We Laughed, We Cried
Flann O'Brien's triumph.
July 1, 2008
Jul 1, 2008
34 Min read time
Flann O'Brien's triumph.
“If we don’t cherish the work of Flann O’Brien,” said Anthony Burgess, the late English novelist (he of A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers), “we are stupid fools who don’t deserve to have great men.” Burgess can rest in peace on that score, at least. Flann O’Brien’s work is becoming about as cherished as avant-garde literature can ever expect to be, and not just among the cognoscenti. Flann O’Brien is chic. University courses on his writings proliferate. Smart pubs in such disparate places as London, Boston, and Graz, Austria are named after him. Numerous Web sites offer slick packages of info on his life and works. And, the ultimate accolade: in the second season premiere of the television series Lost, a copy of O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Third Policeman, was briefly shown onscreen, resulting in a sudden uptick in sales—more than 15,000 copies in three weeks, equaling total sales of the previous six years—and enhanced name recognition for its author, who’d been dead four decades. Of course, he’d been dead a year by the time The Third Policeman was finally published in 1967, whereupon it was an instant critical success. An ironist to his bones, he would not have been surprised at that, but he might have been surprised at Everyman’s Library releasing, forty-one years later, all five of his novels—At Swim-Two Birds; The Third Policeman; The Poor Mouth; The Hard Life; and The Dalkey Archive—in one handsome volume. Such an honor implies literary respectability, which he scorned but yearned for, in the way of so many true originals.
His real name was Brian O’Nolan, and he was born in 1911, in Strabane, County Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland, into a teeming family of thirteen souls, two of whom were his parents, the remainder his six brothers and five sisters, all of them huddled in a stifling fug of Catholic shamrock-nationalism. (That there were so many such families in Ireland then and so many fewer now is a measure of the nation’s progress in the past century.) Brian was the third son. His mother, Agnes, was a shopkeeper’s daughter with literary antecedents. Michael, his father, was a customs and excise officer and a devoted nationalist at a time when the use of the Irish (Gaelic) language was a crucial gesture of national solidarity; Irish, not English, was the language of the O’Nolan parlor. Like Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, O’Nolan came late to his writer’s tongue—in fact, Russian malchik Vladimir was speaking English at a slightly earlier age (five) than was Irish boyo Brian (seven)—and, like them, he uses English in the exuberant, inventive, and unexpected way of the non-native speaker. His eventual exposure to, and immersion in, English was inevitable, of course. His father knew this, but still postponed it for as long as possible by keeping his children out of the regular schools, where all instruction was in English, and by creating an incestuous little Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) at home. Fortunately, he did nothing to discourage the children from reading in English, which they—especially Brian—did avidly, with a strong Anglo-Victorian bent: Trollope, Dickens, Thackeray, Kipling, Huxley. In another parallel with Nabokov, O’Nolan always loved H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes.
O’Nolan also relished the spooky tales of his Victorian compatriot Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, author of Uncle Silas and Green Tea. LeFanu, who deserves to be better known (Green Tea is a classic), was a master at generating an atmosphere of weirdness within an outer shell of everyday banality. It was a lesson O’Nolan took to heart; he never wrote of any overtly paranormal phenomena, but his books, especially At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, the two great novels this essay will focus on, were saturated with the atmospherics of the strange and outré. Fortuitously, around the time O’Nolan was reading LeFanu’s ghost stories, his own everyday banality was made weird by the intrusion of the supernatural. O’Nolan’s brother Ciarán recalls in a memoir that their family had once shared a house with a full-fledged poltergeist:
Presently, you would hear the sash of a window being pulled up roughly, even though you knew all the windows were closed and locked. Then the sound of a small iron ball being rolled across the bedroom floor. This would be followed by the sound of something heavy falling down the stairs making massive thumps.
After a peripatetic childhood, while the nation slowly sorted out its destiny through uprising and civil war, Brian O’Nolan started writing satirical pieces, in Irish and English, under the first of his many pen names. Later, as a student at University College Dublin, alma mater of James Joyce, he took part in debating societies, wrote satirical pieces for a magazine called Blather, and, like any self-respecting Irish undergrad, interrupted his drinking with occasional bouts of studying. He graduated with a respectable enough degree to qualify for a prestigious post in the Civil Service, a plum job in the impoverished Ireland of the time. Soon he was rising steadily through the ranks, putting aside money, frequenting restaurants, driving his own car, and generally living the life of Reilly. Then his father died unexpectedly and, back in that benighted time before decent pensions and life insurance policies, O’Nolan, then twenty-five and the sole breadwinner, was lumbered with the financial support of the entire family. This overnight loss of his independence embittered him for good. Further setbacks, the ponderous absurdity of government service, and the duplicity of publishers embittered him more. Life itself did the rest.
Yet in spite—or maybe because—of this bitterness, in the short interstices of his long office hours he wrote two novels, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, that rank alongside Tristram Shandy, The Good Soldier Svejk, and Ulysses as masterpieces of comic literature. The caveat is that once you suss out what’s going on, they’re downright scary as well. At Swim-Two-Birds is a rollicking nightmare, and The Third Policeman is a diabolical vision of the afterlife. No contradiction here: O’Nolan’s worldview skitters easily from hell to hilarity. As Anthony Cronin observes in his excellent 1998 biography of O’Nolan, No Laughing Matter, “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.”
Correction: These novels were, of course, written by Flann O’Brien, not Brian O’Nolan. The former name, not the latter, is now famous. To those familiar with the mysterious, shape-shifting nature of these works, their author’s multitudinous identities in real life might seem fitting. Indeed, he never wrote anything under his own name, except business correspondence in his capacity as private secretary to various government ministers. But as a writer he was at various times Brian Hackett, Brother Barnabas, Samuel Hall, Myles na Gopaleen (“Myles of the Ponies”), and Flann O’Brien (“I think this invention has the advantage that it contains an unusual name and one that is quite ordinary,” he observed). Part of the reason for the aliases was the discretion required of a high-ranking civil servant: As Myles na Gopaleen, author of the Irish Times column called “Cruiskeen Lawn” (“Little Brown Jug,” i.e., of whiskey), he wrote innumerable satires of his colleagues and superiors and of Irish political life generally, sometimes to the tune of five or six columns a week. However, since half of Dublin knew full well who “Myles” was—you could catch him any day of the week at the Palace Bar after opening time—the disguise was a thin one, more symbolic than real. There are certain similarities here to another genius stuck in a boring office job: Fernando Pessoa, the alcoholic Portuguese poet and novelist (1888-1935), who in his writing invented an immense number of noms de plume, which he called heteronyms, not primarily as a means of concealing his identity but mostly to give a different name to each aspect of his literary personality—the poet, the diarist, the novelist, etc.
Yet the differences with O’Nolan are telling. Pessoa also wrote a great deal under his real name, and he was, essentially, an optimist, if a melancholy one. No one could accuse Brian O’Nolan, or any of his other selves, of being even a melancholy optimist. He was a Catholic cynic serving a life sentence in a terrifying (yet hilarious) Manichaean universe, with redemption through satire as humanity’s only hope. He was also a thoroughgoing alcoholic, an affliction that tends to darken one’s moods. He tolls the same grim bell as his compatriot, Samuel Beckett, who shared the pessimism but not the belief; Beckett famously said, referring to God, “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!” Like Beckett, James Joyce, that notorious apostate, may have lacked O’Nolan’s religion, but his style and voice pervade O’Nolan’s work, however much the latter tried to downplay it. “I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob,” he once said. But on another occasion he allowed that it would be idle to deny the affinities between his work and “the work of another eminent Irish author now resident in the French capital.” He was referring in this case to his own unpublished first novel, a full-length sketch that contained the seed of At Swim-Two-Birds; the admission is a revealing one. Elsewhere, he also said, in a shrewd and eloquent comment that might equally be applied to his own work, “With laughs [Joyce] palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humor needs this background urgency.” And Joyce’s influence only grew. How could it not? His was the giant shadow that fell across Irish letters for the generation that included not only Beckett and O’Nolan, but Patrick Kavanagh, Seán O’Casey, Seán Ó Faoláin, and others. No wonder, then, that Joyce’s final words of literary commentary were praise for O’Nolan—or rather, for Flann O’Brien. “A real writer, with the true comic spirit,” the old magus said. It was the echo of himself that he heard, and approved of.
As Flann O’Brien evolved out of Brian O’Nolan, a distinct “Flann O’Brien” literary voice also evolved. It was more bilious, more absurdist, and more anchored in archaic national traditions than was Joyce’s, and less indebted to the Continent and the classics. After boyhood’s glut, O’Nolan’s reading had been sparse, whereas Joyce’s remained voluminous in several languages (but never in Irish), until he started to go blind. Furthermore, Joyce had always yearned for distant shores, and found them; if O’Nolan had similar yearnings, they remained unfulfilled. As far as we know, he traveled outside of Ireland only twice: once, as a boy, to Scotland with his family, and once as a young man to Germany, a trip that was from all accounts a drunken fiasco. And Joyce was a lyric poet at heart, whereas O’Brien’s deepest sensibilities were more those of a quiet subversive toiling in the everyday.
His first masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, gets started in the gray everyday. The narrator, a dissolute and rather self-satisfied undergraduate, lives in a middle-class Dublin house with his curmudgeon of an uncle. (The title of the novel derives from Snámh-dá-éin, or Swim-Two-Birds, a legendary settlement on the river Shannon where some of the characters meet.) We never learn the narrator’s name, but we may surmise that he bears a powerful resemblance to the young Brian O’Nolan. His opening words establish the character and the style.
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
He is avoiding his studies by dint not only of lying in bed until the pubs are open but also by sporadically working on a novel about one Dermot Trellis, another novelist who is also bedridden.
Dermot Trellis was a man of average stature but his person was flabby and unattractive, partly a result of his having remained in bed for a period of twenty years.
One detects the Jesuitical tone of voice, arch and ironic, of Joyce and Beckett, only more so; for under it bubbles the exuberant parody that became Flann O’Brien’s hallmark. Graham Greene, one of the book’s few prominent boosters—indeed, it was on the strength of his praise that it got published—summed up the infrastructure:
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.
Cue the nightmare. Trellis can make no further progress on his own novel because he falls in love with Sheila, one of his inventions, and by her has a son who later attempts to murder him. The chain of events is side-splittingly hilarious, but Trellis’ inability to escape from his own creations is the stuff of nightmares indeed. Eventually, other fictional characters join in the melee, and Trellis ends up in a courtroom scene, scripted by his “son,” that parodies legal melodrama, a popular genre then as now. At the same time, on a dizzying series of different levels, the novel parodies every other literary genre available in Ireland at the time, from the Bardic epic:
Who has heard honey-talk from Finn before strangers, Finn that is wind-quick, Finn that is a better man than God? Or who has seen the like of Finn or seen the living semblance of him standing in the world, Finn that could best God at ball-throw or wrestling or pig-trailing or at the honeyed discourse of sweet Irish with jewels and gold for bards, or at the listening of distant harpers in a black hole at evening?
to the myths of pookas and leprechauns:
The Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class, sat in his hut in the middle of a firwood meditating on the nature of the numerals and segregating in his mind the odd ones from the even. He was seated at his diptych or ancient two-leaved hinged writing-table with inner sides waxed.
to popular cowboy novels:
Up we went on our horses, cantering up Mountjoy Square with our hats tilted back on our heads and the sun in our eyes and our gun-butts swinging at our holsters.
to realist fiction:
The mirror at which I shaved every second day was of the type supplied gratis by Messrs Watkins, Jameson and Pim and bore brief letterpress in reference to a proprietary brand of ale between the words of which I had acquired considerable skill in inserting the reflection of my countenance.
And this list is far from complete. Legal jargon, political screeds, popular journalism, Church pomposity: The novel parodies them all, playing havoc with point of view and the very notion of genre. Interleaved throughout Trellis’s nightmare antics, for instance, is a Pickwickian cross-country trek undertaken by various mythical personalities of Irish legend past and present, including an invisible but loud-mouthed fairy who dwells in the coat pocket of the genial yet somewhat sinister pipe-smoking Pooka.
Others join the trek, and in the course of their journey they quarrel and conspire and debate recondite points of grammar, history, and politics. The undergraduate narrator, meanwhile, manages in the “real” world to eke out a passing grade in his exams and thereby to escape from the dominion of his uncle, who turns less curmudgeonly at the end and even waxes openly emotional, showing his nephew that there are still plenty of surprises left in boring everyday life.
[Y]ou’ve done the trick, you’ve passed your examination and your old uncle is going to be the first to shake your hand. And happy he is indeed to do it.
In his novel about London intellectuals adrift, Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley, whose work O’Nolan admired, muses about writing a novel like At Swim-Two-Birds.
Put a novelist into a novel. He justifies aesthetic generalizations . . . He also justifies experiment. Specimens of his work may illustrate other possible or impossible ways of telling a story. And if you have him telling parts of the same story as you are, you can make a variation on the theme. But why draw the line at one novelist inside your novel? Why not a second inside his? And a third inside the novel of the second?
O’Brien absorbed the lesson. At Swim-Two-Birds is a mix of generalizations and experiments and a hundred and one ways of telling a story. Apart from the Celtic-knot quality of the whole thing, designed as an intricate puzzle, all this is played for laughs. But the novel also upends traditional notions of art and literature, and as such is a genuinely revolutionary work, postmodern avant la lettre. Indeed, the undergraduate-protagonist frequently interrupts his several other narratives to pontificate on this topic, as here:
The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before—usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education.
But in the face of such long-windedness his friend Brinsley (based on O’Nolan’s real-life chum Niall Sheridan) brings him down to earth, “‘That is all my bum,’ said Brinsley.” This counterpoint, of elevated prose and coarse everydayness, is the stamp of long years spent in intellectual debate in the Palace Bar between large whiskies. It has the smack of Irish life, the no-nonsense Irishness that reins in the highfalutin and deflates pomposity. It challenges convention and always comes out ahead.
Of course, the kind of challenge that At-Swim-Two-Birds represents has become all too familiar to students of deconstructionist theory and “metafiction,” via practitioners great and small (Barth, Barthelme, Borges, et al.). In this case, however, as in precious few others, it all hums in perfect harmony, like a Swiss watch. Flann O’Brien, it could be said, was the first postmodernist; he was certainly the first with a sense of humor. Graham Greene said he reacted to the humor in At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” Samuel Beckett, too, delighted in it, and urged it on James Joyce, who was then so nearly blind it took him a week squinting through a magnifying glass to read the book; but he thought it worthwhile. “A really funny book” was his verdict. O’Nolan himself had his doubts, as he always did about his work. “A very queer affair,” he commented, “unbearably queer perhaps.” Elsewhere he said, dubiously, “I honestly believe it is funny in parts.” Actually, it’s funny in all parts, even or especially in the depths of Nightmareland, and it’s a near-miraculous accomplishment for a writer of only twenty-eight to successfully weave so many narrative threads in a book barely more than 200 pages long.
All these narrative threads come together in the controlled chaos of the book’s conclusion—well, in its penultimate conclusion, in which Trellis finally awakens from the nightmare, dissipating the rest. But this is superseded by the book’s ultimate conclusion, which unexpectedly strikes such a poignant, almost Slavic note of despair that one might be tempted to identify yet another target of parody, were it conceivable that in 1939 O’Nolan had read Nabokov.
Well known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
Despite the high praise from the aforementioned literary greats—critical reviews were less enthusiastic; Ó Faoláin sniffed an aroma of “spilt Joyce”—At Swim-Two-Birds was a commercial flop, selling barely over one thousand copies. To make matters worse, World War II inconsiderately broke out soon after publication and the Luftwaffe destroyed the London warehouse containing all remaining copies of the novel. The times were all wrong for innovative fiction, as Joyce was discovering with Finnegans Wake.
The novel’s commercial failure imposed a dire sentence on O’Nolan’s ambitions as a novelist. His next book, The Third Policeman, was rejected by all the publishers to which his agent submitted it, primarily on the basis of its predecessor’s insufficient sales, but also because of its unorthodox structure. His then-publisher, Longmans, turned it down on the basis that he “should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so.” No other publisher was even remotely interested. Humiliated, he, falsely, told his friends he’d lost the manuscript, evoking images of pages flying one by one out the boot of a car speeding along the back roads of Connemara.
The book’s rejection was a near-fatal blow to O’Nolan’s belief in his work. It is as if Mozart had been urged to hang up his quill after his first opera. All of O’Nolan’s latent self-doubts, and his contempt for the “literary life,” were stirred up again, and threatened to turn a pessimist into a misanthrope. He did not try to publish another novel in English for twenty-one years, convinced that At Swim-Two-Birds, itself a success only in the eyes of a few, would be his sole accomplishment and that even it would be scorned by many as no more than a kind of curiosity, a sub-Joycean hommage au maître.
But for all his writerly self-doubts a true writer knows, deep down, what part of his own work is good and what isn’t. If the universal thumbs-down to The Third Policeman hurt, it was because O’Nolan knew how good it really was. It is, indeed, like no other novel, save its own imitators. It resides at a kind of dream-crossroads where Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Dante’s Inferno, and Alice in Wonderland meet: at once a vision of hell, a comedy, a murder thriller; a parody of Irish tradition, a parody of scholarship, a treatise on bicycles, and an urgent summons from the police.
“Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade,” announces the not-so-charming narrator, a nameless one-legged youth, at the very beginning. (Yes, another nameless narrator; names were no more innate or permanent in his fiction than they were in O’Nolan/O’Brien’s life.) This youth, an antihero in a direct line of descent from Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, is a wastrel but also has literary ambitions, like his counterpart in At Swim-Two-Birds. He is gathering data for a book on the life and works of a crackpot philosopher named De Selby, and hopes to finance the book’s publication by robbing old Mathers, a wealthy local. The transition from “rob” to “murder” is facilitated by Divney, the resident publican, an enigmatic and thoroughly amoral character who has reasons of his own to resent both old Mathers and the narrator.
I do not know exactly how or when it became clear to me that Divney . . . intended to rob Mathers, and I cannot recollect how long it took me to realize he meant to kill him as well in order to avoid the possibility of being identified as the robber afterwards. I only knew that within six months I had come to accept this grim plan as a commonplace of our conversation.
So the murder is done. It is described in an offhand manner that heightens the horror: The old man’s skull crumples under the blows “like an empty eggshell.” Afterward, Divney appears oddly reluctant to share the loot, which he locks away in a strongbox. But when the narrator insists on getting his share, Divney tells him where the strongbox is hidden: under a floorboard in the murdered man’s house. Our hero accordingly breaks into the house, and is preparing to leave with the box, when . . .
I cannot hope to describe what it was but it had frightened me very much long before I understood it even slightly. It was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable . . . I heard a cough behind me, soft and natural yet more disturbing than any sound that could ever come upon the human ear.
His agitation is understandable. The cough was uttered by none other than old Mathers himself, the murdered man, sitting in an armchair, watching him “with a mild but unwavering interest.”
His hand crept out across the small table by his side to turn up very slowly an oil-lamp which was standing on it . . . His voice had a peculiar jarring weight like the hoarse toll of an ancient rusty bell in an ivy-smothered tower.
This is a moment that in terms of sheer fright equals anything in Sheridan LeFanu—or in Stephen King, for that matter. It is also the shadowline of the story, beyond which nothing is ever the same. Precisely what happens to the narrator at that moment is withheld until much later, when the truth of everything that had happened previously is also revealed. It is an astonishing tour de force. O’Nolan wrote to his friend and admirer the American writer William Saroyan about the deception.
If it’s ever published I’ll send you a copy . . . 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.
And so, in the company of our narrator and another, new narrative voice, that of the narrator’s soul (whom he christens “Joe”), we pass from old Mathers’s house into a strange otherworld that superficially resembles Ireland, but flouts the normal laws of physics and nature. It is, in fact, the landscape of Hell, which, as the Irish novelist Aidan Higgins has pointed out, is unmistakably that of the Irish midlands around Athlone: flat, fertile, and unremarkable, downright sinister in its ordinariness. This landscape of Hell is all part of the great exercise in Manichaean depersonalization that is The Third Policeman. In the eternal struggle, evil seems to have triumphed; or, at least, everyone casually makes room for it. A one-legged bandit named Martin Finnucane introduces himself by saying, “Every time I rob a man I knock him dead, because I have no respect for life, not a little,” and offers to do the same to the narrator. “I will take your little life,” he cackles, while sharpening his knife. Only the fact that the narrator, too, sports a wooden leg saves him from being “gutted.” Thus reconciled to letting him live, Martin Finnucane gives him directions to a place your average robber and murderer would probably not be familiar with: the local police station, which turns out to be a small building of dubious and ever-shifting geometry. Truly, it is no ordinary police station, and the policemen in it are far from normal guardians of the law. They are, in fact, demons, albeit Irish, well-mannered, and superficially pleasant in demeanor.
Policeman MacCruiskeen put the lamp on the table, shook hands with me and gave me the time of day with great gravity. His voice was high, almost feminine, and he spoke with delicate careful intonation. Then he put the lamp on the table and surveyed the two of us.
‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.
The narrator soon learns not to get them started on bicycles, on which subject they have extravagant theories, and enforce unorthodox covenants. In this world, for example, cops steal bikes to regulate the exchange of human and bicycle atoms.
‘The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.’
I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.
‘And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity.’
After a while it all sounds quite reasonable, really. The novel has that bizarre quality of the fantastic rendered ordinary that is typical of such authors as Gogol and Kafka and the Nabokov of Bend Sinister and Pale Fire. More precisely, like At Swim-Two-Birds, it is a nightmare. And as in a dream, total inanities are uttered in a conversational context, and the purest gibberish seems to make perfect sense.
‘Now take a sheep,’ the Sergeant said. ‘What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling round and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep? What else is it but that?’
‘That would be bound to make the beast dizzy,’ I observed, ‘especially if the whirling was going on inside the head as well.’
The Sergeant gave me a look which I am sure he himself would describe as one of non-possum and noli-me-tangere.
‘That remark is what may well be called buncombe,’ he said sharply, ‘because the nerve-strings and the sheep’s head itself are whirling into the same bargain and you can cancel one out against the other and there you are—like simplifying a division sum when you have fives above and below the bar.’
‘To say the truth I did not think of that,’ I said.
The policemen are also dab hands at manual manufacture—of sets of fifteen small nesting boxes, for instance, the fifteenth and smallest of which is invisible. Or of scaffolds built for hanging—“stretching,” as they call it. With that disconnected unconcern we feel in dreams when the onrushing of fate seems to be at one and the same time menacing and of no consequence, the narrator watches as, slowly but surely, a scaffold is built for his own “stretching,” an event only narrowly avoided by the intervention of a deus ex machina who turns out to be the “third policeman”; our antihero can therefore continue to haunt this hell and remain tormented by his conscience. As indeed he does.
All the while—as in both Finnegans Wake, that other waking dream, and Pale Fire, another first-person murderer’s tale—a second narrative unfolds “downstairs,” in the mock-solemn footnotes, which occasionally threaten to overwhelm the “upstairs” text. (These footnotes, most of which discuss De Selby’s crazy theories, were a direct inspiration for the footnotes in my own Killoyle— one of whose characters, by the by, is a nod to De Selby, too.)
1) Not excepting even the credulous Kraus (see his De Selbys Leben), all the commentators have treated de Selby’s disquisitions on night and sleep with considerable reserve. This is hardly to be wondered at since he held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of “black air,” i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain “regrettable” industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a) . . .
It goes on and on, in like vein. And as always, the parody—in this case, of scholarly prose—is priceless. That “(see his De Selbys Leben)” is pitch-perfect. Yet he can veer aside and produce pure Irish poetry that makes even hell sound beautiful.
I lay back and took to my habit of gazing out of the window. Whichever day it was, it was a gentle day—mild, magical and innocent with great sailings of white cloud serene and impregnable in the high sky, moving along like kingly swans on quiet water. The sun was in the neighborhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, coloring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things. The sky was a light blue without distance, neither near nor far.
But a hell it remains. The narrator is reunited at the end (or “end”) with his former accomplice Divney, who is astonished to see him, having arranged for his death all those many pages ago, back in old Mathers’s house, by means of a bomb substituted for the strongbox beneath the floorboards. But the only upshot is that they join forces again to go in search of the strongbox. Their first stop in this second phase of what is clearly going to be an eternal, infernal closed circle is, of course, the police station; the moment they walk in, the inevitable words are spoken by the policeman on duty, “Is it about a bicycle?”
And so the mad merry-go-round goes on, with no prospect of release—although Eternity, one of the policemen points out, is just a short stroll down the road, then a mere elevator ride upstairs. It’s all side-splittingly terrifying. “Like Beckett,” says Cronin, “[O’Nolan] is scarifying all through, and the result is an unrelentingly bleak view of human existence which is also a comic triumph.”
Indeed, Beckett is the only other writer known to me who can wring so much laughter out of so little hope, although some of the Russians, notably Gogol and Dostoevsky, come close, and one or two of the French modernists, such as Celine and Camus, live in the same emotional neighborhood, without the guffaws. But The Third Policeman is so entirely successful on all of its many levels as to be virtually sui generis.
And it is a real pity it was not published sooner. In the wake of its rejection, O’Nolan eschewed the subtle and produced works that inclined more toward broad mockery than to subtle parody. As if to blot out the humiliation of The Third Policeman’s non-publication, he concentrated on Myles na Gopaleen’s newspaper columns and, as Myles, indulged in various literary japes, such as the adventures of Keats and Chapman, a ludicrous Dublin duo given to shaggy-dog tales that culminate in puns magnificent or excruciating, depending on your point of view. One example will more than suffice:
Walking along the cliffs near Land’s End one day, Keats and Chapman came across a spot overlooking a small bay, where they decided to rest for a while. Lower down the cliff, they noticed a group of boys throwing stones at the sea birds in the bay. After a while, Chapman said, ‘Keats, don’t you think we should do something about this?’ ‘What? Yes, yes of course you’re right,’ replied Keats. Leaning forward over the cliff, he called down to the boys, “That’s it, lads, keep it up. Leave no tern unstoned.”
Magnificent! Or do I mean excruciating? Equally subject to either or both judgments was An Béal Bocht, or The Poor Mouth, O’Nolan’s return to his Irish-speaking roots, a spoof of the somewhat kitschy works of the Gaelic revival, in which the (quite genuine) sufferings of the Irish peasantry featured so prominently, as in the books of Tomás Ó Criomhthain (The Islandman). An Béal Bocht came out in 1941, under the newspaper pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen, what with “Flann O’Brien” still smarting from The Third Policeman debacle and the half-hearted reception given to At Swim-Two-Birds. The title comes from the old Irish-Gaelic expression “putting on the poor mouth,” i.e., exaggerating one’s misery for pity and/or financial gain, and this the characters of the book do, quite shamelessly, in ways that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes just silly. In the fictional Irish-speaking village called Corkadoragha, where the rain never stops and the miseries of the people are pure and unalloyed, the novel’s hero, young Bonaparte O’Coonassa (finally a narrator with a name, however ridiculous), recounts his tale:
I was born in the West of Ireland on that awful winter’s night—may we all be healthy and safe!—in the place called Corkadoragha and in the townland named Lisnabrawshkeen. I was very young at the time I was born and had not aged even a single day; for half a year I did not perceive anything about me and did not know one person from the other . . . I spent that year on the broad of my back, my eyes darting here and there at my environment.
And so on, in standard Mylesian fashion. It’s all a bit heavy going. Corkadoragha, according to young Mr. O’Coonassa, is a place of superlatives, where it rains more (“sky-crucifyings,” one character calls the downpours), the people are hungrier, the hogs bigger, and the misery more utterly miserable than anywhere else in Ireland, or indeed the known universe. Nor is there any reason to expect things ever to change, but, thanks be to God, there are potatoes enough to go round. “The key words in this work,” commented Patrick Power, the translator of the English version that came out in 1973, “are surely downpour, eternity, and potatoes.” The Poor Mouth is a hoot, but more in boozy-night-down-the-pub style than in the subtle and ingenious way of the two great satires. The Flann O’Brien of those works, one feels, would have had a lighter touch. No lightness of touch is evident here; nor, alas, is it apparent in the later works, the novels The Dalkey Archive and The Hard Life and the play Faustus Kelly, which contain only flashes of brilliance. Depression and the drink had taken over. In 1960 an American edition of At Swim-Two-Birds came out, promoted by Saroyan, but the novel’s exposure in the United States was meager, criticism was severe, and it soon flickered out.
The strongest work of O’Nolan’s later years—which never got that much later: he was only fifty-five at his death—was The Best of Myles, his collected journalistic bijoux. As Myles, he threw caution to the winds; he cared not a jot for critics or posterity, and let fly at one and all with unbuttoned exuberance, in person and in print. The target of a fair amount of his ribbing was his erstwhile mentor and (by now long-dead) nemesis, James Joyce.
Some thinkers . . . have confessed to discerning a resemblance between Joyce and Satan. True, resemblances there are. Both had other names, the one Stephen Dedalus, the other Lucifer; the latter name, meaning ‘Maker of Light,’ was to attract later the ironical gloss ‘Prince of Darkness’! Both started off very well under unfaultable teachers, both were very proud, both had a fall. But they differed on one big, critical issue. Satan never denied the existence of the Almighty; indeed he acknowledged it by challenging merely His primacy. Joyce said there was no God, proving this by uttering various blasphemies and not being instantly struck dead.
In the aggregate, his columns and musings earned O’Nolan a good wage, and by the late ’40s his responsibilities no longer included providing for all of his siblings—although they did come to include a wife, Evelyn, from 1948 on. And of course the long-running columns in the Irish Times, and various anthologies and spin-offs of this and that, made him a well-known Dublin personality. But he no longer sought the heights of literary achievement. Truly, the scar of the rejection of The Third Policeman, the book on which he had pinned so many hopes, still throbbed, twenty years on. Anthony Cronin wonders “why the rejection cost him so dear, and why he did not turn his natural competitiveness and unwillingness to be ‘bested’ to use by going on writing novels even after the rejection.” One explanation Cronin offers is that “[O’Nolan’s] self-doubt was extraordinarily deep, as all who knew him can testify.” By the final years of his life, O’Nolan was in hospitals more often than out of them, and his public persona was reduced to something resembling the ghastly buffoonery that attended the decline and demise of Brendan Behan at around the same time.
In another context, the novelist Jane Smiley has remarked that, if the beleaguered or rejected author keeps going, “eventual recognition can redeem the earlier work, casting the light of success backwards.” And indeed, this eventually did happen to Brian O’Nolan in all his guises, especially that of Flann O’Brien; but only posthumously. Still, maybe he’d prefer it that way. Anybody, he said once, who “has the courage to raise his eyes and look sanely at the awful human condition . . . must realize finally that tiny periods of temporary release from intolerable suffering is the most that any individual has the right to expect.”
His best work gives us that release.
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July 01, 2008
34 Min read time