Flann OBrien: A Postmodernist When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular
Tim Pat Coogan describes interviewing Flann OBrien in 1964 after the publication of The Dalkey Archive. The interview was carefully planned. Apart from getting him to talk, there was one other main objective: to keep OBrien away from the drink. It was to take place at 8.30 on a Saturday morning so that he could be returned home before the pubs opened. But the wily OBrien escaped the television crews vigilance. Disappearing to the toilet in his house when the camera man called for him, he was hauled out some twenty five minutes later, drunk as a lord. He had hidden a bottle of whisky in the cistern and downed the lot while the crew were eating breakfast. Somehow the interview went ahead OBrien demanding more drink as he rambled on with the result that on the only surviving recording of his voice we hear a man slurring his words, obviously drunk. Praised by the producer as one of the “classics of Irish broadcasting,” it was unbroadcastable in 1960s Ireland and is hardly a fitting tribute to its subject.
Flann OBriens real name was Brian ONolan. His English novels appeared under the name of Flann OBrien, while his great Irish novel and his newspaper column (which appeared from 1940 to 1966) were signed Myles na gCopaleen or Myles na Gopaleen the second being a phonetic rendering of the first. One of twelve brothers and sisters, he was born in 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, into an Irish-speaking family. His father had learned Irish while a young man during the Gaelic revival the son was later to mock. OBriens childhood has been described as happy, though somewhat insular, as the language spoken at home was not that spoken by their neighbours. The Irish language had long been in decline, and Strabane was not in an Irish-speaking part of the country. The family moved frequently during OBriens childhood, finally settling in Dublin in 1925. Four years later OBrien took up study in University College Dublin.
During OBriens college days he discovered a gift for debate (he was known in later life for never backing down in an argument) and a talent for writing, contributing to the student publication Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Play) and later editing the short-lived Blather, most of which he wrote himself. It was also during his college days that he discovered a love of drink. He graduated with an MA (his thesis was on Irish poetry) in 1935, at which point he joined the civil service, working steadily and apparently putting his writing career on hold for two years.
The Ireland of Flann OBriens day was not exactly a maelstrom of progressive thinking and avant garde art. Her most daring writers, like Beckett and Joyce, had gone abroad, but Flann OBrien never lived outside Ireland (though he did casually mention to a credulous American journalist that he had lived in Germany, where he had got into a spot of bother with the Nazis in a beer hall). Ireland was fresh from gaining her independence and still smarting from a bitter civil war. The 1930s saw an economic war with Britain; the Second World War (referred to as the “emergency”) saw strict neutrality extended even to the newspapers, which were subject to the censor. The Catholic Church still had a tight grip on the state, as seen in the debacle of the Mother and Child Scheme, an attempt to extend social care to pregnant women that was spiked by the Church on the grounds that it interfered with the institution of the family. Throughout nearly all of Flann OBriens life there was wide ranging censorship of “indecent” material, which led to the banning of many books. It was joked at the time that no writer worth his salt would write a book that wasnt banned, and OBrien seems to have tried to provoke the banning of his The Hard Life (he named one of the characters “Father Fahrt”).
In the course of his work, OBrien was once required to write a report on aspects of the civil service. He complained that the strictures of service and pension regulations encouraged timidity in the bloated civil service. The following extract from that report hints at what his biographer, Anthony Cronin, calls the paralysis of Irelands economic and social life: “Already the bulk of the countrys intellectual material passes into the Civil Service as a matter of course. Once there, it is deliberately debased and dehumanised but it is lost forever to the proper service of the nation.”
A fictional glimpse of this conservative aspect of Ireland is provided in his play Faustus Kelly, where one character says of the “Government machinery” that “They do have to refuse everything to be on the safe side.”
These, then, were the conditions in which Flann OBrien wrote two of the great postmodern novels. Where, then, did this postmodern impulse come from? Perhaps for OBrien it was no more than a means to a comic end. He admits almost as much in his letter to William Saroyan, which accompanies The Third Policeman. The intermingling of narrative levels and the circularity of narrative simply may have been tools in his comedy workshop.
At Swim-Two-Birds, OBriens first novel, was published in 1939, selling just 244 copies before the London warehouse in which it was stored was destroyed in the blitz. Not a good beginning for a book which famously boasts three beginnings itself. The novel shows a great command of language, with dozens of different styles represented and, true to its own injunction that the modern novel should be “largely a work of reference,” it contains over 40 extracts from other works.
Although some of At Swims more outrageous turns may indeed be set up for comedic value, the work has been the subject of many serious discussions. In his seminal Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale returns a number of times to At Swim for examples of postmodern tropes; beyond its privileging of intertextuality and multiple beginnings, theres the books celebration of play and parody, its self-awareness and self-reflexivity, and its (hypodiagetic) questioning of the authors “unifying” voice. Theres also OBriens technique of “aestho-autogomy,” his term for the creation of fictional characters ab ovo et initio the character of Furriskey famously springs into the world of At Swim-Two-Birds as a fully grown man. Of course, there is nothing unusual about this; few fictional characters begin in the womb and grow to maturity before a novels plot gets underway. The difference is that OBrien calls attention to his artifice, laying bare the creative process itself. When a character such as Furriskey is created right in front of us, it demonstrates “the ontological instability and tentativeness of the fictional world” while at the same time dramatising the “ontological superiority of the author” (McHale). According to McHale, the essential difference between modernism and postmodernism is that the former is concerned with epistemological questions (e.g. “how can I interpret this world?”) while the latter is concerned with ontology (e.g. “which world is this?” “what is the mode of existence of a text?”)
Keith Hopper, a braver critic than I, has given the following one-sentence summary of the novel: At Swim-Two-Birds is “a book (by Flann OBrien) about a man writing a book (a student narrator) about a man writing a book (Dermot Trellis).” Within this complicated structure, characters cross over from different narrative levels, mixing with their own authors, borrowed mythical characters, and stock figures from trashy literature and films. In this world, authors hire out characters to other authors for the day or week. McHale has described the confrontation of author and character as almost a postmodern cliché. If this is indeed the case, OBrien was certainly quick off the mark: parodying it even before the term postmodernism had gained wide currency.
The following may give a taste of the intricacy of the plot (for there is enough of a plot, of sorts, for there to be a risk of spoiling it): Paul Shanahan and Antony Lamont meet with Finn Mac Cool, a figure from Gaelic legend (all three are characters in a novel being written by Dermot Trellis, though Mac Cool is also a “real” legend). Mac Cool tells them the story of Sweeny, another figure from Gaelic legend. At several points they interrupt him, one time telling him about Jem Casey, the “Poet of the Pick,” and reciting his poem “Workmans Friend.” Yet some time later we see Jem Casey meeting with Sweeny. Sweeny belongs to a different world to Jem Casey, but OBrien brings these worlds into collision with each other. This violation of the boundaries between worlds is also a feature of The Third Policeman, OBriens second novel.
The mixture of styles, which is a hallmark of the book, produces some fine comic moments, as when a verse in the style of ancient Irish mythology is ineptly added to Jem Caseys poem, Workmans Friend:
When moneys tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
When stags appear on the mountain high,
with flanks the colour of bran,
when a badger bold can say goodbye,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN!
As with his newspaper column, OBriens ear for Dublin speech is used to great effect. Not only does he have fine sensitivity to a particular kind of speech, he also has a wonderful affinity for a certain kind of “second-rate” intellect, one which is inferior but not downright stupid. Consider this exchange on the nature of death:
Death by fire, you know, by God its no joke.
They tell me drowning is worse, Lamont said.
Do you know what it is, said Furriskey, you can drown me three times before you roast me. Yes, by God and six. Put your finger in a basin of water. What do you feel? Next to nothing. But put your finger in the fire!
These characters firmly and solemnly believe in old wives tales and conventional wisdom, their tastes are solidly low brow, and their opinions are always resoundingly affirmed by their friends with never a critical note to spoil the harmony. They are serene in their good opinions of themselves as “decent skins.” While helping (actually hindering) an author (Orlick) to write a book, they pause to survey their work so far: “Do you know were doing well. Were doing very well.” Repetition accompanies nearly everything they say. When Shanahan takes offence at being described by Orlick as a “raconteur” Furriskey explains:
Whats wrong with you man, he asked. Whats the matter? Isnt it all right? Isnt it high praise? Do you know the meaning of that last word?
Its from the French, of course, said Shanahan.
Then Ill tell you what it means. It means youre all right. Do you understand me? Ive met this man. I know him. I think hes all right. Do you see it now?
And yet despite their love of Jem Casey for his unpretentious “pomes,” they do not regard themselves as average people, but are convinced they possess great artistic sensitivity. Discussing the book they are collaborating on with Orlick, Shanahan says:
you have to remember the man in the street. I may understand you, Mr Lamont may understand you, Mr Furriskey may understand you but the man in the street? Oh, by God you have to go very very slow if you want him to follow you.
This brief sketch can only give a faint idea of the book. When asked what War and Peace was about, Tolstoy replied that to explain it he would have to read the whole thing out. Much the same could be said of At Swim-Two-Birds. And though it may be a fantastically complicated book, OBrien is not wilfully obscure. He places helpful pointers for the reader along the way, including several “summaries of what has gone before.”
Despite all this postmodern trickery, At Swim-Two-Birds remains very readable. You read on in a desire to find out what happened next: how and where does it all end? Can such a complex book have a satisfactory ending? The book, in fact, has three endings, as might be expected from the three beginnings, but at the most basic level of narration (i.e. the words put on paper by Brian ONolan, alias Flann OBrien) there is only one ending and a surprisingly touching one at that.
The Third Policeman
The Third Policeman, OBriens second novel in English, was not published until after his death. It was rejected by one publisher during his lifetime and OBrien, a very shy man, never tried to publish it elsewhere, telling friends that he had lost the manuscript. He later reworked parts of it into The Dalkey Archive. In a letter to William Saroyan he wrote “it is supposed to be a funny book but I dont know about that
” Certainly it does not boast the hilarity of At Swim or some of his Cruiskeen Lawn newspaper columns. It strikes out in a different direction and does not rely so much on Dublin speech patterns, though there are the occasional hints of Cruiskeen Lawn in the narrators dialogue with his own conscience (whom he names Joe).
While At Swim plays with narrative, The Third Policeman plays with reality, tending towards pure fantasy. (Though this is not to say that The Third Policeman is without surprises in the area of narrative too.) It contains exchanges to baffle any translator, such as, “What is your cog? My cog? Your surmoun,” and puzzles like “This is not today, this is yesterday.” It is the story, told in the first person, of a murderer and his attempts to get his hands on the money for which he killed a neighbour, Phillip Mathers. The narrator, though he is just three hours walk from his home, finds himself in a very strange and unfamiliar part of the world, dealing with bicycles that turn into people, bands of one-legged men, and three policemen of monstrous proportions.
Play with proportions and perspectives comes up again and again in the book. For instance, when the narrator enters Mathers house, he goes through a window which seemed too small for him, and across an extraordinarily deep window sill. Another house he encounters has no breadth or depth. Elsewhere the narrator looks at thirteen chests, each identical but smaller than the next and says: “they looked to me as if they were all the same size but invested with some crazy perspective.” Policeman MacCruiskeen has a mangle which converts light into sound by stretching the light out of its normal proportions. At another point the narrator says he weighs 500,000 tons, while the sergeants bike seems small due to its perfect proportions, but is actually huge. The narrator finds himself in a place whose dimensions are “most unusual” the ceiling is “extraordinarily high,” the floor is narrow, and the stair steps are square. If At Swim-Two-Birds conflates narrative levels, The Third Policeman conflates dimensions: the sergeant looks into the middle of the day, which is five miles away.
This kind of strange proportionality is mirrored in the use of footnotes. As well as being a murderer, the narrator is also a student of de Selby, a scientist who believes, for example, that the earth is not round, but shaped like a sausage. Lengthy footnotes and references to the works of de Selbys critics and commentators run riot in the novel, threatening to take it over. De Selbys theories are nonsensical, and recognised as such by the commentators and yet a disproportionate amount of attention is given to these insane ideas. It is hinted that de Selby has other, reasonable theories, which presumably made his name, but these are never described or discussed by the narrator. We are left not knowing whether the narrator is unreliable, selecting only those ideas and discoveries that discredit de Selby, or if de Selby is simply insane.
Just as, according to OBrien, a lifetime spent in the saddle of a bike drives the riders personality into the bike and vice versa so that they come to resemble one another, so do the footnotes start to resemble a novel proper. The longest footnote is an adventure story full of incident and excitement and involving two of de Selbys commentators. Similarly, the novel proper is “contaminated” by de Selby, with several chapters beginning with the narrator musing on, for example, de Selbys experiments with water, before returning to the plot of the novel. Thus, OBrien brings about an ontological collision, as Nabokov was to do much later in Pale Fire, which also contains footnotes largely irrelevant to their subject (McHale).
The postmodern technique of cataloguing, which according to McHale hinders the readers attempts to reconstruct the reality of the book, is to be seen in The Third Policeman, (as indeed it is in At Swim-Two-Birds). In the former it frequently takes the form of strange question and answer sessions:
What would you say a bulbul is?
Not one of those ladies who takes money? I said.
Not the brass knobs on a German steam organ?
Not the knobs.
Nothing to do with the independence of America or suchlike?
A mechanical engine for winding clocks?
A tumour, or the lather in a cows mouth, or those elastic articles that ladies wear?
A bulbul is a Persian nightingale.
This may stem from Flann OBriens interest in and love for the Irish language. In a newspaper column he wrote
There is scarcely a single word in the Irish
that is simple and explicit
Here is an example copied from Dinneen and from more authentic sources known only to my little self:
Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m. act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting
the act of inflating hares offal with a bicycle pump
a hawks vertigo
a wooden coat, a custard mincer
a stoats stomach-pump
In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time.
But is the world presented in The Third Policeman really so strange? The policemen have a device which works by storing loud noises such as shouting and hammering, and later converting them into light when needed. Rusi Taleyarkhan, a researcher in the United States, has been working on “sonofusion” since 2001. This consists in attempting to release energy from liquids by bombarding the liquid with waves of ultrasound. The chests-within-chests that one of the policemen shows the narrator (the last of them so small they are invisible) could be a nod in the direction of postmodernisms fascination with recursivity. And are the footnotes so peculiar? They usually deal not so much with de Selby as with his admirers and detractors a satire, in other words, on the acolytes of academia. De Selby himself, like a Derrida, rises above the babble of critics.
One of The Third Policemans many footnotes speculates that Kraus and du Garbandier, two of de Selbys commentators, were one and the same person. We learn that another de Selby expert, Hatchjaw, is arrested for impersonating himself; and the possibility is mentioned that Hatchjaw was not Hatchjaw at all, but “either another person of the same name or an impostor.”
This ludicrous situation is one which OBrien and friends attempted with great success to play out in real life, hijacking the letters page of the Irish Times with a host of letters written under false names. The letters formed a kind of chain, with OBrien often sneering at letters he himself had written under a different name. The modern-day Irish Times will not publish pseudonymous letters, and requests that writers provide a phone number so that their identities can be verified; but at the time, editor R. M. Smyllie, encouraged no doubt by the rising circulation, gave OBrien his own column on the strength of the letters controversy (which he himself even joined in). However, OBriens position in the civil service meant that he could not express political opinions under his own name, so he adopted the pen name Myles na Gopaleen (Myles of the little horses, or according to himself Myles of the ponies). The column came to be known as An Cruiskeen Lawn, Irish for “the little full jug.”
Through the pages of the Irish Times, OBrien introduced us to insufferable bores (e.g. The Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript, The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular), the Plain People of Ireland, Sir Myles na Gopaleen, Keats and Chapman, and other memorable characters too numerous to describe here. Keats and Chapman are the names given to two characters who have various adventures, all with the purpose of ending the story with a punch line consisting of a bad pun, guaranteed to surprise the reader and yet elicit a groan of recognition. We meet the typical Dublin man, capable of accepting any ill fortune with equanimity, but meeting with outrage anything unprovoked or gratuitous. Relating a string of woes caused him by a visiting relative and including homelessness and bereavement, OBriens Dublin man ends with “and I wouldnt mind only on the way out he kicked the milk bottle to pieces.” At such times OBrien will often adopt the neutral politeness of an anthropologist:
Ah, yes, [says the Dublin man] the two is in the one grave.
Observe the unique Dublin dual number in full flight.
Many observations are specifically related to language and difficult to appreciate in translation:
I thought to myself, the chap said, that it was a right place to see wild angimals. I put meself on a 10 bus last Thursda. We got held up on the way and do you know be what?
I do not.
Be wild angimals.
It is difficult to give a true taste of the columns here OBriens comic timing was all-important, and quoting extracts often spoils the carefully built up effect. Anthony Cronin remarks that OBrien would rehearse his columns in conversation, often repeating them over and over again until he worked out a polished, final form.
Myles na Gopaleen is often a difficult curmudgeon of a character, with his war on cliché, bores, official Ireland, sections of the Irish language movement, and civil servants. Then there are his high-handed insults to his readers. In one column OBrien refers to them as “you smug, self-righteous swine
self-opinionated sod-minded suet-brained ham-faced mealy-mouthed streptococcus-ridden gang of natural gobdaws!” One critic writes: “OBrien had a way of repeating hackneyed expressions until the reader could no longer tolerate them.” And yet his readers loved the column. Cronin suggests that it was often hard to tell whether Dublin speech was the model for the column, or if the column at times became a model for Dublin speech.
Although its quality was not always consistently high, Cruiskeen Lawn was not the kind of inconsequential, self-indulgent blather that too often goes under the name of opinion columns today. OBrien was an erudite man, and did not just dash off columns without doing his homework. One unfortunate reader wrote to complain about what he thought were several factual inaccuracies in a column. OBrien printed the letter and meticulously proved the correspondent wrong at every point. Where the correspondent complained that railway trains did not exist in 1800 (the period OBrien was describing) OBrien replied testily: “Mr. Hogan questions my reference to railway trains. Here we are back to this incapacity to read. I had no reference whatsoever to railway trains, and no hint whatsoever about steam locomotion
Railways were used by Hannibal.” Strong stuff.
An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth)
An Béal Bocht, published in 1941, is OBriens Irish language triumph. It satirises attitudes to Irish speakers and parodies the literature of the Irish speaking areas. Critics are fond of saying that to appreciate the book one must know the targets of OBriens satire among them the memoirs of Peig Sayers and Tomás OCriomhthainn, as well as Dubliners who have learned Irish but whose image of the Irish is uncritically romantic.
But this is to do OBrien a disservice. An Béal Bocht is not half a book. It is whole and complete and hilarious in itself. Naturally there are intertextual references and in-jokes that the uninitiated will not always recognise, but these jokes are generally funny even if you dont know the full context. OBriens use of Irish is masterful, and native-speaker proficiency is required to fully appreciate all the nuances. But is this not true of any book? The better the reader the better the book. A reader who starts this book knowing nothing of the Irish Revival, the Irish language movement, or linguistic politics will finish it knowing a great deal more. Indeed, a better or more entertaining introduction to this aspect of Irish history would be hard to find.
Here, it would be traditional to explain the background of the book to “outsiders” so that they could better appreciate it. In fact, An Béal Bocht is itself the explanation of this background. For example, one could explain why it takes the form of a memoir (of one Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa), but does the reader really need to have read Sayers and OCriomhthainn to understand its satirical intent? (Or for that matter, Frank McCourt?) An Béal Bochts old-fashioned chapter headings feature brief summaries of their contents, and only one does not contain key phrases such as: “hardship,” “the bad life,” “black sadness,” “the bad thing chasing me,” “death and ill-fortune,” “hunger and ill-fortune,” “misery and hardship,” and “misery and ill-fortune.” You hardly need to know in advance that Peig Sayerss memoir dwelled on misery and hardship to appreciate the humour here. Similarly, if you were not aware that Irish language enthusiasts from Dublin could be condescending in their idealisation of the “true Irish,” you certainly will be after reading the description of Sitric Ó Sánasa. Ó Sánasa is particularly highly praised for his poverty by the Dubliners, who say they had never seen anyone so poor or true-Irish. One of them even breaks Sitrics bottle of water because it was spoiling the effect of poverty.
Another satirical target is the Irish literary revival, which idealised the “poetry” of ordinary Irish speakers. When his friend remarks that the weather looks like it may turn bad, Micheálangaló Ó Cúnasa replies: “it is no small thing said that you have said and if it is true for you then it is no lie you have told, but the truth.” This is a technique used by OBrien elsewhere. In At Swim-Two-Birds we meet the phrase “it is true that I will not” which means “no” in reply to a request. In The Third Policeman the narrator says “Your talk is surely the handiwork of wisdom for not one word of it do I understand.” In An Béal Bocht the Dublin Irish enthusiasts mistake the grunting of a pig for beautiful melodious Irish simply because they cannot understand it.
Tomás OCriomhthainns An tOileánach (The Islander) was one of the main targets in An Béal Bocht, and yet OBrien remarked that it was worth learning Irish in order to be able to read it. While An Béal Bocht is a book open to all, regardless of their knowledge of the social and literary background, it too is worth that highest of praise: you should learn the language it is written in so that you can read it in the original.
It could be argued that OBrien never realised his full potential. At Swim-Two-Birds, which in later years OBrien denigrated, only achieved notable success in 1960 (it had been republished in America in 1951, but had not sold very well). The rejection of The Third Policeman was a terrible blow to his literary career though his drinking cannot have helped his development as a novelist, either.
He had, to the great surprise of his friends, married in 1948, at which point he moved out of the family home, but it did not seem to improve his spirits for long (he was probably a depressive, and certainly an alcoholic). In the early 1950s his newspaper columns were especially bleak and highly critical of the government in the wake of the failed Mother and Child Scheme. In early 1952 he abruptly stopped writing Cruiskeen Lawn, being persuaded to return to it later in the year by the Irish Times, whose readers wanted him to continue. On his return he initially stuck with humorous topics, but soon turned to politics and the state of the nation. In 1953 he went too far, describing a politician in unflattering terms that were specific enough to allow the identification of the politician (it was OBriens own minister). It had long been known that Myles na gCopaleen was the pen name of Brian ONolan, civil servant, but the civil service had not up till then taken any action, partly because his immediate superior was a man of letters and sympathetic to OBrien, and partly because he used to argue that as many as three different people lay behind the name of Myles na gCopaleen. This was true, with two old friends writing occasional columns for him, but on this occasion the minister in question demanded that he go.
A way was found for him to retire early from the civil service on grounds of ill health with a small pension, but rather than take the opportunity to concentrate on writing a novel, OBrien continued to spin money with newspaper columns in various newspapers under different pen names. None of them had the quality of his Cruiskeen Lawn column, which he continued to write. He was aware that the drink was keeping him from the long term effort needed to produce a novel (apparently he was usually in bed by early evening, having been drinking since morning). Given his personal circumstances, it is amazing he managed to write the newspaper column often six days a week, and sometimes, as legend has it, dictated from a drunken stupor as well as stories and the occasional television work.
In the early 1960s, OBrien managed to put together two novels, “an exegesis of squalor” called The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), a sequel of sorts to The Third Policeman. Although both have their moments, neither are as well regarded as his earlier novels. He died of cancer on April 1st 1966, writing his newspaper column until almost the very end.
The path marked out by OBrien is still being followed today, with works such as Italo Calvinos If On A Winters Night a Traveler owing much to Flann OBriens spirited complexities. (as well as David Foster Wallaces Infinite Jest and Mark Z. Danielewskis House of Leaves. Ed.) Of course, whether theyve captured OBriens lightness, humor, or charm is another matter. Private Eye reviews Paul Austers Oracle Night with some exasperation: “Here we have a writer writing a story about a writer writing a story, based on a story suggested to him by another writer, who got the idea from a book by yet another writer, which contains within it another story by yet another writer being read by an editor with a view to publication
Yet more stories and ideas for stories run off at tangents or get lost in the serious-looking (but quite unnecessary) footnotes.”
Who knows? Perhaps if his publisher had accepted The Third Policeman, or if OBrien had had the self-confidence to try and eventually succeed in placing it elsewhere, the course of post-war Irish and world literature might have been very different.