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'To Appreciate Him Alive' : A biography that aims to give the feel of a slap on the back : CONOR: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien, By Donald Harman Akenson (Cornell University Press: $35; 573 pp.)

October 30, 1994|RICHARD EDER

You won't find many biographies, particularly from university presses, that make their title a first name: not "James" for Joyce nor "Leo" for Tolstoy nor "Immanuel" for Kant. Not only does Donald Harman Akenson use "Conor" as title for his account of the Irish writer, editor, diplomat, politician, polemicist, professor and peace- and trouble-maker Conor Cruise O'Brien; but he invariably refers to him that way in the text.

It's true that the Irish first-name their public figures to death--they get a last name when they die--but that's only partly the point that Akenson (a Canadian professor of Swedish descent) is after. His model, he tells us in the preface, would be two or three old men ruminating over pints in a pub:

"One old fellow taps another on the knee and starts to talk about 'your man,' whoever he might be. That's how one wants to talk about Conor, with the sense that he might be coming through the door any moment, and, by God, things around here will pick up when he does." There will be time to analyze O'Brien after he is dead, Akenson writes; what he is after is "to appreciate him alive."

"Conor" contains no lack of appreciation, not to mention coziness and author's jokes; not infrequently, they flood the book and dampen the reader. Yet Akenson conveys the temper and the performances of a remarkable man on a remarkable assortment of the world's front-line stages. (Given the frequency and storminess of his exits, perhaps one should speak of a remarkable assortment of first acts.) Paul Johnson, a writer of largely different political views, called O'Brien's biography of Edmund Burke a book "by the greatest living Irishman on the greatest Irishman who ever lived."

Akenson has labored in privileged access--hundreds of hours with O'Brien and his poet wife, Maire MacEntee, interviews with friends, allies and antagonists, and mounds of unsorted papers in the University College library in Dublin and in his subject's garden shed--but there is no reason to doubt his assertion that he neither showed his manuscript to O'Brien nor was asked to. He can be shrewdly critical, though not, I suspect, in any way that O'Brien would be devastated to read. What is harder and more valuable, he can be shrewdly admiring.

O'Brien is the scion of a comfortably prominent Irish nationalist family that was superseded when the 1916 Easter uprising raised the stakes. An outstanding student and talented literary essayist, he joined the Irish diplomatic service and rose rapidly, gaining a reputation for brilliance, wit and unmanageability.

It was in the early 1960s that these qualities made world headlines. Dag Hammarskjold sent him to run the United Nations effort to end the insurgency in Katanga, where Moise Tshombe had set up a mercenary-armed state against the newly independent Congo. After success and setbacks, O'Brien quit spectacularly with the public charge that Belgium and Great Britain were backing a puppet against the U.N.

He became a Third World hero. (Years later, O'Brien's support of Israel would cool the admiration, as well as illustrate a constitutional tendency to take an interest in his friends' enemies, and a dislike to his friends' friends.) Kwame Nkrumah named him to run the University of Ghana, and he stayed for three years struggling to keep it academically independent of his increasingly irritated patron. When he went to take ceremonial leave, he found Nkrumah busily writing and only able to look up for a moment. "Dr. O'Brien, I would like to thank you for what you did for the University of Ghana," Nkrumah said and paused. After a meditative few moments, he added: "Whatever it was."

At New York University, then in a flush of funds and expansion, O'Brien was appointed to set up a program called "Literature and Society." It combined his interests as a public man and a literary intellectual; and plunged him into a sometimes embattled relationship with the New York intelligentsia.

The principal battle was political. He favored resistance to military expansion by the Soviet Bloc but fiercely opposed U.S. interference with Marxist movements and insurrections in the Third World. He was among the first to accuse the magazine Encounter, supported by many American and English intellectuals, of having something other than intellectual grounds for its anti-Communist stance. When it came out that Encounter's parent organization was funded by the CIA, the resulting embarrassment seemed to justify O'Brien's pugnacity, but those embarrassed didn't thank him for it. He remained a star, though, at the New York Review of Books, even after he returned to Ireland to go into politics.

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