Flann O’Brien: Commentary

Graham Greene
Bruce Cook
Niall Sheridan
Vivian Mercier
Bernard Benstock
Ruth A. Roberts
Lorna Sage
Anne Clissmann
Brendan Kennelly
John Hill
Richard Fallis
Ciaran Carson
Hugh Kenner
Rüdiger Imhof
Seamus Deane

R. F. Foster
Mary O’Toole
William Trevor
Anthony Cronin
Edward Hirsch
Sue Asbee
Randall Stevenson
Robert Tracy
Thomas O’Shea
M. Keith Booker
Keith Hopper
Concetta Mazullo
Robert Welch
Caoimhghin Ó Brolcháin
Neil Corcoran

Lorna Reynolds
Brendan Glacken
Declan Kiberd
Thomas C. Foster
Terence Brown
Fintan O’Toole
Colm Tóibín
Frank McNally
David Wheatley
Laura Lovejoy
R. W. Maslen
John Attridge
German Asensio

See ..

Clair Wills, ‘Anti-Writer’, in London Review of Books, 41, 7 (4 April 2019) - review of Maebh Long, ed., The Collected Letters of Flann O ’Brien.

The theme of this volume is money - how to get it and where it goes. There were all sorts of reasons O’Nolan needed cash: because on his father ’s death, when he was 26, he became for some years the sole breadwinner for a family of 12 children; because he spent huge amounts on whiskey; because he married in 1948 and bought a house. [...] It is tempting to argue that these job application letters are absent of personality because they are not personal. But they speak all too eloquently of the way O’Nolan thought about himself. He had no stable perspective on who he was or what he amounted to. He blithely assumed that he was sufficiently well known and admired as Myles na gCopaleen to run for the Senate (under his own name and without, apparently, bothering to canvas for votes) and yet applied in the same month for a pen-pushing job in Cork. He was convinced that The Dalkey Archive was “amazing stuff ... a fucking masterpiece ” and at the same time thought it “ruinously flawed”’.
In​ the spring of 1939, O ’Nolan sent a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds to Joyce in Paris, via his friend Niall Sheridan, who discovered that Joyce had already read and enjoyed it. He was even putting in a good word with the French papers. Yet most of the references to Joyce in O ’Nolan ’s letters are scornful. The more critics insisted that the works of Flann O ’Brien were Joycean, or post-Joycean, the more he fumed. He turned against At Swim-Two-Birds, describing it as ‘this dreadful book of mine ’ and ‘schoolboy juvenilia’. This was not simply the anxiety of influence. It went to the heart of his ambition to be a writer of the people, rather than an ‘artist’ propped up by an ‘esoteric coterie’ at the Abbey Theatre, by WAAMA, or worst of all by the American academy.

See full text copy in RICORSO Library > Reviews - via index, or see copy - as attached.)

Jorge Luis Borges on At Swim-Two-Birds

Copy: I have enumerated many verbal labyrinths, but none so complex as the recent book by Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds. A student in Dublin writes a novel about the proprietor of a Dublin public house, who writes a novel about the habitués of his pub (among them, the student), who in turn write novels in which the proprietor and the student figure along with other writers of novels about other novelists. The book consiss of the extremely diverse manuscripts of these real or imagined persons, copiously annotated by the student. At Swim-Two-Birds is not only a labyrinth: it is a discussion of the many ways to conceive of the Irish novel and a repertory of exercises in prose and verse which illustrate or parody all the styles of Ireland. The magesterial influence of Joyce (also an architect of labyrinths; also a literary Proteus) is undeniably but not disproportionate in this manifold book.
  Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that dreaming and wakefulness are pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into other books help us to sense this oneness.
‘Cuando la ficción vive en la ficción’, orig. publ. in El Hogar [Home], on June 2, 1939 [translated by Esther Allen as ‘When Fiction Lives in Fiction’, in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger (NY: Viking Press 1999, p.162.)

Listen to a documentary-compilation of archive interviews with those who knew O’Brien on “Bowman”, on RTÉ (15.10.2011) - on YouTube online.

Jamie Samson, ‘Bicyles and Blues: The Third Policeman Turns 50’ - Headstuff > Literature

From its broadest strokes to its tiniest details, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is built out of weirdness. Weirdness is not only its dominant style but its very element, its operating logic, its final destination, and its means of getting there. The book, which was first published fifty years ago, proceeds according to a manic, self-updating logic that is entirely its own. Nothing like it has appeared in Ireland before or since. It is either our jokiest masterpiece or our most masterful joke. Then again, in Flann O’Brien’s hallucinatory universe, the distinction hardly matters. [...]
[...] O’Brien seizes upon his two-wheeled metaphor with such strange power and inventiveness that he succeeds in doing something remarkable; he estranges the ordinary. After you read this book, go outside and watch your neighbour sail down the street on her dainty Cannondale. Does the scene not have a freshly monstrous aspect? Do those handlebars not suddenly loom like horns? It was once said of David Lynch that his success lay not in the quality of his nightmares, but in the skill with which he transferred them. His dreams have become everyone’s dreams. In the right hands, even the most ridiculous of images - a bicycle, say, reimagined as a sinister, metaphysical instrument - can become radiant and infectious.
Headstuff (11 Nov. 2011) - online.

Derek Mahon - “The Bicycle”: ‘There was a bicycle, a fine / Raleigh, with five gears / And racing handlebars. It stood at the front door / Begging to be mounted; The frame shone in the sun. // I became like a character / In The Third Policeman, half / Human, half bike, my life / A series of dips and ridges, / Happiness a free-wheeling / Past fragrant hawthorn hedges. […].’ (Selected Poems, 1991, p.88.)

See also
David McKitterick on Flann O’Brien’s “Lost” World (2006)

[ top ]

Bloomsday 1954
Bloomsday - Sandymount
John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh & Tom Joyce at the Sandymount Martello,
16 June 1954.

The First Bloomsday Trip (1955)

[See Flann O’Brien Gallery - in frame, or as attached; see further details under John Ryan - infra.

See also the 3-part Flann documentary on “Bowman” on RTÉ Radio 1 (9 Sept. 2011; uploaded on 9 Oct 2011) in the form of a collection of interviews from the RTÉ archives of those who knew Flann O’Brien including Ben Kiely, Niall Sheridan, and others. For the first of a three-part YouTube posted by Stephen Rennicks - go to sonline [accessed 01.01.2017.]

See also
Flann O’Brien Internat. Society & Annual Conferences[ online ]

Lake Isle of Dá En: ‘Aidan Higgins, recounting a meeting with O’Brien in which he professed his admiration for At Swim-Two-Birds, admits that he was “not aware of how much he detested the novel, or its fame. He felt about it rather as Yeats felt about “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, or Becket felt about Murphy: he abominated it.’ .Further: ‘Not only himself, but also his relatives “didn’t approve of At Swim-Two-Birds, which seemed to hold the family up to derision”.’ (See Higgins, ‘The Hidden Narratorˆ, in Review of Contemporary Fiction [Special issue: Flann O’Brien: Centenary Essays], 31, 3, 2011, pp.21-32, pp.29 & 31; quoted in Germán Asensio, ‘Flann O’Brien’s creative loophole’, in Estudios Irlandeses, March 2015, pp.1-13 - available online; accessed 22.07.2021.)

[ top ]

Graham Greene: ‘[L]ooking back one realises that by no other method could the realistic, the legendary, the novelette have been worked together.’ (‘A Book in a Thousand’, 1939; rep. in Rüdiger Imhof, ed., Alive-alive O!, 1985, p.42). Further (reviewing At Swim-Two-Birds): ‘I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.’ (Quoted in Richard Corballis, ‘Stoppard, Joyce ...’, in Joycean Occasions, 1991, p.2; also quoted in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.160.)

Further (Greene on At Swim-Two-Birds): ‘We have had books inside books before but [O’Brien] takes Pirandello and Gide a long way further. The screw is turned until you have (a) a book about a man called Trellis who is (b) writing a book about certain characters who (c) are turning the tables on Trellis by writing about him.’ Quoted in Roger Boylan, ‘“We Laughed, We Cried”: Flann O’Brien’s triumph, in Boston Review, 1 July 2008 - available online; accessed 05.08.2021.)

William York Tindall, The Joyce Country (Pennsylvania UP 1960), reports the first Bloomsday - aka J-Day - when Myles na gCopaleen [Brian Nolan] and some 20 Dubliners met at Michael Scott’s house at Sandycove to make conduct the first Bloomsday tour: ‘Inflamed by Myles Na gCopaleen of the Irish Times (also known as Flann O’Brien and Brian Nolan), about twenty Dubliners gathered at Michael Scott’s house at Sandycove on the morning of “J-Day” (June 16) to make a sentimental pilgrimage. Though they assembled as near as they could get to Stephen’s tower, the idea was to follow Bloom’s progress through their city. Getting away at 11:30 - a little late because of Mr. Scott’s hospitality - in two horse-drawn cabs and several horseless carriages, they passed Stephen’s “disappointed bridge” at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) on the way to Sandymount. “It’s like a funeral without a body,” said a celebrant. “It’s a wonder they didn’t think of getting a body.” “I don’t know anything about a body,” said another celebrant, “but there’s plenty of spirits about.” (All this from the report in the Irish Times, where fifty years earlier Bloom had advertised for Martha.) Stopping at the first pub, they were dismayed by a publican who had never heard of Bloom. “Who’s he?” this publican asked. / But on, on. Meeting Lennox Robinson, out with his dog for an airing, they asked him for a loan of the dog for “a little tableau on Sandymount Strand.” “The back of my hand to you,” or words to this effect, said Lennox Robinson. That he refused their request made no difference; for the tide was in at Sandymount, lapping the stairs from Leahy’s Terrace. On to Ringsend then - but was Bloom ever there that day? They debated this until a celebrant said, no matter: the journey is “symbolic ... not bound to keep to the original route.” So they stopped at another pub to debate a choice of ways: to the Bailey Restaurant next or Eccles Street? It was then that Myles Na gCopaleen, our reporter (also known as Flann O’Brien and Brian Nolan) left this cortège for Bloom to write a report for the Times. We may never know on the floor of what pub the journey ended.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Major Authors > Joyce”, via index, or direct.)

Niall Sheridan (being the model for Brinsley in At Swim-Two-Birds): ‘O’Brien could write quickly when a theme absorbed him and soon he began to show me sections of the book as it progressed, explaining the rationale behind each episode and its place in the overall design. Very soon, these sections began to form part of the text, and I found myself (under the name of Brinsley) living a sort of double life as the autobiographical core of a work which was in the processes of creation.’ (‘Brian, Flann, and Myles’, Irish Times, 2 April 1966, rep. in Timothy O’Keeffe, ed., Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan, London: Martin, Brian & O’Keeffe 1973, pp.32-33; quoted in Niall Fisher, ENG507 UUC 2002.) Note: Sheridan goes on to remark that he himself was asked to edit the resultant text because O’ Brien was ‘sick of looking at it.’ Note also that Sheridan is called Brinsley in the novel on account of his shared name with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Anglo-Irish playwright.

Vivian Mercier called At Swim-Two-Birds ‘the most fantastic novel written by an Irishman in the twentieth century - with the doubtful exception of Finnegans Wake.’ (Mercier, The Comic Tradition (Oxford: OUP 1962] London: Souvenir Press 1991, p.38; cited in Wikipedia, At Swim-Two-Birds - online; accessed 19.07.2021.) Elsewhere in The Comic Tradition he calls it ‘an assault on the conventions of all fiction, but especially on those of the so-called “realistic” novel. At Swim is in fact, an anti-novel [...].’ ([q. edn. p.89.)

Bruce Cook, ‘The Irish: Pugnacious, Powerless, and Bored’, in National Observer (1 March 1975), p.102/55: ‘If John McGahern is the great hope of the Irish novel, as some say he is, then it can only mean that a great tradition is now sadly in decline. The last Irish novelist to hold sway, more or less undisputed, over the literature of the land was Flann O’Brien, or Myles na Gopaleen - or, if you will, Brian O’Nolan. The latter was the name he was born with (and, for that matter, died with, in 1966). The first is the name under which he wrote such original novels as At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. The second is the name he used to write a newspaper column in the Irish Times. It was begun in Gaelic, but subsequently English and Irish (as they insist on calling the language there) on alternate days. There was never a newspaper column like it. / I remember, the first time I laid eyes on it, I thought it was one long typographical error - puns tortured out to paragraph length, anagrams, obscure jokes, and all this in English. God knows what ot was like in Gaelic! In The Irish Thomas J. O’Hanlon tells of a conversation he had once with a Myles scholar that went something like this: “Did you ever hear Myles’ best pun? “The Carmen are not so Bizet as they used to be.” Do you get it? A right wan, I thought. That should give you an idea.’ [Cont.]

Bruce Cook (‘The Irish: Pugnacious, Powerless, and Bored’, National Observer, 1 March 1975) - cont.: ‘A true word maniac, O’Nolan had the jump on Joyce in being truly bilingual - as, by the way, Brendan Behan was also. O’Nolan even wrote a novel in Gaelic back at the beginning of his career under the name Flann O’Brien - though, should you wonder, all his subsequent novels were written in English. An Beal Bocht, originally published in 1941 and now translated by Patrick C. Power as The Poor Mouth, is something of a literary curiosity. Whether you find it more than that will depend on just how you respond to the rather weird, deadpan quality of its humor. It is an extremely literary, almost pedantic book, whose true subject is the language in which it was written - Gaelic: “... he understood that good Gaelic is difficult but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible.” (And this, of course, is very good Gaelic indeed.) / Cast in the form of a memoir of Bonaparte O’Conassa, the book satirises both peasant life in the west of Ireland and the literature of that life, from Synge to James Stephens. It will tell you less about the Irish, frankly, than it will about the strange territory inside the head of one of its most considerable writers. Troublesome in his own way, too.’ [For full-text version, go to RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews, via index, or direct.)]

[ top ]

Bernard Benstock (on At Swim): ‘The result is a frame story in which the frames take possession of the stories and eclipse them, the method of narration triumphing over narrative. That careful balance that Joyce achieved in Ulysses between the means of telling the story and the story itself […] O’Brien wilfully shatters. The language of literature triumphs over content, and the superstructure of the work of art is paramount.’ (‘The Three Faces of Brian O’Nolan’, in Éire-Ireland, III, 1968, pp.52-65.)

Ruth A. Roberts, ‘At Swim-Two-Birds and the Novel as Self-Evident Sham’, in Éire-Ireland, 6, 2 (Summer 1971), pp.76-97: ’O’Brien himself is variously known as Brian O’Nolan, Brian Ó Nualláin, Myles na Gopaleen or Myles nagCopaleen. It is a challenge to bibliographers to settle on a standard name. Probably “Flann O’Brian” is best, for it is the name which At Swim-Two-Birds goes under, and although all of his work is interesting, it is Swim that makes his position secure. […] At Swim-Two-Birds depends not so much on verbal virtuosity as on the manipulation of planes of reality. Each plane functions in a distinctive language mode, or style; and each is turned in on itself, self-conscious and self-critical. The machinery of the critical evaluation is - in short - laughter, or - at more length - a sense of the absurd as quick and sure and sharp as ever one dare hope to encounter.’ (p.77.)

Lorna Sage: ‘[Y]ou are meant to feel a kind of comic awe in the face of such helpless unreason.’ (‘Flann O’Brien’, in Two Decades of Irish Writing, A Critical Survey, ed. Douglas Dunn, Cheshire: Carcanet Press 1975, p.201.) Further, where At Swim speaks of ‘motion as a series of rests’, Reynolds remarks: ‘this fits in beautifully with O’Brien’s vision of Irish inertia’; ‘if one is resting at A, he explains, and desires to rest in a distant place B, one can only do so by resting for infinitely brief periods in innumerable intermediate places.’ (Ibid., p.202.)

[ top ]

Anne Clissman, in Journal of Irish Literature, “Flann O’Brien Special Number”, guest ed., Clissmann & David Powell (Jan. 1974): ‘The structure of hell is spoken of as an eternity and is buried within the landscape. This is reached only by a tangled path. O’Brien designs antagonistic hells, whose governing principles are opposite variations from with is normal; the everyday hell is a world of exaggerated flux, under the sway of “Atomic theory”, which insists that no physical object is stable.’ (p.100.)

Anne Clissmann, A Biographical and Critical Introduction (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1975) [on At Swim-Two-Birds:] ‘They [the characters are] puppets in his hands, and he as author is God.’ (pp.99.) ‘[O’Brien] propounds his own theory of radical freedom in fiction [where] Author, reader, and character are all free.’ (‘The Story-teller’s Book-web’, in op. cit., 1975 [q.p.; in Chap. 3, pp.76-150].) ‘[O’Brien] demonstrated man’s tendency to mythologise to seek relevance in actions which are in themselves trivial until the mind has transfigured them.’ (ibid., p.138). [On A Third Policeman:] ‘The first sentence points to death and to bicycles as central themes in the rest of the book.’ (p.154.) [On Do.:] ‘[The] ordinary man […] is faced with scientific ideas which he can grasp only in an incoherent fashion and which seem to deny the validity of the world about him.’ (Idem.) [On epigraph of the same:] ‘[H]uman existence does indeed become a hallucination: he is dead but is under the illusion that he is still living.’ (Ibid., p.156.) [Cont.]

Anne Clissmann (A Biographical and Critical Introduction 1975) - cont.: ‘Reason is overthrown and a coherent type of unreason takes its place.’ (p.159: quoted in Johannes Gernert, UG Essay, UUC 2003.) On De Selby’s theory of mirrors: ‘[He takes] a fact about the speed of light and, leaving out of consideration other important aspects, carries it to a conclusion which is completely illogical but which has all the trappings of logic and as much detail as is necessary to confuse the issue completely.’ (Ibid., p.164.) ‘Justice and fairness can only exist where there is a conception of order and balance. Unable to call on justice and order, which he had violated but nevertheles relied upon, the narrator is in the same emotional position as the child who feels that the whole world is against him because he cannot understand its rules.’ (p.170.) Clissmann further speaks of a ‘queer but authentic incomprehensibility that makes you wonder if you are mad’ in The Third Policeman (p.180; the above quoted by Sarah Deatley and Toni Patton in UG Essays, UUC 2003, and in Debra James, UG Essay, UUC, 2004.) [ Cont.]

Anne Clissmann (A Biographical and Critical Introduction 1975) - cont.: ‘As a character who has always felt that the speculations of de Selby were important and that the world must be explicable in conceptual terms, he must accept logic and believe in the scientific method, no matter how chaotic seem to be the conclusions it produces and how much these are at variance with the other reality he recognises with the other, separates part of his brain - the reality of the external world.’ (p.168). [On Policeman Fox]): ‘[P]erhaps God, perhaps the devil, but certainly the moving principle of this world and the chief agent of the punishment of the narrator.’ (p.178). [On Myles na nGopaleen:] ‘He was a multiplicity of characters - at once a Dublin “gutty”, a famous journalist, an art critic, banker, archaeologist, inhabitant of Santry, aesthete, civil servant, social commentatory, and anything else he wanted to be according to the dictates of his mood or as a likely subject for satire or parody presented itself.’ (p.192; quoted in Conor Keilt, PG Dip., UU 2011.)

[ top ]

Brendan Kennelly, ‘Satire in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth’ [orig. ‘An Béal Bocht: Myles na gCopaleen (1911-1966), 1977], in Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Åke Persson (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe 1994), pp.183-88: ‘There are at least two great pieces of Irish writing concerning poverty - Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger and The Poor Mouth. Kavanagh’s long poem is tragic; Flann O’Brien’s novel is at once funny and bitter.’ (p.182.) ‘Flann O’Brien is […] hitting at everything from self-delusion to acquisitive condescension to academic pretentiousness. It is as if he were saying - there is nothing wrong with language, Irish or otherwise; but there is something very wrong with those who use it, or rather abuse it, who change it from an instrument of possible illumination to something which can inspire loathing and disgust. Language can help us to tell what we know of the truth; it can also be the weapon of liars, frauds and opportunists. / One senses in Flann O’Brien a great reverence for language, and a great hatred for those who abuse it, those who tell the profitable lie.’ (p.184.) ‘The satirist is the enemy of the phoney element which probably, to some degree at least, exists in all of us. His target is the pretentious and the ridiculous, his weapon is mockery, his aim is the spotlighting, and if possible, the eradication of the pompous and the hypocritical.’ (p.186.) [Cont.]

See extracts from The Poor Mouth given by Kennelly in this writing under Quotations - infra.

Brendan Kennelly (‘Satire in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth’, 1977) - cont. [conclusion]: ‘I am not happy, however, to call this book a satirical fantasy, and leave it at that. There is, in fact, in the work a strong tragic awareness of those powerful forces which can victimise man. Throughout the book, the elements lash down on the heads of everybody, man and beast alike. What strikes the reader is the relentless nature of this oppression, the fierce tireless energy of its tyranny. Flann O’Brien sees man as a sort of target for the fury of nature. Now I realise that this, like the picture of poverty, is a necessary part of his satirical picture, but I can’t help feeling that this black vision sometimes transcends the satirical purpose it so brilliantly serves, and achieves at certain moments a real tragic intensity. And Flann O’Brien’s language reflects this occasional strange hovering between the satirical and the tragic. / Nevertheless, the novel, as a whole, stays in the mind for its comic vigour, for its devastation of various Holy Cows, for its mocking onslaught on attitudes that are usually either mindless or slavish, or both. It is the work of a highly civilised mind, angered and appalled by certain aspects of the life and literature it is most deeply involved with. It is also the work of that most driven kind of moralist - the writer for whom the precise use of language is evidence of the mind’s capacity for intellectual passion, the heart’s capacity for sincerity. Behind it all is love of lucidity and candour, as well as this constant recognition of the mystery of life. The irreverence that abounds in [187] the novel springs from the deepest possible respect for both life and language. This is one reason for its enormous emotional range: it is funny, sad, bitter, outrageous, bleak, insulting - and totally unforgettable. It is searingly honest, and it should be read, if possible by everybody. The Poor Mouth may be about various kinds of poverty, but for the reader it is an immensely rich experience.’ [p.188; end.] (For a full-text version, see RICORSO Library, “Critical Classics”, infra.)

John Hill: ‘Flann O’Brien, a modern Irish author, takes up the theory of the mad de Selby and produces a novel in which it is never clear if the hero is dead or alive. The theory is that living is an illusion and with that everything becomes possible.’ (‘Archetypes of the Irish Soul (II)’, in Crane Bag, Vol. 2, Nos. 1 & 2 (1978), [q.pp.], rep. Crane Bag Book (1982), p.253.)

Richard Fallis, ‘All of O’Nolan’s work could be described as a series of brilliant farragoes of distinctly Irish experience.’ (The Irish Renaissance: An Introduction to Anglo-Irish Literature, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1978, p.218].

Ciaran Carson, review of Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (Field Day [1983]): compares Flann O’Brien’s and Seamus Heaney’s versions of Buile Suibhne, with the comment: ‘The intricate circularity of purpose is mirrored in the rule of the Irish verse forms, that they must begin and end on the same word; the effect, at times, is like taking one step forward and two steps back. With this in mind, it is no accident that Flann O’Brien used Buile Suibhne as an integral part of At Swim-Two-Birds, another book about the responsibility of authorship (Sweeney is the author of his own woes, as well as being largley the author of the verse). (p.75.)

Ciaran Carson (review of Sweeney Astray, ‘O’Brien’s version verges on a parody which nevertheless reflects the implicit playfulness of the original; Heaney adopts the more serious Kinsella-as-translator-of-the-Tain tone. To render the original manic sound patterns into any kind of believable English is impossible. / I have tried here to give some indication of the procedures and methods of Buile Suibhne and to indicate some of the immense difficulties faced by the translator […].’ (p.76.) [See also under Heaney, supra.]

[ top ]

Hugh Kenner, ‘Warning’ ([Chap.,] in A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (1984): ‘Brian O’Nolan, who made misinformation into an art form, so thoroughly led astray an investigator from Time magazine that the issue of 23, August 1943 presented as Time-checked fact such allegations as these: - that O’Nolan spent his days “busy with many matters of state”; that he had “informally beaten World Champion Alekhine” at chess; that on a quick visit to Germany in 1933 he had “met and married eighteen-year-old Clara Ungerland, blonde, violinplaying dauglhter of a Cologne basket-weaver. She died a month later. O’Nolan returned to Éire and never mentions her.” / It is still unclear what taxonomists should do with this man. His achievement exceeded T. L. Peacock’s (what does anybody do with him?) and in turn it seems exceeded by his abilities. He was Brian O’Nolan the minor civil servant (“matters of state”!), “Myles na gCopaleen” the barfly columnist, “Flann O’Brien” in 1943 the author of one published novel, and, whatever his name, in the year of the interview a lifelong bachelor. He was also, as Time editors did not suspect, the greatest living virtuoso of the Irish Fact. “Cologne basket-weaver”, indeed. Des Moines oystershucker? Later “O’Brien” claimed to have been the sole author of the “Interview” with John Stanislaus Joyce, father of the novelist, that turned up among James Joyce’s papers and was published in Paris in 1949. “We could not wait to draw the corks, we slapped them against the marble-topped counter.... The Turkish bath came into my mind and there I went after having any God’s quantity of champagne. Oh dear, dear God, those were great times.” That “O’Brien” had the talent to write it is beyond doubt, though how in that case it found its way into the novelist’s files has never been clearly explained. To have made the undisprovable claim to have written it would have been equally good fun, especially after it had begun to be cited, as it is to the extent [24] of four footnotes in the standard biography [Ellmann]. There dances before the mind an ideal academicism, manipulated from Ireland, founded wholly on items of fictitious data that have their origin over a pint of porter.’ (pp.23-24; for further extracts, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism”, infra.)

Hugh Kenner, ‘The Fourth Policeman’, in Conjuring Complexities, ed. Anne Clune & Tess Hurson (1997), remarks on meteorological arrangements in The Third Policeman: ‘[T]here is no wind, no chill and […] no mention of rain falling. Ornamental clouds move in an otherwise flawless sky’ (p.64.) Kenner considers the novel to be ‘far from deliberate enough to bear any great weight of interpretation’ and concludes that ‘the book is a black joke, a comic turn.’ (p.69; quoted in Johannes Gernert, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

Kenner quotes Anthony Cronin’s view of the accounts of nature in The Third Policeman as being ‘full of oddly generalised and amorphous description [... &c.]’ (q.p.) He concludes with a more extensive quotation from Cronin [No Laughing Matter] - viz., ‘Mr. [Anthony] Cronin again: “Brian became somehow fixed at a time of brilliant promise and pyrotechnical display, unable to shake off the reputation for prodigious cleverness he had early acquired. This reputation was transplanted from the hothouse confines of U.C.D. to the equally pernicious atmosphere of intimately acquainted Dublin. His humour became the currency of its denizens, the mode of his column their manner of response. [...] And by a curious but inevitable inversion he became their creation. [...] The fate of the licensed jester had befallen him. He existed in and through the response and understanding of his audience.” His public nom-de-plume, “Myles”, was even the name by which friends addressed him. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat and a dark gaberdine and looked like a gangster, crossed with a tiny priest, his pallid face “ageless in a childish but experienced way”. A great future lay behind him.’ (p.323.)

Kenner also quotes Niall Montogomery’s phrases: ‘O’Brien is an “aristophanic sorcerer” conscribing the extraordinary into the bedraggled realms [?ranks] of the banal.’ (Montgomery, ‘An Aristophanic Sorcerer’, in The Irish Times, 2 April 1966 - thus given in Monique Gallagher, Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen et les autres: Masques et humeurs de Brian O’Nolan, fou-littérature irlandais (Villeneuve d’Ascq (nord): Presses Universitaires de Septentrion 1998 - Bibliographie, p.289 [Google Books - online].)

[ top ]

Rüdiger Imhof, ‘The two most outstanding metafictional elements in At Swim-Two-Birds are the self-conscious narrator and the theory of the novel advanced within the pages of his work.’ (Alive, Alive O!, 1985, Introduction, p.20.) Further, ‘O’Brien, like the other meta-novelists, takes the issues of the self-realisation and Pirandellesque [sic] behaviour of the characters into his novel and by ridiculous exaggeration offers a burlesque of conventional modes to achieve life-like effects, thus deliberately breaking the reader’s illusion.’ (Imhof, ‘Two meta-novelists: Sternesque Elements in Novels by Flann O’Brien’, in Imhof, ed., Alive, Alive, O!, 1985, p.174.)

Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (1986), quotes O’Brien on Joyce in 1951: ‘the true fascination of Joyce lies in his secretiveness, his ambiguity (his polyguity, perhaps?), his leg-pulling, his dishonesties, his technical skill, his attraction for Americans.’ (‘A Bash in the Tunnel’, Envoy, April 1951, p.11; also John Ryan, ed., A Bash in the Tunnel, Clifton Books 1970). Deane further remarks on his ‘deadpan prose’ and identifies his best effects with two novels, An Béal Bocht (1941, trans. 1964) and At Swim-Two Birds (1939); he calls O’Brien’s reaction to Joyce ‘one of the most astonishing examples of the anxiety of influence’ [194; remarks on ‘the humour of O’Brien’s deadpan prose’ [194]. Deane characterises the phrase ‘universal sanity’, in Dalkey Archive, as the Mylesian summum bonum, and enlarges on the paradoxical berating of human folly and self-involvement by ‘converting them into mechanistic schemes for the suppression of the human element by a satirist who is himself a contriver of schemes and machines more elaborate than any ever devised.’ Proceeds to a densely-written appraisal on The Third Policeman follows [196-97], focusing on the themes of the excessive selfhood and Faustian obsession of de Selby (Selbst) on the question of omnium (omniscience); the theories of molecular exchange and receding infinities developed by the policemen, and the ‘wonderful malaprop jargon’ as a correlation of the bureaucratese familiar to O’Brien in his civil service office. ‘To seek omniscience is to concede to fantasy’ (p.197; quoted in Joanne Moore, UG Essay, UCC 2003).

Seamus Deane (A Short History of Irish Literature, 1986) - cont: writes of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939): ‘[D]elight is the dominant emotion; interwoven plots; four beginnings; incl. burlesque account of legendary Gaelic heroes, Finn MacCool and Mad Sweeney; fusion in ‘Conclusion of the book, ultimate’; epigraph from Hercules furens, “For all proper things do stand out distinct from one another”; asserts that the ‘medley of styles has not the imperious claim upon our admiration we find in Ulysses.’ Also quotes the narrator: ‘the novel, in the hands of the unscrupulous writer, could be despotic’ and propounds his own theory of radical freedom; the commonplace and the fantastic become to aspects of a closed universe [quotes ‘self-evident sham ... &c.’] (pp.198-99.).

Seamus Deane, Strange Country (1997) - cont.: ‘The globalism of the Revival had, in these terms, succeeded to the localism of the Free State; whatever the myriad defects and stupidities of the latter, censored and censorious, it was so steeped in cliche that it would never run the modernist risk of becoming a fantasy that prided itself on its escape from the ordinary. Localism moved in the other direction; its movement into fantasy, or nightmare, was predicated on its power to assimilate everything, especially the drama of personal identity, “into a culture of procedural rationality”. [34] Further [on the transition from Joyce to Flann O’Brien]: ‘The vocation of “non serviam” of Stephen Dedalus had been replaced by the obedient functionary’s job in the Civil Service. The fake nation, with its inflated rhetoric of origin and authenticity, had given way to the fake state, with its deflated rhetoric of bureaucratic dinginess. In the passage from the fantasy {162} of one to the realism of the other, the entity called Ireland had somehow failed to appear.’ (pp.162-63; quoted [in part] in Roy Foster, reviewing Strange Country, in The Times, 24 June, 1997.) [See longer extract in RICORSO Library > “Critical Classics”, via index or direct.]

R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Allen Lane; NY Viking/Penguin 1988), considers Flann O’Brien ‘uniquely successful in persuading the Irish that they took themselves too seriously.’ (p.518-19). [See also short bio-bibliography.]

Mary O’Toole, ‘The Theory of Serialism in The Third Policeman’, in Irish University Review, 18, 2 (Autumn 1988): ‘The hell of The Third Policeman […] is not one temporal and spatial system but many systems, some historically held, others never a part of any known philosophy of time or space [...] the fact that the narrator and the reader are unable to grasp any basis for temporal or spatial stability in this queer universe adds to the intellectual, emotional, and even physical disorientation that this novel produces.’ (p.225; quoted in Donald Morse, ‘Making the Familiar Unfamiliar: The Fantastic in Four Twentieth-century Irish Novels’, in That Other World: The Supernatural and the Fantastic in Irish Literature, ed. Bruce Stewart, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1998, p.276.)

William Trevor, ed., Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (OUP 1989), Introduction: ‘Readers of the Irish Times in the days of its most renowned columnist, Myles na gCopaleen, will be familiar with the establishing of an off-stage character at the Drimnagh bus stop. / “The brother can’t look at an egg ... Can’t stand the sight of an egg at all. Rashers, ham, fish, anything you like to mention - he’ll eat them all and ask for more. But he can’t go the egg. Thanks all the same but no eggs. The egg is barred.” The brother’s subsequent adventures are lovingly recounted. The setting is ‘the digs”, the landlady’s health or foibles a source of the action. “The rheumatism was at her for a long time. The brother ordered her to bed, but bedamn but she’d fight it on her feet ... . On New Year’s Day she got an attack that was something fierce, all classes of stabbing pains down the back. Couldn’t move a hand to help herself. Couldn’t walk, sit or stand.” / Myles na gCopaleen wrote as Flann O’Brien, an identity that disguises one of Ireland’s most inventive, and perceptive, novelists. But it required little perception to pinpoint the Irish passion for peopling bus stops or any other mundane setting with colourful characters, and for retailing, with innate ease, episodes of interest, wait till you’ve heard this.’ (p.xiii.)

[ top ]

Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (1989): ‘[At Swim sets out to expose] the merely wilful and autocratic relationship between the creator and his fictions’; the fictional author ‘does set up to be god-like and is well and truly punished by his characters for his presumption.’ (pp. x-xi). [No Laughing Matter is partially available at Google Books online - accessed 27.07.2021.]

Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter (1989) - students’ choice (Univ. of Ulster)
  • ‘All his life Brian O’Nolan, avant-garde author, disciple of Joyce, industrious bureaucratic and underpaid journalist, had dreamt of getting rich quick.’ (p.235). Of The Third Policeman: ‘[…] set in ‘an Alice-cum-Kafka country somewhere to the west of Mullingar’ (p.272; quoted in Paul Rice, UG Essay, UU 2001.)
  • ‘The gleeful reduction of all types and modes of supposed knowledge, exemplified by the foolish De Selby, was something which O’Nolan never tired of and from which he derived a constant mordant amusement.’ (p.103; quoted in Toni Patton, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)
  • ‘The world of the book is a rational and even a scientific one, a normal one except for the pervasive feeling that something has slipped, that the give-and-take of good and evil, which is the normal state, has been somehow disrupted.’ [p.105; quoted in Rachel Mulrone, UG Essay, UUC 2004.)

Further quotations (Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989)

The hold of Catholicism in Ireland in those years was partly parental. To disavow the faith, whether in public or in private, was a gesture so extreme that most people who had doubts or reservations suppressed them on the grounds that it would cause their parents too much suffering, might indeed even “break their hearts”. True, Joyce had managed the business a quarter of a century or so before, but the extreme song and dance he had made of it showed how difficult he found it; and he had, after all, to refuse to kneel at his mother’s bedside, to go into exile and to render himself both déraciné and déclassé to do it.

For the hold was also partly ideological. A break with Catholicism would involve questions of your very identity, racial, social and historical. It would also involve questions of your future and your position in the scheme of things, even your ability to earn a living might be in jeopardy. Social pressures might not always be overt, but they were not to be forgotten.

The result of these two discomforts - being a beneficiary of a nationalist revolution which you had largely come to despise, though however much you despised it, it was also unthinkable that you could regret the passing of British rule; and being a passive or active upholder of a faith which you often found abhorrent either in its beliefs, or at the very least, its public attitudes - was for some of O’Nolan’s contemporaries a curious kind of latter-day ascetism.

You were in an ambiguous, not to say a dishonest position, morally, socially and intellectually. You were a conformist among other conformists in terms of the most important social or philosophical [52] questions you could face. But yet you knew about modern art and literature. You had read most of the great moderns and, above all, you had read James Joyce. That was what marked you out as different, the joke you shared against the rabblement of which you were otherwise a part. [52-53.]

[On JAMES JOYCE:] James Joyce [...] lived by ... the perception of the artist as one whose primary concern is to find a mode of life which will best serve his art [...]

Joyce and his challenge would be defused by making him a mere logomachic wordsmith, a great but demented genius who finally went mad in his ivory tower. Admittedly he was a great low-life humourist as well, but he was one whose insensate dedication to something called art would finally unhinge him. On the other hand, Joyce and a view of modernism as a predominantly aesthetic philosophy could still provide a sort of absolution and a sort of charm against infection for those who despised the new Ireland while yet conforming to parental and other expectations within it. It was a circular solution, but it had the advantage of neatness. [57] He was not a Francophile or an Anglophile and his elaborate critique of Ireland in later years was based on the rough premise that, with all its shortcomings, it was as good a place as anywhere else, both as Myles na Gopaleen and otherwise he was quick to resent insults to his country or implications that other countries were inherently superior.

His conformism was therefore of a less ambiguous nature than that [of] some of his friends ... [57].

[On O’BRIEN’S CIVIL SERVICE JOB:] Stephen Dedalus’s quest may have been, in words that Brian knew well, ‘to find that mode of life or art in which I may express myself as freely as I can and as fully as I can ...’; but until a much later period in Brian O’Nolan’s personal history there is no suggestion of a conflict in which the claims of freedom of expression had to be balanced against other claims. When he did feel anything of the kind, it was too late. [[89; For status of Civil Service employment, see p.83].

[U]ntil a much later period in Brian O’Nolan’s personal history there is no suggestion of a conflict in which the claims of freedom and free expression had to be balanced against other claims. When he did feel anything of the kind, it was too late. [89].

[B]est-selling popular novelist of the day [...] Ethel Mannin was an expert sentimental and popular author who was probably a judge of public acceptability but little else.’ [103]

It is a myth which has destroyed its share of lives, or at least cut them off from ordinary human relationships, as well as causing some of those who attempted to live by it extreme moral suffering. But it could be argued in his case, he was, in time, destroyed by its opposite, by a too ready acceptance of the necessity of emulating the life pattern of the majority who do not have a special vocation and are not burdened by the claims of art.

[Compared with Beckett:] Like Beckett he confronts the final squalor of our bodily existence, by a method which compels acknowledgement that when all the noble and carefully constructed things have been said and done this is what is left: the struggle, the misery, the clinging to the sheltered side in a lif ewhich is, in the end, nasty, brutish and short. [130]

O’BRIEN’S INTELLECTUAL TEMPERAMENT: Like most Irish Catholics of his generation he was a medieval Thomist in his attitude to many things, including scientific speculation and discovery. For the Thomist all the great questions have been settled and the purpose of existence is clear. There is only one good, the salvation of the individual soul; and only one final catastrophe, damnation ... The operation of divine grace through the Christian sacraments maintain the ground won [by revelation] and prevent the triumph of evil, even if only partially, locally and in terms of individual salvation. But science, social organisation and psychology are almost irrelevant. [115.]

THE THIRD POLICEMAN and THE DALKEY ARCHIVE: ‘[H]e was mining a masterwork to produce the dull dross of a tired and inferior one.’ [149].

Cronin quotes Aidan Higgins’s remark that the landscape of The Third Policeman is that of the Irish midlands of O’Nolan’s childhood [no source; 116]. Cronin calls O’Brien a precursor of the deconstructive fiction (à la Jameson and Eagleton) [162-63].

Further, An Béal Bocht followed on O’Brien’s reading of An tOileánach, and was ‘an attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of “Gael”, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe.’ (Ibid., p.144.)

Note: Cronin quotes O’Brien’s letters to Ethel Mannin [104], the publisher Longman, and William Saroyan [111] in 1939-1940 [see under Quotations - as supra].
View the above in separate window.

Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter (1989) [remarks on O’Brien’s sexuality:] ‘The thought of sexual promiscuity was abhorrent to him; indeed, it may be, the very thought of sex itself. I used occasionally bring my girl, who was in truth as fair and fresh an example of Irish femininity as you could find, to McDaid’s at lunchtime, and one day he referred to her as “Cronin’s huer”.’ (Quited in Gerard Keenan [Jude the Obscure], Antony Cronin - The Professional, the Amateur, and the Other Thing: Essays from ‘The Honest Ulsterman’, Honest Ulsterman Publ. 1995, pp.1-12; p.11.). Note that Cronin calls the structure of At Swim-Two-Birds ‘nihilistic’ in Dead as Doornails [1976] (Poolbeg 1980, p.114 [Chap. 6]).

Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter (1989) - further: ‘One of the most remarkable things about O’Nolan’s writing is the way [his] view of the dominance of evil coincides with and reinforces the innate nihilism of the comic vision.’ (Quoted in Roger Boylan, "We Laughed, We Cried": Flann O'Brien's triumph, in Boston Review, 1 July 2008 - available online; accessed 05.08.2021.)

[See also Hugh Kenner’s remarks on Cronin’s reading of The Third Policeman - supra.]

[ top ]

Edward Hirsch, “The Imaginary Irish Peasant”, in PMLA, 106, 5 (Oct. 1991), pp.1116-1133: ‘O’Brien’s extravagant antipastoral comedies may be read as a fourth stage in the successive literary refigurations of the peasant. Fluent in Gaelic, O’Brien was an accomplished, idiosyncratic stylist of the language who characteristically [1127] used his linguistic skills to parody and unmask previous portraits of peasant life. By taking Myles na Golpaleen as his nom de plume - the name of the most despised of nineteenth-century music-hall buffoons, the character from Dion Boucicault’s stage Irish melodrama The Colleen Baun, - he mockingly reversed the traditional stereotype and turned the satirized into the satirist, the comic figure into the author himself (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, p.463.). As Myles, O’Bren witheringly parodied the various sentimentalisations of the peasant in Irish cultural discourse including a popular spate of autobiographies by country people. Especially galled by Synge’s work, he look Joyce’s distaste one step further and asserted that “nothing in the whole galaxy of fake is comparable with Synge. ... Playing up to the foreigner, putting up the witty celtic act, doing the erratic but lovable playboy, pretending to be morose and and obsessed and thoughtful - all that is wearing so thin that we must put it aside soon in shame as one puts aside a threadbare suit” (Best of Myles, p.234.) Myles’ strategy was to collapse the British music-hall Paddy and Synge’s revisionary portrait. / The enormous gap between the Gaelic Leagues’s idealized peasant and the harsh really of rural life is the given subject of Myles’s novel in Irish, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth). The author continually returns to the misery of the country people and the squalor of their living conditions, and he mercilessly sends up the sentimentalised poverty portrayed by folklorists and nationalists - “the very best poverty, hunger and distress.” [...] O’Brien lacks an international reputation, the reason may be that his work concentrates on dismantling the literature of Ireland reather than on creating a revisionary “European” oeuvre equal to the poems of Yeats, the plays of Synge, the fiction of James Joyce. While Samuel Beckett is the post-Joycean Irish writer whose work most successfully avoids the constraints of a defining Irish tradition [...] O’Brien is the writer whose fiction is most dependent for its effects on previous Irish literary tradition. He has the fate of being the most major belated prose writer to stay in Ireland.’ (pp.1127-28; - available at JSTOR Ireland - online.)

Sue Asbee, Flann O’Brien (Boston: Twayne Publ. 1991): ‘Even though the world of the text [The Third Policeman] certainly becomes extraordinary, it still conforms to a curious logic.’ (Ibid., p.52.) ‘Here we are invited to sympathise with the narrator’s long to be free froom the comlexity of existence, perhaps even to share his feelings. The implications of this sympathy are chilling, for when we re-read, we are sharply aware that […] freedom, innocence and understanding are forever beyond human reach. The narrator has actually become immortal, but he is unaware of the fact and will never be in a position to understand, because he is beyond redemption. Such consequences account for the blackness of O’Brien’s comedy.’ (p.53; quoted in Paul Rice, UG Essay UUC 2001.) ‘The events of [the] novel are endlessly doomed to repeat, and the protagonist must go through the business of trying to understand his surroundings, lose that understanding, and begin again and again.’ (p.54.) ‘[It] is a fantasy, but a “disguised” one. Instead of “declaring” itself to be fantastic, the world created by the text bears just enough resemblance to a straightforward, recognisable one of the realist tradition to be disturbing in its differences.’ (Ibid., p.58; both quoted by Sarah Deatley, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

Randall Stevenson,‘[O’Brien, like Joyce] makes language a central issue’ (Modernist Fiction, Hemel Hempstead [Hertfordshire]: Harvester Wheatsheaf 1992, p.167].

Robert Tracy, ‘The Third Policeman is an extended metaphysical joke in which nothing happens, nothing can happen, because time, and therefore narrative, have ceased.’ (Intro., Rhapsody on Stephen’s Green: The Insect Play, Dublin: Lilliput Press 1994, p.6.)

[ top ]

Thomas F. O’Shea, Flann O’Brien’s Exorbitant Novels (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP 1992), remarks: ‘Through these early MSS we witness him experimenting with the activity of inscribing and testing the volatile, unreliable propensities of words, styles, and narrative arrangements’ (p.12.) ‘Third Policeman […] examines potential of transgression for affirming and perhaps ‘re-inscribing’ a self. […] The procedures of language which he has learned to make sense of ‘himself’ and ‘the world’ are abruptly invalidated […] In response to his predicament, he probes irregular sorts of coherence, different methods of amalgamation, and modified criteria of communication […] And, most significantly, when language confirms his death he counterpunches by talking and writing.’ (p.13.) Of At Swim-Two-Birds: ‘At Swim exhibits O’Brien’s uneasiness with the idea of an author as the origin or source of a statement, his disillusionment with the naive assurance that naming corresponds with control. […] If the novel centres on anything, it is a “verbal performance” which, according to Michel Foucault, dramatises the struggle of the inquirying mind to realise hidden “rules of formation” which influence every act of speaking and writing’ [Foucault, Archaeology]. Of course O’Brien is playful and parodic where Foucault is disciplined and scientific, but both share a concern for the extent to which all authors are at the mercy of statements they think they issue. […] O’Brien questions how much of his writing is the appropriation and transformation of styles and how much of it is appropriated and formed by styles.’ (p.59.) Shea doubts if ‘O’Brien is even mildly interested in moral themes of crime and punishment.’ (p.120; quoted in Johannes Gernert, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

Thomas F. O’Shea (Flann O’Brien’s Exorbitant Novels, 1992) - cont. [on The Third Policeman]: ‘[The narrator’s] experiences […] correspond with dream sensations in the way they resist awareness, telling or analysis. He is imprisoned not so much by Pluck’s jail cell as by the reasonable mental procedures which he has learned to depend on as his means of knowledge. His mistake is in trying to make sense of this incredible environment using logical operations appropriate for the credible world he has just left.’ (p.123.) ‘[P]aradoxically, our questionable hero responds to the news of his dissolution by composing a novel which amounts to his own obituary’ (p.136; quoted in Rachel Mulrone, UG Essay, UU 2004.)

[ top ]

M. Keith Booker, Flann O’Brien: Bahktin and Mennipean Satire (Syracuse UP 1995): ‘O’Brien is indeed very much an Irish writer, and his work resonates […] with the long history of what Vivian Mercier calls the “Irish comic tradition” […] Many elements of O’Brien’s work participate in this tradition, including his sometimes biting satire, his use of the fantastic, his plays with language and his frequent use of experimental imagery. But these same elements also recall the tradition of Menippean Satire.’ (p.1.) ‘Menippean satire contains by its very mature a diverse collection of competing styles and voices, that tend to interrogate and satirise various philosophical ideas (usuallyin a highly irrelevant way), and […] it is centrally informed by the energies that Bakhtin refers to as “Carnivalesque”.’ quoted in Toni Patton, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

M. Keith Booker (Flann O’Brien: Bahktin and Mennipean Satire, 1995) - cont.: ‘Flann O’Brien richly deserves to be included with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as the three great Irish fiction writers of the twentieth century. And if O’Brien is the least as great of these three writers, he is also the most Irish. Both Joyce and Beckett tend to be seen as cosmopolitan writers of the world who happen to have been Irish, and their work is widely read within the context of broad international literary trends. O’Brien, on the other hand, has been read almost exclusively within an Irish context. But if O’Brien’s work is comparable to that of Joyce and Beckett in many ways, then one would expect that O’Brien’s work should resonate with trends that go far beyond the bounds of Irish literature. To conclude my study of O’Brien’s fiction, then, I would like to explore some of these resonances in order to place O’Brien’s work in a larger context and to illuminate the significance of his writing from some different perspectives. O’Brien was influenced by an international array of writers, he himself influenced a number of writers who came after him, and his work bears resemblance to that of many other writers even when there is probably no direct influence involved.’ (p.120.) Further: [on The Third Policeman]: ‘It takes very little imagination to read [this] passage [on the narrator’s relationship with his bicycle] as an idealised fantasy of sexual intercourse from the male perspective.[…] The overtness here is partially a joke on the reader - among other things O’Brien is satirising a prurient Irish imagination that seems to see sexual connotations in everything, in spite of the typical Irish tendency towards repression of sexuality.’ (Ibid., p.24; quoted in Patton, UG Essay, UUC 2003.) [Cont.]

M. Keith Booker (Flann O’Brien: Bahktin and Mennipean Satire, 1995) - cont. ‘De Selby’s theory [of mirrors] is nonsense, of course, and his experimental results quite impossible. We in fact learn that he was apparently obsessed with mirrors in general, to the point that he refused to look at anything except […] through mirrors. But Nietzsche’s work suggests that we always see everything only through conceptual mirrors, and this episode makes a number of points that are extremely germane to O’Brien’s overall critique of Western epistemology. De Selby’s inability to trace his image back to infancy dramatises the incapacity of human methods of inquiry (particularly science) ever to reach the final answer any given question. This example mirrors (so to speak) Neitzsche’s comments on the indirectness of all knowledge and implies that what our researches reveal is an infinite series of reflections of reality, while Truth itself recedes form us in a sequence of deferrals until finally it drops out of sight altogether.’ (pp.53-54.)

Further: ‘The Third Policeman reflects many of the concepts and concerns of modern physics and philosophy though its main force may be to parody the attempts of such human endeavours to grasp a reality that is ultimately unknowable. In this sense, O’Brien’s project in the book parellels those of modern thinkers like Nietzsche and Rorty, who have similarly challenged traditional methods of seeking the Truth. It should be remembered, however, that The Third Policeman, like all of O’Brien’s work, contains a great deal of self-parody as well.’ (p.64.)[Cont.]

M. Keith Booker ( Flann O’Brien: Bahktin and Mennipean Satire, 1995) - cont.: ‘Fox-like [H]amm and Knott is a sort of God-like figure, but he is first and foremost a burly Irish policeman of the sort that O’Brien (and Beckett) so loved to lampoon. Indeed, Fox, master of the substance omnium, is virtually all-powerful, but his imagination is so prosaic that he can think of only the most mundane of miracles to perform. Omnium makes all things possible, but for Fox it is especially useful for “taking the muck off your leggings in winter” and as “a great convenience for boiling eggs”. The disjunction between Fox’s exotic powers and his vapid mind makes for some good comedy, but it also emphasises the mixture of the sacred and the secular that so [pervasively] informs O’Brien’s book. Most importantly, that Fox should wield such power while being so obviously unqualified to do so in a judicious manner constitutes a fierce condemnation of the secular authorities in Ireland while at the same time suggesting an excessive interest in worldly affairs on the part of the Catholic Church, Ireland’s “principal spiritual authority”.’ (p.130; Quoted in R. O. Oya, UG Diss., UUC 1999.) Further: ‘That this afterworld differs very little from everyday life in Ireland demonstrates the particularly critical nature of O’Brien’s engagement with utopian visions.’ (p.148; quoted in Mulrone, UG Essay, UU 2004.) Note, Booker is quote on the Flann O’ Brien webpages [link] at Queen’s University, Belfast: ‘It has now become commonplace to think of Flann O’Brien along with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as the three great Irish fiction writers of the twentieth century […].’ (Daniel Kenyon, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist (Cork UP 1995), writes of the operation of the Omnium machine by officers of the law in The Third Policemen: ‘By 1940 ’Brien was confronted with two towering traditions: the jaded legacy of Yeats’s Celtic twilight and the problematic complexities of Joyce’s modernism. With The Third Policeman, O’Brien forges a synthesis between these traditions,and the para-literary path he chooses marks the historical transition from modernism to postmodernism. O’Brien’s critics thus far have failed to locate his work within this post-modern context: offering either decontextualised essays which take no account of the Irish comic tradition, or drowsy biographical critiques.’ (q.p.; quoted by Daniel Kenyon, UG Essay, UUC 2003.) [Cont.]

Keith Hopper (Flann O’Brien: a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist, 1995) - on METAFICTION:

‘[M]etafiction strives for greater reader competence and involvement in literature; it empowers rather than disenfranchises the reader ... In this respect metafiction is the fictional equivalent of Brecht’s alienation effect.’ (p.9.) ‘Meta-fiction, it seems, is not entirely atheistic but rather agnostic in its attitude to authorship.’ (p.146.) ‘Just as the book mocks the pretensions of scientists, philosophers, and theologians to be able to know the Truth, it also suggests that the authors of fictional texts don’t have all the answers, either. As a result, critics of the epistemological tradition like Nietzsche and Rorty, as well as fiction writers like O’Brien himself are also partially implicated in the book’s parody. For O’Brien there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in our philosophy or science but also in our literature.’ (p.65.)

‘As a metafiction, The Third Policeman is an ontological mnemonic puzzle, a literary labyrinth compelte with autocritically sign-posted clues to its own methods of construction. Like a trail of breadcrumbs in a darkforest it reminds us of where we come in and offers us a way back out.’ (p.157.)

Further notes of Joe, the narrator’s “soul”, that the italicised comments present ‘a topographical fragmentation of “otherness” which reflects the way [he] stands outside the primary mimetic narrative as an autocritical, textual commentator’ (p.245; the foregoing quoted in Johnannes Gernert, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

In a series of remarks on the ‘colour motif’ of the novel, Hopper argues that, either by accident or design, the notion of colour reflects Saussurian linguistics and especially the post-modernist conviction ‘that reality is contingent upon language.’ (p.139; Gernert 2003.)

Further: self-conscious and radical frame-breaking techniques employed in At Swim are a direct critique and comic parody of narrative conventions; as work of metafiction foreshadows movement of post-modernism; O’Brien confronted with jaded tradition of Yeats and problematic complexities of Joyce’s modernism; forged synthesis marking paraliterary path from modernism to post-modernism; critics fail to locate his work within this context, offering decontextualised essays taking no account of Irish Comic Tradition or drowsy biographical critiques; this formalist study a tribal retrieval of O’Brien’s work which configures him as a highly subversive writer within a more dynamic and fertile landscape; uniquely Irish yet distinctively post-modern; looks at Third Policeman’s narrative composition, polyphonic style, and eclectic intertextual construction; identifies this subversive novel as twentieth century satire, in cutting-edge tradition of Swift and Sterne; one of the earliest and exciting example of post-modernist fiction.’ [See also Cork University Press website online; accessed 05.10.2006.]

[ top ]

Concetta Mazullo, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Hellish Otherword: From Buile Suibhne to The Third Policeman’, Irish University Review, 25, 2 (Autumn/Winter 1995),writes: ‘Like the Celtic Bridhean, this “subterranean paradise” (in the protagonist’s words) provide the character with endless food, drink and gold, but there is a drawback: he can’t take all this abundance with him into reality. Liek a new Oisin in Tír na nÓg he will eventually leanr that the two worlds are incompatible.’ (p.325; quoted in Tina Patton, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

Robert Welch, ‘Irish Writing in English’, in Introduction English Studies, ed. Richard Bradford (London: Pearson Educ. 1996): ‘Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) while on the face of it a comic romp mixing gunslingers, cattle-rustlers, university students and figures from mythology is, in reality, a contemplation of the terror of imagining, when the exterior world has grown hectic, wild and unknowable. The Third Policeman, written in 1940 but unpublished until 1968, invents a form of manic realism to convey, comically, the deepest moral disquiet at all official, normal certainties, among them authority, language, identity, heaven and hell.’ p.666).

Caoimhghaín Ó Brolcháin, ‘Flann, Ó Caoimh agus Suibhne Geilt, Flann O’Keeffe agus Mad Sweeney’, in Irish Studies Review (Winter 1995/96), pp.31-34, citing Ciarán Ó Nualláin’s short biographical account in Óige na Déarthar (1973), and also passages on the Buile Shuibhne taken from Brian Ó Nualláin’s MA Thesis on Irish Nature Poetry (trans. by Ó Brolcháin), ‘Between 1200 and 1500 the stories concerning Mad Sweeney, the king whom St. Moling put out of his mind because of the attack which he made on the cleric, were composed. There are many examples of nature poetry to be found throughout the tale and poetry of various other types.’ (p.35.) ‘When Sweeney is praising places or giving an amiable account of them, he uses normal poetry. And fine poetry[,] it is [‘Agus is bréagh an fhilíocht í....’]. But when he is complaining and lamenting the cold or the hardships and insults of his life, as one in a frenzy, abroad in foul weather without covering over him and without a friend by his side, there is a crazed effect, broken, exhausted, unusual, on the poetry, which weighs on the reader between the queer metre and the awkward expression, reflecting Sweeney’s state of mind. It is a wonderful work when it is remembered at how early a period it was composed.’ (35-36; Ó Brolcháin, p.33.) Ó Brolcháin cites with disapproval John Garvin’s view of the Sweeney poem as ‘[what a builder would call] dry filling’, in Portraits (1973); regards Clissmann and Cronin as deficient in regard to Irish sources plundered for montage novels, and their ignorance of the biography by Ciarán Ó Nuallain.

Bibl.: Cf. Ó Brolcháin, ‘Comparatively Untapped Sources’, in Clune & Hurson, eds., Conjuring Complexities (1997), p.14. Incls. remark: ‘The resurrection of heroic figures from Irish mythology in order to place them in incongruous modern situations beyond their comprehension.’ (Clune & Hurson, op. cit., 1997, p.10; note that this paper predated the Irish Studies Review article, supra.)

Neil Corcoran, ‘O’Brien is a radical sceptic about literary artifice and a malevolent subverter of any secure authorial authority.’ (After Yeats and Joyce: Reading Modern Irish Literature, Oxford: Opus 1997, p.23; quoted in Joanne Moore, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

Lorna Reynolds, reviewing A. L. Kennedy, Original Bliss (London: Jonathan Cape 1997): ‘The frisson[s] of disorientation are intricately arranged, unfailing and thoroughly distinctive and yet the metaphysical strip-tease, the peeling-off of bodies and souls in layers, is itself familiar.’ Further, Kennedy’s mentor is Flann O’Brien, who would map the path to outer space down a Dublin back-street or a rural lane in the West of Ireland in his fourth-dimensional fictions. It is an affinity that is more openly on display in her novels, perhaps; indeed, in her first, Looking for the Possible Dancer (1993), the heroine’s adored father dies clutching the good book’ [; here quotes:] “The ambulance men found him in his reclining chair, the footrest up and the dressing-gown worn over shirt and trousers, dark red slippers and black socks. His hands were resting across At Swim-Two-Birds - a book he read again every two or three years. His eyes were closed.” Further: ‘It’s a measure of heroine Margaret’s reverence for her dad that he’s left to rest whole in peace on the page, wearing not only his skin but his clothes. / More often, Kennedy’s characters are absurdly compromised in their humanity, either pierced through with speculation or made less than real in the vintage O’Brien manner, like the character whose fictional advent is described (in her most recent novel So I am Glad) as a grotesque “birth”, being inserted full-grown into the world by an author-God, like a lost latter-day Adam. / Kennedy is passionately interested in making it new. One reason why her writing is so impressively confident is that she has chosen in O’Brien a most congenial and permissive forefather. He is a kindred spirit. In particular, he dwells comically and cogently on the Zeno’s paradox of originality, he wants to make you believe that you can find new imaginative worlds to conquer inside the old ones, Chinese-box style. On this logic, he never left Ireland or religion, though he denatured both. He wore his nationality without a brogue and without illusions, rather as Kennedy wears her Scottishness.’ Reynolds concludes: ‘Anywhere is everywhere, looked at askance, with the help of some home-made atomic theory and theology.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 24 Jan. 1997, p.21.)

[ top ]

Brendan Glacken, ‘Myles, the Da and the Brothers’, Irish Times (30 Jan. 1999), [q.p.], review of Ciaran Ó Nuallain, trans., The Early Years of Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien / Myles na gCopaleen.( Dublin: Lilliput Press 1998), 128pp., first issued as Óige an Dearthár (1973.) nGlacken quotes first editorial of Blather, purporting to be ‘the only paper exclusively devoted to clay-pigeon shooting in Ireland’: ‘Blather is now here. As we advance to make our bow, you will look in vain for signs of servility or for any evidence of a desire to please. We are an arrogant and depraved body of men ... as proud as bantams and as vain as peacocks ... a sardonic laugh escapes us ... a terrible laugh, the laugh of lost men. Do you get the smell of porter?’ Note that Irish Times reviewer sets Flann’s birthdate at 1911, presum. on the basis of this account, described as a ‘rather pedestrian’.

Declan Kiberd, ‘Gaelic Absurdism: At-Swim-Two-Birds’, in Irish Classic, 2000 [synopsis]: ‘The narrator is an unnamed student at UCD, who lives with his rather puritanical and censorious uncle, the holder of a “third class clerkship” in Guinness’s brewery. An obsession with class - classes of society, calibrations of administrative employment, sorts of persons - in forms every phase of the work, suggesting a community that is utterly fissured by social gradations. The life of a students is very attenuated and so he retreats instead into imagination. He is writing a novel about a public-house owner named Dermot Trellis who, just like himself, spends most of the time either writing or sleeping. Trellis’s work is a version of the fashionable Catholic novel of evil: he fills it with villanous exponents of those sins he wishes to condemn. With his colleague William Tracy, an author of Wild West romances, he has developed a scientific-literary device named “aestho-autogamy”, by which charaters are created as fully mature adults. So one villain, Furriskey, is born at the age of twenty-five “with a memory, but without personal experience to accouunt for it.” […] Usually, it is unnecessary for Trellis to invent characters, since he can borrow them from existing literary works: Finn MacCool from Irish legend, Shorty Andrews and Slug Willard from the cowboy tales of Tracy, Sweeney from a Middle Irish romance of a madman who fled a battlefield and went to live in the trees. Events turn against Trellis as author. Although his characters must conform to his design while he is awake, they act according to their own free will [502] while he sleeps, which is for twenty hours a day. Furriskey falls in love with the very woman whom Trellis had intended him to rape. They marry and live together as owners of a sweetshop for the twenty free hours, but are compelled by Trellis to perform immoral actions in the remaining four. In order to lead less trammelled lives, they drug their maker so that he will spend even more time in sleep. just as Trellis loses control over his characters, he also loses command of himself. Having created Sheila Lamont as a paragon of beauty, he is so overwhelmed by her looks that he violates her himself. The child born of this act is named Orlick Trellis and he inherits his father’s artistic bent. The other inhabitants of the Red Swan Hotel persuade Orlick to punish Trellis by writing a novel in which he will feature as a victim of awful pains and humiliations. After multiple torments, in which Dermot Trellis is confused with the deranged Sweeny, and in which he is defendant at a trial during which one of his accusers is a cow, he is saved from death. His servant girl accidentally burns the papers in which these rebellious characters solely lived, thereby putting an end to their assault. At the same time, the narrator passes his college examinations and returns to more friendly terms with his uncle.’ (pp.502-03.)

Thomas C. Foster, ‘Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: An Introduction’, in Foster ed., A Casebook on Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (IL: Dalkey Press 2005): [...] ‘Calling At Swim a frame tale is a little like calling Moby-Dick a fishing story: there may be truth in the term, but it falls so far from adequacy as to be almost meaningless. O'Brien builds in so many frames that interact so freely that it becomes nearly impossible at times to identify the frame in which a given scene is taking place. This overlapping-frame issue derives from characters from one frame climbing, as it were, into the previous frame and participating in action on that “upper” level. [...] As important as the framing devices are to the novel’s form, however, they constitute only one part of the book’s shaping. At Swim-Two-Birds is made of pieces of narrative: “biographical reminiscences” (as the student narrator calls them), bits of, or rather plans [7] for, the putative novel of Dermot Trellis and of the novel his characters begin writing to ensnare him, translations and corruptions from classic Irish texts, borrowings and echoes from contemporary novels, approximations of Western set-pieces. This ceaseless intertextuality has made the novel the darling of followers of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose notions of parody and carnivalesque find apotheosis in O’Brien’s novels, and particularly this first one. Bakhtinian parody involves any reuse of source material that differs from the original intent (as, for instance, Joyce's use of Homeric materials in Ulysses). The informing principle of O'Brien parody, however, might best be called travesty. No source text escapes unscathed. Even the Buile Suibhne, which is translated with considerable reverence, suffers indignities from the situations into which it is inserted and from comparisons drawn to other works. And O'Brien's Sweeny is a shabby, smelly figure (as, indeed, he implicitly is in the original) commanding neither respect nor sympathy from his fellow characters, further reducing the grandeur of the poem of his fall and rise.’ (pp.7-8; available online at Dalkey Archive Press - as pdf; accessed 30 Jan. 2017.)

[ top ]

Terence Brown, ‘Two Post-modern Novelists: Beckett and O’Brien’, in The Cambridge Guide to the Irish Novel, ed. J. W. Foster (Cambridge UP 2006): ‘[...] As with Beckett, their fascination with the textual makes O’Brien’s key novels candidates for a post-modernist analysis, for readings in which they can be entered as a species of anti-novel. ...] when this post-modernist penchant for advertising what, in other forms of creativity, would be taken for granted mechanics of an artefact is combined with a parasitic relish for parody and pastiche, then O’Brien’s fiction can be seen to turn on itself in a sustained, deconstructive whimsy.’ (p.216.) [On At Swim-Two-Birds:] ‘This zanily inventive text has as its presumed author a slothful University College Dublin undergraduate (there are obvious allusions to Stephen Dedalus’s college milieu) who generates a manuscript about a novelist named Dermot Trellis. Trellis is at work on a novel which will display the deleterious effects of sin. The running gag of O’Brien’s book is that Trellis’s characters take on a life of their own when Trellis is asleep, and eventually turn revengefully upon him. Levels of presumed reality and fictionality are elaborately intertwined. Trellis impregnates one of his characters, who bears him the son who begins to write a further novel in which he describes terrible violence done on his progenitor, employing the characters his literary father had invented. These include the Pooka (“a species of human Irish devil”) and the Good Fairy who together account for a good deal of the book’s shape-changing brio, its magical realism - the giant Finn MacCool who, insistently and somewhat tediously (for characters and readers alike), chants from the saga legend of the mad king Sweeny, in extensive parodic interpolations into the text of high falutin’ translationese, and a cast of Dubliners, with their cliché-ridden demotic, who might have stepped in pastiche from Joyce’s collection of that name to reveal a genius for inconsequential dialogue that is all their own. That is when they are not recalling cow-punching days in Ringsend in the style of cowboy pot boilers. Throw in Jem Casey, the working man’s Bard of Booterstown, with his banal verses, and a tasty Irish fictional stew is set to simmer.’ (p.217.)

Terence Brown (‘Two Post-modern Novelists: Beckett and O’Brien’, 2006) - cont.: ‘The Third Policeman also functions in certain respects as an anti-novel and post-modern text. A rum tale of envy, greed, murder and punishment, the book offers an unreliable narrator of a very special kind. He is in fact dead, but does not know it. Nor as readers do we, until close to the final page of the novel. What our narrator takes for reality, therefore, we are given to understand by the book’s conclusion, is the bell to which he has been consigned in punishment for his part in the vicious murder with which the narrative began. This strange conception turns the book inside out in a troubling way; for what we take as we read to be the real world, from which the narrator steps into a fantastical zone where Nature’s laws of time and space no longer seem to apply, is in fact the reality he now occupies and what he and we have taken for normality is unreal, phantasmal. / This, oddly, makes The Third Policeman a book to re-read, for a second reading will be different from the first to a greater degree than is customary in fiction, even of the policier and mystery kind. (The text shifts from a curiously deadpan prose appropriate to a hard-boiled crime novel to, in its final stages, the glooms of Gothic fiction.) On a second reading, we will notice all the indications that the narrator is dead but is unaware of this: frequent references to negative states, for example, or the simple detail that he cannot remember his own name. As we read we will realise, too, that the repetition we are experiencing is also the narrator’s fate, for he is condemned endlessly to re-live (re-die?) the novel’s contents. We are made aware of this horrible truth by a lengthy textual repetition in which the narrator’s approach to the police barracks, where so many extraordinary things transpire, is described. “I had never seen a police station like it”, says the narrator on the final page, unknowingly repeating himself in apt punishment for a capital crime. He is namelessly condemned forever to that terrible first-person pronoun.’

Terence Brown (‘Two Post-modern Novelists: Beckett and O’Brien’, 2006) - cont.: ‘The Third Policeman [...] certainly draws attention to itself as artifice, in what we have come to recognise as the post-modern manner. The elaborate comedy of the footnotes adds to this. These concern the narrator’s obsession with the lunatic theories of a savant named De Selby, among which is the belief, for which he argues with consummate logic, that the world is sausage-shaped. Perhaps, as Clissmann has argued [Anne Clissmann, Flann O’Brien, A Critical Introduction, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1975, p.173], his theories pertain in thematic fashion to the hell the narator inhabit where anything is possible], but, we read, their relevance is to exhibit how text itself is subject to bizarre exchanges in this world where time and space seem malleable.’ (pp.218-19.) [See ensuing remarks on The Poor Mouth, pp.219-20.]

Terence Brown (‘Two Post-modern Novelists: Beckett and O’Brien’, 2006) - cont.: ‘[...] O’Brien, by contrast with his contemporary, lacked the kind of radically questioning mind that made Beckett’s novels a searching engagement with the mystery of human existence. In its place was a settled conviction - the product, as Anthony Cronin has a convincingly argued, of a conservative and unquestioned Thomistic Catholicism [No Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, London: Grafton Books, p.106] that the bleak truths about the sinful and cruel human condition were already fully available. There was nothing new under the sun, and certainly nothing new to be said about terrestrial life. Consequently O’Brien’s novels deal in futility, comic as that can be made to seem. Stories are seen to be versions of other stories in an achievement that makes pastiche a primary literary activity. Narrative ingenuity begins to seem end in itself. And inasmuch as O’Brien’s fiction has anything much to tell it is that life can be heartlessly savage, that sin leads to the repetitious torments of hell and that the pleasures of the text coexist with the indignity of the body and soul. [...]’ (p.220.)

Note: Brown remarks of Beckett: ‘He employed narrative to explore problems explicitly posed by philosophical reflection [...] it is his peculiar predilection for addressing issues of philosophical importance in complex narratives which in part accounts for his remarkable achievement as a novelist.’ (Ibid., p.206; quoted in Steven Osborne, PG Dip., UU 2011.)

[ top ]

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Lost in translation: a Wilde notion from Myles na gCopaleen’, in The Irish Times (5 March 2011), Weekend Review, “Culture Shock” [column], p.9: ‘Flann O’Brien [...] devoted a Myles na gCopaleen column in The Irish Times to an attack on a stage version of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. (Myles called it Doreen Gay.) He mocked Micheál MacLiammoir’s adaptation on the grounds that it ignored Wilde’s own judgment of the appropriate form for his material: “Wilde wrote a number of plays and also this ‘only’ novel. Unless he was mad, he must have intended to write ‘Doreen Gay’ as a novel, otherwise he would have done what was for him the customary thing - written it as a play. Since however a man of the calibre of Mr MacLiammoir does not hesitate to reverse Wilde’s judgment, I fear we are faced ... with the theory that Wilde fully intended to write it as a play. He couldn’t think of the word, went ahead writing, and the thing turned out to be a novel!” [...] And yet theatre companies haven’t been able to resist the urge to do precisely that. Hugh Leonard did a stage version of The Dalkey Archive for the Gate as early as 1965.’ [Gives an account of stage-versions of O’Brien’s works, and concludes that, contrary to the author’s implied dictum, that, in relation to Blue Raincoat’s adaptation of At Swim ‘the answer is undoubtedly yes.’

Further: ‘For all his scepticism, O’Brien might have given some grudging respect to this achievement. His complaint about those “chronically incapable of appreciating a thing in terms of itself” cuts both ways. Particularly towards the end, this At Swim becomes a thing in itself and deserves to be appreciated not as a version of a book but as a vibrant piece of theatre.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Fintan O’Toole, ‘The fantastic Flann O’Brien’, in The Irish Times (1 Oct. 2011), Weekend Review: ‘Flann O’Brien was born into a culture of lingering, post-revolutionary dissolution. As with Beckett, his genius was to find energy, both comic and grotesque, in that entropy. The great ferment of change in the early years of the 20th century had resulted rather anti-climactically in a small, impoverished state, culturally philistine and sexually repressed, its energies drained by exhaustion and mass emigration. WB Yeats died in 1939, a month before the 27-year-old Brian O’Nolan, using the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, published his astonishing first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. James Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake was published in the same year. / Frank O’Connor, writing in 1942, claimed that it was impossible to write a normal social novel in Ireland: “the moment a writer raises his eyes from the slums and cabins, he finds nothing but a vicious and ignorant middle-class, and for aristocracy the remnants of an English garrison, alien in religion and education. From such material he finds it almost impossible to create a picture of life ... a realistic literature is clearly impossible.” / If realistic literature is impossible, the writer’s options are stark: stay quiet or invent something new. O’Brien and Beckett chose the option of making a new literature of lingering dissolution. [...]

Further (O’Toole, 1 Oct. 2011): In The Poor Mouth, Flann O’Brien’s devastating parody of Gaelic-language autobiographical peasant narratives, the hero is alone at night on the seashore when he hears a terrible, unrecognisable sound. He is then assailed by “an ancient smell of putridity which set the skin of my nose humming and dancing”. He eventually sees a huge black quadruped like a giant hairy seal with legs. The following day he tries to describe the beast to his grandfather, who asks him to sketch it. The contours of the terrible creature, called the Sea-cat, appear in the text of the novel. / It is a map of Ireland turned on its side, the four major peninsulas acting as legs, the bulbous sweep of the north-eastern shoreline forming the head. In a footnote, the “editor” of the cod-memoir tells us that “it is not without importance that the Sea-cat and Ireland bear the same shape and that both of them have all the same bad destiny, hard times and ill-luck attending them.” /. The ancient smell of putridity that emanates from this half-comic, half-terrifying embodiment of Ireland is not unrelated to the stink of “history’s ancient faeces” that, according to the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s First Love (written five years after The Poor Mouth in 1946) largely constitutes “the charm of our country”. If Beckett and O’Brien shared a great deal besides their belief that something was rotten in the state of Ireland, the overwhelming difference between them is that Beckett, like the majority of their literary contemporaries, managed to flee from the Sea-cat. O’Brien, almost alone among the great writers of 20th century Ireland, fell into its clutches. He stayed in Ireland and paid a fearful price in frustration and neglect. [...]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

[ top ]

Colum Tóibín, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Lies’, in London Review of Books (5 Jan. 2012): Toibin quotes Juan Luis Borges’s 1951 essay ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ and remarks: "[...] The theory that modernism in literature was the invention of writers who were Irish or Jewish or South American (or indeed homosexuals or expatriates) did not begin as a theory, but as a practice; it did not begin as a plan, it began as though by necessity, because for many writers there seemed to be no choice. The tone of Borges’s early stories and O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, arose in the way an oasis, and the vegetation around it, will spring up only in a desert. An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst. It is not an accident or a mere whim on the part of writers that there is no Irish novel that ends in a wedding. For O’Brien, it was not even a question of how to end or begin a novel, it was a question of an urgent need to put the kibosh on the novel’s pained demands, put the tricks the novelist uses out of their misery by exposing them and all their messy entrails.’ [Cont.]

Cont. (Colm Tóibín, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Lies’, in London Review of Books, 5 Jan. 2012): As they worked, a spectre haunted both Borges and O’Brien, the spectre of a man who had faced the problem of setting a novel in a society which did not have the possibility of progress, or where a young person could not easily face his or her destiny without many obstacles, some of them comic, others to do with race rather than class, or violence rather than love. The spectre of a man who had used silence, exile and cunning as a way of dealing with social paralysis and national demands. They were both haunted by the spectre of James Joyce. Borges was, he proudly wrote in 1925, ‘the first traveller from the Hispanic world to set foot upon the shores of Ulysses’. But this is not entirely true. Instead he was, as he admitted, one of the first of the hordes who had read the novel, but not personally. ‘I confess,’ he wrote, ‘that I have not cleared a path through all seven hundred pages. I confess to having examined only bits and pieces, and yet I know what it is, with that bold and legitimate certainty with which we assert our knowledge of a city, without ever having been rewarded with the intimacy of all the many streets it includes.’ Since he never wrote anything long himself, perhaps he can be forgiven for never reading anything long either. And he was writing only three years after the publication of Ulysses. He knew what he was looking for when he read certain chapters of the book - a way of breaking with standard narrative in fiction, a subject which would preoccupy him greatly all his life. He saw this as part of an Irish tradition, mentioning Swift and Sterne and Shaw. ‘James Joyce is Irish,’ he wrote. [Quotes Borges:] "The Irish have always been famous for being the iconoclasts of the British Isles. Less sensitive to verbal decorum than their detested lords, less inclined to pour their eyes upon the smooth moon or to decipher the impermanence of rivers in long free-verse laments, they made deep incursions into the territory of English letters, pruning all rhetorical exuberance with frank impiety." He needed Joyce to be Irish; he needed a mentor to be remote from the centre and thus to be a writer who would, by necessity, break moulds; it could somehow justify Argentina and its terrible distance from where life or letters began.’ [...; See full version under Tóibín - in this frame or in separate window.]

[ top ]

Frank McNally, Next best thing to a new one from Myles’, review of The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, ed. Neil Murphy & Keith Hopper, in The Irish Times (24 Aug. 2013), Weekend Review, p.10. Collection incls. of “Naval Control” - a piece of comic science fiction by John Seamus O’Donnell discovered by John Fennell, and newly attrib. to O’Brien, here reprinted as an appendix; the pseudonymous author’s name compared to Jams O’Donnnell in An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) - the latter being foreshadowed in 3-page “The Tale of Black Pete”. Further: ‘“Scenes in a Novel”, written under his student pseudonym, Brother Barnabus [sic], toys with the notion of fictional characters plotting against their creator, a theme that became central to At Swim Two Birds. And a story called “Two in One” has a man being tried for is own murder - a typically O’Brienesque fate, not unlike that of the namless narrator in The Third Policeman. / In fact, the synopsis of “Two in One” was first outlined in Cruiskeen Lawn [but] he reclaimed the idea, embellished it for the Bell, and in the process turned a comic sketch into a work of Gothic horror that could sit alongside anything by Poe.’ McNally notes ‘structural faults’ in early fiction, notably the resort to a series of letters (‘like diary entries’) outlining the stories ‘as if the author hasn’t yet worked out how to use the past tense effectively’. McNally speaks of “John Duffy’s Brother” (1940), which ‘keeps the comedy on a much shorter lead than usual’, as the most interesting: ‘In believing himself to have become a steam engine, the hero may or may not be suffering from a nervous breakdown. Either way, his fleeting brainstorm is no joke, even for Flann O’Brien. In an uncharacteristically sombre denouement the character emerges no longer a train but a badly frightened man.’

Note: The version printed here is the American one which includes an allusion to a imperfect understanding of the sexual relation which, in the Irish-printed version, was simply called an ‘imperfect understanding of the world’ that caused the protagonist to go to sea at 16. “Drink and Time in Dublin” (1946) is called ‘a blackly comic tale about a man who goes on the batter while his wife is out of town’ and ‘a Dublin drunk’s version of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The beginnings of ‘Slattery’s Sago Saga, the unfinished novel, are also given here. (Frank McNally, review of Murphy & Hopper, eds., Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, in The Irish Times, 24 Aug. 2013.)

David Wheatley, ‘review of Maehb Long, ed. Yours Severely: The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, in Literary Review (5 July 2018): ‘[...] The Third Policeman is (among other things) a terrifying portrait of fear and loathing in the Irish Free State. The mismatch between the fantasy worlds carved out by its characters and the everyday reality of squalor and alcoholism endured by its author is among the most painful aspects of O’Brien’s life. / The collaborative nature of O’Brien’s Cruiskeen Lawn column has long been public knowledge, with Niall Montgomery stepping in whenever O’Brien was ‘unwell’ in the Jeffrey Bernard sense. It is dispiriting in the extreme, then, to see O’Brien lash out at Montgomery in 1964, though later correspondence suggests the slight was forgiven by his architect friend. He and Timothy O’Keeffe, O’Brien’s endlessly indulgent publisher, are the true heroes of this book. As we hurtle miserably towards O’Brien’s death on 1 April 1966, at the age of fifty-four, we dread each new eruption of rage almost as much as the letters’ original recipients must have done. Most of the time the later O’Brien was, quite simply, a miserable auld ballocks. Such was his hostility towards the Gardaí, who were pursuing him - unfairly, he felt - for drink-driving, that he planned to have an engineless car towed into place outside a pub with the intention of climbing into it at closing time, before triumphantly denying to the waiting constables that he was drunk and in charge of a vehicle. Woe betide the publican who served him less than a full measure of spirits (he carried his own measure, just to be sure) or attempted to close his premises before O’Brien fancied moving on. Hyperbolic self-praise of his latest projects becomes a tedious leitmotif. The endless letters about double taxation on translations of At Swim-Two-Birds are unbearable. While writing The Dalkey Archive he becomes obsessed with the idea that St Augustine may have been black, and inflicts his theories, N-word and all, on his correspondents in screaming capital letters, over and over again.’ (... &c.; for full-text version, see Library > Criticism > Reviews - as infra.)

Laura Lovejoy, ‘Urban Degeneracy and the Free State in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds’, in Irish Urban Fictions, ed., Maria Beville & Deirdre Flynn [Lit. Urban Studies Ser.] (London: Palgrave 2018), pp.129-47 - Abstract: ‘Cities have long been associated with leisure and the freedom of modernity in literature, appearing as characters in a range of Victorian to modernist European fictions which depict liberatory flânerie and metropolitan idleness. In the nation-building discourses of early twentieth-century Ireland, however, the urban was often positioned as a site of moral degeneration. During the Free State period in Ireland (1922-1937), social problems such as idleness, prostitution, and corrupting modern entertainments were increasingly framed within discourses of degeneration by authorities who turned their scrutinising gaze inward following independence. Dublin in particular emerged in the most influential religious and educational discourses of the 1920s and 1930s as a locus of cultural decay and contagion, a contaminating space which endangered the entire nation. According to prominent champions of social and moral hygiene, Dublin was the chief headquarters of vice, a location which spawned indecent literature, showed immoral films, and housed the largest concentration of prostitutes in Ireland. The early twentieth-century social reform discourses which positioned Dublin as a modern forum of iniquity are precisely those under assault by Flann O’Brien in his novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). The novel’s portrayal of a morally squalid 1930s Dublin satirises the worst fears of the Free State’s most vocal social purity advocates. In At Swim-Two-Birds, the city becomes a site of corruption and defilement for the young male narrator, drawing him further away from the idealised visions of robust, athletic, masculinity against which he is measured. This chapter explores how O’Brien’s fictional representation of 1930s Dublin skewers contemporary Catholic discourses which constructed the city as a locus of sin and degeneration, illustrating the novel’s focus on the teachings of the Irish Christian Brothers as a particular target. O’Brien’s subversive portrayal of the moral topography of 1930s Dublin toys with the specific social anxieties which shaped the moral landscape of the Free State period as he presents the city as a site which permits rebellion against Catholic moral instruction.’ (Palgrave Publ.; available in Springar Link - online; accessed 05.10.2018.)

R. W. Maslen, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, in New Hibernia Review 10, 4 ([St. Thomas Univ.] 2006), pp.84-104: ‘The independent Ireland of which At Swim-Two-Birds is an ambiguous celebration was built on armed conflict, and by the time the novel was published armed conflict was rapidaly spreading throughout Europe. It is hardly surprising, then, that comedy for O’Brien is an often physically painful art form, with its roots in an oppressive past and its branches spreading into an equally oppressive potential time to come.’ (p.84; available at JSTOR - online; accessed 17.07.2021.]

John Attridge, ‘Mythomaniac, Modernism, Lying and Bullshit’, in Flann O'Brien and Modernism, ed. Julian Murphet, et al. (London: Bloomsbury 2014), pp.27-39:

‘Outright mendacity is a regular occurrence in the novels, but [...] more central O’Brien’s [30] fictional imagination is the class of untruthful utterances that we might well call, after [I.A.] Richards, pseudo-statements; discourses which ostensibly resemble assertions but which do not really assert that anything is the case." [...] The name of Flann O’Brien is almost mythically associated with lying and fabulation. In A Colder Eye [1983, p.3], Hugh Kenner makes him the mascot of a putative Irish compulsion to make things up, prefacing his discussion of “Irish Fact” (“anything they will tell you in Ireland”) with an epigraph from The Third Policeman: “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.” Kenner had had first-hand experience of O’Brien’s untrustworthiness: in Dublin’s Joyce (1956) he cited an interview with Joyce’s father from the 1949 James Joyce Yearbook which O’Brien subsequently admitted to having made up as a joke, declaring himself delighted at the success of his hoax. The anecdote is emblematic of the attitudes to truth and imposture that characterize O’Brien’s fiction. It suggests, for one thing, O’Brien’s contempt for the rigidly factual discourses of academic knowledge, apparent in the pathetic history of Bassett, Le Clerque, De Fournier, Du Garbandier, Hatchjaw, Kraus and, still more pathetically, Henderson, their annotator, in the footnotes to The Third Policeman. And it exhibits O’Brien’s fondness for blurring the line between such serious assertive discourses and non-assertive pseudo-statements, like jokes and fictions. As with the po-faced parody of scholarly apparatus, the best pastiches are deadpan, never admitting to being made up. / Kenner’s caricature of Ireland as a nation of mythomaniacs is apt, at least, when applied to the world of O’Brien’s novels, few of whose characters are altogether innocent of imposture. The narrators of the two early novels, for example, are both notable liars: in At Swim-Two-Birds the narrator lies to his uncle out of avarice (to extract money), idleness (to be left alone in his room) and sheer devilment (to trap Brinsley into accompanying his uncle on an evening walk), while the narrator of The Third Policeman lies elaborately, if naively, to Sergeant Pluck about his identity and his business at the police barracks. The feeble invention of the gold watch, he speculates, may well have entailed all his subsequent misfortunes: ‘Perhaps it was this lie which was responsible for the bad things that happened to me afterwards. I had no American gold watch.’ (p.30-31.)
In a passage commonly taken to signal O’Brien’s inscription avant la lettre in the culture of postmodernism, the narrator denounces the genre for “frequently inducing the reader to be outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters”. Instead, he proclaims, “a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity” (AS, 21). This passage rejects the principle of verisimilitude that accompanied the rise of the realist novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more particularly the anti-rhetorical, Flaubertian ethos of authorial selfeffacement traced by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Above all, as John Cronin notes, it flouts the heightened emphasis placed on truth and sincerity by modernist authors like James, Lawrence and Woolf. In this respect, the narrator’s theory of the novel resembles Frankfurt’s bull session and Augustine’s sociable lies: discourses whose audience voluntarily regulate their credulity so as not to be deceived. We find another allusion to the peculiar truth status of fictional utterances in The Third Policeman. When the narrator of that novel reminds Sergeant Pluck that his namelessness is supposed to render him immune to legal sanction, and that therefore his proposed execution is illegitimate, Pluck counters this argument by asserting that, by the same token, there can be no objection to hanging such a legal nonentity. “Anything you do is a lie,” he reasons, “and nothing that happens to you is true” (TP, 311). This self-reflexive moment conforms to the doctrine of fiction announced by the narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds. By alluding archly to the fact that, insofar as the narrator of The Third Policeman is a fictional character, any actions attributed to him are indeed ontologically null, O’Brien reminds us that novels do not assert the truth status of their utterances. The various mechanisms of fictional verisimilitude induce readers to suspend disbelief and read stories as if they were true, but this suspension of disbelief is founded on a fragile contract. To dispel the contract of verisimilitude, it is necessary only to call to mind that the narrators of fictions are not, in fact, constrained to observe the constraints of plausibility, but can, rather, flout them at any moment, exploding the contract of readerly fiction. (p.34.)
The fullest record of O’Brien’s unerring ear for cliché are the “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns for The Irish Times. One series, the “Cathechism of Cliché”, was explicitly devoted to compiling “a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing”, but this same bilious sensitivity to cliché is apparent in many other pieces as well: in the cloying platitudes recited by the Plain People of Ireland, for instance (“People do say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues”).32 Clichés are an important trope in At Swim-Two-Birds, which contains, indeed, several idioms later reprised in the column. The oral idioms and banalities employed in the columns by characters like the Plain People of Ireland and Myles’s loquacious bus-stop acquaintance, for example, are mirrored in an embourgeoisé form by the narrator’s uncle. Like the bus-stop pest, the uncle employs the locution “do you know what I”m going to tell you” to puff up banal or trite announcements, such as his solicitous remark to Brinsley that “there is a very catching cold going around. Every second man you meet has got a cold”; AS, 27). His conversation, when it does not consist in bona fide adages (“First come, first called”; AS, 29), (“Friendly advice no wise man scorns”; AS, 161) and folk Catholicism (“There is a special crown for those that give themselves up to that work”; AS, 28), is characterized by this kind of anodyne avowal, and by repetition (“Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?”; AS, 11). It is, perhaps, this conventional and iterative quality that leads the narrator to amuse himself by surreptitiously. (p.37.)
O’Brien was highly sensitive to these grey areas separating outright lies from truth claims. His fine, Joycean ear for spoken language led him to record, satirically but meticulously, the many uses of language that exist in these grey areas: facetiousness, hyperbolic story-telling, recycled platitudes, jokes and so on. As we have seen, this same sensibility energizes O’Brien’s metafictional imagination. Like Augustine’s sociable lies and some forms of bullshit, fiction rests on a tacit contract between author and reader that enables false statements to be construed as if they were true. The ethos of story-telling put forward in At Swim-Two-Birds, and alluded to again in the lie-actions of The Third Policeman, certainly parts company with the fictional truthfulness espoused by, for instance, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, as Cronin points out. But at the same time, O”Brien does not simply embrace mendacity as an alternative to truth. He is, rather, alert to the paradoxical situation of fiction as an ambiguous discourse, unbeholden to truth but also distinct from falsehood. Ludwig Wittgenstein advises us, “Don”t take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, absorb us. (This means: puzzle over it).”35 Distinct both from the quasi-mythical high modernism that loves truth, and the subversive counter-modernism that loves a lie, it is perhaps the distinction of O’Brien’s late modernist project to puzzle over this question with new intensity. Dispensing with the taboos of Flaubertian impersonality, O’Brien’s irreverent self-reflexivity does not dispel Wittgenstein’s puzzle but rather formulates its paradox more starkly. His grasp of speech acts as social and institutional, meanwhile, brings a new set of conceptual tools to this puzzle, which O”Brien imagines using the ambiguous, negotiable model of bullshit and sociable lying rather than the binary of truth and mendacity. (p.39.) [Available on line as .pdf at Academia.edu - online; see also page-images and further extracts - as attached.

[ top ]

German Asensio [Universidad de Almería], ‘Flann O’Brien’s Creative Loophole’, in Estudos Irlandeses (15 March 2015) - Available online; accessed 25.09.2021.) - citing Thomas Hogan’s article, ‘Myles na gCopaleen’, in The Bell, XIII, 2 (1946), pp.126-40 - a witty ad hominem attack by Hogan, pseud. of Thomas Wood, of the Dept. of External Affairs - aka ‘Thersites’ in The Irish Times.

[... R]eaders and critics alike started to consider his writing as decadent, lacking in the brilliance of younger years, insecure and considerably more serious and realistic than his previous style. This view was made public somewhat earlier, in 1947, by Thomas Hogan, who contributed a piece to The Bell in which he assessed O’Brien’s ‒ although the piece by Hogan was succinctly entitled “Myles na gCopaleen” ‒ abilities and achievements as a writer up to that time. Hogan began by considering, as many had done previously, At Swim-Two-Birds as a likely Joycean-influenced novel, albeit remarkable and O’Brien’s best work ever. Then he went on listing all the works O’Brien had written after At Swim-Two-Birds and describing them, finally concluding that O’Brien had left humor and comic genius long behind and had turned into a fundamentally satirical writer (Cronin 1990: 177-178). At the time, turning from an experimental and explorative way of writing novels to an essentially satirical approach would be dangerous as far as critics were concerned. By the 1940s in Ireland, Joyce had become the aesthetic role model that every writer was expected to follow. O’Brien began ‒ either consciously or unconsciously ‒ partaking in this view but, as his “anxiety of influence” in relation to Joyce increased, he began to feel detached from that general critical design and sought to direct his energies towards fundamentally tackling national and local problems. It is not that satire was considered a minor form of literature, but rather that the critical attention was almost exclusively focused on more innovative tendencies. Thomas Hogan’s view was, however, slightly inaccurate inasmuch as O’Brien’s journalism during the early 1940s was actually far more satirical than after the war. It was during the first years of Cruiskeen Lawn that he adopted a resilient satirical outlook towards the Gaelic Revival and De Valera’s politically motivated attempts at establishing Irish as an official primary language spoken by every Irish individual. Moreover, although Hogan’s contribution was to be in line with most of O’Brien’s later critics, the piece was written in 1947 and Cruiskeen Lawn ran with almost consistent frequency for about twenty years. Cronin, however, stresses the relevance of Hogan’s article as it was destined to become the main perspective under which O’Brien was to be looked:

It propounds a view of the column as rather cantankerous and sterile which, in spite of the fact that they continued to read it, was becoming the accepted notion in such circles in the late 1940s. Although O’Nolan was still only 36 the article cruelly asserted that his best work was ‘far behind him’, and from now on, this too was to become the accepted view in the circles in which Thomas Hogan moved (1990: 179).

Perhaps because O’Brien was fully aware of the status his work was falling into, or perhaps because he felt it was time to experiment with narrative again, he wrote The Hard Life in 1961. [...]