Frank O'Connor

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O'Connor, Frank (Pseudonym of Michael O'Donovan) 1903–1966

An Irish short story writer, novelist, critic, editor, and translator of ancient Gaelic works, O'Connor sets his stories in Ireland. However, his warm sense of humor, his realism, and his strong development of character give his writing universality. O'Connor lived in the United States during the latter part of his life. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

James T. Farrell

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There is a sensitive tenderness in Mr. O'Connor's ["The Saint and Mary Kate"] that overrides its patches of irony. Likewise, because of his skillful use of indirection, he is able to portray that melodrama and extravagance so apparent in many Irish lives without being himself melodramatic. The background of his novel is a tenement in the town of Cork that bulges with the sorrows and pitifulness of the poor. The two principal characters are Mary Kate and Phil, whose hopeful youth stands out in contrast to the frustrations of the older people they know….

Mr. O'Connor's book is serious and genuine. Its strongest pages are those which retail the pitiful and almost heart-breaking lives of the poor. He is, unquestionably, an Irish novelist who should be read.

James T. Farrell, "'Inheritance', 'Sons' and Other Recent Novels: 'The Saint and Mary Kate'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1932 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXXII, No. 934, October 26, 1932, p. 301.

Diana Trilling

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There is an Irish lilt to the dialogue and an Irish color to the scenery of Frank O'Connor's stories, even at their most melancholy, which, because it gives them a dimension of the strange, also acts to give them literary dimension. But emptied of local color, the stories in "Crab Apple Jelly" don't at all carry, for me, the weight that others have felt in them. I find them sweetly sad, sadly suggestive, or even a touch frightening at moments, but never more than in the way of the skilfully rendered pastiche. (p. 697)

Diana Trilling, "Fiction in Review: 'Crab Apple Jelly'," in The Nation (copyright 1944 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 159, No. 23, December 2, 1944, pp. 696-97.

V. S. Pritchett

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[Mr. O'Connor] has little or none of the professional Irishman in him or of the brothiness, feyness, sentimentality, that mar so much of Irish writing. At his best he is more truthful, lucid and substantial than any other Irish realist now writing and in … [An Only Child, his autobiography,] his talent is sure.

His story is by turns painful, hard, tragic, comical and sardonic. It is remarkable throughout for the portrait of his mother….

[The] book ceases to be merely one more account of a life and hard times by a clever novelist and discloses the growth of a mind and a governing idea. To liberate himself from the humiliations of slum life and its picaresque slavery the boy made a religion of education. (p. 1049)

V. S. Pritchett, "A Fighting Childhood," in New Statesman (© 1961 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXI, No. 1581, June 30, 1961, pp. 1049-50.

Deborah Averill

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A reader of Frank O'Connor's stories notices at once their atmosphere of warm intimacy. His concern with human contact originates in his sense of human isolation and it pervades his work; characters continuously touch each other, lie in bed discussing their problems or fall in love, and the narrative itself reflects a lively compassion which gives these stories their distinctive relevance. (p. 28)

His perceptions of emptiness lead him to seek an intensification of life. He delights in sheer animal vitality and encourages a full, waking life of the senses…. He dislikes abstractions, 'the Greek reasoning about life which are our daily bread', and thinks they have crippled modern literature as well as...

(This entire section contains 1073 words.)

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modern society by creating artificial barriers to communication. He tries to create an attitude of mind informed from within, from nature and the 'inner light', to overcome the literal application of sterile social mores, theories or religious doctrines. Consequently he avoids abstract speculation or burdening character or incident with a larger intellectual framework than is provided by the situation itself in relation to general human experience. (pp. 28-9)

He tries to locate within the complex, reflecting man the warm, vital animal which needs and seeks contact with others. His imagination dwells on the blood-ties which bind the human community together, on heredity, sex, reproduction, the family as an organic unit—the natural processes and conditions which create and sustain life. These natural relationships underlie and enhance human contact, so that it becomes not merely an interchange of ideas, but a communion, a sharing of experience expressed in the concrete acts of speaking and touching. (p. 29)

O'Connor's stories in particular convey a strong sense of family and community ties. They are remote from society, but not divorced from it; we can always feel a need for companionship, a pull towards contact and reintegration, and a desire to work out ways or reconciliation within the span of the individual life. He celebrates marriage as the institution in which natural bonds can best be maintained; at its best it combines romantic love with social acceptability. His attitude towards the more anti-social aspects of sexual contact is ambivalent. (p. 30)

O'Connor frequently casts his mind back to a childhood world for inspiration, because that period of his life exercised the most compulsive hold on him and because children have not yet lost their naturalness and innocence. (p. 31)

O'Connor's adult characters, like his children, are lonely innocents who determine their identity through contact. They reach from the changing complexities of their lives towards some kind of rooted primary condition in which they find rest and unity at least temporarily. Contact with others draws them out of themselves; the imperfect struggling animal in them impels them to overcome barriers to communication. To make his characters approachable, O'Connor often deflates them by using mock-heroic techniques; he tends towards caricature, towards a gentle puncturing of dignified poses and a revelation of the absurd.

He often contrasts characters who communicate easily with those who don't. The former are frank, self-revealing and naturally intimate, the latter are cautious and reticent. (p. 32)

His attempt to recreate the effect of a speaking voice, which he considers the physical body of a story, reflects a desire for direct contact and communication with the reader….

The narrators through whom he tells his stories are loosely defined personae who are always either implicitly or explicitly present. They are not bound to a consistent point of view, so that they can speak either as a near-by witness of the situation, like a fellow-villager, or as an omnipresent creator, a kind of angelic observer. They move freely in and out of the characters' minds without identifying completely with anyone; even in stories told from only one person's point of view, we can see him from the outside as well as the inside. (p. 35)

The tone of the stories is conversational, animated and evocative, embodying O'Connor's own energetic vitality. It is intended to elicit an immediate emotional response from the reader. The language and idiom come directly from the situation. There is little obscure symbolism, stylization or abstract speculation. His easy, confident fluency creates a deceptive impression of casual off-handedness; he often narrates tragic events as if they were everyday occurrences which didn't really matter, but the underlying involvement builds up force until it is released at the moment of crisis in a passage which is overtly emotional, intimate and intense. Sometimes when these passages are too subjective and unrestrained they fail to be as convincing as he intended; he is too prone to making sweeping statements like 'I was a stranger to her, and nothing I could ever do would make us the same to one another again.'

He makes his greatest impact when he counterpoints the warm familiarity of the speaking voice with strict objective controls. Sometimes he uses a dramatic scene instead of the narrative to express insight. He thinks a 'sharp contrast should ideally exist between narrative and drama—the former should be subjective and persuasive, the latter objective and compulsive—in the one the storyteller suggests to the reader what he believes happened, in the other he proves to him that this is in fact how it did happen'. (p. 36)

O'Connor achieves chilling effects of distance by treating time and place in a way which suggests 'the eternal silence of those infinite spaces'. Sometimes he endues ordinary, familiar settings with a quality of remoteness which makes the living individual seem to shrink and flounder; efforts at contact become highly charged. (pp. 36-7)

Sometimes he distances events temporarily; the narrator speaks in an empty present of things that happened long before and which outweigh anything that has happened to the characters since. The future becomes subservient to the past, and the immediacy of the speaking voice is tempered by the backward pull of events….

Although O'Connor sometimes fails to make human contact more than a momentary reprieve from inner conflict and intellectual complexities, at his best he fashions his stories into effective, lasting vehicles for communicating experience and uniting author and reader in a recognition of their shared humanity. He refines the idea of contact as the most significant response the living can make to the empty uncertainty of separation and death. (p. 37)

Deborah Averill, "Human Contact in the Short Stories" (copyright © 1969 by Deborah Averill; reprinted by permission of the author), in Michael/Frank: Studies on Frank O'Connor, edited by Maurice Sheehy, Knopf, 1969, pp. 28-37.

James H. Matthews

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"I saw life through a veil of literature." This statement in his autobiography defines something important about Frank O'Connor. After writing, reading was his most consuming activity. He read without method or grace, because he was both a writer and a self-taught person. Since he knew what he liked and disliked, he seldom hedged his bets. Thus, when he wrote about literature he often seemed too opinionated, too flamboyant. But as Richard Ellmann has noted, O'Connor "thought he was stating conclusions that nobody in his right mind could miss. The strength of The Mirror in the Roadway and The Lonely Voice comes from this assumptive power. It begins in close observation, of course, but then, in an almost visionary way, renders writers, objects and themes malleable." O'Connor didn't just read books, he collaborated with them.

Like everything else he wrote, O'Connor's "literary criticism" reveals as much about him as what he happens to be writing about…. O'Connor's literary biases are seldom hidden; he has no use for Art that imposes itself upon Reality, that constructs its forms a priori, or that assumes to enlighten belated races. The distinction between living and museum art appears over and over again in his writing. Academic or aesthetic literature plays to pure intellect in the rarefied atmosphere of the private soul. Instinctive or folk literature plays to impure emotions in the clamorous, unpredictable, and ultimately ephemeral world of the communal marketplace. In The Road to Stratford, for instance, he says, "Jonson was Joyce to Shakespeare's Yeats, the literary theorist as opposed to the natural instinctive writer." (pp. 23-4)

Undeniably, literature in all its various forms was O'Connor's playground. On the other hand, he was incapable of absolute escape; he was an Irish writer and Ireland was his battleground. Consequently, his most powerful critical opinions were about Irish writing. Few other writers or critics have written as well or as widely about Irish and Anglo-Irish literature as Frank O'Connor. Shortly after finishing The Lonely Voice, O'Connor turned his hand to the book suggested thirty years before by Yeats—a history of Irish literature. The Backward Look, as it was eventually called, is actually a criticism of a larger life, a synthesis of a culture, and a personal statement. O'Connor's "backward look," then, is every bit as personally telling as his autobiographies or his stories. (pp. 27-8)

If any single assumption or attitude dominates O'Connor's critical writing it is his wariness of the intellect. In The Backward Look he argues that a literature heavy with political themes and oral techniques is necessarily a literature for "common readers" and not for the sophisticated. O'Connor was convinced that scholarship dries up the radical sources of poetry, that abstraction dulls the concrete impulses of the imagination. (p. 29)

Though it is the people that fascinate O'Connor, [Irish Miles] hardly lacks in scenic description. In fact, it contains some of his most impressive descriptive writing. In a characteristic passage he describes how "The country mounted on either side of us in bleak grey hills; gradually it came closer to the road, all choppy like a sea, threatening it here and there in bumpty, grassy hillocks, till all at once, as we reached the top of the hill and began our free-wheel down into Inchigeela, it rose and hurled itself on us, snapping at us with red sandstone teeth between purple lips of heather." O'Connor can picture in equally vivid and unself-conscious language a sunset over the Clare hills or the grey pallor of Connemara or a bitter wind at Tralee. It's just that Nature, though well enough in its own way, "produces a ravenous appetite for civilization." The irony is that civilization, at least that encountered by these cyclists, proves to be not altogether satisfying either.

Through it all, the persistent personality of the writer himself controls Irish Miles. One gets the impression not just of a voice speaking but of eyes seeing, ears listening, and a nose smelling. For that matter, everything he experiences and everyone he contacts, including his cycling companions, come to life. (pp. 42-3)

By his vigorous campaigns to salvage Ireland's past, O'Connor established himself as Ireland's slightly abrasive conscience. The same exasperated attachment to Ireland is evident in O'Connor's fiction, particularly his two novels. Both The Saint and Mary Kate and Dutch Interior were groping attempts not only of a writer for a suitable form but also of an Irishman for a cohesive consciousness. In them he was seriously confronting himself and his past; for O'Connor to do battle with the provincial narrowness of Cork was to attack his own provincialism. He once said that Ireland always looked out on the world through windows and doors. That notion, to a great extent, defines what O'Connor was trying to do in his novels. The two young people in The Saint and Mary Kate look outward from a Cork slum tenement toward the freedom and light of the outside world. The young people of Dutch Interior continually escape from respectable homes and jobs into darkened Cork streets and peer back through windows and doors, hoping to find warmth and life. Significantly, the doors are closed and the windows are heavily curtained. (p. 44)

As compelling and sensitive as it is, The Saint and Mary Kate is not a successful novel. On the one hand, O'Connor takes an abstraction too seriously and lets it dictate his characters. That is generally a weakness for a novelist. For a storyteller like O'Connor it is disastrous. The particular abstraction is the opposition between two conflicting ways of life, represented by Mary Kate, "Eternal Woman," and Phil, "Eternal Boy." The idea obviously plagued O'Connor, because it appeared so often and in so many forms in his later work. On the other hand, to O'Connor's credit perhaps, he is too easily diverted from his deterministic "tragedy of innocence." He appears so intrigued by the hero and heroine that he barely elaborates on the world in which they live, the world that supposedly crushes their dreams. By his own critical standards, though, a novel requires a society, not just a vague backdrop. O'Connor's inclinations as a storyteller get in the way. Even when he sketches a tenement feud, a striking face, or an overheard comment, it is almost an aside, a passing glance toward a momentary scene, rather than part of a carefully sustained totality. All in all, then, the part dominates the whole in The Saint and Mary Kate.

In Dutch Interior, O'Connor ostensibly turned that corner, perhaps with a vengeance. Being too close to the issue …, he sought detachment by way of technique. The impressionistic form, which really appears formless, is calculated to present a tapestry meaningful only in a large scale. The narrative, such as it is, develops from the static, suffocating atmosphere of a city, rather than from the motion of people's lives. The emptiness of the characters of Dutch Interior is the emptiness of the world of things that surround them—streets, clocks, churches, shops, and walls. The characters are not much more than symptoms of a diseased society. They are acted on almost solely from without. One is, in fact, meant to be less interested in the characters than in what has trapped them. The silhouettes of passengers seen by Peter Devane, for instance, through the portholes and doorways of a newly arrived steamer almost exactly equal what O'Connor allows us to see of his characters—vague silhouettes.

However, that's precisely the point. In the routines of the city, life has become vague and ghostly. Even the young people have been so deadened by things and customs that they are only shadows. (pp. 45-6)

Dutch Interior is richly impressionistic, but probably too full, too undisciplined to strike clear. It contains some of O'Connor's most lyrical prose. A reviewer called one of his plays a "novelist's play." Dutch Interior could be called a "poet's novel." But without a discernible voice to unify the images or to focus the drama, the novel lacks a sure emotional perspective. O'Connor's alienation from the piety, respectability, and half truth of his provincial past is too close to the surface, too unrefined. Furthermore, O'Connor appears unable to sustain a narrative about the blighted lives of two brothers without indulging quick glances toward the other lives they cross. The finest portions of the book, especially those concerning Eileen Madden, are almost diversionary, the subject perhaps of another novel. As a result, the larger tapestry is weakened, though it is in the whole that O'Connor has invested his cumulative effect.

Dutch Interior, as well as The Saint and Mary Kate, illustrates O'Connor's strengths as clearly as his weaknesses. He was a lyric poet who felt ill at ease behind the mannered mask of Poetry. He was a storyteller interested more in the flash points of human existence than in the sweeping artifice…. The sense of containment, of closed energy, that characterizes O'Connor's stories is precisely what hinders the progressive and differentiating strategy of the novel.

As flawed as they are, the novels deal with the issues that pepper all of O'Connor's writing—the incrustation of Irish life, the capacity of people to dream and to delude themselves, the failure of domestic relations as well as all institutions to provide love and genuineness, and above all, the pervasive burden of human loneliness. Then too, the characters of the novels are about the same as those one finds in the stories—little people, anonymous flecks of humanity, innocents, and outcasts. The novels also manifest the main traits of O'Connor's simple style. The prose is unpretentious, with no trace of literary allusion or intellectual ornamentation. The narrative is compact, carried not by exposition but by intense and brisk dialogue. But above all, the novels go a long way toward explaining why O'Connor inevitably stayed with the short story. (pp. 47-9)

The stories of Bones of Contention are typical of O'Connor's writing in the 1930s. By his own admission he was "fumbling for a style." Having found the exuberant romanticism of Guests of the Nation unproductive, he drew back his sights from the nation at large to smaller and less colorful social groups. The characters of these stories are not soldiers or lovers; they are peasants, drunken musicians, and tired old men. The narrative voice is casual and direct, calling attention to the persons in the story rather than to itself. Such phrases as "for as the old man said to me of him," or "as they all said," create in the story "Peasants," for example, the impression of a story over-heard, almost like gossip, from the peasants themselves about the "unpleasant memories" left behind by a former priest. "Orpheus and His Lute," the hilarious account of the drinking habits of the Irishtown Brass and Reed Band, is told entirely as a shanachie tale…. For a writer so young these stories are surprisingly trim in form. What moral "comment" there is emerges from a natural and mature balancing of sympathy and judgment.

Though by no means its best story, the title story is indicative of the prevailing manner of the entire volume. The very phrase "bones of contention," suggests low-grade dissension, not revolution; the struggles within all of the stories are, for the most part, isolated, petty, and spontaneous. Set in Cork and narrated by the grandson of the central figure, "Bones of Contention" concerns the monumental and eminently funny feud that erupts when a stubborn, hard-drinking, opinionated old woman insists upon supervising the funeral of an old friend. The cliché title serves as ironic comment on the whole affair, for it is over a corpse that the "battle" is waged. The triviality of it all does not diminish the intensity of the conflict, so that all the fiery words and contentious bitching serve only to upset a normally serene community. (pp. 51-2)

O'Connor's struggle in Bones of Contention is primarily with himself, a struggle for a suitable style and for genuine concerns.

The finest single story in Bones of Contention, "Michael's Wife," contains no provincial edginess or verbal squabbling. Irony is noticeably quiet and, above all, the sense of occasion is carried by highly evocative description. In his best stories O'Connor provides just enough physical background to give a particular incident locality. Dan Bride, the old man of "Majesty of the Law," fits securely into his rough-hewn, almost archaic environment. Helena, the felon of "In the Train," is placed in momentary relief by the description of Farranchreesht. The sense of total occasion crystallizes both stories, completing for a hesitant instant the incomplete puzzle of life. "Michael's Wife" is like the dramatic lyrics of ancient Irish poetry because of the way O'Connor merges the presentation of Irish place with the drama of an Irish person. It is not lyrical, as some critics have argued, just because of the descriptive language. It is lyrical because the sound of the voice is heard within a supremely resonant environment. And it is dramatic because its occasion is so immediate that the voice is at once discreet and expansive.

"Michael's Wife" is probably the most perfect illustration of O'Connor's theory of collaboration. In it he does indeed grab the reader by the lapels, dragging him into the center of the story. (pp. 56-7)

As satisfying as it is, Bones of Contention is more or less of a piece. By the time he produced his third volume of stories O'Connor had not only explored the limits of his medium but had begun to expand them. The stories of the late thirties and early forties, many of which were originally published in The Bell, are consistently fine. Consequently, Crab Apple Jelly, published in 1944, is at once the most varied and the most disciplined single volume he was to produce. As its title implies, the volume is both sweet and tart, entertaining and serious. It contains some of the savage criticism of Irish life apparent in Dutch Interior; O'Connor was adamant that Ireland begin to look beyond its own shoreline. However, he does not cast blame or seek causes. His humanism accepts people for what they are. If there is a unity in the volume it is not a preconceived campaign, just a natural unity of manner and tone.

The first story, "Bridal Night," is powerfully impressionistic, and though it has more emotional impact than most of his stories, it is hardly sentimental. What strikes the reader is not just emotion, but the aptness of emotion. (p. 59)

O'Connor's so-called "lyrical" stories leave little doubt about the power of his prose to evoke highly poetic visual images. One of the most intriguing of these is "Uprooted," a story about two brothers, a teacher and a priest, both frustrated by the present and cut off from the past. Ned Keating, the teacher, is bored in Dublin by routine and judicious patterns. Tom, the more spontaneous and vigorous of the two, is a curate in Wicklow. Together they visit their home in the west. O'Connor's descriptions and conversational exchanges are forthright and swift. The momentum of the story is fierce, disallowing deep speculation. Neither of the brothers has time to think, time to be nostalgic, or time to regret. They are bustled about, sharing hospitable drinks and meeting forgotten relations. On the island home of their mother's people they enjoy the company of young people. Ned enjoys a moment of physical attraction:

Everything had darkened and grown lonely, and with his head in the blinding folds of the shawl which reeked of turfsmoke and his arm about Cait, Ned felt as if he had dropped out of Time's pocket.

                                    (pp. 60-1)

The end of the story is sullen; the next morning the brothers share in drowsy recollection their distraught night. Ned is troubled by Cait, of course, and the shadowy possibility of marriage. Tom's turmoil is more profound, suggesting a false vivacity the day before…. O'Connor locates both men in the "subjunctive"—Tom for his vicarious experience of human relationship and Ned for his reticence toward love. The committed priest thinks of what might have been and the uncommitted teacher of what might be, but rather than go back on choices once made they simply fall back into "Time's pocket." As the two brothers leave home, the reader gets the distinct feeling that he is watching the final uprooting of the two men in a moment of suspended time. In the "magical light" of dawn over Cariganassa, Ned's loss is the loss of childhood, of an intolerably vivid world. His future is as "remote and intangible" as Tom's is futile and lonely. The lyrical moment is the uprooting itself, the suspending of human personality between the irremediable past and the intractable future, between promise and regret. (pp. 61-2)

O'Connor once said that "An Irish writer without contention is a freak of nature. All the literature that matters to me was written by people who had to dodge the censor." The sexual repression of middle-class Irish life provided more than one Irish writer ready material for fiction. Even as the "in" Irish writer was expected to attack the clergy, so he was expected to "shock" Irish readers with a little sex, or to expose ruthlessly the sexual blight of a parochial society. O'Connor avoided both subjects until Crab Apple Jelly, refusing to wage a token war, to stoop to rhetoric. Later he was censored and to some he is only remembered for that. "The Mad Lomasneys" is one of his earliest and one of his most successful stories about the strange way of love among the Irish. The relationship of Ned Lowry and Rita Lomasney engages O'Connor's singular attention in the story from their first, awkward encounter as adolescents to their strained and unfortunate parting. Rita is an independent, rather rash girl, with a manner best described as audacious and a voice that seems to laugh casually at life. Ned is rather unperturbably automatic, though also "clever … precise and tranquil." But O'Connor is not just juxtaposing the predictable and the unpredictable. He is carefully accenting the subtle games played by the middle class. Consequently, much of the story takes the same dramatic form as "The Luceys," so that despite a lapse of time the effect is intensely immediate. (p. 65)

The stories of Crab Apple Jelly represent the refinement of O'Connor's technique of exploiting the "tone of a man's voice, speaking." He didn't see life steadily or whole; he heard it in bits and snatches…. Nowhere is his attention to voices more evident than in "The Long Road to Ummera," a simple tale about an old woman's eccentric wish to be buried in the mountain home of her people. By his own admission the main voices were those of his own father and grandmother. The story begins: "Always in the evenings you saw her shuffle up the road…." The narrator is personal and informal, speaking about his own neighbors, not about strangers. Thomas Flanagan takes this fidelity to the community to be contradictory to O'Connor's theory of the "lonely voice."… The voice is lonely though it speaks within the community; O'Connor's voice is lonely not in spite of his fidelity to the community but because of it. (pp. 68-9)

Before the appearance of "The Drunkard," "Christmas Morning," and "My Oedipus Complex" he used first-person narration sparingly, and then generally as an interlocutor retelling a story told to him. The involvement of the narrator in "The Long Road to Ummera" or "Peasants" is genuine but not personal. However, one of the best stories in The Common Chord, "Judus," is the hilarious account by a settled bachelor of his first courtship; whether it was also his last we can only guess. He chuckles at his naive fantasies and foolish antics. But he fails to comprehend what the reader can't miss—his tragic dependence on his mother. O'Connor had listened to Irish life with brutal honesty. What he found was that people make themselves miserable, that they delude themselves, that they act in silly, indiscreet, or even vicious ways in spite of everything they know to the contrary. When he turned to situations closer to himself, his honesty still prevailed. He resisted the temptations of misanthropy and self-indulgence by adhering strictly to the limitations of his aesthetic: he was an observer, not a judge or an exhibitionist. (pp. 69-70)

A Set of Variations, twenty-seven stories written mostly in the 1960s, is not his best collection but it does suggest that in the last few years of his life Frank O'Connor had returned to whatever it was that produced the stories of the 1930s. Throughout the volume he is turning old sod, sifting through old themes, returning to old loyalties. However, the book is hardly the work of a tired old man resurrecting past glories. Rather, it is the work of one whose hand is steady, whose eye is keen, and whose voice is clear. As a whole, A Set of Variations has a range of interest and style comparable to Crab Apple Jelly. The domestic relations are mainly adult relations. In fact, there are more stories about old people and about death than in any previous volume. But O'Connor could never be grim or morbid; his humor is as wry as ever. (p. 75)

Scanning the entire course of Frank O'Connor's literary career, one is above all impressed by a remarkable unity of purpose working through a maze of conflicting impulses. He was a person of fierce sympathies. His idealism was often too buoyant, his bitterness often too heavy. But when it came to his writing he was a model of discipline and control. What this indicates, I think, is that … he never really ceased to be a romantic, by which he meant a way of seeing things, a style of life at once impulsive and searching. He rejected the romantic aesthetic, which he saw as the sentimental indulgence of the trite emotion, the reliance on the nostalgic or rhetorical generality. Likewise, he rejected the realistic way of seeing things—the "sensible" compromise, the cynical indifference to human needs, or the sterile, academic appraisal of life. But he completely affirmed the realistic aesthetic—the careful manner and sensitive frankness that are the trademarks of his writing from first to last.

Unquestionably, O'Connor's early writing represents some of his very finest work. His early stories and essays are especially impressive for the exuberance of their concerns and the unpretentious clarity of their style. His first volume, Guests of the Nation, was mainly about the insurrection. The energy of the entire volume emanates equally from O'Connor's unrestrained youthfulness and his idealistic fervor. That he later repudiated this early mode of writing does not repudiate its idealism. The violence of "Guests of the Nation" is a fresh, even creative sort of thing; but for him to have indulged it would have been to stagnate. Though he moved away from violence, he nevertheless continued for some time to operate within a context of youthful vigor. For example, his two novels, written while he was still trying to decide whether or not to write at all, were boldly uncertain efforts. In the first, The Saint and Mary Kate (1932), O'Connor's sympathetic idealism was too buoyant to control. In the second, Dutch Interior (1940), the unnaturally obtuse form was too flimsy to support the weight of O'Connor's embittered social criticism. Like the poems he was writing at about the same time, the novels were improvisational and imbalanced. But where the poems exhibited a mannered facetiousness, the novels were extremely serious and personal.

One of O'Connor's pet critical assumptions was that a person's art is an allegory of his life; one writes what he is. To that extent, then, his own writing is autobiographical. His two novels, especially, revealed his vacillation between such "counter-truths" as realism and romanticism, objectivity and subjectivity, judgment and instinct. (pp. 87-8)

All in all, the story of Frank O'Connor is the story. Invariably, his imagination forced itself through the picturesque, the historical and the abstract to some story, some point of vivid impact. For him human dignity and rationality inevitably yield to the sudden impulse, to the unpredictable and passing moment. O'Connor believed that it is "not for nothing that some of the great storytellers … have been tramps."… To O'Connor a story, whether it was about the Nun of Beare, Michael Collins, the Rock of Cashel, or those "displaced persons" of Cork, was nothing less than a "lyric cry in the face of destiny."

Frank O'Connor's stories were a sort of personal revolution. He took the form seriously and stayed with it despite modest financial benefits and pressures for a "major work." Only a secure vision of man and of himself as an artist explains this dedication to the Irish "common reader" and his constant focus on the "little guy." Everything he wrote displays his improvising and contending spirit, but his stories speak most eloquently of his lonely struggle for integrity and freedom. If any single attitude consistently looms large in O'Connor's work, it is a distrust of human reason, a suspicion of the abstract or the unnatural. Yet ironically, the principal strategy of his stories is containment, a deliberate scaling down of issues, situations and techniques. Simplicity requires conscious discipline and superb control—it's hard to be easy…. When all is said, his stories will stand as his most enduring contribution to modern literature and to Irish life. (pp. 89-90)

James H. Matthews, in his Frank O'Connor (© 1976 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1976, 94 p.

Patrick Kavanagh

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476

In 1922 [O'Connor], with O'Faolain, took the Republican side in the Civil War, and his early stories, like O'Faolain's, are based on those experiences. Unlike O'Faolain's, however, O'Connor's lack the somewhat cynical objectivity which the theme demanded. Next we find him interned. The Internment Camp was for him the equivalent of a university. There among his fellow internees were to be found a number of men with questioning minds…. O'Connor made contact with the humanist side of letters and with Yeats. He contributed poems, stories and reviews of Gaelic plays to [The Irish Statesman], and these are all full of the warm imagination of young genius. But they also suffer from a serious defect which can, I think, be attributed to the influence of Yeats. Yeats created a pose of swift indifference to the common earth, and the same isolation in the thin air of "literature" is to be found in O'Connor…. It would not be entirely true to say that O'Connor had entirely detached himself from his background, but he dimmed it into a literary mist.

The Yeatsian pose of aristocracy suited Yeats, for the pose fitted him perfectly. It was the essence of Yeats' verse. O'Connor also attempted in his own verse the ruthless hammer-blow arrogance of the older poet. (p. 41)

"He has his roots in the soil" is a well-known phrase and people who say it generally mean that the man was born and reared in a country place. But the real soil in which a man's roots are is the soil of common experience. You can follow the tracks of the writer whose feet are in that soil—Blake, Wordsworth, Milton, Shelley or Yeats—their clay trail is the trail we can follow…. However high they raised their mystical heads they all had their feet on the clay earth. That is why they felt the electric shock. Can one say the same of O'Connor?

As I pursue him I am continually losing the trail. Has he a direction? His feet are too seldom on the earth for me to follow. Is he merely a high-flying entertainer? Does his work hold the mirror up to life? Does he mean anything? (pp. 41-2)

[The] very fact that he began as a translator is somewhat of a key to his work—that his technical and imaginative machinery is greater than his material. For, like a great actor who is useless without a theme, O'Connor is inclined to be futile when left with only his own experience. Surely nobody has ever done such exciting translations as he has…. His own original verse which … was published in a volume called Three Old Brothers is obvious, honest verse. He uses a Yeatsian technique—the adjectiveless bang, bang of nouns. But what in the hands of Yeats becomes magic in O'Connor's use of it becomes a dumb wooden mallet…. As a poet he can only be seriously considered as a translator from the Gaelic. His actor's ability to give body and life to somebody else's ideas is shown by these translations.

O'Connor has written two novels but his reputation is rightly founded on his short stories. The first collection of his short stories to be published was Guests of the Nation based on his experiences in the Civil War. These stories touch the earth at more points than any of his other work, and yet for all that they lack a very vivid detail…. [Is] there enough poetic excitement and vitality in these stories to compensate for the dimness of the representation? He seems to me to fall between two stools. He is neither on the safe earth nor among the stars. What makes his work deceptive is the fact that he is very nearly on the earth. He is—as it were—about an inch from the top of the grass…. Guests Of The Nation has in lieu of real blood a good deal of the treacle of sentimentality. (pp. 42-4)

In some of these stories there is a charming poetic atmosphere, but even it is always half and half. You cannot damn it without being wrong and you cannot praise without being equally wrong.

His first novel The Saint And Mary Kate is a charming idyll of young people in Cork City. It is lyrical in a thin way. The heroine is a sentimental character. She is closely observed and heavily documented, but the lot doesn't add up to a fully alive human being. Once again you have that inch which is as bad as a mile, between its dangling feet and the earth. You can discern the characters moving vaguely beneath the literary skin. In so far as our straining eyes can pick out the landmarks this is something of a revelation of life in Cork—or anywhere. What I enjoy about The Saint are the too occasional episodes into which the author has put without stinting prudence the essence of his experience…. Unfortunately there is a lot of descriptive stuff in the novel, a desperate straining to give us all the facts…. (p. 45)

He has hardly ever written a story that is not entertaining. He has hardly ever written a story that does not bear some resemblance to reality. But as in his novels and other work there is a "kitchening" of the material, a tentativeness. He is a showman, getting the laughs where he can, but from the more serious point of view purposeless. His second collection of short stories called Bones of Contention has a number of very enjoyable pieces. "The Majesty of The Law" is a [brilliant burlesque]…. This is the best of comedy, and like the majority of comic writing it is detached—from Life. The main character is a lie, the sort of good-natured myth which makes good-natured fools, open-mouthed, uncritical, say: "Aren't these Irish charming?" The author is in that particular mood which most of us have experienced to our spiritual cost in which we are being corrupted by our audience. (pp. 46-7)

I have heard O'Connor compared to Chekhov. No two writers could be more unlike. Chekov's genius is the cutting edge of sincerity ruthlessly piercing through the crust of the ordinary. His courageous poetic mind is never the slave of his audience. One can see it in all Chekov's work—the continual surprise which vexes so many people who want a writer to run true to form. (p. 47)

Throughout all O'Connor's stories I am being continually mesmerised by the easy hum-hum of the narrative. Sometimes he says things which may shock but they are artificial shocks as when he takes pleasure in the weakness of human beings. The creative shock of truth revealed is a different thing. His next collection of stories is Crab Apple Jelly, and it is a very jelly-like book. (p. 48)

A great poet never sneers. He may show people sneering but he does not take part in it as [O'Connor sometimes] seems to take part. You cannot satirise fraudulent piety unless you stand on some dogmatic centre of truth. This is necessary even as a hypothesis. In so far as O'Connor has a centre it is in his unholy laughter which is fairly constant.

It would be hard to overpraise the skill with which the stories in … The Common Chord, are composed. Yet, these sexy stories are utterly unreal. How often as I read did I wish that the author could have thrown in a few spadefuls of the earth's healthy reality—roots, stones, worms, dung. In this patch intelligence could grow. It will be observed that the greatest writers never take themselves seriously—only their work. O'Connor takes himself seriously but his characters lightly. A Calvinistic leer grins from every page. O'Connor's Nora Lalor's, Tim O'Regan's, etc., are not people but silly "attitudes" which are to be found less in Ireland than in a war-hysterical England, and their intellectual level is that of the gossip columns….

Passing an interim judgment on O'Connor I find that he is a purveyor of emotional entertainment, and that he has surrendered to this minor rôle. There is tension in his mind but most of this tension is expended on the construction of the container so that there is little left for the contents. He is like a powerful engine drawing a light load. The same is true of many writers who have achieved great contemporary fame—Joyce is a good example. Every generation produces fine technicians, designers, entertainers. But time destroys the tension of the wrapping paper, which their contemporaries mistook for inner excitement, leaving the dusty contents to be blown by the wind. (p. 49)

Patrick Kavanagh, "Coloured Balloons: A Study of Frank O'Connor" (reprinted by permission of Mrs. Katherine B. Kavanagh and Martin Brian & O'Keeffe Ltd.), in The Bell, December, 1947 (and reprinted in The Journal of Irish Literature, Vol. VI, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 40-9).


O'Connor, Frank