David McKitterick, ‘The “Lost” World of Flann O’Brien’, in The Independent [UK] (28 Feb. 2006)

[Details: David McKitterick, ‘The “Lost” World of Flann O’Brien’, in The Independent [UK] (28 Feb. 2006), pp.28-29. Subheading: Forty years after the death of one of Ireland’s most eccentric literary stars, thousands of Americans are rushing to buy his work. Why? Because one of his books appeared on a hit television drama series.]

Flann O’Brien, one of Ireland’s more neglected literary lions, would have undoubtedly been both bemused and amused by the revival of interest in his works sparked by, of all things, the American television drama Lost. He imagined and created many fantastic and creative things in his writing career, but the the idea that television should suddenly cause such a rush on his book would surely have caused him to blink in disbelief.

Yet the Lost series has such a large and mesmerised following that even a fleeting glimpse of his novel The Third Policeman was enough to send thousands of American viewers hurrying to the book-shops.

Although its cover was shown on-screen for just one second, the book sold 15,000 copies after a scriptwriter hinted that it had been chosen ‘very specifically for a reason’.

But fans anxious to unravel the mysteries of Lost will find no easy answers in O’Brien’ss book since it is, in one reviewer’s words, ‘a fusion of the fantastic and the legendary. Another reader has it as a ‘brilliant comic novel about the nature of time, death and existence’. Decades of debate among O’Brien devotees have failed to pin down quite what the book is all about.

It is about hell, involving a murder and a policeman fixated on the possibililty of molecular transference between a bicycle and its habitual rider, so that each partially becomes the other. The narrator, who is one of the murderers, is himself blown up and, killed in the first chapter. But, not realising this, he narrates on. The reader meanwhile, is made aware that something has happened, but is not told that the narrator is dead.

There are, plainly, no easy answers in this book though at least it does not start, as another O’Brien novel does, with separate openings. As this suggests, those venturing into the world of Flann O’Brien will find it funnier than that of Lost but, if anything, even more bizarre, absurd and baffling.

Though much of the literary world would not agree, quite a few in Ireland speak of him in the same breath as Joyce and Beckett. Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas were among his admirers, while a small but ardent cult following means the world of letters has never forgotten him since he died in 1966, at the age of 54. The story of his life is an extraordinary tragi-comic tale: comic in that the few books he produced are ranked by some as among the most brilliant humour ever written; tragic in that his legendarily heavy drinking may well have shortened his life.

Many of those who knew him were utterly fascinated by him. ‘He was pugnacious and obnoxious but he was wonderful,’ Anthony Cronin, who wrote his biography, No Laughing Matter, said yesterday. ‘There is a sense which he was genius or bust. There was a quality of extraordinary originality and brilliance about him.’

Another Irish author, Tony Gray, described him in his book on Irish journalism as ‘a small, shy, taciturn character with teeth like a rabbit and a greasy felt hat’. He added that he was by far the angriest man I ever met. Gray, who worked with O’Brien at The Irish Times, summed him up as not one character but many, all them angry, intolerant, irascible, extremely critical of the Establishment, violently opposed to pretension in any shape or form, and very, very funny’.

The story of how O’Brien came to write a column for The Irish Times is as peculiar and outlandish as anything in his writings. A brilliant Gaelic and classical scholar, he started his own college magazine, called Blather, announcing in its first issue: ‘Blather has no principles, no honour, no shame. We are an arrogant and a depraved body of men, as proud as bantams and as vain as peacocks.’

As a Dublin civil servant during the Second World War O’Brien was strictly forbidden to express his opinions publicly, and so resorted to pen-names instead of his own name, Brian o’Nolan. He carried this practice to extremes, writing spurious letters to The Irish Times, sometimes in the names of actual people: then he would write follow-up letters denouncing his own correspondence.

He did this so well that the editor of The Irish Times, R. M. “Bertie” Smyllie, became greatly worried that the columns were being hijacked with bogus correspondence.

Eventually Srnyllie, who was himself something of a character, announced: ‘I have decided to employ O’Nolan as a columnist. If we pay the bugger to contribute to this shuddering newspaper, he will probably no longer feel tempted to contribute gratis, under various pseudonyms, to the correspondence columns’.

The result was a stream of columns, written under the name of Myles na Gopaleen, which O’Brien filled with the most idiosyrncratic humour which was often combined with lacerating satire. The paper gave him an extraordinary degree of licence, even allowing him to write parodies of its own leading articles on the same page. With collections still in print, the columns have given him a double reputation among admirers as an author and journalist.

His best-known books, The Third Policeman and At SwimTwo-Birds, meanwhile have bizarre histories of their own. The latter, written while he was at university, was well received but got less attention than might have been expected

First, it was rather overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War and, second, most of the copies were destroyed during the Blitz: it was a scenario, some said, worthy of O’Brien himself.

The Third Policeman had an even more difficult genesis: O’Brien was so crushed at its rejection by a London publisher that he hid it away, claiming to his friends that it had been lost. He produced the typically surreal explanation that the manuscript had been placed in the boot of a car and, during a drive round Ireland, had blown away, page by page. It was only after his death that the text was retrieved and published, to some acclaim.

He had two personal forms of escape from reality, his writing and alcohol. He took to drink while at college and throughout his life drink with steady dedication throughout the day, beginning in the morning. He came up with some brilliant ideas, a friend recalled, ‘in the brief interval between the time when his hangover was so insufferable that he couldn’t bear to talk to anybody at all, and the time when the “cure” (i.e., more drink) began to take effect.’

He drank so much, in fact, that he was generally in bed by early evening. According to Anthony Cronin: ‘He wrote in the early mornings, and his writing would be done by 12 o’clock in the morning. On the very rare occasion when you might meet him at eight or nine o’clock in the evening, you’d be inclined to say, “Hey, it’s well past your bedtime, what are you doing here?’

The Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s is known as a dull literary period when a number of writers emigrated, complaining about a suffocating atmosphere and a lack of artistic appreciation and freedom. But The Irish Times gave O’Brien a quite astonishing amount of licence to write literally thousands of columns, poking fun at many politicians, government policies and the sacred cows of the time.

He did not spare his own readers from his attacks, addressing them in one column as ‘you smug, self-righteous swine, self-opinionated sod-minded suet-brained ham-faced mealy-mouthed streptococcus-ridden gang of natural gobdaws.’

He also benefited from another huge element of licence in his day-job in the famously dull Dublin civil service. He was not supposed to voice any public opinions, nor was he supposed to drink himself senseless during the working day. But he had understanding and sympathetic civil service superiors who for years shielded him from disgruntled government ministers. In the end, though, he wrote one political attack too many, and was eased out of his job.

The hurtful rejection of his book, together with his general view of the human condition, did nothing to change his self-destructive drinking habits, described by Tony Gray as a ‘highly expensive method of killing oneself.’ Anthony Cronin concurs, believing that drink shortened his life. Both Gray and Cronin think he would have benefited from more recognition. According to Cronin: ‘There was an element of non-fulfillment about him, an element of unfulfilled promise.

‘He was unwavering in his self-confidence but the rejection dented him. Like a lot of humourists he took a fairly gloomy view of life and of human destiny, and the view expressed in The Third Policeman is rather grim.’

So what would O’Brien have made of Lost? Cronin guesses: ‘He would claim he was interested in the money aspect of it, and he would say it was of no great importance.’

And what would he have made of his own reputation, given that he is now held in higher regard than he was in his own lifetime? Gray conclueded, in terms as slashing as O’Brien himself, would have used, that he would pour ‘devastating scorn on the spin-off industry and all the pretension cod that has been written about him by gombeen-scholars and literary blatherers.’

[ close ] [ top ]