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 in childhood, when hunger and squalor were what he could see of the city. His real name, Michael O’Donovan, he shared with his father, a soldier who had played the big drum in the band and after discharge from the British army worked sometimes as a navvy. Tall and handsome, the father looked to his bookish son like the young Maxim Gorky. Unfortunately he drank heavily in a more indigenous tradition.
The only child in this household regarded himself as a mother’s boy, and it was Minnie O’Donovan who rendered conceivable his escape from his surroundings in all but memory. She was pretty and unusually polite, a grace as unexpected as it was pleasant. Perhaps it was the latter quality that made her, as he recorded, suspicious of emotional demonstrativeness; and it may have encouraged him to scrutinize such outbursts for their real worth. Mrs. O’Donovan went out each day to do housework, and brought back small wages, some of which with luck she could save from being converted into her husband’s pints of Guinness. Her reward for this maneuvering was his anger. He would brandish his razor at her while their small son risked injury in an attempt to defend her. No wonder the child had pseudo-epileptic fits.
No wonder, either, that when he needed to write under a pseudonym because he was a county librarian, he reverted to his mother’s maiden name of O’Connor. There was a long period during which he would gladly have disclaimed the O’Donovan lineage, yet in later life he found himself less ready to spurn the bluff, foolish man who had begotten him. His first volume of autobiography, An Only Child, celebrated Minnie O’Donovan’s “noble nature”; his second, though it could not present his other parent in so lyrical a light, indulged the dense mixture in himself by bearing the title My Father’s Son.
Poverty and talent went together. Frank O’Connor later on would praise the way that Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge all wrote miracle plays, in which people turned into what they imagined themselves to be. He did as much himself. That he might do so began to be signaled by the time he was six. He was already then a devoted reader, if only of success stories about English public schools. These were as remote as possible from his own primary and Trades School, which he attended until he was fourteen. Yet bad literature, too, can foster ambition. O’Connor would deny later that Madame Bovary could have gone to pieces “as a result of reading the novels of Scott,” and he remained smilingly grateful for the sense of another way of life which his early reading in trashy books had given him. There were also fateful moments in school such as the day when one of his teachers wrote on the blackboard some indecipherable words. They proved to be Irish. The teacher, a little man with a game leg, turned out to be a writer named Daniel Corkery, and this initial impulse from him helped to spur O’Connor to the brilliant translations of Irish poetry which he would make later.
It was his readings in English that had the most immediate influence. Here his mother helped him. Before her marriage, when she had worked as a live-in maid, she had come upon a copy of Shakespeare’s works among the unread books in an employer’s house. She read them right through. Her son took up her interest, and eventually would write a knowledgeable and shrewd book, Shakespeare’s Progress. He learned from his mother also to love poetry, first in the sung lyrics of Thomas Moore, then gradually taking in the body of English poetry. In the 1920s he was reading not only Donne but Hopkins. He was also desperate to read poetry in other languages, and learned French and German so he could keep the lines of Ronsard, Verlaine, Heine, and Goethe in his head.
But the art of fiction swayed him even more than that of verse. “To have grown up in an Irish provincial town in the first quarter of the twentieth century,” he said later, “was to have known the nineteenth-century novel as a contemporary art form.” Around him in real life he began to see the characters he knew in books by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Babel, Balzac, Maupassant. He would say later of his youth that it had not been so much lived as hallucinated. He was “half in, half out of the dream,” and saw everything “through the veil of literature.” The writers whom he loved were all realists, and he always considered himself to be a nineteenth-century realist, too. Yet to share his life with their characters was a form of romance.
His reverie was only partially interrupted by the rush of Irish nationalism, in which he would take part. He was twelve years old when the Easter Rising occurred in 1916, and he had to watch from the sidelines the Black and Tan War in 1918 and 1919. But when the Civil War broke out, O’Connor, then eighteen, overrode his father’s protests and joined the republican forces against the Free State. He knew from Tolstoy and Stendhal the vast confusion of war, and the indistinct battlelines, tactical confusion, and conflicting loyalties of the Irish troubles bore out what they had written. Unthinking obedience was not his way. When he was ordered to shoot unarmed Free State soldiers who were walking out with their girlfriends, he brought the matter to higher authority and got the order rescinded. After taking part in some skirmishes he was captured and put in a prisoner-of-war camp. Here too he showed his unwillingness to fit into any stereotype. When the republican prisoners of war throughout the country were ordered by their leaders to go on hunger strike, O’Connor was almost alone in bravely refusing to join in. It was his farewell to obsessional politics. Martyrdom on orders was not the course he had marked out for himself.
The hunger strike collapsed. Instead of vindication for common sense, O’Connor found he had achieved notoriety for standing out against the foolhardy majority. The experience told upon him. It did not make him any the less intransigent; the contrary rather, for he embraced many unpopular causes later. But when his mother saw him on his release, she could see that her child was now a man. A sentence in Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat,” summed up O’Connor’s state of mind, and he would borrow it later when writing about prisoners: “And anything that happened to me after I never felt the same about again.” He now had the point of view from which he would write his first book, Guests of the Nation. In the first story, the “guests of the nation” are two British soldiers who have become close friends of their captors. But an order comes for their execution, because the opposite side has executed two men. With this illustration of the cruelty of war, and its absurdity, O’Connor was launched on his literary career.
The implied theme, that flexible people can suddenly become fixed, that the other side may be less the enemy than one’s own incrustation, is the theme of many of O’Connor’s stories. Hearts or circumstances harden when they might be expected to soften. In “The Luceys” a father declines to take his brother’s hand because of misplaced pride over his dead son. In “The Mad Lomasneys” a pert young woman who has lived by whim suddenly faces unalterable bleakness because a whim has gone wrong. And yet Frank O’Connor was an obstinate man himself, and could understand being dead set on something. So not every fixity is invalidated. In “The Masculine Principle” a suitor sticks to his intention of marrying his girl only when he has saved two hundred pounds. Years pass in the process, and he comes near losing her altogether. In the end, though, his stubbornness is respected and rewarded. In “The Long Road to Ummera,” an old woman is determined to be buried nowhere but in the one place, and she has her way, the living being obliged at great inconvenience to obey her wishes. A later story tells how a priest’s seemingly bizarre wish to be buried remotely, in “The Mass Island,” is carried out with reluctance, only to be validated when an enormous crowd of mourners gather for the funeral.
If fixity is one pole in the stories, the opposite is accommodation. Ireland is a collusive country, with all sorts of secret understandings that can be invoked when needed. If a curate commits suicide, his priest, “an old pro,” insists that the village doctor certify death from natural causes; when the doctor demurs, a threat of losing his medical practice brings him to heel. In “Peasants,” however, a priest refuses to accommodate a group of peasants who beg him, and then try to bribe him, to leave the police out of a case where a young man has stolen club funds. They for their part are convinced that the priest’s obduracy comes only from his having been born and raised in another village, “fifteen long miles away,” and so not of their “country.” The priest persists in his decision, the young man is tried and given a light sentence. On his release he is provided by his friends with enough money to set up a shop.
What interests O’Connor is not the question of illegality or immorality, but the personal warmth that renders collusion inevitable and implies that most offenses are venial anyway and trivial beside communal bonds. His excellent story, “In the Train,” gathers together the woman who has poisoned her husband, the witnesses who have testified quite falsely on her behalf (“There’s never been an informer in my family”), and the police who have not quite persuaded the jury to convict her. After all, everyone knows her husband was a miser and a monster. But when they suggest that she has done the deed out of love for a younger man, she bursts out about the one they name, “He’s no more to me now than the salt sea.” And suddenly we are aware of the intensity of these little lives, capable of rising into poetry as easily as into violence.
Beyond fixities and accommodations is O’Connor’s portrait of Ireland with all its quirks and qualities. He did not have much to say about the Ascendancy class which his friend Yeats praised and half chastised, but he knew all the gradations in the middle and lower classes, such as the barrier between a farmer’s son and a laborer’s daughter. Though for long an unbeliever, he recognized the role religion played in people’s lives. He regrets, in an early story, that a woman has become a nun, though he knows that there can be pleasure in having one’s life settled, in fearing nothing and hoping for nothing. But in a later treatment of this theme, “The Star that Bids the Shepherd Fold,” he likes the old priest who is trying to save a young woman of his parish from being “corrupted” by a French sea captain. The captain cannot understand the fuss over two people sleeping together.
As for women, they occupy a subordinate place in the economy, but O’Connor is on their side as they slice through male palaver, and they do not seem submerged or disparaged. He admires them when like himself they are unintimidated. The woman teacher in “Bridal Night” lies beside her lunatic lover and calms him chastely to sleep in utter indifference to the contumely she may suffer for being in his bed. O’Connor sympathizes with women as they struggle with sexual desire in a country where men are “death on girls’ pasts,” and he often deals with the problems of hiding or recognizing illegitimate children. Legitimate or illegitimate, children fascinate him, and he delights in showing their upturned faces as they stare at adults whose behavior is so irrational in comparison with their own. Pervading these and other facets of the country is that extraordinary language, which dots his text with such expressions as “in the ease of the world,” “while the life was in her,” “giving him the hard word.” The text tingles with these localisms.
Frank O’Connor in the course of his sixty years wrote in most of the possible literary forms: two novels, dramatizations, a biography of Michael Collins, a book of poetry as well as his translations from Irish, some lively travel books, and literary criticism. Some people thought him flamboyant in his views; he did not so regard himself. He thought he was stating conclusions that nobody in his right mind could miss. The strength of The Mirror in the Roadway and The Lonely Voice, which deal with the novel and the short story respectively, comes from this assumptive tone. He begins in close observation but then, in an almost visionary way, renders writers, objects, and themes malleable. Whatever writer he discusses, O’Connor will not release him until he has revealed the network of interconnecting passageways between the external and internal man or woman. If he is bold he is also subtle, as when he says of the mayor’s garden in The Red and the Black, “Any real estate agent worth his salt could give us a clearer impression of the property of Monsieur de Renal than Stendhal.”
The burden of his criticism is that fiction has not been faithful to Stendhal’s definition of the novel as a mirror dawdling down a road. Instead it has insisted upon going behind the mirror, becoming self-absorbed and indifferent to that crowd which it had once brilliantly particularized. The switch occurred, O’Connor thought, in Henry James, and he depicted it in an enviable figure:
Somewhere in his work the change takes place between the two; somewhere the ship has been boarded by pirates, and when at last it comes into harbor, nobody could recognize in its rakish lines the respectable passenger ship that set sail from the other side of the water. The passengers would seem to have been murdered on the way, and there is nothing familiar about the dark foreign faces that peer at us over the edge.
On the whole, he regretted this development. What he longed for was candor, not circumlocution, cards on the table rather than held close to the chest. For this reason and others he could not wholly approve of Joyce, feeling that when artistic method had become so dominating life was lost. He liked and practiced a more open confrontation.
Mrs. Yeats used to call him Michael Frank, combining his private and literary selves into one affectionate nickname. There was in fact no hyphen between the two, no impulsion to play artist or reluctance to be man. In him the struggle to express was always involved with a sense of exhilaration, whether he was writing or talking. His friends recognized it not only in his arrowing mind, but in the great bow of his being, now reposeful now taut. For his readers there is the pleasure of catching Ireland as it was changing, and enjoying and cherishing it, flyspecks and all. Nor is it so different from America; continents, after all, are only large islands.
Copyright © 1981 Richard Ellmann
October 8, 1981