Tales from the confessional - Frank O'Connor

I first came to Frank O'Connor by way of a possessive pronoun. The fiction shelves of a secondhand bookshop in Dublin proposed an antique orange Penguin: author's name in white, title in black, no strident capitals on the spine, and the cover taken up with what was in those days a come-on - a blurry author photo. It was not this, or the distantly familiar name that made me buy it (the original 3/5d now having become six euros), but the title. My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories. It was the slyly inviting "My" that did it. A lesser writer might have settled for "The", and the book would have stayed on its shelf.

Since his death in 1966, a respectful forgetting has settled over Frank O'Connor. Indeed, he is now better remembered - and more in print - in the United States than in either Britain or Ireland. Why should this have come about? Perhaps because in his large output - of novels, stories, plays, essays, travel books, biography, poetry and translations from the Irish - there is not one particular title to which his name is indelibly attached. Perhaps because his finest work is in the short story, a medium more vulnerable over time. Perhaps because he doesn't require academic explication; in which he resembles some of the writers he most revered - Maupassant, Chekhov, Turgenev. Perhaps because he spent many years away in America, where his best work first appeared: the New Yorker ran 51 of his stories in a two-decade-long association beginning in 1945. Perhaps because he could be as harsh about the land of his birth as other Irish writers: it was a "country ruled by fools and blackguards", where life was "emptiness and horror" - though a country to which he returned, in 1961, for the last five years of his life. Even cumulatively, these reasons seem insufficient.

He was born Michael O'Donovan in 1903, a demographic rarity at that time: both a late child and an only child. His mother Mary had been born in 1865, a date she long concealed from her son; she was an orphan who channelled into him her social and cultural ambitions. His father Michael was an old soldier proud of his two pensions from the British Army, a bandsman and navvy, given to powerful drinking bouts which blighted family life. Frank was a self-admitted mother's boy and sissy, who deep into adulthood fought his father for possession of the woman of the house. He left school at 14, and worked on the railways as a clerk in the flourishing misdirected-goods department. At 15, he started doing "odd jobs", as he put it, for the IRA; but proved a "wretchedly bad soldier", and was interned by the Irish Free State for a year in 1922-23. Upon release he became a librarian, teacher, translator and man of the theatre, first in Cork then Dublin, rising to become director of the Abbey Theatre. After retiring from that post in 1939, he lived from his writing, with the help of teaching stints at American universities.

Much of his early life, up to and including internment, finds its way into his stories; his later life less (or less obviously) so. His first volume of autobiography, An Only Child, is full of brief anecdotes and asides, which are recognisably the germ of later stories: how he drank his father's pint; how he decided he was a changeling; how he determined to murder his embarrassing grandmother; how he sought to apply the English public-school ethic in an Irish trades school. Each is, however, only the germ: the final story has less to do with its authenticity of origin, everything to do with the manner of its development. William Maxwell, who was O'Connor's editor at The New Yorker and thereby his great friend, said that Frank, despite being an only child, "behaved as if he were the oldest of a large family of boys and girls". Such a transforming instinct is a good start for a fiction writer.

So is listening carefully - which may come in many forms, from a child's eaves-dropping upwards. In 1959, Maxwell received a letter from one of his magazine's readers asking when to expect a new story from another of the Irish writers he published, Maeve Brennan. He showed the letter to Brennan, who judged its tone (or the request itself) impertinent, and concocted a fantastical reply purporting to come from Maxwell himself. The editor is terribly sorry to have to inform the reader that "our poor Miss Brennan" has died - indeed she shot herself ("in the back with the aid of a small handmirror") at the foot of the main altar of St Patrick's Cathedral on Shrove Tuesday. The letter continues: "Frank O'Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran out ..." Brennan is making fun of her fellow-countryman and his subject-matter; but also of the writer's love of hearing other people's innermost secrets - which he, unlike the priest, will subsequently betray.

O'Connor himself put the point a different way. In An Only Child he describes himself as "a natural collaborationist". By which he means that, "Like Dolan's ass, I went a bit of the way with everybody". An initial biddability followed, at a certain point, by an instinctive intransigence. When he was an internee, Republican prisoners across Ireland were called out on hunger strike against the Free State; O'Connor was one of the only three among the thousand prisoners in his camp who both voted and spoke against the decision. The writer has a similar stance, and duty: a bit of the way, but no further; join with others, inhabit their lives at will, but remain mulishly yourself.

Imaginative sympathy, and then, in rendering the lives of others, a furious - and, to some, infuriating - perfectionism. Maxwell, who knew writers well, said that "if there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written. There is no worse sign." O'Connor almost never gave such a sign. Though he liked to write a quick first draft - obeying Maupassant's injunction to "get black on white" - everything thereafter was itchy dissatisfaction and constant revision. His story "The Little Mother" exists in 17 versions, published and unpublished; sometimes the count rose as high as 50 drafts. A story might eventually appear in a magazine, but that would not be the end of the revisions. Then it might be published in volume form, and still O'Connor would go on tinkering. Finally it might be Selected or Collected, yet there was always further work to be done. All for the sake of what Maxwell, writing about his friend, called "The happiness of getting it down right."

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