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Two Irish Novels

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

A Nest of Simple Folk. By Sean O’Faolain. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. Shake Hands with the Devil. By Rearden Conner. New York: William Morrow and Company. $2.50.

As artists, the novelists of Ireland of our time have always seemed to me deficient. Their stories of a sentimental and emotionally unstable nation have been marred by sentimentality of the author’s—surely a lapse in literary taste. Their story plans have seemed broken needlessly through their native inability to carry an intellectual matter to its conclusion. The fiction of modern Ireland gives pleasure mainly through its fits and gleams of poetry, which is weakened too often by nationalistic propaganda. Such patriotic idealism is perhaps admirable socially, but it has never yet made a novel a finer story. Propaganda, at its best, can energize or vitalize a writer so that out of his emotional intensity there grows an incandescent, poetic style, but propaganda as the best thing a story has to give us means a very poor fiction indeed. “Mad Puppets-town,” of a few months ago, as a story of cultivated Irish life, using the materials of the present but not preaching about them, showed a sense of form and a literary capacity on the part of the author that were distinctive—and, I am afraid, contrary to what one might expect.

Sean O’Faolam’s new novel, “A Nest of Simple Folk,” is just as beautifully fashioned as was “Mad Puppetstown”; indeed, I think it no book reviewer’s superlative to say that this story is a work of real narrative genius: it recreates the emotions and experiences of an Irish family through three generations, and it gives the true pleasure of great novels, the pleasure of sharing richly the lives of men and women who come into existence through a book. It handles the traditional peasant characters of most Irish stories, but so keen and intense is the novelist’s observation of what can stir emotion in a man that the peasant family is not merely a typical instance or stock characters that represent Ireland’s plight. The characters take hold of the imagination, and their lives, unfolding, give me more understanding of life, which, paradoxically enough, propagandist types never do when they are designed for such a purpose. Much of the reality of these individuals who make up the O’Donnell family grows out of the author’s poetic sense of place and of nature; exquisite mood descriptions full of the true poet’s love of color and light and odors of the fields make even a foreigner know why the Irishman loves his backward native land and bring the novel reader into the very world of sense of the people in the book, I should not be surprised if, upon re-reading—a task which seems to me worth the time, in this instance—I should find that the O’Donnells’ conversation is not well individualized as the separate talk of separate characters; I should not be surprised to find the character action and character thought merely adequate. Environment does make the man, in fiction as well as in life, and it is easy to read into a stock character personal traits and individual subtleties if a well created world sustains him. However all this may be, the impression remains that in “A Nest of Simple Folk” I have been among friends and enemies well known. The shadowy country of the novel overtops reality for a time, as it did for me when Henry Esmond walked the velvet lawns of his old home and when David sat at old Peggoty’s knee. I think I cannot over-emphasize the accomplishment here of making a book character’s individual experiences catch the imagination of the reader and become for him an explanation of the great world of which he can but catch glimpses as obscurities and clouds divide. Here, through this Irish family history, through an old-fashioned chronicle of fathers and greedy brothers and family dishonor, I see not only Irish life more clearly but my own as well. Ordinary experience takes on nobility, and ordinary defeats, too, as they do in “Adam Bede,” “The Divine Fire,” and “My Brother Jonathan.” “Shake Hands with the Devil,” by Rearden Conner, represents the propaganda, or timely problem, novel as it is adapted to Irish use in reporting Irish contemporary difficulties. Its appeal, because of its news value, is immediate, but must certainly lessen if or when the Irish revolution is a matter of history, for “Shake Hands with the Devil” has not enough character life to give it permanence. It represents the brutality and the waste of the struggle between the I. R. A. and the Black and Tan soldiers: the young Irish waste their lives being mere fighters instead of Irishmen who are doctors, students, lawyers, business men. The book is a strong case of special pleading; its attempt to be fair and to preach the sermon of the wasteful conflict is commendable and makes the novel interesting to a reader who is eager to get a, “survivor’s” or reporter’s view of a conflict he hears about only at second hand. The sheer horror of the photographic details of killing and mutilation and torture gives the novel a macabre coloring that fascinates while it repels. It is morbidly vivid, like Lawrence Stallings’ pathetic and revolting pictures of the inhuman slaughter on European battlefields. The pathos in the book increases as it sweeps its helpless hero, an unwilling butcher in the Irish cause, on to his death by a bomb explosion after he has futilely punished his comrades for their murder of the lovely hostage, Lady Moira. As I have tried to suggest, the force of this book is not entirely literary; it has the fatal attraction of a snake’s eyes; its raw material shocks a reader into attention and would do so even if the treatment were definitely bad. But the writing is adequate, and often skill shows through the journalistic brilliance of the scenes, even though the word taste is inferior, always, to the artistic sureness that determined the phrasing in “A Nest of Simple Folk.” “Black locks” that “tumble indiscriminately on to his forehead” shows an ineptness which, fortunately, does not often offend in “Shake Hands with the Devil,” although it obtrudes at times. Often, on the contrary, there are vivid suggestions of background and sudden sharp characterizing phrases that suggest real people: “. . . small tufts of cloud drifted below the dull blue dome of the sky . . . ” and ” . . . they were men who loved the sparkle of early dew, the last glimmer of light in the sky, and the healthy sting of frost. . . . ” In all, “Shake Hands with the Devil” is a remarkably sharp and memorable problem novel. It takes its force, obviously, from the deadly seriousness of its author whose disturbed life centers intensely and intently about the deplorable hatred of the English and the Irish.

The highest reach of “Shake Hands with the Devil,” if we are to consider it as a novel of character, comes in those Indian summer scenes of the love affair of Kerry and Lady Moira, just a few days before her heartless execution by the I. R. A. Kerry up to that time is a useful type character of the sensitive idealist caught by brutal reality, and it is hard for me to keep the I. R. A. and the Black and Tan men separate; they are all revengeful brutes in different uniforms. But in those few pages of Kerry’s kindness as he talks to his brave hostage there is a moment or two of real comprehension of Kerry and Moira as unhappy boy and girl destroyed by a hatred they do not share. And the bright glare of the sun and the cool blue of the sea almost beat down, as unimportant earthly accompaniments, their bodily destruction by forces they cannot understand.


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