Monday, March 12, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE BLACK SOUL” by Liam O’Flaherty (first published 1924)

After the Lockout reminds us that a small group of young Irishmen wanted a socialist Ireland at the time of the struggle for Irish independence. One of them was Liam O’Flaherty (1897-1984). He fought in the “Tan” war against the British and, with some mates, raised a red flag over one of Dublin’s buildings when the new Free State was heading for civil war. Of course he was on the IRA side of the civil war. For many years he was a member of the Communist Party, and every so often made controversial statements about the wonderful things being achieved by the Soviet Union. In old age, however,  he was reconciled to the Catholic church in which he had been raised.

I have a particular soft spot for O’Flaherty, party because he is now so unfashionable. Some of O’Flaherty’s vivid short-stories (such as The Sniper and The Rockfish) still turn up regularly in school anthologies. His most famous novel The Informer (1925) has remained in print. But you’d probably have to scour second-hand book-stores to find his other titles. His The Puritan (1932) is an angry diatribe directed at Irish sexual repressiveness, and his Famine (1937) is one of the best popular novels about the 1840s Irish famine. They sit in battered second-hand editions on my shelf.

O’Flaherty was once regarded as a major writer and had an international reputation. The Informer was filmed twice (there was a silent version made in England in 1928; and the famous version John Ford made in Hollywood in 1935). Surprisingly, the French were interested in his books too. In the 1930s, two of his works were filmed in Paris studios with French actors, The Puritan, and Mr Gilhooley (the latter under the title Derniere Jeunesse). I’d really love to see what the French made of The Puritan which, film reference books tells me, retained its original Dublin setting. Imagine Jean-Louis Barrault as a Dubliner!

O’Flaherty has slipped off the literary radar partly because of his style. He works in bold brush-strokes and broad melodramatic situations. Irony is of the crudest sort. Reading Famine, for example, I was reminded of raw peasant tales like Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don. O’Flaherty didn’t do Modernism, or the type of finely-calibrated self-referencing gamesmanship that now wins literary applause.

For this very reason, I commend The Black Soul to you as both period piece and curiosity. It was the first novel O’Flaherty wrote (although the second to be published) and it is melodramatic in spades.

An Irish soldier, damaged and disoriented after his experience in the Great War, tries to settled on one of the Aran Islands. So far so autobiographical, as Liam O’Flaherty himself was a native of the Aran Islands and served in the British Army in the Great War before being invalided out with “shellshock”.

The ex-soldier is known only as The Stranger, although at one point we are told that his name is Fergus O’Connor and he comes from Dublin. The Stranger is fiercely anti-clerical, despairing, and sees no real purpose in life. His nerves are shattered. He is severely depressive and often refers to himself as “the Black Soul”.

For a year (the novel is organized in four sections corresponding to the seasons), The Stranger lives with a mismatched peasant couple. The wife is tall, stately and beautiful and is known ironically as Little Mary. The husband is a deformed, ugly, red-bearded dwarf whom everyone calls Red John. Husband and wife have never slept together. Little Mary hates Red John. Sexually starved, she longs for a lover. The Stranger is attracted to her, but is disdainful of the superstitious peasantry with whom she associates. For a while he attempts to court the pious Catholic (and middle-class) daughter of his anti-clerical drinking mate O’Daly.

Eventually, however, the sensual appeal of Little Mary is too strong and she and The Stranger sleep together. When he realizes he is a cuckold, Red John goes berserk. In the violent denouement, played out of the island’s windy cliff-tops and booming sea caverns, The Stranger fights and kills Red John. Then, with the help of O’Daly, The Stranger and Little Mary are able to flee from the island and set off for a life together. Liberated sexual love, the ending suggests, has freed The Stranger from his crippling confusions and given him a purpose in life.

I have not hesitated to tell the whole plot here because The Black Soul is less interesting for its fable-like plot than for the crude and raw energy of its style. You can see that, with a tall beautiful peasant woman called Little Mary and an ugly peasant dwarf called Red John, O’Flaherty is more interested in creating archetypes than psychologically-rounded characters. Here is all the sexual beauty of the hardy Irish peasant woman; and there is all the intellectual crudity of the domineering Irish peasant man – and in between, there is a shattered Irish intellectual not knowing which values to adopt. You could stretch as point and see the Aran island on which the story is set as symbolic of all of Ireland – repressive, bound by tradition and a good place to escape from.

Yet in truth, this is the novel of a young man who hasn’t quite found his voice. The Stranger – sexually attractive to the peasant woman – is clearly the author’s surrogate. As well as sharing elements of O’Flaherty’s own biography at the time, he is like the type of male fantasy-figure D.H.Lawrence used to create – sexually potent and immensely attractive to women (think Mellors the game-keeper, Lawrence’s big fantasy compensation for his own practical impotence).

There is grave confusion about whose viewpoint O’Flaherty is adopting. Sometimes in The Black Soul, The Stranger stands in judgment on the uncouth peasantry and we are clearly meant to endorse his judgments. At other times, he is depicted as brain-damaged and slightly demented. The novel is written in brief, declarative sentences and littered with purple-prose descriptive passages of waves crashing, Atlantic winds howling and cliffs towering, all of which are presumably intended to symbolise great primal forces of nature at work in the characters’ souls.

In short, the young man writing this novel is still finding his subject, and the novel is a little out-of-control and over-wrought in style.

Yet, as I scribbled them into my reading notebook, it found some pungent passages.

Take this one, when The Stranger has just failed to engage intellectually with yet another peasant. In a nutshell, it expresses the tragedy of the Irish Catholic-raised anti-clerical:

  ‘Ah,’ he said to himself, ‘he has no intellect. That’s what it is.’ And he cursed God for having given himself a strong intellect until he remembered that there was no God and became still more depressed because he had nobody to blame for his sorrow.”

Then there’s this acute observation on peasant mores:

“The peasants of Rooruck, like all peasants and rustics and small townspeople, loved the sensation of somebody in their village being dead or sick or murdered or accused of murder or gone mad. They did not read newspapers, so the pleasure of talking scandal and trying to foist crimes and immoral habits on each other was their only harmless pleasure.”

I doubt if this particular peasant and small-town fault is peculiar to the Irish.


  1. I have to write an essay about the influence of Dostojevski's works on the black soul and O'Flaherty work have You got any tips or suggestions?

  2. Sorry to give you such a disappointing answer, but no, I do not think I would be of much help to you. I am aware that "The Black Soul" in the novel of that name, and Gypo Nolan in "The Informer" and even, I suppose, "The Puritan" in the novel of that name are all solitary and confused and in some way outcast figures, a bit like Rashkolnikov and other Dostoievskian heroes; and I suppose that in some way they are all seeking "salvation" or rescue ("the black soul" by sexual liberation and escape fom the community; Gypo Nolan by the forgiveness of the mother of the man he betrayed; "the puritan" by confronting the facts of sex and his own hypocrisy). However, as I read it, O'Flaherty's "salvation" is not the religious one of Dostoievsky. But I am no expert on either writer and I am sorry that I can really say no more than this, My apologies.

  3. I just finished watching "Le Puritain", and I have to say, it isn't particularly notable for the Irishness of its atmosphere. The characters seem very French to me, and the sets are almost expressionist in their shadowy blurriness. As the other poster asked about Dostoesvsky, I'll add that it seemed very reminiscent of "Crime and Punishment", especially film treatments of the story. The result is not the same, as you point out, but the motivation (he states that he wanted to do something to astonish the world, which sounds a bit like Raskolnikov's arrogant assumption of the right of a superior being to take life) and especially the mental breakdown after committing the crime are very reminiscent of Raskolnikov.

    1. As I noted in my post (written nearly two years ago!), I have never seen "Le Puritain", but would very much like to do so. How did you get hold of it? It doesn't surprise me in the least that it was totally French. However, Dr.Mabuse, I have seen both "Dr Mabuse the Gambler" and "The Testament of Dr Mabuse"!!!!!