Flann O’Brien: The Complete Novels

Fans of modern Irish literature who like their fiction challenging and unbridled worship the holy trinity of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. But O’Brien differs from his fellow possessed countrymen in two important ways: in the first place, unlike Joyce and Beckett, he never left Ireland. Just as important, as anyone familiar with his work will tell you: he did not write under his real name, which was Brian O’Nolan. In fact, O’Nolan was a three-in-one godhead unto himself, an unholy trinity of O’Nolan, the dutiful civil servant; O’Brien, the dark and dazzling novelist; and Myles na gCopaleen, his pseudonym for a popular newspaper column documenting the foibles of life in the Fair Isle.

This new edition of Flann O’Brien’s complete novels misleads a bit. While it does include all of his fiction, it also adds a novel, The Poor Mouth, published under the name of Myles, and originally in a strange blend of Gaelic and English (“Gaelish,” if you will) as An Beal Bocht. Does this matter? Given that O’Nolan in his many guises — he tried on a number of others during his life (1911-66) — obsesses about identity, about his roles as a writer, as an Irishman, as a Catholic, and more, I think it does. For all the evidence of Flann’s raucous fictional blasphemies and Myles’s cantankerous ramblings, O’Nolan remains elusive, a man who found in art and artifice a means for submerging his real identity, a writer whose unmediated voice we never hear.

His biographers suggest that O’Nolan had good reasons for hiding behind Flann and Myles. His ideas about church and state in Catholic Ireland, undisguised in fiction or his column, would have threatened his government job. And after his father died, O’Nolan was the main source of income for the younger children among his 11 siblings. To current readers, the wit and wisdom of Myles often seems harmless enough and can be sampled in volumes kept in print by the Dalkey Archive Press, itself named of course for Flann’s novel, and which (until now) also kept the fiction alive. In the Myles collections you’ll find the often acerbic observations of a man about Dublin, a sarcastic fellow who rides a number of hobbyhorses, including the imbecilities of the justice system, the absurdities of government bureaucracy, and the pomposities of the artistic class. In his pub room chatter and bombast, he also pronounces on the theater, wild inventions, and “The Plain People of Ireland,” his often infuriating interlocutors. Myles, who is as funny as S. J. Perelman (who sang his praises), records the language of the ordinary folk and transforms it into lyric poetry, full of wild idioms and syntactical guffaws.

Flann O’Brien, for his part, goes Myles one better. No slouch in terms of extravagant playfulness or obsessional detail, Flann remains further removed from his creations — he is simply the author of four wonderful novels, not a persona in them. And that’s important because O’Nolan’s larger intention seems clear: he seeks to deny the author his authority. In effect, he wants no part of Flann’s books; he wants to discourage us from finding the man in the work. It’s an extreme and amazingly comic version of D. H. Lawrence’s notion that we should trust the tale and not the teller, for in this case, the teller’s not there. He’s an invention, just like his narratives. And oh, what narratives — fictions so rich in dazzle and daring that novelists as diverse as Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, John Updike, Gilbert Sorrentino, and, yes, Joyce himself have celebrated Flann’s existential comedies for their audacity and verve.

Flann was born in a whirlwind, so to speak, as author of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), his first novel, published the same year as Finnegans Wake (“No apostrophe!” Myles was fond of reminding his readers). Here is postmodernism avant le lettre –– a novel, like Tristram Shandy, that has no fear, and for the sake of a good laugh, will try just about anything. For starters, it begins three times, four if you count the frame story. The nameless narrator, a student in Dublin, a layabout and aspiring novelist, wallows in his stinky, lice-ridden bedroom, enjoying “the kingdom” of his mind. And so begin his tales: of the Pooka MacPhellimey, a devil of a magician and a wily shape-shifter; of John Furriskey, a man born at age 25 and full of Irish hokum and barroom blather; and of Finn MacCool, the hero of Celtic legend, large of size and grand in strength.

But before we get very far into this dizzying brew of myth, legend, and mirth, the narrator schools us in the reading of fiction: “a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.” And furthermore: “The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required…. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference.” Be prepared, he seems to be saying, we’re headed for a hell of a ride, and Flann delivers a grand pastiche. You hear in this novel a wealth of voices mighty and low: the poetic agony of Keats and Catullus, the archness of Ronald Firbank, the cleverness of Lewis Carroll; but also an assortment of Catholic prudes, Gaelic pseuds, and the popular “pomes” of one Jem Casey. The narratives collide, merge, regroup; and characters invade each others’ stories. And if this sounds impossibly prolix and impenetrable, it’s not at all. Throughout the novel, the narrator, a postmod in spite of himself, guides us through the multi-dimensional romp, with time-outs for recaps. All of it punctuated with rollicking conversations among the boyos, who discourse on pimples and boils, suicide and death by fire, Homer and blind beggars.

The Third Policeman, Flann’s second novel, plunges deeper into the mysteries of identity and the nature of reality. It begins quite conventionally with a confession of murder but quickly crosses into an alternate world, through the looking glass, or in this case, into a house with no roof or walls. The narrator suffers a complete loss of identity — he cannot recall his name or where he comes from — and vaguely remembers killing and robbing a neighbor so that he could fund his researches into the works of the odd scientist and philosopher DeSelby, who believes he can prove the earth is sausage-shaped, that motion is an illusion, and that night is simply an accumulation of dirty air. The narrator meets up with some policeman investigating the murder who have some wacky theories of their own, including the notion that men and their bicycles eventually merge their atoms. These slapstick cops also cherish their odd inventions: a mangle that stretches light and converts it into sound and an elevator to eternity. If the narrator hasn’t a clue, we’re given a few hints about his sojourn in an endlessly “queer” (a word sprinkled liberally throughout) world, with its goofy characters and absurd dimensions — nudges that eventually add up to a disturbing picture of what’s really going on. With Beckett-like genius, the novel ends in repetition: a repeat encounter with the bicycle-obsessed Sergeant Pluck. This macabre fiction, with its Monty Pythonish non sequiturs, weird invented words, and footnotes worthy of Nabokov, never saw print in O’Nolan’s lifetime, after being rejected by publishers. Which no doubt explains the turn taken by his later, more accessible Flann books. (The Third Policeman was finally published in 1967 to much acclaim as part of the posthumous revival of Flann’s novels.)

Myles’s one foray into fiction — The Poor Mouth — was published first in 1942 and translated in 1973. Notable for its simple style and brevity, it’s an extended joke on the Irish proclivity for exaggerating the difficulties of life; “putting on the poor mouth,” usually reserved for creditors and such, here determines the story of Bonaparte O’Coonassa, a thick-headed lad who lives in a hut with his grandfather (“The-Old-Grey-Fellow”) and the pigs in a place where it always rains and potatoes are the only nourishment. Aside from the endless wetness and spuds, some key phrases suggest the parody involved: “We will never see their likes again,” the men are wont to say, and so do the sappy Gaelic authors that Myles mocks, as some appended notes point out. Notes also explain some of the obscure puns. But we needn’t know Irish or its forgotten exemplars to appreciate the humor. Myles’s satire looks remarkably forward to the bathos of Frank McCourt, whose characters also dwell “in the ashes,” barefoot and hungry.

Flann’s The Hard Life (1961) might be his version of Myles’s novel, which after all was subtitled, “A Bad Story About the Hard Life.” Flann’s very conventional narrative, perhaps a reaction to the utter failure of his first two, nevertheless merits attention for its vicious satire. His main target is Catholicism as represented by the not-so-subtly-named Father Fahrt, a Jesuit given to casuistry, hypocrisy, and whiskey. Though he’s not nearly as bad as the farm-bred Christian Brothers who miseducate the narrator’s older brother, himself a hustler of the highest order. His later forays into self-publishing and patent medicines form a nice contrast with the quiet life of earnest young Finnbar, another of Flann’s clueless narrators. Together, these orphaned brothers live with their half uncle Mr. Collopy, a crotchety fellow with a singular obsession. After his wife dies from unnamed ailments that involves much bed wetting, Collopy begins his quest to establish public restrooms for women in Dublin. Father Fahrt engages the old man in alcohol-fueled banter on doctrine and dogma, and Collopy often gets the better of the righteous priest. But the pious old codger Collopy will not be deterred in his mission, which takes him eventually to an audience with the pope, mischievously arranged by Finnbar’s brother. The denouement is outrageous and wicked, with a baffled pontiff and a befuddled Collopy trying to interest Rome in his local struggle. Subtitled “an exegesis in squalor,” the novel parodies actual Christian exegesis with knowledge and skill — old-school Catholics take note! But the humor comes bathed in misery and ends, literally, “in a tidal surge of vomit,” Finnbar’s reaction to a glass of whiskey.

Flann’s final novel, The Dalkey Archive (1964), extends his quarrel with God and the Jesuits; but it’s also a brilliant final statement on his writerly obsessions. In the spirit of At Swim, he rehearses some of the characters and ideas from The Third Policeman. Another corpulent cop, one Sergeant Fottrell, offers his nutty ideas — his “Mollycule Theory” of bicycles and men merging atoms. And DeSelby shows up in the flesh as a kind of nut-case Spengler who’s invented both a way to stop time and talk to the figures from the past, and a virus to exterminate a world in decline. At the novel’s center is Mick Shaughnessy, a mild civil servant who, with his best friend Hackett, a “handsome lout” with a wicked sense of humor, joins DeSelby on one of his strange metaphysical journeys. They meet — is it a drug-induced illusion? — no less than St. Augustine himself, a virulent anti-Jesuit who also has no patience with Irish saints (“they’d make you sick with their shamrocks and shenanigans and bullshit”). In a funny joke about Judas, we’re also reminded that we’re again in Shandyland, the world of the “cock-and-bull story.” Slow-witted Mick wants to save the world from DeSelby and join the Trappists, rebuking his beloved, virginal Mary, herself not immune to Hackett’s oily charms. But the true core of the book lies elsewhere, for Flann’s greatest conceit is a bold revelation: James Joyce isn’t dead but living north of Dublin, working in a pub. The author of “silence, exile, and cunning,” that famous phrase from Portrait of the Artist, has now himself become “the garrulous, the repatriate, the ingenious.” Joyce repudiates his works, claiming to have co-written Dubliners but nothing more. He also wants to become a Jesuit, despite his age, and much to the confusion of Father Cobble, a Jesuit friend of Mick’s who wonders if Joyce might like to volunteer to clean the undergarments of the clergy.

And so, in Flann O’Brien’s last performance, Mick Shaughnessy notes, “The exile, refugee or runaway has no roots, even in his own country.” Which brings us back to the beginning: Brian O’Nolan stayed in Ireland, while Joyce and Beckett enjoyed the admiration of the Continent. Bernard Shaw, also an exile from Eire, “would have rotted if he stayed here,” says another character in the book. And no doubt O’Nolan struggled with his own internal exile, a writer estranged from his own work, who assumes different names. This last work also provides a final clue, the probable source of O’Nolan’s stunning self-effacement. As the clever Mary puts it: “One must write outside oneself. I’m fed up with writers who put a fictional gloss over their own squabbles and troubles. It’s a form of conceit, and usually it’s tedious.” A comment on the self-obsessed Joyce, to be sure, but also a key to mystery that is Myles na Gopalenn, Flann O’Brien, and Brian O’Nolan, a triumvirate worthy of our admiration and worship: ignore the men, read the work.