Sean O'Faolain's Finest: The Irish Kindly Defined
THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF SEAN O'FAOLAIN; Atlantic--Little, Brown; 384 pages, $4.75.
The things Ireland has done to some of her writers should not happen to anyone, even a writer. From Swift down through Joyce, Yeats, and Shaw, she has left the stamp of bitterness on the men who have tried to love her on their own terms.
It is, therefore, not a little surprising to discover in Sean O'Faolain a good humored Irishman. He sees the breathing corpses which Joyce portrayed in Dubliners, the scarecrows and fairies with whom Yeats identified, the fools and buffoons whom Shaw cauterized. But this vision of the lover does not move him to the usual nausea or lamentation, but instead to reform.
"By the time I had more or less adjusted myself to the life about me, it broke in on me that Ireland had not adjusted herself in the least little bit. Irishmen in general were still thinking about themselves, or rather, in their usual way, double thinking or squint thinking about themselves, in terms of dawns, and ands, and buts, and onwards, and dew, and dusk, while at the same time making a lot of good hard cash to the evocative vocabulary of traffic, tax, protection, quota, levy, duties, or subsidies while compiling a third and wholly different literary style (pious, holy, prudent, sterling, gorsoons, lassies, maidens, sacred, traditional, forefathers, mothers, grandmothers, ancestors, deeprooted, olden, venerable, traditions, Gaelic, timeworn, and immemmorial) to dodge the more awkward social, moral and political problems that any country might, with considerable courage, hope to solve in a century of ruthless political thinking. The ambivalence, once perceived, demanded a totally new approach (as opposed to the previous romanticism) . . . .
"For any kind of realist to write about people with romantic souls is a most tricky and difficult business. . . . There does not seem to be any way at all of writing about them except satirically or angrily. Once a writer's eye gets chilly about their beautiful souls he is like the only sober man at a drunken party and the only decent thing for him to do is either to get blind drunk with the rest of the boys or else go home and scrub himself clean in a raging satire on the whole boiling lot of them.
"The reader may recognize a few mildly tentative efforts in this direction in the last few stories in this book. They started out to be satirical; they mostly failed dismally to be satirical; largely, I presume--I often observe it to my dismay and confess it to my shame--because I still have much too soft a corner for the old land. For all I know I may still be a besotted romantic! Some day I may manage to dislike my countrymen sufficiently to satirize them; but I gravely doubt it--curse them!"
To this description of these short stories a reviewer can only add that O'Faolain underestimates the results of his own work. He has not satirized Ireland; he has defined it so clearly that you may begin to believe that this is Ireland talking, not the author.
This is all very peculiar in a writer who is making stories from ideas, a writer who got an M.A. from Harvard in '29, a writer whose work is essentially didactic. To find a man whose primary purpose is not only to amuse but to educate, whose primary concern is not art but people, and who despite all that, can hold a reader spell-bound, this is enough to recommend any book.