Flann O’Brien’s first and most important novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published the year that William Butler Yeats died. The coincidence is notable because the novel was a parodistic melange of styles spawned by the Irish Literary Revival championed by Yeats and because all of O’Brien’s important novels critique literary fabrications akin to those of the revival. The Irish Literary Revival was based on the rediscovery of the special identity of Ireland, especially as this was apparent in the literature of the Celtic legends. In popularizing these legends, the participants in the revival, many of whom—unlike O’Brien—had no fluency in the Gaelic language, were prone to literary extravagance and inflated notions of Celtic nobility. The literature of the revival was instrumental in arousing political energies that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, but after this goal of political independence had been realized, many of the revival’s own literary excesses became apparent. Modern problems such as economic recession, entanglements of church and state, and the entrenched conservatism of an emerging middle class made the essential artifice of the inspiring revival literature especially visible for the first time.
O’Brien wrote none of the important fiction about the Irish Republic of his own day; instead, his major works look back to the earlier mythologizing of Celtic identity and modern Irish culture. At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, and The Poor Mouth all ridicule the pretensions of literature by emphasizing its artificiality. O’Brien’s work is satiric in effect because it implicitly corrects notions of literary authority, cultural privilege, and innate national aristocracy. Its primary mode is parody, adoption, and exaggeration of a variety of recognizable literary styles to demonstrate their essential mendacity.
The salient quality of O’Brien’s career is ambiguity concerning his name and identity. He took the pen name Flann O’Brien from Gerald Griffin’s 1829 novel The Collegians, while the name Myles na Gopaleen came from Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn (1860), based on Griffin’s novel. Both of these pseudonyms recall stage Irishmen, a stereotype of nineteenth century English fiction. In the revival, a new domestic stereotype of the Irish prevailed, one as falsely noble as the earlier English one was debased. Thus, these names attached to O’Brien’s novels challenged the new literary identity of Ireland as a sheer fabrication.
O’Brien’s first three novels are relentless in their scrutiny of fabricated literary identities; his later two novels are less successful because that scrutiny is limited, and because some assumptions about identity are allowed to stand unchallenged. Ultimately, his finest works have affinities with that strain of modern literature that asserts the reality of a metaphysical void, a senseless core of anonymity beneath the guises, literary and otherwise, protectively adopted to give life a semblance of meaning. This is especially true of The Third Policeman, which is freer of provincial references than O’Brien’s other novels. The relish for parodying things Irish, most apparent in At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth, however, suggests that the primary frame of reference for O’Brien’s novels will always be the cultural history of early twentieth century Ireland.
At Swim-Two-Birds, which takes its name from the literal translation of a Gaelic place-name, is the most complete critique in novel form of the excesses of the Irish Literary Revival. O’Brien was fluent in Gaelic and a talented parodist, and in this novel he exploits the essential artifice of revival literature by placing its various literary styles in collision with one another. Here Finn MacCool, evoked in all his epic splendor, meets the hack writer Dermot Trellis; the mad bard Sweeny, whose verses are included in hilarious literal translations into English, meets Jem Casey, poet of porter; the Good Fairy, taken from the most sentimental of Irish tourist literature, sits down to cards with urban characters taken from the bleak world of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). The product is a novel about the unreality of various kinds of fictions, an exercise in style whose only subject is the extravagance of the styles it exploits by parody.
At Swim-Two-Birds is a collection of brief fragments organized only by the desire to express the multiple contrasts of their incompatible styles. The thread that links these fragments is situational rather than narrative: A university student is attempting to write a novel whose three possible openings and four possible conclusions frame At Swim-Two-Birds; among the characters in his novel is Dermot Trellis, himself a novelist with a work in progress; the characters in Trellis’s novel are dissatisfied with their treatment and so wreak revenge by writing their own novel about Trellis, whose authorial control lapses when he sleeps. This conceit allows O’Brien to include in his novel a plethora of styles from imaginary authors, especially rich in ironies for readers knowledgeable about Irish literature from the Celtic legends to modern writers such as Yeats.
As many of its commentators have pointed out, At Swim-Two-Birds has far more appeal and significance than most metafictional novels about a novel in progress. It is, above all else, exuberantly comic rather than pretentious.
The Third Policeman
Although it was not published until after O’Brien’s death, The Third Policeman was written immediately after At Swim-Two-Birds, and it should be considered beside that novel, despite its publication date. Like At Swim-Two-Birds, it is a very modernist exercise in the novel as a self-contained and self-generating literary text. In this case, however, O’Brien is less concerned with the identifiable styles of the Irish revival than with the ways any style creates...
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O'Brien, Flann 1911–1966
An Irish comic genius, O'Brien was the author of At Swim-Two-Birds and other incomparable novels, and a journalist, writing as Myles na Gopaleen, whose columns were collected for The Best of Myles. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Of [O'Brien's] very few books, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are slight but funny (they have also been largely ignored by English critics), but At Swim-Two-Birds is probably a masterpiece…. Flann O'Brien did, in fact, discover a means of counterpointing myth, fiction and actuality through the device of a sort of writer's commonplace-book…. There is no feeling of recession, of one order of reality (myth or novel or narration) lying behind another: all are presented on the same level. This is what gives the contrapuntal effect.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 77-8.
The Third Policeman is a comic but sinister invention: on the one hand, a regional farce in which a criminal struggles with an entrenched rural bureaucracy, and, on the other, a mysterious allegory of universal pitfalls. It is a metaphysical comedy in which tricky camerawork and fleet ballet maneuvers of style bear the stamp of a technical master who has an occasional Irish weakness for blarney. Wit sometimes descends into whimsey. Completely original, it paradoxically brings to mind, as so many less original works do not, the world and the tone of other writers, and of Joyce and Finnegans Wake in particular….
O'Brien belongs to a school of fiction more interested in archetype than in character and in metamorphosis than in action. His puppetlike figures do not suffer as individuals in any ordinary sense; they suffer for everyone in some general amusement park of the soul while confronting their unexpected fates. In O'Brien's Hell, guilt is a moral implication, not a matter of psychological anguish, and intimidation is the major terror, not humiliation. O'Brien mines and transforms; he takes the weather of other writers and creates a climate of his own. The Third Policeman, written in Ireland in 1940 and published here a year after the author's death, is both sui generis and the product of a literary convention. And for no reason one can definitely point to, it is as strangely emotionally affecting as it is funny.
Howard Moss, "Flann O'Brien: Tom Swift in Hell," in The New Yorker, September, 1968, p. 174.
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) (Vol. 4)
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) 1911–1966
O'Brien, an Irishman and a comic genius, was a novelist and columnist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
At Swim-Two-Birds by the late Flann O'Brien, as the work of a fellow-countryman of Joyce and Beckett, is a piece of characteristically Irish verbal exuberance and can hardly be considered as a representative English novel. Yet its reputation has developed interestingly since it was first published in 1939; it made no impact at all then, but after the book was reprinted in 1960 it attracted a growing circle of admirers, although John Wain, in a masterly analysis of At Swim-Two-Birds, has described it as 'the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed.'… At Swim-Two-Birds both contains a novel within a novel, and embodies the idea of a Promethean or Luciferian revolt against the novelist who, as Sartre said of Mauriac, wants to play God…. In so far as it is a very funny book, At Swim-Two-Birds is more like Tristram Shandy than are other twentieth-century novels that juggle with levels of reality. Yet … it is also a continuous critical essay on the nature and limits of fiction. In Trellis's story the characters plot against him while he is asleep, at the same time quarrelling among themselves. One of them is the legendary giant Finn McCool, who tells a beautiful but interminable story drawn from Irish mythology, which counterpoints the naturalistic lowlife chat of the others. The narrative is also complicated by two cowboys who had been characters of—or, as they put it, worked for—a writer of cheap Western fiction….
Flann O'Brien's imaginative and verbal exuberance dominates the whole work, which is a magnificent piece of ludic bravura. John Wain, who sees the novel in slightly more serious terms than I do myself, has effectively shown the way in which it is about the culture and destiny of Ireland…. The influence of Joyce is, of course, paramount, although absorbed by an original intelligence. In the naturalistic parts of the novel the situation of the seedy young narrator, spending long hours lying on his bed and occasionally drifting into a class at the National University, recalls Stephen Dedalus, while the ribald conversations of Shanahan, Lamont and Furriskey, although rooted in the speech of Dublin, also remind us of stories like 'Grace' and 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room'. And the prevalent encyclopaedism of O'Brien's novel, the collage-like introduction of extraneous fragments of information (a sure way of short-circuiting the distance between fiction and the external world), the tendency to present information in question-and-answer form, all derive from Ulysses, particularly the 'Ithaca' section. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of the most brilliant works of modern English fiction, which was fortunately given a second chance to establish a reputation. In the 1960s critical opinion, however averse to heavily experimental or innovatory works, has been more inclined to look sympathetically at novels which depart from the established norms of fictional construction.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by Bernard Bergonzi), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 199-200.
To attempt a criticism of At Swim-Two-Birds is a task I have alternately longed and dreaded to approach. I love it and have always been willing to testify to my love. Yet to discuss it? To do anything more ambitious than merely assert its uniqueness? In an essay published in 1962 I made a passing reference to At Swim-Two-Birds as 'a Gargantuan comic novel which makes a simultaneous exploration, on four or five levels, of Irish civilization'. The vagueness of 'four or five' suggests that I wasn't counting the levels very carefully or distinguishing them with much clarity, but what interests me now, looking back, is my untroubled assumption that the book explored 'Irish civilization'. I think so now and I thought so then, but why was I so certain? Partly, I think, for the very reason that it was so amusing. Funny writing never really comes over as funny unless it is saying something serious; wild humour in particular, unless it is anchored to the rocks, just floats up into the empyrean and vanishes in a cloud of boredom. As George Orwell noted in connection with Dickens, 'You can only create if you care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about.' O'Nolan was a desperately funny writer, therefore (I felt) his work must be about something. If it had merely been a romp, it would have been perfunctory and the perfunctoriness would have shown through.
Basically, At Swim-Two-Birds is about a man writing a story about a man writing a story. The narrator (he is nowhere named) is a young student, living with an uncle…. The uncle is portrayed in comic-satirical vein, though without any real malice, as a lower-middle-class Dubliner, 'holder of Guinness clerkship the third class'. Through the sardonic eye of the narrator, we catch occasional glimpses of the uncle's life…. The picture is thumb-nail size (but it is a vivid miniature of the mind and life of that generation of the Dublin petty bourgeoisie who would be, say, sixty in 1940: the men who remembered the fall of Parnell, who had been of fighting age at the time of the uprising of 1916. Narrow as they are, seen as they are through a comic lens, these men are given a stiff, provincial dignity that redeems them….
[The] literary method of At Swim-Two-Birds combines the nonchalant non-credibility of the story ('a self-evident sham'), the autonomy and indeed rebelliousness of the imaginary personnel, and the frequent resort to borrowing of characters from previous writing or from legend. Except that true to the book's sardonic farcical atmosphere, the 'previous writing' turns out to be itself an invention, and the legends highly fantasticated….
There are [also] … a good many things that go over the head of a reader like myself who knows virtually nothing of ancient Irish literature. On the other hand, anyone who has ever looked into the literature of the Middle Ages at all, in any language, can see that another layer of parody is being added to the structure, and that in the main it is affectionate parody….
Without [considering] … the envelope-story of the narrator and his uncle, we are … operating on at least three levels. The Pooka and the Good Fairy are pure folklore, rendered in terms of outright farce. Finn and his tale of Sweeney come from the ancient heroic world of Ireland. Then we have Furriskey, Shanahan and Lamont, and Mrs Furriskey, who are modern Dubliners of a lower social class than are the narrator's uncle and his friends….
[The] technique of superimposition and palimpsest … links this novel firmly with central twentieth-century works from The Waste Land and the Cantos to Finnegans Wake….
O'Nolan was too much of an artist to make [his] points in a crude fashion. The book's impact is total. Its message is conveyed integrally, by everything that is said and done. The ironic flatness of the narrator's style, the uneventfulness of his life, are in utter contrast to the blended parody and lyricism of Finn's recitals, and also to the absurdity of the conversations between Furriskey, Shanahan, and Lamont. The three worlds are sealed off from each other, yet they go on existing side by side. And Ireland? A small, drab, orderly, modern country, haunted by an heroic past, dwarfed by an over-arching imaginative vision, its artist drinking pints of plain as the tourists walk up and down O'Connell Street and the fresh-faced country boys line up to emigrate to New York. Is there, anywhere, a better total description of Ireland than is conveyed in this book?…
At Swim-Two-Birds … seems to me, in these days when modern literature is so intensively studied, just about the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed (the two are not always the same thing)….
But, after all, it seems to me an impossible thing to describe. So much of it is purely atmosphere, and the atmosphere could only be conveyed by a commentary of the same length as the book. One of the things my description has entirely failed to convey is how the book's allusiveness provides it with dozens of little tap-roots to the Irish literary and social memory. Such things as the literary evening at Byrne's; the structural function of this scene is merely that Byrne, the arbiter of taste, lays down the law that everyone ought to sleep much more, thus providing a link with the two reposeful characters, the narrator and Trellis. But the mere fact that he is called Byrne, given the same name as James Joyce's closest friend in his student days at the National University, gives one's memory a tiny jog, reminding one how near at hand is this crowd of powerful ghosts. And when the narrator, wishing to annoy his uncle by staying in his room for an extra few minutes when he knows the uncle is waiting to see him, opens a book to read a page or two, the book he chooses, and from which an extract is promptly woven into the tapestry of the scene, is Falconer's Shipwreck, and again something stirs in us and we remember that passage from Yeats's unforgettable description of his grandfather William Pollexfen: 'He must have been ignorant, though I could not judge him in my childhood, for he had run away to sea when a boy, "gone to sea through the hawse-hole", as he put it, and I can but remember him with two books—his Bible and Falconer's Shipwreck, a little green-covered book that lay always on his table.'…
[The Third Policeman] is, indeed, the perfect second book, showing continuity with the first while at the same time varying the idiom and breaking into new territory.
The Third Policeman resembles At Swim-Two-Birds in having a narrator who describes the action in a deadpan, uncoloured style; and in exploiting the comic possibilities of uneducated Irish speech; and in juxtaposing the banalities of this speech with the wildest fantasy. Beyond that, we come to the abrupt differences. The four levels of the first book are here reduced to two; the fantastic element, instead of being partly invented and partly made from a collage of 'old mythologies from heel to throat', is entirely invented; and the tone has altered. Where the first book was hilarious, elegiac, sarcastic, grotesque, relaxed and genial, the second is tense, grim and threatening. It describes a horrible murder in the first sentence, and in its closing pages it contains an entirely realistic picture of a man dying of fright. In between, the tension is very seldom relaxed….
Neither The Hard Life nor The Dalkey Archive has the authority and inclusiveness of At Swim-Two-Birds, nor the deep, concentrated power of The Third Policeman. Both the later books seem to toy with symbolic overtones rather than genuinely incorporate them. They pick their way round the edges of vitally important subjects rather than going hell-for-leather through the middle. And this realization gives us a vantage point to look back on At Swim-Two-Birds, noting clearly now its elegiac quality, its sense that the problems posed by time are not soluble; and also on the quietly agonized exploration of the damned state in The Third Policeman. If, in his first book O'Nolan came close to Joyce, in his second he anticipated the best work of Beckett. In temperament, he stands somewhere between the two. He is more discouraged than Joyce, less of a Yeasayer. Joyce's work is bleak but it is not elegiac. It affirms the stature of man. The eighteen hours of Leopold Bloom's life which we follow in Ulysses are full of shabbiness, failure, and discouragement, but they are also Homeric. Joyce's purpose in elaborating his technique of literary son et lumière was to affirm that his wandering Jewish salesman was no less important than Odysseus. By contrast, O'Nolan's parallels between Trellis and Sweeney, between the bardic feast and the paralytic loquacity of the saloon bar, are parallels of hopelessness. On the other hand, he is not a connoisseur of hopelessness like Beckett, who seems to have cast himself in the role of a vulture, waiting on some dusty branch for the kicking human body to become a nice quiet corpse. The sense of doom, of the curse of meaninglessness laid on all that a man is and does, is brilliantly conveyed in The Third Policeman, but it is set within a religious framework and shown as the punishment for taking a man's life, cruelly, for gain. In Beckett's work, the capital crime is simply to be alive; that is the stupidity, the evil, the appalling metaphysical gaffe for which we are to be snubbed and punished for ever. O'Nolan does not talk in this strain; if he lacks the gigantic affirmative energy of Joyce, he nevertheless has some of Joyce's centrality and sanity.
John Wain, "'To Write For My Own Race': Notes on the Fiction of Flann O'Brien," in his A House for the Truth: Critical Essays (copyright © 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972 by John Wain; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Macmillan, 1972, pp. 67-104.
Most readers of Flann O'Brien have been waiting for a translation of his novel in Gaelic, An Béal Bocht, and Patrick Power has at last provided The Poor Mouth, which appears—at least to one reader who has no Gaelic—marvellously attuned to O'Brien's subtle, peculiarly cold-blooded style. Like [Donald] Barthelme, O'Brien was effortlessly funny, fond of extended, elaborate jokes. The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive in particular, novels in which the intensity begins to flag a bit, are lifted and carried by their conceits: and the present book swings gaily and ruthlessly along by inverting conventional responses to squalor, filth and penury….
Much of Mr. O'Brien's fun—and my guess is that it loses none of its point in the translation to English—consists of parodying the sentimental conventions of earlier Gaelic novels….
Peter Straub, in New Statesman, December 7, 1973, pp. 875-76.
Allowing for a few exceptions, original and independent-minded writers in Ireland have traditionally been in a position not unlike that of the legitimate offspring in the nest with a cuckoo child—sooner or later claustrophobia, lack of air or lack of food force them out. A hardy bird is the one who remains to make his voice heard in and beyond his stifling home. Flann O'Brien, alias Myles na Gopaleen, alias Brian O'Nolan is one of this rare brood. The protean range of names would seem to suggest a constant need for adaptation and camouflage….
[It] would be unwise to overstate O'Brien's 'Irishness' lest I give an impression of a lachrymose Gael trying to staunch an ebbing culture. O'Brien's reputation stands firmly on his strength as a comic writer, as a compulsive parodist and satirist and a near obsessive punster. There is pathos in his description of his characters and their fates, but their very wretchedness is the springboard for O'Brien's wit….
Robert Eagle, "Flann O'Brien: Voice in The Wilderness," in Books and Bookmen, January, 1974, pp. 46-7.
Flann O'Brien's sense of humour is like that of a man who cracks jokes about blindness to a party of would-be revellers who have been trapped in a pitch black tunnel for longer than they find comfortable. Even at its most rumbustious his wit has a touch of horror, a cynic's glimpse of a bottomless pit of folly and error. Claude Cockburn, in his introduction to his volume, mentions the disapproval of Frank O'Connor and others toward the likes of O'Brien whose acute lack of respect and sentimentality threatened to undermine all reverence for national pride and patriotic heroism. Politics, religion, the Irish people, drugs, drink and madness are the common themes of this collection, and O'Brien's treatment of them all is uniform—he turns them to farce.
It would be unwise to attempt a summary of any of [the tales in Stories and Plays]; like all his plots they are a devilish network of false trails, boutades and caprices which are very engrossing and amusing until you realise that you, the happily detached reader, are not just laughing at the author's butts, you have become one yourself. Seeing perhaps how the work of his mentor Joyce had become a hunting ground for analysts, scholars and in-depth commentators, O'Brien has strewn the path to all sane interpretation with minefields and booby traps.
Robert Eagle, in Books and Bookmen, March, 1974, p. 88.
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) (Vol. 5)
O'Brien, Flann (pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) 1911–1966
O'Brien was an Irish novelist and humorist whose comic masterpiece was At Swim-Two-Birds. He was best known in Ireland as Myles na gCopaleen, his nom de plume for his Irish Times column. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
When I looked at The Poor Mouth by Myles na Gopaleen—alias Flann O'Brien—I had a sinking feeling that this translation from the Gaelic was going to prove an Important Irish Novel. So I consulted an Irish friend and he confirmed my worst fears: it is an important satire on modern Gaelic literature. 'But,' my friend added, 'it's very funny.' Reassured, I read—and he was right, it is very funny. It is a ludicrous exaggeration of one's worst prejudices about bog-Irish, living with the family pigs, in non-stop rain.
The Poor Mouth tells the story of the life and times of Bonaparte O'Coonassa, Gaelic peasant growing up in the village of Corkadoragha 'in that part of Ireland where only Irish is spoken'; oppressed by the elements and his own Gaelic-ness, drunkenness, idleness, superstition and ignorance; patronised by learned pro-Gael gentlefolk from Dublin; and victimised by English-speaking domination—which begins during his first and only day of schooling, when the master beats him soundly for giving his Gaelic name, and renames him, identically with every other child in the school, James O'Donnell, and ends with his sentence to 29 years in prison, like his father before him, for a crime he did not commit after a trial he could not understand. Occasionally, the inhabitants of Corkadoragha get their own back: O'Coonassa's grandfather, 'the Old-Grey-Fellow', dresses all his piglets up in clothes to qualify for a Government award for all English-speaking children; and when one of the disguised pigs escapes, it wins the family half-a-crown and a flask of whiskey by being mistaken for a real Gaelic speaker by a German linguistics professor with a tape-recorder. But, on the whole, the Gaels suffer continually from the attacks of a malign universe. (pp. 93-4)
Sara Maitland, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Sara Maitland), July 18, 1974.
Always a satirist (often an indignant one), O'Brien could be scathingly funny about causes in which he believed—the value of the Gaelic language to Irish culture, for instance. He was also the most thoroughly literary comic writer since Joyce, lampooning not only the Irish but the clichés of attitude and language with which ten centuries of Irish writers have belabored their compatriots….
If "The Poor Mouth" is not quite a comic masterpiece, it nevertheless shows a comic genius working close to his best capability. Humor of this quality, this intensity, is very rare; as witty in its language as in its invention, it cries to be read aloud.
Peter S. Prescott, "Galloping Gael," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1974, p. 112.
'Tis the odd joke of modern Irish literature—of the three novelists in its holy trinity, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien, the easiest and most accessible of the lot, O'Brien, is the one ignored by the American public. Flann was the boy who stayed in Ireland and masked his corrosive humor under the decencies. He practiced eerie magic within the homespun bounds of Irish myth and folktale, detective story, even out and out comic parody and engaging nonsense in a regular newspaper column. Though in his two great books, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, he would veer respectively toward the experimental play of Joyce and the bleak dead-end dementia of Beckett, Flann was too much his own man, Ireland's man, to speak in any but his own tongue and cheek. And O it's marvelous stuff. A book by this rogue (who will drive you and the branch librarian crazy with his pseudonyms … is tasty as the fairy tales gobbled up in childhood. (p. 1)
What is The Poor Mouth about? The stone, bone-breaking poverty of the Gaelic-speaking farmers of the Irish West, and a hero, Bonaparte O'Coonassa, who spurns these older brethren, takes refuge in fairy tales and through a lark of fate finds himself rewarded with a haven of sorts for his middle age.
Nothing is in the mouths of these potato diggers but sweet Gaelic. And that is the nourishment of "the poor mouth": language. Though translated out of the original into harsher English, the heroic mockery of the tale rings out, rocking even Noah's Ark in its wild waves. I will not spoil a stone sober jest by relating what awaits O'Coonassa in the Irish paradise on top of the mountain, Hunger Stack. I can affirm his words, it is better for a man to die on the heights from celestial waters….
Strains of the Bible and the old Icelandic saga make themselves felt in lines of The Poor Mouth….
At first glance one might imagine that the chapters of The Poor Mouth … are simply Irish tall tales. Only deceptively and stealthily Flann O'Brien has been dropping the seeds of a fabulous vine in his wake and it suddenly appears in full flower, the spine of a grim plot waving in your face as you put the book down. Its crown may be high in the cirrus and cumulus of fable, but its roots grip the rocky bottom of Corkadoragha…. It is a parable of doom for the Irish-speaking folk of the West spun out of the stuff of anecdote, joke, side-of-the-mouth sarcasm, in which the old heroic literature, The Tain, can be heard, twisted to modern usage. Half child's tale, half political cartoon, there is a far off reverberation of Dean Swift's gifts in it all. (p. 3)
Mark Jay Mirsky, "Gael Force," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 19, 1975, pp. 1, 3.
The recurring case of Flann O'Brien alias Brian Nolan, a civil servant, alias Myles na Gopaleen, a newspaper columnist, seems to end up with the same verdict—quite possibly a major comic writer. But a forgettable one, apparently, who has to be rediscovered every time a book of his swims into our ken…. This present hilarious book ["The Poor Mouth"] was written in Gaelic in 1941 for an Irish audience about a local situation. You read with a hypothetical American kibitzing over your shoulder and he seems to laugh at the wrong places. The reasons are cultural and amplify a chronic minor ache of Irish lit.—how American (and English) readers misinterpret the writing of a small rural country in ways that suppress its truest voice, its rootedness in a culture as alien as Aztec or Senufo, to which the Irish language gives immediate access….
O'Brien [uses] the language itself with a hard-edged almost Swiftian precision. He knew Irish (and French) literature backwards (his puns in Gaelic are Joycean), had a pub's-eye view of the world, and a savage streak of misanthrophy. He brought irony along with him into the closed Gaelic Revival universe much as the Captain Cook brought measles to the Easter Islanders. (p. 25)
In the original, [the story] is conveyed in a Gaelic distinguished by its purity of locution, its supple phrasing, its precision of meaning and double-meaning. The language itself is both subject and vehicle of the story and so suffers a double compression that constantly tests its toughness and delicacy. The references raise a whole Atlantis of Gaelic literature … only to destroy tracts of it, but in the process adding the best modern book ever written in Gaelic. The man who blessed the language by so using it was of course designated an enemy of the people or rather of the revivalists who never forgave him for producing at their expense what they all wanted to see—a masterpiece in Gaelic….
In English the purity of the folk-style comes up a little too wide-eyed. The finest uses of that style are the parodies of the Irish sagas in O'Brien's best book, "At Swim-Two-Birds" (1939), and in James Stephen's "The Crock of Gold" where the simplicity is successfully estheticized.
The original was written in a moribund language about a moribund language for a vanishing audience. Yet for almost any Irishman, the language calls up a primary culture, a lucid and devious state of mind to which only the language gives access, and which is compromised by most of the Irish literature fitted so handily into English lit. courses in this country. O'Brien's very modern ironies give as much access to that world as anyone who doesn't have Gaelic can get. And for the generations that suffered the excesses of the language revival, the book is a mythic construct, a sort of companion to the "Portrait of the Artist," in which the hero—the Irish language—suffers bitter repressions before it is exalted. (p. 26)
Brian O'Doherty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1975.
The Poor Mouth is a very unlikely piece of fiction. To begin with, it was originally written in Modern Irish—Gaelic, if you prefer—a language used by only a few thousand people. Second, it is actually a parody of a literary genre known only to fanatics on Irish literature, namely Autobiographies Dictated by Illiterate Gaelic Peasants. And, most unlikely of all, even if you know none of these facts, it's a fine book, hilarious, moving, gorgeously written.
Brian O'Nolan … probably would have become much more widely known had he chosen to write in English. He did write a very popular newspaper column in English for The Irish Times under the name of Myles na Gopaleen. But his fiction, published in Irish under the name Flann O'Brien, "went down the bung-hole," as the Celticist Frank Kinnehan recently put it. Irish was O'Nolan's adopted language; he used it because he loved it. His small audience of Irish readers did not love his fiction, however, because he vigorously satirized all forms of Irish vanities, including venerated literary traditions. His books did somewhat better in English translation, and greatly appealed to other writers, such as Dylan Thomas, S. J. Perelman, and James Joyce.
Joyce probably admired O'Nolan's fiction because in certain ways it resembled his own. Like Joyce, O'Nolan used his abundant imagination to spin together complex mythological themes and archaic literary styles. He especially enjoyed producing parodies of ancient sagas, which he wrote in Old Irish—impressive labor, especially when one considers that the language which Old Irish most closely resembles is Sanskrit. (Both tongues have the same ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, their major differences being that Sanskrit has its own form of written script and is easier to learn. In fact, the only language that surpasses Old Irish for sheer complexity is Navajo.) You might think that a writer using so many problematic devices would produce rather pedantic books. Actually, most of O'Nolan's Old Irish parodies show up in a work called At Swim-Two-Birds, which Brendan Behan called "just the kind of book to give to your sister—if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." Not pedantic.
In The Poor Mouth, O'Nolan mostly stuck to Modern Irish, but not the variety now taught in all Irish schools by government decree. (This official Gaelic only came into existence after the Revolution of 1916, and is a thoroughly artificial language seldom used in real life.) O'Nolan wrote in genuine Modern Irish, a direct descendant of Old Irish which has survived only in a few small areas in the western part of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. The people who live in this remote section preserved their ancient speech and customs throughout centuries of British oppression mainly because the British found them totally useless. They had nothing, they did nothing: they just lived in abject poverty and spoke pure Irish. In the days of the Irish literary revival, Anglo-Irish authors like Yeats and Synge took a great interest in these living relics of Ireland's past. Synge even went to live with some of them in the Aran Islands, where he found much inspiration for his plays.
O'Nolan did something quite different. In The Poor Mouth he adopted the language and persona of a Gaeltacht native and wrote a memoir from that point of view. Through his own words we follow the life of Bonaparte O'Coonassa from his birth to his incarceration in a British jail for a crime which, naturally, he never committed. Until that sad day, O'Coonassa lives with his grandfather, the Old-Grey-Fellow, in a fictional place known as Corkadoragha and characterized chiefly by potatoes, poverty, and torrential rain. Pigs die from their own stench; people drink, dance, and starve themselves to death; and the Sea-Cat, a horrible beast, goes on periodic rampages. This may not sound funny, but Corkadoragha turns out to be the world headquarters for gallows humor. (pp. 116-17)
The Poor Mouth jigs along a narrow path that winds between outright horror and downright blather but whose foundation is historical reality. O'Nolan based his narrative on the actual memoirs of Gaeltacht residents, published in the 1930s. His book not only satirizes Irish life in general, but he specifically parodies the style of these memoirs….
O'Nolan did not save the Irish language itself with books like The Poor Mouth, a fact he laments…. But by writing in Irish, O'Nolan did preserve the spirit of its great tradition, in much the same way Isaac Bashevis Singer has rescued the spirit of the old Yiddish traditions from oblivion. These are generous acts for writers to perform. (p. 118)
David McClelland, "Spuds and Rainwater," in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the February, 1975 issue by special permission), February, 1975, pp. 116-18.
An Béal Bocht [published in English as The Poor Mouth] is a satire; the object of the satire is the Gaelic language, or more properly the Gaelic language revival; but since the book was written in Gaelic and is itself a product of that revival, the satire inevitably turns in upon itself in ways that defy unerring passage through nuances and shades of meaning (and double meaning) from one language to another. We are told, for example, in a brief preface, that O'Brien is at times parodying the style of certain modern Gaelic writers—Máire (Séamus O Grianna and Tomás O Criomhthainn)—but to readers ignorant of Gaelic and unfamiliar with the originals, the parody, if recognizable at all, is not likely to mean much….
Poverty, famine, flood, drunkenness, squalor and thievery are the principal coordinates of existence in [Corkadoragha, the fictional setting of The Poor Mouth, and the] worst of all possible worlds. Bonaparte, a Gaelic Candide, accepts his existence as if he were, as indeed he is, one with the rocks and the rain and the bogs and the sea, one for whom calamity is a natural condition of being, one of those creatures whom Yeats, describing the inhabitants of William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, spoke of as "only half-emerged from the earth."
This is not what our English cousins would call a jolly book, and some of our Irish cousins—those with minds more literal than literary—would hardly think it a funny book. But to those who know the folly of which even a good man in a good cause is capable, The Poor Mouth is a small Gaelic classic in the classical tradition of satire that ranges from Juvenal to Swift, to Voltaire, to Joyce, to—God help us—even to Evelyn Waugh. The deadliest weapon, the sharpest blade in the armory of satire is irony, the talent for turning the world upside down or, failing that, standing men on their heads so that true, or at least fresh, perspective is possible and there is once again a chance of knowing what the world is actually like to look at. The satirist in this is like those prophets of the Old Testament who lashed men from their idolatries—whatever image man's pride takes in whatever age—back into human shape again. Flann O'Brien is here deflating the heroic myth of the Gael (which was anyhow largely the contrivance of non-Gaelic Anglo-Irishmen) and at the same time instructing the Irish establishment of his day that a language, even the sweet, melodious tongue of the Gael, is less important than the men and women who speak it; that the Gaeltacht—those areas in which only Irish is spoken—cannot continue to exist as linguistic ghettos; that Gaelic made compulsory (as it was in Irish schools until a few years ago) is pointed in the direction of eternity where, like Latin and Greek, it may embalm a culture but can no longer express the life of a people.
The final irony in The Poor Mouth is of course that while it pokes fine (and unrefined) fun at the Gaelic revival, it is at the same time proof of the success and continuing vitality of that revival—on se moque de ce qu'on aime—a success and vitality sufficient to have stimulated and sustained a satiric work of the first rank. (p. 312)
Kevin Sullivan, "'A Bad Story about the Hard Life'," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 15, 1975, pp. 311-12.
O'Nolan (hereinafter to be called O'Brien) was something of a seannachie—a Gaelic word for that singular Gaelic person, the storyteller. But he was not the sort of seannachie who writes novels. His novels are no more novels than Carroll's Alice books are, being vehicles for a play of wit and fantasy, lyrical, satirical, and surreal. Flights and gags and conundrums are preferred to plot, character, and conclusion, and set up a system of internal relations which resembles the structure of a symbolist poem. It is of Carroll that his novels (hereinafter to be called novels) vividly remind one—as much as of Joyce, by whose works, and legend, and devoted tribe of simpleton American thesis-writers O'Brien seems to have been obsessed. For Myles na Gopaleen, O'Brien's journalistic self, James Joyce was "a complete prig, a snob, and a person possessed of endowment unique in the archives of conceit": this might be the voice of a wounded love. Thirteen years earlier, in 1944, the same journalist had asserted that, apart from Joyce and Yeats, Irish writers were "literary vermin, an eruption of literary scabies."
Irish writers were faced, in the Thirties, with a choice between contributing to a nationalist concern with the protection of Gaelic culture and the folk tradition, and siding with those who wanted to be Modern and to follow Joyce into a literal or figurative exile. This seannachie, who was also a Gaelic scholar, stayed at home: but he did not side with the nationalists, and what he wrote, in Gaelic and out of it, was distinctively Modern. Irish literature since Yeats and Joyce has known a striking austerity—evident in the novels and plays of Beckett, the verse of Patrick Kavanagh, and the stories of O'Brien: three grim men, who appear to bring news, among other things, of a society in which sex is wrong and in which violence and drunkenness are more widely honored than they are in most places. (pp. 31-2)
Pleonasm is a use of language which displays elaboration or excess, and at different levels his was a pleonastic art. His novels contain duplication and repetition, and incorporate parodies of other people's writings; one subplot is mirrored in another; doors open into the room you are about to quit. (p. 32)
O'Brien's cresslike cresses, pointed points, an imaginary title like The Closed Cloister, his elaborations and embellishments, his seemingly unending cycles and recurrences—these can look like a fulfillment of the hereditary patterns and predilections of Celtic art. His excesses recall, and occasionally imitate, the rhetoric of classical Gaelic poetry, the grace notes of bagpipe music, the convolutions and circularities of the illuminated manuscript, of the brooch, of the Celtic cross. The snakelike snakes of his stories have a way of swallowing their own tails: his interest in such shapes, and in bicycles, being that of a man who is interested in eternity (he is also interested in hell).
These interests may be interpreted as belonging to an art which is practiced for its own sake, which is austere, self-sufficing, pure. But there may be those who interpret them with reference to the circumstances of O'Brien's own late-Gaelic society, and who insist that this is an art of tautology, a gratuitous art, a celibate's art, in the sense that it appears to belong to a country in which climaxes are considered disgraceful, and who are reminded, by a purple patch of O'Brien's about an arsenal of bombs and guns, of the pure and austere mutilators who compose the IRA. Here, it might be thought, is an art which repeats itself, goes in circles and does not end, and which gives a picture of the neverendingness of Ireland, of its over and over again, its forever after and its waiting for Godot. It is both an old and a new art: each of his works, in the self-sufficing Modern way, lies enclosed in the cloister of its peculiar language, but that language, to the extent of its capacity for piety and for parody, opens onto the works of the ethnic past, each with its own enclosures and excesses.
The truth is that O'Brien's excesses, and those which have preceded them, are a complex business, and are difficult for a foreigner to interpret. There are occasions when this abundance can seem like a figure of speech for its opposite—for scarcity or dearth. We seem then to be in a world—any one of a succession of Gaelic worlds—where watercress is as good as a feast because there is not much else to eat, and where one thing can hardly be compared to another because there is only the one thing. (pp. 32-3)
The Poor Mouth is a copious treatment of the subject of scarcity, and it reaches its climax, such as it is, in an imagined abundance, a magic windfall feast complete with fairy gold. History does not exist for the people of the tale. The present has swallowed the past, there has always been dearth, and the folk mind thinks hard about potatoes.
This wonderful book was published in 1941 … [and] is a better book, in my view, than either At Swim or The Third Policeman. All three books represent collections of episodes, but The Poor Mouth, copious but short, has more of a point, a pointed point. It has none of the desultoriness which the unending can produce, and which is produced in the other two works. It even has an ending. At Swim appears, significantly enough, to have been cut down to publishable size by another hand (so, of course, was The Waste Land). O'Brien prided himself on the "plot" of The Third Policeman, but this may have been codology. He also talked, in the same breath, of the narrator's being in hell, and of his being a heel and a killer. But the narrator is experienced by the reader as courteous, forlorn, and delightful, and he does not appear to experience the pains of the damned. (p. 33)
No one who is curious about the three Gaelic literatures should fail to read The Poor Mouth. (p. 34)
Karl Miller, "Gael in Wonderland," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), May 1, 1975, pp. 31-4.
You would eagerly buy and read … [The Poor Mouth] if you had read At Swim-Two-Birds (O'Brien's best) or The Third Policeman. If you have not previously read O'Brien's English novels, you might still be interested in The Poor Mouth's subject, the Gaelic language movement and its effects on the Irish. But even if you aren't, the treatment of this subject deserves the attention of all punsters, tall-tale lovers, fanciers of farce, enemies of cliché, and just plain people who like a good laugh. O'Brien's comic style, here as in his other works, is incredibly elastic. It stretches characters and events to their utmost—and then goes further. Gaelic is as intelligible as pig Latin? Well then, who should speak "Gaelic which was so good, so poetic and so obscure" but a drunken piglet in breeches? Of course the poor true swindling Gaels in O'Brien's always-raining Corkadoragha all live like swine and eat potatoes. As Flann O'Brien in his novels and as Myles na gCopaleen in his Irish Times columns, Brian O'Nolan was a satirist who saw that the Irish habit of mythmaking is destructive when it aggrandizes and glorifies the unworthy. But he could also see that these myths, taken as works of language art, are glorious testaments to the continual supremacy of the Irish way with words. James Joyce forged an Irish myth to capture the conscience of his race and in so doing he captured many other men's consciences as well. O'Brien's works strongly affirm such achievements and they further them too. "A real writer, with the true comic spirit," Joyce says in a rare dustjacket puff. It's too bad that for 25 years very few have paid attention. Do read O'Brien. He's a really funny writer. Believe me if you don't believe James Joyce. (p. 681)
Rosa Cumare, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 20, 1975.
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) (Vol. 10)
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) 1911–1966
An Irish novelist and journalist, O'Brien tempered nearly everything he wrote with a lyricism that echoes the style of James Joyce. His subjects were usually fantastic, and he frequently burlesqued other Gaelic writers. He wrote an immensely popular column for the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
'When a writer calls his work a Romance', Hawthorne said in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, 'it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel.' Flann O'Brien claimed the latitude without bothering to give his books a generic title….
It is customary, on the strength of At Swim-Two-Birds, to place O'Brien in the Joycean tradition in Irish literature. The reasons are clear enough: a delight in verbal nuance, farce, parody, ostensibly fierce disputation, the implication that 'words alone are certain good'…. But it is not at all certain that these are the right lines. The Third Policeman has for nearest neighbour The Dalkey Archive. Indeed, Sergeant Pluck's obsession with bicycles is to be found, ascribed to Sergeant Fottrell, in the Archive. These two books throw a different light upon At Swim-Two-Birds, and suggest that the proper place for Flann O'Brien is the tradition of modern Irish fantasy and romance in which the definitive figure is James Stephens. Reading O'Brien now, one is reminded far more vigorously of The Crock of Gold, The Charwoman's Daughter, and Stephens's stories and sketches, than of Joyce in any of his manifestations. The elaborate discussions, the pedantry, the consecration of time to reverie: these are Stephens, not Joyce. Keep talking, and it won't happen: this is a motto applicable not only to Stephens but also to the tradition which goes on from Stephens to Eimar O'Duffy, Flann O'Brien, and Brinsley MacNamara's Various Lives of Marcus Igoe.
"Tall Talk," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 7, 1967, p. 793.
To those who know O'Nolan's writing, ["Stories and Plays"] is a treasure. To those who don't, it is an excellent introduction, for every type of thing that he did in English is here, in brief, and in a rich assortment: the unfinished novel, "Slattery's Sago Saga," or "From Under the Ground to the Top of the Trees" is pure wild O'Nolan wit. "The Martyr's Crown" is one of the world's greatest short stories of comic intelligence. The two plays "Thirst" and "Faustus Kelly," do not contribute anything new in the technical sense to the play form, but they are perfect for reading…. (p. 7)
And finally there is a piece called "A Bash in the Tunnel." This is a mixture of literary criticism, a portrait of an Irish eccentric, a self-portrait of the writer as an ageless dog, and a short story: "A better title of this piece might be: 'Was Joyce Mad?'" (pp. 7-8)
William Saroyan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976.
In O'Brien's early writing the surface brilliance of his invention is underscored with an affectionate concern for "the plain people of Ireland," but a harshly bitter quality seeps into his later work, probably because of professional and personal disappointments. He can be compared to Joyce, Beckett and James Stephens. All of them display an obsession with physical details of ludicrous discomfort vividly presented, often to comic effect. O'Brien always angrily rejected the comparison to Joyce, but certainly he shares what he himself described as "Joyce's almost supernatural skill in conveying Dublin dialogue." His method of creating a grotesque reality heightened by details of surpassing ordinariness can be compared to Beckett's, while his use of fantastic Irish mythological motifs has some of the poetic wit of Stephens. Add to these the intricately constructed bilingual dimension of his work, and a unique comic genius emerges. (p. 141)
Certainly O'Brien is accessible to readers of English, in which language he is a superb stylist with an uncannily true ear for usage. That he had the same gifted way with Irish must be taken on trust by many. (pp. 141-42)
Joan Keefe, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.
[There's] such a swirl of mostly fantastic activity inside [At Swim-Two-Birds] that the external torpor of the nameless [lie-abed] novelist is more than justified. But of course none of this is visible to the [author's mean-spirited] uncle, any more than the various marks by which the book's characters are distinguished are apparent to readers for whom the author hasn't bothered to describe them. O'Brien seems to have put some effort into the ancient wheeze that language was given to man in order to conceal his thoughts.
Much as he resembles Beckett's figure of Murphy, who was born just the year before, O'Brien's somnolent author is not yet psychotic, he is simply distracted. The Greek motto at the head of the book declares that "All things naturally draw apart," and under the analytic gaze of the author (who helpfully provides many sections of his book with solemn descriptions of their rhetorical modes), that's exactly what they do…. The hero of the book is not the story,… partly because O'Brien sets so many stories going, and the characters involved in them start so many counter-stories, that none of them really gets told. Here language itself is the hero or villain, language which is able not only to transform and then reflect itself, but to give events and ideas and objects instantaneous new characters—often in a surprisingly literal sense. Language itself is the first mover, under whose impulse "all things naturally draw apart." (pp. 187-88)
As the innermost story collapses, the outer ones are resolved: sweetness and light seem to prevail. But the Conclusion of the book, ultimate, which the author appends, is a curious...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
O'Brien was an eccentric writer of tremendous comic spirit. His work reveals an impressive knowledge of science, philosophy, literature, and theology. But his attitudes are always playful and satiric. Like Swift, who made fun of the Royal Society in Gulliver's Travels, O'Brien had a talent for making the principles of science seem ridiculous. The Sergeant in The Dalkey Archive, for example, explains the "Mollycule" theory: "Now take a sheep. What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around doing intricate convulsions inside the baste." This is all by way of explaining that people who spend too much time on bicycles, according to the Sergeant, "get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles." In the same novel, the crazy genius and fraud De Selby invents a substance to "abolish air" and destroy the world. He calls it DMP (after "The Dublin Metropolitan Police") and it brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut's "icenine."…
O'Brien's "better-class journalism," as he called [the writing he did for the Irish Times after 1953,] is largely work that seems to ride on the coattails of his talents as a novelist: the journalism is a little too close to, and not quite as good as, his fiction…. O'Brien's newspaper work is more a run-off from his fiction. The fiction of Flann O'Brien bleeds into the journalism of Myles na Gopaleen]….
[He] almost never wrote "out of the depth" of his feelings. This refusal to be serious is at first a relief from the high-minded self-importance of many artists. But after hundreds of pages of jokes, put-ons, puns, satires, and parodies, the reader starts to become ravenous for something more directly from the heart. The constant humor, like the pseudonyms, is a way of disguising the "real" O'Brien, or O'Nolan, or Myles, or whoever this man is, providing him with some very effective, self-protective distance from his audience….
What is strikingly present in the work of Flann O'Brien is his intelligence, anger, and wit. He called himself "an accomplished literary handyman," but he was more than that. He produced a body of work that is funny, innovative, and all his own.
Terence Winch, "The Comic of County Tyrone," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 12, 1978, p. E8.
[At] every point [in "At Swim-Two-Birds"] there are satirical glimpses of Dublin life. If the whole were simple, broad farce, it would soon pall. What transforms it is the great, if often maddening, influence of Irish pedantry—the comedy of hairsplitting—and O'Brien's ear for the nuances of Irish talk: above all, for its self-inflating love of formal utterance and insinuation. His humor … depends on the intricacy of its texture. Language is all: he is a native of a country of grammarians, thriving on the perplexities of a mixed culture, and creating, as Joyce did, vulgar or scholarly myths.
To say this is not to underrate O'Brien's superb invention in broad farce—in, say, "The Hard Life."…...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) (Vol. 7)
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) 1911–1966
O'Brien was an Irish novelist and a popular columnist. His particular combination of exuberance and subtlety, along with Gaelic erudition, are effectively displayed in his novel At-Swim-Two-Birds. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
One's first impression of At-Swim-Two-Birds (the title is a supposed translation of an Irish place-name) is that of uproariousness and complexity, wheels within wheels. The narrator, a degree candidate in Dublin with a paternalistic uncle, is writing a novel about a writer named Trellis, who in turn is writing a novel extolling virtue and condemning sin. Trellis houses his characters in the Red Swan Hotel, of which he is of course the proprietor, his ostensible purpose being to prevent their boozing. His governing purpose, however, is to keep control of them, to make sure they remain his characters. But he cannot control them while he is asleep, which is for about twenty of each twenty-four hours.
His characters try to keep him asleep, so that they may assert their autonomous identities and claim a life of their own. They complain because Trellis has misused them, worked them long hours at low pay, and forced them to function in his novels in ways which they find foreign to their natures. Eventually they rebel against him. His son Orlick, who has been "writing" Trellis asleep, now "writes" him on trial before a jury of his characters. (Orlick, it should be pointed out, is the product of Trellis' mating with one of his own characters, whom, directly after creating, he assaults.)
This fantastic plot unfolds in a mélange of parodied Irish myth, involving the presence of none other than Finn MacCool, the legendary folk hero, and such other improbabilities as a wandering Irish bard and the shoot-em-up antics of some anachronistic Dublin cowpunchers. The style itself includes many elements, such as catechistic techniques, a listing of sub-topics, a series of short-hand descriptions, and an occasional synopsis, all of which combine with straight narrative and a realist tone which is functionally at odds with the incredible subject matter.
Although this novel has many things to say about Ireland, some of them droll, others biting, at its core it seems to be primarily about the imaginative process, the image-making faculty, using as analogue the process by which fictional characters are created.
Of considerable significance is a "digression" in the novel in which the narrator offers an "explanation" of his own work. To begin with, a qualitative distinction is made between the novel and the play, which favors the play. The inferiority of the novel derives from its privacy, in which the reader is frequently "outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters." The novel is described as being "self-administered" and as a creation which "in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic." It is a "self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity." Then comes the following passage, with particular reference to character: …
Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. 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 from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.
Overlooking the immediate skeptical response of the character to whom this "explanation" is addressed,… we should see in the passage something more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of how the novel within the novel will develop. It is also more than a corroboration of Eliot's sense of tradition and the individual talent, or an attempt to people Yeats' Spiritus Mundi. It seems to me to be not only a recognition of the archetypical aspects of character, available to all novelists, but, more subtly, a rejection of solipsism. Just as some aspects of literary characterization exist before the individual novelist arrives to modify them and make them his own, so does reality exist outside the consciousness, although the perception of that reality is inevitably an amalgam of the external and the internal. As the consciousness embraces the objects of attention, it is clear that there are objects there to be embraced, but equally clear that these objects are shaped by the active aspect of consciousness that makes images and that the final object of attention owes its shape to the imagination as well as to its independent existence.
The question that lurks behind this analogy is that of the nature of reality. Trellis' characters have a life of their own, but they are obviously not autonomous, even though they long to be so. Trellis "knows" them because he borrowed them, altered them, "wrote" them, and, therefore, is himself a part of that knowledge. Thus the entire process by which the writer conceives and expresses his characters stands as paradigm for the parallel process by which the mind comes to "know" what is "reality." (pp. 322-23)
Robert S. Ryf, in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1974.
At Swim-Two-Birds is a celebration of fabulation in which novelistic self-consciousness has gone slack because fiction is everywhere and there is no longer any quixotic tension between what is fictional and what is real. I am not aware that it has influenced later books, but it has certainly proved to be a novel ahead of its time, for its faults of conception and execution provide a perfect paradigm for those of much contemporary fiction, especially in this country, where a new literary ideology of fabulation has too often turned out to mean license, not liberty, for the novelist. (p. 214)
Robert Alter, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
[In 1969,] from nearly all of these newly popular writers—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed and so forth—I was hearing about a common influence: "Flann O'Brien." Even writers not yet so famous, such as Ronald Sukenick, Susan Quist, Clarence Major, Gilbert Sorrentino, M. G. Stephens and Steve Katz, were giving me the same answer to my question of "who influenced your writing": this Irish novelist whose single masterwork [At Swim-Two-Birds] had somehow been noticed by our own most exciting new writers….
Reading [his other] books makes At Swim-Two-Birds a bit less complicated, but there is not that much in these nice but secondary works of a minor writer which isn't covered in his obviously major work. There is no workable auteur theory for Brian O'Nolan. We are talking about a book, not a writer.
Which seems the way "Flann O'Brien" would want it. The brilliance of At Swim-Two-Birds is its ability to be self-effacing at the same time that it's self-reflective—a quality of the best fiction written by O'Brien's admirers. (p. 31)
Jerome Klinkowitz, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 16 & 23, 1975.
Like Beckett, O'Brien … has the gift of the perfect sentence, the art, which they both learned from Joyce, of tuning plain language to a lyric pitch. In O'Brien's case, the pedantic undertone is encouraged to surface as comedy…. Unlike Beckett and Joyce, O'Brien never internationalized himself; his subject matter remained provincial, without the enhancing aura of willed imaginative return from exile, and his tone partakes, a bit tipsily, of local lilt and whimsey….
A marvellous literary mimic, O'Brien is [in "The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard Life"] parodying a class of books unknown to all but a few Americans—the twentieth-century novels written in Gaelic by authors like Tomás Ó Criomhthainn and Máire (Séamas Ó Grianna). Helped by the translator's footnotes, we can see through this travesty into the originals: stories extolling, with phrases like "a child among the ashes" and "grey-wool breeches" and "their likes will not be there again," the simple life of the peasantry of "the little green country." O'Brien's "bad story" literally adheres to the literary clichés. (p. 65)
Yet more than the artifices of a romantic revival are pilloried; Irish poverty is placed beyond sentimentalizing by a series of comic exaggerations that are merciless. (p. 66)
John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 1, 1975.
The writer whose work appears in [Stories and Plays], and whose signature on cheques was "Brian O'Nolan," is supposed to be dead. The engarlanding of the page numbers in shamrocks might indeed be his work, but that he selected and assembled the material is unlikely: the diversity of quality and tone seems to be fortuitous as it was not when he employed that device. This note is without prejudice to any statement which he may elect to make.
In the book is evidence enough of the afflictions under which the writer idled, e.g. enigmas of identity and destination, racial and personal, and certain consequent and ancillary anguishes, notably such modes of expression and depression as language and liquor. A text, much belabored, of O'Nolan's newspaper articles, was the self-consciousness of the Irish. That culminated—but didn't stop—in the article reporting that the entire Irish nation had handed in its resignation.
The columnist himself, of course, was, or is, a major exhibitor of that syndrome, if one may, for once, be excused for using that word correctly; the concurrent symptoms being pretending not to be Irish (cf. Bernard Shaw, Sam Beckett), a sense of inferiority (e.g. W. B. Yeats, Sean O'Casey, Eamon de Valera), unnecessarily inventive language (viz. James Joyce, John Synge), pseudonyms (i.e. AE), and love of and admiration for alcohol (vide Brendan Behan, Brendan Behan, Brendan Behan). The problem of identity, best expressed in that most drunken of rhetorical questions, "who do you think you are?", beset O'Nolan, in that milieu and in the great world outside of that cloister. He used his many pseudonyms as protection and perhaps as intimations of apotheosis.
O'Nolan's polemical language was eccentrically precise and destructive: his "vulgar" speech had other qualities…. Reading O'Nolan's "vulgar" speech, one is constantly reminded of Joyce. In fact, the method is rather that of Synge. O'Nolan's language was vigorous, ornamental and, at the same time, exciting. But in this new book, alas!, none of that quality appears. (pp. 32-3)
Neither here, nor elsewhere in O'Nolan's oeuvre, is there indication, overt or implied, of awareness of, or interest in, the possibility of relationships of affection between people. (p. 33)
It is glib, but relevant, to suggest that that lack of concern for humanity is a "reason" why O'Nolan is not as important a writer as he was a journalist. And there might have been other reasons. [The] precocious masterworks At Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht … are marvels of imagination, language and humor…. O'Nolan was not a literary man. Part of his strength as a journalist lay in his hatred of art and literature. O'Nolan was a powerful and influential journalist—at his best, in the beginning, inventive, courageous and amusing. He beat all his enemies, except the one who destroyed him, his own personal self, the only man in the whole city that he didn't know. (p. 34)
Niall Montgomery, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 13, 1976.
Flann O'Brien … wrote a melodious fanciful prose that would charm even the stoniest reviewer into something like a song….
[In "Stories and Plays"] "Slattery's Sago Saga, or From Under the Ground to the Top of the Trees" seems conceived for the lark of its title. Not only is the saga unfinished, it scarcely gets started. Each chapter makes a fresh grab at the greased pig of a plot, which was no doubt meant to concern the hilarious complications that ensue when Crawford MacPherson, the Scots wife of an emigrant Irishman called Ned Hoolihan, arrives in Ireland to put into effect her plan to replace the potato with the surpassingly starchy sago as the staple of the Irish diet. (p. 116)
[Most] of the plan's fun lies in its exposition; though the characters dither and multiply for seven chapters, and the reader is treated to an O'Brienesque display of curious truths about the sago palm, idle and frantic conversations are all the action there is; the book's prankish premises prove barren, and O'Brien, unable to duplicate the miracle of "At Swim-Two-Birds" and spin a genuine novel out of schoolboy extravagance, understandably stopped writing "Slattery's Sago Saga." The last chapter … has a dark power irrelevant to Irish follies; like Kafka's "Amerika," it is an evocation of the United States by a writer of genius who had never been here…. Amid foolery, a nerve is touched, a real voice speaks, close to paranoia, fighting "the licker." The manuscript stops as if appalled. (p. 117)
The Devil's discomfiture [in "Faustus Kelly"] is amusing to behold, but an uneasy sense persists that we are outsiders at a party, and our laughter keeps coming a second late. Unlike Beckett and Joyce, Yeats and Shaw and even Synge, O'Brien seems obsessed by Irishness itself; his Irishmen never shed their racial and nationalist accoutrements and emerge simply as men.
The two short stories, and the anecdote in play form called "Thirst," are thin things to come from the tradition that produced "Dubliners" and the stories of Frank O'Connor, Mary Lavin, Seán O'Faoláin, Benedict Kiely, and the multitudes of others who have made Irish mores and manners a familiar garb of humanity. "Thirst" shows some men caught in a pub after hours teasing the constable into having a drink with them. "John Duffy's Brother" tells of a man who wakes with the mad idea that he is a train. The tales are monochromatic, though unerringly limned; they more suggest Kafka (in their bleak air of unhealth) and Pirandello (in their circling about the notions of delusion and fabrication) than the masters of Irish realism. They are sternly unsensual, except for the effortless music and lucidity of the prose….
His own cuteness, perhaps, irked O'Brien. His circumspection can be felt in the absences within his witty work: "Stories and Plays" contains no felt glimpse of parentage, of love, of the private, animal, domestic life that meant so much to, say, Joyce. The most emotional moment occurs when the Devil is roused to the fear of social exclusion; the coziest times are passed in public houses. It was no mistake of fate that cast O'Nolan, under his other pen name of Myles na Gopaleen, as a newspaper columnist. His busy imagination seems that of a man who, given the gifts one must develop in solitude, didn't want to be alone. "Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear" remained his muse, and writing became, under his magical pen, a sort of fooling away. (p. 118)
John Updike, "Flann Again," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 21, 1976, pp. 116-18.
[There] is just not enough Flann available to supply our appetites, and probably no more forthcoming. The complete inventory, under the Flann O'Brien nom de plume, consists of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Hard Life (1961), The Dalkey Archive (1964), and The Third Policeman (1967), four novels in English. The dates given are those of publication, and in themselves underline one of the pathetic aspects of the author's career: a first effort by a young prodigy instantly acclaimed by a coterie of admirers, the impossibility of publishing the next work during the war years, the belated "second debut," a cannibalized novel emerging from the treasures in the trunk, and the posthumous product of that trunk already redolent of camphor balls. Now the fugitive pieces, Stories and Plays, a skimpy umbrella cloaking the fragment of a novel, two vignettes, an essay, a one-act sketch, and a full-length drama, the theater pieces bearing the alternate pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen. (The man himself died prematurely, and this is the bottom of the steamer trunk.)…
The most durable piece [in Stories and Plays] is neither a story nor a play…. "A Bash in the Tunnel," Flann O'Brien's essay on contemporary Irish writing—or on James Joyce or the Irish condition or all of these—is more anecdote than essay, more incisive insight than anecdote. In its way it is a minor masterpiece and defies paraphrase and can profitably be read as diagnostic of the author's own malaise….
The secret tippler whom the narrator labeled "Toucher" attempts to preserve his perverse insularity in an environment that in itself is most peculiarly insular, like an onion hiding in its layers of onion skins. It is that environment that is constantly being peeled away by Flann O'Brien, especially when he moves away from his adopted Dublin scene to remote areas of rural and small-town Ireland, as in the plays and the novel fragment. Even in the Dublin novels Flann O'Brien rarely portrayed the cosmopolitan mesh of Joyce's city. His urban graph had always been smaller: he closed the systems around his characters in vicelike grips, ensnaring them in tighter and more restricted circumstances. (p. 3)
At its best Flann O'Brien's humor is muted and oblique, with a disturbing note of ineluctable menace….
Flann O'Brien enthusiasts admire his skill in building his novels on thin plot lines of durable strength and realize what little reliance he has ever had on "psychological and hereditary forces" for his idiosyncratic characterizations…. Those who expect page after page of delightful and meaningful absurdity, however, will probably find themselves waiting for more than ever arrives. And too often what does arrive is inconsequential and obvious. The manipulator of language and languages, who, even as a university student befuddled the editor and the President by printing what they assumed but couldn't prove to be obscenities in Old Irish, now couldn't fool a neophyte with such chestnuts as the manor name, Poguemahone Hall. Nor would a student in beginning German be much impressed with the naming of the American Ambassador to Ireland Charlie Bendix Scheismacher.
Brian O'Nolan's diabolic vision, which lingered playfully throughout At Swim-Two-Birds and harrowed the halls of The Third Policeman, remains strangely unavailable in these remnants,… and the entire collection [Stories and Plays] contributes substantially to the verdict that Flann O'Brien wrote only one masterpiece, his initial At Swim-Two-Birds. His creative potential waned thereafter, as if he had written his Finnegans Wake first and could neither duplicate nor surpass his achievement. The multifaceted framework, the diabolism of spirit, the conspiracy of the creatures against their creator, the fiendish speculations on the nature of human folly and unexpected human transcendence of either folly or fate—these features of that unique work were never mastered again, despite some fine and imaginative moments in other corners of the Flann O'Brien complex. (p. 4)
Bernard Benstock, "Flann A La Creme," in New Boston Review (copyright © 1976 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Summer, 1976, pp. 3-4.