Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Innocence" (1948)

Story by Sean O'Faolain not available online.

Sean O'Faolain is another writer in these anthologies that I'm basically getting my introduction to now. I barely even know the name, but Wikipedia informs he was Irish (duh), primarily a short story writer, and fairly prolific. A man of letters—he also wrote criticism, biography, novels, and more. The language in this story is beautiful and seductive, but the story—which is very short, barely five printed pages—is kind of a labored joke about a boy's misunderstanding of the word "adultery." It's also saturated in Catholic culture. The misunderstanding occurs in a confessional. The scene is actually pretty funny. The priest is old and doddering. At first he mistakes his confessor for a girl, which suggests the first-person narrator's youth at the time of the incident—or his underdevelopment, because his voice might have still been high. The narrator is recounting the story as an adult many years later, a full-grown man with a son of his own, looking back through the haze of memory, quite evidently casting a glow on it. It's also a little too cute about withholding the term in question ("adultery"), which instantly clarifies all the mystifying confusion. But it wouldn't have been as funny that way. Oops, I gave it away. Well, it's an odd duck at any rate, much closer to memoir. I have to wonder if the "innocence" of the title is perhaps not a little the narrator's own still. The revelation appears to be that the Catholic church is fallible despite its claims. What he's most worried about now is what it will do to his son's psyche when he comes to the realization in his turn. It's something like the way we think about breaking it to kids that Santa Claus is all a hoax. So maybe it's me, after all, and not the narrator, who is the real innocent around here. Still, the whole little thing strikes me as a bit of a stunt. It's also way too Catholic for my taste. But my vague sense of O'Faolain's reputation (set permanently as Irish, likely in the long shadow of James Joyce), and especially the wonderful ease and expressiveness of the language here, make me think he might be worth looking into further one of these days.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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