Frank O'Connor 1903–1966
(Pseudonym of Michael John O'Donovan) Irish short story writer, novelist, critic, editor, and translator of ancient Gaelic works.
O'Connor is often referred to as a master of the short story. An outstanding craftsman, he skillfully manipulates plot to bring his characters and stories to life. O'Connor is distinctly Irish in his settings and in his skill at "spinning a tale," but he is universal in his ability to capture those moments of crisis in the lives of ordinary people which transform them and ultimately change the course of their lives.
William Butler Yeats encouraged O'Connor and credited him with "doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia."
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Richard T. Gill
In ["Domestic Relations"] Frank O'Connor proves once again his extraordinary mastery of the short-story form. As always, the settings, the characters, the rhythms of the prose, are unmistakably—and delightfully—Irish. Yet, fundamentally, these are not Irish stories. O'Connor is concerned with those critical moments when the course of life is suddenly, often radically, changed, when nothing is ever quite the same again. In such moments as these it is the human condition that is illuminated.
Of the fifteen stories in the book, roughly half are concerned with childhood and youth, several are comic, and all are written with an acute, but always affectionate awareness of human vanity and weakness. The humor is superb….
Yet even when he is most amusing, O'Connor's eye is always focused on that experience which presently will transform the life of his character. The youth in "Daydreams" is a wonderfully comic figure but, by the story's end, his whole pattern of existence has been altered.
The stories in "Domestic Relations" are, I think, rather different in tone from some of O'Connor's earlier writings. There is none of that wild, primitive loneliness which found so immediate a response in the reader's heart. These tales are more controlled; a greater effort is required not so much to understand as to "feel" the importance of what has happened. A boy in school finds that the food parcels he thought...
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William James Smith
Most of the stories in [Domestic Relations] appeared originally in the New Yorker, where they served to confound those who criticize that magazine's fiction as a monolithic agglomeration of memoirs of dull and surly childhoods…. Mr. O'Connor, to be sure, is fond of recalling his own childhood, but he does it with enough verve and enough sense of "story" to make it palatable. In many ways Mr. O'Connor is a natural New Yorker writer. He is urbane and witty and he instinctively avoids those shrill and harsh notes that—well, that wouldn't go in a humorous magazine is probably the most honest way of putting it.
Mr. O'Connor is so urbane, come to think of it, that one is hard put to explain why he is so splendid an artist. One is inclined to be a little suspicious of so much charm. And perhaps Mr. O'Connor does at times let his charm carry him a little further than his other talents would take him. But we cannot justly quarrel with what he chooses to use as a paddle so long as it gets him where he's going. All possible strictures aside, he remains a superlative story-teller.
The reasons for his excellence are most discreetly inconspicuous in his work. His stories are as unassuming and as effortless as across-the-bar or over-the-back-fence gossip. He admits to aiming consciously for this effect—of avoiding the "literary," the line that does not read aloud naturally and conversationally. This effort...
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The first volume of Frank O'Connor's autobiography (An Only Child, 1961) was the story of young Michael Francis O'Donovan…. That story began in the back lanes of Cork in 1903 and ended with the young man's release, courtesy of the Irish Free State, from an internment camp in 1923. This second, posthumous volume [My Father's Son] picks up the story at that point and brings it forward in time, though with no apparent regard for chronology, to the eve of the Second World War—or, to use O'Connor's own measure of his days upon earth, to the death of Yeats early in 1939. (p. 668)
Yeats is more fully sketched (it is by no means a full portrait) than any of the other figures whom O'Connor here assembles, and occasionally disassembles: AE, Robinson, Osborn Bergin, Geoffrey Phibbs and a dozen others whom he came to know as he made his way up in the world. This was the world of Dublin in the last years of the literary revival, very much a man's world and, as Joyce would have it, all too Irish.
The young provincial-turned-librarian … was eventually co-opted onto the board of directors of the Abbey Theatre, its great days already part of memory, and the last half of his autobiography is devoted in large part to still another account, more personally rancorous than most, of the feuds and infighting that went on in and out of the Green Room among assorted actors, directors, producers, poets and playwrights....
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Gary T. Davenport
At the time of his death in 1966, Frank O'Connor was generally regarded as an authority on the short story and one of the century's foremost practitioners of the genre. O'Connor's subjects are indeed many and varied; but a student of his entire canon cannot fail to be impressed with the extent to which he concerned himself with the Irish Revolution of 1916–1923. What is perhaps most surprising is that his interest in the conflict was not confined to his first book (which deals almost exclusively with it)—it was lifelong.
The Revolution consisted of first a war of independence with the British, and then a bloody Civil War between the diehard Republicans and those less adamant Irishmen who were willing to accept British Dominion Status as the Irish Free State. It was the formative milieu of a new generation of writers, of whom the most distinguished were Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and O'Connor. All three men fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, but soon relinquished their political ideals; later they wrote stories and novels dealing with their experiences as soldiers. Their disgust with the War and the violent narrow-mindedness that encouraged it led them to criticism, satire, and at times invective. O'Connor shared his generation's critical outlook, but his contribution to the literature of the Revolution is unique in that his detachment manifested itself principally in comedy. Politics and revolution, subjects...
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[Some] of O'Connor's public experiences, first in the guerilla war and then in the Civil War, serve as a clear inspiration to some sixteen stories, most of which appear in his collection Guests of the Nation. In these stories, he argues the meaning of these experiences, seeking to express, artistically, the reaction of his countrymen to the agonies at the birth of their nation.
This collection, O'Connor carefully notes, was originally written "under the influence of the great Jewish story teller Isaac Babel," by which, he means, of course, Babel's Red Cavalry. Yet that O'Connor, who read widely in European literature, should, of all authors, come under the influence of Babel is not, on further reflection, at all surprising. For, in both these collections, we perceive "the writer's intention to create a form which shall in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of external reality, the truth of things and events." The truth of the events, it should be added, inescapably contains moral issues with which both artists were, personally, deeply involved.
One of the prime moral issues for many in war, we know, is not whether one can endure being killed, but whether one can endure killing. Though neither Babel nor O'Connor could endure killing, they were, nevertheless, greatly interested in the impulse to violence which seems innate in all men. (pp. 31-2)...
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James H. Matthews
The violence and idealism of the events of 1916 to 1923 created in Ireland a mood of national hysteria. At least that was the voice heard by O'Connor trying to capture those events in prose six years after. In fact, the two extremes between which Guests of the Nation vacillates are hysteria and melancholy, between thoughtless act and numbed thoughtfulness. Benedict Kiely detected in these stories a "genuine bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive romanticism," an adolescent enjoyment of the guns, the ambushes, the flying-columns. Indeed, this hysterical romanticism swirls across the surface of all but the last four stories.
"Jumbo's Wife," "Alec," and "Machine-Gun Corps in Action" are examples of the romanticized violence of the sort O'Connor found in Isaac Babel. In these stories war exposes the folly and weakness of character as well the normal responses of people under pressure. Situation dominates character and the voice is blurred. The stories fail, not because O'Connor idealized violence, but because he failed to control its comic energy. (p. 76)
As surely as violence and hysteria, along with their safety valve of comic hilarity, dominate the surface of Guests of the Nation, a more serious and thoughtful voice operates below that surface, a voice of compassion and bitterness. After all, war is not a normal situation, at least not for amateur warriors. The humor of "Laughter" and "Machine-Gun Corps in...
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The earliest story in The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland goes back to 1926; the latest—"The Grip of the Geraghtys"—is the one O'Connor was working on when he died. What's immediately striking about all of them [in this group of previously uncollected stories] is a kind of narrative vigour and flamboyance; no more than two or three are downcast and restrained, and even these have wrought-up moments…. The title story's exuberance is tempered with ruefulness: it presents a child's view of faction-fighting and the sorry predicament of a cornet-player tormented by opposing loyalties—to the band, and to his political leader.
It is a characteristic device of O'Connor's to avoid emotional intensity by keeping his characters at a proper distance; he is the anecdotalist, not the analyst, of strong feelings. He catches the overflow of passions in fluent lamentations and imprecations which are part of the rumbustious Irishness he set out to depict. It is all a performance, put on with a saving element of drollery. The canny, the bombastic and the disputatious: these are all here, each displaying his central trait to the full. If O'Connor sometimes pushes his characters to the brink of sentimentality, he rarely lets them topple over; a brisk retraction, or a cynical aside, is inserted at the last moment. Playfulness, verve and cunning are the narrator's attributes.
The benign mockery and unembittered criticism...
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Frank O'Connor belongs with William Carleton, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Stephens, George Moore, Somerville and Ross—Irish writers who achieved their greatest distinction with their short stories…. What is it about this fictional form that so profitably attracts the Irish? Since the work of Frank O'Connor lies at the very heart of the modern story in Ireland, it is a question that may at least be dwelt upon before turning to [his Collected Stories]….
[The short story] is the art of the glimpse; it deals in echoes and reverberations; craftily it withholds information. Novels tell all. Short stories tell as little as they dare. (p. 1)
[It] has often been said that the Irish genius for the short story is related to the fact that when the novel raised its head Ireland wasn't ready for it. This is true. The new form thrived more naturally in Victorian England: its required architecture reflected and was fed by the stratified solidity of Victorian society, and even though it often protested at the rising sea of complacency, the dovetailing was perfect. In Ireland there was disaffection instead of self-satisfaction, a repressed religion instead of one which acted as a pillar of the establishment, the confusion of two languages, and the endless specter of poverty and famine. Out of all that came the Irish short story of today, at its best when it's impatiently biting, a lot said in a single snap of the truth. Out of...
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O'Connor was never at home in [the 20th century]. He read Proust, Lawrence and Joyce, but with the admiration that is consistent with suspicion and a determination to go his own way. Modernism interested him as something to keep well way from. He distrusted every technique except the ones he inherited from the 19th-century masters and, according to his own light, practiced. He never doubted that reality was what his eyes and ears told him it was. He did not think that memory and imagination were one and the same, but he has little time for any form of imagination that could not be verified by paying attention to what people did and said.
O'Connor tried his hand at nearly every literary form, but he is most accurately known as a short story writer. He regarded the difference between the novel and the short story as only incidentally a matter of length, scale and capacity. The real difference, he thought, was in implication. The novel refers to a world in which it is possible, however difficult, to live: It implies continuity, latitude of possibility, space to breathe. The short story may offer the same implication, but it rarely does: In common practice, it presents life mainly in the form of constraint and through the feelings of tramps, widows, spoiled priests, monks and only children. O'Connor's affection for the short story speaks of his affection for marginal people, men withering, caught in the duress of circumstance and passion....
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Attempting to explain the Irish affinity for the short story, critics have been overly fond of the shanachie. Thus the potato-headed condescension from Charles Poore decorating the jacket of Frank O'Connor's Collected Stories: "One of the great Irish storytellers…." Not so. Though O'Connor often read his stories over Irish national radio, he was one of the great Irish story writers, a compulsive and even finicky craftsman who put a ten-page tale through thirty or forty drafts before letting it escape him, and that for only a moment or so. Rather like Auden endlessly tinkering among his poems, O'Connor took each major republication of his work as a chance to sneak in yet another revision. There is an illusion of spontaneity, a sense of overheard pub talk miraculously being as wonderful as the Irish Tourist Board would have us believe it is, but only an illusion….
[C'Connor's hallmark is] precise and homely description pushed to that far border where the slightest false step will tumble reader and writer together into either bathos or blarney. The trick—and it is more a wire-walker's than a magician's—appears at first to be merely linguistic, the outrageous comparisons apt enought but flashy. And sometimes, even in this collection of revisions of revisions, they are so….
To a great extent, "The Shepherds" is about the transplanted rural innocence of Father Whalen, and Abby...
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