Romantic Ireland

Denis Donoghue

  • The Collected Stories of Sean O’Faolain: Vols I and II
    Constable, 445 pp, £8.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 00 946330 5

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 (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 story-writing. 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. In the dawn of Easter Week, 1916, some youngsters, including O’Faolain, probably felt that it was bliss to be alive, even though Eoin MacNeill was countermanding Pearse’s orders and a revolution was dwindling into a revolt. Still, when Republicans were roaming through Cork and Tipperary shooting at the Black and Tans, it was possible to feel heroic. But it must have been hard to feel heroic in the Civil War and the years that followed its crimes. 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.

O’Faolain may agree with me. In the Preface to the Penguin book, he says that as a young man he was very romantic, that his style took pleasure in such words as ‘dawn’, ‘dew’, ‘onwards’, ‘youth’, ‘world’, ‘adamant’ and ‘dusk’. I could extend the list, but it is already long enough to make the point that 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. But I don’t believe it:

At last I came upon a lonely ruin upon the mountain, three walls, and I lay on the lee side of it while the rain dripped on me from the remnants of its eaves. When I awoke a dim radiance lit the falling haze, but whether it was the dawn or the sinking moon or any hour past three or before three I could not say. No sound was to be heard: no living thing moved: no bird stirred the wet air: the falling haze made no sound. I rose chattering and trembling, and my feet splashed through the wet earth and the drowned grass, and when I halted there was quiet. I crossed a little stone wall and one of the stones fell with a mighty sound. I might have been the last human creature to crawl to the last summit of the world waiting until the Deluge and the fortieth night of rain would strain him upwards on his toes while the water licked his stretched neck.

I started losing faith with ‘No sound was to be heard...’, its four carefully separated ‘no’s’ lovely enough to be loved but not to be believed. And then, losing faith, I started distancing myself from the rhetoric, and finding the story not in Inchigeela but in Literature. Specifically, the encounter with the dark woman seemed to come straight from Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen, the loneliness, the desire, and I was not surprised to find the story ending with a poem in eight lyric stanzas and a word from Yeats: ‘The dawn moved along the rim of the mountains and as I went down’ the hill felt the new day come up around me and felt life begin once more its ancient, ceaseless gyre.’

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 O’Faolain’s desire, because it corresponds to the strain of his style, but I don’t believe in his hero as anything but a function of the author. He is not, as we used to say, a real character.

The early stories have two problems, which often merge. There is the large, general problem of Romantic Ireland, not that it was dead and gone but that it wasn’t. In the first years of the 20th century it was impossible for a young writer to see Ireland ‘as in itself it really was’: he saw it only through a veil of associations, ancient pieties, sagas not entirely forgotten. Corkery’s ‘hidden Ireland’ had to be recalled, disclosed. Romantic Ireland called for heroic emotions or, in defeat, elegiac emotions: either way, styles extraordinarily high and grand. The particular version of this general problem, for O’Faolain as a short-story writer, was to imagine characters and situations large enough to contain not only the ‘object’ but the halo, the aura, that already surrounded it, the words that were already poetry, if only bad poetry. His early stories rarely succeed in finding such characters, such situations. So the narrative style has to force the characters to feel more than they could really feel, consistent with the probability the stories claim: the result is that there is always a remainder of sentiment which has to be added, as if between the words, to satisfy the demands of a rhetoric greedy as if by nature. O’Faolain’s patriots, young warriors, priests, all those mothers, all their sons, are well enough, but not quite good enough for the rhetorical work they have to do.

These problems may explain why so many of O’Faolain’s stories show their characters caught in the coils of memory. Most of his characters, especially in the early stories, live on their memories while they die otherwise. I remember! I remember! is the best of his titles, though not the best of his books, and it is all the better, all the richer, when you remember the way the old poem goes: ‘I remember, I remember, the house where I was born, the little window where the sun came peeping in at morn.’ Morn, yes. Indeed, O’Faolain’s flair for memory, and the flare of his memories, were so vivid that he must often have been tempted to proust his way through the Ireland of his childhood and keep his art to that pleasure. But he hasn’t yielded, as some of his colleagues yielded. There is a sense in which Frank O’Connor stayed, imaginatively, in the small towns of his boyhood, and let the new Ireland mind its own grubby business. Liam O’Flaherty, too, wrote as if his first experiences were definitive and could only be lost if pestered by later matters. Michael MacLaverty, a gifted and largely forgotten writer, nearly broke my heart with a beautiful book, Lost Fields, one of the first books that I recall caring for. But again, he stayed where he started: perhaps the experience of childhood and boyhood was too cherished to admit a rival or the fear of a lapse.

In these respects, O’Faolain has been strong where his colleagues have been timid. He has written well of the mandatory themes, childhood, mothers, first confession, priests, monks, young girls, but he has forced his art to pay attention to an Ireland which has often disappointed him as a citizen. The stories he has written since 1945 have cast an ironic but not a cold eye upon Dublin, its upper-middle-class life, its lawyers and doctors, the remnants of Ascendancy Ireland, their marriages, their mistresses. This is a Dublin that found its symbol not in a desperate revolt proclaimed from the statue of Cuchulain in the General Post Office but in a referendum that decided, by a huge majority, that Ireland would indeed join the EEC and grow fat on German money. It has not worked out as intended, but for a few years the farmers lived high on grants from Brussels, and laundered money kept upper-middle-class life, in Dublin and the smaller towns, as luscious as the wildest dreams of a bourgeois time.

O’Faolain’s imagination has kept up with the European Ireland: he has been writing of diplomats and their foreign affairs, of lawyers and their tiresome girlfriends, of Catholics good but mostly bad, of priests and bishops wise in a world they have not made and can’t control, of emotions provoked by foreign cities (Turin, called Torino) and dragged back, excess baggage, to Dublin. There is a daring story called ‘No Country for Old Men’ about two old fellows, pals from the old IRA days, who make the crazy gesture of taking up Republican arms again and going North. The story doesn’t quite convince, mainly because there is a rift – the old problem – between the action and the sentiment. As they try to escape South, the two pals talk of nearly everything under the sun, including the discrepancies between the Fausts of Goethe and of Gounod. I wish I could believe in such conversations, and feel their latitude, but I can’t. ‘In the Bosom of the Country’ is far more convincing in its rambling narrative of sex and religion: as in most of these later stories, the affair has nothing of Grand Opera in it, but an uncertain charm and, inevitably, an undramatic end. The end of the affair is O’Faolain’s later theme, as his earlier one was the conflict between duty and feeling, heroic zeal and the vagary of desire. ‘I remember! I remember!’ is a risky story, and I can’t quite believe that O’Faolain’s Mary Carton would have read Stendhal’s diaries and remembered an entry about true feeling leaving no memory. O’Faolain, yes, Mary Carton, no. In the most recent stories, O’Faolain has got over such difficulties by ascribing the stories to a highly qualified narrator, a man of the world who has seen, among many things, Bronzino’s portrait of Lodovico Capponi in the New York Frick. The story in which this experience is invoked is ‘Charlie’s Greek’, a wonderful story, one of O’Faolain’s finest achievements. Imagine a man, a charming rascal, who ends a relation by making a graceful circle with his hand in the air and saying: ‘we have completed the medallion of our love.’ It is entirely convincing, I believe in Charlie as if I have known him for twenty years, every evasive gesture is persuasive. When he gives the girl what purports to be his telephone number, he chooses one in high standing, taken from a popular book called I did penal servitude, by ‘707070’. It is a very lovely story in its way, and very funny, the comedy of Byronism exactly caught and held.

The most famous story in the second volume is ‘Lovers of the Lake’, about two lovers, one of whom, the woman, suddenly decides to do the pilgrimage of fasting and pain at Lough Derg. The pilgrimage, which might have been ignored or set aside as a whim, an eccentricity, comes between them, and the affair is wrecked. It is an odd story, dangerously garrulous on occasion, but I have long admired the art of it. O’Faolain’s lovers are either too young or too old, they never fully coincide with themselves or their time. They are always decent people, and the feelings they express and act upon are genuine, but they are never exactly the feelings the lovers need at the time. At another time, or in another country, the same feelings would answer beautifully, but in these stories there is a fated disjunction between the feelings and what the lovers need. They need different feelings – poorer or richer, it would not matter.

O’Faolain’s attitude to his lovers is tender, rueful, sharp at times but only when a more extreme sharpness would be fair. His heart is kind, but not soft: no fool where emotions are in question, he is never taken in by the charm he allows his lovers to express. There are no really evil, wicked people in his stories: some are vain, pretentious, silly, but O’Faolain doesn’t find satisfaction in observing malice. So, while he is often ironic toward his characters, and agile in detecting their follies, evil is not his theme. He is not, in fact, a satirist. ‘I still have much too soft a corner for the old land,’ he confessed in the Penguin Preface. It is true. In the years after the War, he was much occupied with public issues, the question of censorship, for an irritating instance, and he showed that he could write wounding prose when his ire was up. But that was in polemical vein. In his fiction, he is always ready to see the other side of the situation, and to feel the hidden motives. I mention, as if evidence were necessary, such stories as ‘A Meeting’, ‘The Confessional’, ‘Unholy Living and Half Dying’, ‘Shades of the Prison House’, ‘The End of a Good Man’, ‘Passion’, ‘Childybaun’, ‘Lovers of the Lake’ and ‘Charlie’s Greek’.

Thirty? Yes, I could name them, or as many, though they might not tally at every point with O’Faolain’s choice. The differences would be slight. To write 30 successful stories, in an extremely competitive art (look at V.S. Pritchett’s recent Oxford Book of Short Stories, and think of all the stories he had to leave out), is a rare and exhilarating achievement. I salute a master.