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O'connor, Frank

O'CONNOR, Frank

Pseudonym for Michael Francis O'Donovan. Nationality: Irish. Born: Cork, 17 September 1903. Education: The Christian Brothers College, Cork. Military Service: Served with the Republicans in the Irish civil war: imprisoned in Gormanstown. Family: Married 1) Evelyn Bowen in 1939 (divorced), two sons and one daughter; 2) Harriet Randolph Rich in 1953, one daughter. Career: Teacher of Irish, founder of a theater group in Cork, and librarian in Sligo, Wicklow, and Cork prior to 1928, then librarian in Dublin; frequent contributor, Irish Statesman, 1930s; member of the Board of Directors, Abbey Theatre, Dublin, resigned 1939; lived in Wicklow, 1940s; poetry editor, the Bell, Dublin, early 1940s; teacher in the U.S., 1951-60; returned to Ireland, 1961. Awards: Litt.D.: University of Dublin, 1962. Died: 10 March 1966.

Publications

Collections

Day Dreams and Other Stories and The Holy Door and Other Stories, edited by Harriet Sheehy. 2 vols., 1973.

Collected Stories. 1981.

A Frank O'Connor Reader. 1994.

Short Stories

Guests of the Nation. 1931.

Bones of Contention and Other Stories. 1936.

Three Tales. 1941.

Crab Apple Jelly: Stories and Tales. 1944.

Selected Stories. 1946.

The Common Chord: Stories and Tales. 1947.

Traveller's Samples: Stories and Tales. 1951.

The Stories. 1952.

More Stories. 1954.

Stories. 1956.

Domestic Relations: Short Stories. 1957.

My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories. 1963.

Collection Two. 1964.

Collection Three. 1969; as A Set of Variations, 1969.

The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland and Other Stories. 1981.

The Collar: Stories of Irish Priests. 1993.

The Genius and Other Stories. 1995.

Novels

The Saint and Mary Kate. 1932.

Dutch Interior. 1940.

Plays

The Invincibles, with Hugh Hunt (produced 1938). Edited by RuthSherry, 1980.

Moses' Rock, with Hugh Hunt (produced 1938).

In the Train, with Hugh Hunt (produced 1954).

In The Genius of the Irish Theatre, edited by S. Barnet and others, 1960.

The Statue's Daughter (produced 1971). In Journal of Irish Literature 4, January 1975.

Poetry

Three Old Brothers and Other Poems. 1936.

Other

The Big Fellow: A Life of Michael Collins. 1937; as Death in Dublin: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution, 1937; revised edition, 1965.

A Picture Book (on Ireland). 1943.

Towards an Appreciation of Literature. 1945.

The Art of the Theatre. 1947.

Irish Miles. 1947.

The Road to Stratford. 1948; revised edition, as Shakespeare's Progress, 1960.

Leinster, Munster and Connaught. 1950.

The Mirror in the Roadway: A Study of the Modern Novel. 1956.

An Only Child (autobiography). 1961.

The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. 1963.

The Backward Look: A Survey of Irish Literature. 1967; as A Short History of Irish Literature, 1967.

My Father's Son (autobiography). 1968.

W. B. Yeats: A Reminiscence. 1982.

The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O'Connor and William Maxwell, 1945-1966. 1996.

Editor, Modern Irish Short Stories. 1957.

Editor, A Book of Ireland. 1959.

Editor and Translator, Kings, Lords, and Commons: An Anthology from the Irish. 1959.

Editor and Translator, with David Greene, A Gold Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200. 1967.

Translator, The Wild Bird's Nest. 1932.

Translator, Lords and Commons. 1938.

Translator, The Fountain of Magic. 1939.

Translator, A Lament for Art O'Leary, by Eileen O'Connell. 1940.

Translator, The Midnight Court: A Rhythmical Bacchanalia, by Bryan Merriman. 1945.

Translator, The Little Monasteries: Poems. 1963.

*

Critical Studies:

Michael/Frank: Studies on O'Connor edited by Maurice Sheehy, 1969 (includes bibliography); O'Connor, 1976, and Voices: A Life of O'Connor, 1983, both by James H. Matthews; O'Connor: An Introduction by Maurice Wohlgelernter, 1977; Five Irish Writers by John Hildebidle, 1989; O'Connor at Work by Michael Steinman, 1990; Frank O'Connor: New Perspectives edited by Robert C. Evans and Richard Harp, 1998.

* * *

Frank O'Connor was prolific in many literary genres, producing some notable translations, uneven novels, passionate reviews, and influential criticism over four decades. But it is his short fiction that will remain his finest achievement, more than 200 stories in seven major collections and various selected editions. The critical appraisal of his stories proves the truth of Valery's observation that "there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography," for commentators invariably measure O'Connor's tales against the yardstick of his own theories on the subject, set out in The Lonely Voice.

His opinion that the intense and oblique focus of short fiction falls most naturally on "the submerged population" of lonely, marginal figures, victims of society or their own sensibility, has become one of the commonplaces of the genre and a reasonably useful tool for analyzing his own efforts. Of more interest is what O'Connor goes on to say about narrative technique and the ambivalence between the objective and subjective voice. He believed that a story must have "a point," "the basic anecdote," even if it was "smothered at birth." Yet later this is counterbalanced by his assertion that a great story was "like a sponge; it sucks up hundreds of impressions that have nothing whatever to do with the anecdote." This debate, between the oral storytelling tradition "with the tone of a man's voice, speaking," and the more objective, precise detachment of the Chekhovian narrative, is reflected throughout his career, the tension producing some of his finest stories.

The most pervasive theme of O'Connor's fiction is human lives that are governed by desires, aspirations, and illusions but that always seem to be overwhelmed by the actuality of social, religious, and political pressures. As one of his characters says, "Choice was an illusion," and the romantic impulses of the protagonists in his first collection, Guests of the Nation, invariably end in sadness and despair. Eleven out of the 15 stories have a first-person point of view, ranging from the famous title story, in which an adult tells of his tragic, youthful, Republican experiences, to "The Patraiarch," in which those roles are reversed. The great strength of the collection is the subtlety with which O'Connor manages to convey the different attitudes implicit in the narrative voice and the experiences that voice recounts, a talent likely to remind the contemporary reader of Milan Kundera and his acute observation that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

The next collection of stories, Bones of Contention, also has an Irish background, as indeed virtually all of O'Connor's stories have, even to the extent that the author rewrote tales collected elsewhere to add an Irish setting. D. H. Lawrence once said that a writer's "passion" is always searching for some form that will express or hold it better, and the various narrative strategies deployed by O'Connor in this collection illustrate his continuing search for a natural fictive voice. As the title indicates, the struggles depicted are no longer dramatic and revolutionary but domestic and seemingly insignificant. In "Peasants" the difference between a community's internal wrangles and its solid opposition to external power stands as a metaphor for all the individual struggles taking place, usually against the legal system. Dan Bride's casual dismissal of officialdom in "The Majesty of the Law" suggests that the time-honored rituals of tribal custom remain untouched by an abstract judicial system.

The most mature volume of stories produced by O'Connor, coincidently at the moment when the lonely, frustrated individual becomes his dominant interest, is Crab Apple Jelly, the suggestive title once again hinting at the bittersweet, entertainingly serious nature of the stories. The finest two stories portray different aspects of the same theme. "The Long Road to Ummera" centers on an old woman's determined triumph over her own isolated loneliness, while "Uprooted" sullenly reflects on the inability of two brothers, a teacher and a priest, to lift themselves out of a bitter sense of failure. The Common Chord extends the thematic range to the sexual repression of the Irish middle class. The state censorship that followed drew the pithy remark from O'Connor that "an Irish writer without contention is a freak of nature. All the literature that matters to me was written by people who had to dodge the censor." The lonely young girls in stories like "The Holy Door" are comically dramatized in their priest-induced sexual confusion and frustration, although the engaging narrative voice reassures the reader of its basically sympathetic attitude to the characters.

This sympathy with adolescent and adult disillusionments continued into the next decade with Traveller's Samples and Domestic Relations. The quixotic Larry Delaney, a character initially introduced in "The Procession of Live" (from O'Connor's first collection), narrates almost half of the stories, which tend to focus on outcasts of every kind. Displaced, deluded, and socially inept, the protagonists suffer the consequences of loveless marriages and unhappy families, as denoted by the titles: "The Pariah," "Orphans," "The Man of the House," "The Drunkard," and "A Bachelor's Story." The later stories collected in My Oedipus Complex and A Set of Variations (published posthumously) are even more strongly anchored in the first-person narrative. O'Connor once said that he knew to the last syllable how any Irishman would say anything—not what he would say, but how he would say it. The character of Kate, the old woman who adopts two illegitimate boys in the title story of the last volume, might be taken as his final affirmation of the imagination in the face of the destructive forces both within and outside of the individual—what he called his "lyric cry in the face of destiny." His quest to capture the isolated subject in an objective narration never completely blended with his fascination for the oral tale, but the tension generated some of the most memorable stories ever produced by an Irish writer—no mean achievement given the company. O'Connor wrote that whereas Yeats and Synge had their "presences," he had "only my voices." It was enough.

—Simon Baker

See the essays on "Guests of the Nation" and "My Oedipus Complex."

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