Seán O'Faoláin O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 7) - Essay

John Francis Whelan

O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

O'Faoláin, Seán 1900–

O'Faoláin, a prominent figure in the Irish Renaissance, is a short story writer, novelist, playwright, critic, and biographer. In his short stories, especially, his insights transcend the specificity of his characters and settings. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Once there was no sweeter fable than that of the Irish Revolution. Such fables require innocence, of course, and this one was no different: there was something pure and artless about being an IRA man in a belted coat, cocking a pistol and a song and hurling one's self at the barricades of the greatest empire on earth.

In that brief bold time from 1910 to 1920, we were told that Irishmen truly loved each other, and made each other promises they intended to keep….

In [Vive Moi!, his] fine autobiography, the current dean of Irish letters chronicles all the promises of his life: those he made to his friends, those he made to himself, and those he made to Ireland. And beneath a deceptively simple, well-crafted surface Sean O'Faolain has written an oddly haunting, even disturbing book. In a way, it could serve as a history of modern Ireland, the fable that became a broken promise….

In this book, as in everything he writes (short stories, novels, travel books, criticism) … idealism is present. Too often, it becomes mere romanticism, attacking the core of his work and leaving a whole that is lush as overripe tomatoes are, and just as pulpy. One can be moved, or affected, but still yearn for more iron.

The softening effect of such idealism is deceptive, however—the result of a style that is so much like that of the water-colorist in its dazzle that the eye is diverted from what is being said. And it is to O'Faolain's credit that on those things which are crucial to the modern Irish experience, he applies no stylistic gloss at all. (p. 6)

The book traces the writer's journey from childhood, through his introduction to love, literature and revolution, the education he picked up along the way, exile, immersion in the literary life of the Dublin of Yeats, Gogarty and Frank O'Connor, and his final withdrawal from such public excitements to the tending of his private garden. Clearly the high point of his life—as it is the high point of modern Irish history—was the time of the Troubles and their dismal aftermath. And like most revolutionaries who have said their goodbyes to all that, the fire still burns, but dimly, dimly. (p. 8)

Pete Hamill, "The Cause Was Greener on the Losing Side," in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), September 27, 1964, pp. 6, 8.

Of all the significant O's in twentieth century Irish literature, Sean O'Casey is the most humorous and flamboyant, Liam O'Flaherty the most emotional and unpolished, Frank O'Connor the most satiric and whimsical, and Sean O'Faolain the most versatile and profound. For many years editor of Ireland's most serious and most intellectual journal, O'Faolain's primary literary importance is as an author of short stories; yet he has been active in all genres—from drama to literary criticism, from translator of Gaelic poems to writer of travel books….

Vive Moi! is a mellow and delightful book. It is written in O'Faolain's most poetic and enchanting style, at times romantic and baroque, at other times lean and pointed, but always fresh, richly evocative, picturesque, and colorful. Apart from the sheer pleasure of drinking in O'Faolain's style, the book is filled with anecdotes, reminiscences, observations, and insights that are both entertaining and thought provoking. (p. 246)

Vive Moi! also offers much food for thought for the student of Irish history as well as for the student of literature. There is, for example, much of interest about Yeats. But, above all, there is much of interest about O'Faolain as a writer. We can see the origins of a story like "The Man Who Invented Sin" in the post-1916 period, a time of rapt enthusiasm when young men and women passionately studied Gaelic and knew only the innocent joys of rural rambles…. It may be noticed from reading O'Faolain's fiction that his earliest short stories are lush, romantic, and stirringly emotional; his later tales are more restrained and quietly but firmly controlled. Artistic detachment becomes the prime consideration.

In Vive Moi! O'Faolain discusses the "growing acceptance of one's human material … arrived at … by some gradual process of life-acceptance." Thus we can explain the change and development in O'Faolain's own writing. Other clarifications and amplifications about his creative work are presented—his ambivalence toward Cork City, his opposition to Irish censorship and Jansenism, the influence of the church and the theatre which fostered his imaginative tendencies, the importance of the ordinary, matter-of-fact realism of Lennox Robinson, the spirit of Fenianism—a soft, muffled, but persistent note in much of O'Faolain's fiction, his later disillusionment with the IRA and Irish politics, his concern about the new money grabbing middle class. These and similar themes and strains dominate in his stories and novels. Through Vive Moi! we come to know and understand O'Faolain—the man and his work—more comprehensively and more affectionately. (p. 247)

Paul A. Doyle, in Best Sellers (copyright 1964, by the University of Scranton), October 1, 1964.

O'Faolain has a small but genuine talent, and his polished, subtle, and effective short stories include some of the finest of our time. He is a minor writer, as George Herbert, say, is a minor writer. He is not Yeats or Joyce, and like every contemporary Irish writer he has had to spend a good deal of effort getting them off his back…. O'Faolain has their brains without comparable imaginative resources. (p. 53)

Although he has remained in provincial, narrow, and puritanic Eire, O'Faolain is the least provincial of Irish writers. He is educated … and literate, his work is thoroughly European, and his masters are not the peasant storytellers by the turf fires, but Chekhov and Maupassant. His subject matter, however, is entirely Irish. It is in fact the Irish revolution, and to the extent that that is now a diminished theme, the only theme with which he can replace it is memory, nostalgia. (pp. 53-4)

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "O'Faolain's Wonderful Fish," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 53-7.

Contrivance overwhelms Foreign Affairs and Other Stories. None of these stories comes up to O'Faolain's standard, which was established nearly fifty years ago in such stories as "Midsummer Night Madness"; and his new collection shows a marked decline in the fiction written since The Talking Trees (1971), a book that does not reveal the author to best advantage…. [In Foreign Affairs O'Faolain] indicates his inability of late to cope with the inherent rich potential of his themes, situations, and characters. Foreign Affairs seems more nearly a commonplace book and journal than a collection of finished stories. The fictions are fragmentary, deracinated, chic. Sean O'Faolain is writing about a world that he doesn't fully understand or sympathize with. (pp. ii, iv)

George Core, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Winter, 1976.

From the early masterpiece, "Midsummer Night Madness," set in the era of the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–21, to "Lovers of the Lake," a story about adulterous lovers going on pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg, O'Faolain's fiction has been remarkable, in an Irish context, for the attention it gives to passionate love and sexuality along with the more familiar Irish literary obsessions of religion, politics, family and autobiography…. ["Lovers of the Lake"] has been called by some critics the first modern Irish story….

The eight tales in O'Faolain's new collection ["Foreign Affairs and Other Stories"], five of which have appeared in Playboy, are very much in the vein of "Lovers," and exploit some of the ironies and tensions that emerge as the Irish, both the people and the institutions, undergo "modernization." Perhaps the strongest tension of all is between this modernizing process and certain elements in the national attitude that conspire to thwart it….

The Irish male's first line of defense against the Irish woman's devotion to monogamy is of course bachelorhood, with or without the donning of a Roman collar, and O'Faolain, over the years, has made something of a specialty out of bachelor stories. In the present collection the bachelor theme emerges at numerous points, but with some unlooked-for developments….

With a lifetime of practice behind him, Sean O'Faolain, who is just as old as the present century, contrives some of these stories with a delightful appearance of casualness, even carelessness….

O'Faolain, a distinguished travel writer, knows Europe in intricate detail and deploys such knowledge effectively in several of these stories. But for me the two best stories in the collection are set practically in their author's backyard, only a few miles down the coast from where he lives in Dún Laoghaire. "An Inside Outside Complex," placed in the rather tacky tourist resort of Bray during the off-season,… [concludes] with the disturbing suggestion that the only difference between marriage and the single state for the Irishman is that the bachelor is out in the cold looking in and the married man is inside the not so tender trap looking out.

The other story, "Murder at Cobbler's Hulk," occurs at a point along the beautiful, vacant beach between Greystones, a town once much frequented during summer by Welsh clergymen and their families, and the town of Wicklow. Buy the book to discover what it's about. Here it suffices to say that it is funny, outrageous and wonderful, with as many twists in it as a corkscrew. The short story is not dead while O'Faolain lives. (p. 6)

Julian Moynahan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1976.

O'Faolain is one of the few remaining men of letters; in his 75 years he has been novelist, playwright, travel writer, critic, translator, biographer and journalist. His earliest short story was published nearly 50 years ago and he has lost no affection for his first love.

Part of this remarkable endurance stems from a refusal to treat the short story as a wind sprint. Instead, O'Faolain saunters like a troubadour, chatting with artful casualness about the scenery and weather, the dwellings and garb of his people. Yet he is more than a local colorist. His art disguises artifice. He knows exactly how much to explain and when to remain silent. "Who was it," one of his characters wonders, "said the last missing bit of every jigsaw is God?"…

Most of the stories [in Foreign Affairs and Other Stories] revolve around fussy, aging bachelors. The men are, as one tart-tongued female claims, typically Irish victims of "the whole monstrous regiment of women from Old Mother Hubbard, and Old Mother Goose, and Holy Mum the Church, down to Mother Ireland and your own dear departed and long-suffering Mother Machree."…

O'Faolain is unfailingly gentle with his characters. The most realistic exchanges have a soft blur of Celtic twilight around them. The price, of course, is a certain lack of intensity; the stories charm but they rarely rivet. That is simply the underside of a virtue. Charm is never in such abundant supply that it can be discarded, and O'Faolain's variety is achieved through wisdom as well as sympathy. "Youth should idealize," he once wrote, "and dammit, so should old age." The young idealist still smiles through these polished stories. (p. 74)

Paul Gray, "Celtic Twilight," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 26, 1976, pp. K4, 74.

[O'Faolain's stories in Foreign Affairs] range from Dublin solitariness to Italian inflammability, but—though eddies of parallels and comparisons sometimes obscure individual points—they never lose sight of the nature of their subject, in a wish to epiphanise or hammer a point. Despite the title of this collection, Sean O'Faolain is best when nearest home…. His eye is quickest in a confined space, his tone at its nicest—tolerant but alert, avoiding the irritation of affectionate knowingness. And he excels with portly middle age and bespatted or beleaguered senescence with the stuck and the smug—with, in fact, those dwindling characters who would wish their lives to be not novel but short story. (p. 547)

Susannah Clapp, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 23, 1976.

The title [of Foreign Affairs] is to be taken literally, a series of love affairs set in unfamiliar territory and [O'Faolain] brings to this chronically noisy area of human affairs a shrewd worldliness full of event which produces a sensation of power held in reserve, the right condition of an intelligent man. (p. 23)

Duncan Fallowell, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 24, 1976.

[The] history of Irish literature is full of figures who seem to have regarded themselves much of the time as scourges of provincialism. O'Faolain is solidly in this tradition, but he is closer to the subject than his predecessors because he sees it from the vantage point of its most intense embodiment, the Irish Revolution. His birth as a writer took place in a milieu of the most uncompromising and even ascetic nationalism; for hundreds of his contemporaries—and, temporarily, for him—the rigidly abstract cause of Ireland eclipsed the rest of life. As the war dragged on, he quickly began to see it as an artist rather than a partisan, and his earliest fiction—written soon after the Revolution and dealing exclusively with it—is remarkable for its critical and objective outlook. His war stories were collected in 1932 into a volume of which the very title, Midsummer Night Madness, suggests his disenchantment with the rebellion and its nationalism. In the 1940's, through his editorship of The Bell: A Survey of Irish Life, he maintained this outlook by his opposition to a government which he (and most other Irish intellectuals) regarded as smug and chauvinistic. (p. 313)

[His] adoption of his nation's cause in 1916 was a late and somewhat artificial development and did not survive the Revolution. In 1947 he stated his more permanent allegiance in a rather extreme way by arguing, in his historical study The Irish, that all that was valuable and civilized in Irish culture came from the "Norman" strain rather than the Celtic.

His fictional expression of this topic is more complex. Looking at his career as a whole, one realizes that his first reaction against the nationalist cause was the most extreme and that his later works on the subject show a kind of softening and even nostalgia. This should not be construed as an apostasy of any sort, for O'Faolain's lifelong effort has been to purge his country of its intellectual insularity, and even though the Revolution itself seemed less urgent as it receded into the past, he made no truce with the narrowness that had accompanied it. To him, censorship and other forms of governmental coercion became the new focus of provincialism and seemed much more sinister than "those not so dangerous and very happy years" of the Revolution, as he could term them in 1964 (Vive Moi!…).

In his first short stories, O'Faolain was trying, like Swift, to expose the folly of a way of life that had become so familiar and so orthodox that its folly was no longer apparent. And, also like Swift, he approached the problem by juxtaposing the familiar with the alien and letting the implicit comparison speak for itself. (p. 314)

[This] pattern is repeated constantly in O'Faolain's early stories; almost without exception, the only virtue resides in the Anglo-Irish nobility, the Irish poor, or disloyal revolutionaries. It is difficult to imagine that the author of these pieces could ever have espoused the Republican cause.

O'Faolain's finest work—and, with a few exceptions, the most memorable fiction of the Irish Revolution—is in the form of the short story rather than the novel; perhaps the subject demanded the more poetic and intense genre. He wrote only three novels, the most recent in 1940….

The title of the first of them, A Nest of Simple Folk (1934), suggests a connection with Turgenev. In fact, Russian writers were generally very important to O'Faolain and his generation. (pp. 316-17)

In one sense, [A Nest of Simple Folk] constitutes O'Faolain's attempt to trace the rebel impulse from the rural nineteenth century to the urban twentieth; the progress is tragic for such simple folk as Leo Donnel, who are merely exchanging one sort of provincialism for another. Although the Irish revolutionary effort is still being depicted here as futile and provincial, one can see even this early in O'Faolain's career a shift of emphasis from a critical view of the Revolution to a tragic. On the whole, his first novel is a more complex and mature, though less intense, treatment of the theme than we find in the early stories.

Although the Irish Revolution became less prominent in the later work of O'Faolain, it was still capable of inspiring him as late as the 1960's. And in fact, some of his later work on the subject constitutes a new approach. By 1940, when his third novel, Come Back to Erin, appeared, he was turning his attention to other things; he began his six-year editorship of The Bell in that year and became involved in the cultural problems of the Irish Free State. But the novel, though set in 1936, still bears the strong impression of the Revolution and the great problem of provincialism which it embodied. The central character, Frankie Hannafey, is,… to be sure, the familiar provincial revolutionary type, but the environment is wholly different. Although he is a tragicomic, absurd figure, continuing his life as a "gunman" in such a reconstructed age, there is even less to be said for the age itself: it is smug, materialistic, short-sighted, and lacking in anything that could be called higher values. The situation is very complex here, for although O'Faolain is unable to give up his contempt for the revolutionary, he is beginning to see the Revolution as preferable in many ways to the state which it established. Glory and human dignity have died along with the single-minded and violent patriotism of the earlier age. (pp. 319-20)

As Come Back to Erin suggests, O'Faolain's later treatments of the Irish Revolution invariably have a contemporary rather than a historical setting; thus when he returns to the topic in his 1961 volume of stories, I Remember! I Remember!, his heroes are two aging former revolutionaries looking back on their youth. (p. 321)

In O'Faolain's more recent work, then, one looks in vain for the earlier bitterness toward the revolutionary ideal. And yet it would be a mistake to see the Troubles as in any sense a temporary concern for him; nor are they peripheral to his career as a writer and intellectual. His early work emphasized the provincial quality of the Revolution because of his embarrassed realization that his personality, as cosmopolitan and catholic then as it would ever be, had betrayed itself in espousing such a single-minded effort. But, as he would later say in his autobiography, "it is all up with the artist who does not pull out of his mistakes or obsessions and then exploit them" …, and his early stories are indeed an attempt to exploit what he had come to regard as a serious mistake. Having emerged from that crisis, he was then able to direct his critical powers elsewhere, and it was not long before he began to regard the Irish regime as the real evil. Consequently, he was now able to see another side to the Revolution. The provincialism which he had once associated with it now became identified with the government and society that it had engendered; the earlier period, thus freed from its curse, began to seem tantalizingly vital and ebullient as he viewed it from a decadent age. From the very first, the great theme of his life's work had been the ravages of provincialism, and the Irish Revolution was instrumental in its development; for it was in Irish nationalism that he first perceived and adopted, and finally rejected, that violent narrowness against which he has continuously directed his full energies as artist and critic. (pp. 321-22)

Gary T. Davenport, "Sean O'Faolain's Troubles: Revolution and Provincialism in Modern Ireland," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1976 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Summer, 1976, pp. 312-22.

Not all of the stories [in Foreign Affairs and Other Stories] take place in Ireland, but all have the Irish extravagance of language and habit of winking, in a rather irritating manner, at the reader as if to say 'See what a broth of a boyo I am'. I do not know how the latter originated: even Joyce and Shaw indulged in it, and for me it makes many Irish writers difficult to appreciate…. [The] trouble is that readers are apt to rebel against literary buttonholing….

Extravagance of language can be similarly self-defeating. After finishing one of O'Faolain's stories one understands the immense virtues of restraint. There is no need to shout to be heard. (p. 72)

It is no accident that the most pleasing story in the book ('How to write a short story') consists almost entirely of dialogue and thus precludes this sort of frothy self-indulgence. Indeed, O'Faolain is, at times, a writer of subtlety with a real understanding of the tortuous nature of most human relationships. But he does, I am afraid, make me understand the immense superiority of the Anglo-Irish literary tradition over its native Irish counterpart. (p. 74)

Max Egremont, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Max Egremont, 1976; reprinted with permission), July, 1976.