When Vivian Mercier died in 1989, the following assessments appeared among the obituaries in Irish and British newspapers and journals. The contributors include Maurice Craig, W.L. Webb, Conor Cruise O'Brien, John Calder and Anthony Roche.
An extensive account of his work can be found in Declan Kiberd's Introduction to the posthumous 'Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders', which is listed on the main page. That book also include a ten-page Appendix listing Vivian Mercier's published works.
Vivian Mercier, the Irish critic, scholar and teacher, died on November 4 in a London hospital. He was 70. A man of very wide learning and culture, and a linguist, he will chiefly be remembered for having been one of the first critics (another was Dylan Thomas) to pay attention to the fiction of Samuel Beckett. ... He subsequently wrote many articles on him, as well as, ultimately, the monumental study 'Beckett/Beckett' (1978). A superior piece of criticism (especially when contrasted with some work by others that Beckett himself wanted nothing to do with) it drew attention to many unrecognized facets of Beckett's learning ...
Beckett figures, too, in Mercier's book 'The Irish Comic Tradition' (1962). This is an original survey of the comic tradition in Gaelic literature from the 7th century onwards. In it Mercier was concerned with the subject of his own Irishness - which puzzled him, and which he sought to discover by an exploration of this kind.
It is easily the best study in the English language of early Irish comic sagas: Mercier made the suggestion that in the Irish tradition comedy may have preceded tragedy ... Beckett he saw as a possibly unconscious inheritor of this tradition.
What Vivian Mercier will surely best be read and remembered for, however, was his work on the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett. He was one of the earliest and certainly one of the best of Beckett critics, bringing to the work not only a subtle and responsive critical mind and a breadth of contextual understanding, but a responding sense of humour: some of his epigrams - for example, that "Godot is a play in which nothing happens - twice" have passed into common currency, and probably by now into the better dictionaries of
Mercier's long and fruitful reading and pondering of a writer whose background he shared and so well understood culminated in 'Beckett/Beckett' (1978). This showed, among other insights, how Beckett could rightly he seen as a Protestant writer, probably the last great writer in Anglo-Ireland's own "great tradition" from Swift on.
Vivian Mercier, who died early on Saturday morning, was my oldest friend. We were friends for over 50 years, since our first undergraduate years together in Trinity College in 1936. ...
Vivian's first major published work was the collection 'A Thousand Years of Irish Prose', edited by Vivian Mercier and David Green, of New York University. This collection contributed significantly to the great advances of Irish studies in the United States in the second half of the century. Vivian's 'The Irish Comic Tradition' is a classic which has greatly enriched and enhanced our understanding of Irish literature. Vivian's combination of learning, subtlety of intuition, perspicacity and endearing humility, and a strong and sometimes rabelaisian sense of humour, ideally qualified him to write this book.
His two studies of Samuel Beckett in particular ... exhibit his skill in finding connections, influences and causes. 'The Irish Comic Tradition' ... put Beckett into the Irish context where he principally belonged, in spite of Beckett's long immersion in Italian and French culture and his adoption of French as his primary post-war language. Mercier then moved on to the French nouveau roman, which shared a common intellectual source with Beckett and a common debt to the ideas of Bergson and the techniques of surrealism. He was later to write more on modern drama and the novel and his 'Beckett/Beckett' is
redolent with new insights.
But it is as a scholar of Irish literature, ancient as well as modern, that Mercier will be best remembered. He was one of the first to understand the underlying role of ethnic religion in the Anglo-Irish tradition and to research the social background of nineteenth-century writing and in particular the influence of the evangelical revival on it, especially those writers like Shaw and Beckett who rejected religion in their personal lives but made its echoes, images and traditions part of their writing. Vivian Mercier's kindness to students, his generous encouragement and help to young scholars, and his collegiality were legendary.
Vivian's first book, 'The Irish Comic Tradition' (1962), sought to establish the field of Anglo-Irish literature as a legitimate area of study in its own right, and not as some marginalized adjunct of English literature. ...Through the 1950s, there were classes to be taught at City College in New York Commerce and a family to be supported. But he kept up his pioneering writings on Beckett, among much else, and by learning Old and Middle Irish, he laid the foundations for his study of 'The Irish Comic Tradition', blithely crossing boundaries between the two literatures which in Ireland were strictly demarcated.
In the death of Vivian Mercier I have lost a beloved mentor and friend, and Anglo-Irish literature has lost a witty champion and independent spirit who illuminated many areas of his field, a true original whose best scholarly insights have proved prophetic.
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