Michael O'Sullivan reviews Brendan Behan: after the wake Peter Fallon (ed.), The O'Brien Press, ISBN: 978-0-86278-031-9 €11.99 pbk
THIS DIVERSE little collection of twenty-one short prose pieces by Brendan Behan, some fictional, some autobiographical, together with a selection from his 1950's Irish Times column, caused something of a stir when it first appeared in 1981.
The title story, After the Wake, was the talking point at the time, since it appeared to be about what was then something of a forbidden subject, homosexual love.
Eleven years earlier a biography of Behan by Ulick O'Connor, which contained the suggestion that he was in fact gay, raised some hackles in Dublin and occasioned a flurry of indignant letters to the press in his 'defence' from Behan's family and friends.
When the present collection appeared the same people dismissed the story as part of the pornographic hack work which, according to his wife Beatrice, the semi-destitute Behan was writing in Paris after the war and not in any way autobiographical. Whatever the case may be we're fortunate to have the story.
After the Wake does seem to treat of the subject of gay love and the overall tone is very low-key and unusually guarded for a writer like Behan,. But, risqué subject matter aside, and whatever its provenance, it stands apart from all the other stories in the book and is the best by a long way.
It appeared initially in the Parisian magazine Points in 1950 and is reprinted here for the first time. A Woman of No Standing'is a sad and all too human little portrait of a deceased man's 'other woman' and her dramatic appearance at his funeral.
The Execution is a brief but tightly drawn account of the killing of an IRA informer by his former colleagues, much in the style of the early Frank O'Connor, whose work Behan admired.
Both these stories are little masterpieces and worthy of inclusion in any anthology of modern Irish short fiction.
The Confirmation Suit is here, still funny if a trifle dated now, and I Became a Borstal Boy, a powerful and moving early chapter of Borstal Boy, first published by Sean O'Faolain in The Bell'in 1942.
There are two previously unpublished pieces, The Last of Mrs Murphy, a typical Behan sketch full of seriously droll characters, and The Catacombs, an energised and bawdy opening chapter of an unfinished novel.
Finally, there is a generous helping of fugitive pieces from Behan's Irish Press column of the mid-fifties, light entertainment in the main though earthy, and characteristically witty throughout.
Behan, like his fellow Dubliner before him Oscar Wilde, had the unfortunate tendency to put his genius into his life rather than his work. Hugely talented but hopelessly wayward he lacked the direction and control so necessary to a successful artist. Still and all, if he were otherwise he would not be the Brendan Behan we know, and we certainly wouldn't want that! Skilfully edited by Peter Fallon who also supplied a warm and affectionate introduction, this little volume has now become something of a necessity to the Behan enthusiast and The O'Brien Press is to be commended for keeping it in print.
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Copyright © 2009 Michael O'Sullivan