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This Island Now

George O’Brien

Rebel by Vocation: Seán O’Faoláin and the Generation of The Bell, by Niall Carson, Manchester University Press, 192 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-0719099373

From the title of this book, I expected that the author would tell how in the course of its lifetime (1940-1954), The Bell featured a group of writers who, over and above their stylistic, temperamental and formal differences, had common aesthetic interests, ideological outlooks or cultural aims, to the degree that they could be thought to comprise a generation. I anticipated a portrait of O’Faoláin acting as these writers’ patron, sponsor, guide, overseer, and all-round friendly adult presence. Identifying and characterising this group would, I expected, speak to the challenges of creating a literature responsive in a variety of ways both characteristic and representative of the national and international times that were in it. With these considerations to the fore, Rebel by Vocation would break new ground, inasmuch as treatments of literary generations have not been a very prominent part of the critical repertoire up to now.

The use of a generational approach has recently received a historiographical imprimatur in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces, as Niall Carson acknowledges. But with all due respect to that unmasking work, an awareness of “the dead generations”, from flying earls and undomesticated geese to fearlessly speaking of ’98 and bold Fenian men, was part of a great many people’s mental furniture for so long that it was bound to become faded and worn. Eventually a sense took hold of being browned off with it, and with the narrative deriving from it. That narrative may have provided the comfort and convenience of making ourselves feel at home, but it eventually proved impossible to prevent the ideological springs from poking through the fabric, and the whole suite had to be packed away or at best made available to visitors as a sample of native design, upholstered in colours they recognised and guaranteed to give years of intellectual ease and cultural sedentariness.

In contrast, literature has been left alone, a mantlepiece ornament noteworthy largely for being the bigger story’s life companion, occupying the distaff side. We have hardly any literary generations who’ve been thought worthy of the name. Long ago and far away, in The Pound Era (1972) and The Auden Generation (1976), Hugh Kenner and Samuel Hynes, respectively, showed what could be accomplished by approaching writing from a generational perspective. And, for the record, in WR Rodgers’s Irish Literary Portraits (1972), Desmond Ryan recalls that Pearse once told him: “You know, as the years pass, in days to come, people will say that this was the age of Yeats.”

I suppose the Celtic Twilight poets constitute a generation, however dim most of them were in the long run. As to poets, Yeats is out on his own of course. Maybe a more interesting case for a generation of writers might be made from the playwrights who came to the fore in the Abbey’s early years. Before them, and making a more substantial case, are the London exiles of the late nineteenth century, not only Wilde, Shaw, Stoker and Moore, but also lesser lights (William Allingham, Charlotte Riddell). Before them, in the mid-nineteenth century, there was the group of London-Irish writers and artists (among them William Maginn, Daniel Maclise) loosely associated with Fraser’s Magazine. And these had a Dublin counterpart in the writers and intellectuals connected with the Dublin University Magazine. The phenomenon of The Nation can also be assessed in terms of the outlook and tastes advanced by the collective energies of its contributors. Much more recently of course, the group of poets and playwrights which emerged in the North in the 1960s illustrates quite clearly not just the chronological existence of a generation but its collective impact, and as a result, the utility of considering its members as a generation. And speaking of that part of the world, wondering whether there was an Honest Ulsterman or a Field Day generation is a way of probing the character, influence and value of two different, overlapping cultural entities, while at the same time illustrating the interestingly prismatic view that such a probe could produce. In any event, the idea of ‘the generation of The Bell looked very promising, not only because it attests to such a generation’s existence but also because it offers the prospect of teasing out the complicated collaborative aspects that distinguish collective endeavour, those patterns, crosscurrents, structures, and stresses which together convey the practices and preoccupations of a shared time.

Still, as the full title of Niall Carson’s book suggests, a presiding personality has to be front and centre. There’s no disputing Seán O’Faoláin’s role as The Bell’s intellectual tone-setter and cultural driving force. O’Faoláin was the periodical’s editor for the first five-plus years of its life, and his leadership and quest for cultural authority, for a pivotal position between the rock of the church and the hard place of a neutralising polity, reveal a willingness to shed his own generation’s baggage. Thus his contribution here is not so much that of a member of the “rebel” generation (he made that contribution both in his early days as a republican and in the novels and short stories he published during the 1930s) as of someone attempting to generate and propagate a loose ensemble of liberal, Eurocentric, left-Catholic, critically minded younger writers. The “vocation” (although it might be thought that what was calling him was something in the nature of a will to power, that thwarted will which his fiction so often animates and contends with) requires a public forum where its facets will be seen in a fresh light. As O’Faoláin said at the outset: “This is your magazine”, a statement whose inclusiveness was intended to appeal not least to emerging writers. And not surprisingly, the words “us” and “our” are mainstays of many of O’Faoláin’s editorials as well as his Bell-related letters (Niall Carson avails to good effect of his lengthy correspondence with John V Kelleher of Harvard, still one of Irish-America’s best-known intellectuals: the full correspondence should be published in a properly annotated scholarly edition). Similarly, although Carson seems bemused by this, O’Faoláin makes it something of an editorial principle to publish writers who are not to his taste and, in some cases, of whom he disapproves. Exhibit A is Patrick Kavanagh and his verse’s “revolutionary challenge to hegemonic discourses surrounding poetic expression”, whose many offences included a scalding critique in The Bell on Frank O’Connor (Peadar O’Donnell was the editor at the time).

This critical occasion, and O’Faoláin’s response to it, is a pretty clear instance of generational complications, apart from anything else. But it is treated in Rebel by Vocation as a clash of personalities. This is also true to a considerable degree of how the book deals with O’Faoláin’s allegedly tin ear for poetry – modern poetry at least (his first two publications were poetry anthologies) ‑ and how The Bell didn’t do the decent thing by this form of writing, failing to make enough of the poetry of both Freda Laughton (for your information “simply one of the best poets working in the experimental mode in Ireland during the decade of the 1940s”) and Nick Nicholls, another experimentalist whose work, rightly or wrongly, seems not to have outlived the decade. As a former contributor to The Criterion, did O’Faoláin have a view of what its editor (TS Eliot) was up to in the poetic line, or was he only interested in that publication because it was a good shop window for his emerging critical voice or because it was a prototype of the kind of influence and standing a highbrow periodical could have. This sounds cynical, but it’s meant as an ironical echo of Rebel by Vocation’s often – let us say ‑ unsubtle readings of O’Faoláin’s aims. A statement that, having been a former commercial traveller for the Educational Company of Ireland, “O’Faoláin’s grassroots understanding of the Irish publications market afforded him an insight into what would and would not work in an Irish context, and goes some way to explain the success of The Bell” is hard to accept as a sign of critical acumen. How far is “some way”? And I wonder whether, in keeping with a present-day trend, the notion of “market” is being used, or understood, as a synonym for “public” (“publications market” thus meaning “reading public”). That usage also suggests itself when we read of “an indifferent Irish market under a frustrating state censorship”, where it maintains a continuity between “indifferent” and “frustrating” that’s otherwise hard to see. And in general, the style is what might charitably be called infelicitous (poetry is “an arena”; when O’Faoláin rejects a contribution he’s “a self-appointed censor”; figures are “within a small proximity” of each other; “a morass of contradictory voices” is heard, and O’Faoláin’s recollection of a certain incident “is most certainly a construct or mistakenly remembered on his behalf”. I could go on.

Mentioning poetry and The Bell must seem somewhat beside the point; few would count the magazine’s poetry pages among its strengths. But the subject is worth mentioning if only because how it’s handled in Rebel by Vocation illustrates a couple of crucial aspects of the book’s approach to the generation issue, as well as its overall critical method. As to the first, if the handful of worthwhile poets that The Bell published were to be considered as a test case, they could have constituted a working model of the generation hypothesis. Drawing on other forms featured in the magazine – stories, reportage, criticism – would be more difficult, given the large number of writers in question; besides, poetry has typically been the proving ground of thought and language in twentieth century Irish literature. But whether the poets of The Bell may be perceived from a critical distance as together sounding a distinctive note (or rather chord), whether by means of their aesthetics or their world view, never arises. They are merely enlistees in the ranks of “a new wave” which was “at the forefront of the cultural élite that sought to establish itself in the decades after the revolution and civil war”. The same goes for all other contributors, so that time and again the idea of a generation appears to consist of nothing more than a roll-call of contributors, a group generated by an editor who was “a consummate builder of his own legacy” (O’Faoláin; when Peadar O’Donnell takes over the generation issue, like many others, seems to become moot – “in many ways [The Bell] began its decline once O’Faoláin relinquished editorial control”; though mention is made of a number of bright spots during the protracted falling off).  

The second crucial matter that the place of poetry brings out is structural. Nowhere is this book’s erratic sense of proportion clearer than in its lengthy aside on the love life of Geoffrey Taylor, one of The Bell’s numerous short-lived poetry editors. Five pages are devoted to this subject, and in other accounts of snits and spats between O’Faoláin and Austin Clarke and between O’Faoláin and the Abbey playwright Louis D’Alton the level of detail is also exhaustive, almost to the point of self-indulgence. The first of these rows branches off into testiness over an anthology, and is only tangentially related to The Bell and little or nothing to do with the generation issue, while the second, though useful for context, predates the The Bell. The problem is that these dust-ups are not only small in themselves and take up an undue amount of space in what is a short book but that they are symptomatic of Rebel by Vocation’s difficulties with focus and concept. These are perhaps inevitable as a result of the book’s dual title, and it may be that this duality is responsible for the attempts made by the critical approach to pair history with sociology, the archival with the artistic, the critical with cultural studies, and the ideological with the biographical. There’s nothing wrong with intellectual ambition. Also, hats off to Niall Carson for his use of primary sources. But, alas, the unspoken assumption that the various discourses availed of are really on speaking terms with each other is not borne out in the event (it could be that the book’s awkward style is a reflection of the conceptual strain resulting from the misalignment of discourses).

For example. One of The Bell’s most interesting features was its reportage, basically consisting of first-hand accounts of various aspects of Irish life. The most notable of these “factual dramatisations”, as they’re rather misleadingly called here, was arguably a piece entitled “I Did Penal Servitude”, written by D83222. Flann O’Brien’s and Brendan Behan’s early contributions to The Bell were also along similar lines. The main editorial point was to provide an outlet for lesser-known writers’ angles on their experiences and observations of life on “this island now”. That little phrase from Auden is a way of pointing to the genesis of this kind of literature in 1930s documentary writing (and film and photography), when it became a signature of a postwar artistic generation concerned with witness, advocacy and with writing as an act with the potential for public consequences. The approach also inaugurated new aesthetic departures articulated through stylistic plain speaking, narrative participant observation, and structurally a left-wing political point of view. Its diverse impact in Anglophone literature is plain to see in the early works of Orwell, Isherwood and Steinbeck. Even in Irish writing, the works of lesser lights like Jim Phelan and the unaccountably overlooked James Hanley (Liverpool-born, though of Dublin stock as he liked to maintain) show the value of its effects. The documentary turn of the 1930s is not just a technical development or the creation of a new genre, or a departure from the belle lettres conception of literature; it also is a socially conscious extension of literature’s democratic appeal and demographic reach. Belatedly, perhaps, but nevertheless valuably, The Bell’s reportage represents a local adaptation of this consciousness.

Niall Carson doesn’t take this view of the pieces in question, which is fair enough, up to a point. That point is quickly reached, however, when he places such writing under the aegis of Mass Observation, which is said to have provided O’Faoláin with “a ready-made example to emulate in his attempt to build up Irish literary standards and tastes, as embodied in The Bell” But Mass Observation was not a literary phenomenon, and even if its participants were subsequently considered exponents of “life-writing”, at the time their work was largely carried out in response to questionnaires from the organisation’s head office. On completion, these were evaluated, culled and edited to give a sense of how all those anonymous men and women on the Clapham omnibus saw things – a detailed, well-rounded and intriguing sense, certainly, but one which was not interested in the stylistic or expressive blas of the individual standpoint, much less in a particular writer’s potential to enhance cultural well-being. Overlooking the word “mass”, as Niall Carson seems to do, not only misses the point that the observation’s ultimately molecular structure tended to atomise individual contributions; it also neglects the opportunity to show how this English project in certain respects stands in opposition to the European influences on The Bell’s essentially liberal outlook. Further, it might be argued that the documentary articles are an illuminating instance of O’Faoláin’s evolving rebel vocation, a tacit expression of editorial resistance to the forms of constricting cultural and social observances typical of the Ireland of the day. It might also have been interesting to consider in what ways reportage had a bearing on the fiction The Bell published, and whether or not its short stories reveal degrees of kindred with reportage’s necessary openness. But that is overlooked too.

The constricting forms in question were underwritten in many ways, most blatantly of course by censorship, which was the law of the land. Niall Carson’s view of the context for writing and for the dissemination of writing that censorship created is somewhat unorthodox: “Literary censorship, specifically, was not a major issue for the majority of the Irish population during this time, and it is hard to gauge just how much impact it had on the lives of ordinary working men and women, especially considering the centrality of other media such as newspapers and the cinema to the Irish cultural scene.” Leaving aside that “media” is understood to include literature, and the fact that various English newspapers were excluded and films banned and cut, the question is primarily one of choice and the censor’s (or the state’s) assumption that the citizenry should not choose what it read. A respect for choice is a reasonable extension of civil rights, regardless of its presumptively measurable effect on so-called “ordinary” people. Something of this seems to be acknowledged in the statement that “what was being retarded by censorship was not the individual’s right to free speech, but the development of society as a whole”, though I’d have thought that the former’s right is fundamental to the latter’s well-being. And the ground of the argument shifts when it is claimed that the legal imposition of censorship is subsidiary to the fact that “censorship was acknowledged as necessary by the majority of the population who were happy to take their moral instruction from a conservative Catholic clergy”. How this “happiness” relates to The Bell’s being “part of an Irish renaissance which interpreted modernism for the needs and hopes of Irish society” is not stated; it may be a fantasy of the “popular intellectual Catholic avant-garde which has been largely ignored by historians in preference to the liberal political outlook as favoured by The Bell”.

This book seems to mistake coming down on both sides of an issue with equal emphasis for having a critical position on that issue. Its inadequately realised, unsystematic, unwittingly punning conception of generation is part of the fall-out of the author’s approach. And the phrase “rebel by vocation” also has its problems, what with O’Faoláin’s alleged predilection for “continuously develop[ing] narratives of self-progression that were at odds with his own actions”. Two cases in point: Edward Garnett’s preface to O’Faoláin’s Midsummer Night Madness “would suggest that O’Faoláin was trying to get banned [sic]”, the implication being that this is what a canny operator in the market would wish for his first work of fiction. This notion is immediately followed by the statement that O’Faoláin’s “rejection of pornography” was “not entirely honest, considering he began an eleven-year association when he wrote for Playboy magazine in January 1969, while the rest of the country would have to wait twenty-seven more years to see it even stacked on their shelves”. The inference seems to be that careerism is a requisite of the rebel’s makeup, raising the question of to what degree the vocation of rebel relies on cultivating a persona, or whether the real rebel embodies and expresses more authentic, more natural, less self-seeking, less market-savvy energies. Peadar O’Donnell is seen here as the latter, politically engaged, culturally unselfconscious and artistically unambitious, “his writing … less that of the great artificer and more that of a force of nature”. Under his increasingly nominal editorship, The Bell became a bit more random and a bit more rambunctious, but it didn’t thrive. Acknowledging O’Faoláin’s leadership, his quest for cultural values, the worthiness of his cultural critique, and citing with evident approval Vivian Mercier’s view that “he is the magazine” on the one hand, and on the other calling him to task for his egotism, his ambition, for being “this elusive writer”, and begrudging him for taking what seems to be regarded as the Playboy shilling (earned while Ireland sexually starved), results not so much in a judicious assessment as one whose criteria are never adequately grounded. 

So – Rebel by Vocation is a case of much too much bathwater and not enough baby. But there definitely is a baby as well ‑ in the form of interesting information concerning The Bell’s origins, its sources of financial support, its international outlook, its business arrangements and struggles to keep going, not forgetting the hard work of Róisín Walsh. In addition to these, O’Faoláin’s contributions to the Manchester Sunday Chronicle (perhaps what’s meant is that paper’s Manchester edition) are resurrected and their status as rehearsals of his early biographies is indicated. Of these various acts of retrieval, the necessarily cursory look at the brief life of the periodical Ireland To-Day (1936-1938) is the most revealing, not least because it appears to have been something of a spur to The Bell, even if its editorial line was rather more left-republican than The Bell’s ever was (meaning no disrespect to Peadar O’Donnell). This connection usefully brings to the fore evolving intellectual and ideological tendencies. Nevertheless, although Rebel by Vocation has its moments as a report from the archives, even this factual material is acned with very avoidable mistakes: the name of the noted American Catholic periodical is Commonweal (no The); Lincoln Kirstein (whom O’Faoláin knew while at Harvard) was not a woman; O’Faoláin’s request of Jonathan Cape to “forestall” publication of Kate O’Brien’s The Ante-Room lest it compete with his own A Nest of Simple Folk needs clarification, since Cape was not Kate O’Brien’s publisher. It is, of course, pedantic nit-picking to point out these little slips. What difference do they make, one way or another?

Curiously, this question seems to echo Niall Carson’s valedictory appraisal of The Bell. The magazine “was not overcome by the exhaustion of its writers and editors, fighting the good fight against the oppressive forces of Church and state, but by external events which were reforming all western societies”. In the case of our own dear land, “Gay Byrne’s The Late, Late Show” is credited with “taking up some of the debates The Bell had discussed a decade before, and the death of journal culture as a whole had as much to do with the rise of new media in radio and television as it did with its editor’s failure to find content that was relevant to a modern Irish market”. (Regular broadcasting on 2RN and descendants began in 1926, but never mind.) What did The Bell amount to anyhow? Maybe Niall Carson’s main point is that whatever it stood for was a transient preoccupation, an act of vanity, perhaps, a quixotic pursuit, a throwback to the kind of nineteenth-century intellectual engagement from which the review got its name, as imitative as it was original, as much a market brand as a firebrand. And in any event, we’re well over it, now that the type of service it sought to provide is available with just the touch of the remote control.

1/9/2016

George O’Brien’s most recent book is The Irish Novel 1800-1910 (2015)

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is George O’Brien’s essay from 2011 on the American crime novel, “Mean Street USA”. Here is a short extract:

If we were asked to say what was the hallmark of English fiction, the chances are the answer would be that it’s very concerned with manners – good manners, that is; with the types of behaviour permissible under an agreed code which combines prescriptions and expectations and which reinforces, often through the implementation of social rituals, a realm (for the reader, perhaps, a fantasy) in which consensus rules and which does not allow for very much room outside the consensual.
Even Dickens, no stranger to crime or related doings in the dark of night, remains convinced that his characters can be retrieved from permanent outsider status by showing up in the drawing room’s morning light, models of comportment and saying the right thing. This type of outcome is familiarly read as sentimental, and Dickens makes no apology for being a three-handkerchief writer. But it’s not too difficult to see that emotionally affecting as those retrievals are, there is also a compulsory element to them, a kind of enforced social logic whereby doing right and thinking right have to be embraced. All else is wilful selfishness and leads to a bad end.
American fiction is very different. Certainly, there are American novelists of manners, first and foremost Henry James who, bless his cotton socks, depicted the course and consequences of many a deadly sin within interiors not far removed from Dickens’s bleak houses. These very settings, and the accompanying sense of uprooted American characters enduring their dislocated destinies in other than their places of national origin, rarefy and circumscribe James’s cast of characters and their sphere of action. They are at one remove from the demos, as James showed himself to be in The American Scene, his somewhat appalled report on the unmannerly state of the Union. But then American civic life has had, from the word go, a built-in “we the people” element, leading to much general aggro as the people tried and tried again (and are trying still) to find out who exactly they are. This type of public environment is not conducive to good manners or to manners in the consensual sense being much on people’s minds. Needless to say, American culture tends to reflect the various ways in which striving thrives. It’s not really so surprising, then, that rather than the novel of manners, à la James, American literature has produced the novel of bad manners. And the crime novel, in its modern form an American invention, is the last word in bad manners.


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