Thomas Kilroy, ‘Our Great Teller of the Short Story’, review of Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien, in The Irish Times (12 Feb. 2011), Weekend Review, p.11.

[Bibliographical note: available online; accessed 21.03.2011.]

In 1963 I had the privilege of hearing Flannery O’Connor talk about the importance of voice in the short story. The talk went on across a long summer’s day in her lovely home in Milledgeville, Georgia. But this was no theory. She told anecdote after hilarious anecdote about her “poor white” (not black) neighbours with pitch-perfect, deadly mimicry. What was memorable was the contrast between the vitality of the storytelling and the ravaged figure of Flannery on crutches, between the deadly lupus disease and the beauty of the place with its flaring, strutting peacocks.

Like the American South, Ireland has its rich tradition of oral storytelling, and Edna O’Brien is the great contemporary heir to this in the short story. Walter Benjamin once wrote about how orality was subsumed into literary art in another such culture, the Russian, when analysing the art of Nikolai Leskov. It’s a question of preserving the oral energy on the printed page and making the oral engage with literary technique. We just don’t simply read such stories; we also listen to them.

Of the 11 stories in this collection only one, “Madame Cassandra”, is wholly dependent on the speaking voice, a sustained, Beckettian monologue of the genteel Anglo-Irish lady, Millie, poised before a fortune-teller’s caravan that never opens. She is like Beckett’s Winnie, with the same slight forgetfulness, going through her life like a pack of fading photographs. But the style is still essentially O’Brien’s, as is the dark comedy of marriage at its centre.

This may be the book’s only monologue, but all the stories are infused with a natural storyteller’s voice that moves from young girl to spinster to sophisticated older woman, from lost young gunman to a disabled suicide to elderly workman.

In the longest, “Shovel Kings”, two voices are set in contrast, the narrator’s and the voice of the Irish workman (“he said”) whom she befriends in a London pub. The contrast between the two voices mirrors the oddity of the relationship itself. This is the typical O’Brien narrator with a sharp sense of the ridiculous in life and a wonderful accuracy in detailed observation. As with all great storytellers it is the voice of a great listener. People feel the need to tell her their life histories. In the character of the workman Rafferty, O’Brien captures the perfect good manners of uneducated rural Irishmen of a certain generation. There is a great poignancy and tact, too, in her portrayal of Rafferty unable to make that final journey home.

Some of the stories will be familiar to readers of O’Brien. “Black Flower” is another desolate portrayal of an IRA gunman and the young woman artist who befriends him while giving art classes in prison. It is laconic, pared to the bone, and captures in 13 pages the savagery and inevitable tragedy of our gunmen. Many of these stories deal with men and women who are to one degree or another outside the pale, somehow apart from the general traffic. What gives the stories their force is O’Brien’s skill in evoking the ordinariness in which she places them.

There are also two stories, “Green Georgette” and “My Two Mothers”, about a mother and daughter, an area that Edna O’Brien has made very much her own. There is the old O’Brien theme here of the dreaming young girl and its expression through that lovely, fresh comedy.

Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful.I prayed for drastic things to occur – for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself.

There is, however, something else here this time around in addition to young girls and their dreams. We pride ourselves in this country on an absence of class. But, of course, we are as class-driven as anywhere else. Green Georgette is a study of the seeds and growth of snobbery in an Irish village with all the pretence and stratification that you might find in a metropolis.

We also meet our recent inflated wealth and its ludicrous display in the story “Inner Cowboy”. The story is really about Curly, the sad young man who is mildly disabled and who ends up in a bog hole. But in the middle of it is McSorley and his fouled quarry. Again with brief, fiercely accurate detail – there is a hilarious dinner party of the new millionaires – O’Brien captures our whole sorry mess of so-called development and developers. Curly is the victim of it.

A volume of short stories depends on variety, and there is that here. “Manhattan Medley”, for instance, stands apart from the other stories in content and in the way in which its voice is used. This is like overhearing the musings of a very contemporary, mature urban sophisticate addressing an absent lover. Like so many of the other stories this is about loneliness, but it is never maudlin. Instead it is driven by its obsession. The power of this is palpable and reminds one that O’Brien has written in greater detail of sexual obsession before this and with a command that few can match.

Even if I lingered here, there or anywhere, it would still run its course, in letters, in longings and the whet of absence.

The cadence of the voice catches the feeling of the story, the inability to break free and the strange pleasure in being enthralled by what is not good for you.

One of the questions I put to Flannery O’Connor was: Had she read any of the stories of Frank O’Connor? She replied, with the finality of a closing door, No. I think she might have been fibbing, as she shared the same pages of the New Yorker with him. But I do believe she would have loved the stories of Edna O’Brien.

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