Clair Wills, ‘Anti-Writer’ [on Flann O’Brien], in London Review of Books (4 April 2019)

[ Clair Wills, review of Maebh Long, ed., The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (Dalkey Archive, 2018), 619pp.; available online; accessed 22.07.2021. ]

In March 1957 Brian O’Nolan - better known under his pen names Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen - then aged 45, applied for a series of jobs at the radio broadcasting studios in Cork, including station supervisor, programme assistant, and balance and control officer. The same month he announced his candidacy for the Irish Senate. His principal argument in his own favour was that he was truly independent of the two main parties, which were still floundering about in the ‘detritus’ of the civil war. The ‘fug of cant, hypocrisy and recrimination’ that blighted Irish political life was, he said, impossible to shift while the Dáil was crowded ‘with the immediate relatives of dead or surviving politicians, many of them quite unfitted for public life’. By contrast, O’Nolan promised to ‘speak my mind without regard to the Whips and Big Brothers of Leinster House’. He received a crushingly low number of votes. In May that year he tried to get references for a job as assistant lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin. Later he applied for a junior lecturer post at Trinity, and then for a job in the student records office:

 I am an honours graduate and hold the degree of MA from the National University. I am married.
 I entered the civil service here in 1935 and progressed to the rank of Principal Officer but retired in 1953, mainly because of a party political atmosphere which made straightforward administration almost impossible.
 I have a fair reputation internationally as a writer and have also been engaged for many years in this country in the better kind of journalism. I have decided to discontinue the latter activity because the rewards here are inadequate and residence abroad is essential for a realistic intervention in the market there. I have had wide experience in statistical and editorial work. I am interested generally in university administration and studied the subject in the US.

There are embellishments here - O’Nolan got the sack from the civil service in 1953 because of his frequent and protracted absences, and for ridiculing his superiors in the newspaper column he wrote as Myles na gCopaleen; it is unlikely he ever studied in the US, though he may have travelled there in the late 1940s - but the biographical sketch is accurate in its essentials. It is repeated throughout this new edition of O’Nolan’s letters in scores of introductions and pitches that he sent to publishers; agents; provincial Irish newspapers; the British press, radio and TV; and even to firms that might be looking for someone to write advertising copy. He created fantastical backgrounds for himself under other names - whether as Flann O’Brien (‘As a lad I knew Ibsen ... Swinburne and Joseph Conrad were also frequent visitors to my grandfather’s place ... At dusk, Coleridge would sometimes look in on his way home for a final pipe, and more than once the burly shape of Lord Macaulay was known to grace the gathering’) or Myles na gCopaleen (‘Diaghilev I knew and liked, a strange genius of a man if ever there was one. But Fokine was the daddy of them all, and an exemplary family man among a crew of roués’). These letters, however, deal with the burdens of being plain Brian O’Nolan.

The Collected Letters span the period from 1934, when he was in his early twenties and looking forward to the publication of his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), to his death in 1966. But more than half of them were written in the last five years of his life, when his health (always poor) was declining and he was spending more and more time in hospital, either drying out or being treated for a series of intractable complaints, including, at the end, throat cancer. There are wry accounts of illness and broken bones, and his extraordinary bad luck with road accidents - many of the smashes were caused by his drinking, but sometimes drivers ran into him and once he injured his spine in a bus accident. Although - or perhaps because - the Irish roads were almost empty of cars in the 1950s, no one appeared to know how to drive safely. There is a detailed account in the monthly reports he sent to Timothy O’Keeffe, his publisher at MacGibbon and Kee, of the writing and revising of his last novel, The Dalkey Archive, which focuses obsessively on the question of whether Saint Augustine was black. The longest and most revealing correspondence is with Niall Montgomery, a close friend from university and later a collaborator on his newspaper column, with whom O’Nolan liked to share in-jokes, but on whom he could turn like a terrier, as in this 1964 letter accusing him of plagiarism: ‘You are known to far more than me as the pedlar of the second-hand, the inadequate, the ununderstood. Heretofore this has been disguised by a massive “gentleman” charlatanry and why this has now been cast aside is a total mystery to me.’

But a good proportion of the letters fall into the category of personal administration: letters to bank managers, mortgage companies, typewriter repair firms. There are a large number of letters about the robbery of agents’ fees, and double taxation arrangements. Many of the letters to Montgomery also deal with business affairs, as Montgomery (an architect ‘distinguished by inane imitation of the work of others’) was pressed into the thankless tasks of commissioning a headstone for O’Nolan’s father’s grave, or organising the repairs to his home, or arranging for a typist to produce a clean copy of The Dalkey Archive.

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. The loss of his civil service job was a financial catastrophe that he attempted to mitigate by freelancing - writing columns, proofreading and reading manuscripts for publishers - and by selling his literary papers. Occasionally, in despair, he applied for low-grade administrative jobs. In May 1960 he told a prospective employer that ‘I am known to most people in Dublin who are concerned with publication and advertising work, and have been retained for advertising and “prestige” projects by Messers Guinness and the Hospitals Trust.’

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’.

The usual explanation for the split between O’Nolan’s all-out self-confidence and his air of anxious insecurity - a mixture of ‘fretfulness and swagger’, as Maebh Long puts it - is that it was a consequence of his failure to find a publisher for The Third Policeman. By 1941, when he turned thirty, O’Nolan had written three novels and published two: At Swim-Two-Birds (as Flann O’Brien) in 1939, and in 1941 his Irish-language masterpiece, An Béal Bocht (as Myles na gCopaleen, later simplified to Gopaleen). In 1940, he began his regular column for the Irish Times, ‘An Cruiskeen Lawn’ (the title is an anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Little brimming jug’), as well as contributing letters to the editor written as from Flann O’Brien, and various others. In 1943 his satire on local government, Faustus Kelly, was staged at the Abbey Theatre and his translation of the Capek brothers’ Insect Play at the Gaiety. Things were also going well at his day job. In 1937 he was promoted to private secretary to the minister for local government and by 1948 (when he married) he was acting principal officer of the planning section of the department.

At Swim-Two-Birds gained him astonishingly high-class praise, from Beckett, Joyce and Borges among others. It was always going to be hard to follow that, but The Third Policeman wasn’t even given the chance. Longmans, his British publishers, wrote that: ‘We realise the Author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so.’ O’Nolan consigned the book to a drawer, and pretended he had lost the manuscript. The long hiatus between the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939 and The Hard Life in 1961 meant that, at least for non-Irish readers, he had no standing as a writer. He couldn’t pitch an article to the Guardian or the Sunday Telegraph without a long explanation of who he was and what he had written (‘For 25 years or so I have been writing a feature in the Irish Times under the name MYLES na GOPALEEN: this has been smart and humorous stuff on the surface but often with ironic and critical undertones’). Prematurely aged and alcoholic - according to his friend and biographer Anthony Cronin, by his late forties O’Nolan was generally so pickled by three in the afternoon that he retired to bed - he was never not in the position of having to carve out a place for himself as a writer.

The failure to find an American publisher for At Swim-Two-Birds (‘a little too odd for this market’) was another blow. O’Nolan had to look to London and New York for readers: the size of the market for his writing in Ireland was tiny. But even when he was successful in getting published abroad (not very often), he tended to attract readers who praised his novels for having an ‘Irish’ quality, or, even worse, for being ‘Joycean’. He didn’t want to be a specialist cultural export or attract the sort of readers that had embraced Joyce. He thought of himself as a popular novelist, writing for a well-educated but broad audience. Graham Greene was the reader for Longmans who recommended publication of At Swim-Two-Birds and O’Nolan was ambitious for a Greene-sized readership. He sent a copy of his first novel to the popular novelist Ethel Mannin and when, unsurprisingly, she criticised its ‘wilful obscurity’, he defended himself on the grounds that the novel was intended as entertainment, not literature: ‘It is not a pale-faced sincere attempt to hold the mirror up and has 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.’ He wanted to be a popular writer, but Irish society in the 1940s and 1950s simply did not provide enough people, or enough of the right kind of people.

O’Nolan was scathing about attempts by Irish ‘artists’ (a term of abuse in his lexicon) to manufacture a specialist audience. In October 1938 - in his first outing as Flann O’Brien - he intervened in a debate between Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor on ‘Ideals for an Irish Theatre’, in the letters pages of the Irish Times. The spat was self-consciously intellectual, with O’Connor arguing for a return to ‘peasant quality’ and O’Faolain in favour of importing European expressionism. O’Connor made the mistake of complaining about people laughing at the serious bits at the Abbey Theatre: ‘Unwittingly he puts his finger on the root of the whole unseemly stink,’ O’Nolan wrote.

It is not the directors who are at fault, or the players or playwrights but the audience. Up to fairly recent times, the audience at the Abbey was mainly an esoteric coterie who came to see plays they saw several times before merely because they regarded themselves as ‘inveterate Abbey-goers’ ... People who go to the Abbey nowadays simply go for entertainment, and laugh outright when something on the stage seems funny or ridiculous, notwithstanding the fury of a thousand red-face art-stuffed boys in the wings. God forgive them! The obvious remedy is to exclude the loutish audiences and add to the cast of each play 500 ‘extra’ peasants, accommodating them in the stalls. The producer can then get his laugh when he wants it, and can see that it’s a real laugh.

The problem with the real audience, or actual readers (O’Nolan calls them ‘anti-writers’), is that they refuse to have their taste decided for them. In an early letter, intervening in an Irish Times debate about ‘literary criticism’, O’Nolan notes that writers and anti-writers were accusing each other with equal venom of being ‘sewer-minded’:

one would imagine that anybody who can read or write in modern Ireland asked for nothing better than an idle evening down a sewer, moving a quiet oar down the dark streams, browsing in quiet backwater with a drowsy angler’s eye on the plunging rats, ‘wine-bark on the wine-dark waterway’ ... At this rate any house agent who hears a prospective client inquiring particularly about the plumbing and drainage of a house will know that he is dealing with a literary bird.

O’Nolan’s contempt for anyone he classed a pretentious arty type, and particularly anyone who joined the Writers, Artists, Actors, Musicians Association (WAAMA), was evident in his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ columns. It was also central to his love-hate relationship with Joyce.

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.

Early in 1963 O’Nolan began to plunder the typescript of The Third Policeman for his new book The Dalkey Archive, in which both Saint Augustine and James Joyce appear. In the novel, Joyce is living incognito, pulling pints in a pub in the Dublin suburb of Dalkey and thinking about joining the Jesuits. O’Nolan insisted to his publishers that his portrait of the artist as an old man was meant as an attack on the Joyce industry, rather than on Joyce himself. ‘The intention here is not to make Joyce himself ridiculous but to say something funny about the preposterous image of him that emerges from the treatment he has received at the hands of many commentators and exegetists (mostly, alas, American.)’ But to Montgomery he admitted he was trying to make Joyce ‘even a more obnoxious prig than he is’ and criticised him for cultivating a pretentious and privileged readership:

I do not accept that JAJ was demolished by failure of FW [Finnegans Wake] to resound in the BELL-fries of the world. He did expect that result. FW was a private leisure exercise, and intended only for coteries and US slobs. Nor was he dismayed by the reception of Ulysses, burning of copies at Folkstone docks etc. Ten years were to pass before the book got proper recognition and JAJ, knowing what was in the book, knew he could afford to wait. By the early twenties he had got his hooks into that wealthy US lady and money trouble no longer bothered him. His main interest in life was acting the ballocks as grd. seigneuer [grand seigneur].

His jealousy of the patronage Joyce enjoyed is understandable, given his own financial situation. Still, the basis of the attack seems bizarre, given that so much of O’Nolan’s own writing depended for its effects on the existence of a tiny group of people in the know. For the first couple of years ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ was written in Irish, and appeared in a paper with a small circulation and an even smaller number of readers who knew Irish. The running jokes and puns in his later English-language columns depended on readers following the column every day. His novel An Béal Bocht was a satire, in Irish, of Irish-language revivalists. It would be hard to think of a more effective way of limiting your readership, and O’Nolan was well aware of this. In a late letter to the literary agent Anthony Sheil (pitching for a contract to write a book about the Irish literary scene) he enclosed cuttings from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ and gave this summary of ‘the style of work I have been doing for about 25 years’:

It should be remembered that this is special writing directed to a particular milieu and perhaps not readily comprehensible to the outside reader. Parades of erudition, recourse to language of the gutter, jeering, spelling foibles, other people’s mistakes and so on are all genuine enough but satirically intended. Great versatility is also shown as to subject and treatment, and polyglot gymnastics indulged in.

It is worth pausing at the ‘but’ in that penultimate sentence. O’Nolan was writing satire, not caricature. It was important to him to stay faithful to the people he was writing about. The ‘particular milieu’ was part of the joke, especially in the columns where ‘the brother’ or ‘the plain people of Ireland’ interrupt Myles with questions, stories, or - most often - complaints: ‘The Plain People of Ireland: Another day gone and no jokes. Myself: Yes, curse you.’ ‘Genuine enough’ may be another way of saying that although his readership was small, it was not a coterie. The response he was looking for was the ‘really real’ laugh. He wanted to write for people who did not think of themselves either as subjects for or consumers of art.

But the plain people of Ireland didn’t read him in the Irish Times (he told the editor that he had once asked for a copy of the paper ‘in a large town in the north’: ‘“Naw,” the lady behind the counter said, “I’ve just sold it.” It seemed to me an inspired way of saying that your newspaper is a very singular publication’) and the ordinary reading public in Britain and the United States didn’t understand him. He was a popular writer who lacked a popular medium, though it wasn’t for want of trying. Throughout the late 1950s he pitched columns to local newspapers from Skibbereen to Longford, painstakingly reading the local news, in an attempt to match subject to audience. And in his last years he began writing comic sketches for television.

Irish television began broadcasting on New Year’s Eve 1961. In 1963, when O’Nolan’s sketches for the veteran comic actor Jimmy O’Dea were aired, there were fewer than 250,000 television sets in the country. These sketches were hardly going to make him a household name and the work wasn’t particularly well paid. But the weekly show was a natural successor to the newspaper columns, satirising current events for a loyal audience that could be counted on to watch every episode, and appreciate the running gags. O’Nolan talked up the show in his letters, exaggerating the viewing figures. He began pitching new ideas for TV, including a pilot for an Irish version of That Was the Week That Was that never got off the ground. His letters in his last years are full of ‘big money’ certainties: a BBC serial of The Dalkey Archive was just around the corner and the novel he was working on when he died - Slattery’s Sago Saga, a spoof on de Valera and the Kennedys - was bound to break open the Irish-American market and rake in film options. He even cast the actors.

O’Nolan tried his best to hitch himself to the new commercial popular culture made possible by TV - ‘Eng. Lit. is a thing of the past,’ he wrote to Timothy O’Keeffe, ‘we are now after money’ - and it’s tempting to wonder what sort of writer he might have been if he had gained a larger audience, or moved to Britain. In the summer of 1963 he wrote to O’Keeffe that ‘this Profumo-Keeler-Ward syndrome is unfair competition for those who attempt to write works of imagination.’ It’s a good enough joke, but it doesn’t conceal his envy of conditions in Britain, where, post-Suez and in the wake of the Profumo Affair, secular, leftish satire was nourished by the continued incompetence and complacency of the establishment. Fifty years after the revolution, Irish priorities were completely different. The task of breaking postwar solidarity and chipping away at deference was undertaken not by satirists but by more earnest cultural commentators such as the much despised Sean O’Faolain, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show.

‘Writing for TV is the most attractive proposition just now. I do work for both BBC and ITV, using other names,’ he wrote (not necessarily truthfully) to the editor of the Sunday Independent in 1964. ‘For some reason that’s not very clear to me, there is a shortage of writers who can tackle the new television technique. The funny thing is that I detest TV so much myself that I refuse to let a set into my own house.’ O’Nolan’s difficulty was not, as Richard Hoggart argued of Britain in The Uses of Literacy (1957), that the culture of the industrial working class was being hollowed out by commerce, but that there was no industrial working class in Ireland to speak of. They were all living in Birmingham and Coventry. If they had been able to stay at home, he might have had a larger audience. They would at least have bought televisions.

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