Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 19 May 2021

The ‘lonely voice’ of the short story – rereading Frank O’Connor

The Irish short story master, Frank O’Connor – who with some accuracy can be regarded as Ireland’s Chekhov – was apparently a compulsive reviser of his work. I had read this somewhere but hadn’t realised the full extent of the revision he undertook. Some of his short stories exist in not just a couple of different variants, but several.

This came home to me recently when I finally managed to find all six volumes of his short stories as published by Pan in the 1970s – The Holy Door, The Mad Lomasneys, Day Dreams, Fish for Friday, Masculine Protest, and A Life of Your Own.

When I dipped into these and began to compare them with versions in the Random House Collected Stories I began to notice quite significant differences. In the Pan paperbacks it is evident that a degree of ‘modernisation’ has been undertaken and the stories are generally more streamlined and economical; in particular, extraneous dialogue is pruned back. This is perhaps most noticeable in some of the earlier stories, such as Guests of the Nation (1931), one of his most famous, which recounts the execution of two English soldiers captured by Irish rebel fighters during the War of Independence. The rebels’ friendship with the two Englishmen is subtly contrasted with the detachment that military strategy and discipline requires in order for the prisoners to be seen first and foremost as hostages whose retaliatory execution will shortly be ordered. To my mind, O’Connor’s obsessive reworking gives his best stories an even surer touch and a clearer and more exacting tone.

I was further reminded of this by a reference in Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir (covered here and here on Letterpress) to O’Connor’s study of the short story form, The Lonely Voice, now considered the seminal book on the subject but long out of print. McMurtry says that O’Connor dismissed many short stories as in essence being failed novels rather than reaching the exacting standards required for genuine success in the short story form. (But McMurtry also adds in his typically deadpan Texan way that O’Connor had more opinions about the short story than you could shake a stick at, and that in the final analysis the ideal short story was simply what O’Connor said it was.)

A 2015 Letterpress review of O’Connor’s collection Domestic Relations (here) said:

"There are no linguistic experiments or daring manipulations of prose forms. What you’ll get here are very traditional short stories infused with detail and with insights into character but behind this microcosm lurk the big issues of identity, religion, gender and nationality. He’s a sly one this Frank O’Connor."

This is absolutely spot-on. For like Chekhov, O’Connor’s mastery of the form is virtually hidden. You can read him and forget that you are reading ‘stories’. At his best, you simply seem to be reading the stuff of life. Nothing strains for effect. The stories have a great transparency, a limpid quality. Irishness runs through them, of course, but so too and with equal emphasis does warmth and generosity of spirit and O’Connor’s unflinching but humane gaze that is as adept at identifying human frailty as it is at forgiving it. But this mastery was hard-won. O’Connor had virtually no education and rose from great poverty and hardship to become one of the greatest short story writers.

Judging by the snippets from O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice that I have been able to find online – and despite what McMurtry says – it offers genuine insights into what drove O’Connor’s writing and helps explain why he stands alongside the truly great practitioners of the form. For example, he had a theory that the greatest short stories derive their power from focusing on “submerged populations” and he went on to explain:

"That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape."

And he might have added: or Britain’s oppressed colonial subjects, Ireland’s poor. But that kind of political or social didacticism – thankfully – was not his style.

He also said that at its most characteristic the short story has something that is not often found in the novel – “an intense awareness of human loneliness..... We may reread novels for companionship," he said, "but we turn to short stories because, as Pascal put it, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me)."

I do wish someone would reissue The Lonely Voice.

Alun Severn

May 2021