Benedict Kiely: Proxopera

I had never heard of Benedict Kiely (1919 – 2007) until a few months ago, when I saw that Methuen have kept a couple of his novels in print: Nothing Happens in Carmincross and The Captain with the Whiskers. Methuen don’t publish much fiction these days (see postscript), and one of their recent projects was bringing Richard Yates back into print in the UK, so I took this as a good omen and bought Nothing Happens in Carmincross after reading the first few pages. Then I saw his novella, Proxopera, in a charity shop a few weeks ago, with critics on the cover comparing him to Balzac, Conrad and Gogol. At 50p, it was worth a bet.

Proxopera is subtitled A Tale of Modern Ireland (and dedicated ‘to the memory of the Innocent Dead’), and was first published in 1977, at the height of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (an elastic term: pretty much any year from the 1970s and 80s has been described as ‘at the height of the Troubles’). Anthony Burgess called it “nearly flawless as a piece of literature” and William J Kennedy “a small masterpiece.” Surprisingly, Proxopera does not disappoint.

The book has the connection to the land and tradition of storytelling which we might expect in an Irish tale. The central character, Binchy, has retired to his homeland of County Tyrone, where he remembers from his childhood “the spring that came on an iron spout out of the naked rock.”

That, for him, had been the well at the world’s end mentioned in the old stories. No water had ever tasted like that water. One of the best meals he had ever eaten had been eaten there: raw turnips taken from a neighbouring field, cleaned in the spring and sliced, washed down by the clear ice-cold water.

But it is the still water of the lake fed by the spring which becomes the central symbol in the story.

Below, in a hollow of quaking bog was a small lake, surrounded by sallies and bog-birch, in which demented old ladies and others were continually drowning themselves. There was an almost vocal sadness about the place.

The lake recurs, as source of and solution to tragedy. Storytelling is prominent also in the sense that Proxopera is driven by its plot, from which it derives its tricksy title. Binchy (‘Binchy One’ to distinguish him from his son) and his family are invaded by IRA men who hold his family hostage and demand that he drives a bomb in a milk churn to the home of a judge in the town. (“Judge Flynn is one of the best men in the North.” “The more reason he shouldn’t be where he is. He lends credit to the system.” “So you kill a man more readily because he’s a good man?”)

Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbours.

Binchy knows two of the three republicans through their balaclavas: a handy way for Kiely to underline that violence cleaves apart existing communities, where “nowadays people die for Ireland in the oddest ways,” and ideologies pit against one another people who have more in common with each other than they do with their respective allies. Kiely’s anger is undisguised, even though he does humanise the terrorists, if only collectively and backhandedly (“And the odd thing, Mr Binchy, is that a lot of these fellows … if left alone wouldn’t hurt a cat or a child. But get a few of them together and give them what they think is a leader or an ideal and they’d destroy Asia and themselves and their nearest and dearest”). When one of them hisses about “fighting the Brits”, the response seems to sum up Kiely’s view:

Fight the Brits, says Binchy Two, to the last Catholic shop in the village of Belleek or the town of Strabane. Man, you love the Brits, you couldn’t exist without them. The nickname is affectionate. They give you the chance to be Irish heroes. They give you targets you can easily see.

The subject and plot loosely recalls Brian Moore’s Booker-shortlisted novel Lies of Silence, though Proxopera predates that book by 13 years. Kiely’s story is more lyrical than Moore’s, the setting rural rather than urban, and its proximity to the outset of the Troubles gives it a hard edge which the beauty of the writing does not soften. It is tense and thrilling, but rich and complex in its understanding of a man’s relationship with his landscape, and of men’s relationship with their homeland. It is a book which fills me with pleasure at the potential riches in Kiely’s books I’ve yet to read, and despair that such a fine literary creation is out of print (though it is available in Kiely’s Collected Stories. Which is also out of print).


Postscript: The edition of Proxopera which I read was published in the Methuen Modern Fiction imprint in 1988. I was fascinated to see the range of authors listed at the back, ‘also available from Methuen’. As well as Richard Yates (two decades ago, Revolutionary Road would have cost you £4.50), there are abandoned Booker winners (Stanley Middleton), modern Europeans (Handke, Lenz, Tournier), British writers who used to be big names (Christopher Isherwood), and even the odd South American. Am I suffering from false nostalgia, or is it unlikely that such a wide range of writers would be published by a mainstream house today?


  1. That’s interesting about the publication of these sadly-forgotten authors. You would have thought that in these days of print-on-demand, there would be a business model (albeit a not especially lucrative one) in republishing these, distributed via the web?

  2. Probably, Dave – and perhaps you are the man to do it!

    There must be an initial setup cost even for print-on-demand books, ie the cost of physically scanning or entering the text if nothing else, so there must be a sense of some demand for the book before anyone would want to do that.

    Faber Finds is something akin to this, though they require expected orders of 50 or more before they will commit to ‘reprinting’ a book. Still pretty feasible compared to the usual print runs of standard books in their hundreds or thousands.

    One downside of Faber Finds (and probably related POD titles) is that the books themselves have no information on them about the book or author, so although they are available in bookshops, it’s almost impossible to get any idea of what the book is about or like without reading a chapter or two. So not one for browsing, but instead, as you say, distribution via the web to people who already know they want that title.

  3. It’s good to finally read a bit about Kiely, knowing little about him. I bought Nothing Happens In Carmincross a couple of years back, purely because the cover design was similar to the Methuen Yates novels. Never have got round to it, although I’ve since acquired The Captain With The Whiskers too. The local library has his collected stories in a tatty old hardback that I may have a look at since I’m there most Saturdays.

    Have to agree on the Faber Finds. When I chanced upon one recently I picked it up, found nothing about the author, and just put it back.

  4. I picked up The Captain With the Whiskers at the weekend myself, Stewart. The opening pages of Nothing Happens in Carmincross were very good and quite funny, though dense with detail in a way that made me wonder whether the whole book might be hard work. Proxopera is less than 100 pages long, with large print, so naturally I read it first.

    ‘Interestingly’, when I was looking for Kiely in my local bookshop, the next author along in Irish Fiction (well, next but one after Claire Kilroy) was Thomas Kilroy, who provides an afterword to The Captain With the Whiskers, and who was represented on the shelves by one book, a Faber Finds edition of The Big Chapel.

  5. Never even heard of this chap, but it looks fascinating. I see that Methuen also have a couple of H E Bates in print in what seems a pretty eclectic, if incredibly limited, range of fiction.

  6. Indeed it is, Jonathan, though Handke is to be reissued (Slow Homecoming and one other) by NYRB Classics later this year. Under the influence of a friend who was a big fan, I read a lot of Isherwood in my early 20s – not just the Berlin stories but Prater Violet, A Single Man, Christopher and His Kind and so on. I wonder what I’d make of him now.

    Re Methuen, what I can’t understand is why they gave up the rights to Richard Yates just before the film release of Revolutionary Road put his star back in the ascendant. They had just finished reissuing his novels with Disturbing the Peace in Jan 07 when Vintage took over the backlist less than a year later. But then I am a mere punter and have no understanding of how publishing rights work. I thought the paperback rights, say, to a book would last maybe ten years before the rights holder could flog them off to another publisher. Maybe Random House made Yates’ estate an offer they couldn’t refuse.

  7. Here’s my guess, John, and I admit my background in publishing is in newspapers not books. It looks to me that the Methuen editions of Yates were the same as the American editions. I suspect that Methuen was pretty much distributing the books — and for whatever reason Vintage/Random House decided to take that over themselves. Certainly if there was a distribution agreement and RH knew a movie was coming that would add an incentive for changing the arrangement. Especially if Methuen was exiting (or at least pondering) its involvement in the fiction field.

  8. Looking at the copyright info from my Methuen editions, here’s the info:

    The Easter Parade (first published in the UK by Eyre Methuen, 1978)
    Revolutionary Road (first published in UK by Methuen, 1986)
    Young Hearts Crying (first published in UK by Methuen, 1986)

    The rest of the books are first pulished a few years ago, when Methuen put them out, with the exception of one:

    Cold Spring Harbor (first published in the UK by Doubleday, 1986)

  9. Ah, here we go:

    Revolution comes to Vintage

    VINTAGE Classics is to become publisher of the highly respected US writer Richard Yates, beginning with Revolutionary Road and A Good School in December, with the rest of the eight-strong backlist to follow in early 2008. Yates is currently published by Methuen. A six-month sell-off period for the Methuen editions began last August. The author will be brought to a wider audience in January 2009 when Sam Mendes’s film of Revolutionary Road is released. Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, it reunites the actors for the first time since Titanic.

  10. Excellent detective work Stewart, thanks. Now I just need to know what a ‘six-month sell-off period’ means. That Methuen sold off their rights? But why? Perhaps, as Kevin suggests, they are moving away from fiction altogether. For the record, my first brush with Methuen was in my teens, when they were the publishers of the Monty Python books – the various film tie-in titles and the spin-off volumes Monty Python’s Big Red Book and The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok. Back then, in the days before the internet, I even ordered Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography from my local bookshop; I seem to recall when it arrived that it had a cover price of £2.50, as Methuen hadn’t reprinted it since about 1981. It was rather good, I thought, and as a celebrity memoir evidently ahead of its time.

  11. A ’six-month sell-off period’ means that, though Vintage now have the rights, Methuen were allowed six months to flog off their remaining stock (since they’re not deemed to be fast-movers in the shops) before they have to announce the books as out of print, pulp them, and let the Vintage editions take over the shelf space.

  12. Now that Stewart is involved and he appears to know something….

    I was wrong about a number of the U.S. titles because Macmillan has The Collected Stories, Easter Parade and A Good School in their catalogue — but of course no Revoltionary Road. Methuen in the UK would seem to have had some Yates titles, but not all (or perhaps the others were just out of print). Vintage now seems to be reissuing all of them in what from the covers look like quite nice editions.

    On this side of the Atlantic, it is every bit as confusing. Random House has Revolutionary Road and just did an Everyman’s Library edition — but Picador has a number of titles including Easter Parade.

    Pending a rational explanation (help please, Stewart) it looks to me that Yates’ estate was every bit as f—ed up as his life.



  13. Thanks for letting us know about this author. I haven’t read much about the troubles in Ireland. Either I am still in the Famine or in Ireland after the 1990s.

  14. I’ve just finished reading ‘Proxopera’ for a graduate course in post-WWII/late 20th C “British” literature, and I was very impressed with Kiely’s graceful, elegiac writing style. I’ll certainly look up the novels mentioned above, and keep an eye out for his other work.

  15. That’s wonderful, Desdemona, I had no idea Kiely was being studied. ‘Elegiac’ is a good word for it. I am looking forward to reading the two other novels of his I have, and if you do read them, please be sure to come back and tell us what you thought.

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