Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bloody Footnote: Thomas Flanagan's "The Year of the French"

I heard about Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French (1979) from some list or other of "100 Best Irish Novels." Turns out that Flanagan is an Irish-American, the Irish have a charming (I find) penchant for simply appropriating any American culture that is Irish enough to the mother country. Hey Ireland: feel free to appropriate me at any time!

Anyway, here we have a fictionalization of the French invasion of Ireland in 1798. A larger force tried to land in 1796 but was turned back by adverse winds. In 1798 Napoleon also was invading Egypt. Wolfe Tone and the French general Humbert extracted promises from the Directory that a larger force would follow if the first invasion achieved success with a popular uprising, but that never materialized. It's tempting to speculate about what might have happened if the French had managed to drive the English off of the island, but on reflection I doubt that the English would ever have given up the fight to retain colonial control over Ireland, or could ever have lost it.

It was a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars, and a pathetic one at that. The Irish had not, and perhaps could not have, achieved the level of military and political organization needed to drive off the English and keep them off. Humbert ended thinking that the Irish were a rabble who deserved the genocidal massacres that followed the rebellion (he and his French soldiers were repatriated under the "rules of honorable warfare"; the Irish peasant fighters were cut down unmercifully, and against the orders of the supreme English commander Cornwallis, their leaders tarred, hanged, and their bodies left on the gibbet to rot).

But Wolfe Tone and Jean-Joseph Humbert worked tirelessly to obtain a small army from the Directory to try to spread the revolution. Humbert gambled that with victory in Ireland he might show up the vainglorious Napoleon with his mad Egyptian adventure. It would be easy to dismiss this book as masculinist literature, with its fictionalization of desperate military campaigns written at the level of the technical maneuvers of field officers, but that would be an unjust error. One of the main points of the book is that professional officers, if they might survive the barrages of the field, had little in common with the peasant boys whom they swept up in their campaigns. Indeed, an honorable end to a campaign from an officer's point of view required a considerable sacrifice of men. The sensibility is reminiscent of Tolstoy's War and Peace (written almost a century after the events it immortalizes), another novel of intellectual learning and one where my standard jape has been "it's better at the war than at the peace."

When, after finishing the novel (never read an introduction before reading a novel!), I read Seamus Deane's introduction my New York Review Books paperback edition, I was taken aback to read that the novel was made into a TV-movie in the 1980s on the basis of its' supposed illustration of the violence and futility of Republican militancy. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a searing indictment of English rule, a stand-out in an immense genre that is obsessed with little else.

But this is far from a war novel alone. It is an immensely learned disquisition on the social and political circumstances of Ireland at the end of the 18th century. It is inevitably somewhat didactic - if you have no intrinsic interest in Irish history you ought not to be here - but it is rich in character and with a deep humanity that reflects years of immersion in the subject combined with a writer's detachment that few might sustain. There are quite a few representative characters - Protestant gentry, landed Catholics, clergymen, rebels, riffraff and heroes. An obvious favorite of the author is Owen McCarthy, Irish-language poet, itinerant teacher, womanizer, brawler and drunkard, famous throughout the Irish-speaking population for his verses but just another bog-trotting paddy to the English. It's good to see a character come to life and start to walk off with the author's book. And there are a good half-dozen other characters who are nearly as finely wrought.

Flanagan went on to add two more novels to make an historical trilogy, The Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt(1994), on the strength of this one I'll try the next. Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels I've read. I have to add that while I was reading this G. threw me a bookmark from her extensive collection, this one from the "America's Disabled Veterans": "If you think you can't/ You really must/ In God and our soldiers/ Please keep the trust/...With luck and joy be/ With all who know/ That what you reap,/ Is what you sow." Incredible!

Let me also salute the series New York Review Books Classics, one of the best republishing efforts in the USA in the past 50 years.

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