Thursday, December 30, 2010

Frank O'Connor v Elizabeth Bowen

I've already written about the Guardian's short story podcasts, how much I am enjoying them and how they throw up some fascinating juxtapositions. I've just listened to two more, back-to-back, and how instructive it's been. They are both stories of childhood and growing up, told from the young person's point of view. One is superb, the other very good but flawed.

Firstly Elizabeth Bowen's The Jungle, an absolutely stunning depiction of growing up in the class-ridden world of just after the First World War. Rachel and Elise are students in a public school who discover a secret place, The Jungle. It is a brilliantly portrayed world, told mostly from Rachel's point of view and demonstrating her coming of age. Elise is different, an outsider from a lower social class and self-contained in a way that Rachel, straight-laced and conformist, cannot ever be. The two girls become confidantes, fall out, come together again. That's about it. But it is wonderfully realised. There is an extraordinary erotic charge running through the story, not least because there is positively no sexual contact or even discussion in the story. It is all implied. It is a masterclass in writing theme, and not letting the theme write the story. And the visions of these two girls are wholly convincing. It is flawless.

My Oedipus Complex, by Frank O'Connor, on the other hand, is definitely flawed. It is the humorous story of a young boy, only six or so, in rural Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the war. For the duration of the war, with his father safely away fighting, Larry has been the sole object of his mother's attention. The jealousy he feels when his father returns from the war and takes his place in his mother's bed, becomes the centre of attention, is humorously realised. It is a funny story, for sure. But it fails in terms of point of view.

The story is told in the first person, through Larry's eyes. This is always a difficult trick to pull off: it requires the artlessness of a child allied to the eye of a writer; things have to be relayed from the perspective of an innocent while we, the knowing readers, can see what the narrator does not. At times, it works beautifully, such as when his Mother tells Larry that babies cost seventeen and six to buy and therefore they can't afford a baby brother or sister for him until Daddy comes home from the war. "That showed how simple she was," Larry tells us. "The Geneys up the road had a baby, and everyone knew they couldn't afford seventeen and six."

This is great. It's a funny intrusion into the straightforward mind of a six year old child. But at other times it doesn't work. Larry is afforded knowledge or nuance that he simply couldn't have. He tells us at one point 'Father had an extraordinary capacity for amiable inattention.' That cannot possibly be construed as the thoughts of a six-year-old. No, you might argue, it's the point of view of the adult Larry writing his thoughts later. But that doesn't work, because if that is the case why were we given the seventeen and six thought verbatim from the six-year-old consciousness? It's a clear contradiction. The point of view has to be one or the other. It cannot mix the two.

Other examples:

'Dawn was just breaking, with a guilty air tha made me feel I had caught it in the act.' This is a great line, but it feels utterly out of place in this story of innocence.

And when Larry's misbehaviour finally provokes his father to rage, causing him to threaten to smack Larry's bottom, there is this exchange, showing the worst and best of the story:

All his previous shouting was nothing to these obscene words referring to my person. They really made my blood boil.

"Smack your own!" I screamed hysterically. "Smack your own! Shut up! Shut up!"


"Smack your own" is wonderfully funny, exactly the sort of sensible nonsense children come out with. But preceding it is this haughty, adult high dudgeon. The exclamation would have been borne of incomprehending fury, not hurt dignity.

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