The Last Laugh

A comic genius who died young is finally getting his due.

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.

And much, much more—all of it written with extraordinarily sustained verbal and tonal control (ironic, given the novel’s preoccupations). It’s this command and almost shocking cleverness that authorizes one to take an interest in At Swim-Two-Birds from a theoretical viewpoint, as does the statement (propounded by the student/writer) that “the modern novel should be largely a work of reference … to existing works.” Not bad, that, given the nonexistence at the time of post-structuralism or, indeed, structuralism. It quickly becomes clear that, in a single short volume (212 pages), O’Nolan in 1939 ran through practically every forthcoming development of metafiction and literary theory. At Swim-Two-Birds laughingly trashes the assumptions that stabilize the relationship between reader and novel, creator and created, original and derivative, imagined and actual, highbrow and lowbrow, and just about any other binary opposite conventionally applicable to fiction: by any standards, a thorough deconstruction. If you’re considering writing a novel that you think might be clever about novels, read At Swim-Two-Birds and consider how stupid you may look by comparison.

In any event, read The Third Policeman, the next Flann O’Brien novel. If At Swim-Two-Birds annihilates axiomatic notions of what it means to read and write, The Third Policeman annihilates axiomatic notions of what it means to exist. Its narrator is a man with a wooden leg who, to his own puzzlement, has no name that he can recall. He commits a chilling murder- robbery to finance his scholarly interest in de Selby, a lunatic savant who believes, for example, that nocturnal darkness is an “insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air,” and who attributes the “softening and degeneration of the human race … to its progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest in the art of going out and staying there,” asserting therefore that “a row of houses” is “a row of necessary evils.” De Selby is the subject of hilariously digressive academic footnotes (shades of Pale Fire, you would say, but for the fact that Nabokov had not yet written it); the main text is primarily concerned with the adventures of our antihero who, wandering through a weirdly defamiliarized rural district, comes to be detained by a pair of cheerfully batty policemen. Their worldview is what you might call bicyclogical: things fully make sense only when regarded through a lens involving tire pumps, handlebars, and light dynamos. It’s connected to the “Atomic Theory”:

People who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.

There are other astounding phenomena. The police barracks is two-dimensional. A secret fraternity of one-legged men reveals itself. A policeman carves a series of ever-smaller chests, “the smallest of all being nearly half a size smaller than ordinary invisibility,” so that the narrator blurts, “I became afraid. What he was doing was no longer wonderful but terrible.” This terror gives way to another: namely, that one’s very body might be

a body with another body inside it in turn, thousands of such bodies within each other like the skins of an onion, receding to some unimaginable ultimum … Who or what was the core and what monster in what world was the final uncontained colossus? God? Nothing?

As the phenomenological uncertainties begin to pile up, the reader is quietly led out of a comic landscape and dropped into an ontological chasm; in fact, he is left in a state of as much anxiety as hilarity. And of course the novel’s famous surprise ending—a retying of the knot more than a denouement—does nothing to help.

O’Nolan’s liquid sense of reality, so helpful in his writing, was mirrored to an unfortunate degree in his own life, where he was prone to damaging confusions. Just as de Selby suffers from an inability to distinguish between men and women, O’Nolan suffered from an inability to distinguish between fame and artistic success (he moaned, not entirely facetiously, “Gone With the Wind keeps me awake at night sometimes— I mean, the quantity of potatoes earned by the talented lady novelist”). The limited impact of At Swim-Two-Birds led O’Nolan to dismiss it as a “bum book,” and when The Third Policeman failed to find a home (too “fantastic,” in the judgment of his publisher), he concluded that this book, too, was worthless. Rather than be humiliated in the eyes of Dublin, O’Nolan took to claiming that the manuscript had been lost (variously, in a tramcar, a hotel, a train). It hadn’t. It was published posthumously in 1967 and gained, in addition to canonical status, a small if peculiarly intense following. Rather bizarrely, the novel recently found a substantial new audience after a paperback copy made a two-second appearance on the cult TV drama Lost.

Brian O’Nolan would have appreciated this kind of success. He referred to The Third Policeman (and to his other fiction) as stuff written to make you laugh. He would have regarded it as terrible pose to place the book somewhere between the pataphysics of Alfred Jarry (the scientist of imaginary solutions) and the metaphysics of Martin Heidegger (the analyst of the hermeneutics of facticity). A Catholic and, in the persona of Myles na Gopaleen, an enemy of pretension and cant, he undermined most claims to importance—his own most assiduously of all. This creates a Flann O’Brien–worthy conundrum: How can we credit him with being a literary or philosophical radical if he had no intention of being one?

There is a two-part answer. First, O’Nolan couldn’t help himself: his comic instinct drew him helplessly into the profoundest theoretical concerns and, once there, to an amazing prescience. Take the Atomic Theory: respectable philosophers of the mind now hold that all matter, and therefore every bicycle, involves consciousness (seriously: it’s called panpsychism). Second, he wasn’t who he pretended to be. He wanted us to see through Brian O’Nolan and his hard-boiled Dublin dismissiveness, to see beyond the local legend of wasted talent. He wanted us to see Flann O’Brien: Why, otherwise, would he have bothered with him at all? And what we see, when we simply read the books, is that Flann O’Brien did not shrink from his genius.

By Flann O'Brien

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