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Julia O'faolain Biography

Julia O'Faolain comments:

Nationality: Irish. Born: London, England, 1932; daughter of the writer Sean O'Faolain. Education: The Sacred Heart Convent, Dublin; University College, Dublin, B.A. in French and Italian 1952, M.A. 1953; University of Rome; the Sorbonne, Paris. Career: Translator for Council of Europe, and worked as supply teacher and cook in London, 1955-57; instructor in French, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, and taught evening classes in Italian, Portland State University, 1957-61; teacher, Scuola Interpreti, Florence, 1962-65. Lives in London. Awards: Arts Council of Great Britain bursary, 1981. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers Coleridge and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London, W11 1JN, England; or, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.



Godded and Codded. London, Faber, 1970; as Three Lovers, NewYork, Coward McCann, 1971.

Women in the Wall. London, Faber, and New York, Viking Press, 1975.

No Country for Young Men. London, Allen Lane, 1980; New York, Carroll and Graf, 1987.

The Obedient Wife. London, Allen Lane, 1982; New York, Carroll and Graf, 1985.

The Irish Signorina. London, Viking, 1984; Bethesda, Maryland, Adler, 1986.

The Judas Cloth. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1992.

Short Stories

We Might See Sights! and Other Stories. London, Faber, 1968.

Man in the Cellar. London, Faber, 1974.

Melancholy Baby and Other Stories. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1978.

Daughters of Passion. London, Penguin, 1982.


Editor, with Lauro Martines, Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians. London, Temple Smith, and New York, Harper, 1973.

Translator (as Julia Martines), Two Memoirs of Renaissance Florence: The Diaries of Buonaccorso Pitti and Gregorio Dati, edited by Gene Brucker. New York, Harper, 1967.

Translator, A Man of Parts, by Piero Chiara. Boston, Little Brown, 1968.


Critical Studies:

Two Decades of Irish Writing edited by Douglas Dunn, Manchester, Carcanet, and Philadelphia, Dufour, 1975; "The Irish Novel in Our Time" edited by Patrick Rafroidi and Maurice Harmon, in Publications de l'Université de Lille 3, 1975-76; by O'Faolain, in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 2 edited by Adele Sarkissian, Detroit, Gale, 1985; Irish Women Writers by Ann Owens Weekes, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1990; articles by Thomas R. Moore and Laura B. Van Dale, in Colby Quarterly (Waterville, Maine), March 1991.

I like fiction to be a Trojan horse. It can seem to be engineering an escape from alien realities but its true aim is to slip inside them and get their measure. Sly and demystificatory, it dismantles myths. This can arouse mixed feelings, for myths, though more interesting when taken apart, are grander while intact. But then ambivalence, it seems, is the nerve of narrative. Regret plus pleasure moves more than either can alone. Moreover, having grown up in a place where myth ran rampant, my native impulse is to cut through and past it.

(1995) Recently I have gone back to writing short stories, a notoriously tricky genre which should be able to condense enough light to burn through to the essence of things. I aim for realism and particularity, then try—nervously—to achieve a lift-off to some angle of vision from which my narrative will look different. The genre is prodigal in that it compresses what a novel would spin out, and risky, since it can misfire. When it works, there's nothing like it for catching the vibrancy of the evanescent. Just now the writers who seem to me to bring this off best are nearly all American and Canadian. A response to a need? Surely. The day they seize is so protean. Living, as I do, in London's slower tempo, I may be working against the odds.

* * *

There is something déjà vu about Julia O'Faolain's first novel, Godded and Codded, centring on the innocent Irish Sally's further education—in several senses—in Paris, not wholly redeemed by the book's uproarious comedy. The inevitably pregnant Sally's equally inevitable Christmas visit to her parents in Ireland covers even more familiar ground, as we are shown the circumstances that have made Sally what she is—that is, what she must react against. O'Faolain's earlier story "A Pot of Soothing Herbs" encapsulated this—the archetypal Irish virginal dilemma; the later story "Lots of Ghastlies" more adroitly transplants to an English bourgeois setting the theme of a return visit to the parental home. More interesting in Godded and Codded than the "innocents abroad" theme is the peripheral description of the underground activities of a group of Algerian students in Paris shortly before Independence. Irish expatriates provide much of the novel's burlesque comedy.

Her first collection, We Might See Sights!, is divided by O'Faolain into Irish and Italian stories. The outstanding story is "Dies Irae," set in an Italian hairdresser's salon and perhaps influenced by Colette; to pacify an elderly Russian princess, the hairdresser points out signs of decay in the narrator, for whom a normally pleasant occasion becomes her dies irae. There is black comedy in the plight of the husband chained in the cellar by his wife, in the title story of Man in the Cellar; the story is told in letters and the final surprisingly affectionate letter from the decamped and mentally disturbed wife reveals how securely invisible chains are fastened on her. The didactic element is stronger in this later collection of stories, but is offset by these of out-of-the-way situations; "This is My Body," for instance, set in a sixth-century convent, handles the female Irish writer's stock-in-trade of convent material from a new angle, which Women in the Wall also exploits.

In Women in the Wall, set in 6th-century Gaul, O'Faolain breathes life into a group of characters who—except two—existed in history, though as the author explains in her introduction, she departed from history in plotting. The monologue of the anchoress in the convent alternates with an account of the darkening political situation, bringing barbarism to the very convent walls; the two threads finally merge in the denouement. But even behind the convent walls, the nuns' lives are shown as often far from quiet, as O'Faolain probes the stresses of celibacy, its occasional abandonment and its link to mystical experience. Her description of nature is always vivid, especially here where she relies heavily on natural imagery to avoid anachronism.

O'Faolain also interweaves different narrative threads to provide explosive connections in No Country for Young Men: the death of an American Republican fundraiser in Ulster in 1922 casts a long shadow as an American ex-academic arrives in Ireland in 1979 to interview survivors of the 1920s Troubles for a film and so crosses paths with an old half-insane nun through his romantic entanglement with her married great-niece. This novel, shortlisted for the Booker prize, is O'Faolain's best novel to date, enabling her to deploy all her skills of allusively connecting social, cultural, historical, and economic insights. These electric interconnections are often wittily achieved, sometimes pivoting on linguistic humour. O'Faolain's style is so exciting that the reader may overlook the fact that her characters tend to share a similar wide-ranging, ironic perception, imposed by the style.

An outstanding illustration of the disadvantage of O'Faolain's brilliant style, notwithstanding that it provides a vivid impression of whatever society she's writing about, comes in The Obedient Wife; Carla is endowed by the author with witty dialogue and far-ranging ironic thought that seem too dazzling for the character as otherwise presented. An Italian living in California from where her husband has returned, supposedly temporarily, to Italy, Carla despite her paganism believes in the traditional role of the wife—or has been culturally brainwashed into believing in it. Yet, she becomes emotionally involved with a Catholic priest. Carla's relationship with her teenage son is especially well drawn, with empathy for both sides.

In The Irish Signorina, as in earlier books, the plot is engendered by the crisscrossing of intergenerational threads. A young Irish girl is invited by the dying Italian Marchesa Cavalcanti to stay in the villa where her mother had worked for the marchesa as a girl. Against the background of the Cavalcanti family's roots in the land and modern terrorism, complex webs of personal relationships, old and new, emerge. Though shorter than O'Faolain's previous novels, the economy and restraint that she here shows in dealing with her always interesting material illustrate her extraordinary stylistic development since her early writing. Returning to her ever-present Catholic themes in The Judas Project, O'Faolain portrayed the world of Pope Pius IX. Pius, who reigned in the mid-19th century, reacted to the uprising of 1848 by becoming an archconservative who promulgated the doctrines of Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility. The book is a powerful narrative, one that amply illustrates the punch which O'Faolain packs into each novel.

Val Warner

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