O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 32)
Seán O'Faoláin 1900–
(Born John Whelan) Irish short story writer, novelist, biographer, autobiographer, editor, nonfiction writer, journalist, dramatist, and translator.
O'Faoláin is considered a master of the short story. Although he has been one of Ireland's most outspoken reformers, his love for his country and admiration for its people are evident throughout his work. O'Faoláin depicts the Irish with compassion, humor, and irony. As he said in an interview with his daughter, author Julia O'Faolain: "Everything I write is [romantic]. But I know too that I have to put in—that my only hope of sanity and balance is to put in—irony. Irony is the one element that saves me from being soppy." O'Faoláin has, in both his fiction and his nonfiction, documented much of the history of twentieth-century Ireland, often basing his works on his own experiences as an active participant in important events.
Born in Cork, O'Faoláin was the son of parents who aspired to the British middle-class way of life. For many years O'Faoláin also followed this ambition until, as an impressionable adolescent, he witnessed the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Abhorring the brutality of the British, he soon found himself in sympathy with the proponents of an independent Ireland. He studied Gaelic, changed his name to the Gaelic variant, and joined the Irish Volunteers. His subsequent experiences in the Irish revolution of 1919–21 and as director of publicity for the Irish Republican Army during the Irish civil war led to a fervor of loyalty and patriotism. O'Faoláin was disillusioned and disappointed when the war ended with a humiliating defeat for the IRA.
While in his teens, O'Faoláin underwent another experience which affected his work. His home was located near the Opera House; many of the actors and actresses lodged with the Whelans. O'Faoláin was fascinated by what appeared to be the exotic life of the theater and, with stage passes from the lodgers, he often attended performances. In 1915, he saw an Abbey Theatre performance of Lennox Robinson's The Patriot. Until then, all the dramas he had seen were about English life. The Patriot depicted life in an Irish country town, and the realistic setting and characters touched O'Faoláin. As he wrote of Robinson's work: "It brought me strange and wonderful news—that writers could also write books and plays about the common everyday reality of Irish life." Although O'Faoláin's first works were romantic and exotic, he later began to write about "common everyday Irish life" and never abandoned that subject.
The first collection of O'Faoláin's stories, Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (1932), are highly romanticized accounts of the Irish war of independence and civil war. Although the censorship board in Dublin banned the book, O'Faoláin was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, whose members included George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats. In his later collection, A Purse of Coppers (1937), O'Faoláin tempered his romanticism somewhat; he later wrote: "I hope a certain adjustment and detachment shows itself in the stories…." O'Faoláin was indeed successful in this attempt, for critics often cite this book and the following collection, Teresa and Other Stories (1947; published in the United States as The Man Who Invented Sin and Other Stories), as examples of O'Faoláin's "more mature" style—compressed, subtle, ironic, and subdued.
In 1940, O'Faoláin founded an Irish literary journal, The Bell. It was his belief that Ireland, now cut off from England, needed to establish its own culture and standards. In this periodical O'Faoláin included articles on fashion, theater, and other social and cultural topics, and he encouraged and assisted new writers in contributing to The Bell. Even though it was often sold under the counter, the journal became quite popular and O'Faoláin edited it until 1946.
The mixed reception of his books and of The Bell exemplify O'Faoláin's status in Ireland. He has faced constant derision and contempt while also finding a small number of sympathizers. As Julia O'Faolain has written: "Seconded by very few liberals, Sean pitted himself against an alliance of patriot prigs whose ideal society was to be protected from free speech or foreign ideas." In many areas of his life O'Faoláin has been dedicated to the creation and preservation of Irish culture. As evident in the recent publication of The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1983), his aims are the same in his works of fiction—subtle, compassionate depictions of the everyday concerns of Irish life.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 12; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)
Sean O'Faolain writes proper stories, and most of them meet his excellent criterion: 'As I see it, a Short Story, if it is a good story, is like a child's kite, a small wonder, a brief, bright moment.'
Many of them are about the cruelties and beauties of memory. He sees growing up as a painful realisation that the world is an illusion and suggests, paradoxically but sensibly, that our solace must be to embrace illusion, which 'saves us from having to admit that beauty and goodness exist here only for as long as we create and nourish them by the force of our dreams.' This Jesuitical twist is typical: the stories [in The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain: Volume Two] are about Ireland, bogs, pubs, IRA and all, and through them runs the skein of the Roman faith. There are stories about theological jokes, pilgrimage, humbug, miracles, atheism and conversion; like the kite they soar in the face of heaven and swoop to earth. Mr O'Faolain's prose is playful and vivid like the kite and can describe, with equal facility, the aching sensuality of asceticism or a woman looking out of a window: '… her eyes opened and narrowed like a fish's gills as if they were sucking something in from the blue sky outside.' (p. 21)
Lewis Jones, "Short Stories," in The Spectator, Vol. 248, No. 8007, January 2, 1982, pp. 21-2.∗
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It is good to have the second volume of Sean O'Faolain's short stories [The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain: Vol. II]. The first brought together seven stories from Midsummer Night Madness (1932), 14 from A Purse of Coppers (1937), and 13 from Teresa, and Other Stories (1947). Now the second has ten stories from The Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1958), 11 from I remember! I remember! (1961), and ten from The Heat of the Sun (1966). In the Preface he wrote for the Penguin Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1970) he said that 30 stories were all he had to show, or all he was content to show, for more than thirty years of storywriting. One thinks, he said, of George Sand turning out volume after volume while never once neglecting a love affair, never missing one puff of her hookah. Well, no matter, O'Faolain has done many other things and written many other books besides his collections of stories. He has been, he is still, a man of letters, a novelist, biographer, autobiographer, historian, critic. But his short stories have a special place in the affections of those who care for good writing.
I should declare an interest, or a prejudice. I much prefer his later stories to his earlier ones. Many of the earlier stories sound as if they were written not only to charm the birds out of the trees but to show that one Sean O'Faolain could charm them out of the trees. The reader is forced to...
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Collections of short stories as rich and copious as those of Sean O'Faolain are impossible to review in a short compass. But this third volume of the collected works [Collected Stories, Volume III], which includes stories published from 1971 onwards, has the advantage of concluding with a group of unpublished texts; these are not only individually enthralling, but suggest a general position on the range and possibilities of the short story.
If Maupassant stands for the short story in its classical form, there could scarcely be a more convincing sign of the opposite strategy than in the stories of Kipling. In place of the observance of unities, and the controlled progression to a pointe or punch-line, we have a deliberately wayward use of time and space, and an inclination to make of the mysterious oppositions and convergences of cultures one of the principal sources of subject matter. Sean O'Faolain's subtle and haunting 'One Fair Daughter and No More', among the unpublished texts, could indeed be described as Kiplingesque. Through the intermediacy of a neutral, official narrator, it sets up an imaginative parallelism between Italy and Northern Ireland, focused on the character of a young woman who is Italian by origin but has been adopted by Northern Irish parents. Through the light which it casts on terrorism in Italy and Ireland, and the parallel illumination of the violence of Latin love in the inappropriate context...
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A. N. Jeffares
[In The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain, Vol. 3] Sean O'Faolain proves himself yet again a master of narrative, a writer whose eyes select, whose ears record and whose insights illuminate and enrich our understanding, and stir our emotional sympathy while appealing to our intellectual understanding. O'Faolain is also an imaginative interpreter of the men, women, children and adolescents whom he invents and draws with such an apparent ease, so evocatively and so convincingly. Some of his stories remain in the memory; they compel us as we read them to envisage the characters in all their diversity, to give them voices, to dress and, at times, undress them. And with the gently increasing insistence of the author we come, through contemplating them, to an increased awareness of the complexities of life, of its mingled joys and frustrations, of the courage that informs its continuance….
O'Faolain has a tolerance for his characters; he captures wisdom and allows some of his men and women to express it, as in 'Our Fearful Innocence' and 'Brainsy'. On other occasions his own appreciation of life irradiates his stories, however poignant a sense of loss it conveys, as in the bitter-sweet 'The Time of Their Lives'. He understands both men and women; his priests are real, just as his sexually curious adolescents are. He is interested in the growth of maturity, the birth and formulation of ideas. He has achieved a style which allows...
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[In The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain there 90 stories] written between 1927 and 1982. None has been written or retouched. As [Sean] once explained: "You can rewrite while you are the same man. To rewrite years after is a form of forgery." Bravely, he resists the urge to forge and I, rereading him, am back in his head—or rather in the heads of a series of Seans, the youngest of whom I never knew. It is an odd but exhilarating experience because his best stories are as good as you'll find in anyone's canon—so good they spark off that glee which comes when art triumphs over intractable material: meaning, of course, life.
Life was very intractable indeed during the Irish Troubles and Sean, writing in 1927, was still stunned by its shifts. Unsurprisingly, he wavered beween mythifying and demystifying: an electric mix. His diction was romantic and relied, as he has since observed, "on a kind of verbal music to convey feelings that the mere sense of the words cannot give." It is an unfashionable mode now but, like Romantic Opera, can sweep you up—and it is good at holding metamorphic moments in its ken. Take the first story here. It is about the downfall of an autocratic landlord and manages to combine a Cherry-Orchard-like pathos with a cold-eyed view both of the old order's shortcomings and of the loutish insurgent who represents the new one. Elegy plus caricature convey an impression of completeness, and the...
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["The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain"] includes every thing that appears in the eminent Irish writer's eight previously published collections, plus half a dozen "uncollected stories" dated 1892. Among these 90 "stories and tales" are several undeniable classics, and a few dozen effective entertainments. But, on balance, this is uneven work, unworthy of his publisher's claim that Sean O'Faolain is "one of the great story-tellers since the death of Chekhov."
What he is is a remarkably skillful and sophisticated technician who can render a small private world in such evocative, echoing detail that its universal relevance is instantly suggested; a chronicler of local conflicts who's adept at presenting two sides of a contretemps. He's one of the masters of realistic dialogue, and he can bring a character to life in a quick, vivid paragraph.
Why, then, do I not feel O'Faolain qualifies as a great writer? The answer lies partly in his very virtuosity (his ability to create someone or something fascinating, and his habit of shifting impatiently to focus elsewhere), and partly in the distance and distastefulness I infer from his many portrayals of Ireland at war with England and itself. O'Faolain was a republican fighter during the Civil War, but his subsequent writings are far from a glorification of his country's rebellious history. He seems to connect Ireland's truculent separatist spirit with its people's material...
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In the foreword to a collection of his stories published in 1970, O'Faolain acknowledged that his early work was heavily poetical, "full of romantic words, such as dawn, dew, onwards, youth, world, adamant, and dusk"; full, too, of "those most romantic of all words, and and but, words that are part of the attempt to carry on and expand the effect after the sense has been given." His first problem was to find or imagine events splendid enough to appease his style, a style compounded not only of poems learned by heart but of a desire to find the heroic note fulfilled in daily practice. He had the words he loved but not always the occasions to justify them. So he imagined an Ireland continuous with the aftermath of 1916, a country of young men and the glory they longed for…. (p. 11)
[In] "Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories" (1932) and "A Purse of Coppers" (1937), O'Faolain wrote with lilts that preceded the need of them. Even in memorable stories like "Fugue" and "A Broken World," the style is ready to be exorbitant compared to anything it is given to produce. The events come to the end of their tether, but the sentences can't bear to stop. Even in later stories, O'Faolain loves a verbal flourish….
In September 1926, O'Faolain went to Harvard University for three years on a fellowship. These years had the effect of distancing him not from Ireland but from the clamorous rhetoric in...
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