Posts Tagged ‘Frank O’Connor’

Lives Unlived

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2011)

“Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost the way the old songs were lost. When I was a boy there wasn’t a man in the barony but had a hundred songs in his head, but with people running here, there and everywhere, the songs were lost…” Frank O’Connor

I am reading The Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor for the third time in twelve years. Enough time has passed since my last reading of his remarkable stories so I have forgotten sufficient details and plot twists and endings to make the stories new to me again; and in some ways they are better than new because I know them now as I know favorite pieces of music or beloved paintings, and in this further experience of them I discover more and more of the genius they contain.

Frank O’Connor, who died in 1966, was Irish, and most of his stories are set in Cork and Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s. O’Connor was hailed by W.B. Yeats as the Chekhov of Irish literature, yet very few of my well-read friends have heard of him, and I, a voracious story reader since childhood, discovered him relatively late in my incessant search for great stories. I should note that many of my well-read friends are aghast at my reading habits which now largely involve reading and re-reading a relatively few dead writers of short stories, with barely an American among them. I find the most ballyhooed contemporary writers unreadable, and if not for a Brit or two, regarding fiction it could truly be said I read only the dead.

I have imbibed Kim by Rudyard Kipling seven times in the last twenty years, and I will probably read that astonishing book again soon. I do not read many novels, even those written by my favorite dead short story writers, so Kim is something of an anomaly for me. Every line of that book is to my taste exquisite poetry; I don’t so much read Kim as inhabit its pages. But I was speaking of Frank O’Connor.

“What makes him so great?” asked one of my well-read friends who had never heard of Frank O’Connor.

“Well,” I said, “when I read Bashevis Singer or Maugham or Wharton or Maupassant, I am enthralled by their artistry and insight, yet I know I am capable of writing stories that at least approximate the structures of their creations if not the mastery of their lines. But Frank O’Connor’s stories, though only eight to fifteen pages in length, are essentially novels with plots spanning many years, yet they have the power and immediacy and emotional depth of a D.H. Lawrence story focusing on a particular moment in time.”

We would rather be ruined than changed;

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

Nearly all of Frank O’Connor’s short stories illuminate the lives of people who would rather be living other lives—a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. Born to parents who did not live the lives they said they wanted to live, and having known many people, including myself, who have spent large chunks of our lives not living the lives we say we want to live, O’Connor’s stories continuously strike chords in me and ring loud bells of recognition. I am not speaking of people who wish to be something or someone beyond the reach of all but a few mortals, but of people who knowingly repeat, for years and decades and lifetimes, painfully self-limiting patterns they are entirely aware of yet feel powerless to change.

My father found himself at fifty entrenched in a life he loathed, living where he did not want to live, and married to a woman, my mother, he didn’t like. The last of his four children had finally escaped his direct control, he owned a house outright worth millions, and he was a successful psychotherapist, a trade he might have plied anywhere; yet he could not bring himself to change, and so daily drank himself into a stupor and outwardly blamed his misfortune on my mother.

I hitchhiked to Atherton from Santa Cruz for my father’s fiftieth birthday party, though at the age of twenty-three I was a source of shame and disappointment to my parents. I had defied their wishes and dropped out of college to create a life that made sense to me apart from the expectations of others. I had lived as a vagabond from nineteen to twenty-two, and only recently settled among the communards of Santa Cruz (circa 1972) where I earned my living as a musician and laborer. I did not often visit my parents in those days because to tarry in my father’s presence was to invite diatribes of condemnation.

On the morning following his fiftieth birthday party, as I was about to head home to Santa Cruz, my father invited me to join him for coffee on the terrace. I vividly remember that morning—a scorcher in late August—my father looking haggard and sad, the strong black coffee not yet mitigating his hangover. And before he could launch into yet another sermon about me pissing my life away, I said, “So, Dad, now that you’re fifty…if you could live anywhere and be anything you want to be, what would you do?”

“Anything and anywhere?” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I would buy a house near the water in Carmel and be a sculptor. Wood and stone.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I’m too old,” he said bitterly. “And your mother would never let me.”

“Sure she would. She loves Carmel. She loves the ocean. And you know she’s happiest when you’re happy.”

“No,” he said, continuing to shake his head. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Fifty is not old, Dad. Why not give it a try?”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said, sneering at me. “Your mother would never allow it. I’d have to divorce her to have the life I want.”

“So why not get a divorce?”

“She couldn’t survive without me. I wouldn’t do that to her. No…we’re stuck.”

Thus spoke the renowned psychotherapist; and not a word of what he said was true. My mother had recently begun practicing law and was earning a good salary. She would gladly have sold their crumbling house to start anew in Carmel; and had my father been bold enough to divorce her, she would have settled for a fortune and lived no more unhappily than she did in their loveless marriage.

We said our uneasy goodbyes and I walked down the hill to the Alameda de las Pulgas where I got a ride from a guy in a convertible Volkswagen going to Woodside. From Woodside I rode in the back of a pickup over the crest of the coast range and down through the redwoods of La Honda to the hamlet of San Gregorio where I bought cheese and bread and chocolate for a picnic on the beach. And as I walked out to the ocean, I passed the beautiful farm near the mouth of the San Gregorio where my father had taken me when I was eight and again when I was twelve, a farm for sale that my father said he wanted to buy so he could live near the ocean and sculpt wood and stone.

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

A sunny morning, the tide stupendously low, I walk the far reaches of the beach at Big River, and sing a wordless song to the drone of the roaring waves. Now an osprey plummets out of the cerulean sky and splashes down in the nearby shallows to catch a silver sliver of life.

“Good omen,” I say, watching in awe as the raptor flies up from the water to roost in a cliff-hanging pine; and sure enough, here ahead of me on the untrod sand is a magnificent walking stick, long and sturdy and bleached white by the sun.

Enter the pelicans—twelve apostles—fifty yards offshore, gliding northward in an undulating line, the tips of their wings nearly touching the dark waters.

“Omens galore,” I say, as the osprey dives again.

Gay

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” Raymond Chandler

Before the advent of the interweb, I frequented libraries and secondhand bookstores in search of good short stories, my appetite for cuentos pequeños insatiable. I am not keen on most contemporary short stories that find their way into mass media print, so I mainly feed on authors dead and obscure.

When I was living in Berkeley in the 1990’s, I came upon a library cache of short story anthologies published annually in the 1920’s and 1930’s, hardbound volumes featuring now mostly forgotten literary darlings of America and England. Many of the stories were well written, in stark contrast to their equivalents today, though few of the stories were great. And in every volume there was a story by Gertrude Stein, though the word story does not do justice to her conglomerations of words, for her conglomerations do not tell tales so much as they weave verbal webs that may mean something to someone, but mean very little to me.

However, whilst devouring these relatively ancient anthologies, I came upon a particular Gertrude Stein story that excited me tremendously, for I felt I had discovered the origin of the current meaning of the word gay. The story is entitled Miss Furr & Miss Skeene and featured the use of gay in the following manner.

“…she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there. They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay. They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then. They were gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, they were gay…” Etc. Ad nauseam

I admit to skimming Ms. Stein’s prose, but even in skimming what academics used to call “stream of consciousness” and now refer to as “grammar fields” or “grammarscapes”, I was aware that repeating the word gay so many times in succession did, indeed, change the word from an adjective to a quasi-noun.

I know I was not the first to hypothesize that Miss Furr & Miss Skeene was the grammatical edifice that established a new meaning for the word gay, but for several years my “discovery” caused minor sensations at Berkeley soirees where I was apparently miles ahead in that particular trivial pursuit. Today the interweb is rife with celebratory stories about Stein’s story being the first to use gay to mean what gay means today.

“You think I’m going to leave you alone with a strange Italian? He might be a tenor!” spoken by Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee

I confess that before gay meant homosexual, I loved that gay meant carefree. I loved gay in poems by William Carlos Williams about birds singing. I loved gay in front of the word divorcee, meaning a happy person freed from an oppressive union, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I loved gay when it meant the opposite of blue when blue meant sad. “I was feeling so blue until my baby came back and now I’m gay.”

But what are you going to do? Language morphs. Were Gertrude Stein to come back today, I presume she would be pleasantly surprised by the expression “gays and lesbians,” because aren’t lesbians gay? Well, yes and no. According to my up-to-date politically correct gay and lesbian sources, gays are male homosexuals, and lesbians are female homosexuals. However, a lesbian can be gay, but she cannot be a gay. That is, gay now means two different but related things. Gay can be an adjective meaning homosexual, or if someone is a gay, he is a male homosexual. Thus the expression gays and lesbians is not a contradiction or a redundancy, though it might be a paradox.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers

The latest news swirling around the definition of gay is that many gays and lesbians are deeply concerned about the widespread and growing and indiscriminate use of the expression, That is so gay, in which gay no longer overtly means homosexual, but rather means wimpy or weak or silly or stupid or lame, which, according to gay rights advocates, makes the word gay in the expression that is so gay a barely veiled attack on gays and lesbians and everything gay.

Man oh man. I mean woman oh woman. I mean person oh person. The definition of gay just gets curiouser and curiouser. Words, words, words. Who can explain them, who can tell you why? Fools give you answers, wise men never try.

“Hello lamp post, what ya knowin’? I come to watch your flowers growin’. Ain’t you got no rhymes for me? Do do do do…feelin’ groovy.” Paul Simon

Despite that song, I’ve been trying to bring back the word groovy for the last twenty years. But no matter how often and appropriately I use groovy, people invariably smirk or snort. Now why is that? Groovy is not only a groovy sounding word, groovy conveys a right-on-ness and musicality and, well, grooviness that no other word can convey. I know, I know, you associate groovy with other words from a time you’d rather forget or misremember, but compare groovy to the expression that is so gay and groovy is Shakespeare whereas that is so gay is barely Stephen King.

Speaking of short stories, here are the names of several fantastic short story writers (most of them dead) I’ve been gorging on of late. Some of these writers were openly gay, some closeted, some carefree, some burdened with guilt and sorrow and confusion. Some were flaming heterosexuals, some less flaming. Some were probably bisexual. Three are women, though only Edith is obviously so.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Guy de Maupassant, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Isak Dinesen, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Frank O’Connor, A.S. Byatt, V.S. Pritchett, William Trevor, D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekov.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)