Books May 2008

The Last Laugh

A comic genius who died young is finally getting his due.
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The author pseudonymously known as Flann O’Brien (1911–1966) is the shadowy and indeed overshadowed hero of modern Irish fiction, the bronze medalist on a podium otherwise occupied by Joyce (gold) and Beckett (silver). Flann O’Brien’s relative inferiority is as much a matter of style as of substance. The top two were glamorously exilic, highly photogenic, eminently stern of artistic purpose. By contrast, Brian O’Nolan (the fellow behind the pseudonym) stayed put in Dublin, and very seedily so. In pictures he looks like yer man without qualities: a hat, a coat, a blur of dark little features. And except perhaps in the matter of drinking, sternness of purpose was precisely the quality he lacked: if his ambition was to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, he never mentioned it. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” the protagonist in Beckett’s The Unnamable famously asserts. When Brian O’Nolan couldn’t go on, he didn’t.

That, at least, is how the story goes. As Anthony Cronin, O’Nolan’s relentlessly perceptive biographer, points out, O’Nolan was merely in his mid-30s when he became saddled (by himself, among others) with “the legend of early, unfulfilled brilliance [and] the all too easily sustained judgement of alcoholic decline.” Over time, this legend grew into a Dublin version of the parable of the prodigal son, only with a sadder ending.

It concerns a writer who grows up in an Irish-speaking household dominated by a strict, mostly silent father; who attends University College, Dublin, and following in the footsteps of Joyce, cuts a shining figure in the university’s Literary and Historical Society; who in 1939 produces a first novel that sells about 250 copies (the remaining stock being incinerated by the Luftwaffe), but whose extraordinariness is recognized, in Paris, by Beckett and Joyce (it was the last book of fiction the latter would squint his way through); who in 1941 publishes a comic novel in Irish (later translated as The Poor Mouth) but catastrophically cannot find a publisher for his second novel in English (completed 1940); who consequently abandons fiction to become, as a columnist for The Irish Times, a renowned humorist and satirist by the name of Myles na Gopaleen, simultaneously pursuing a career in the Irish civil service; who in sum falls, qua novelist, into a two-decade-deep creative hole out of which he only just clambers with the publication of a charming if parochial comedy (The Hard Life, 1961) and an amusing if stilted satire (The Dalkey Archive, 1964). Then, with overseas critical opinion unexpectedly cohering in his favor (V. S. Pritchett, Philip Toynbee, Anthony Burgess, and other connoisseurs have recently declared themselves Flann O’Brien fans), Brian O’Nolan, aged 54 and suffering from cancer, drops dead. It is April Fools’ Day.

This misfortunate narrative is factually correct and consonant with O’Nolan’s irremediable view of himself as a literary flop. However, as the timely appearance of Flann O’Brien: The Complete Novels reminds one, the narrative has a serious flaw: it overlooks the detail that, however foiled he might have been by drink and self-doubt, and however impure his dedication to art, O’Nolan was, in the deepest sense, very lucky. It so happened that two of his five novels were of an originality and durability beyond the scope of almost every other writer, no matter how committed or self-confident.

The first of these is his earliest, most famous novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (an opaque title O’Nolan disliked but could not improve on). It owed its publication to the fluke of Graham Greene’s having been assigned to read it by Longmans (of London). Greene was knocked out. The book (which was “in the line of TristramShandy and Ulysses,” he reported) filled him with “continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” O’Nolan’s “wild, fantastic, magnificently comic notion” (Greene) was to write a novel, in the false name of Flann O’Brien, whose protagonist, an idle, dissolute Dublin student, is writing a novel whose protagonist, a man named Trellis, is writing a novel whose protagonists—stock characters hauled out of genre novels, Oirishness, myths, Irish public houses—conspire to win their freedom from their writer by writing a novel of which he (Trellis) is the protagonist, thereby hoisting him with his own authorial petard.

Got that?

Strangely enough, At Swim-Two-Birds reads with a startling clarity. It has to, or it wouldn’t be funny. And it’s very, very funny. You have a student whose ridiculous particularity of expression is matched only by his personal squalor:

[I] put myself with considerable difficulty into bed, where I remained for three days on the pretence of a chill. I was compelled to secrete my suit beneath the mattress because it was offensive to at least two of the senses and bore an explanation of my illness contrary to that already advanced.

You have brilliant pastiche—of Irish myth, for example:

Finn MacCool was … a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.

You have affectionate, deadly renderings of petit bourgeois blather:

That was one thing, said Shanahan wisely, that the Irish race was always noted for, one place where the world had to give us best. With all his faults and by God he has plenty, the Irishman can jump. By God he can jump. That’s one thing the Irish race is honored for no matter where it goes or where you find it—jumping … Go to Russia, said Shanahan, go to China, go to France. Everywhere and all the time it is hats off and a gra-ma-cree to the Jumping Irishman.
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