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Frank O'Connor 1903–1966
(Pseudonym of Michael John O'Donovan) Irish short story writer, novelist, critic, editor, and translator of ancient Gaelic works.
O'Connor is often referred to as a master of the short story. An outstanding craftsman, he skillfully manipulates plot to bring his characters and stories to life. O'Connor is distinctly Irish in his settings and in his skill at "spinning a tale," but he is universal in his ability to capture those moments of crisis in the lives of ordinary people which transform them and ultimately change the course of their lives.
William Butler Yeats encouraged O'Connor and credited him with "doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia."
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
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In ["Domestic Relations"] Frank O'Connor proves once again his extraordinary mastery of the short-story form. As always, the settings, the characters, the rhythms of the prose, are unmistakably—and delightfully—Irish. Yet, fundamentally, these are not Irish stories. O'Connor is concerned with those critical moments when the course of life is suddenly, often radically, changed, when nothing is ever quite the same again. In such moments as these it is the human condition that is illuminated.
Of the fifteen stories in the book, roughly half are concerned with childhood and youth, several are comic, and all are written with an acute, but always affectionate awareness of human vanity and weakness. The humor is superb….
Yet even when he is most amusing, O'Connor's eye is always focused on that experience which presently will transform the life of his character. The youth in "Daydreams" is a wonderfully comic figure but, by the story's end, his whole pattern of existence has been altered.
The stories in "Domestic Relations" are, I think, rather different in tone from some of O'Connor's earlier writings. There is none of that wild, primitive loneliness which found so immediate a response in the reader's heart. These tales are more controlled; a greater effort is required not so much to understand as to "feel" the importance of what has happened. A boy in school finds that the food parcels he thought were coming from his mother are being sent, out of pity, by the mother of one of his friends. There is nothing wild or primitive in this. Yet, ultimately, this boy's loneliness is both real and deep. It is a tribute to O'Connor's artistry that he can create a sense of scale even in this ordinary, familiar life we know.
In a sense, all this is to be expected. For Frank O'Connor, as both artist and craftsman, stands in the very front rank of modern story-tellers. And, beyond art and craft, what he has given us is an example of how amiably, how decently an understanding man can make his peace with life.
Richard T. Gill, "Moments of Change," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1957, p. 5.
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Most of the stories in [Domestic Relations] appeared originally in the New Yorker, where they served to confound those who criticize that magazine's fiction as a monolithic agglomeration of memoirs of dull and surly childhoods…. Mr. O'Connor, to be sure, is fond of recalling his own childhood, but he does it with enough verve and enough sense of "story" to make it palatable. In many ways Mr. O'Connor is a natural New Yorker writer. He is urbane and witty and he instinctively avoids those shrill and harsh notes that—well, that wouldn't go in a humorous magazine is probably the most honest way of putting it.
Mr. O'Connor is so urbane, come to think of it, that one is hard put to explain why he is so splendid an artist. One is inclined to be a little suspicious of so much charm. And perhaps Mr. O'Connor does at times let his charm carry him a little further than his other talents would take him. But we cannot justly quarrel with what he chooses to use as a paddle so long as it gets him where he's going. All possible strictures aside, he remains a superlative story-teller.
The reasons for his excellence are most discreetly inconspicuous in his work. His stories are as unassuming and as effortless as across-the-bar or over-the-back-fence gossip. He admits to aiming consciously for this effect—of avoiding the "literary," the line that does not read aloud naturally and conversationally. This effort has resulted in a superbly clean and lean style, with none of the "poetic" passages, sentimental moralizing and melancholy posturing so dear to some Irish writers.
His stories move. When you grab hold of the first sentence you know you're going somewhere. It picks up and starts off with you. O'Connor is truly a writer "hard to put down." This is partly because of the easy simplicity of his style, but largely because Mr. O'Connor magically makes you want to know why it is Shelia Hennessey married a man twenty years older than herself and whether the marriage worked out all right. He is interested in people and in their motives. And although he does not analyze their behavior in any depth, what he does say of them rings true. (p. 101)
[The] capacity of O'Connor's of stepping up the voltage, as it were, of his stories is probably the secret of his surest claim to greatness as a teller of tales. He is not a writer with those "levels of meaning" dear to English departments, but there is more to him than meets the eye. He is, in effect, a searcher out of essences. The story comes first and, though he does not manipulate his characters, he is not afraid of having a point and stating it explicitly…. O'Connor's stories may give the impression of moving along under their own power, and they are certainly never forced, but however light the artist's hand may be it is there, shaping the material into a meaningful whole, and the artist's brain is at work interpreting this meaning. The effect is a triumph of artful simplicity, but artful it is.
Of course Mr. O'Connor has his limitations, as does any writer. He works in the middle ground of "domestic relations," where tragedy and ecstasy never really impinge except perhaps in comic disguise. But this leaves him nothing less than the bulk of life to work with. When Mr. O'Connor's hero doesn't marry the girl of his heart's desire he very sensibly marries someone else, and if he does any pining it is in his spare time. Mr. O'Connor has nothing to say about star-crossed lovers or obsessed madmen or violence of any sort (though compare his early and superb story "In the Train" for a suggestion that he might have this capacity). Yet he manages to say a number of calmly wise things about the human comedy. (p. 102)
William James Smith, "Calm, Wise Stories of the Human Comedy," in Commonweal (copyright © 1957 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 4, October 25, 1957, pp. 101-02.
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The first volume of Frank O'Connor's autobiography (An Only Child, 1961) was the story of young Michael Francis O'Donovan…. That story began in the back lanes of Cork in 1903 and ended with the young man's release, courtesy of the Irish Free State, from an internment camp in 1923. This second, posthumous volume [My Father's Son] picks up the story at that point and brings it forward in time, though with no apparent regard for chronology, to the eve of the Second World War—or, to use O'Connor's own measure of his days upon earth, to the death of Yeats early in 1939. (p. 668)
Yeats is more fully sketched (it is by no means a full portrait) than any of the other figures whom O'Connor here assembles, and occasionally disassembles: AE, Robinson, Osborn Bergin, Geoffrey Phibbs and a dozen others whom he came to know as he made his way up in the world. This was the world of Dublin in the last years of the literary revival, very much a man's world and, as Joyce would have it, all too Irish.
The young provincial-turned-librarian … was eventually co-opted onto the board of directors of the Abbey Theatre, its great days already part of memory, and the last half of his autobiography is devoted in large part to still another account, more personally rancorous than most, of the feuds and infighting that went on in and out of the Green Room among assorted actors, directors, producers, poets and playwrights.
But a fight is only interesting if it is heroic or amusing. These scraps at the Abbey were neither, and one wonders why O'Connor chose to worry them over as he has done….
In the end we are left with the unfinished story of a man of great talent, akin to if not really a kind of genius, in whom the life of the imagination and the exigencies of practical intellect were never fully reconciled. In the young man a public official consumed the aspirations of a poet, in maturity a man of affairs intruded upon the private provinces of a born storyteller; and throughout the whole of his life, whatever his private or public role at the time, he was constantly scouting the encampments of scholarship but without ever realizing the full satisfactions of that fellowship. (p. 670)
Kevin Sullivan, "Apostolic Succession," in The Nation (copyright 1969 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 209, No. 21, December 15, 1969, pp. 668-70.
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At the time of his death in 1966, Frank O'Connor was generally regarded as an authority on the short story and one of the century's foremost practitioners of the genre. O'Connor's subjects are indeed many and varied; but a student of his entire canon cannot fail to be impressed with the extent to which he concerned himself with the Irish Revolution of 1916–1923. What is perhaps most surprising is that his interest in the conflict was not confined to his first book (which deals almost exclusively with it)—it was lifelong.
The Revolution consisted of first a war of independence with the British, and then a bloody Civil War between the diehard Republicans and those less adamant Irishmen who were willing to accept British Dominion Status as the Irish Free State. It was the formative milieu of a new generation of writers, of whom the most distinguished were Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and O'Connor. All three men fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, but soon relinquished their political ideals; later they wrote stories and novels dealing with their experiences as soldiers. Their disgust with the War and the violent narrow-mindedness that encouraged it led them to criticism, satire, and at times invective. O'Connor shared his generation's critical outlook, but his contribution to the literature of the Revolution is unique in that his detachment manifested itself principally in comedy. Politics and revolution, subjects which have always made Irishmen curse, made O'Connor laugh. (p. 108)
A revealing parallel is to be found in the Russian Revolution, and in the short stories of the writer whom O'Connor claims as the "man who has influenced me most," Isaac Babel. Babel's stories are not comic, of course, but there is in them the same sense of detachment, of being a scholarly outsider, that characterizes O'Connor's view of the Irish Revolution. (p. 109)
O'Connor's greatest debt to Babel is apparent in his first book, Guests of the Nation …, his only collection of stories to center upon the Irish Revolution. These pieces are among the first works of fiction that O'Connor wrote, and in some ways the book is disappointing. When he was assembling a selected edition of his stories in the early fifties, he included only one story from Guests, stating flatly in the preface that he finds the book inferior. Such an attitude toward one's early work is not uncommon, however, and need not be taken as altogether justified. Many of the stories are, to be sure, clumsy efforts, but others are as fine as any he ever wrote. The book was generally well-received by reviewers, one of whom rightly pointed out that the "characteristic features of the book are good-temper and sanity." It is here that the uniqueness of the volume lies: one does not expect a book of war stories to be characterized by good-temper and sanity. And here one sees O'Connor's great difference from Babel, whose grim fascination with violence produces a sombre tone.
O'Connor's comic outlook is immediately apparent in the story entitled "Laughter," which deals with a group of young Republican soldiers. They are out at night in search of a Free-State lorry which they are to destroy with a Mills bomb. The actual bombing is presented in a wholly indirect and "offstage" manner…. The violence of the actual event is pushed as far as possible into the background. What happens, of course, is that the men in the lorry are blown to pieces; but neither Stephen nor the reader is really made aware of this outcome. Whereas Babel—and most other writers of war stories—would have dwelt on the violence, O'Connor systematically ignores it; his subject is not the deed, but the high spirits of its perpetrators, who react to it almost as though it were a kind of schoolboy's prank…. (pp. 109-10)
I think it unnecessary to give much attention to Guests of the Nation (and least of all to its famous title story), for in that book O'Connor's debt to the Revolution is patent; what is less widely recognized is that he continued in its debt for the rest of his life. After Guests O'Connor produced six more books of stories, and several selected editions that consist partly of new stories. The Revolution is the subject of one or more stories in almost every book—including A Set of Variations, published posthumously in 1969. Thus the event which first captured his imagination continued to inspire him throughout his career. Some of his later stories in fact constitute new approaches to this old subject. In some ways the long story called "Lofty" in Bones of Contention and Other Stories … is his most ambitious treatment of the Revolution: its theme is the contrast between two worlds: the romantic Edwardian and the realistic post-revolutionary. The "terrible beauty" which Yeats saw in the Easter Rising was terrible largely because it bespoke the death of one culture and—he hoped—the birth of another. Lofty Flanagan, who is born "in the good last years of the reign of Victoria," and reaches maturity "during the great Edwardian enlightenment" …, lives in both worlds. His name suggests the hauteur with which he insists on the preservation of the old, and the story culminates in his tragicomic fall at the hands of the new. (p. 111)
In this story O'Connor recognizes the true significance of the Revolution, just as Yeats had in "Easter 1916": it was a watershed between two worlds. (p. 115)
Virtually every major Irish writer of our time has had to transcend in one way or another the provincialism that was one legacy of the Irish revolutionary's zeal; O'Connor's distinction is that he did so by simply refusing to take seriously what was of the utmost gravity to many of his countrymen. The one thing that all the heroes of his war stories lack is principle—whether they are young pranksters bombing a lorry, or fantastic toy soldiers, or short-sighted defenders of private property—and the result is nearly always comic. O'Connor is the Irish Revolution's only comedian. And not only did the Revolution provide the first focus for his creative energies, it continued to inspire him throughout his career. Reading through his numerous stories, one may even conclude that it engaged O'Connor's imagination at its very highest level. (pp. 115-16)
Gary T. Davenport, "Frank O'Connor and the Comedy of Revolution," in Éire-Ireland (copyright Irish American Cultural Institute), Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1973, pp. 108-16.
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[Some] of O'Connor's public experiences, first in the guerilla war and then in the Civil War, serve as a clear inspiration to some sixteen stories, most of which appear in his collection Guests of the Nation. In these stories, he argues the meaning of these experiences, seeking to express, artistically, the reaction of his countrymen to the agonies at the birth of their nation.
This collection, O'Connor carefully notes, was originally written "under the influence of the great Jewish story teller Isaac Babel," by which, he means, of course, Babel's Red Cavalry. Yet that O'Connor, who read widely in European literature, should, of all authors, come under the influence of Babel is not, on further reflection, at all surprising. For, in both these collections, we perceive "the writer's intention to create a form which shall in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of external reality, the truth of things and events." The truth of the events, it should be added, inescapably contains moral issues with which both artists were, personally, deeply involved.
One of the prime moral issues for many in war, we know, is not whether one can endure being killed, but whether one can endure killing. Though neither Babel nor O'Connor could endure killing, they were, nevertheless, greatly interested in the impulse to violence which seems innate in all men. (pp. 31-2)
O'Connor, like Babel, [placed] … war and peace, violence and repose, side by side to show man's unending dilemma in having to choose between the two, though fascinated by both. (p. 33)
Not only does war reveal to man the "unreality" of his fascination with violence, but also, O'Connor suggests in many of the stories in Guests of the Nation, war shows man how removed the real is from the ideal; however widening is the gap between what actually is happening or has happened to his hopes and plans and what he thought he was fighting for. This situation troubled O'Connor terribly…. (pp. 33-4)
Far more disillusioning for O'Connor than the ever-widening gap between the ideal and the real, resulting, in part, from a war that was a "cruel," silly thing, is the fact that many of his countrymen also lost the meaning of honor, decency, and fair play. And nowhere is this more powerfully revealed than in "Guests of the Nation." (p. 35)
This tale touches the reader not only because of its intrinsic beauty and power but also because it shows O'Connor's understanding of man's nature, especially when man loses all sense of self and his humanity. Above all, it has a universality, the ultimate achievement in fiction, because it transcends the bounds of time and space…. "Duty," as O'Connor projects it in the stories, becomes a shield for monstrous acts of evil—and all because of man's failure to see as O'Connor does what abstract terms or forces, or even dispassionate governments, can do, and often actually succeed in doing to his moral nature. Reading "Guests of the Nation," the sensitive reader actually feels "lost" and "astray in the snow."
But not every narrator in O'Connor's war stories, one must hasten to add, is led astray. Nor is every character bedevilled by his own inhumanity and coldness. Nor does every protagonist feel the dark power of melancholy surging within him. There are forces in the lives of men which help them retain their humanity, sanity, and probity. One such force in man is, of course, love. (pp. 35-6)
[In] all of his stories, O'Connor's humor consists essentially of his rare ability to see simultaneously the dual aspects of life—good and evil, love and hate, peace and war, the beautiful and the ugly. In other words, his humor in the "synthetical fusion of opposites, the gift of saying two things in one, of showing shine and shadow together." (p. 38)
[The] disgust with all that he saw happening to his country and countrymen may well explain why O'Connor, like, say, Yeats and Joyce and O'Casey, "had long ago decided that Ireland was morally bound to live up to his expectations." That may also explain why these giants carried on a life-long lover's quarrel with their country, with its "introverted religion" and "introverted politics." But since Ireland, for them, never did live up to their expectations, they were at ease with it only in their poems, plays, and stories. In them, they could weep and laugh, often doing both simultaneously.
And if O'Connor, like some of his contemporaries, found the political life of his country difficult to bear, it is clearly evident that in his stories of war and revolution he was, at least artistically, at ease. And these stories, on careful reading, are irresistibly interesting, precisely because "O'Connor loved those from whom he was alienated." Loving them, he naturally placed them prominently in his art. (p. 40)
What O'Connor observed and then recorded in his stories about the servants of God and the servants of the servants of God, such as their housekeepers, is rich in understanding, meaning, and humor. That he had early renounced his formal relationship with religion did not prejudice him, in his extended writings, against the Irish clergy. In point of fact, it gave him a certain objectivity not always available to the committed. These servants—bishops, parish priests, and curates—appear in O'Connor's stories as subject to the same strains and stresses in all their dedication to the "higher" life as those involved in the "lower" life. And the description of the priests that finally emerges from these stories, therefore, contains a keen insight not only into the Irish priest's professional posture but also his own personality. At times these two elements in his nature are in a conflict which gives added meaning to the artistic quality of the tales. (p. 50)
O'Connor [also] depicts in his art some of the ambivalent phenomena of Irish family life. Not only was his lively intelligence engaged in portraying the religious and political life of his countrymen, but also the difficult and tragic conditions prevailing in their homes and personal lives. Hence, in his two novels—The Saint and Mary Kate and Dutch Interior—and in, at least, some seventy-odd short stories based on family life, he conveys a feeling of sadness or despair or a mournful note of frustration mingled, as always, with humor and irony. The disarray of Irish domestic relations is central to O'Connor's writing. (p. 65)
That the young lovers in Ireland could not enjoy an easy love relationship troubled O'Connor. With deepest roots in his native land, he was disturbed by the conditions that converted the pleasures of love into a battle of the sexes. Among these conditions were … the restrictive teachings of the church. Hence, when he wrote the first of his two novels, at the beginning of his career, he entitled it appropriately The Saint and Mary Kate. There, as in many short stories, he set the stage for the conflict between two "innocents," who, seeking the joys of friendship and marriage, are frustrated by the church's "thunderings" against the "dangers" of sex. To his disapproval of these "thunderings" O'Connor added his disgust with the pervasive influence of the ubiquitous Irish mother. (p. 74)
What O'Connor is anxious to relate in this sad tale of two young Irish lovers [Mary Kate and Phil] is, among other things, that neither is prepared against the "wolf of life." (p. 75)
Religious life in Ireland, O'Connor clearly implies, with its exaggerated rigor produced inhibited characters like Phil Dirnan. The whole body of clerical and lay thought is given to penitential excesses because the conception of sin—especially inherent in courtship—is everywhere. Part of the tragedy of life in Ireland is that people seem to have lost the feeling and craving for life itself. (pp. 75-6)
One cannot, however, help observe that something more profound troubled O'Connor as he portrayed Mary Kate and Phil in the agony of their courtship. He would have us understand that they represent something more than two lovers unable to meet on common ground…. Mary Kate becomes, for O'Connor, the symbol of the artist, nay, the "pagan," who desires the pleasures of this world far more than the next, the now rather than the hereafter. Phil is the exact opposite. Together, they seem to symbolize those two aspects of the Irish mind that have been, ever since Celtic times, "in constant conflict, namely, pagan immorality and Christian morality."
What we have in this novel, then, are two people who seem to represent vehicles of that eternal struggle between fruitful humanism and ascetic practice, between Christian morality and pagan immorality, between the sacred and the profane. (pp. 76-7)
[Much] of O'Connor's writing on marriage and family life expresses a belief that the vast number of men and women going through life in barren and witless celibacy—all because of the church's thundering on the terrible danger of keeping company, of the easy, happy pursuits of friendship—is weird and unnatural. Unless the beauty and dignity of marriage are presented clearly and unmistakably by the church, schools, teachers, and other shapers of public opinion, the bachelor and spinster mores of Ireland will, O'Connor implies, forever doom the young to remain "naked to the wolf of life."
Ireland's failure to remove a quasi-monasticism from secular life in order to allow for a mutual understanding of the sexes, especially during the formative years, is the theme also of O'Connor's only other novel, Dutch Interior. If somewhat less successful structurally than The Saint and Mary Kate, Dutch Interior is no less revealing of the nature and destiny of Irish life. For O'Connor's persistent concern—central, in fact, to all his fiction—with the relations of parents and children, with religion, love, and the flight of young people from their native soil is evident in this work. Had he chosen, however, to narrow his attention to one major crisis, as in The Saint and Mary Kate, O'Connor might have been more effective. What we get [in Dutch Interior] is a series of sketches of middle-class Irish people, drawn together by the fact that they live in the same small town. To be sure, these characters might serve as a microcosm of Irish life. But one cannot escape the conclusion that a central conflict, so necessary to all fiction, is not clearly discernible here. This novel appears too ambitious. O'Connor seems to be attempting a far larger fictional study of Irish society than he can possibly execute. There are gaps—at times, huge gaps—in the story where he just can't come to grips with the need, according to his own views, to delineate the role of the individual in that society. The individual characters seem somehow lost and it is only when he concentrates on the immediate relations between members of the Devane and Dalton families—a thing he does supremely well in his short fiction—that he succeeds if only partially, in this work. Unlike his short stories, he fails to write simply in this novel. As a result, Dutch Interior is the least satisfying of his two less than satisfactory novels. (pp. 81-2)
Maurice Wohlgelernter, in his Frank O'Connor: An Introduction (copyright © 1977 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1977, 222 p.
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The violence and idealism of the events of 1916 to 1923 created in Ireland a mood of national hysteria. At least that was the voice heard by O'Connor trying to capture those events in prose six years after. In fact, the two extremes between which Guests of the Nation vacillates are hysteria and melancholy, between thoughtless act and numbed thoughtfulness. Benedict Kiely detected in these stories a "genuine bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive romanticism," an adolescent enjoyment of the guns, the ambushes, the flying-columns. Indeed, this hysterical romanticism swirls across the surface of all but the last four stories.
"Jumbo's Wife," "Alec," and "Machine-Gun Corps in Action" are examples of the romanticized violence of the sort O'Connor found in Isaac Babel. In these stories war exposes the folly and weakness of character as well the normal responses of people under pressure. Situation dominates character and the voice is blurred. The stories fail, not because O'Connor idealized violence, but because he failed to control its comic energy. (p. 76)
As surely as violence and hysteria, along with their safety valve of comic hilarity, dominate the surface of Guests of the Nation, a more serious and thoughtful voice operates below that surface, a voice of compassion and bitterness. After all, war is not a normal situation, at least not for amateur warriors. The humor of "Laughter" and "Machine-Gun Corps in Action" is the comedy of disorder, of natural nervous tension in the face of violent death. O'Connor distrusted the cold, organizational mind of the professional soldier, for whom fear and disorder have been disciplined away. If romantic hysteria, nervous laughter, and chaotic fear represent natural responses of plain people to the stress of war, then disillusionment, accompanied by loneliness and melancholy, emerges just as naturally from the violence and stress. After "hysteria" the other word used throughout the volume more than might be normally expected is "melancholy." (p. 79)
"September Dawn" is the centerpiece of Guests of the Nation in the same way "Fugue" is the centerpiece of Sean O'Faolain's volume of stories, Midsummer Night Madness. Neither is the finest story of its volume but each is the emotional core and both are about the same set of events…. [Both] stories end with a vague kind of hope in a rising morning.
"September Dawn" is the centerpiece of Guests of the Nation not for its theme but its voice. The lyricism of O'Connor's adolescent poems has by now been distilled into the poetic realism of a man looking back on the time of his passage to maturity. The romance of war with its tragic violence and comic disarray has been diverted to a melancholy acceptance of love and friendship. The hysteria of death has become the melancholy of life. (p. 80)
As in most of the stories in Guests of the Nation the setting appears as natural and unobtrusive. From the flat, densely populated area around Mallow the two boys flee the encircling ring of enemy troops, almost like animals, instinctively toward the safety of the wilds. But place is never the primary dimension in an O'Connor story. Some of the stories in the volume take place in or near Cork City with its wet streets, quays, steep hills, pubs, churches, lanes, and shops. Most of the actual fighting stories are set in the countryside outside Cork, in the rugged mountains around Macroom or the gentle hills around Mallow. Setting for O'Connor emerges as a complement to the voice of the story; setting is atmosphere. Most of the stories are wrapped in darkness, casting the disarray and desolation in silhouetted relief. Even time is vague, for the historical moment dominates natural time. (pp. 81-2)
As the emotional center of the volume "September Dawn" mediates the numbed thoughtfulness of the first and last stories with the thoughtless frenzy of the intervening stories. Its betweenness is the emotional condition of passage, and in the poignant layering of national transition and personal growth lies the lonely voice. The volume begins in war and ends in a temporal vacuum resembling peace. (p. 83)
The final story of the volume returns to the crisis of adolescence. "The Procession of Life" ties together much of the volume, both in tone and theme. The voice is a male voice looking back on the confusion and anxiety of growing up…. It is another "playboy of the western world" perhaps; generation after generation echoing the same lonely voice, adolescence, maturity, and old age improvising solace in the face of cold separation.
Seeking to capture in his own volume of stories something of the unity of Turgenev, Moore, and Joyce, O'Connor gave special force to the stories that open and close Guests of the Nation. The lonely voice of "The Procession of Life" circles the entire volume, signaling the passage from hysterical romance to melancholy realism. It stands somewhat apart from the rest of the volume in terms of treatment, yet complements the overall ambiance. Curiously, it represents the kind of story for which O'Connor later became famous, the Larry Delaney story of childhood and adolescence. The voice is lyrical but not altogether personal; although there are distinct autobiographical overtones, O'Connor's natural reserve discourages too facile identification. Loneliness is embodied rather than indulged, and in the detached, backward look characteristic of nearly every story in the volume, the voices generate a life of their own.
Likewise, the title story that opens the volume stands apart. There is nothing else quite like it in O'Connor's work; its brilliance and integrity are beyond question. In "Guests of the Nation" O'Connor backs away from chauvinism and hysteria far enough to allow a glimpse of the characters' tragic impotence, but not so far as to miss their emotional vibrations. Thrown together by the vagaries of war, three Irish rebels and their two English hostages come to personal terms over cards and share a momentary truce in conversation. But national priorities take precedence over individual loyalties; abstract retribution undermines concrete friendship. After "assassinating" the two helpless hostages the hero-narrator finds himself in a melancholy vacuum: "It is so strange what you feel at such moments, and not to be written afterwards…. I was somehow very small and very lonely. And anything that ever happened to me after I never felt the same about again."…
O'Connor has not indicted the rebels nor their cause; neither has he vindicated violence. Rather he has isolated its horrible effects at the moment of impact. For him human dignity and rationality inevitably yield to the sudden impulse, to the unpredictable and passing moment. So although there is nothing quite like it in the rest of O'Connor's writing, "Guests of the Nation" contains these qualities which are unmistakably O'Connor's—it is simple, it possesses tight narrative design and lively drama, and it carries sparse revelations in language direct and alive. Most of all, the story embodies that "lyric cry in the face of destiny." (pp. 84-6)
No matter where O'Connor got his story and no matter how obliquely he grafted it onto different characters and situations, "Guests of the Nation" emerged in the telling as a tightly designed and provocative story. It has become a classic story, honored by many imitations including Brendan Behan's "The Hostage." In "Guests of the Nation" as in few of his other earlier stories, O'Connor rises above mere contrivance and literary fumbling to voice the sort of primary affirmation which he himself insisted was vital to great literature. (p. 87)
The Saint and Mary Kate was Frank O'Connor's religious love book, a testament to the magic of love and the exuberance of faith. The treatment was entirely from without because the drama was all too within that passionate variety show in his own mind….
If The Saint and Mary Kate is the work of a young man groping for a suitable theme, it is also the work of an Irishman writing to locate a cohesive Irish consciousness. On one hand, then, the novel is a private quest and an act of love. As such it reveals something of the character of the man who wrote it. On the other hand, this novel is a public portrait and an act of defiance. To understand it is to catch a glimpse of the nature of his circumstances. For O'Connor to do battle with the provincial narrowness of Cork was to encounter his own provincialism…. (p. 103)
As compelling and sensitive as it is in parts, The Saint and Mary Kate is not a successful novel. For one thing O'Connor took an abstraction too seriously and let it dictate his plot. For a novelist, even one given to thematic concerns, such an approach often signals a weakness; for a storyteller like O'Connor it is disastrous. The particular abstraction here is the opposition between two conflicting ways of life, represented by Mary Kate and Phil. (p. 108)
The dislocation of these two youngsters in time and space stems from the tragic gap between dreams and realities, between emotions and thoughts. A profound theme, to be sure, and one that O'Connor would elucidate in more subtle ways in later stories, but profound or not, a theme imposed on situation and character calls attention to itself instead of emerging naturally from the whole….
O'Connor's inclinations as a storyteller get in the way of his novel. He is too easily diverted from his deterministic "tragedy of innocence." By his own critical standards, a novel requires a society, not just a vague backdrop. O'Connor appears so intrigued by the people that he barely elaborates on the world in which they live, the world that supposedly crushes their dreams. Still, the setting of the novel is drawn with such swift sympathy that it strikes the reader as absolutely genuine, a tribute Sean O'Faolain believed, "the only real tribute" Cork's poor ever received. It is precisely his sympathy that diverts O'Connor's attention. When he sketches a tenement feud, or the face of one of Cork's "characters," or the tone of an overheard conversation, he appears diverted by the potential story; a passing glance should be part of a carefully sustained progress rather than a frozen moment.
All in all, then, the part dominates the whole in The Saint and Mary Kate, and the part that dominates most exquisitely is character. The strength of this novel is its characters. (p. 109)
Inevitably … The Saint and Mary Kate stands not on its own merit as a novel but on what it reveals about the personal and artistic concerns of Frank O'Connor at the beginning of his career. He was a lyric poet who felt ill at ease behind the mannered mask of verse. He was a storyteller interested more in the flash points of human existence than in the sweeping artifice. And he was a lonely young writer trying to find himself. (p. 111)
James H. Matthews, "Women, War and Words: Frank O'Connor's First Confessions," in Irish Renaissance Annual I, edited by Zack Bowen (© 1980 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), University of Delaware Press, 1980, pp. 73-112.
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The earliest story in The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland goes back to 1926; the latest—"The Grip of the Geraghtys"—is the one O'Connor was working on when he died. What's immediately striking about all of them [in this group of previously uncollected stories] is a kind of narrative vigour and flamboyance; no more than two or three are downcast and restrained, and even these have wrought-up moments…. The title story's exuberance is tempered with ruefulness: it presents a child's view of faction-fighting and the sorry predicament of a cornet-player tormented by opposing loyalties—to the band, and to his political leader.
It is a characteristic device of O'Connor's to avoid emotional intensity by keeping his characters at a proper distance; he is the anecdotalist, not the analyst, of strong feelings. He catches the overflow of passions in fluent lamentations and imprecations which are part of the rumbustious Irishness he set out to depict. It is all a performance, put on with a saving element of drollery. The canny, the bombastic and the disputatious: these are all here, each displaying his central trait to the full. If O'Connor sometimes pushes his characters to the brink of sentimentality, he rarely lets them topple over; a brisk retraction, or a cynical aside, is inserted at the last moment. Playfulness, verve and cunning are the narrator's attributes.
The benign mockery and unembittered criticism of Irish life, which charmed O'Connor's earliest readers, have come under attack in recent years from those who require from their fiction a sharper exposure of national ills, an oblique angle of vision or an undercurrent of ferocious discontent. It is true that O'Connor's habit is to poke fun at church dignitaries, for example, without repudiating too strongly the ethics of Catholicism. He is not in the grip of a lacerating satirical impulse, as Flann O'Brien was; both his comedy and his social commentaries are less dense and subtle than Sean O'Faolain's. But it should be remembered that he broke with tradition—the tradition of romantic republicanism, at any rate—by re-creating with great clarity and dispassion his own experiences in the Irish civil war….
The weakest of the rediscovered stories—"A Case of Conscience", "Hughie", "The Adventuress"—are those which suffer from insufficient tautness, making the storyteller seem less than wholehearted about his undertaking. The oddest piece is "May Night", with its fearsome hints of J. M. Synge. O'Connor keeps his feet on the ground: no airy romancing or visions that-came-by-the-left-hand here (the "Ghosts" in the story of that title are products of nostalgia, not psychic forces). But his characters' outrageous generalizations are always entertaining…. Honesty of expression, rather than realism, is O'Connor's objective, and this he achieves in an impressive number of stories. And always, his craftsmanship is unfaltering and his showmanship assured.
Patricia Craig, "Vagrant Stories," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4087, July 31, 1981, p. 873.
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Frank O'Connor belongs with William Carleton, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Stephens, George Moore, Somerville and Ross—Irish writers who achieved their greatest distinction with their short stories…. What is it about this fictional form that so profitably attracts the Irish? Since the work of Frank O'Connor lies at the very heart of the modern story in Ireland, it is a question that may at least be dwelt upon before turning to [his Collected Stories]….
[The short story] is the art of the glimpse; it deals in echoes and reverberations; craftily it withholds information. Novels tell all. Short stories tell as little as they dare. (p. 1)
[It] has often been said that the Irish genius for the short story is related to the fact that when the novel raised its head Ireland wasn't ready for it. This is true. The new form thrived more naturally in Victorian England: its required architecture reflected and was fed by the stratified solidity of Victorian society, and even though it often protested at the rising sea of complacency, the dovetailing was perfect. In Ireland there was disaffection instead of self-satisfaction, a repressed religion instead of one which acted as a pillar of the establishment, the confusion of two languages, and the endless specter of poverty and famine. Out of all that came the Irish short story of today, at its best when it's impatiently biting, a lot said in a single snap of the truth. Out of all that came the voice of Frank O'Connor.
Gossip enlivens his pages. The Irish obsession with respectability is examined and smiled over. The Irish tendency to converse and to argue in anecdotes is a repeated inspiration. An understanding of mood—its changes and subtleties and effects—is part of the Irish make-up, and is certainly part of O'Connor's.
In this present selection from his work are many of the stories that have made him famous: "Guests of the Nation," "The Majesty of the Law," "The Long Road to Ummera," and a dozen others. More interestingly, though, there are a number of items which he himself did not include when assembling his own collections. He was, as all short-story writers have to be, a perfectionist; never entirely satisfied with what he wrote, constantly making changes. As well, he was possessed of a Corkman's indecisiveness and, as only a Corkman can, turned it to his advantage. He made an art of being unsure, and reaped dividends from it.
Certainly it isn't difficult to see why he had doubts about "Ghosts," which is infected by a rather forced winsomeness; or "Last Post," which is slight; or "The Story Teller," which he clearly hadn't finished with. But "The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland" is a beautifully wrought tale, funny and moving at the same time, a child's eye view of the absurd adult world.
The pick of the less familiar bunch is "There Is a Lone House," a small masterpiece which now takes its place with the cream of O'Connor. It's an evocation of intense loneliness, its mood established with the very first paragraph….
In almost all the stories in this excellently balanced collection O'Connor's people explode from the page. The nice are here, and the nasty; the gentle, the generous, the mean, the absurd, those rich in dignity, those without a shred of it. Long after his death O'Connor continues to tiptoe his way along the tightrope of sentimentality, and never falls. Without adornment, he simply tells the truth: in story after story it is that that steadies him. (p. 2)
William Trevor, "Frank O'Connor: The Way of a Storyteller," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), September 13, 1981, pp. 1-2.
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O'Connor was never at home in [the 20th century]. He read Proust, Lawrence and Joyce, but with the admiration that is consistent with suspicion and a determination to go his own way. Modernism interested him as something to keep well way from. He distrusted every technique except the ones he inherited from the 19th-century masters and, according to his own light, practiced. He never doubted that reality was what his eyes and ears told him it was. He did not think that memory and imagination were one and the same, but he has little time for any form of imagination that could not be verified by paying attention to what people did and said.
O'Connor tried his hand at nearly every literary form, but he is most accurately known as a short story writer. He regarded the difference between the novel and the short story as only incidentally a matter of length, scale and capacity. The real difference, he thought, was in implication. The novel refers to a world in which it is possible, however difficult, to live: It implies continuity, latitude of possibility, space to breathe. The short story may offer the same implication, but it rarely does: In common practice, it presents life mainly in the form of constraint and through the feelings of tramps, widows, spoiled priests, monks and only children. O'Connor's affection for the short story speaks of his affection for marginal people, men withering, caught in the duress of circumstance and passion. (p. 3)
Of the several constituents of a short story, O'Connor was most tender toward characterization. Never indifferent to plots and actions, he was more interested in a twist of character than in a turn of events. His stories are always implicit in the characters to whom they happen. Circumstance may be fate, but only if fate is indistinguishable from character: Chances and coincidences are allowed to bring out only what is already in the character. The narrator produces the story, discloses the truth a character could not disclose for himself. The character performs his truth, short of knowing it. Often the narrator is in the center of the story, or close enough to the center to see the value of what happens there. He is not required to be gifted beyond the talent of seeing the relation between a character and what he does or suffers. That is enough. O'Connor never fusses with omniscient narrators: Enough is better than too much. (pp. 3, 28)
O'Connor's strength, in the best of ["Collected Stories"] is his generosity. Knowing what duress means, and the penury of experience available to most people, he has always wanted to do his best for them, to show the quirky doggedness practiced by people who live on the margin. He was not a satirist. Among his contemporaries in Irish fiction, Sean O'Faolain and Liam O'Flaherty are far harder than O'Connor in their accounts of modern Ireland. Among his juniors, Mervyn Wall and James Plunkett have a sense of Ireland far more stringent than O'Connor's. A genial man, O'Connor set his geniality aside only under extreme provocation, and he longed to return to his native mood. He was hard only on people who were soft on themselves.
If he has a weakness—and who has none?—it is a tendency to mistake whimsicality for charm. Like J. M. Synge and other Irish writers, O'Connor wrote an English that remembered the Irish it displaced. Many of his phrases, like Synge's, are translated from the Irish into an English which they render more exotic than their occasion can well sustain….
But it is a minor blemish, all told. At his best, there is no one like O'Connor; at his best, as in "The Bridal Night," "The Long Road to Ummera," "Peasants," "The Majesty of the Law" and another dozen stories just as good as these. I have particular affection for "The Long Road to Ummera," but I admit that Warrenpoint and the wireless have given it even brighter radiance than it deserves. In sober moods I enjoy "The Majesty of the Law" more than any other story of O'Connor's, not only for its humor but, more than that, for its delicacy and tact. (p. 28)
Denis Donoghue, "'I've Another Story for You'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1981, pp. 3, 28.
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Attempting to explain the Irish affinity for the short story, critics have been overly fond of the shanachie. Thus the potato-headed condescension from Charles Poore decorating the jacket of Frank O'Connor's Collected Stories: "One of the great Irish storytellers…." Not so. Though O'Connor often read his stories over Irish national radio, he was one of the great Irish story writers, a compulsive and even finicky craftsman who put a ten-page tale through thirty or forty drafts before letting it escape him, and that for only a moment or so. Rather like Auden endlessly tinkering among his poems, O'Connor took each major republication of his work as a chance to sneak in yet another revision. There is an illusion of spontaneity, a sense of overheard pub talk miraculously being as wonderful as the Irish Tourist Board would have us believe it is, but only an illusion….
[C'Connor's hallmark is] precise and homely description pushed to that far border where the slightest false step will tumble reader and writer together into either bathos or blarney. The trick—and it is more a wire-walker's than a magician's—appears at first to be merely linguistic, the outrageous comparisons apt enought but flashy. And sometimes, even in this collection of revisions of revisions, they are so….
To a great extent, "The Shepherds" is about the transplanted rural innocence of Father Whalen, and Abby Driscoll's rootlike attachment to the old ways lies at the core of "The Long Road to Ummera."
Perhaps O'Connor captured those qualities so tellingly because he always lived with them. Though both stories appeared in his first collection, Guests of the Nation (1931), he was still worrying at their themes when he died in 1966. Throughout the sixty-seven stories in the current volume, O'Connor seems haunted both by the perils of innocent good intentions and by the loss—indeed, the systematic destruction—of Ireland's past. The reasons surrounded him, to be sure, but lay within him as well. (p. 417)
Once he had accepted the hard fact of Cromwell and opted for Ireland's present—even her future—O'Connor almost immediately fell under the censor's ban as a writer of dirty stories. They are hardly that (O'Connor was a cruel disappointment to me when I first challenged the Irish Christian Brothers' warnings and covertly read him in the public library), but they are often awash in sex. Even in his liberation, however, the twin pincers of Romantic and Jansenist Ireland nipped at O'Connor, for the sex in such stories as "The Mad Lomanseys," "News for the Church" and "Judas," from Crab Apple Jelly (1944), is implicitly Pauline. Women are warm, strong and sensual temptations to overeducated and repressed "good Catholic" men….
O'Connor was never able to escape the Pauline notion entirely (though after his American sojourn—an economically induced exile that began in 1951—he was able to present it as but one among a variety of views), but he stood it on its head. The sensual women, those "natural beings," were good; the pinched and parched men who denied their own sensuality along with the women's represented the worst sort of evil. This crude Freudianism is hardly the most rigorous intellectual construct, but when banged repeatedly against the mass of near-naturalistic detail O'Connor brought to his portraits of quotidian Irish life, it struck fire.
Still, as the half-ironies of "My Oedipus Complex" and "The Study of History" testify, O'Connor never quite trusted Freud, regarding him as something of a toy to be played with….
O'Connor created his art from the the present because that was all there was, but he never stopped longing for the Celtic past. Even Bishop Gallogly, in "The Old Faith," has a good word to say for "the ghosts and the fairies and the spells," and in such well-known stories as "Peasants" and "The Majesty of the Law," O'Connor gives full life to the generous, pagan, communalist Ireland of his dreams—an Eire without priests or Freud. In that sense, at least, he stayed true to Yeats, and this brilliant collection shines not only with the light of his language but with the fire of a romanticism more timeless than reactionary. (p. 419)
Geoffrey Stokes, "Without Priests or Freud," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 233, No. 13, October 24, 1981, pp. 417, 419.