Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 44:
The way he captured 'the tone of a man's voice, speaking' combines storytelling tradition with Chekhovian objectivity
Tuesday 23 October 2012 12.34 BST
Frank O'Connor, born Michael O'Donovan in Cork in 1903, strikes me as one of those unfortunate authors who's far from forgotten, but is so familiar a part of the Irish literary furniture that he's rarely much noticed. Often these days it's not his stories that are quoted, but passages from The Lonely Voice (1963), his book-length study of the short story. It's unsurprising that this book should prove so hardy: O'Connor was compelling when voicing an opinion. What Richard Ellmann calls the "assumptive tone" of his criticism can inspire, thrill and infuriate, but will never bore. "He was like a man who takes a machine gun to a shooting gallery," wrote Sean O'Faolain. "Everybody falls flat on his face, the proprietor at once takes to the hills, and when it is all over, and you cautiously peep up, you find that he has wrecked the place but got three perfect bull's-eyes."
If his criticism could be scattershot, his stories are the acme of patient craft. Speaking to a student journalist at University College Dublin in the early 1960s, O'Connor described a writing process that incorporated both extremes of his character: "I hate to write a story over a period of even two days because then I lose the mood. I write my stories as though they were lyrics … I like to get the essence, the spirit of a story down in about four hours – in any old rigmarole (I've got to catch it like a poem). And then I polish it endlessly. In my latest book there are stories I have rewritten 50 times."
This labour-intensive process gave his stories what he called, referring to Chekhov's work, their "bony structure", meaning an absolute solidity of construction. Yet their surface is all conversational ease, a story arriving from the next barstool along. O'Connor tellingly preferred to call his audience "listeners" rather than "readers", and believed passionately that the story should ring "with the tone of a man's voice, speaking". This effortless flow (achieved only after much effort) misleads some readers, as Benedict Kiely noted, into believing that O'Connor is "all surface and no depth". But in fact many of his best stories, including "The Uprooted", "In the Train", "Michael's Wife" and "The Mad Lomasneys", gain their great power from the way in which they combine the intimacy and familiarity of the oral tradition with a Chekhovian objectivity.
The balance between these two approaches shifts from story to story, but was present throughout O'Connor's career. It's there in one of his earliest and most famous stories, "Guests of the Nation", the title story of his 1931 debut collection. O'Connor had done "odd jobs" for the IRA during the revolutionary period, and fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, and 10 of the stories in his first collection were war stories. The obvious parallel here is Isaac Babel, who just a few years before had turned his experiences as a Soviet soldier on the Polish front into Red Cavalry (1925), and indeed O'Connor said that "the man who has influenced me most, I suppose, is really Isaac Babel". Yet their military stories are quite different, O'Connor sharing none of the heated relish Babel took in recounting violence. Instead, at the end of "Guests of the Nation" the narrator, having become friends with and then taken part in executing two British soldiers, stands looking out over "the little patch of black bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it" and is gripped by the certainty that his youth, and whatever revolutionary fervour he had previously held, have both been destroyed. However many times it's read, the story's stark energy does not dissipate.
Where Babel and O'Connor are closer is the skill and emotion they bring to their child narrators, as well as a shared regard for Maupassant (both writers named stories for him). O'Connor's finest stories, though, aren't his portraits of childhood, or those that focus on what Julian Barnes terms his "bristly, fierce, manipulative" gallery of priests. They are the ones that most powerfully capture what he thought characterised the short story above all else: "an intense awareness of human loneliness". Supreme among these is "The Uprooted" (from his best collection, 1944's Crab Apple Jelly), which follows two brothers on a trip home for the Easter weekend. Quiet Ned, a schoolteacher, has been "failed" by Dublin: "He no longer knew why he had come to the city, but it was not for the sake of the bed-sitting room in Rathmines, the oblong of dusty garden outside the window, the trams clanging up and down, the shelf full of second-hand books, or the occasional visit to the pictures." Meanwhile the ordination of his more assertive brother, Tom, "seemed to have shut him off from the rest of the family, and now it was as though he were trying to surmount it by his boisterous manner and affected bonhomie. He was like a man shouting to his comrades across a great distance." Both men are living lives they find intolerable, their frustration only succeeding in sealing them deeper within their loneliness. The story, the most lyrical that O'Connor ever wrote, is also one of his most pessimistic. "We made our choice a long time ago," Ned says in response to Tom's suggestion that he marry a local girl. "We can't go back on it now."
"A good short story must be news," O'Connor said, and his vast body of work contains much that has, through emotional honesty and quality of observation, stayed news. Yeats said O'Connor was "doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia", and whether describing gunmen in the bogs, the inhabitants of lonely farmhouses, or poor Rita Lomasney living wild while all the time becoming ensnared by bourgeois Catholic convention, his best stories attain a distinct psychological and emotional richness. There is a fine short story prize given in his name each year in Cork, but the greater monument remains his stories.
042 Danilo Kiš
043 Flannery O'Connor
044 Frank O'Connor