A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I started reading this pair of autobiographies by the Irish short story writer and giant among modern Irish literature, Frank O’Connor, without really knowing much about him. I’d read some of his short stories, and I warmed to the geniality and kindness in his writing about monstrous domestic situations. I’ve learned a vast amount from these books about the Gaelic revival, living through the Irish Civil War, and about what it was like being friends with George Russell (‘A E’) and the grand old man W B Yeats himself. I was fascinated by O’Connor’s accounts of struggling to keep the Cork Library running in the face of opposition by local politics and local priests, and his titanic efforts to keep the Abbey Theatre in Dublin going in the years before the Second World War.
His relationship with his parents dominates all of An Only Child (1961) and most of My Father’s Son (published posthumously in 1968 from his drafted chapters) because they were a handful. Minnie O’Connor (the young Michael Francis O’Donovan used Frank O’Connor as a pseudonym when he began publishing his stories, in case his employers found out) was an orphan, brought up in a convent, and never had a birthday until her son, egged on her by his pension-hunting father, went to look up her date of birth in the records office and found she was at least a decade older than most people assumed. She seems to have been an adorable, aggravating, self-sacrificing saint. She was the most innocent of orphans in every way, a hopeless judge of character and oblivious to the fact that the Mistress of Studies at her convent kept sending her to the most horrible and unsuitable situations as a kitchen-maid, presumably in the hope that Minnie O’Connor would fall pregnant so that vengeful nun would have the pleasure of turning her away from the convent doors, her only home and refuge. Minnie married her brother’s army friend Michael O’Donovan, who was an appalling drunkard and bully, but also a one-woman man, devoted to his wife and his home, and to his army pensions, at least one of them false, so much so that he resented her going away on holidays with their son. O’Donovan was a monster who mellowed, and the marvel of these memoirs is that despite his atrocious behaviour, he has a benevolent and affectionate portrait.
We don’t really learn much about Frank O’Connor the author or Michael the devoted son of the O’Donovans, because he constantly writes about other people in the expectation that these are whom the reader really wants to know more about. His personal life is barely mentioned, but he waxes expansively for inches of page thicknesses about Yeats and Russell and many other Irish literary men (only two women authors are mentioned). It’s an odd thing to be reading such a detailed and rambling memoir about people and places I have no knowledge of: I could just as well have been reading an account of the literary politics and feuds in 1930s Helsinki, or Cape Town. There is almost no explanation, or patching in of background, and names are brought in with zero introduction: we have to take all his anecdotes at face value.
O’Connor casually mentions an author that I do know something about, yet he doesn’t seem to share my knowledge. He spends a couple of sentences on a long-forgotten Irish novelist called Gerald O’Donovan (no relation), obscure even when O’Connor was writing this down, and he clearly didn’t intend any more except to note that this man had been good for a couple of novels, back in the day. I practically fell off my chair: this was the Gerald O’Donovan who had left the priesthood to marry, then became a novelist, worked in London for the British government during the First World War where he met Rose Macaulay and had a life-long secret affair with her, revealed only after her death in 1958. Frank O’Connor was writing this memoir at the end of the 1950s: did he not know? The revelation of the affair (for Macaulay was an eminent Dame at her death and a huge literary favourite in Britain) was a nine-days’ wonder in the literary gossip of the day, so either O’Connor didn’t read the right newspapers, or chose to ignore it. Yet he found the time to mention O’Donovan in his memoir apropos of almost nothing.
If you want to read lots of personal memoir about Erskine Childers, with whom O’Connor spent the last weeks of Childers’ life, when he himself was a very young man, or about Yeats in his vigorous, bullying, magnificent old age in the 1930s, these books are a fine resource. There are some extraordinary accounts of episodes of auto-hypnosis, most notably of Michael Collins’ former secretary, who fell into a bizarre trance and recreated Collins’ walk, voice, actions, memories, while the stunned O’Connor, who’d gone to see this man to ask about his memories of Collins, watched for over an hour, unable to note anything down. The memoirs are also tremendous for describing the O’Donovans’ life in poverty in Cork at the beginning of the century, and O’Connor’s gradual emergence from that condition to the unnerving luxury of renting his own room and being able to buy a drink and books when he wanted.
There is almost nothing here about O’Connor’s own writing, because he hadn’t published very much when the account ends in 1939, or his own family (since he didn’t marry till 1939), or about what he liked and didn’t like about most aspects of his life. These are memoirs about his times and other people’s lives that he lived in, and pull you in with engaging friendliness, but it’s a bit like being talked at by a friendly stranger in the pub who expects you to know who and what he’s talking about, and never explains a thing.
Frank O’Connor, An Only Child & My Father’s Son (Penguin Modern Classics 2005), ISBN 0-141-18791-3.
Kate writes incessantly about the books that enthuse her at katemacdonald.net.