A Dexterity that Needn't Trouble Posterity
Describing what he sees as a story, Frank O'Connor says that it isn't something very important happens to you that you want to share with others; it isn't a story that simply interests the speaker; it is a story that ought to interest the listener. O'Connor gives as a former example a student keen to tell people who he happens to have just slept with. There is no story there. Then he says, "we were down on the south coast of Ireland for a holiday and we got talkin' to this old farmer and he said his son, who was dead now, had gone to America. He'd married an American girl and she had come over for a visit, alone. Apparently her doctor had told her a trip to Ireland would do her good. And she stayed with the parents, had gone around to see his friends and other relations, and it wasn't till after she'd gone that they learned that the boy had died. Why didn't she tell them? There's your story." (Paris Review) O'Connor sees that the former has no theme; the latter does, and we might wonder how this links to other comments he makes in the same interview about Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield. "He's got all the most extraordinary technical devices, and the moment you start imitating him without those technical devices, you fall into a sort of rambling narrative, as I think even a good story-writer like Katherine Mansfield did. She sees that Chekhov apparently constructs a story without episodic interest, so she decides that if she constructs a story without episodic interest it will be equally good it isn't." O'Connor adds, "What she forgets is that Chekhov had a long career as a journalist, as a writer for comic magazines, writing squibs, writing vaudevilles, and he had learned the art very, very early of maintaining interest, of creating a bony structure. It's only concealed in the later work. They think they can do without that bony structure, but they're all wrong." (Paris Review)
Unfortunately, the interviewer doesn't press O'Connor but we can pursue the issue nevertheless, and while many wouldn't agree with O'Connor's claims against Mansfield, few would disagree with his admiration for Chekhov, while also seeing in the actual event he describes in Ireland, the potential for a rich story. But if the latter is a story in the making, to what degree is it already made? We could easily see it ending with the woman leaving and the family still ignorant. But then the writer would have to find the means by which to make it clear to us without making it clear to anybody else within the story. To reveal at the beginning to the reader that the woman has lost her husband might kill tension but from another perspective create it. There would be no chance of a twist in the tale, but instead we wait from page to page wondering how and when she will reveal to the parents that their son is dead until we realise that she won't. Then again, the story could have her revealing the detail to someone she meets halfway through the tale in a moment of shared comprehension and intimacy, and it could be this person who reveals it to the parents after the widow has gone back to the States. There are lots of options available in such a rich anecdote but have we indicated that there is a difference between what O'Connor calls the bony structure and what he refers to as technique? When O'Connor says Chekhov had a "a long career in journalism" perhaps he sees technique lying in salience that a short story writer can learn from journalism the most significant features of the story that need to be told. But by the same reckoning, while many would admit that O'Connor's anecdote is a great story in the making, it isn't at all journalistic. Which newspaper would report it?
This suggests that what we often expect from the short story form isn't the salient features of a public forum (what constitutes a news story) but the important ones for fictional work that reveal the private lives and thoughts of human beings. It is partly why O'Connor sees himself as a humanist, saying "you've got to come back eventually to humanism, and that's humanism in the old sense of the word, what the Latins and Greeks thought about human beings, not the American sense of the word, that everybody is conditioned. The Greek and Latin thing says, "no, this is a complete individual." That's the feeling you get from Plutarch, that people are as you see them, and no psychiatrist is going to tell you anything fundamentally different." (Paris Review) What matters to O'Connor is telling stories that reveal the nature of human beings. A journalist would be unlikely to couch their work in such terms, even if O'Connor believes his own writing method owes much to the journalistic, even if he also invokes music and poetry. Asked by Michael Longley whether he writes quickly, he says, "very fast. I hate to write a story over a period of even two days because then I lose the mood. I write my stories as though they were lyrics. I can manage the mechanics of writing easily enough but I like to get the essence, the spirit of a story down in about four hoursin any old rigamarole. (I've got to catch it like a poem.)" ('20th Century Literature') It is a journalistic pace with an aesthetic sensibility yet where the journalistic as technique is of importance.
We can see this when looking at the stories the strengths and weaknesses of O'Connor's approach. The admiration he has for Chekhov and the resistance he feels towards Mansfield reveals a sensibility that can leave his work vivid but thin, rich in local flavour but resistant to the ambiguous and the properly personal: to the insights that reveal the individuality rather than the humanity. When O'Connor says "people are as they behave. You're working with a man for years. He's kind in the great majority of the things he does. You say, 'He's kind.' The psychiatrist says, 'No, no, no, he's really cruel,' and you're faced with this problem of which you are going to acceptthe evidence of your own senses, of your own mind, of your own feeling of history, or this thing which says to you, 'You don't understand how a human being works.' (Paris Review) Yet the writer who wants to understand human motivation rather than just human behaviour is likely to give evidence of the psychiatrist's claims welding behaviour with motivation, seeing a person's apparent personality as but a dimension of it. It is this nuance that O'Connor's stories often eschew, making him a modern writer without modernist interests even if we can find essays on Proust, Lawrence, Dostoevsky and Joyce in the collection The Mirror and the Roadway. In the essay on Joyce, he recognises that "this is something new in literature...It represents the point, anticipated in Flaubert, at which style ceases to be a relationship between author and reader and becomes a relationship of a magical kind between author and object. Here le mot juste is no longer juste for the reader, but for the object." O'Connor adds, "it is not an attempt at communicating the experience to the reader, who is supposed to be present only by courtesy, but at equating the prose with the experience." Of Proust, he says "only an idealistic philosophy could provide the framework for such a peculiar vision of life, and Bergson suited Proust's book because it makes no attempt to distinguish object from subject." In each instance, in Joyce and Proust, he nevertheless sees for all their brilliance and effort, "that the measure of their genius was the scale of their defeat" as the essays end in a degree of perplexity. Of all the modernists, Proust at least managed a draw; the rest were defeated. Such a claim (such an anti-modernist position) may be why Julian Barnes, praising the writer in his intro to My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories, notes "since his death in 1966, a respectful forgetfulness has settled over Frank O'Connor."
In O'Connor stories including 'Guests of the Nation', 'The Wreath', 'My Oedipus Complex' one can see the strengths and weaknesses in evidence. In 'Guests of the Nation', a couple of Englishmen are captured and befriended in a story that could have made the news headlines. Set during Ireland's Independence struggle in the 1920s (O'Connor himself fought in the war), we can easily see a story about two Englishmen shot by Irish radicals in the news, but what interests O'Connor is the humanity behind the story, the sort of humanity that doesn't give texture to the characters but does give feeling to the events. O'Connor carefully shows them as characters first, bargaining chips second. He doesn't need to create complex characterisation; all that he requires is to throw us and the Irish characters who befriend them with the realisation that their status as humans is secondary to their purpose as tit for tat. Halfway into the story one of the Irishman, Jeremiah Donovan, says to the Englishmen, "there were four of our fellows shot in Cork this morning and now you're to be shot as a reprisal." One of the Englishmen, Hawkins, can't believe it, but the narrator and Irish radical Bonaparte admits it is true. When Hawkins asks Donovan what he has against him, Donovan says "I never said I had anything against you, But why did your people take out four of our prisoners and shoot them in cold blood?"
By the end of the story the two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, have been shot dead, as all the characters play their roles within national limits rather than personal or even human ones. When Hawkins says he would never kill them if they were in his place, Donovan says that Hawkins and Belcher would do the same, aware that death would await them if they didn't. The two Englishmen are killed not because of who they are but what they are they are English. O'Connor sketches the personalities well enough for us to see that while Hawkins might get on anybody's nerves, Belcher charms even the old lady in whose house they are staying. He "would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket or a loaf of turf." While Hawkins is the sort of person a soldier might take out with resignation, Belcher is a man you would kill with nothing but regret. Shortly before getting shot, the usually quiet Belcher starts talking. "It was an extraordinary thing, but in those few minutes Belcher said more than in all the weeks before." He doesn't do so however with babbling fear, wondering how he can save his life, but with a brief need instead to explain it. He tells the Irishmen that his missus left him eight years earlier for another man and took their child with her. He offers this fact less to generate pity than to justify why he might not really care. Here is the story behind the headlines. If O'Connor sees a terrible irony in killing English people you've befriended because they have killed Irishmen you don't know, he achieves within that irony poignancy too, with Belcher dying the more human he becomes. By the end, O'Connor has managed to indicate not just the human but the personal and it remains one of his best stories.
In such a story, the tale has what we could call the backbone of reality to support it. When O'Connor says he admires Chekhov's technique while also talking about his background in journalism, one can see the two coming together very well in a story like 'Guests of the Nation'. The reality is vivid enough for a newspaper report to acknowledge the event, but there is also the technique required in shaping it. How to bring out the irony while also indicating the poignancy? O'Connor does so by bringing in the fact that they need to be executed halfway through the story and does so not as a literary shock but as political pragmatism. He could have just revealed the fact they were going to die right from the beginning and given the story an inevitability that he nevertheless shapes around a shocking surprise. Instead, their deaths are contingent, reliant on the present circumstances when Irishmen are killed in Cork. The irony rests partly on the unlikelihood of Bonaparte and the others befriending them if they knew they were going to kill them, and in turn the Englishmen might not have made any effort to talk to the Irish if they thought categorically their deaths were determined. They are indeed briefly guests of the nation, but soon enough become unequivocal enemies of it. Not because of anything they have done, but what others have done elsewhere, but an elsewhere that is still Ireland, and they are English soldiers who will pay the price for that other atrocity.
The poignancy lies in the pliancy of character meeting the resolution of national identity. Here are people just trying to get to know each other on human terms who are then confronted with impersonal necessity. People must kill and others be killed but there is no anger in the deed as O'Connor finds the Chekhovian on his own terms. After all, nobody can imitate the Russian master. "He's inimitable, a person to read and admire and worship. But never, never, never to imitate." (Paris Review) Yet Chekhov is a master of resignation; O'Connor has written a story that has nothing to do with Chekhov's world yet nevertheless shares an aspect of his thematic. The men know that life offers them little choice even if we might distinguish between the resigned acknowledgement in killing Hawkins and the deeper regret of having to kill Belcher. The story is thus Chekhovian in its resignation but O'Connor is a lighter, less temporal writer than the Russian, who we might guess would have shown the story much more from Belcher's point of view and where self-resignation would have been the predominant feeling over the final regret the story leaves us with. When we say Chekhov is much more temporal this would have come through in Belcher's history, as the story may have covered a vaster period of time or at least more obviously invoked it. We might think of the way 'The Lady with the Dog' manages to cover period in a lothario's life and invoke much vaster periods of time in the years of his earlier womanising before meeting the title character, or of the soldier in 'The Kiss' who receives a mistaken moment of affection and how much of his past unravels as the depth of his loneliness and solitude is revealed.
It is partly the brilliance of what O'Connor calls Chekhov's technique that allows the Russian writer to allude to vast expanses of time, while O'Connor's is often a contractive technique. The former relies on a gift for transitions; the latter an ability to keep a tale within useful time limits. In 'The Wreath' for example, O'Connor alludes to time past within a tight present as two priests, who aren't really friends, attend a third priest's funeral, a priest who was friends with both of them. They share a car trip together and stay in the same hotel. Fogarty and Jackson find themselves talking about their experiences in the hearse as the presence of a wreath sent by an unknown person leads them to wonder if there may have been an entanglement with a woman. The more worldly Jim Fogarty, who came to his vocation later than most, says he couldn't have taken a woman himself, admitting he was only tempted once but when he saw how much she hated her husband thought she wouldn't have treated him much better. Jackson once knew a shopkeeper's wife who was hoping they would run off together. Jackson didn't and it was the ruin of her: she took to drinking and sleeping with other men. Jackson reckons he didn't have enough love in him but thinks that Fogarty he reckons has too much.
The story could have been an ambiguous tale of time's workings, a story about three priests living long lives far away from each other and thus giving O'Connor plenty of opportunity for opening up gaps in the story that we must infer upon. Instead, O'Connor makes it a touching, minor story about a hint of friendship that may develop between them as Fogarty takes Jackson's hand and, squeezing it, whispers: "Good man Jim...Good man you are". Rather than opening up the story to time's workings, O'Connor closes it down to the immediacy of a story about a burgeoning friendship. Instead of three priests with lives that are mysterious to the other two, and searching out the gaps in these lives that are made all the more pronounced by the hint of confession Fogarty and Jackson offer, that the wreath instigates and which hints at revelations of its own, O'Connor wants the story not to suggest the temporal depths of a person's life but their more immediate capacity for kindness, care and decency.
It allows O'Connor to keep the story unified rather than risking a temporal expansion which while deepening character and situation would work against the givens of construction, the sort of technique that doesn't entertain the originality that Chekhov introduced and where the transitional became so vital but that is technique nevertheless. ("I was cursed at birth with a passion for techniques", O'Connor says in Paris Review) A novel is about the expansion of time, not a story, O'Connor thinks and rues the fact that many modern novels are essentially short stories expanded beyond their limits. (If anything, Chekhov's work often suggests the reverse) "This thing, the twenty-four-hour novel, began in the twenties you get Ulysses, you get Virginia Woolf everybody was publishing twenty-four-hour novels at the time, and the unities had at last been brought back into literature. As though the unities mattered a damn, one way or the other, as though what you wanted in the novel wasn't the organic feeling of life, the feeling, 'This is the way it happens''if it happened at all, it happened this way.'" O'Connor adds, "I maintain it's [Ulysses] a long short story. And it was written as a short story, don't forget that. It was originally entitled "Mr. Hunter's Day." And it's still "Mr. Hunter's Day" and it still is thirty pages. It's all development sideways. That's really what I was talking about: the difference between the novel which is a development, an extension into time, and this novel, which is not a novel, which is an extension sideways." (Paris Review)
Yet surely a central issue in modern, as opposed to classic, literature concerns the amount of movement a story or a novel can justifiably contain. A 19th-century work needs to push its story along, based on the assumption that the reader seeks scenic specificity and narrative momentum, aligned to strong but not necessarily complex motivation. Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native, for example, is a very fine book but always reminds us that it is a 19th-century work in the way it sets up its characters, anticipates their weaknesses and waits for them to fall into the narrative expectations set up for them. Whether it is Clym falling into stoic masochism, Eustacia becoming increasingly frustrated or Wildeve ever more impetuous, Hardy brilliantly sketches out his novel and adds to it the tragic dimensions of time as we see these young people fade away over a number of years. O'Connor's take on the modern novel suggests that such a story would be narrated from one key event (let us say Eustacia's dissipation or Clym's blindness), and then narrated backwards, forwards or sideways. It might lack the forward momentum of time and instead be much more perspectival and deliberate in its structure. The 19th-century novel often looks like it could have written itself, no matter how finely it has been put together, because the narrator is usually third person, the story chronological, and the tale containing the inevitable. Anybody who expects that Eustacia and Clym will sort things out and find meaningful love hasn't been reading the novel very closely, just as someone reading Pride and Prejudice who thinks that Darcy and Bennett won't get together has allowed their cynicism to impose itself upon that novel's inevitability. A 19th-century work can narrate itself towards inevitable optimism or pessimism, but inevitability is often the thing.
O'Connor may have worked almost exclusively in short stories, saying of the novel, in 'Twentieth Century Literature', "it's not my metier", but the story too has undergone many of the transformations of the novel. The radical focal point of a Kafka tale (whether narrating from the angle of a cockroach, a mole or a person of immense ontological insecurity) or a Borges story, where the narrators and central characters find themselves lost in a metaphysical puzzle, means the inevitable gives way to modes of the manifold. It is the manifest mode that O'Connor's work eschews, finding a tone that indicates narratively we are in a safe pair of hands at a time when the best story writers suggested the hands were shaky indeed not only Borges and Kafka, but also Beckett and Cortazar, Pavese and Sarraute too. Yet sometimes O'Connor managed to work a few tricks with unreliable narration, through an overly confident narrator, in some of his stories about childhood, and none more so than in 'My Oedipus Complex'. Here, a young laddie prays for his father's return from the war and likes it not one bit when he finally comes back. The boy is no longer quite the centre of his mum's attention and his father seems to be moody and irritable. "Poor daddy is worried and tired and doesn't sleep well" the mother says to our narrator. While the boy sees nothing but a dad who doesn't want to share in some fun, we see a boy who isn't likely to share his father's worries. As mother explains Miss MacCarthy at the post office doesn't have any more pennies to give them (money she received while her husband was at war), now the troubled and war-shattered father has to go out and get a job. While before when his father was away, the boy could share the bed with his mother, now he must stay on his own, outside his parents' bedroom. "I got up and sat on the floor and played for hours it seemed to me. Then I got my chair and looked out the attic window for more hours. I wished it was time for father to wake; I wished someone would make me a cup of tea." Here is a child with no sense of perspective that O'Connor frames within the worries of adults whose concerns we can't avoid noticing as the young boy attends to his own preoccupations. The story ends on an amusing irony: a newborn is brought into the world and our narrator who was jealous of the father getting to share mother's bed, now finds his father has been ousted too to make way for the little one. "After turning me out of the big bed, he'd been turned out himself...I couldn't help feeling sorry for Father. I'd been through it all myself, and even at that age I was magnanimous."
O'Connor here makes light of the Freudian as he takes advantage of it. We can no longer be unaware that our mother fixations are our own but those of our species, and the young narrator all but owns up to the fact even as he is left, instead of wishing to sleep with his mother, now to sleep with his dad. Yet the Kane and Abel story replaces the Oedipal one, with our central character more inclined to hate his brother now rather than his father. O'Connor gives levity to the references and holds amusingly to the paradox of a child who narrates with wry self-consciousness within a very young boy's mindset. O'Connor may have been wary of Joyce, Mansfield and others, but there is a low-key absorption of Henry James, milking the unreliable narrator but this time for unequivocal humour. Instead of James's maddening ambiguities, O'Connor seeks categorical irony and sees himself first and foremost as an entertainer. Writing about O'Connor as a teacher Eric Solomon relates an anecdote O'Connor (who was for a time Joyce's secretary) would tell. I once asked Joyce how long he expected his readers to spend on his works. 'Why, their whole lifetimes,' he said. 'Isn't that asking a great deal?' 'No,' he exploded, 'I've spent my whole life writing them!' Since O'Connor, on the other hand, wrote quickly, (though admittedly redrafted endlessly) he wasn't so inclined to expect such devotion from his readers. We wouldn't want to suggest that a writer's endless deliberate effort needs to be met by a reader's endless and deliberate effort in return. Literature needn't work like that. But O'Connor, for all the erudition Solomon acknowledges, despite getting imprisoned fighting for the cause of Irish Independence, despite admiring immensely the nuance of Chekhov's work, reads like a writer who asks the reader to give the story little more attention than casual curiosity demands. It makes him a modest master indeed, someone with whom one can wile away the time rather than who helps us comprehend the world anew. To be a little facetious ourselves: it gives his work a dexterity that needn't trouble posterity.
© Tony McKibbin