Seán O'Faoláin Essay - O'Faolain, Seán (Vol. 1)

John Francis Whelan

O'Faolain, Seán (Vol. 1)

O'Faolain, Seán 1900–

Irish novelist, short story writer, biographer, and playwright, associated with the Irish renaissance.

O'Faoláin once wrote that "Literature teaches nothing. It merely confirms Life, which leads, lures, pushes, drags us mindlessly into our own hopeless heartburning longings or frustrations." If, as O'Faoláin claims, we esteem what we recognize as true in literature, then his novels must be granted much praise because of the truth and depth of his portrayals of life and because his characterizations have a validity that, while on occasion peculiar to the Irish scene, generally transcends the limits of one locale and reaches a universality which cannot only be recognized in the mind but also cherished in the heart. Furthermore, one respects O'Faoláin's reverence for life and his avoidance of facile answers. (p. 71)

Most of O'Faoláin's critical comments about writing are concerned with the short story. He asserts that a plot is the least important part of a short story, but he also admits that the absence of a plot does not mean that a story will be effective; some sort of plot is present even if it might be called a plot of character. (p. 74)

In regard to style, O'Faoláin favors the technique of uniting suggestion and compression. He uses the words "engrossed" and "alert" in reference to good style. The beginning of the narrative must at once establish the mood of the story and then the writer works carefully word by word, sentence by sentence, toward the total effect—the innermost illumination which is really the story which lies behind the story. In this connection O'Faoláin observes that, by its compressed and suggestive nature, the short story "cannot really develop character: it generally reveals it by some incident which peels off the purely social mask or outer skin." (pp. 75-6)

A steady development in proficiency and maturity has occurred in each of O'Faoláin's short-story collections. The superior stories in his second and third compilations are characterized by subtlety, compassion, understanding, irony, and a perceptive awareness of the complexity of human nature. Themes and insights are suggested and implied rather than flatly stated, and the themes are significant. In these superior stories O'Faoláin demonstrates authorial objectivity and detachment; he avoids description for its own sake; and he successfully infuses a poetic mood—subdued and delicate—over his narratives. He makes excellent use of suggestion and compression in handling style. Overall, then, it may be affirmed that stories such as "A Broken World," "The Man Who Invented Sin," "The Silence of the Valley," "Up the Bare Staire"—to mention a few—exemplify considerable artistry and expert control of modern short-story techniques. (p. 96)

His objectivity in his most successful writing is impressive, and he adheres to the technique of the greatest writers who hold "the balance of life so evenly between their characters, good and bad, that it is next to impossible to define their own attitude to their people." At times O'Faoláin has failed in his purposes. In most of the stories of the Midsummer Night Madness volume and in some of the stories in A Purse of Coppers and The Man Who Invented Sin collections, O'Faoláin has violated his own principles. On occasion, he has underscored the obvious, been too didactic, and has wasted words in presenting the story and in conveying information. Narratives like "A Born Genius" and "One Night in Turin" are flawed, therefore, because they do not possess the compression and unity which is required of artistic short stories. (p. 126)

O'Faoláin himself is worried over whether he is a Romantic or a Realist. Ostensibly, he is a Realist, but his subject matter must of necessity have some Romantic overtones…. O'Faoláin is a realist who can blend truth with mood and poetry so that his portrayal of existence is enhanced by nuances and subtleties which give a deeper meaning to the writing and a closer look into contradictions, deceptions, and mysteries. O'Faoláin is more poetic and contemplative than Chekhov but less detached and less ironic. Like Chekhov, O'Faoláin is essentially an optimist. Despite man's follies and foolishness, O'Faoláin still believes in humanity; he affirms man, although he is aware that man and man's problems are continually perplexing, that sadness and tragedy are common, and that existence is an enigma, which, nevertheless, must be probed and studied. The artist seeks answers even if there are no answers; and, above all, the writer uses all his intelligence and sensibility to ponder "the inscrutable mystery of human suffering." O'Faoláin's best short stories must earn him the title of the Irish Chekhov. (pp. 128-29)

Paul A. Doyle, in his Seán O'Faoláin, Twayne, 1968.