Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Whispered Presences in Sean O'Faolain's Stories

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Whispered Presences in Sean O'Faolain's Stories

Article excerpt

When Sean O'Faolain describes "The Bell" as the name chosen for the journal of Irish literature he edited, he brushes aside the word "Bell" as unimportant. In the first issue he says, "Any other equally spare and hard and simple word would have done; any word with a minimum of associations" (5). Later he continues, "All our symbols have to be created afresh, and tire only way to create a living symbol is to take a naked thing and clothe it with new life, new association, new meaning, and with all of the vigour of the life we live in the Here and Now" (5-6). He might just as well, in the editor's note, be striking the keynote for modern Irish short fiction (including his own) by depicting the building of something powerful from something spare, or from the unadorned details characterizing the Irish short story since George Moore. What sharply distinguishes O'Faolain's writing, however, is not his creation of large worlds from spare materials, but his location of these spare materials in characters' memories, in the dimly perceived personal and national histories characters must reconstruct if they are to establish identities. In a sense, O'Faolain's stories are hymns to ambiguity, and to the human potential to create when faced with ambiguity.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate O'Faolain's desire to portray this ambiguity is through the story, "How to Write a Short Story." The main character here is clearly modeled after Frank O'Connor: "young Morgan Myles" is a local librarian, he has a "long, ballooning Gaelic head," he writes poetry but is turning to short stories, and he is fiercely interested in Maupassant.(1) In the story he talks with a man, named Frank, who describes to him a painful boyhood experience of a homoerotic love affair. As Frank describes the experience to Morgan, it seems confusing and centerless. "Hang it Frank," says Morgan, "there's no story at all in this!" (1198). Still he pursues, looking for "the telling detail," until Frank tells him how innocent he was - "an petit ange" - throughout the affair. The phrase strikes a chord in Morgan:

"I've got it! An idyll! Looking out dreamily over the fields from that dusty dormer window. That's it, that's the ticket. Did you ever read that wonderful story by Maupassant - it's called - An Idyll - about two young peasants meeting in a train, a poor, hungry young fellow who has just left home, and a girl with her first baby. He looked so famished that she took pity on him like a mother, opened her blouse and gave him her breast. When he finished he said, 'That was my first meal in three days.' Frank! You arc telling me the most beautiful story I ever heard in my whole life."

"You think so?" the doctor said morosely. "I think he was going through hell that year. At elghteen? On the threshold of manhood? In love with a child of twelve? That is, if you will allow that a youth of eighteen may suffer as much from love as a man twenty years older. To me the astonishing thing is that he did so well all that year at his studies and at sports. Killing the pain of it, I suppose? Or trying to? But the in between? What went on in the poor devil in between?" (1200)

And that, "the in between" - the chaos, the seemingly un-poetic - is the source O'Faolain wants to tap, a source he claims, through the (somewhat) gentle mockery of this story, that O'Connor does not tap.(2) In another O'Faolain story, a character refers to Keats, speaking of "the marvellous thing Keats once said about the greatest quality any human being can possess - the power to live in wonder and uncertainty and mystery and doubt without ever trying to reach fact and reason" ("Marmalade" 1240). For O'Faolain, withholding the center, the "telling detail," does fictional justice to the murky, painful, "in between" moments of life, leaving the imagination with the task of ordering those moments. O'Faolain voices his belief in the imagination's task flatly in "Love's Young Dream," when the narrator says:

I had wanted to know what there is to know; to possess life and be its master. …

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