Seán O'Faoláin O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 32) - Essay

John Francis Whelan


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seán O'Faoláin 1900–

(Born John Whelan) Irish short story writer, novelist, biographer, autobiographer, editor, nonfiction writer, journalist, dramatist, and translator.

O'Faoláin is considered a master of the short story. Although he has been one of Ireland's most outspoken reformers, his love for his country and admiration for its people are evident throughout his work. O'Faoláin depicts the Irish with compassion, humor, and irony. As he said in an interview with his daughter, author Julia O'Faolain: "Everything I write is [romantic]. But I know too that I have to put in—that my only hope of sanity and balance is to put in—irony. Irony is the one element that saves me from being soppy." O'Faoláin has, in both his fiction and his nonfiction, documented much of the history of twentieth-century Ireland, often basing his works on his own experiences as an active participant in important events.

Born in Cork, O'Faoláin was the son of parents who aspired to the British middle-class way of life. For many years O'Faoláin also followed this ambition until, as an impressionable adolescent, he witnessed the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Abhorring the brutality of the British, he soon found himself in sympathy with the proponents of an independent Ireland. He studied Gaelic, changed his name to the Gaelic variant, and joined the Irish Volunteers. His subsequent experiences in the Irish revolution of 1919–21 and as director of publicity for the Irish Republican Army during the Irish civil war led to a fervor of loyalty and patriotism. O'Faoláin was disillusioned and disappointed when the war ended with a humiliating defeat for the IRA.

While in his teens, O'Faoláin underwent another experience which affected his work. His home was located near the Opera House; many of the actors and actresses lodged with the Whelans. O'Faoláin was fascinated by what appeared to be the exotic life of the theater and, with stage passes from the lodgers, he often attended performances. In 1915, he saw an Abbey Theatre performance of Lennox Robinson's The Patriot. Until then, all the dramas he had seen were about English life. The Patriot depicted life in an Irish country town, and the realistic setting and characters touched O'Faoláin. As he wrote of Robinson's work: "It brought me strange and wonderful news—that writers could also write books and plays about the common everyday reality of Irish life." Although O'Faoláin's first works were romantic and exotic, he later began to write about "common everyday Irish life" and never abandoned that subject.

The first collection of O'Faoláin's stories, Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (1932), are highly romanticized accounts of the Irish war of independence and civil war. Although the censorship board in Dublin banned the book, O'Faoláin was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, whose members included George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats. In his later collection, A Purse of Coppers (1937), O'Faoláin tempered his romanticism somewhat; he later wrote: "I hope a certain adjustment and detachment shows itself in the stories…." O'Faoláin was indeed successful in this attempt, for critics often cite this book and the following collection, Teresa and Other Stories (1947; published in the United States as The Man Who Invented Sin and Other Stories), as examples of O'Faoláin's "more mature" style—compressed, subtle, ironic, and subdued.

In 1940, O'Faoláin founded an Irish literary journal, The Bell. It was his belief that Ireland, now cut off from England, needed to establish its own culture and standards. In this periodical O'Faoláin included articles on fashion, theater, and other social and cultural topics, and he encouraged and assisted new writers in contributing to The Bell. Even though it was often sold under the counter, the journal became quite popular and O'Faoláin edited it until 1946.

The mixed reception of his books and of The Bell exemplify O'Faoláin's status in Ireland. He has faced constant derision and contempt while also finding a small number of sympathizers. As Julia O'Faolain has written: "Seconded by very few liberals, Sean pitted himself against an alliance of patriot prigs whose ideal society was to be protected from free speech or foreign ideas." In many areas of his life O'Faoláin has been dedicated to the creation and preservation of Irish culture. As evident in the recent publication of The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1983), his aims are the same in his works of fiction—subtle, compassionate depictions of the everyday concerns of Irish life.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 12; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)

Lewis Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sean O'Faolain writes proper stories, and most of them meet his excellent criterion: 'As I see it, a Short Story, if it is a good story, is like a child's kite, a small wonder, a brief, bright moment.'

Many of them are about the cruelties and beauties of memory. He sees growing up as a painful realisation that the world is an illusion and suggests, paradoxically but sensibly, that our solace must be to embrace illusion, which 'saves us from having to admit that beauty and goodness exist here only for as long as we create and nourish them by the force of our dreams.' This Jesuitical twist is typical: the stories [in The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain: Volume Two] are about Ireland, bogs, pubs, IRA and all, and through them runs the skein of the Roman faith. There are stories about theological jokes, pilgrimage, humbug, miracles, atheism and conversion; like the kite they soar in the face of heaven and swoop to earth. Mr O'Faolain's prose is playful and vivid like the kite and can describe, with equal facility, the aching sensuality of asceticism or a woman looking out of a window: '… her eyes opened and narrowed like a fish's gills as if they were sucking something in from the blue sky outside.' (p. 21)

Lewis Jones, "Short Stories," in The Spectator, Vol. 248, No. 8007, January 2, 1982, pp. 21-2.∗

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is good to have the second volume of Sean O'Faolain's short stories [The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain: Vol. II]. The first brought together seven stories from Midsummer Night Madness (1932), 14 from A Purse of Coppers (1937), and 13 from Teresa, and Other Stories (1947). Now the second has ten stories from The Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1958), 11 from I remember! I remember! (1961), and ten from The Heat of the Sun (1966). In the Preface he wrote for the Penguin Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1970) he said that 30 stories were all he had to show, or all he was content to show, for more than thirty years of storywriting. One thinks, he said, of George Sand turning out volume after volume while never once neglecting a love affair, never missing one puff of her hookah. Well, no matter, O'Faolain has done many other things and written many other books besides his collections of stories. He has been, he is still, a man of letters, a novelist, biographer, autobiographer, historian, critic. But his short stories have a special place in the affections of those who care for good writing.

I should declare an interest, or a prejudice. I much prefer his later stories to his earlier ones. Many of the earlier stories sound as if they were written not only to charm the birds out of the trees but to show that one Sean O'Faolain could charm them out of the trees. The reader is forced to believe that life in Ireland was simpler, more beautiful, nobler then than now, that the people were a nest of simple folk, richly expressive, articulate, eloquent, that the grass was greener, the rain softer, the mackerel-crowded seas more mackerel-crowded than any seas a man of my age can describe. It may be true. It may be true. You're born in Cork in 1900, you grow up with the new century and with a sense of an equally new Ireland…. Yet O'Faolain's early stories want you to feel that life in Ireland was a romance, and sometimes an epic. I have never been convinced. I'm an agnostic in these sentiments. I don't believe that O'Faolain's early luscious style represents his effort to be equal to the rich occasions he describes. I believe, rather, that the style came first, and demanded incidents, landscapes and sentiments fit for the style to live in….

[His] early stories never say 'colour' if they can say 'hue', or 'morning' if they can say 'morn'. He started writing seriously in 1927, several years after Prufrock and The Waste Land and Ulysses, but his taste was still that of Palgrave's Golden Treasury. University College, Cork, Daniel Corkery's place, was probably slow to receive the good news from Eliot, Pound, Mann, Kafka, Valéry and Joyce. Yeats was inescapable, but there was nothing in Yeats to discourage a young writer from preferring 'hue' to 'colour'. O'Faolain, living among words, chose for company the words he thought were already poetry. Looking back in 1970, he thought the most romantic of all his words were the 'and' and 'but' which he used 'to carry on and expand the effect after the sense has been given'. The writer who luxuriates, he says, 'goes on with the echoes of his first image or idea'. His emotions and his thought 'dilate, the style dilates with them, and in the end he is trying to write a kind of verbal music to convey feelings that the mere sense of the words cannot give.'

Take, for instance, 'Fugue', which O'Faolain wrote in 1927: he thinks it his first successful story—in fact, 'a very lovely story'. And it is. 'I wish I felt like that now,' he said in 1970. Which I take to mean: I wish I were young again, with feelings that chimed with my exorbitant style. 'Fugue' is about two young men on the run from the Black and Tans: one of them is killed, the other survives to tell the tale and turn it into lyric poetry. The story includes a lonely house, a woman, fear of dying, and landscape strikingly receptive to the hero's desire. It stays in the mind as a very lovely story, and so long as I'm not forced to believe it, I am content….

The trouble is that O'Faolain, on his hero's behalf, is trying to make me feel more, and more tenderly, than anything the story compels me to feel. He is eking out the story, dilating it as with 'and' and 'but', in the desperate hope of leaping the gap between the lyrical reach of his style and any merely finite effect the story can have. That is: his style is in excess of any occasion he can remember or imagine for it. It remains a lovely story because we feel in it the void between the hero's feelings and anything the world might offer him to appease them. My trouble with the story is that I believe the endlessness of...

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Stephen Bann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Collections of short stories as rich and copious as those of Sean O'Faolain are impossible to review in a short compass. But this third volume of the collected works [Collected Stories, Volume III], which includes stories published from 1971 onwards, has the advantage of concluding with a group of unpublished texts; these are not only individually enthralling, but suggest a general position on the range and possibilities of the short story.

If Maupassant stands for the short story in its classical form, there could scarcely be a more convincing sign of the opposite strategy than in the stories of Kipling. In place of the observance of unities, and the controlled progression to a pointe or punch-line, we have a deliberately wayward use of time and space, and an inclination to make of the mysterious oppositions and convergences of cultures one of the principal sources of subject matter. Sean O'Faolain's subtle and haunting 'One Fair Daughter and No More', among the unpublished texts, could indeed be described as Kiplingesque. Through the intermediacy of a neutral, official narrator, it sets up an imaginative parallelism between Italy and Northern Ireland, focused on the character of a young woman who is Italian by origin but has been adopted by Northern Irish parents. Through the light which it casts on terrorism in Italy and Ireland, and the parallel illumination of the violence of Latin love in the inappropriate context of Belfast, this story sets up a resonance which cannot easily be dispelled. The same is true of 'From Huesca with Love and Kisses', where the transplanted heroine is a cosmopolitan Jewish painter taking a working holiday in Western Ireland. Sean O'Faolain exploits to the full the vivid counterpoint set up by the clash of cultures. His Ireland is not an untarnished, uncontaminated domain of pure ethnicity, but the site of a play of conflicting allegiances. (p. 11)

Stephen Bann, "Mythic Elements," in London Review of Books, December 30, 1982 to January 19, 1983, pp. 10-11.∗

A. N. Jeffares

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain, Vol. 3] Sean O'Faolain proves himself yet again a master of narrative, a writer whose eyes select, whose ears record and whose insights illuminate and enrich our understanding, and stir our emotional sympathy while appealing to our intellectual understanding. O'Faolain is also an imaginative interpreter of the men, women, children and adolescents whom he invents and draws with such an apparent ease, so evocatively and so convincingly. Some of his stories remain in the memory; they compel us as we read them to envisage the characters in all their diversity, to give them voices, to dress and, at times, undress them. And with the gently increasing insistence of the author we come, through contemplating them, to an increased awareness of the complexities of life, of its mingled joys and frustrations, of the courage that informs its continuance….

O'Faolain has a tolerance for his characters; he captures wisdom and allows some of his men and women to express it, as in 'Our Fearful Innocence' and 'Brainsy'. On other occasions his own appreciation of life irradiates his stories, however poignant a sense of loss it conveys, as in the bitter-sweet 'The Time of Their Lives'. He understands both men and women; his priests are real, just as his sexually curious adolescents are. He is interested in the growth of maturity, the birth and formulation of ideas. He has achieved a style which allows him complete and varied freedom in narrating a story, in describing a place, or in revealing the inner thoughts and voicing the outer expression of some of them—in dialogue that can be aggressive, ruminative, jocose, mocking, moving, virtually inarticulate or diamond sharp. He can suggest the tone of a voice, the colour of eyes or hair, the shape of lips, the set of garments, the whole physical attitude of a character with economical ease.

A. N. Jeffares, in a review of "The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain, Vol. 3," in British Book News, March, 1983, p. 189.

Julia O'Faolain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain there 90 stories] written between 1927 and 1982. None has been written or retouched. As [Sean] once explained: "You can rewrite while you are the same man. To rewrite years after is a form of forgery." Bravely, he resists the urge to forge and I, rereading him, am back in his head—or rather in the heads of a series of Seans, the youngest of whom I never knew. It is an odd but exhilarating experience because his best stories are as good as you'll find in anyone's canon—so good they spark off that glee which comes when art triumphs over intractable material: meaning, of course, life.

Life was very intractable indeed during the Irish Troubles and...

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Bruce Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain"] includes every thing that appears in the eminent Irish writer's eight previously published collections, plus half a dozen "uncollected stories" dated 1892. Among these 90 "stories and tales" are several undeniable classics, and a few dozen effective entertainments. But, on balance, this is uneven work, unworthy of his publisher's claim that Sean O'Faolain is "one of the great story-tellers since the death of Chekhov."

What he is is a remarkably skillful and sophisticated technician who can render a small private world in such evocative, echoing detail that its universal relevance is instantly suggested; a chronicler of local conflicts who's adept at...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the foreword to a collection of his stories published in 1970, O'Faolain acknowledged that his early work was heavily poetical, "full of romantic words, such as dawn, dew, onwards, youth, world, adamant, and dusk"; full, too, of "those most romantic of all words, and and but, words that are part of the attempt to carry on and expand the effect after the sense has been given." His first problem was to find or imagine events splendid enough to appease his style, a style compounded not only of poems learned by heart but of a desire to find the heroic note fulfilled in daily practice. He had the words he loved but not always the occasions to justify them. So he imagined an Ireland continuous...

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