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Sean O’Faolain

Sean O’Faolain most recent novel is And Again? The second volume of his Collected Short Stories was reviewed by Denis Donoghue in a recent issue of this paper. He now lives in Dublin.

Story: ‘Nora Barnacle: Pictor Ignotus

Sean O’Faolain, 2 August 1984

When Doctor Johnson defined a club as ‘an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain conditions’ he did not mention the essential condition – that each member shall assume that every other member is a good fellow. In practice, of course, it is a law of club life the world over that, apart from very small clubs indeed, no member can know every other member even by sight.–

If there ever was a writer of genius, or neargenius – time will decide – who was heart-cloven and split-minded it is Elizabeth Bowen. Romantic-realist, yearning-sceptic, emotional-intellectual, poetic-pragmatist, objective-subjective, gregarious-detached (though everybody who resides in a typewriter has to be a bit of that), tragi-humorous, consistently declaring herself born and reared Irish, residing mostly in England, writing in the full European tradition: no wonder all her serious work steams with the clash of battle between aspects of life more easy for us to feel than to define. It is evident from the complex weave of her novels that it can have been no more easy for her to intuit the central implication of any one of those conflicts – she never trod an obvious line; nor easy for her to express those intuitions in that felicitous language which, more than any other writer of her generation, she seemed to command as if verbally inspired. But that suggestion of inspiration lifts a warning finger of memory. Once, when one of her guests at Bowen’s Court, I inadvertently interrupted her when she was, as I at first thought, tapping away fluently at her desk. She turned to me a forehead spotted with beads of perspiration.

Living and Dying in Ireland

Sean O’Faolain, 6 August 1981

One of the more surprising things about the life-ways of primitive societies is their persistence: so much so that one of them can frighten us by suddenly resurfacing a thousand years after it seemed to be stone dead. Up to that disconcerting moment the most we are inclined to allow the remote past is that it may linger on as a sanctified revival or a quaint reconstruction. It does not trouble us if we find that some of our dearest religious rites are as old as Babylon – Baptism, for instance. We could easily accept that the Druidic costumes we see at the modern Welsh cultural assemblies called Eisteddfoddu refer back to ceremonies initiated long before Christ. It would amuse us to be told that every time we spit out a ‘Pooh!’ or a ‘Pfoo!’ in the heat of argument we are echoing the habit of those fourth-century heretics known as Messalians, who cultivated spitting as a religious practice in the belief that the air is filled with legions of miniature demons. So at any rate W.E.H. Lecky suggests in his The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, quoting the learned 19th-century French scholar Alfred Maury, author of such abstruse books as Fées dans le Moyen Age and Histoire de la Magie. There is, however, one serious caveat attaching to every archaism. However slight such perdurables may be, however sweetened by the passage of time, it is wise to presume the co-existence of others not at all tempered by age. The Hunger Strike is one such.

Hate, Greed, Lust and Doom

Sean O’Faolain, 16 April 1981

The other day my bookseller airily assured me that nobody reads Faulkner nowadays. If he had said ‘nobody under sixty’ I might not so easily have dismissed his opinion as Celtic hyperbole. Certainly age is cardinal in this matter. When Faulkner got the Nobel Prize for 1949 we all wanted to read this genius who was apparently not widely known even in his own country: four or five years earlier, when Malcolm Cowley was preparing his anthology The Portable Faulkner, it had come as a shock to him to discover that only one of his author’s novels was in print. And that one was the near-porno Sanctuary, about a young woman who was raped with a corncob, a cheap yarn which Faulkner, then in dire penury, had concocted to sell and which, one hopes to his annoyance, sold more than all his previous works. Today his entire canon is available but no volume that I have looked at in our local public library has been issued to more than three subscribers each year. His fine As I lay dying, which after his indubitable masterpiece Light in August I consider his best, has been borrowed only four times since 1977 by the discriminating members of the London Library. Out of his 23 novels and books of stories, Penguin now offers only seven. That Nobel is over thirty Nobels old.

The Mole on Joyce’s Breast

Sean O’Faolain, 20 November 1980

Immediately I saw the title on the jacket of this book I remembered with the unfailing affection of an old man for past events of no apparent relevance to anybody else that I was once made a freeman of the city of Memphis in, I think, Tennessee – not Egypt. It happened because the local political boss that year was of Irish descent. He even presented me in public with a key to the city – that is to say, a three-quarter inch replica in painted gold, which I at once passed on to the next pretty young woman I met to hang on her charm bracelet. The relevant correlative? A little ethnic gesture to catch another little ethnic vote. In a word, politics.

Letter

Elizabeth Bowen

4 March 1982

SIR: In the course of my piece about Elizabeth Bowen (LRB, 4 March), I am printed as writing: ‘For her essential nature is not, as has been so often asserted, that of the social critic, but of the visionary.’ I will go a long way to assert that she was not primarily a social-realist, but it would be going too far to suggest that she was a ‘visionary’. What I wrote was that her...

The Intrusive Apostrophe

Fintan O’Toole, 23 June 1994

When, in 1941, Sean O’Faolain wrote to the Irish Times to protest about the ‘miserable fees’ paid by Irish radio for talks by Irish writers, he inadvertently set in train the...

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Mythic Elements

Stephen Bann, 30 December 1982

In order to envisage the curious achievement of Emma Tennant’s Queen of Stones, you must first imagine that Virginia Woolf has rewritten Lord of the Flies. Interior monologues and painfully...

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Romantic Ireland

Denis Donoghue, 4 February 1982

It is good to have the second volume of Sean O ‘Faolain’s short stories. The first brought together seven stories from Midsummer Night Madness (1932), 14 from A Purse of Coppers...

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Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction

Robert Taubman, 20 December 1979

Shikasta, in Doris Lessing’s novel, is our earth, and Shikasta is short for a very long title that speaks of personal, psychological and historical documents filed on this subject on the...

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