'The Sound of a Man's Voice Speaking': Narrative Strategies in Benedict Kiely's Short Stories
D'hoker, Elke, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
'Never forgetful of the method of the old-storyteller, he pulled his chair to the corner of the fire, told his listener tales that were humorous or sad or terrible': this description of William Carleton's art in Benedict Kiely's Poor Scholar could just as well pass for a critical statement on Kiely's short fiction itself. (1) That Poor Scholar is as much a poetical assertion from an ambitious young writer as a critical study on Carleton has often been noted. (2) Yet in subsequent publications too, Kiely takes an obvious pride in being part of a long tradition of Irish storytelling. In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Irish Short Stories, for instance, Kiely rejects Frank O'Connor's statement that 'the Irish short story began with George Moore's collection, The Untilled Field' and points instead to the much longer Irish tale tradition, seeking acknowledgement for 'the short stories and long stories, and short stories that were part of long stories, in Ireland and elsewhere since the word of King Goll, who later went crazy, was law from Ith to Emen'. (3) Critics have recognized and eagerly emphasized this element in Kiely's work and the label of 'storyteller' is awarded to him in virtually every critical study or review. 'In his fiction ... there is always the sound of a man's voice speaking', writes Janet E. Dunleavy in The Irish Short Story, adding that Kiely would have learned this 'type of storytelling . from listening carefully to the seanachie in Donegal'. (4)In a recent overview of Kiely's short fiction, Christopher Cairney argues similarly, 'The stories are marked by the presence of an obtrusive and moralizing narrator, a device that may owe something to the oral tradition of Ireland and the "peasant" background of both Kiely and his model, Carleton.' (5) The connection between Kiely's craft as a storyteller and the oral tradition of the seanchai, which is almost routinely made in discussions or reviews of Kiely's short fiction, is explored in more detail by Thomas O'Grady in 'Echoes of William Carleton: Benedict Kiely and the Irish Oral tradition'. In this article O'Grady demonstrates how Kiely seeks to recreate the 'storytelling conventions of the cuaird' in his short fiction. (6) And elsewhere he claims, 'Kiely's narrative method in his short stories resembles the technique of the fireside seanchai much more than the sanitized voice associated with modern realist fiction.' (7)
Of course, Kiely is not the only Irish writer to be compared to the seanchai. Critics have traced the influence of the Irish oral tradition most notably in the work of Carleton--'Kiely's true literary godfather' (8)--but also in the short stories of Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, and Liam O'Flaherty; and even in the tradition of the Irish short story in general. (9) It has indeed become a critical commonplace to argue that the Irish short story owes its shape and success to the Irish storytelling tradition. (10) In short, if storytellers figure prominently in the Irish tradition of the short story, the argument goes, Benedict Kiely can be considered as one of its most characteristic representatives. Since mere repetition has raised this argument to the level of accepted wisdom, textual evidence is rarely or ever proffered in support of this celebration of Kiely as one of Ireland's greatest storytellers. In this essay, therefore, I propose to investigate this claim in some more detail. What does this 'sound of a man's voice speaking' actually mean in terms of narrative structure? What textual elements in the stories are responsible for this impression? Can the voice of the storyteller be heard in all of Kiely's stories alike? These are some of the questions I will address in this essay. First, however, I shall to some extent qualify the interpretation of Kiely's short stories as characteristically Irish, by considering his stories in the context of the generic traditions and developments of the short story as a whole.