptly draws particular attention to the compositional device that distinguishes and elevates Flanagan's fiction — the creation of multiple, fully realized characters who give interlocking, polyphonic accounts of the events that comprise the plot. It's a strategy that requires not only an absolutely steady authorial hand but also scholarship of dazzling breadth.

how does that differ from the far more readable Killer Angels?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2005 8:08 AM
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