Read an Excerpt
I N T R O D U C T I O N
'I considered it desirable that he should know nothing about me but it was even better if he knew several things which were quite wrong.' So says the eccentric unnamed narrator of The Third Policeman, lost in a strange land, deliberately shielding his identity and true nature. The desire for self-effacement persists among all of the crazy narrators in Flann O'Brien's five novels, and perhaps it is key to understanding the man behind the novel, who has hidden himself as well under a penname. For the very first thing to know about Flann O'Brien is that he is one of the creations of Brian O'Nolan.
And there are more than one of him. Beginning in his college days and continuing on to the end of his life, O'Nolan was a serial pseudonymist, but we need only concern ourselves with two. In addition to Flann, the quondam author of the breathtaking At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, The Hard Life, and The Dalkey Archive, there is Myles na gCopaleen, author of An Be´al Bocht (translated as The Poor Mouth), who appeared nearly every day as the first-person narrator of the column 'Cruiskeen Lawn' (The Overflowing Little Jug) in the Irish Times from through. More often than not, Myles was also a character in 'Cruiskeen Lawn,' serving not only as a narrator and jesting anatomist of the social and political life of Dublin, but also as an elusive figure. A man of so many identities that he had none. Variously self-described as the Uncrowned King of Ireland, the archetypical Dublin Man, ageless confidant of everyone from Synge to Joyce, Myles was a cross between the comic stage Irishman embodying every known stereotype and a savage critic of cliche´d language and thinking, bureaucracy, mendacity, and other social foibles. To the intelligentsia of Dublin, however, and habitue´s of the pubs, Myles was a real human being. He's that man in the corner nursing a pint, the fellow under the hat, the person otherwise known as Brian O'Nolan. On occasion, all three persons met in 'Cruiskeen Lawn,' such as this encounter in stimulated by the republication of At Swim-Two-Birds. In his thick mock Dublin accent, Myles says:
There's stories going round that Flann O'Brien and my good self are wan and the same pairson. I know my own know about that leaper. People has said that I have receded under many disguises in many papers, but nobody on or under this world knows what I have written or can declare on oath what I have not written.
Receding under many disguises, Flann and Myles and Brian are wan and the same, although all three have their respective roles. However, perhaps Myles is right to say that nobody can know for certain where one identity begins and ends.
This much is known: Brian O'Nolan was born on October, one of a family of twelve children, in Strabane, Ulster, Ireland. His cradle songs were sung in Irish. His father, Michael Nolan, was an Irish nationalist who met his mother, Agnes Gormley, in an Irish language class. After they married, the Nolans became the O´ Nualla´in (the Irish Gaelic form) and in their home Irish was spoken, with English reserved as the language of social intercourse for the outside world. The family led a peripatetic lifestyle before finally settling in Dublin proper in, where Brian was to spend the rest of his life. Brian O'Nolan's bilingualism played an important role in his intellectual and artistic career, and this split - Irish at home, English everywhere else - factors into the practice of masking his identity. The underlying linguistic differences between the two languages and the historic intertextual relationship with English play an integral role in the style and structure of the work done as Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen.
But before he was either of those two fellows, Brian O'Nolan entered an English-speaking school at age eleven, and seven years later, in 1929, began his studies at University College, Dublin. There he was to begin his literary career, primarily under the pen-name Brother Barnabas, in the college literary magazine Comhthrom Fe´inne. The fiction of a pen-name allowed Brian not only his highly cherished privacy but also the ability to critique his own humor, by commenting from the refuge of other pen-names on articles and essays he had written as Barnabas. After graduation, O'Nolan continued his shenanigans, aided and abetted by college friends, in the aptly named Blather, a comic magazine, all the while pursuing a master's degree by editing and translating a quite serious anthology on Irish nature poetry. In 1935, he took up a post with the Irish government, where he would remain for nearly eighteen years. Two years later, his father died, and for the next decade, Brian would be the primary provider for the younger children in the O'Nolan family.
Perhaps the suddenness of this domestic burden caused him to focus on the novel he had been tinkering with since his college days. By 1938, he had completed a draft of At Swim-Two-Birds, and on the strength of novelist Graham Greene's enthusiasm, it was accepted by Longmans, Green & Co. for publication the following year. With this triumph in hand, O'Nolan turned his attention to other literary matters, beginning in October with a letter to the editor of the Irish Times, signed by Flann O'Brien. Joining the contretemps between Sean O´ Faola´in and Frank O'Connor, O'Brien pointed to the absurdity of the literary feud, and his letter drew fire from both writers. His friend Niall Sheridan described the flood opened by this first chink in the dam:
Writing under several different names, he proceeded to carry on furious arguments on many topics, satirizing en passant almost every established literary figure. Before long, many notable personalities joined the mêlée and the whole affair exploded into a giant display of fireworks, a mixture of satire, polemics, criticism, savage invective, and sheer nonsense.
This extraordinary letter-writing campaign, with its wildly named participants, was carried out over two full years until the Irish Times offered its instigator a column of his own. 'Cruiskeen Lawn' debuted in October 1940, first alternately in Irish and English, but eventually given over entirely to its largely English-speaking audience. The invention of the pen-name Myles na gCopaleen is a nod to a prototypical 'stage Irishman' from a nineteenth-century melodrama, and hiding behind another identity enabled Brian O'Nolan to protect his status in the civil service. Myles would reign as the newspaper's licensed jester and resident wit for the next quarter decade, and many Dubliners began their day by turning first to 'Cruiskeen Lawn' to savor it with the morning tea or the hair of the dog.
One of the funniest Irish novels of the twentieth century, At Swim-Two-Birds is an exuberant send-up of literature, the novel, and the writer. Holed up in his uncle's Dublin home for the academic year, an unnamed narrator intermittently works on a mock-heroic novel about a man named Dermot Trellis who is, in turn, writing a novel, in which he freely borrows and steals his characters from Irish mythology and folklore, cowboy novels, and whole cloth invention based on the plain people of Ireland, who become strangely more alive while Trellis is asleep. These characters, frustrated by Trellis's authority, set off on a quest to find his son - the product of his union with one of his own characters - whom they commission to write a novel designed to capture, torture, and try Trellis and thus win their freedom.
At Swim-Two-Birds becomes a twisted Celtic knot, a book that eats its own tail, achieving its humor through parody and play. The figures from Irish mythology and folklore are exaggerated versions of the original and are re-enchanted through O'Brien's preposterous versions. Finn MacCool, the magical giant of pre-Christian Ireland, 'a better man than God,' an Ulsterman, Connachtman, Greek, Cuchulainn, Patrick, his own father and his own son, 'every hero from the crack of time,' becomes the slightly dim-witted storyteller who calls into being another figure from medieval Ireland, Mad Sweeny, who has been cursed to live as a madman in the trees. Seamus Heaney notes that O'Brien gave Sweeny 'a second life, as hilarious as it was melancholy,' and this mixture of whimsy and sorrow told through the madman's poetry works in counterpoint to the third great figure from folklore, the Pooka Mac- Phellimey, a kind of 'devil, third-class,' who spends a fair portion of the book arguing philosophy and kangaroos with the Good Fairy, a 'voice unsupported by a body.' All of these are set off by the ordinary Dubliners - Furriskey, Lamont, and Shanahan - whose splendid conversations accurately capture the banter among friends who circle around the smallest banalities. And laced over all is the narrator's tale, his early introduction to the pleasures of alcohol, his slide to dissolution, and his uncle's regular refrain about the boy's study habits:
'Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?' Stories interlock, break free, re-form. At Swim-Two-Birds is a dizzying, slapstick extravaganza that satirizes contemporary Ireland and the overromanticized view of the artist and the novel. As for the last of these, the student narrator overseeing this crazy quilt has the final word. 'A satisfactory novel,' he writes, 'should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.' Furthermore, writers should feel free to draw their characters from all of literature. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. O'Brien writes for an audience in on the joke, and he realizes that humor works through displacement and disruption of the conscious surface, like the explosion of a splash sending ripples across the water, which liberates the tension. For all its allusions to topics from Irish nature poetry to speculations on time, the novel is intended as an extended joke and a celebration of the elasticity of stories and the artifice of art. O'Brien's disdain for certain, clear meaning and interpretation took an even more insidious turn in The Third Policeman.
The Third Policeman
After the structural counterpoint and weaving together of the four major plot strands of At Swim-Two-Birds, O'Brien experimented with another form for his second novel, and the result, The Third Policeman, might best be described as a hallucinatory existential murder mystery, with footnotes.3 As in his first novel, O'Brien's hero is never given a name, and in the course of his journey, comes to realize that he has completely forgotten it in any case. Along the way, he encounters the seeming ghost of the man he has murdered and finds himself in a land of wonders with a police station at its center, run by the irrepressible Sergeant Pluck, who is overly concerned with bicycles, and the equally strange Policeman MacCruiskeen, who spends his time on marvelous inventions, including a mangle that converts light into sound - all in all, a kind of hellish literalization of the wild surmises of our hero's scholarly pursuits. The whole enterprise, as Brian O'Nolan would say, is played for laughs, and the critic Denis Donoghue points out that the narrator's rather affectless reaction to this world is part of a tradition of Irish anatomies of the human comedy, revealing the author's tendency to 'stand aside from the common urgencies of feeling and to treat the whole farrago of sensibility as warranting merely speculative attention.' 4 If that's the dark way to humor and abstraction, a very deep spiritual dread lurks long after the book's surprising conclusion. As Sergeant Pluck has said, 'The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at the best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard . . .' As funny as this way of speaking - and this view of life and death - may be, that abstraction in the backyard gives pause.
What must have given Brian O'Nolan pause was the fact that The Third Policeman was rejected by Longmans and his agents could not find another publisher. To save face, O'Nolan concocted a number of stories about the supposed disappearance of the manuscript, but in truth, by late 1940, he put the book away and no longer sought to publish it in his lifetime. Flann O'Brien fell silent, giving way to the jests and barbs of Myles na gCopaleen. Only in 1967, after O'Nolan's death, was The Third Policeman brought to print and to critical acclaim. One can sadly speculate on the effect such a rejection had on his career as a novelist and the number of novels never written in this innovative, experimental, and extravagant style. 'Cruiskeen Lawn' provided some solace, and Myles produced a number of comic plays, was quoted daily by an admiring public, and was touted in publications such as the New York Herald Tribune and Time magazine as a comic genius. By 1943, the column had grown so popular that the Irish Times brought out an anthology of his best pieces with a facsimile cover of the newspaper's front page announcing in a banner headline: MYLES NA gCOPALEEN CROWNED KING of IRELAND. The anthology of 'Cruiskeen Lawn' was disposed throughout in two parallel columns in English and Irish, and it marked Myles's last attempt to juxtapose and counterpoint the Irish language of his youth with the English that helped expand his audience and refine his sense as a satirist of Dublin life and culture.
The Poor Mouth
While it was his farewell to his father tongue, his triumph in Irish was An Be´al Bocht, translated into English in 1973 as The Poor Mouth. While every translation suffers from the journey between languages, The Poor Mouth has the added burden of being a parody of the style and substance of Irish Gaelic texts of the Irish literary revival - primarily Tomas O´ Criomhthain's An toilea´nach (The Islandman). Strictly speaking, however, O'Nolan's satire is aimed more at those who wanted to romanticize and sentimentalize the Gaelic people and culture, remnants of a dying language and a dying way of life. Despite its wild exaggerations and forays into Irish Gaelic folklore and archetypes, The Poor Mouth is O'Nolan's most naturalistic and empathetic work. The tension between English and Irish, the allure of civilization and the comfort of the primitive, has its final turn in this novel, and the burden of the truly tragic fades, never to reappear in his work. Writing in the New York Times Book Review of the 1973 translation, Brian O'Doherty says An Be´al Bocht was written in a moribund language about a moribund language for a vanishing audience. Yet for almost any Irishman, the language calls up a primary culture, a lucid and devious state of mind to which only the language gives access . . . [yet] O'Brien's very modern ironies give us as much access to that world as anyone who doesn't have Gaelic can get.
That lucid and devious state of mind for Flann/Myles/Brian began to diminish as well, darkening with the pressure of the column and the job, the drink and disappointment, the depressed state of post-war Dublin and the influence of the church on state affairs. A late marriage in 1948 to Evelyn McDonnell may have helped buttress him, as did an American edition of At Swim-Two-Birds in 1951 (though it sold poorly). Myles grew more cantankerous, and 'Cruiskeen Lawn' more overtly political. His frequent and direct criticism of the government became too much for his superiors to bear, and he was essentially 'retired' on partial benefits by early 1953. Freed from the government bureaucracy and the need to keep Myles separate from Brian O'Nolan, he turned his savage wit more and more on the state, the church, science, and other embodiments of authority. Not until the decade's end, and buoyed by another, more successful republication of At Swim-Two-Birds in 1960, did Flann O'Brien float back to the surface.
The Hard Life
Appearing twenty-two years after At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien's novel The Hard Life seems the product of an altogether different mind, and indeed it is more in the spirit of Myles - funny, but caustic, and in terms of sheer artistry, far more conservative. Unlike his works from the 1940s that dealt with matters of Irish identity, mythology, and language, The Hard Life centers around Dubliners, and all of the novel's main characters stand in for familiar aspects of types introduced in 'Cruiskeen Lawn.' The two orphaned brothers are figures from the column - Finnbar, the faux-na?¨f, the unreliable narrator; and Manus, who mirrors dimensions of Myles's opportunistic spirit, pillaging old texts and repackaging ideas as his own. He is both scavenger and con artist, and foil to the brother. But the real targets of opprobrium are Father Fahrt, representing the failings of the church, and Mr Collopy, the bumbling crusader, obsessed with his campaign to provide public restrooms for women in Dublin. The novel opens, fittingly, in 1890, the year of Parnell's downfall, and ends in 1910, with the denouement in Rome. Oddly oblique, The Hard Life reads as an echo to James Joyce's Dubliners, but a rather mild attack on the pretenses of Catholicism and an already vanishing social order.
The Dalkey Archive
While composing The Dalkey Archive, O'Brien reported to his agent that it was 'not a novel . . . [but] really an essay in extreme derision of literary attitudes and people, and one pervasive fault is absence of emphasis, in certain places, to help the reader. By the time he gets through with James Joyce (and the cult of Joyce), St Augustine, the Jesuits, the Catholic church and the authority of science, the derision in The Dalkey Archive is extreme. Although the story is told through the perspective of the principal character, Mick Shaughnessy, the intrusive 'author' of the book is the central figure of The Dalkey Archive. Shaughnessy undergoes a series of tests not unlike Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist. Unlike the self-reflecting creator in all of Joyce's work, O'Brien's narrators move in an opposite direction - away from the artist as an empathetic figure, guided to form and content by his experience and sensibility, toward the artist as master of abstract feeling, exposing both form and content of the novel as artificial.
The Dalkey Archive sets up these representative figures not only to point out the futility of the search for self-identity, but also to undermine systems of authority that might guide individuals. Science, religion, secular and political authority, literature and art are exposed as incomplete and provisional systems to explain life. O'Brien had cannibalized the unpublished manuscript of The Third Policeman to create The Dalkey Archive. The new De Selby is a remake of the idiot savant de Selby, and he is thoroughly mad, a man of the atomic age, and more purposeful. Another figure of authority gone amok is Sergeant Fottrell, whose 'Mollycule Theory' and other bicyclemania were lifted, virtually intact, from the earlier novel. While restricted in The Dalkey Archive as a secondary figure, Fottrell's theories come into play later when Mick discusses with James Joyce the meaning of the word pneuma, in an echo of Stephen Dedalus. And it is Joyce, ultimately, who suffers the worst in the novel, foiled in his heart's true desire to join the Jesuits.
In the end, as in the beginning, James Joyce looms large over the entire Flann/Myles enterprise, as with much of modern Irish literature. Joyce is the subject of dozens of 'Cruiskeen Lawn' columns, the subject of a very funny essay, 'A Bash in the Tunnel,' which was published under the name of Brian Nolan, and in some ways, the very opposite of Brian O'Nolan. In contrast to Joyce's mining of his own experience and fears to produce his representational human comedies, O'Nolan moves more toward self effacement. One of the characters paraphrases his objections to realism and the autobiographical novel: '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 very tedious.'
Brian O'Nolan quite nearly succeeded in effacing the man behind Flann O'Brien, and it was not until after his death on 1 April 1966 that the full measure of his work became realized. The Third Policeman, the lost masterpiece, was published in 1967. The Best of Myles, a collection of his early 'Cruiskeen Lawn' columns, came out a year later, and three further collections followed, proving that while some of his stuff is topical, much of the wild humor and wit survives. An Be´al Bocht was published as The Poor Mouth a few years later. The artificial Irishmen - Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen - live on, but O'Nolan himself vanished. A review of the first biography was entitled, quite wonderfully, 'The Disappearing Man,' and the self-effacement reflects what the narrator of The Third Policeman claims: 'I was satisfied to be left in peace because I knew that my own work was more important than myself.' Or as the irascible Myles once wrote:
It only occurred to me the other day that I will have biographers . . . and then there will be all sorts of English persons writing books 'interpreting' me, describing the beautiful women who influenced my 'life', trying to put my work in its true and prominent place against the general background of mankind, and no doubt seeking to romanticize what is essentially an austere and chastened character, saddened as it has been by the contemplation of human folly.
Yet all the while, he made us laugh. Reading Flann O'Brien for the first time is a bit like seeing fireworks go off inside a cathedral, unexpectedly brilliant.