Selected Stories of Sean O’Faolain

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Autor: Sean O’Faolain

Anul apariției: 1983

Editura: Penguin Books

ISBN: 9780140183405

Număr pagini: 448

The life and literary career of the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain spans throughout the greater part of the twentieth century. Born in 1900, he wrote his first stories in the 1920s and published his Collected Stories in 1983, eight years before his death in 1991. Through 90 stories, written over a period of 60 years, O’Faolain – in Pierce Butler’s words – „charts the development of modern Ireland.”

O’Faolain’s subject is always Ireland – or more precisely, the lives of the Irish as they daily confront the demands of nationalism, society, and religion. He was early influenced by those tensions of Irish life that affected all of the major Irish writers of his generation: Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain; its search for a national identity, especially through a rediscovery of the Gaelic language and its beautiful countryside; and its love/hate relationship with Catholicism. O’Faolain experienced disappointments in all of these struggles. The great event of his youth – Ireland’s revolution – led not to immediate independence but to a bitter compromise with Britain; the ensuing Civil War destroyed his romantic notions of a unifying nationalism; and his early works were banned by the Church-controlled censor board. These disillusionments in life proved, however, to be enrichments for his fiction.

O’Faolain’s short stories typically situate a character in conflict with one or more of the repressive forces of Irish life. For example, in Lovers of the Lake, a story of illicit love, religious and materialistic pressures, and – ultimately – spiritual discovery, he uses the occasion of a religious pilgrimage to Lough Derg to bring his characters – Jenny, an unfaithful wife, and Bobby, her lover – to confront their own spiritual and psychological beings. In In the Bosom of the Country he sketches a sympathetic portrait of the parish priest whose pastoral love is balanced. In particular, the parish priest of the story is filled with a love of friendship that allows his congregants to remain free to be themselves.

It seems that the author’s main concern is to transpose the social realities of his time into his writing, as a means of drawing people´s attention to the moral implications deriving from the religious issue. Although belonging to different collections of short stories (Lovers of the Lake from The Stories of Sean O´Faolain - 1958; In the Bosom of the Country from In the Heat of the Sun - 1966), one can notice a similar approach in dealing with the subject matters.

The story lines are deceptively simple. Apparently, they both expose the lives of two pairs of lovers: Bobby and Jenny in Lovers of the Lake, and Anna and Frank in In the Bosom of the Country. Advancing into the stories, the reader slowly deconstructs the plot through O´Faolain´s majestic use of literary devices such as title, themes, symbols and style.

The title Lovers of the Lake is closely connected to the symbolism of the lake. Traditionally, the lake symbolizes contemplative life where one goes to escape from reality. Jenny goes to the island to find herself. Moreover, the water has a cleansing and baptism function: after returning from the island Jenny and Bobby are different, they can give up on each other. The lake, as a feminine archetype, helps Bobby find his way (just as the mythical Lady of the lake helps Arthur). Furthermore, the stillness and calmness of the lake come into contrast with the inner struggle of the characters, in their attempt to mediate the superficiality of their bodies with the profundity of their souls. The lake, as a mirror symbol, is the image of self-contemplation, consciousness and revelation: „standing upright with her two arms extended…her face to the lake„.

The main theme that shape the two short stories is the question of Catholicism. Both heroines, Jenny and Anna, use their religious status as an excuse for their being unfaithful to their husbands. As opposed to Anna, Jenny wants to expiate her sins through religion, and will eventually manage to separate from her lover; for Anna religion becomes an obstacle even after Frank converts to Catholicism because her faith is only superficial. The fact that the female characters are Catholic and the male characters Protestant, reveal men´s role into society: they have the right to decide for themselves. Contrary to men, women have to respect the more traditional values, such as Catholicism. On the other hand, women betraying their husbands reminds of Eve´s fall into temptation, as alluded in Lovers of the Lake: „…I know inside me that someday our apple will have to fall of the tree„.

Frank´s conversion to Catholicism in order to marry the recently widowed Anna lasts six months. During this time, his relationship with the parish priest evolves into something more than one would expect, a closeness almost equivalent to adultery. The conversion ritual takes place on the 9th of July, the day of the saint Thomas More and John Fisher, suggesting new sufferings and pains into Frank´s life.

Anna´s Catholicism is only a matter of education, not of faith: „I was educated in Lausanne. All those stinking Calvinists„. Her beliefs are not even pure or correct. By forcing Frank into converting, she only wants society´s approval of her marriage. In the end, her husband turns out to be more religious than her, raising the moral question of their adultery: „But, my dear Anna, there is the law! Thou shalt not commit adultery„.

Jenny and Bobby´s situation is totally different. He wants to understand Jenny´s remorse and willingly follows her to the island where she does a pilgrimage in order to prove her attempt to be a good Catholic seeking comfort and resignation into religion: „I only have you and God„. It is not by chance that the island shows signs of modernism and that there are only a few remains of the natural landscape; it symbolizes people´s loss of faith.

The sophisticated, compelling, third person narrative voice, juxtaposed to the allusive and rhythmical prose reveals the writer´s special gift for revealing the alienation of sensitive individuals within society. The narrative style is a delight, both in comic and the ironic.

The poetic language is another of O´Faolain´s literary devices that render the reading pleasant: „A mist began to speckle the windscreen. They turned off the main road into sunless hills, all brown as hay” (Lovers of the Lake); „The sunset revealed the dark roots of the parting of her hair and caught a wrinkle at the corner of her eye” (In the Bosom of the Country).

Sean O´Faolain´s carefully crafted short stories about Ireland´s lower and middle class examine the decline of the nationalist struggle of the falling of the Irish Roman Catholicism. Themes of memory, religion, passion and the affairs of love run their course through the hands of a born storyteller, who has come to be called the „Irish Chekhov„.

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