This chaos of life must be reduced, somehow, to form!
For a man described by one leading American critic in 1957 as 'the most distinguished living Irish writer' (1) and by The Atlantic Monthly seven years later simply as 'Ireland's finest writer', (2) Sean O'Faolain is today, despite a small rekindling of interest at the time of his centenary celebrations in 2000, a strangely neglected figure both by critics and readers alike. A writer who, in his lifetime, published four novels, six biographies, a series of travel books, a play, some poetry, and a plethora of short stories, when he is considered at all now, is usually remembered not so much for his skills as a writer of fiction as for his editorship of the influential literary periodical The Bell which he founded in 1940 and edited from then up to 1946 when he handed over the position to his colleague Peadar O'Donnell. The possibility that posterity might choose to commemorate O'Faolain as polemicist and journalist rather than as novelist and short story writer led him, towards the end of his life, to ponder what he saw as his failure to come to grips with the fictional representation of his country, particularly within the genre of the novel. His lifelong obsession with artistic form permeates his much revised and posthumously reissued autobiography Vive Moi! (1993), a book which through its excisions tells us as much about O'Faolain the writer as its new inclusions tell us about O'Faolain the man.
Too often, Sean O'Faolain's autobiographies are spoken of in the singular. The mistake is understandable, of course, given that his two volumes of autobiography carry almost identical titles. Vive Moi!: An Autobiography was first published by Little, Brown in the United States in 1964, a section of the work having appeared as The Atlantic Monthly's main feature in January of that year. It was published in Britain the following year by Rupert Hart-Davis. (3) It may not have been an accident that when the book was reissued in 1993 with an additional five chapters, the subtitle 'An Autobiography' was dropped. O'Faolain had, by the 1980s, when he came to rewrite the book, become increasingly wary of any attempt to isolate 'facts', to tell an uncluttered and accurate single truth about his life and self. 'Ultimately', he wrote in the penultimate of his new chapters, 'my essence had better be searched for in images within those few of my successful stories that when I read them now give me the satisfactory feeling that I am conversing with an unselfconscious double, a captured mirror, an otherwise elusive, secretive me.' (4) Such a subversion of the reliability of his own memoirs within sight of the finishing post is typical of the doubt and second guessing which characterized his entire writing career from the appearance of his first serious attempt at fiction, a short story titled 'In Lilliput' of 1926, to his final novel And Again? (1979)--a work in which, interestingly, the lead character is given the opportunity to relive his life in reverse. Cognate with O'Faolain's own view of his life as best understood through his fiction, Frank O'Connor, O'Faolain's fellow Corkonian, oldest literary sparring partner and junior by three years, isolated a similar tendency in his friend's work: 'As with Gide his stories and novels are a commentary on his biographies, histories and essays.' (5) Had O'Connor been writing this after the publication of Vive Moi! he could have added autobiographies to that list.
Perhaps only an author as dashing and self-confident as O'Faolain could have had the brio to name an autobiography Vive Moi! Yet for all the self-assuredness of the title, the book's author, far from being fully comfortable with his identity, was a complex and always changing mix of personalities, a writer who was, as his daughter Julia wrote in her preface to the 1993 edition, a man of 'several selves'. (6) Sean wrote to one friend during the course of composing Vive Moi! that autobiography was proving 'a promising area for ambivalence, suggestibility, comedy, complexity, an area literally for playing about with'. (7) The 'successive Seans', as Julia called them, came out to play, shifting in emphasis from John Whelan to Sean O'Faolain, from son of the Empire to militant republican, from young romantic nationalist to confirmed internationalist. And these switches and ambiguities are emblematized nowhere better than by the extraordinary variety in which his name is spelt over the range of his publications. From the plausible Sean O'Faolain to the clearly incorrect Sean O'Faolain, editors, typesetters, critics, and publishers have, since O'Faolain's emergence as a writer of merit in the mid-1920s, struggled with the …