Authors: Frank O'Connor
My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories
Frank O'Connor was the pseudonym of Michael O'Donovan, who was born at Cork in 1903. Largely self-educated, he began to prepare a collected edition of his works at the age of twelve and later worked as a librarian, translator and journalist. When quite young he learned to speak Irish and saturated himself in Gaelic poetry, music and legend. When he was interned by the Free State Government he took the opportunity to learn several languages, but it was in Irish that he wrote a prize-winning study of Turgenev on his release. âA.E.' began to publish his poems, stories and translations in the
. Meanwhile a local clergyman remarked of him, when he produced plays by Ibsen and Chekhov in Cork, that: âMike the moke would go down to posterity at the head of the pagan Dublin muses.' Frank O'Connor lived in Dublin and had an American wife, two sons and two daughters. He published
Guests of the Nation
, his first book, in 1931, and then followed over thirty volumes, largely of short stories, in addition to plays. Frank O'Connor died in 1966.
Julian Barnes is the author of ten novels, two volumes of short stories and three collections of essays. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages, and has won many awards. In 2004 he was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres.
With an Introduction by
Published by the Penguin Group
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The texts used in this edition are taken from
Guests of the Nation
, first published by Macmillan 1931,
Bones of Contention
, first published by Macmillan 1936,
Crab Apple Jelly
, first published by Macmillan
The Common Chord
, first published by Macmillan 1947,
, first published by
The Stories of Frank O'Connor
, first published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf
1952 and in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton 1953,
More Stories of Frank O'Connor
, first published by
Alfred A. Knopf 1954,
, first published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf and in
Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton 1957,
, first published by Macmillan 1964,
, first published by Macmillan 1969, and
The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland
, first published in
Ireland by Poolbeg 1981
This selection published in Penguin Books 2005
Texts copyright Â© Literary Executors of the Estate of Frank O'Connor, 1931, 1933, 1936, 1940, 1942,
1944, 1945, 1947, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1964, 1966
Introduction and selection copyright Â© Julian Barnes, 2005
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author and introducer has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
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prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
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I first came to Frank O'Connor by way of a possessive pronoun. The fiction shelves of a secondhand bookshop in Dublin proposed an antique orange Penguin: author's name in white, title in black, no strident capitals on the spine, and the cover taken up with what was in those days a come-on â a blurry author photo. It was not this, or the distantly familiar name, that made me buy it (the original 3/6d now having become six euros), but the title:
My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories
. It was the slyly inviting âMy' that did it. A lesser writer might have settled for âThe', and the book would have stayed on its shelf.
Since his death in 1966, a respectful forgettingness has settled over Frank O'Connor. Indeed, he is now better remembered â and more in print â in the United States than in either Britain or Ireland itself. Why should this have come about? Perhaps because in his large output â of novels, stories, plays, essays, travel books, biography, poetry and translations from the Irish â there is not one particular title to which his name is indelibly attached. Perhaps because his finest work is in the short story, a medium more vulnerable over time. Perhaps because he doesn't require academic explication; in which he resembles some of the writers he most revered â Maupassant, Chekhov, Turgenev. Perhaps because he spent many years away in America, where his best work first appeared: the
ran fifty-one of his stories in a two-decade-long association beginning in 1945. Perhaps because he could be as harsh about the land of his birth as other Irish writers: it was âa country ruled by fools and blackguards', where life was âemptiness and horror' â though a country to which he returned, in 1961, for the last five years of his life. Even cumulatively, these reasons seem insufficient.
He was born Michael O'Donovan in Cork in 1903, a demographic rarity
at that time: both a late child and an only child. His mother, Mary, had been born in 1865, a date she long concealed from her son; she was an orphan who channelled into him her social and cultural ambitions. His father, Michael, was an old soldier proud of his two pensions from the British Army, a bandsman and navvy, given to powerful drinking bouts which blighted family life. Frank was a self-admitted mother's boy and sissy, who deep into adulthood fought his father for possession of the woman of the house. He left school at fourteen, and worked on the railways as a clerk in the flourishing misdirected-goods department. At fifteen he started doing âodd jobs', as he put it, for the IRA; but proved a âwretchedly bad soldier', and was interned by the Irish Free State for a year in 1922â3. Upon release he became a librarian, teacher, translator and man of the theatre, first in Cork then Dublin, rising to become director of the Abbey Theatre. After retiring from that post in 1939, he lived from his writing, with the help of teaching stints at American universities.
Much of his early life, up to and including internment, finds its way into his stories; his later life less (or less obviously) so. His first volume of autobiography,
An Only Child
, is full of brief anecdotes and asides which are recognizably the germ of later stories: how he drank his father's pint; how he decided he was a changeling; how he determined to murder his embarrassing grandmother; how he sought to apply the English public-school ethic in an Irish trades school. Each is, however, only the germ: the final story has less to do with its authenticity of origin, everything to do with the manner of its development. William Maxwell, who was O'Connor's editor at the
and thereby his great friend, said that Frank, despite being an only child, âbehaved as if he were the oldest of a large family of boys and girls'. Such a transforming instinct is a good start for a fiction writer.
So is listening carefully â which may come in many forms, from a child's eavesdropping upwards. In 1959, Maxwell received a letter from one of his magazine's readers asking when to expect a new story from another of the Irish writers he published, Maeve Brennan. He showed the letter to Brennan, who judged its tone (or the request itself) impertinent, and concocted a fantastical reply purporting to come from Maxwell himself. The editor is terribly sorry to have to inform the reader that âour poor Miss Brennan' has died â indeed, she shot herself (âin the back with the aid of a small handmirror') at the foot of the main altar of St Patrick's Cathedral
on Shrove Tuesday. The letter continues: âFrank O'Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran outâ¦' Brennan is making fun of her fellow-countryman and his subject-matter; but also of the writer's love of hearing other people's innermost secrets â which he, unlike the priest, will subsequently betray.
O'Connor himself put the point a different way. In
An Only Child
he describes himself as âa natural collaborationist'. By which he means that, âLike Dolan's ass, I went a bit of the way with everybody.' An initial biddability followed, at a certain point, by an instinctive intransigence. When he was an internee, Republican prisoners across Ireland were called out on hunger strike against the Free State; O'Connor was one of only three among the thousand prisoners in his camp who both voted and spoke against the decision. The writer has a similar stance, and duty: a bit of the way, but no further; join with others, inhabit their lives at will, but remain mulishly yourself.
Imaginative sympathy, and then, in rendering the lives of others, a furious â and, to some, infuriating â perfectionism. William Maxwell, who knew writers well, said that, âIf there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written. There is no worse sign.' O'Connor almost never gave such a sign. Though he liked to write a quick first draft â obeying Maupassant's injunction to âGet black on white' â everything thereafter was itchy dissatisfaction and constant revision. His story âThe Little Mother' exists in seventeen versions, published and unpublished; sometimes the count rose as high as fifty drafts. A story might eventually appear in a magazine, but that would not be the end of revisions. Then it might be published in volume form, and still O'Connor would go on tinkering. Finally it might be Selected or Collected, yet there was always further work to be done. All for the sake of what Maxwell, writing about his friend, called âThe happiness of getting it down right.'
Yeats, an admired and loved â if tricky â colleague at the Abbey Theatre, who encouraged O'Connor and published two volumes of his translations from the Irish, said famously â perhaps too famously â that âO'Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.' This was promotionally useful, as such statements tend to be (Richard Ellmann called him âFlaubert among the bogs', which maybe doesn't work as well), but only true in part. Evidence of O'Connor's love for Chekhov can be adduced from his
edition of the writer, which Maxwell inherited and described: âSo lived with â turned down corners, turned down sides of pages, coffee stains, whiskey stains, and perhaps tears.' But the Irishman also knew the dangers of emulation: âHe's inimitable,' he said of Chekhov to his
interviewer, âa person to read and admire and worship â but never, never, never to imitate.' If seeking Russian connections, we might do better proposing a triangulation consisting of Gorky (O'Connor once described himself as âan aspiring young writer who wanted to know Ireland as Gorky had known Russia'), Isaak Babel (âthe man who has influenced me most') and Turgenev (âmy hero among writers'). O'Connor's first published work, written as an internee, was a prize-winning essay in Irish about Turgenev.