In the preface to this first complete biography of Irish author Frank O’Connor, James Matthews remarks that one would only write about Michael O’Donovan because of what he wrote under the name of Frank O’Connor, for O’Connor himself agreed with William Butler Yeats that what one writes is indeed a self-portrait. Such an assumption might well be the basic justification for any biography of a literary figure. The primary interest in reading such a biography usually lies not in the intrinsic interest of the life story itself, except for those writers who take on celebrity status, but rather is based on the conventional assumption that one can better understand the art of the writer by understanding his life. Such an assumption begs many questions in the rarefied realm of literary criticism these days, but they are not questions with which James Matthews concerns himself. Instead, what he has written here is a quite conventional and traditional biography of an author, with the primary emphasis on life events rather than on criticism of the artist’s works.
What Matthews searches for here is what Leon Edel once called “the figure under the carpet”—that is, the unifying myth that gives structure to the fragmented nature of a human life. Unlike Edel in his monumental five-volume study, Henry James (1953-1972), however, Matthews does not tightly weave together the artistic production of O’Connor with his life. The approach is more narrative in method, with periodic stops to discuss the works when appropriate. The unifying themes that give structure to Matthews’ book spring more from the narrative of the life than from the analyses of the books; indeed, as Matthews suggests, it can be said that Frank O’Connor lived a good story.
Given such promising material, Matthews tells the story in an interesting and entertaining way. Although the work is well documented, with sixty pages of small-print end notes, the reader can easily ignore these and proceed with the narrative. The text itself is not cluttered with references but rather develops from the narrative point of view of one who has thoroughly familiarized himself with the events of O’Connor’s life and views it all from a more or less objective retrospective standpoint. One does not get the impression of a distinctive controlling voice here, as one does, for example, in Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce (1959). The narrative strategy is a fairly simple one of charting the crucial events of O’Connor’s life in relatively autonomous blocks or life stages indicated by such chapter titles as “From Cork to the World’s Side,” “Retreat to Woodenbridge,” “On Sandymount Strand,” “The Visiting ’Perfesser,’” and “Exile’s Return.” The biography reads quite nicely as a story of one man’s life and as such is fully as engaging as fiction—a blurring of the two realms that O’Connor himself would have appreciated.
Because his purpose is to re-create a life, rather than to analyze or meditate on it, Matthews focuses primarily on events, making generalizations about O’Connor’s psychic life only sparingly and then only in terms that seem easily justifiable—for example, that O’Connor was somewhat of a “mommy’s boy,” that he attached a value to girls beyond proportion, that he exaggerated his own desire, and that he saw external reality through a veil of literature. In fact, many of the generalizations Matthews makes characterize O’Connor as a sort of stereotype of a child of his culture and as the typical artist as a young man. For example, Matthews admits that the image of his mother as gentle and saintlike and his father as hard-drinking and bellicose seems an Irish archetype. As is typical of the narrative literary biography, Matthews makes use of fictional techniques to sustain his narrative. As opposed to Leon Edel, however, who made use of Jamesian novelistic devices typical of his subject, Matthews faces the problem of trying to write a unified life of a man who artistically captured reality in the revealing illuminations of the short-story form. Perhaps for this reason, Matthews says that writing a life of O’Connor is like circling a stranger’s house and peering inside, never being able to enter but having to content oneself with momentary glimpses from many angles.
Although Matthews focuses primarily on narrative, this is not to say that he neglects discussions of O’Connor’s works; it is rather to say that he is much stronger when spinning O’Connor’s life story than when analyzing O’Connor’s own storytelling skills. Matthews often oversimplifies O’Connor’s fiction to show how it is illustrative of his life. For example, the...
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