Flann O'Brien Essay - O'Brien, Flann

Brian O’Nolan

O'Brien, Flann

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.