FRANK O'CONNOR belongs with William Carleton, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Stephens, George Moore, Somerville and Ross--Irish writers who achieved their greatest distinction with their short stories. I would personally add Elizabeth Bowen and Joyce to that list, though not without fear of vociferous contradiction. And the list goes on and on, ending insistently with the question: What is it about this fictional form that so profitably attracts the Irish? Since the work of Frank O'Connor lies at the very heart of the modern story in Ireland, it is a question that may at least be dwelt upon before turning to the latest selection from his considerable output.
No precise definition of the short story, ancient or modern, is possible, though it may perhaps be suggested that if the novel at its greatest has an affinity with the complications of Renaissance art then the short story of the 20th century has affinities with the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists. It is the art of the glimpse; it deals in echoes and reverberations; craftily it withholds information. Novels tell all. Short stories tell as little as they dare.
The division between the antique and the modern is a vital one. The told stories of the distant past, leading listeners into a realm of marvels and magic or more mundanely relating the personal adventures of the teller, appear almost to belong to a different species from the written stories of Chekhov and Pushkin. So clear is this distinction that Elizabeth Bowen could firmly state: "The short story is a young art, a child of this century." What happened, in fact, was that the old form of the story, with its long antecedents, was turned inside out by modern practitioners. The heroes of the past were sent packing: the 20th-century story deals more often in underdogs and Frank O'Connor's "small men." The novel had already seized upon the meaty plot patterns that for so long had distinguished the fiction of the myths, the sagas and the parables: the modern short story grew out of what remained.
All of this suited Ireland particularly well, and it has often been said that the Irish genius for the short story is related to the fact that when the novel raised its head Ireland wasn't ready for it. This is true. The new form thrived more naturally in Victorian England: its required architecture reflected and was fed by the stratified solidity of Victorian society, and even though it often protested at the rising sea of complacency, the dovetailing was perfect. In Ireland there was disaffection instead of self-satisfaction, a repressed religion instead of one which acted as a pillar of the establishment, the confusion of two languages, and the endless specter of poverty and famine. Out of all that came the Irish short story of today, at its best when it's impatiently biting, a lot said in a single snap of the truth. Out of all that came the voice of Frank O'Connor.
Gossip enlivens his pages. The Irish obsession with respectability is examined and smiled over. The Irish tendency to converse and to argue in anecdotes is a repeated inspiration. An understanding of mood--its changes and subtleties and effects--is part of the Irish make-up, and is certainly part of O'Connor's.
In this present selection from his work are many of the stories that have made him famous: "Guests of the Nation," "The Majesty of the Law," "The Long Road to Ummera," and a dozen others. More interestingly, though, there are a number of items which he himself did not include when assembling his own collections. He was, as all short-story writers have to be, a perfectionist; never entirely satisfied with what he wrote, constantly making changes. As well, he was possessed of a Corkman's indecisiveness and, as only a Corkman can, turned it to his advantage. He made an art of being unsure, and reaped dividends from it.
Certainly it isn't difficult to see why he had doubts about "Ghosts," which is infected by a rather forced winsomeness; or "Last Post," which is slight; or "The Story Teller," which he clearly hadn't finished with. But "The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland" is a beautifully wrought tale, funny and moving at the same time, a child's eye view of the absurd adult world.
The pick of the less familiar bunch is "There Is a Lone House," a small masterpiece which now takes its place with the cream of O'Connor. It's an evocation of intense loneliness, its mood established with the very first paragraph:
"The woman stood at the foot of the lane, her right hand resting on the gate, her left fumbling at the neck of her blouse. Her face was lined, particularly about the mouth and forehead; it was a face that rarely smiled, but was soft for all that, and plump and warm. She was quite gray. From a distance, this made her seem old; close at hand it had precisely the opposite effect, and tended to emphasize sharply what youthfulness still lingered in her, so that one thought of her as having suffered terribly at some time in the past."
In almost all the stories in this excellently balanced collection O'Connor's people explode from the page. The nice are here, and the nasty; the gentle, the generous, the mean, the absurd, those rich in dignity, those without a shred of it. Long after his death O'Connor continues to tiptoe his way along the tightrope of sentimentality, and never falls. Without adornment, he simply tells the truth: in story after story it is that that steadies him.y
WILLIAM TREVOR's collections of short stories include The Ballroom of Romance, Angels at the Ritz, and Lovers of Their Time. His most recent book is a novel, Other People's Worlds