O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 14)
O'Faoláin, Sean 1900–
O'Faoláin, an Irish short story writer, novelist, critic, biographer, and playwright, is one of the foremost short story writers of the twentieth century. O'Faoláin spent his youth involved with politics and participated in the Irish Revolution of 1916–23. His stories deal with modern Ireland and its people; his lyrical prose evokes such Irish stereotypical characters as aging bachelors and priests without yielding to sentimentality. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
The "realists" of today, although apt to revolt or grumble against the rule of the past, have also a powerful and often creative sense of tradition. In the case of Sean O'Faolain this sense is especially, perhaps morbidly acute. It has animated some of his best writing with the mass-emotion of living history; it has also often fallen like an antique blanket smothering the life out of the beings he has created. (p. 3)
His first two novels, A Nest of Simple Folk and Bird Alone, are situated almost entirely in the shadow of preceding generations; a penumbra of folklore and historical conjecture in which however the living figure of a hero is clearly visible.
As a story of family life, a "saga" in the Galsworthian sense, A Nest of Simple Folk suffers from a great hiatus by reason of the author's failure to interest himself in the personality of any member of the middle generation. As the story of the fate of an individual it fails for a similar reason; towards the end the central character, Leo Donnel, although physically active, declines from the status of protagonist into that of phenomenon, a vague enigma of a potential symbol. In fact his creator is tired of him and wants to get on to Denis, his grandson. This gap in interest, enough to kill the attention of most readers, spoils the novel from any point of view. And yet A Nest of Simple Folk is a memorable work; memorable as an instance of...
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O'Faoláin is a virtuoso short story writer and teller of tales, an impressive historical biographer (of O'Connell, Newman, and Hugh O'Neill the second Earl of Tyrone among others), an urbane, learned and cosmopolitan travel writer, and a distinguished literary editor, critic and literary journalist who has written such works as The Vanishing Hero (1957) … which show a richness of original insight into the development of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel. Yet in his own creative practice he seems not to have got on with the task of novel writing all that well. (p. 19)
In his introduction to The Heat of the Sun, Stories and Tales (1966), O'Faoláin compares the novel to a giant aircraft carrier whose sole function is to launch a certain number of brilliant flights from the blank expanse of its flat deck. This seems a modern version of Poe's claim that there are no long poems, only short ones imbedded at intervals throughout such otherwise prosaic works as Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. However, one must not be misled by this comparison into thinking that O'Faoláin is only capable of short verbal flights…. Witness the magnificently sustained narrative performance of The Great O'Neill, the great narrative arches and edifice of A Nest of Simple Folk. (p. 20)
Henry James coped with the thinness of American social and cultural life by going abroad and by...
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[Selected Stories] is great fun [and,] although O'Faolain himself has written of peasants and petits fonctionnaires, he approaches genius in his portrayal of Irish women. In half a dozen of these stories, where he allows himself enough space to escape from the professional knowingness of a story like "Two of a Kind", he brings the truth of a sexual relationship to life. "Lovers of the Lake", "Dividends" and "In the Bosom of the Country" are the calm triumphs of a writer who, having started as one whom Yeats would have called a "Cork realist", has transcended [provincialism] … without abandoning Ireland as his theme. After his years in the IRA, O'Faolain discovered that "the combination of an acquisitive middle class and a vigorous and uncultivated church meant that the fight—for a republic as I understood it—had ended in total defeat". The effects of this defeat are everywhere in the present collection, which covers the period since the Second World War.
In fact, one of the great qualities of O'Faolain's writing—remarkable in itself in a writer born in 1900—is its close connection with contemporary life. It is not part of his method to avoid contingent fact and place his reliance on the eternal verities—though it has been characteristic of Irish writing from Yeats to Beckett and beyond to do so….
The earlier stories are fizzy with images, reminding one a little of the poems of MacNeice or...
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Sean O'Faolain called the art of which he is such a brilliant exponent "an immense confidence-trick, an immense illusion, as immense a technical achievement as the performance of an adept magician." O'Faolain wasn't actually attacking the short story, but he was insisting that its characterisation is always simple and undeveloped, and that we mustn't look for the depths and mysteries of personality in a literary form which can only make people "appear to appear." (p. 64)
Whether the way in which literary opinion turned unconsciously against the short story was due to this sense of its being essentially a cheat, it's difficult to say, but what is certainly true is that this most difficult art has recently begun to emerge from a long winter of neglect…. That sweet, subtle, teasing art has returned from its exile in triumph—and it has returned to remind us that silence, exile and loneliness were often (though not always) what it was about, and that we should no longer view those qualities as being necessarily reductive and limiting. (pp. 64-5)
The socially marginal is the setting of "Admiring the Scenery" where three teachers stand on a little railway platform in the middle of a vast stretch of bogland. (p. 65)
Concealed behind the story's ostensible subject—three men sharing an anecdote about an eccentric character—there is another level of experience, and it is in the recognition of this...
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Sean O'Faolain is one of the last and unquestionably the greatest of that generation of Irish writers that emerged in the Irish Revolution of 1916 and following. During his writing career of nearly fifty years he has firmly established himself as one of the great story writers in English, and [Selected Stories of Sean O'Faolain] is sufficient to demonstrate his stature to the most critical reader. (p. 143)
His stories are typically dense, lush, complex, and rich—his is not an art of understatement. He has two major themes: what it means to be Irish, and what it means to be an Irish Catholic. O'Faolain is a loyal but critical Irishman; he is capable of denouncing Irish provincialism of both the nationalist and religious genres, but unlike Shaw he denounces it from within: he lives in Ireland and he remains a Catholic. His chief allegiance is that of many other Irish writers, including Joyce, whose Leopold Bloom gave it a convenient name: "life for men and women." And these stories are full to bursting of life. Landscape provides much of this richness—especially the fecund landscape of his native Cork: low thick clouds, endless rain, sodden earth. And the characters who live in this environment partake of its sense of being outside time. In "The Silence of the Valley" the death of a cobbler is simply no match for the life force generated by his friends and relatives—the Brueghelian atmosphere of eel-roasting, singing, and...
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Sean O'Faolain's Selected Stories are taken from collections published between 1947 and 1976. Every one of the 17 is a splendid example of the master's art of storytelling. It is quite remarkable how quickly the characters come to life and engage our sympathies; after one page of a story you feel you know them as well as if you had read 50 pages of a novel. O'Faolain has the gift of capturing in one phrase or sentence a look, a mood, a relationship: a faithless wife in bed with her lover tells him that her husband 'reminds me of an unemptied ashtray'. No other Irish writer has analysed so shrewdly and yet so charitably, and presented so entertainingly, the 'incongruities and contradictions' in his compatriots.
John Mellors, "Exuberant Lies," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), Vol. 99, No. 2556, April 20, 1979, p. 510.∗
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The hero of Sean O'Faolain's [And Again? is] … anxious to find a social role which suits his authentic self…. Robert Younger doesn't die—or at least he reaches the age of 65 and is then invited by 'Our Celestial Divinities' to live backwards until he enters 'the womb of Time' again…. The point, O'Faolain and the Divinities insist, is to discover 'whether what you humans call Experience teaches you a damned thing'.
Given the silliness of its plot, And Again? manages to be remarkably serious and sympathetic. When O'Faolain deals with the process of 'younging' he involves himself in rather feeble absurdities, but he wisely prefers to concentrate on his hero's effort to reconstruct his past. A few clues quickly lead him to the arms of Ana ffrench—with whom he discovers he's been having an affair for 20 years—and so to the heart of the book. Its main concern is with the domination of love by time. Hence the supernatural elements, which add a special poignancy…. (p. 471)
Andrew Motion, "Time Trouble," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2532, September 28, 1979, pp. 470-71.∗
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