Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (1989)

Reading notes

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 aestheticism.

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] Miall Montgomery was a quick-eyed and quick-witted architectural student who was to play an important role in Brian O’Nolan’s life, bot only as a collaborator in some of his journalistic enterprises, but as a ssort of intellectual mentor. His attitude to Joyce was obsessive but ambiguous … [he] regarded Joyce’s works as an intellectual playground: esoteric, cabbalistic, logomachic. He left out, in so far as it can be left out, the human content and the compassionate purpose [55 ...]

The resulting synthesis was largely Montgomery’s solution. 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 Mysles 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 some of his friend … [57]

ON O’NOLAN’S ACCEPTANCE OF A 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] Cronin writes: … best-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] 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 … / 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. [.. ..] 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 and free expression had to be balanced against other claims. When he did feel anything of the kind, it was too late. [89]

‘It is a belly-laugh or high-class literary pretentious slush depending on how you look at it. Some people say it is harder on the head than the worst whiskey, so do not hesitate to burn the book if you think that’s the right thing to do.’ [12 July 1939]

[...] As a genius I do not expect to be readily understood but you may be surprised to know that my book is a definite milestone in literature, completely revolutionises the English novel and puts the shallow pedestrian English writers in their place. Of course I know you are prejudiced against me on account of the IRA bombings … to be serious I can’t understand your attidude to stuff like this. It is not a pale-faced sincere attempt to hold the mirror up and had nothing in the world to do with James Joyce. It is supposed to be a lot of belching, thumb-nosing and belly-laughing and I honestly believe that it is funny in parts. It is also by way of being a sneer at all the slush which has been unloaded from this country on the credulous English although they, it is true, manufacture enough of their own odious slush to make the import unnecessary. … [14 July 1939] [104]

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, evn if only partially, locally and in terms of individual salvation. But science, social organisation and psychology are almost irrelevant. [115] Cronin cites Aidan Higgins’ remark that the landscape of The Third Policeman is that of the Irish midlands of O’Nolan’s childhood. [no source; 116]

‘Briefly, the story I have in mind opens as a very orthodox murder mystery in a rural district. The perplexed parties have recourse to the local barrack which, however, contains some very extraordinary policemen who do not confine their investigations or activities to this world or to any known planes or dimensions. Their most casual remarks create a thousand other mysteries but there will be no question of the difficulty or ‘fireworks’ of the last book. The whole point of my plan will be the perfectly logical and matter-of-fact treatment of the most brain-staggering imponderables of the policemen. I should like to do this rather carefully and spend some time on it ..’ [1 May 1939]

‘I guess it is a bum book anyhow. I am writing a very funny book now about bicycles and policemen and I think it will be perhaps good and early a little money quietly.’ [25 Sept 1939]; LATER [14 Feb. 1940] ‘The only good thing about it is the plot and I have been wondering whether I could make a crazy Saroyan play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realise my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he has earned for the killing Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he has been away three days, this other fellow is 20 years older and dies of fright when he seens the other lad standing in the door. Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start going through the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he had never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on forever - and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either. … I envy you the way you write … I can never seen to get anything just right … Nevertheless, I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead - and the damned - where none of the rules and laws (not even the Law of Gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back chat and funny cracks.’ [Ibid.; 111; note vars. from version printed back of Calder Edn. of Third Policeman]. Cronin calls O’Brien a precursor of the deconstructive fiction [162-63].

Cronin prints Flann’s critique of the extension of Civil Service pension scheme: ‘the bulk of the material in Parliament at present is dangerously mediocre and the considerable problems of the future can be hopefully attacked only if the attitude to those forced to enter the administrative service is emancipatory rather than restrictive. People of intellitience whose parents have no money have virtually no other choice. Children of the well-to-do enter the professions and the majority are too absorbed in their lucrative work to make any contribution to public affairs. The only other considerable class is the business community. Business experience seems to coner an ex parte and unduly materialistica mentality; businessmen in public life have not been impressive. The administrator, on the other hand, has uniquely useful experience of the structure and function of the modern civil organism. It would be difficult to imagine a better deputy than a man who has served for 20 years as a County manager and who retired in his prime (say at 50) to take a hand in public affairs’. [Heads of Superannuation Bill, NLI]

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

[ close ] [ top ]