Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

16
“Refusal of Greatness,” The Spectator
December 1944

Kate O’Brien

Kate O’Brien (1897–1974) was an Irish-born novelist and playwright who lived most of her adult life in England. Best known for her fiction, which largely explored the anxieties and aspirations of the cultured Irish middle class, O’Brien’s major novels included Without My Cloak (1931), The Land of Spices (1941), and That Lady (1947), which was a hit on the American and British stage and was adapted into a successful 1955 film (titled For One Sweet Grape) starring Olivia DeHavilland.

Students of the novels of Mr. E. M. Forster will read this critical study of him by an American scholar with sustained attention enjoying a frequent sense of agreement with Mr. Trilling, and some moments of enlightenment; appreciative of the fine temper and perceptiveness of his writing, and of the just combination of firmness and sympathy with which he probes for the truth of his subject. But, if hitherto E. M. Forster has seemed to them puzzling and difficult to determine, I do not think that when they close this later book about him they will see him clearer, or understand at last why a writer so magnificently sure and endowed—in intention, in sensitiveness, in control—can swerve so frequently into sheer feebleness; why passion and irony—and each alike true and relentless in his work at his best—are sometimes “changlinged,” for a line, a scene, a chapter, into perversity, mischief, or sheer sentimental falseness. Nor can Mr. Trilling explain why a naturalborn novelist with great themes implicit in many of his utterances, and with, apparently, every writer’s advantage, has written only five novels in thirty-nine years.

“We admire his novels so fully,” says this new commentator, “that we want to say that he is a great novelist; somehow he slips from under the

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