BOOK REVIEW / When Irish eyes are revising: Vive moi] by Sean O'Faolain - Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
SEAN O'FAOLAIN was one of the best writers of stories ever to be banned by the independent Ireland he helped to create. Around 1964, his 64th year, O'Faolain - whose name is the Irish version of John Whelan - wrote the story of his life. Then, a year or two before his death at the age of 91, he wrote it again. Vive Moi] Mark One became Vive Moi] Mark Two.

This encore was meant to make the book more outspoken, to rid it of evasions and omissions brought about by a desire to spare people's feelings, and, perhaps, by the acceptance of a public decorum which was by then, as it happened, under siege. Passages have been added and subtracted, and there are now a further five chapters. In her outspoken 'Afterword' to the revised edition, his daughter Julia explains that she encouraged him to produce this 'candid supplement', to write about the love affairs whose recollection was to rouse and preoccupy his old age. She mentions the 'cloudiness' with which she'd known him to 'dress up his feelings'. The two versions of the book might sometimes be thought, between them, to spare both his own and other people's feelings. In neither have the cloud formations of the past dispersed without trace.

Vive Moi] is written with very little of the subtlety and care which O'Faolain gave to his stories, but the drama of its revision is of great interest. What has been added is better late than never - though there can be no doubt that, for personal reasons, always potent in autobiography, it was better to leave it out in 1964. The Ireland of Roddy Doyle is less shockable than it used to be; otherwise, they must all have had a fit.

O'Faolain grew up in Cork, fastened to a genteel poverty, his imagination fed by the shows and rituals of the local theatre, the Catholic Church and the British Empire. His father was a ramrod-loyal member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, his mother ramrod-pious. The autobiographer looks at a photograph of his mother and himself, and adds in Mark Two: 'We are like a pair of lovers.' A few pages on, they take a walk, 'arm in arm like lovers', until he gives offence and she returns to the house, strips him and beats him with a cane. 'She was a boor.' There then follow walks during which she stops in the street, bends down as if to adjust his dress, and has a pee. This dream-like episode is an example of the new frankness which has previously modified the information that their lavatory, used by theatrical lodgers, 'stank beautifully of female scent'. For 'scent' now read 'shit'.

After the Easter Rising of 1916 he became a rebel, and when the Anglo- Irish Treaty split the ranks of the Republican movement, a bomb-maker for the Irregular IRA - 'an essentially inglorious job which girls could have done as well or better'. During the civil war that ensued, 'one lived like a wandering tramp, gypsy or animal'. He roamed the streets of his native city with a revolver, wound up to 'have a pot at anything that came along'. But when a truckload of Free State troops did come along he held his fire. 'No fighter]' He remarks that 'The people were divided, at best sullen and unco-operative, at worst hard against us.' But this is to make them seem more or less united against the Irregulars, some of whom went on to become Irreconcilables, and to be executed by the Government. O'Faolain went on to feel disenchanted with the state fashioned by the veterans of these contentions, by De Valera's ruthlessness and guile, and by a savage Church. 'Once a slave always a slave?' he asks, with reference to his 'once gallant countrymen', and when the new edition discusses his response to the censorship that was installed, the word 'bitterness' is added to the earlier 'anger'. He presents himself both as a patriot and as an internal exile - an ambivalence which was also to characterise his attitude towards the Church.

Eileen Gould, eventually his wife, took part with him in the nationalist struggle. He had introduced himself to her at school by dipping her ponytail in the inkwell and 'politely' handing it to her. She 'laughed gaily'. Participants in the struggle were apt to forswear the flesh and when, at the age of 27, he travelled to Paris with her, 'we were as innocent as the morning star that Lampedusa so exquisitely describes in Il Gattopardo as 'hanging like a peeled grape' in the dawn sky over the dews of Sicily. Our days were as candid, in the true and original sense of that gleaming word.' Meanwhile, on the Left Bank, Americans were whooping it up 'in ways often far from candid'. 'Candid' used to mean good-hearted; here it means pure.

A fellowship sent O'Faolain to America, where two girls threatened his virginity - with the full assault registered only in Mark Two. He wrote, and taught, for a while in London, a married man, and then went back to Ireland to lead 'the Life of a Man of Letters', and become an 'Academician'. Somewhere in the late 1930s, with the onset of 'privacies', about which, in his daughter's words, he was 'lothto write', the first version peters out in a series of invocations: 'O pallid clouds, O caverns of green . . .'

America remained for him an erotic New Found Land. The book tells, in one of its several epiphanies, of a conversation in a New York city rectory which settled his mind (while bemusing mine) on the question of free will. He came out elated. 'I fell in love with me,' he writes in Mark One, and with 'everybody else'. He adds: 'So much so that had there been waiting for me outside by the sidewalk not a taxi- driver chewing a five-cent cigar and reading the New York Daily Mirror but an attractive woman I doubt if I could have predicted the consequences.' The second version of this episode makes clear that the first had been written 'untruthful1y because over- discreetly'. There was no taxi-driver. Waiting for him was a limousine containing an attractive, cultivated, life- loving American woman friend. The consequences are duly described.

Two other important friendships occurred in Dublin: with the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen and the English journalist Honor Tracy. Vivacious, somewhat Stendhalian portraits of these women are provided in the new book - he was a keen admirer of Stendhal's fiction, as he was of Elizabeth Bowen's. At one stage he 'lies a-bed, passion-sated', with La Bowen - as the chatelaine of Bowen's Court near Cork was known to his family - when her husband rings to say that the Second World War seems about to break out: the scene was to contribute to a story of his, where bad news squawks from a receiver.

Can these chapters be seen as a clean breast? Julia O'Faolain stresses the limits of the candour - in the sense of a confessional completeness - which they achieve. His wife is loved and praised in both versions of the book, but her point of view is largely withheld; the 'stress-maladies' she was later to suffer are absent from the new chapters. There is no pain here - indeed, no problem. We are quite some way from the poignancy and even-handedness of Elizabeth Bowen's fine extra-marital story 'Summer Night' - the work of a woman who could write with such intentness, according to O'Faolain, that sweat would appear on her brow.

His stories depend, as stories do, on memories, but he wanted more - wanted an elusive truth which artists alone were qualified to seek; he speaks of the 'express purpose of getting behind extrinsic memories to intrinsic essences'. Artists and their like were a special case, and Mark One considers it 'extremely difficult for men of feeling and intuition to deal, even when using a long spoon, with so-called 'reasonable' men'. This man of feeling has a self-suspected weakness for the 'bloody Irish eloquence' which can descend into blarney. He is a good writer, the writer of his stories, when he refers here to the servantwoman who pads her hair with rolled-up newspaper, so that 'one might read a bit of headline between her lavish locks'. He is less compelling when he speaks of his attractive limousine woman as transformed by death 'into a breath of air, as invisible and as immortal as the breath of the billions of the entire world's dead, merged now into the immeasurable void above us'.