Stories of Sean O'Faolain
By MICHAEL CAINES
Readers of the current TLS (January 4) who find themselves at a loss, after encountering Declan Kiberd's masterly lead review about Sean O'Faolain and his magazine The Bell, about what to read next are hereby advised that they could do a sheer country mile or two worse than seek out a copy of O'Faolain's short stories.
(That's the cover of Penguin's 1970 selection reproduced above, cheerfully embedding him in the Irish landscape.)
This would be in keeping Professor Kiberd's suggestion that O'Faolain was "perhaps" a better writer of short stories than of novels, with what they call deftly drawn pieces such as "Discord" (between two newlyweds and a priest) and "The Judas Touch" (in which a boy prays to an "ould jug") in mind. Others more confidently identify him with the genre (no "perhaps" required for this "master of the short story" when he died in 1991, apparently), and agree with the author's judgement that in the writing of short stories he had found his "proper work". There is also a short story competition in his name, held by the Munster Literature Centre since 2002.
It's disarming, then, to find that 1970 selection beginning with a preface in which the author admits that when he started out, in his twenties, he did not know "from Adam what I wanted to say", "dazed" as he was by the "revolutionary period in Ireland" – an experience (not least "the disillusion at the end of it all") that would also shape the mid-century, censor-haunted world of The Bell.
O'Faolain went on, he says, not knowing "what was happening to me or what I was doing" with the form ("Writers never do"), into the time of The Bell, wrestling with the struggle between romantic and realistic attitudes to Ireland, then finally heading in the general direction of satire. But even these efforts are failures, "largely I presume . . . because I still have much too soft a corner for the old land. For all I know I may be still a besotted romantic!" Others, such as Patrick Kavanagh, would have raised an eyebrow at that one.
Some of these supposed failures have been ranked with the best of the twentieth century. Writing in the TLS in 2000, the author's daughter Julia O'Faolain could proudly quote V. S. Pritchett: "Of all the Irish writers, Mr O’Faolain seems to me the most authoritative and diverse". It's true, she would have agreed with Declan Kiberd, that his star has waned in recent times; perhaps a revival is overdue.