The banning of almost every serious Irish contemporary novel also created the strange literary culture in which O’Brien revelled, one in which officially approved reading was narrowed to theological reflections, Gaelic sagas and peasant narratives while the thirst for contemporary stories was slaked by imported cowboy stories and cheap crime thrillers.
O’Brien’s main novels draw much of their humour from the absurd conjunctions implicit in this unlikely mix. At Swim sets heroic and folkloric figures (Finn MacCool, Sweeny, The Good Fairy, The Pooka MacPhellimey) literally alongside the cowboys Slug and Shorty. The Third Policeman draws on detective stories and science fiction as well as Catholic theology and mediaeval Gaelic literature.
More importantly, O’Brien’s novels draw their dark energy from the sexual repression that lay behind the censorship. They are remarkable for the almost complete absence of either the nuclear family or healthy sexuality. Instead of being merely desolate, however, this absence of family and sexual fulfilment is linked to O’Brien’s great conceit in At Swim – that of literary creation as the male substitute for giving birth.
Writing is sex for an all-male, sex-averse society. Its children are conceived without all the bother and awkwardness of having to deal with women. In the bedroom that is the world of his narrators, congress with oneself generates the only life that is available – the life of words and stories.
Flann O’Brien, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, also wrote under the pen name of Myles na Gopaleen. He was born in 1911 in County Tyrone. A resident of Dublin, he graduated from University College after a brilliant career as a student (editing a magazine called Blather) and joined the Civil Service, in which he eventually attained a senior position.
He wrote throughout his life, which ended in Dublin on April 1, 1966. His other novels include The Dalkey Archive, The Third Policeman, The Hard Life, and The Poor Mouth, all available from Dalkey Archive Press. Also available are three volumes of his newspaper columns: The Best of Myles, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, and At War.
A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of…
Like The Best of Myles and Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn (both available from Dalkey Archive Press), At War is a collection of Flann O’Brien’s columns written for the Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. Taken from the war years…
When The Best of Myles was published in 1968, it was hailed (by S. J. Perelman among others) as one of the supreme comic achievements of the English language. Now, in response to the clamorous demands of men of science and the arts, men of steam, of…
The Best of Myles brings together the best of Flann O’Brien’s newspaper column “Cruiskeen Lawn,” written over a nearly thirty-year period. Covering such subjects as plumbers, the justice system, and improbable inventions, O’Brien (whose real…)
The Third Policeman is Flann O’Brien’s brilliantly dark comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence. Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a…
Well, not quite. But we do have an expressive report from Robert Mueller regarding his evening on the town and a concert performance of New York musicians/composers. As George Spencer mentions in the comments, Robert seems to sync his prose meter (quite naturally) with the music he heard — without stretching the metaphor.
* * * * *
On a different note: Brian O’Nolan, otherwise known as Flann O’Brien, was born a century ago as of October 5th of this year. The author of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds is one of my all-time favorites, and deserving of quite a big ruckus on his centennial. An excerpt from an article on the subject by Mark O’Connell, from The New Yorker:
“October 5th will mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the great comic geniuses, and one of the most inspired literary minds, of the twentieth century. He was born Brian O’Nolan in 1911, but is now most widely remembered as Flann O’Brien, the pseudonym under which he published “At Swim-Two-Birds” and “The Third Policeman,” two uniquely strange and formally inventive novels. Edna O’Brien (no relation, obviously) once wrote that “along with Joyce and Beckett, Flann O’Brien constitutes our trinity of great Irish writers,” and even if there’s something glib about that notion, there’s something attractive about it too. It’s tempting to picture Joyce as the inscrutable and dominant Father of Irish authors, Beckett as the suffering, ascetic, visionary Son, and Flann O’Brien as the shape-shifting Holy Comic Spirit . . .”
The Third Policeman finds his way to At Swim-Two-Birds and lives to write about it, writes to live within it. Riding his bloody bike, he feels his molecules changing, becoming something other, something cyclical. Along the way, he meets Saint Augustine and James Joyce, both of whom are really dead, but only one of whom is an apparition.
The other is a bartender who doesn’t know about Finnegans Wake.
Well, actually, that’s only part of the story and the wrong part. The real Dalkey Archiveis nothing like the above. I like the novel, but it’s just not up to the same standard as O’Brien’s (or O’Nolan’s) best two works, The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, which just happen to be among the very best novels of the 20th century in English.
The novel does start out with great promise, and is funny, well-written and nicely paced. Its construction is solid and balanced. Something, though, is missing. It’s almost as if O’Brien didn’t quite have his heart in it, which is understandable, given the difficulty he had in publishing his earlier works. But any novel that brings back the great character De Selby and has him discussing religion with Saint Augustine can’t be all bad, and this one certainly isn’t. It just doesn’t quite live up to its own premise.
The main character is Mick, and he’s a young man in the state of flux. Not sure exactly what he wants to do with his life . . . and, because of that, he’s slightly susceptible to influences of other characters larger than life. Like De Selby. De Selby is a mad scientist of sorts, straight out of The Third Policeman (which O’Brien could not publish in his lifetime) by way of a sort of distorted self-quotation. He’s a mad scientist who has some rather apocalyptic thoughts regarding the human race, and may have discovered the substance to set that in motion. He also has found the ability to stop time, make wonderful whiskey in less than a month and have discussions with the old Church Fathers, like Augustine. Mick and his friend Hackett join De Selby and witness these dialogues. This is the part of the book that O’Brien should have expanded and expounded in greater detail. It was more than interesting, especially as it took place in an underwater cave.
Mick finds another project to keep him busy. He has heard from an acquaintance that James Joyce is not really dead, and is living in a town north of Dublin (The Dalkey Archive was published in 1964. James Joyce died in 1941). He searches for him and finds a man he thinks is Joyce. This Joyce thinks he’s Joyce, too, but is nothing like the great writer we know and love. And he doesn’t seem to be aware of his own classic works. The reader has to make up his or her own mind as to whether this is really James Joyce (even within the fictional framework) or just a delusional bartender with a desire to be a priest.
The two projects — Mick also tries to prevent De Selby from carrying out his apocalypse — dovetail and Mick’s girlfriend Mary gives him a third choice. The resolution is a bit of a surprise, but not by much. All in all, a pleasant read, well-crafted, well-written, but just not atomically gifted like the two novels mentioned above.
*For an excellent biography of Flann O’Brien, I heartily recommend Anthony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien.
As mentioned before, I once wrote an incredibly brilliant essay about Camus’s Meursault and Michaux’s Plume. Lost it. Nothing as tragic as a car crash. Nothing as dramatic as getting it stolen in Paris. It’s just gone.
So, anyway. Thinking about Camus and Michaux and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom made me think about the connections between the characters. Yet again. Along comes Charlie Chaplin into the mix, and another memory. Of seeing his statue in Ireland, in Waterville by the sea. County Kerry. The Ring of Kerry. One of the most beautiful places on earth. This picture doesn’t speak to that beauty, of course. Only to Chaplin’s presence there.
So the characters are the same and wildly different. There is a sense of indifference in common. In Camus’s great novel, The Stranger, that indifference (with Meursault) is generally misread and may not be the case at all. With Michaux’s Plume, since the character is largely an absurd manifestation of the unconscious, we can’t be sure about anything. But we can speculate.
Plume is an everyman like Leopold Bloom, but he’s also extraordinarily disinclined to care about most of what goes on around him. Bloom did care, especially about Molly, and later Stephen. But was absent-minded about this and that. Plume, on the other hand, does what we all wish we could do a thousand times a day. He captures the relief and release we all feel when we can just say, “to hell with it all, I’m going back to bed.” It’s one of the most satisfying feelings on record. Of course, some of us might use different words to express that relief.
Plume is often involved in violent things, crazy things, tragic, heart breaking things, and doesn’t seem to care. Perhaps a caricature of existentialism before its day. At least before its day in France. Perhaps a caricature of nihilism, which some mistake for existentialism, at least its effects.
Did Meursault care about killing the Arab? Did he care about his mother’s death? And in one poem, A Tractable Man, did Plume care that his house was stolen, that his wife berated him for letting it happen, that the train obliterated his wife, that the judge condemned him for not caring about that? Did he care that the execution was set for the morrow? No. He wanted to sleep, just to sleep, perchance to dream his way out of the book, out of Michaux’s mind. Perhaps to rebel like the characters in Flann O’Brien’s great novel, At Swim-Two-Birds.
Irony is violent in certain writers. They are violently ironic. There is also often a massive split between their own persona and their characters. It is generally not a good idea to think of the author as writing about himself or herself necessarily, autobiographically, in most cases. For instance, even though Michaux has a character whose main traits are his compliance, obsequiousness, sleepiness, goofiness and indifference to his fate, he (Michaux) actually led a very active, vigorously productive life. And Camus? Though Meursault kills without reason, Camus was a champion of justice, for the oppressed, a fighter for humanity his entire life.
It’s absurd that I’m writing about two fictional characters while Rome burns, implodes, explodes. But I really, really don’t care.
In honor of Saint Patty’s Day, I thought it a good thing to watch “Once”, once again. Its simple beauty held up, the emotional power remained, and I came away from it with more joy in me heart than I had before rewatching it. It’s just quite nearly a perfect film. No pretense. No artifice. Just golden, raw, innocent emotion, but never naive. True. The movie rings true, like guitars around a campfire. Like guitars in the streets of Dublin. And those streets came back to me and took me back to my trip there in 2003. A trip I can’t and won’t ever forget, for the depth of love I felt for my ancestral home, for the sights and sounds along the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands, the castles, the mountains, the sea.
Yes, it’s green. But Ireland is much more than that. It’s a place unlike anywhere else on earth, with a people filled to the brim with song and history and sun-drenched melancholy. It’s a place of great stoicism and quiet pride, a love of nature, of music, of verse, and an abiding smile while it rains, a quick cry under the sun.
So, what did I drink to celebrate my Irishness? What else? Guinness, of course. So, here’s a toast to Yeats, Joyce, Synge, Sean O’Failain, Liam O’Flaherty, Flann O’Brien, J.P. Donleavy, Edna O’Brien, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, and Lady Gregory, just to name a few.
Speaking of Lady Gregory . . . twas she that first led me to the great Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster, the Irish Achilles, who was the hero of my youth. Little did I know at the time how badly I mispronounced his name.
Coo-choo-lane, is how I said it as a young lad. Now I know better. It’s much closer to Coo-hoo-lin, though I’m no Irish linguist.