Sean O'Faolain collection: evocative but uneven

By , Bruce Allen is a contributing editor at Saturday Review.

This enormous volume includes everything that appeared in the eminent Irish writer's eight previously published collections, plus half a dozen ''uncollected stories'' dated 1982. Among these 90 ''stories and tales'' are several undeniable classics, and a few dozen effective entertainments. But, on balance, this is uneven work, unworthy of his publisher's claim that Sean O'Faolain is ''one of the great story-tellers since the death of Chekhov.''

What he is is a remarkably skillful and sophisticated technician who can render a small private world in such evocative, echoing detail that its universal relevance is instantly suggested; a chronicler of local conflicts who's adept at presenting two sides of a contretemps. He's one of the masters of realistic dialogue, and he can bring a character to life in a quick, vivid paragraph.

Why, then, do I not feel O'Faolain qualifies as a great writer? The answer lies partly in his very virtuosity (his ability to create someone or something fascinating, and his habit of shifting impatiently to focus elsewhere), and partly in the distance and distastefulness I infer from his many portrayals of Ireland at war with England and itself. O'Faolain was a republican fighter during the Civil War, but his subsequent writings are far from a glorification of his country's rebellious history. He seems to connect Ireland's truculent separatist spirit with its people's material poverty and their virtual enslavement to obsolete political and religious ideas. It's as if Ireland is a ghost that haunts its own citizens, and Sean O'Faolain is so appalled by their superstitiousness and timidity he's unable to take them fully seriously.

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This curious coolness is evident even in O'Faolain's best work, much of which appeared in his first two collections, ''Midsummer Night Madness,'' (1932) and ''A Purse of Coppers'' (1937). These stories of revolutionary ardor and social disruption are often conveyed to us by a young (usually idealistic) listener-narrator,

who's quick to imply judgments on the characters he thus observes.

O'Faolain has called these early stories ''very romantic.'' They are, and they aren't. ''Fugue'' describes the helplessness of two young Irish rebels pursued by English officers, and ''Lilliput'' celebrates a Mother Courage-like figure, a Cork tinkerwoman undaunted by the violence all around her. Yet ''The Small Lady'' contrasts a pleasure-loving, treacherous Englishwoman against her Irish enemies (and captors), to the credit of neither ''side'': The revolutionaries' idealism is no less flawed than is her decency.

Several of the stories are still more cynical. ''The Bomb Shop'' dramatically depicts a commitment to violence that draws even unwilling souls into its orbit. ''The Patriot'' ironically contrasts a disillusioned young rebel with a passionately committed republican ''orator.'' The young man turns to the consolations of marital love; the old man continues to fight his never-ending battles.

There are numerous criticisms of the persistence of revolutionary sentiment throughout people's later lives. The two elderly protagonists of ''No Country for Old Men'' react differently to their accidental involvement in latter-day ''underground'' violence: One embraces the danger eagerly; the other laments that they are only shadows of their former vigorous selves.

But the revolution is scarcely O'Faolain's only target. We see strong condemnations of Ireland's mindless puritanism in ''The Old Master,'' about a village intellectual's dismay over his neighbors' contempt for a visiting Russian ballet troupe. (''They know nothing. The beauty of the world. The grace of the human body. All lost on them.'') The same sentiment is handled far more artfully in the fine story ''A Born Genius,'' which tells of a promising young tenor's failure to put aside his inherited prejudices and adapt to an offered ''new life'' in America.

Several of O'Faolain's thinnest, glibbest stories picture ignorant or dishonest priests and nuns; a few are critical of Roman Catholic rigidity. ''Teresa'' is an engrossing story about a young girl's inconsistent wish to become a nun, and eventual rejection of the religious life; it's interesting because its title character is honest and complex, and because her vacillating devotion is attractively and movingly portrayed. ''The Man Who Invented Sin'' describes the experiences of four young novices - two men and two women - on a boating party and then following the accusation that their innocent high spirits have skirted impropriety - a charge that has a lasting, cramping effect on their later lives. This celebrated story (probably its author's best) features one of O'Faolain's finest strokes - a vision of the elderly priest-accuser (as he walked away, ''his elongated shadow waved behind him like a tail'') as the devil.

Later works, from the 1950s and after, offer more general laments for the passing of the ''old ways'' (''The Silence of the Valley'') and portrayals of people inhibited by the past; then some find they can't escape its grip (''The Fur Coat''), others long for lives different from the ones they've chosen (''A Touch of Autumn in the Air,'' ''The Sugawn Chair.'')

This autumnal mood is still more dominant in O'Faolain's very recent work, of which not much need be said. The stories from ''The Talking Trees'' (1970) and ''Foreign Affairs'' (1976) bring their hidebound locals out of Ireland, into other countries, and into erotic involvements, handled with an increasing sexual explicitness that's far from O'Faolain's best manner. His narrative skills have remained undiminished, and he's never less than entertaining. But of the final two dozen or so stories in this collection, the only one I'd strongly recommend is ''Hymeneal,'' the portrayal of an elderly couple in retirement that builds toward its protagonist's surprised understanding of the kind of person (''an irate man full of cold principle'') he has always been.

It will not do, as I've indicated, to compare Sean O'Faolain with the short-story masters - certainly not with James Joyce (whose Olympian view of Ireland's cultural paralysis he shares and imitates), or Henry James (with whom he seems to beg comparison). Still, his best work will be remembered and should be properly valued. It is good to have it all available in this handsome - and really rather reasonably priced - volume.

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