O’Connor’s Crab-apple Jelly

The stories of Frank O’Connor refresh and delight long after they are first read. They pass into our experience like incidents we have ourselves known or almost known. Generous in spirit, acute in perception, they sum up a provincial culture in terms that are less provincial, but never cosmopolitan. Detachment from his own country was not one of Frank O’Connor’s aims. Nobody was more aware than he of the mules, crows, foxes, who with dogs, horses, gazelles, and doves populated in human form his island home, and nobody was more unwilling to give up the local fauna. His stories preserve in ink like amber his perceptive, amused, and sometimes tender observations of the fabric of Irish customs, pieties, superstitions, loves, and hates. He wrote at the moment when that fabric was being slowly torn by modern conditions. “Crab-apple jelly” was his own description of the sweet and tart mixture thus compounded. His best stories stir those facial muscles which, we are told, are the same for both laughing and weeping.

Frank O’Connor himself was a man of great affections that were just below the surface of expression, ready to emerge in the form of actions or literary insights. Not that the stories were spontaneous bursts; except for a few such as “My Oedipus Complex” and “Bridal Night,” which almost wrote themselves, he sifted, shaped, revised, revised again. A story might be given fifty forms before he was satisfied with it, and then be given still another before it was republished. The question of form was always dominant, because what he called the “glowing center of action” depended upon dense, accurate, and yet poetic presentment. It must not, he insisted, be described naturalistically “as if it were a leg of mutton.”

Avant-garde methods of narration did not interest him either. He saw that his own talent required, like Yeats’s poetry, the sense of an actual man, talking. That man, under whatever cover, was his own spirited, flashing self, bountiful and painstaking. However peculiar the things the characters did, they must appear incontestably real. The kernel of a story might be heard in a pub or on the street, but gathering or inventing the necessary detail, infusing the whole with a theme so powerful and simple that it could be written on a postcard, and commanding the reader’s assent as all that was fluid became solid, required stamina as well as enthusiasm. It was a stern regimen, Flaubert among the bogs.

Few writers from humble circumstances have begun quite so humbly as Frank O’Connor did. He was born in Cork, a city that prided itself on being unlike Dublin. Yeats would one day praise him for his sharp Corkman’s eye. O’Connor himself would speak afterward with affection of the city’s “warm dim odorous feckless evasive southern quality,” but in his youth he was more conscious of what he called in an early letter its “barbarous mediocrity.” Neither view was possible for him …

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