The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain
It is an interesting cultural-literary puzzle that the short story has always been a particularly irresistible form for Irish writers, even as it has never been a particularly successful form for their cultural cousins, the British. George Moore, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, and Sean O’Faolain are only a few whose names have become identified with what has often been called a minor art form. O’Connor and O’Faolain, who grew up together, as it were, within the so-called Irish Literary Revival, have made similar suggestions about the origin of the Irish preference for the short story. In his well-known study of the form, The Lonely Voice (1963), O’Connor has said that whereas the novel demands a classical concept of a civilized society, the short story is remote from a sense of community and is therefore romantic, individualistic, and lonely. O’Faolain has similarly suggested that the more firmly organized and established in tradition a country is, the less room there is in its literature for the short story.
Although such a judgment may seem somewhat facile, it may partially explain why an organized country such as England would be cited as the birthplace of the novel, while a largely rural and somewhat parochial country such as Ireland (and the United States in the nineteenth century) would be a fertile breeding ground for the short story. Whereas O’Connor, after several failures with the novel, seemed to have accepted the personal and lonely voice of the short-story form, leaving such memorable examples of the form as “My Oedipus Complex,” “First Confession,” “Guests of the Nation,” and “Judas,” to name only a few, O’Faolain seems rather to have battled the Irish predilection for the form. Few of the ninety stories collected here demonstrate the memorability and staying power of the great examples of the form in Western literature.
In his autobiography, Vive Moi (1965), O’Faolain indirectly offers an explanation for his relative failure. He laments that a complex society is needed to set a writer in motion, for he recognizes that Ireland remains an unshaped culture with its roots still within the folk. In a 1949 essay on the “Dilemma of Irish Letters,” he suggests that whereas in Ireland there are many subjects for little pieces, the novelist becomes lost in “general amorphism” and “unsophistication.” He admits with a sense of defeat that the realism necessary to deal with such material reaches a dead end, and thus reluctantly he resigns himself to making the short story his form. Thus, O’Faolain’s collected stories reveal a continual battle between his cultural predilection for the short story—with its roots in the folk, its focus on the odd and romantic slant, and its emphasis on the culturally cutoff character—and his own artistic conviction that realism, not Romanticism, is the preferred artistic convention.
The problem is made clear in a relatively late story entitled “How to Write a Short Story.” The piece focuses on an aspiring writer who listens to an older doctor friend tell a story about his own youth. As he listens, the young man “writes” the story mentally, watching for the “telling detail” and trying to get the doctor to structure his reminiscence in the terms of the Guy de Maupassant style within which the young man wishes to write. At the end, the young man admits that the story is too convoluted, that there is too much in it, that he can never capture the story in all of its complex reality. He finally laments that Maupassant oversimplified everything, that he was a “besotted Romantic.” This is a telling judgment, for O’Faolain has worried that he too is no more than a “besotted Romantic.” Applying the term “Romantic” to O’Faolain, however, is more complicated than suggested by the usual judgment that the stories in his first collection, Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (1932), infuse the natural world with a lyric emotion or that they focus on the romantic young man trying to come to terms with the world.
Instead, the issue concerns basic assumptions about how fiction captures reality—indeed, about what the nature of significant reality truly is. It might be said that the novelist perceives reality as “experience” conceptually abstracted from the temporal plenitude of life, whereas the short-story writer focuses on significant reality as the capturing of “an...
(The entire section is 1815 words.)