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Lovers of the Lake by Sean O'Faolain, 1957

by Sean O'Faolain, 1957

Although he has produced books in almost every genre of writing, Sean O'Faolain's literary significance must be judged by his own admission and by the opinion of critics on his carefully wrought short stories. O'Faolain has acknowledged the influence of Chekhov and Turgenev. He lauded their effectiveness in conveying atmosphere and mood and their ability to combine realism and lyricism. Chekhov in particular was significant, O'Faolain said, because he probed "the inscrutable mystery of human suffering" and because he was an author who seemed "to compass all life and balance all life, and yet leave us questioners of life at the end." Such a writer has "detachment without loss of emotion; passion without loss of justice; judgment without loss of sympathy."

O'Faolain's story "Lovers of the Lake," collected in The Finest Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1957), fulfills the Chekhovian canon in observing a middle-aged couple, Dr. Robert Flannery and his mistress Jenny. They have been romantically involved for six years, but during the course of the story they reveal unknown qualities to each other and surprise themselves with hidden depths of conflict and ambiguity. Jenny's sudden decision to go on a religious pilgrimage to Saint Patrick's Island not only confounds her lover but even astonishes her. The pilgrimage is not a mere visit. It is a penitential ordeal in which one must endure a sparse liquid fast for two days, walk barefoot on stones for hours, and pray endlessly, staying awake all night in the island's basilica. Although hundreds of visitors participate in the ritual, Jenny often finds herself isolated among the crowds, stripped spiritually and emotionally bare as she ponders the mystery of her own personality and the contradictions and ambivalence of her love affair.

Even more surprisingly, the apostate Flannery belatedly visits the island and halfheartedly submits himself to some of the spiritual activities. He, too, is caught in a love/hate process. He cannot know himself, but he wants to participate in his mistress's deepest reflections and aspirations. Flannery rejects Saint Augustine and his cry—"O God, make me chaste, but not yet"—but he realizes that Augustine's conflict is stirring in the turmoil of Jenny's heart and mind even though she fights to deny the call. O'Faolain demonstrates the never ending lure of religion on the Irish Catholic, which, as James Joyce, for example, attested, can never be totally removed from the Irish mind even when it is outwardly rejected.

O'Faolain subtly analyzes the struggle between the pull of the spirit and the weakness of the flesh, the appeal of mysticism and imaginative longings that haunt the Irish psyche. Jenny feels that her adulterous affair is sinful, but she cannot bring herself to break away from the physical desires that overwhelm her. Yet she performs her yearly Easter duty, in which she promises to give up her lover. The struggle is not clear-cut. There are tugs in both directions, both felt and unfelt. At times the disparate elements seem to unify, but on other occasions the ambivalence is intense.

Flannery is filled with disbelief, but, recalling his childhood religious training, he too feels the lure of the spiritual despite his rigid scientific training and his medical profession. Late in the story his skepticism appears to waver somewhat, but his physical passion for Jenny seems to be too powerful to be more than temporally allayed by the experience on the island. He decided to visit Lough Derg to observe Jenny's spiritual exercises, but he is stunned to find mystical stirrings within himself.

The ambivalence of the lovers toward the island's mystical effects is subtly underscored by atmospheric contrasts. Away from the island the lovers live in a world of physical and sensuous delight. They eat and drink lavishly in the most expensive restaurants, romance and dance magically, watch fashionable tennis matches, and mingle in the best society. This carefree existence is contrasted with the somber, penitential life on the isolated island surrounded by water and nearby mountains of grim beauty. The ambivalence is not in humanity alone. Nature is linked with its grandeur and majesty, but nature soon turns into a furious rainstorm that deluges the island and churns the surrounding water in a frightening manner.

Both Jenny and her lover are amazed by the spiritual depths they have experienced, but the lovers acknowledge that the lure of the flesh is just as strong as ever. Richard Bonacorso has spoken of the couple's "inability to exactly and finally know who they are and what they believe." By enduring this state of mind, the protagonists underscore O'Faolain's emphasis on the conflict between the spiritual and the physical that in some form or fashion engulfs all human hearts. Even if no apparent change has occurred in the lovers' relationship, they have come to realize uncertainties in the midst of certainty. O'Faolain is nonjudgmental. He emphasizes that there are no simple solutions to life's complexities and ambiguities and that underneath the apparent happiness of various experiences an eternal note of sadness can never be separated from humanity's existence.

—Paul A. Doyle

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