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  • Vivian Mercier
  • Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

I had heard of Vivian Mercier long before he became my mother's second husband. I can see The Irish Comic Tradition sitting on a shelf in our old house in Cork—it was in the drawing room, where my mother kept her own books, not in my father's study where most Celtic Studies material was lined up to be mined for lectures. I read it—with the expectation of enjoyment just because of where it was shelved, and with some sense of the strangeness of his recognition of what for me suddenly became entirely obvious, that literature produced in Ireland should not be corralled behind linguistic and cultural barriers, and that a critic was needed who not only could move between the languages, but could conceive a big simple theory about the whole of that national literature.

A freedom to think on large and often simple levels was part of Vivian's intellectual nature. Somehow that built-in set of blinkers that prevents most of us from seeing and doing the obvious had been left out of his constitution. He could see no reason for not learning Irish as well as French, and writing about Irish and French as well as Anglophone literature, after an education based on Greek and Latin in Portora. The title of a paper he wrote late in his life, "Samuel Beckett, Bible-reader," gave me the same shock of clarity in its obviousness and unexpectedness, as well as an impression that much of what he wrote came from his strong sense of identity, as an Irish Protestant of French Huguenot and Anglican clerical ancestry, identity that resisted dilution by his many years in the United States, and his three American marriages: an identity that connoted knowledge as well as blood and tradition.

When I met him first, several years after that discovery of his great book, he seemed very American, even to the gold teeth, which somehow faded to china white very early in his marriage to my mother. Then I encountered him again in Santa Barbara, where they were living, and at once realized just how Irish and just how European—especially in the matter of his taste in wine—he was. His unwearied interest in learning new things extended especially to Europe and European art; he had never been in Italy before that first decade of their marriage, and he took instantly to the pleasures of chasing the Italian Renaissance around the parishes and town halls of Umbria and Tuscany. But he kept his grip on all that older knowledge, the classical, Biblical, the old-fashioned French curriculum he had studied at Trinity—they yielded fresh ideas as he reconsidered them all his life. Perhaps it was that ability to keep seeing new relevance in what already knows that so impressed Hugh Kenner [End Page 146] when he dedicated his early book on Beckett (in 1961) to "Vivian Mercier: polymath."

Not that he knew everything, but he had solidity and flexibility of a special kind, which made the things he knew serve each other. Perhaps the uncertainty of some periods of his life had taught him both qualities. For a young Ph.D. in Dublin in the 1940 s, prospects were not great; he followed a number of precarious callings, including working for the Church of Ireland Gazette. He also wrote for The Bell in those years, contributing to the energetic reassessment of Ireland and its culture that that journal initiated, along with Sean O'Faolain and Vivian's lifelong friend Conor Cruise O'Brien. The encounter with America that followed when he left Ireland was bracing, precarious again, but certainly suited to his active temperament.

I miss his intellectual presence, well-informed and critical, almost as much as the warmth of his contribution to my family. I often think of him in connection both with the children—my mother's grandchildren, for whom he was the only grandfather-figure on either side—and the books, again the shelving of books. Not long before his death, Vivian began the task of putting the united Irish libraries—his own, and the one inherited from my...


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