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He Had to Do Something

George O’Brien

Seán O’Faoláin: Literature, Inheritance and the 1930s, by Paul Delaney, Irish Academic Press, 272 pp, €25.15, ISBN: 978-0716532668

Seán O’Faoláin’s first book was Midsummer Night Madness and other stories (1932), a familiar inauguration of a writing career inseparably connected with the form, though as Paul Delaney points out in his revealingly detailed, thoroughly documented and critically stimulating study, this was an opening gambit not without controversy. The book was banned, which almost goes without saying; but it also made an unwelcome name for itself with the introduction to it by O’Faoláin’s London editor, the famous Edward Garnett (whose hand in shaping the work of both O’Faoláin and Liam O’Flaherty in the 1930s would be worth knowing more about; judging by O’Faoláin’s dedication to him of his second story collection, A Purse of Coppers (1937), they fell out – another of O’Faolain’s fathers slain: but that’s another story). Then in 1933, O’Faoláin published two books, the novel A Nest of Simple Folk, and The Life Story of Eamon De Valera, which on the face of it appears to be a biography, and as we’re told, has a certain amount of biographical material in it, but which in the event is a much more mixed bag of hagiographical uplift, heroic apostrophising, and high-minded air-brushing, as off-putting as it is intriguing (and later effectively disowned by its author).

These formal juxtapositions make up a key of sorts to the difficult question that arises from Paul Delaney’s book. Where did O’Faoláin stand? The critic’s temper is thankfully too even, and too supple as well, to put the matter so crudely, and in any case the book credits O’Faoláin with a creative “equivocation” by means of which he negotiates and reproduces in his first productive decade the tensions and challenges of a society in a weird spiritually sado-masochistic state of aftermath. But just to try to clarify the question. The point is not really which side was O’Faoláin on. Seen through his work in the following decade (in The Bell above all, but in his abandonment of the novel that coincided, or perhaps was occasioned, by occupying the editorial chair), O’Faoláin’s principles, outlook and commitments are quite evident. This secular, liberal, critical, public intellectual was inevitably in the making during the 1930s, and Paul Delaney deals deftly and sympathetically with the equally inevitable hills and hollows of what, in the circumstances, was bound to be something of a rocky road. The issue is really a matter not of a fixed position, but a reconsideration of position-taking, an elaborate set of second thoughts about categorical finalities that were both in the air and part of the legacy, concepts such as freedom, sin, history, nation, nationality, “the one true Church”. How to think about fundamentals in a non-fundamentalist way? And going along with that, where exactly would the creation of a discursive space in which to give shape and voice for such thinking leave the thinker?

The answers, not easy in any case and rendered more uneasy by O’Faoláin’s increasingly strong experience of distance as a measure of critique, entailed a sustained effort to comprehend the nature of power relations. Paul Delaney’s division of his study into two parts enables something of the character of this effort to emerge. The first part deals with O’Faoláin’s two books on Dev, his edition of the Stendhalian Wolfe Tone’s diaries, and his two other biographies, Constance Markievicz, or The Average Revolutionary (a title to conjure with; Delaney makes a good job of that) and King of the Beggars (Daniel O’Connell, that is), O’Faoláin’s magnum opus of the decade and one of his key works. The second part deals with the novels and short stories, with a concluding few pages on the only play, She Had to Do Something. One the one hand, then, there are meditations of varying quality on personalities and power, the relations between leader and led, the lineaments of the hero and the heroic, the character of the great man in history – man, mainly; among the sharpest words Paul Delaney has for O’Faoláin are directed at what seems like the reflexive sexism of some of his formulations (this from a supposed Parnellite!). These meditations, in a sense, concern legacy issues, a means of not only examining, or in certain respects extolling, points of origin and founding fathers but of wondering about the relevance of powerful exemplars to current assertions of authority and their evident erosion of the popular element, however inflated or mythical. And they also touch on the leaching from collective consciousness of the vital forces of making and doing, and their supplanting by various hierarchies, administrative and clerical, and on culturally deadly assumptions of having it made.

O’Faoláin’s fiction, on the other hand, deals with the people, the men of little or no cultural property, the small man, the belittled woman, the sympathetic sinner, and the narrow, friable pride of the upstart’s conformism. This potential but largely neglected legion of the rearguard are not as banal a bunch as some have made out, and Paul Delaney’s close readings (models of their kind if a bit on the fussy side) is sure to renew interest in them as not only signatures of cultural loss and spiritual shrivelling but as complicated, though arguably overelaborated, constructs. One especially striking aspect of these characters is that they all pretty much live in the back of beyond. As Midsummer Night Madness tacitly claims, this is the place where the War of Independence and the Civil War were fought. And of course there’s no point in complaining that this is not historically true. The stories are not part of the record. They are in effect wondering how the recent past might be imagined. Their appeal is to the present. But it’s interesting that yonder valley and the nearby hillock remain to a considerable degree the land that was fought for, the land that is evidently not yet of the free, the stony ground where the new constitutional and hierarchical power structures reproduce their social sterility. People in such isolation seem to be enduring a form of exile, one that might well elicit anybody’s sympathy but perhaps one that O’Faoláin has a particular feel for because he has some notion of his own about being at a loss and not having a place that gives much that’s sustaining.

It is a commonplace almost too embarrassing to repeat, but the new Ireland was generally thought of as a rural country. And there are good reasons for that. At the same time, it was a very hierarchical society, meaning among other things, that there was, let’s say for want of better terminology, a base and superstructure, with the capital on top as the seat of power. In addition, the countryside also had notions of urbanising itself, and did so in the recognisably consumerist modes of the day. Not to belabour the point, but it does suggest O’Faoláin’s interest in presenting an imagined community, complete with plausibly Gaelicised place-names and other trappings. In ways that might have been brought more to the fore in this book’s discussion of the stories, there is a certain amount of overlap between the landscapes in the two collections. O’Faoláin’s reasons for his commitment to such imaginary locales relate to this question of his position. Is there a sense that a contemporary hidden Ireland had to be revealed, and that another O’Connell was required to know its mind? That might be an unnecessarily provocative simplification. Still, the acrid smoke of O’Faoláin’s many broadsides against Daniel Corkery lingers; and one of his great claims about O’Connell is that “he was the greatest of all Irish realists, who knew that if he could but once define, he would thereby create”. As O’Faoláin argued, no such bequest was handed down from recent turbulent times – au contraire, much to his regret (or inspiration).

Before getting on to thinking about imagined communities and the position question, there is another aspect of the stories that seems worth bringing up. They tend to be about characters who feel strongly but understand poorly. Coming from the pen of somebody as intellectually ambitious and resourceful as O’Faoláin, this seems a bit strange, though it is not out of line with what one often finds in Irish fiction. It’s a way, perhaps, of representing so-called ordinary people, which in the 1930s meant keeping faith with the populace, the types and personages who should be thought of as more than a mere electorate or flock. At the same time, it’s a wonder (and a pity) that O’Faoláin did not write too about characters who were as intelligent as himself, or in that general neck of the woods, to whom he might impart some of his own ironical use of reason, his taste, his knowingly sensual side. No reader would wish for bookish bores prating their pronunciamentos obviously, but would a character who put himself in the way of the delights of knowledge, who did things with a bit of pleasurable know-how, who kept a diary, be so atypical? They were certainly around. O’Faoláin invited them to contribute to The Bell (and they did); and a 1936 appeal for the formation of “a spear-head into the dullness of the mass” indicates that he believed there were those who would take the point. This appeal also presupposes that those with ears to hear would take productive action. In the stories, often, it’s taking action that’s the problem, the path that leads to sin and disillusion ‑ innocence leads to experience leads to stasis ‑ and which gives the impression of the plain people of Ireland being so plain.

The writer must be given his donné, of course. But his subject matter, his approach, his tone (about which Delaney might have said a little more), are all there for a reason, and it’s the comprehension of those reasons that’s worth the reader’s while, not the reproduction of what is already assumed. The rural settings, the lost causes, the forgotten souls, the whole metonymical construction of the people as the nation that identifies them as something both beyond and beneath citizenship and the forms of belonging that citizenship implies, have certainly been the ingredients of an influential vision, articulated with conviction at the time and largely convincing since. And no doubt there’s no real disputing it; it’s part of the puritan Ireland “myth of O’Connor and O’Faoláin” that John Montague wrote about many years ago, and I suppose a myth is necessary to hold onto, up to a point. Yet there is a discernible distance between the narrative voice and the narrative material in those stories of O’Faoláin’s that contributed so substantially to this vision. That distance is often discernible in a choice of narrators who are down there on a visit or only passing through. But it’s also there too in the view of characters as exemplary cases, whose weaknesses and limited circumstances make life narrow, whose innocence leads their hearts astray, who are typically denied charity and understanding by those who might best provide it (priests) and who instead must impotently appeal to the reader for community. They become object lessons in what is wrong, further iterations of O’Faoláin’s Kulturkampf, editorial parables more than anything more imaginatively liberating (for author, reader or character).

In a way, it’s not all that surprising that O’Faoláin was not a great Flann O’Brien fan. Or much of Joyce fan come to that. Or the later Yeats even. His coolness towards all of these is also part of the business of positioning. O’Faoláin wanted to be a realist, an aim noteworthy not only for its nineteenth century associations but also for the assertions of executive will and forceful ego that the mode itself expresses through, for instance, its omniscient method, its accounts of action and decision that often deal with the embrace of sin, and its view of the hero (Balzac, Tolstoy). Does claiming this method as an artistic lineage place O’Faoláin on the outside of his material or on the inside? His novels should be able to answer that question. But their treatment of essentially nineteenthcentury mentalities à la King of the Beggars seems to point to, in Paul Delaney’s useful phrase, “the writer as diagnostician”, the dispassionate, responsible man of knowledge rather than the secret sharer of rule-breaking like the Flaubert who seemed basically very pleased to be able to proclaim: Madame Bovary, c’est moi. And with regard to the stories, people who have been deprived or displaced, psychologically or otherwise, who have had their spirits depressed or their worth devalued have typically been fictionalised as objects of pity and terror, not only in Irish writing (as readers of Dickens will recognise), and the colorations of romance that surround this view of such characters impinge on many of O’Faoláin’s stories, regardless of his refined intellectual apprehension of new, local terms of impoverishment. And it might also be argued that the pursuit of cultural authority within a “diagnostic” approach cost O’Faoláin in terms of aesthetic development, so that he oddly appears to be an important writer whose artistic accomplishments – stylistic, formal, or with respect to what he referred to as a “literary doctrine for Irish prose” (a fairly prescriptive-sounding item, by the way) – are, when all is said and done, not those of a very engaging artist.

That pursuit is very well attested by Paul Delaney’s copious and welcome retrieval of the im-mense amount of commentary and criticism that were also the fruit of O’Faoláin’s labours in the Thirties. Use of these materials helps to tie the two parts of this book together (though scope remains for further dialogue between them), and they provide a strong sense of the continuing argument that O’Faoláin was carrying on with pretty much everything around him – perhaps including himself, though a case for this seems less evident. The apparent singularity of O’Faoláin’s engagement also has a bearing on attempts to clear a distinctive position. A time or two Frank O’Connor chimes in, but on the whole the image of O’Faoláin that comes across is that of a bird alone. A great deal of his strictly literary criticism (as distinct from his book reviews) appearing in English and American weeklies and quarterlies plays into this image, although of course O’Faoláin was earning a living by his pen; noting his outlets isn’t meant as begrudgery. (I wonder what TS Eliot paid contributors to the Criterion.) But it is clear from these articles and essays how interested in working out standards, principles and models for creative thought O’Faoláin was, and how this endeavour coincided, or was synonymous, with an equally committed embrace (or performance? ‑ Delaney frequently draws attention to a theatrical component in O’Faoláin’s work) of writing as a matter of intellectual authority and cultural leadership, the very powers that official conceptions of the nation were attempting to appropriate for their own self-serving ends.

There is a drive to all this work to fight battles that could well be lost, that might be already be lost, through censorship and other informal or implicit restrictions, unless somebody said otherwise, that somebody being perhaps a homegrown writer-critic fashioned perhaps along French lines or following in the footsteps of such Modernist father figures as Eliot or – less likely ‑ Pound. At the same time, other aspects of all this critical work should not be overlooked, notably the aim to keep a foot in international currents. And the insistence on an orthodox intellectual dimension to Irish literature was also one more demand to move from writing based essentially in feeling, and from the off-beat philosophical notions invoked to justify it. As Captain Boyle’s reference to “the yogi and the prawna” in Juno and the Paycock demonstrated, ideas of that sort never reached anyone. Better by far realism’s chastening diagnoses.

Standpoint, method, function, objective: a comprehensive, urgent and exhaustive consideration of what was to be done compels O’Faoláin in his formative decade as he moves over and back from one way to another of framing and fixing his mind on the equivalent of appropriate policies. Over and above the restlessness and sense of difficult transition that those moves suggest are also a series of twofold commitments ‑ with institutional power and how to rebuke it, with social relations and how to sustain them, with the instincts of individuality and how to respect them, and with cultural wellbeing and how to foster it. To expect such an array of engagements to be coordinated is unrealistic, which might be one of the reasons why O’Faoláin has been so variously regarded: to cite a list given by Delaney, he’s “a liberal pluralist, an opinionated chauvinist, a proto-revisionist, or a nascent postcolonial critic”; in all, “an uncertain subject”, though impossible to ignore whichever hat he’s seen wearing. He was not a man of the people exactly but a man who had ideas of the people. Like those people he wrote most about, he was a Catholic, but he’d be damned if he was an Irish Catholic. His taste veered towards the haute bourgeois, which was not exactly the kind of thing you would shop locally for. He was a dissident but, even in the Thirties, hardly of the left. Possibly he experienced uncertainty himself; some attention is given here to the different ways he named himself before settling on the familiar hybrid (and even that, more often than not, is still not printed correctly). But to engage that uncertainty as his subject would never be enough for him. Anything but, it seems.

It is indeed possible to see “a fundamental ambivalence at the heart of O’Faoláin’s critical project”, and at that of his stories as well, thanks to Paul Delaney’s teasing out of nuance and implication. But so structural an ambivalence is also perhaps the result of those efforts, repeated over and over again, to possess a thoroughgoing command of the period, the mood, the spirit and the flesh (pre-Freudian), the bad and the sad. In discussing Midsummer Night’s Madness, Delaney speaks of a “modulation of perspectives … without seeming to settle on any one single position”. Over and above the relevance of the point to an analysis of the story collection, a case might be made that not settling is symptomatic of O’Faoláin as he made his writer’s way. The combination of positions speaks not only to magnitude of ambition but persistence of desire; a great, not to say heroic-seeming, quest to create the imagined community of a republic of letters, Dev-like in its authority and preoccupation with sovereignty, but in other ways light to Dev’s – and the bishops’ – benightedness. Seán O’Faoláin definitely did do something by showing how very difficult he found it to find accommodation for his ambition. But he also may have misled himself by either conviction or by the urgencies of self-fashioning (or maybe some combination of the two – traditional and modern selves demandingly in dialogue) that nothing less than everything would suffice.