Patrick Skene-Catling

Genius under many guises

Patrick Skene Catling tackles the complete novels of Flann O'Brien

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The Complete Novels

Flann O’Brien, with an introduction by Keith Donohue

Everyman, pp. 787, £

‘A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham,’ in an opinion Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) shared with one of his fictional characters, ‘to which the reader could regulate the degree of his credulity’. Furthermore, the inhabitants of novels should be allowed ‘a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living’.

The distinction between reality and fantasy in the author’s life was nebulous. His own identity, by choice, was often unclear. One of 12 children, as an adult he preferred seclusion, hiding behind the interchangeable masks of a multiple persona. Keith Donohue introduces him as a ‘serial pseudonymist’, Brian O’Nolan (his baptismal name), Myles na Gopaleen (the newspaper columnist) and Flann O’Brien (the novelist) , and an uncertain number of others. At University College Dublin, he wrote for the college magazine as Brother Barnabas. Later, when urgently pressed for funds, he contributed to various Irish provincial newspapers as George Knowall. He became most famous as Myles na Gopaleen, for a quarter of a century the writer of a column in the Irish Times called ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (The Overflowing Little Jug). Countless thousands of readers were devoted to its brilliant humour and scurrility, even as it became increasingly acidulous.

Myles was a misanthropic alcoholic with a superiority complex. In fact, linguistically at least, he really was superior. The son of a Catholic nationalist who insisted that his family spoke only Gaelic at home, Brian added English, Greek, Latin and some French and German to his vocabulary. During 18 years as a civil servant, he honed his written English with the pedantic precision of an erudite foreigner, investing his prose with the edge of a razor.

‘Variously self-described as the uncrowned King of Ireland, the archetypical Dublin man, ageless confidant of everyone from Synge to Joyce,’ Donohue writes, ‘Myles was a cross between the comic stage Irishman embodying every known stereotype and a savage critic of clichéd language and thinking, bureaucracy, mendacity, and other social foibles.’

He had few friends. As the years went by, he had fewer. According to Anthony Cronin, an admiring fellow columnist, cultural adviser to Charles Haughey and author of No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, Myles was ‘known for his extreme vituperativeness when roused and . . . there was a certain canine aspect to him which kept people on their guard.’ Myles’s drinking day began as early as back-door pub service allowed and usually ended before sunset, when help was often needed to get him safely back home. However, his dwindling circle of friends remained loyal to his genius. No lesser word will do. His writing was praised by Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, S. J. Perelman and Graham Greene, who, as a reader for Longmans, got Flann O’Brien’s first book published. Greene said he read it with ‘the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage’.

The title of that first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds is a translation from the Gaelic name of a place where the legendary madman, ‘Sweeney in the trees’, once rested. The reference is inadequate to comprehend what Greene, in his report to the publisher, called ‘the attempt to present, simultaneously as it were, all the literary traditions of Ireland,’ from the Celtic myth of Finn MacCool, ‘a better man than God,’ to the working-class pub talk of 20th-century Dublin.

The unnamed narrator, writing from the author’s own point of view as an undergraduate, spends most of his time lolling in bed or getting drunk on stout with fellow students. He creates a character, a would-be author himself, who is writing his own novel, derived from Irish folklore, cowboy adventures and ‘the plain people of Ireland,’ and who, in turn, commissions another novel, in which the first begetter is to be tortured, tried and executed, thus liberating everyone he has been writing about. At Swim-Two-Birds moved Joyce to commend O’Brien as ‘a real writer with the true comic spirit’. The parodic exaggerations are indeed excruciatingly funny.

In his second novel, the best of five, he founded his imaginative comic originality on his concept of everlasting hell. A Catholic to the end of his days, with Manichaean emphasis on the conflict between light and dark, Brian O’Nolan evidently brought to Flann O’Brien a sense of guilt that no jokes could quite assuage. Mainly because of the wartime paper shortage, Longmans rejected The Third Policeman. O’Brien was humiliated. He hid the manuscript and said he had lost it. When it was found and published after his death it was acclaimed.

In the meantime, in The Dalkey Archive, he cannibalised the ‘lost’ novel, deriding science as an explanation for life in the person of the wonderfully eccentric de Selby, who, in The Third Policeman, defined night as ‘an insanitary condition caused by the accretion of black air’ and human existence as ‘a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief’. Flann sets forth de Selby’s bizarre theories intermittently throughout the novel, with long footnotes on the interpretations of rival academic commentators, who are equally preposterous. But these passages are no less logical than the beliefs of the policemen in hell that there are atomic exchanges between bicyclists and the bicycles they sit on, rendering men part bicycles and bicycles part men, and that it is worth spending years making chests and chests within chests, eventually so small that they are too small to see.

The Poor Mouth, written in Irish and translated into English, is about unrelieved poverty and bad weather in the Gaeltacht of West Ireland. The novel’s animals are kept in a thatched cottage while the family live in a byre, and relief can be gained only in prison. The translator, Patrick C. Power, said the book ‘should have acted as a cauterisation of the wounds inflicted on Gaelic Ireland by its official friends’. The Hard Life, of urban and modern deprivations, is less vigorously fortified by O’Brien’s sardonic humour.

The Third Policeman withstands the closest scrutiny as the chef-d’oeuvre, with damnation inescapable from the opening sentence and hell revealed as eternally circular and almost unbearably absurd.

Warning: There is no magical substance that Flann O’Brien calls ‘omnium,’ with which to create whatever one desires. Repeated rereading of his works may cause advanced dementia.