Seán O’Faoláin was the leading Irish man of letters of his generation whose literary reputation rests largely on his short stories. A Nest of Simple Folk is the first of his three novels, and the one that draws most directly on his personal and historical experiences. For various reasons, however, the work is not to be considered as simply an autobiographical first novel. Like many Irish writers of his generation, O’Faoláin was careful to resist the influence of James Joyce, whose A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) set the standard for Irish first novels in theme, structure, and artistry. O’Faoláin sought his creative model elsewhere, as the title of A Nest of Simple Folk—deliberately echoing that of a novel by Ivan Turgenev, Dvoryanskoye gnezdo (1859; A House of Gentlefolk, 1894)—is intended to suggest.
The invocation of Turgenev does not end with titles. The atmosphere, depiction of the landscape, economic reality, and pace of narrative development all resemble the Russian author’s works. O’Faoláin, however, is not merely being a mimic. The clouds and river mists that recur throughout the novel are not just picturesque details. They function as a means of conveying the sense of the recurrent and inescapable conditions of existence. These meteorological and atmospheric features are so prevalent, they constitute the equivalent of a destiny. The view of the landscape, of rural family life, of commercial life in the town of Rathkeale and the city of Limerick, is of such a repetitive and claustrophobic nature as to suggest the title of another nineteenth century Russian novel, Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s Chto delat’ (1863; What Is to Be Done?, c. 1863). The challenge for the characters is how to resist the destiny inscribed for them by the undramatic but insidious powers of nature, and the powerfully inert forces of custom and social class that are their counterparts.
This challenge is presented in terms of the characters, in their various ways, attempting to act as though they had a nature of their own, a life distinct from the one arising from the conditions into which they were born. Inasmuch as such preoccupations constitute the overall narrative interest of A Nest of Simple Folk, the novel may be considered a meditation on the origins of the modern, and by virtue of that is a work of more than local Irish interest. It is not coincidental that the work...
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